Birds of Prey: Chapter 8

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Jaeger took off his helmet and set it on his seat as his canopy slowly rose, then he hopped out of his cockpit, his boots hitting the ground with a thud. Immediately, the heat hit him like a wall. It was hot, humid, like a summer’s day in a swamp. His flight suit already felt stifling, and so he shed it, stripping down to the Navy uniform that he wore beneath it and stowing it alongside the helmet.

Baker was exiting his Beewolf behind him, and he heard the hydraulic hiss of a landing ramp opening, looking to his right to see that the dropships were unloading their cargo. Humans in yellow uniforms that identified them as engineers jogged down the ramps, carrying crates and boxes. They were followed by personnel dressed in Navy blue, probably the advisors that Fielding had talked about. A pair of Krell lumbered down one of the ramps wearing armored ponchos in Marine black, large automatic XMRs hanging from their chests on slings, and truly massive riot shields slung across their scaly backs. They were set up for security detail, clearly. There were no Borealan guards, which in his opinion, was a wise choice. It wasn’t worth the risk of an incident when the ever gentle and friendly Krell could do the same job. That said, the sixteen-foot-long, eight-foot-tall reptiles were going to have some serious problems navigating a city that was built for a species that was only five feet at the most.

There were Valbarans nearby, soldiers, they looked like. They were wearing the same full-faced helmets that Maza and her friends had worn on the Rorke, but their camouflaged jumpsuits were armored, and they were wearing plate carriers and pads to protect their vitals. He noted that their colors were green and purple, rather than the blue and grey that Maza wore, more suited for ground combat in their strangely colored forests no doubt. Each one was holding a rifle with a blocky, plastic housing and what looked like a large flashlight for a barrel, with a long-range scope mounted on top. Those were probably portable laser weapons. They were lined up in rows, disciplined, as much a firing line as a welcoming committee. Jaeger couldn’t blame them for being cautious.

“So, what do you think?” he heard. Maza made her way over from her parked ship, her helmet clasped under her arm and her four companions following behind her. She reached up to pat him on the arm, turning to face the line of soldiers, Baker appearing at his left with a wide grin on his face.

“It’s hot,” Jaeger replied.

She laughed, then composed herself, standing to attention as a Valbaran parted the line of soldiers. This one wasn’t wearing a jumpsuit, but rather a remarkably normal pair of what almost resembled bike shorts that reached its knees, along with a billowy shirt like a tunic. Everything was made from light, flowing material in muted colors, decorated with geometric patterns. His eyes roamed down to its forearms, and just as he had suspected, he could see two more feather sheaths like those on their heads. They were wound around its arms like vines. Its feet were bare, only the uniformed Valbarans with blue camo were wearing boots that covered their lower legs, a component of their pressure suits. The ones wearing green and purple were also barefoot, exposing a pair of wicked talons that tipped their two toes. He didn’t fancy taking a kick from one of those.

The alien stopped before them, clasping its hands together and extending its feathers like fans, sprouting from its head and forearms in a flash of red plumes.

“Welcome to Yilgarn, Earth’nay.”

“You speak English?” Jaeger asked, surprised.

“Yes, Maza’xol’natuih and her flock have compiled an extensive database on your language, which we have been studying in preparation for your arrival. My name is Netza’cui’atl, I am Ensi of this city along with my fellow council members, what you might call a mayor or a councilman.”

Jaeger saluted, and after a moment, Baker did the same. It was the closest equivalent to the respectful feather displays of the aliens that they had. The other UNN personnel were arriving now, and Jaeger was surprised to see Campbell among them. They shared a glance, the engineer looked even more surly than usual.

“I didn’t expect to see you down here,” Jaeger said.

“Yeah, well, someone has to supervise this mess. We have to overhaul the technology of an entire civilization, and we might only have days or weeks to do it. Unfortunately, I’m the most qualified.”

“I’m sure you’ll do a sterling job,” Baker whispered, Campbell scowling at him.

“Miss…Madame…Netza’cui…” Campbell stammered, struggling with her odd name.

“You may call me Ensi,” Netza’cui’atl said with an orange flurry from her feathery headdress, “it is customary.”

“Er…very well…Ensi,” Campbell continued. “My name is Chief Engineer Campbell, Captain Fielding of the Rorke has sent me to oversee the preparations and refits.”

“Of course, welcome, Chief Engineer. There is a delegation of Val’ba’ra’nay industrialists and scientists here to meet with you, they’ve traveled here from all over the planet. They’re very excited by the blueprints that you have shared with us, and they’re eager to learn Earth’nay manufacturing techniques. Allow us to carry your equipment,” she said as she looked over at the yellow-clad men, already sitting on their crates beside the dropships and wiping their brows in the sweltering heat.

“I assure you Ensi, that won’t be necessary,” Campbell said as he fiddled with the topmost button on his tight collar. A group of maybe two dozen Valbarans wearing forest camo jumpsuits flooded past him, the engineers hopping off their boxes as the little aliens lifted them effortlessly. There were four of them to a crate, loads that four or five of the engineers had struggled to carry between them. They marched them out of the hangar and out of view, the engineering team hurrying along after them as they shared confused glances.

“I’ll just…follow the rest of my team…”

He jogged off towards the open doors of the hangar, one of the Krell breaking ranks to follow after him. It seemed as if both the engineers and the military advisors had been assigned a Krell guard. Next, a man wearing a blue UNN uniform stepped forward, and Jaeger could see that the insignia on his breast identified him as a Colonel. He was more fastidious than Campbell, standing straight with his hands clasped firmly behind his back.

“I’m Colonel Roberts of the UNN Marine corps, Ensi. I have been tasked with instructing your soldiers in the use of our weapons and briefing them on our battlefield tactics. My job is to ensure that we can work together effectively in a combat situation.”

“Welcome, Colonel Roberts,” she replied with another red flush of her feathers. Roberts was attentive, he had seen how Jaeger and Baker had responded to the gesture, saluting her in turn. She raised one of her arms, the humans watching as the tentacle-like sheath extended, opening up to reveal the colorful feathers. She flashed a pattern, more complex than most, and one of the camouflaged soldiers stepped out of the line to make her way towards them.

“This is Toch’tzin’teotl, she and her flock command the city guard in Yilgarn. She will be your liaison during your stay.”

“Very good,” Roberts said, turning to gesture to his men. They slung rucksacks over their shoulders, carrying cases and crates out of the dropships, no doubt full of spare XMR parts and other such gear with which to train the Valbarans. Jaeger noted that they didn’t give the aliens the opportunity to swoop in and take charge as they had with the engineers. A contingent of the Valbaran soldiers split off and followed after them, the commander at their head, and Roberts whistled to his Krell guard.

“Come on, Reesh, let’s double time it.”

The giant reptile rumbled affirmatively, lumbering along after them. The Ensi watched him pass, her violet eyes wide with wonder.

“That must be a Krell’nay,” she mused, “I had hoped that I might see one in person. It is magnificent.”

“Don’t worry, they’re a lot friendlier than they look,” Baker said.

“And you two must be the Beewolf pilots, Lieutenants Baker and Jaeger. You are the ones who fought with our squadron in the asteroid field. Maza’xol’natuih speaks most highly of you in her reports. I would thank you for your assistance on behalf of the Val’ba’ra’nay, but it would be insufficient to express the gratitude that we all feel. We have been preparing for the insect invasion for twenty rotations, ever since the tragedy on Ker’gue’la. Yet in the very moment that they prepare to launch their assault, the Earth’nay and their allies appear to save us. It is fate.”

“From where we were standing, it felt more like your squadron was pulling ‘us‘ out of the fire,” Jaeger replied. “We’re happy to help, the Coalition exists to fight Betelgeusians.”

“Can you explain this name to me, ‘Betelgeusian‘?” the Ensi asked. “What does it mean?”

“We first encountered them in a star system known as Betelgeuse. It turned out that they weren’t native to that system, but the name stuck. Our people up in orbit are already sending you all the data that we have on them, I’m sure.”

“Your Captain tells me that you are to serve as ambassadors, is that correct? In such a case, I will leave you in the capable hands of Maza’xol’natuih and her flock, they will be tasked with assisting you during your stay. Please, walk beside me,” the Ensi said as she set off towards the hangar doors in her bobbing gait.

“Hang on,” Baker said, “I’ll fetch our gear.” He jogged off towards one of the dropships, mounting the landing ramp and vanishing from view for a few moments. When he emerged, he was carrying two loaded rucksacks. He tossed one to Jaeger as he neared, who caught it by the strap and slung it over his shoulders. They contained MREs, a change of clothes, and a few other items that they might need during their visit.

Baker and Jaeger followed the Ensi as she set off, Maza staying by his side, her companions hurrying after them.

“It shames me,” the Ensi began, “but I must soon depart to oversee preparations and to treat with your Captain. Being separated from one’s flock is difficult, as I’m sure you can appreciate, one must rely solely on one’s own judgment. But that is necessary for an Ensi, there is too much to oversee for just one Val’ba’ra’nay.”

“Uh…sure,” Jaeger replied, “I can understand that.”

In reality, he had no idea what she was talking about. She didn’t seem to rule alone, she spoke of having a group of other Ensi who filled the same role as her. In fact, none of the people that she had introduced had been alone, were they all part of a flock? Was it so unusual for a Valbaran to act on their own initiative? That might explain why Maza always had to rush off to huddle with her friends before taking any action.

As he emerged from beneath the shade of the hangar, Jaeger had to shield his eyes against the glare of the sun, the white architecture of the circular city and the innumerable windows shining like beacons. From where he was standing, he could see the cluster of skyscrapers in the city center and the tips of the tower blocks, but everything else was obscured by the trees and foliage. If he didn’t know better, he might have assumed that the spaceport was located in the middle of the countryside.

There was a gentle breeze that helped to stave off some of the heat and humidity, rustling the leaves of what looked like palm and conifer trees. Most had green leaves, but some were stained purple, perhaps it was another kind of photosynthetic plant that had evolved in parallel with the more familiar variety? The sky above him was a deep blue, with a few wisps of white cloud visible, the system’s star a fiery ball of pale light that made him wish that he had brought a pair of sunglasses and some sunscreen with him.

He could make out more Valbaran vessels parked in the hangars, mostly more landers, likely the primary method that the aliens used to ferry personnel and supplies into orbit. They must use some kind of heavy lifters too, chemical rockets maybe, because there was no way that they could have transported the necessary materials to build those defense platforms using such small ships.

“I’m curious as to what you make of our city,” the Ensi said, leading them along a winding path that snaked between the trees at the edge of the runway.

“It’s very impressive,” Jaeger replied, “it seems to be very carefully planned out.”

“Should it not be?” Maza asked, confused.

“Please, Maza’xol’natuih,” the Ensi chided. “Our guests have alien customs, we must try to be understanding.”

“Our cities are a lot bigger and a lot messier,” he explained. “They’re usually built and expanded as needed, rather than planned out in advance. Some are hundreds of years old and have ended up covering thousands of square miles.”

“What are miles?” the Ensi whispered to Maza.

“A unit used to measure distance,” she replied.

“Ah, I see. They must be very large, then. Perhaps you will indulge me with some pictures or video recordings when we have the time? I should like very much to see them for myself.”

“Of course,” Jaeger said with a nod.

“On Val’ba’ra, every one of our cities is an engineering project in itself. It is self-sufficient and self-contained, designed for maximum efficiency, coupled with minimal impact on the local ecosystem. How you are able to accomplish that while continuing to expand is beyond the understanding of even our most accomplished scientific flocks, you must share this technology with us.”

“Earth’nay cities must be amazing,” Xico added, hurrying along with her bobbing gait to join in on the conversation. “Imagine a city that spans such a great distance, imagine the complexity! The transit systems, the waste disposal, the environmental hurdles that they must have overcome. There is so much knowledge that we might one day apply to Val’ba’ra.”

“Haha, yeah…” Baker chuckled half-heartedly, shooting Jaeger a concerned expression. These aliens seemed to take environmentalism for granted, now probably wasn’t the best time to fill them in on the reality of city living back on Earth. It might dispel the positive image that the Valbarans seemed to have of the Coalition.

“Yilgarn has extensive parks and botanical gardens,” the Ensi continued, “all designed to make the inhabitants feel as if they’re not in an urban area at all, but rather in the midst of a natural environment. When we do build large structures, we try to make them as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Did you see the city center on your way in?”

“We did,” Jaeger said, “you have skilled architects. I’ve visited a few large cities on Earth, and those buildings are the equal of anything that I saw back home.”

“You flatter me, Earth’nay,” she trilled as the feathers on her head and forearms fluttered in vibrant shades of yellow and orange. Xico too was pleased by that statement, sharing a flurry of colored feathers with Maza. The dark-scaled alien took more interest in the technological side of things than her companions.

“I wanted to ask,” Jaeger began as they made their way through a stretch of forest. The trunks of the trees were straight and fat, reminding him of a baobab tree, the vaguely blue-colored leaves spread out in fan shapes like a palm or a fern. There were purple flowers poking up through the green grass, small insects that resembled winged ants flying between them. Everything was tightly packed, such that he could no longer see the hangars of the spaceport, which couldn’t have been more than a two minute walk away by now. “What’s the function of the giant wall? I get that the laser batteries are for defensive purposes, but if the Bugs should attack the city, they would land troops behind the walls using drop pods or troop carriers. Is it to defend against ground invasion from other cities?”

“Goodness no,” the Ensi replied, flashing her feathers in what might be shock or perhaps amusement. “The wall is for defensive purposes, yes, but only against hostile fauna.”

“Hostile fauna!?” Baker exclaimed, “what kinda hostile fauna would need a two hundred foot wall to keep it out?”

“Earth has lions,” Maza replied with an excited flurry of feathers, “Val’ba’ra has Teth’rak.”

“Maza’xol’natuih and her flock will be happy to give you a full tour, I’m sure,” the Ensi said as the group emerged from beneath the forest canopy. Before them was a flight of stairs that led up to some kind of awning that almost looked like a bus stop, designed in the usual curving and organic style that he was becoming accustomed to seeing. It was connected to a pole that led off into the distance, suspended in the air on sparse supports. At first, Jaeger assumed that it might be some kind of water pipeline, but then he saw something zipping towards them along the pole. It was a train car, the same white color as everything else in the city, its bullet-shaped chassis lined with windows. It was hovering just off the track, a mag-lev train.

It slowly decelerated and came to a stop inside the little station, as quiet as a whisper, and then the Ensi stepped onto the stairs. It was actually an escalator, Jaeger watching as it carried her up towards the platform. The other Valbarans followed after her, so Jaeger and Baker did the same, the steps a little small for their large human feet. When they arrived at the top, they had to duck under the awning. There was about a foot of clearance for the average Valbaran, but Jaeger was tall enough that he could feel his hair brushing against it.

“I must depart now,” the Ensi said, giving them another salute with a flash of red. “We will meet again soon, I am sure. I am sorry to have made you walk so far, but the spaceport is some distance from the nearest mag track. Maza’xol’natuih has been tasked with ensuring your comfort and seeing to your needs during your stay, please address any concerns or questions that you might have to her and her flock.”

He wasn’t sure what she meant by that, the spaceport couldn’t have been more than a five-minute walk away, but he thanked her as she stepped through an automatic door and took a seat in the train car. The chairs here were much like those that he had seen inside the Valbaran lander, like a director’s chair with no back support, designed to let their thick tails hang over the rear. Curiously, there were no other occupants inside. The train sped off towards the city, soon becoming little more than a white glint seen through the ever-present heat haze.

Baker adjusted the straps of his rucksack, clearly already suffering from the oppressive atmosphere.

“So what now?” he asked, glancing down at the gaggle of aliens.

“What were the orders that your Captain Fielding gave you?” Maza asked.

“Pretty vague,” Jaeger said with a shrug. “I’m fairly sure that the Captain just wants us to explore the city and interact with the locals, then relay what we learn to him. We’ve already developed a rapport with you and your friends, and unlike the engineers or the Marines, we don’t have a lot to do until the shooting starts. I guess the Captain wants us to scout out your civilization a little while we have the time.”

“Like I said, it’s shore leave,” Baker added.

“It’s not shore leave,” Jaeger replied with a roll of his eyes, “we’re supposed to be making an effort to observe and understand. We can’t just goof off. If we go back to the Rorke without anything useful or insightful to report, then we’ll be on Fielding’s shit list.”

“I think I understand,” Maza said, turning to her group of four friends and huddling up with them. They chirped and hissed in their own language, glancing conspiratorially at the two humans every now and then, fluttering their feathers and flashing the LCD panels on their forearms. After what felt to Jaeger like an excessively long time, they broke ranks, Xico walking up to a touch panel that was mounted on the guard rail by the track and typing in a command.

“So…where are we going?” Baker asked.

Maza puffed up her feathers in the shades of yellow and orange that Jaeger was beginning to associate with excitement.

“We will give you a tour of the city. We should begin at the outermost ring and move inwards. Our first stop will be the wall. You will be staying at our dwelling rather than at a hotel closer to the city center, we have all of the accommodations that you might need. All the better to immerse yourselves in our culture and learn about our customs, no? You can observe how the average Val’ba’ra’nay lives.”

“We can’t wait to show you our city!” Xico added, looking up from the console and giving him a flurry of yellow.

“Uh…alright,” Jaeger said. He began to roll up the sleeves of his uniform, trying to cool himself down a little. These damned things were so unsuited to the tropical environment. “What do you mean by ‘our‘ dwelling?”

“Me and my flock, of course,” Maza replied matter-of-factly.

“You all live together?”

“Naturally,” she said, cocking her head as she looked up at him. “This cannot be unusual, you Earth’nay all live together on your carrier, your friends sleep in close proximity to you. I have seen your quarters.”

“Life on a carrier isn’t a good example of a normal living situation for a human,” he said, the alien fluttering her feathers in confusion. “We’re crammed together like sardines because we have to be. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t choose to live in such close proximity to each other. Most people live either alone or with their romantic partner. Sometimes people become roommates because they want to reduce living costs, but it’s rare to find more than two or three people living together unless they’re a couple with a lot of kids.”

“Then…Baker and Scratcher are not your flock?”

“No. They’re just my friends, my colleagues.”

“Yet you fly together?”

“Like I said, we’re colleagues,” he explained. “That’s our job.”

“Earth’nay are usually solitary creatures, then? I am shocked by this.”

“No, no. It’s not that clear cut,” he said, growing frustrated. “Why don’t you tell me what a ‘flock‘ is first? Humans might not have any equivalent to compare it to. The Ensi kept mentioning it, and I don’t know what it means.”

“Flock is an Earth’nay word,” she assured him. “I checked.”

“Yeah, but it might not have the meaning that you think it does. Don’t assume that I have any prior knowledge, explain it like you would to…well, an alien.”

She paused for a few moments, considering carefully before proceeding.

“A flock is a group of people who live and work together, commonly six, but sometimes a few more or less. In our prehistory, the Val’ba’ra’nay were pack hunters, our ancestors would coordinate to bring down prey animals as a tightly knit group. When we discovered agriculture, that social bond continued on. Whether hunting an animal or tilling a field to plant crops, any task is made easier with more able bodies, and any decision is made wiser through consensus.”

“I see,” Jaeger said, “so it’s like a family unit? What about parents and children? Do they have a place in the flock?”

“If a member of a flock produces offspring, then the flock will raise the child together until it comes of age, then it will leave to find its own flock.”

“And how does one find a flock to join?” Jaeger asked.

“Friends and schoolmates, coworkers, neighbors. Anybody of like mind. Nobody remains alone for long.”

“So you guys do everythin’ together?” Baker added, leaning on the nearby railing. “Live together, work together, raise children together? What happens if one of y’all is qualified for a job, but one of your buddies ain’t?”

“A flock must find a place in society that suits all of its members,” Ayau explained. “But more often than not, individuals of similar interests and skill sets will congregate, so problems like that are infrequent.”

“Then everything is democratized, in a way?” Jaeger continued. “You all have to reach consensus before you do anything? Doesn’t that slow you down?”

“Perhaps,” Maza admitted with a flurry of feathers that seemed analogous to a shrug, “but our decisions are all the better for it. Does your Captain not consult with other knowledgeable members of his crew in the briefing room before making decisions?”

“I suppose,” Jaeger conceded.

There was a whoosh of air as another train car arrived in the station, sliding to a halt. Maza wasted no time, gripping him by the wrist with surprising strength and tugging him through the sliding door. This one too was empty, perhaps by design, as a couple of aliens might frighten or disturb the local commuters. It was almost bare inside, more white, featureless metal save for the chairs and windows. She took a seat, guiding him into the one beside her. It was a little small for him, but it was comfortable enough, kind of like an undersized folding chair that you might bring with you to the beach. Baker and the rest of Maza’s flock sat down behind them, and then the train car began to move.

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