Birds of Prey: Chapter 9

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Jaeger couldn’t feel so much as a vibration through the floor, and there was no sound from the engine, he might have been standing still if it hadn’t been for the trees that were rushing past the windows at alarming speed. He looked out over the band of greenery, the elevated mag-lev track giving him a better view of his surroundings. It looked much like it had from the air, trees and grass, rolling hills and white structures in all kinds of shapes and sizes. But from this angle, he could really appreciate the effort that had gone into the landscaping, the way that every tree and hill seemed precisely placed to obscure something else from view. In a way, it reminded him of the Pinwheel, an artificial structure that used clever trickery to present an illusion of nature.

The city center was rushing towards them, the spires and glass towers even more artsy and exotic when seen from this distance, but Maza had said that they would be visiting the wall first. They seemed to be going in the wrong direction.

Before he could bring it up with her, he noticed that another train car was rushing towards them along the track, his heartbeat quickening as he watched it approach. The two cars were going so fast that they would probably vaporize if they heat each other.

“Uh…Maza? There’s another car on the same track as ours. Maza? Maza!”

Moments before the two collided, the cars shifted, sliding to either side of the cylindrical track as if they were falling off it. The interior stayed level, like it was gyroscopically stabilized, Jaeger barely feeling the motion as he watched the other car zip past. It then returned to its original position, the aliens fluttering their feathers and laughing at his reaction.

“I guess that’s one way to get two cars on the same track,” he mumbled, composing himself. He glanced over his shoulder at Baker, who seemed to have enjoyed the scare, a wide grin on his face.

They reached a Y-bend in the track, and the car shot off to the right, the mag-lev system was apparently much more versatile than he was accustomed to. Now they were heading in the direction of the circular wall, he could see it slowly rising in the distance. He craned his neck to peer out of the windows as they passed over a residential district, watching the dome-shaped dwellings fly past below. Each one was surrounded by gardens, and they were all near a water source, you’d have to pay out of the nose to live somewhere like that on Earth. Buying a square foot of land was probably equal to the cost of paving it with an inch of gold plating.

Behind him, Baker was making more conversation with his neighbors, more interested in their social system than in the scenery it seemed.

“So is Maza your leader?”

“No,” the Valbaran who was seated next to him replied, Jaeger recognizing her as Ayau. The more time he spent with the flock, the more he was able to differentiate between the individuals, they all had subtle features that set them apart. “We are all of equal standing within the flock.”

“Then how do you decide who to follow?”

“If someone takes the initiative and nobody objects, then we follow them. The flock has no leader.”

“And if two of you disagree?”

“Then we reach a consensus.”

The wall grew larger and larger, it was built like a dam, with sloped faces that were thinner on top. There were instruments and windows lining it, miscellaneous machinery that could have been anything from comms gear to weather monitoring equipment, and he could see spots near the bottom where water drained from pipes to fill the rivers and lakes within the city. There were buildings on top of it spaced at intervals, too small to house laser batteries. They might be simple guard towers, he would find out soon enough.

The track branched off again, this one leading towards the top of the wall at an incline, and the train car finally came to a stop at another awning that protected the passengers from the elements. Once they had all disembarked, the car looped back around, vanishing from view as it slid back down the track.

Jaeger stepped out from beneath the awning, making his way towards the flimsy guard rail that stood between him and the two hundred foot drop on the far side of the wall. Immediately gusts of wind very nearly knocked him off balance, and he looked out over a wild wilderness that extended to the horizon, forests and rivers breaking up the grassy plains. It was a little cooler up here, more pleasant, though still stiflingly hot. Maza sidled up beside him and leaned on the guard rail, looking down the sheer face of the titanic structure as her head-tentacles blew gently in the breeze.

Behind him, he could see the ever-present skyscrapers of the city center, shining brightly in the sunlight. You could probably see them from a hundred miles away on a clear day, they were almost like lighthouses.

“Are you afraid?” she asked. “Val’ba’ra’nay like high places, but I don’t know about Earth’nay.”

“I’m a pilot, I can handle heights. So this is what most of your planet looks like?”

“The majority, at least where we find it most comfortable. There is ice at the poles, and we have some jungles, oceans, and mountains too. We let nature reign outside of our walls. The rivers find their own path, the lakes pool where they may, the forests and plants grow where they choose. We live in our little pockets of order, trying to minimize our impact on the world.”

He looked to his left and right, taking in the magnificence of the wall. It was huge, with a wide walkway that went all the way along the top, interrupted at intervals by the small structures that he had spotted on the way up. It looked a lot like the great wall of China, if you painted it white and made it perfectly circular, of course. It wasn’t made from bricks or stone, none that he could see at least, it was constructed from the omnipresent metal paneling that the Valbarans seemed to favor. One would have expected it to heat up to unbearable levels in the direct glare of the sun, but it was cool to the touch.

“Those towers are lookout posts,” she explained, following his gaze. “They also monitor weather, migration patterns, air pollution and things like that.”

“Migration patterns?” Jaeger asked. “Migration patterns of what?”

“The animals that we hunt, and the predators that we need to watch out for. Come, with any luck, we might be able to see some.”

The prospect seemed to excite Baker more than it did Jaeger, who immediately set off towards the nearest lookout post.

“Wait,” one of the Valbarans said, her feathers flaring with confusion. “Surely you aren’t going to walk all that way?”

The two humans shared a glance. What were they talking about? The nearest structure was only a half mile away the most. The alien gestured to what initially looked like a bicycle rack which was placed beside the little train station, stocked with small, two-wheeled scooters with a long handle. She took one by the handlebars and wheeled it out into the center of the walkway, stepping onto the footrest, the two wheels placed to the left and right of it. He heard the whir of an electric motor, and then she leaned the handle forwards, the device setting off up the path at jogging speed.

Jaeger had to stifle a laugh. It was a ridiculous looking mode of transportation, doubly so with the strange alien standing atop it.

“Just lean in the direction you want it to go,” she explained, circling back around. “It’s easy.”

“When in Rome,” Baker said with a shrug, joining the Valbarans as they picked out their own wheeled platforms. Jaeger rolled his eyes and chose one for himself, standing precariously on the polymer footrest. It was textured for better grip, but it was too small for a human. He had to hunch over unnaturally to reach the handle, and the toes of his boots spilled over the front.

His first attempt sent the device toppling over, throwing him to the ground, much to the amusement of the Valbarans. His second try went a little better, and he began to get the hang of the alien vehicle. Baker did a lap around him, already an expert it seemed.

“What, you can fly a Beewolf, but you can’t ride a scooter? Come on Bullseye.”

Grumbling under his breath, Jaeger set off after his companions, wobbling occasionally as he struggled to keep the thing under control. He soon felt the wind on his face, his sweat helping to cool him as he drove alongside the flock, the supports of the handrail zipping past beside him. He wanted to take in some more of the vistas, but he was scared to take his attention off the pathway, these scooters were death traps. They were going fairly slow, maybe ten miles per hour at the most, but it could still land him a scuffed knee if he fell.

“So, I noticed that you don’t like to walk very far,” he said as he drove up beside Maza and tried to match pace with her. “What’s the deal with that?”

“Do we seem to lack stamina from your perspective?” she asked.

“Yeah. I noticed that you couldn’t walk far on the Rorke before you had to take a break to rest, and when we left the spaceport, your Ensi apologized for making us walk so far. Now we’re riding scooters when we could be walking.”

“It’s hard to say, I don’t really have a frame of reference.”

“I can run a mile in about eight minutes, for example.”

She paused, doing some math in her head, then her eyes widened.

“An ‘entire‘ mile?” she exclaimed in disbelief. “A Val’ba’ra’nay can run at full sprint for maybe ten or fifteen seconds. You must have incredible endurance to be able to run for eight minutes without tiring.”

“Oh, we can run for longer than that if we pace ourselves,” he said. “Twenty-five miles is about the standard distance for a marathon. Back in P.T, we used to run twelve miles in three hours with seventy pounds of gear on our backs.”

“That’s…monstrous,” she marveled as she looked him up and down, Jaeger doing his best not to fall off his scooter and ruin his new image.

“Back in our prehistory, we used to chase down animals during a hunt,” he added. “We ran them down until they collapsed from exhaustion.”

“Can you do it now?” Maza asked, looking at him with bright eyes and a yellow flurry from her headdress.

“Er…I suppose so.”

“Yeah, Jaeger,” Baker laughed from somewhere behind him. “Unless livin’ on the Rorke has made you soft?”

“I’m not ‘that‘ out of practice,” Jaeger complained. He slowed his scooter, swerving for a moment as he tried to keep his balance, then stepped off it. Maza stopped to watch him eagerly, the other aliens doing the same, Baker grinning mischievously. He lifted the vehicle and rested it across his shoulders, itself probably a good fifty or sixty pounds, cursing himself for running his mouth. Now he’d have to jog the quarter mile that remained, and the heat wouldn’t be doing him any favors.

He began to jog at a brisk pace, his boots hammering on the metal beneath him as he passed by Maza. She leaned forward on her scooter, driving alongside him as she watched him break out into a run. He covered the ground quickly, arriving at the foot of the building in a couple of minutes. He set the scooter that he had been carrying on the ground, doubling over to catch his breath and wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.

“Amazing!” Maza said, bringing her vehicle to a stop beside him. “You ran all that way!”

Coza seemed even more impressed, standing beside her scooter with her hands on her hips as she watched him silently. She had seemed the most perturbed back on the Rorke when she had found out that their planetary defenses were inadequate, and now she was seeing another human attribute that surpassed their own. As exciting as first contact with an alien species was, it was also turning their world upside-down, challenging their long-held beliefs. Jaeger would have to keep in mind that these aliens were individuals, that not all of them would react the same way.

“It can’t be that surprising,” he said, panting. “Surely you have animals on Valbara that can run long distance?”

“Not as far as you claim. Although I see now that there’s a tradeoff, humans aren’t very fast in short bursts.”

“And Valbarans are?” he asked. She gave him a wry look, and then turned, setting off down the path until she was maybe five hundred feet away from him. He watched curiously as she stepped off the scooter, then she began to remove her gloves. She popped the seals on the wrists and then placed them beside the scooter, rolling up her sleeves until the two feather sheaths on her forearms were exposed. She flexed them, extending the multicolor plumes as she began to hop on the spot, shaking her limbs and rolling her neck like a runner preparing for a hundred-yard dash.

She then crouched low, her long, straight tail extended rigidly behind her, and her arms held out like she was about to take off. Jaeger watched her muscles bulge beneath her camouflaged suit, her proportionally massive thighs seeming to swell as she used them to propel herself forward, her head low and streamlined. There was a short windup, and then she was at full tilt, her little feet a blur as she raced towards him. The feathers on her arms extended, she was using them like rudders to stabilize herself, reaching speeds that he wouldn’t have thought possible. She covered the distance in about ten seconds, skidding to a halt beside him and using her plumes like air brakes, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she took in deep breaths.

“You…couldn’t…outrun me,” she panted, locking her legs as she rested. She really did seem exhausted by the short sprint, but she was right, she ran like a cheetah.

“How fast can you go?” he asked, not even attempting to hide how impressed he was.

“Maybe…thirty miles per hour…in your measurements.”

“Jesus,” Baker exclaimed, “that’s about fifty feet per second. She could outpace a racehorse.”

“I’ll go fetch your scooter,” Jaeger said, walking down the path and giving her a minute to recover. These little aliens had some tricks up their sleeves. Not only were they incredibly fast learners according to Evans, but they were far stronger than their size suggested, as well as being inhumanly fast. He picked up the scooter by the handle rather than risk riding it, collecting her gloves along with it and carrying them back to her. She unlocked her legs, thanking him as he passed her the gloves.

“We should have a talk about your biology when we have time,” he said, watching Maza pull her sleeves back down and reconnect the gloves to their seals.

“And yours,” she replied, still out of breath. “You Earth’nay have some hidden talents.”

“Hang on,” Baker said, striding over to the nearest alien. He hooked his hands under Tacka’s armpits and lifted her clear off the floor, holding the timid creature in the air as she flashed her feathers in surprise. He set her down again, leaving the poor creature looking rattled. She was the least conversational out of the flock, and Jaeger couldn’t tell if she was having more trouble with the language than her companions, or if she was just that meek.

“They’re so light,” Baker mused, “they can’t weigh more than about fifty or sixty pounds. You guys have hollow bones, right? Like birds?”

“No, not hollow,” Maza replied. “We have a system of air sacks inside our bodies that are connected to our lungs and fill along with them. They run down our spine between our vertebrae. I’m assuming that you don’t?”

“No, we don’t have anything like that,” Jaeger confirmed.

“Strange, that must make you very heavy. I don’t really know enough about biology to make any comparisons. My flock and I are pilots, not scientists. Our next stop should definitely be a hospital in the city. Maybe you can find out some useful information to take back to your Captain, and our people can learn about yours in turn.”

“That’s a good idea,” he replied with a nod.

They continued on to the lookout post, stepping beneath the arches that held it above the pathway so that pedestrians could pass beneath it unhindered. Jaeger looked up at the featureless underside of the building, wondering how they were supposed to access it. Before he could ask, a circular panel descended. It was like someone had cut out a round section of the floor, propelled by some invisible means. It was probably magnetic again, like the trains.

They stepped onto the platform, and it carried them all up into the tower. The plate returned to its place in the floor, seamless and with no visible break in the metal. They found themselves in a small control room, or at least small by human standards, the walls lined with blinking consoles and readouts that were all at Valbaran height.

“There’s nobody here?” Baker asked.

“No,” Maza replied. “It’s mostly automated, but they can be manned if they need to be. We’re just here for the telescope.”

She walked over to the wall that faced the exterior of the city, tapping at some touch panels with her fingers. There was what looked like a large television mounted on the wall, with rounded corners and a slightly convex screen, which flared to life. It showed a magnified view of the wilderness beyond the wall, and she manipulated the camera as she panned across the forests and fields.

“There are usually some herd animals roaming around at this time of the year,” she said, toggling the magnification. “There’s a Teth’rak who holds a territory of a few hundred square miles that extends to the wall on this side, she’s always a crowd pleaser.”

“What’s a Teth’rak?” Baker asked.

“You’ll find out if I can just…there we go.”

The camera was now centered on a small lake, beside which perhaps two dozen animals were standing around in a herd. Some were drinking, others pivoting their small heads on their long necks as they watched out for predators. They looked to Jaeger like ostriches, but a little more reptilian. They were covered in dull brown feathers that were tipped with white, their skin scaly and tan in color where it was visible on their long legs and faces. They had large, unblinking eyes that didn’t convey much intelligence.

“How far away are they?” he asked, stepping around one of her companions to get a closer look.

“Oh, not too far. Maybe twenty miles.”

She switched to thermal, the landscape changing color to shades of blue and black, while the warm bodies of the bird-like herd animals showed up as blobs of red and orange. She zoomed out, then began to pan again, searching for heat signatures. After a minute, she found what she was looking for, something large and hot that was lurking beneath the canopy of a nearby forest. Jaeger couldn’t make out much besides the vague shape. It was larger than the bird creatures, with a bulky body and a long tail that stood out straight behind it.

“There she is,” Maza whispered, “I knew she wouldn’t be far off. The heat of the midday sun usually drives the Gue’tra flocks to the nearest rivers and streams, and that’s when she likes to eat. Looks like she’s hunting right now.”

The two humans watched, transfixed as the orange blob slowly moved towards the herd of animals, staying under the cover of the trees. It was prowling like a lion. Jaeger could make out the vague shape of its head, the creature keeping it fixed on its prey. It must have binocular vision, that was common for predators.

As it neared the edge of the woods, Maza switched back to the normal view, and the monitor displayed a patch of green and purple leaves. Ever so slowly, the nose of the beast inched out into the sunlight. The view was so clear that he could even make out the beautiful patterning on its thick, dull snout. It looked to him like a feathered dinosaur, its body covered in beautiful orange plumes, more like a coat of fur than individual feathers. Around its two beady eyes and along its nose it had two streaks of white framed with red, like a striking warning pattern. More of its long neck emerged, then its shoulders, all covered with the same rust-colored feathers. Along its spine were more developed plumes, like those of a peacock, the orange tapering into reds and whites. The jaws were enormous, and its head was massive. If it had arms, they were tiny and hidden beneath the fur.

“How big is that thing?” Baker gasped. Jaeger was curious too, he didn’t know how big those trees were, and so he had no frame of reference.

“Maybe…fifty feet from nose to tail, she weighs about ten tons.”

“That’s bigger than a T-Rex,” Baker said as he watched the monitor with wide eyes, “bigger than a Giganotosaurus.”

“Watch closely, Earth’nay,” Coza said with a proud flurry of feathers. “This is the most magnificent predator that Val’ba’ra has produced.”

The Teth’rak suddenly sprang to life, rushing out from beneath the cover of the trees and thundering towards the flock of skittish birds. The view from the monitor was from above and behind, looking down, giving them a good view of the animal’s body as the sunlight reflected off its orange covering. The head was so massive in proportion to its body, it made Jaeger think of a wrecking ball, he could see the bulging jaw muscles even from such a great distance. Its torso was barrel-shaped, tapering into a long tail that it held out as straight as a rod behind it as it ran. It propelled itself on a pair of massive legs, as thick around as the trunks of the trees, its three-toed feet tipped with claws and covered in exposed scales that were yellow in color like a chicken. It kicked up great clods of dirt with every step, Jaeger could practically feel its weight and power, the rippling muscles visible even beneath its beautiful coat.

As it rushed towards the water’s edge, there was a fluttering in the feathers around its neck and shoulders, the plumes standing on end to expose a layer of vibrant red beneath the orange. From the perspective of the prey animals, it must have looked like an explosion with teeth was charging at them.

Its hapless targets immediately formed a tightly-knit group and fled, moving like a shoal of fish, speeding away across the blue-green grass on their long legs. The Teth’rak had the element of surprise, however. It closed rapidly, smashing one of the stragglers with a sideswipe from its titanic head, using it like a hammer to knock the animal clear off its feet. It rolled and tumbled, dazed, and then the Teth’rak opened its monstrous jaws to reveal rows of carnivore teeth that must have been nearly as long as Jaeger’s forearm.

It closed the jaws around its prey and bit down, the Gue’tra going limp as the bite crushed its bones, and the fangs ripped through its flesh. The beast ate, tearing the smaller bird almost in half and raising its snout towards the sky, wolfing down its meal without so much as chewing.

“She’s putting on a show for our guests,” Maza laughed. “Isn’t she magnificent?”

“Okay, now I see why you need a two hundred foot wall,” Jaeger conceded as he ran his fingers through his damp hair. “What the fuck…”

“The wall isn’t just for keeping out Teth’rak,” Xico added eagerly, staring up at him with her violet eyes. “It has many other important functions. But yes, it would not do to have her running around the city center.”

“It’s as I said,” Maza warbled. “Earth has lions, Val’ba’ra has Teth’rak.”

“I’m not sure you could even bring that thing down with a railgun,” Baker laughed, and the Valbarans gave him a shocked look.

“Why would you do that?” Ayau asked, “it’s just an animal. As long as you stayed out of her territory, she would have no quarrel with you.”

“I didn’t mean I actually wanted to hunt it,” Baker said apologetically, “I just meant that it looks tough. We had animals like that on Earth at one point, but they went extinct millions of years ago.”

“Oh no!” Ayau wailed, her feathers puffing up in a shade of deep blue that could only convey sadness or regret. “What happened to them? Was it a famine or a plague?”

“Nope, an asteroid impact. Our ancestors evolved from the small mammals that survived the extinction.”

“That’s terrible!” she trilled.

“The mammals that evolved on Val’ba’ra are small burrowing creatures mostly, they could fit in the palm of your hand,” Maza added. “You evolved from such animals?”

“Yeah,” Baker replied, “we had giant reptiles called dinosaurs that existed before us. They grew big, not too far removed from your feathery friend over there, then an asteroid hit and wiped out everythin’ bigger’n a mouse.”

“Now I can only think of you Earth’nay as little whiskered things scurrying around on the ground,” she said with a wide grin and a mischievous flutter of her headdress, “trying to avoid the stomping feet of reptiles.”

“Oh, is that how it is?” Jaeger replied, crossing his arms and giving her a sarcastic look. “Big talk for someone who’s scarcely tall enough to reach my chest.”

She laughed at that, and then her demeanor became sly. She signaled to her companions with a flash of colorful feathers, complex patterns playing across the LCD panels on her forearms. It was like a form of sign language, one that Baker and Jaeger couldn’t even begin to guess the meaning of. Her friends huddled around her again, hissing and warbling, Coza peeking out from the group for a moment to sneak a glance at Jaeger. He knew enough to know that they were plotting something. They finally broke ranks, Maza standing defiantly before him with her hands planted on her wide hips, her long tail waving back and forth.

“I’ve seen how far an Earth’nay can run,” she said, “but I’m curious to see how you fight.”

“What?” Jaeger asked skeptically.

“Let’s spar! Earth’nay do that, right? In training, or maybe in play?”

He exchanged a glance with Baker, who shrugged at him, clearly amused by the situation.

“We do train in hand to hand combat,” Jaeger admitted. “But you realize that I’m probably three times your weight, right? I don’t know if it’s a good idea, I wouldn’t want to hurt you by accident.”

“Oh ho!” Coza laughed, the plumes on her head flashing in yellow and orange. “You assume that a creature as slow as you could lay a finger on a Val’ba’ra’nay?”

“Come on, little mouse,” Maza teased. “Let’s call it…inter-species morale building. Val’ba’ra’nay practice fighting with their flock all the time to stay sharp, and to memorize all of the moves and stances.”

She looked back at her flock, who trilled and flashed their feathers in amusement. They were like a gaggle of schoolgirls goading on a classmate.

“Come on, Bullseye,” Baker said with a grin. “Our pride is on the line here.”

Jaeger caved, shrugging as his companions laughed at him. Maza hit a panel on the wall, and the platform descended, carrying them down to the pathway atop the wall. It rose back into the air and sealed the hole that it had created once they had stepped off it, Jaeger watching it vanish seamlessly into the floor of the lookout tower.

Maza kept her eyes on his, unblinking, and something about the intensity of her stare made him feel odd again. She took off her gloves and rolled up her sleeves, then she began to bounce on the spot, limbering up. Seeing that she was serious, Jaeger rolled up his own sleeves, exposing his forearms and cracking his knuckles. He might be a pilot, but everyone in the UNN did the same physical training regardless of their branch. A pilot should be as well versed in small arms and self-defense as an infantryman.

“Alright guys,” Baker said, putting on an announcer’s voice as he circled the pair. “I wanna see a clean fight. No bitin’, no scratchin’, and no hits below the belt. May the best species win!”

“But no pressure,” Jaeger grumbled, scowling at him. He shrugged off his rucksack and then raised his fists in a defensive position, facing off against Maza as the breeze blew his hair. “I’m gonna go easy on you,” he said, “I’m pretty sure I could break your bones just by falling on you.”

“Then it will be your first mistake,” she replied with a grin. She took up a stance, it reminded him of something from a martial arts movie. Wait, did the Valbarans have martial arts?

Her flock cheered her on, Coza especially seemed eager to see her species outdo the humans, watching intently as her raised plumes fluttered with anticipation. Jaeger wondered for a moment why she wasn’t doing the fighting herself, she was noticeably stockier than her sisters, a little larger too.

Maza suddenly moved, like a bolt of lightning she barreled towards him, cutting through the air like a knife. He didn’t even have time to react, his eyes could scarcely track her movements, and the next thing he was aware of was the feeling of something sharp pressing against his belly.

“Looks like you’re dead, little mouse,” Maza said.

He looked down to see her pointed claws resting against his stomach, the little alien poised to gut him. He should have guessed, she fought as fast as she ran. She hopped backwards, taking up another stance as she fluttered her feathers. There was something flirtatious about the way that her plumes flashed in shades of pink and yellow, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

“Alright, so that’s how it’s going to be,” he said as he readied himself for a second round. “You won’t take me off guard this time.”

“Oh, I think I will,” she crooned. “How about I let you strike first this time?”

“If you insist,” he said with a shrug, “but I’m warning you that I might hit harder than you imagine.”

“That won’t be a problem,” she laughed. He squared up, raising his fists, and he began to inch closer to her. She was just standing there, completely open, not even making an attempt to defend herself. He leaned in and delivered a right jab, still pulling his punches for fear of hurting the little creature, his closed fist was almost as large as her head. Her stature made him feel like he was beating on a little girl.

Maza dodged out of his way, moving so fast that it made him look like he was standing still in comparison. She gripped his wrist in her hand, pulling him forwards with alarming strength, the tendril that protected the feathers on her forearm coiling around his limb like a tentacle for extra purchase. Her thick tail tripped him, knocking him off balance, and before he had even had registered what had happened, he found himself face-down on the floor. She had bound his feet together with her tail, it felt like an anaconda was coiling around him. She had one tiny foot planted on his rump, and she was holding one arm behind his back. She had effectively hog-tied him, he was completely immobilized.

Baker was almost in hysterics, hooting at him as he struggled in vain.

“She’s a lot stronger than she looks!” Jaeger protested. God damn, her muscles were like iron, he couldn’t wriggle free. She finally released him, Jaeger rising to his feet and brushing himself off as she smirked up at him. There was that stare again, her violet eyes piercing through him, intense and somehow hungry. It made him feel…strange, a shiver running down his spine that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. It made him uncomfortable when she looked at him like that, but he couldn’t help but feel as if it had a deeper meaning in her culture, as if he was somehow acquiescing to her by failing to maintain that unblinking gaze.

He blinked and averted his eyes, the corners of her scaly lips curling into a smile, a red flush spreading through her plumage. Could that be an expression of aggression, something else? He had no point of reference, only his own biases.

“Come on, Jaeger,” Maza said as she began to dance on the spot again. “Stop holding out on me.”

He cracked his neck and then raised his hand to the zipper on his Navy jumpsuit, pulling it down to the belt and sliding his arms out of his sleeves. He let the upper half of the uniform hang about his waist, and beneath it, he was wearing a simple white t-shirt that was already stained with sweat due to the heat and humidity. He rolled his arms, feeling the cool breeze on his damp skin, letting it cool him for a moment.

Maza shifted her gaze from his eyes to his torso, examining his body, the fabric of his shirt clinging to his skin and leaving little to the imagination. He remembered the time that she had joined him in the shower back on the Rorke, how intensely she had inspected him, her expression hidden behind her opaque visor. Had she been motivated by simple curiosity then, or something else?

He readied himself again, this time determined to at least get one hit in, or Baker would never let him forget it. Maza waited for him, those violet eyes unflinching. He stepped forward and delivered a roundhouse kick, aiming for her head, but she blocked it with her forearm. Despite her small size, she weathered the blow, skidding a little on the flush ground but keeping her balance. She was fast enough to have avoided that attack easily, she had let it land, perhaps wanting to test his strength.

He delivered another punch, which she parried, knocking it aside. She moved so quickly, it was mechanical, like she was running on pure intuition rather than needing to think about anything that she was doing. He followed up with another punch, which she blocked, and then a leg sweep that she deftly jumped over. Her reaction times were incredible, but he had seen how little stamina she had. If he could keep up the pressure, he might be able to exhaust her. He could keep this up all day, but she couldn’t.

“You’ve got her on the ropes!” Baker shouted.

“Stop toying with the Earth’nay and finish it!” Coza trilled, not to be outdone.

As Jaeger harried Maza with swift punches, keeping her on her toes even if not one of them found its intended mark, he could see that she was beginning to tire. She made her move, not willing to let him drain her energy, leaping up onto him like an angry cat. He briefly felt her hands touch his shoulders as she vaulted clear over his head, catching his neck in her tail as she landed behind him and using what little body weight she had to knock him off balance.

He toppled over backwards, the little alien catching his arm between her thighs and holding it tightly, the grip of her tail around his neck tightening. His bicep bulged as he tried to break free, and it took all of her strength to keep a hold on him, his forearm alone was almost as long as her torso. Her tail was oddly soft, pudgy, as were her thighs. There was a layer of yielding fat that he could feel under her clothing, and beneath it was steely muscle.

Jaeger heaved, lifting her clear off the floor as she clung to his arm like a sailor clinging to the mast of a ship in a violent storm, rolling over onto his front. She scrambled to escape, releasing her hold on him and uncoiling her tail from around his neck, but she had no hope of lifting him off her. She weighed about fifty pounds, and he weighed one hundred and seventy last time he had checked.

Her little body relaxed as he pinned her wrists against the floor, his damp hair hanging over his face as he loomed over her, casting her into deep shadow. He was so massive in comparison. The width of his shoulders was twice that of hers, maybe a little more, and his hands dwarfed her own such that he could easily enclose her fists in his.

Baker cheered, but it sounded distant to Jaeger, the breathy laughter coming from Maza capturing all of his attention. She was out of breath, her chest rising and falling rapidly beneath the concealing flight suit, laughing giddily as she gazed up at him with those purple eyes. A few stray droplets of his sweat rained down on her as she lay beneath him, laid out on the ground like she was posing for the cover of a magazine, her arms pinned above her head. Her headdress was extended, the two tentacle sheaths standing out rigidly as her feathers flushed a rosy shade of pink.

He came to his senses after a moment, releasing her and rising off her, the little reptile springing to her feet. She shook her head, her feathers waving in the air, and then they folded back down into their protective covers. Coza seemed disappointed by the outcome, scowling at them from the sidelines, but the rest of the pack were whispering excitedly to one another.

“Not bad for a mammal,” Maza said, trotting closer to give a playful punch on the arm. “And a male at that. Let’s call it a tie.”

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