Birds of Prey – Bisexual Edition

Cover Illustration by Oouna:

© 2019 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

This work was made possible by the generous support of my Patrons:

Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only.

The bisexual story contains the following themes:

size difference, group sex, oral, fingering, feathers, handjob, blowjob, femdom, gentle femdom, face-sitting, vaginal, androgynous male, anal, maledom.


The alarm blared, the sound of boots hammering on the deck joining the siren as the hangar bay was filled with a rush of activity. The running figures and idle spacecraft were illuminated by flashing, orange warning lighting, instructions coming through on loudspeakers and radios as the personnel hurried to their positions.

Jaeger was already wearing his helmet, double-checking the seals on his flight suit as he made his way towards his plane, listening to the chatter in his ear.

...heat signatures in the Oort cloud, nothing showing up on radar, but there's a lot of interference from small bodies and debris...”

Just like with every long-range patrol, or Bug hunts as they were colloquially known, the UNN Rorke had been drifting along the edge of Coalition space and scanning for Betelgeusian activity for weeks now with no contacts. Jaeger was itching to get back into the cockpit, to stretch his wings in the black void of space. Being cooped up inside the jump carrier was nearly enough to drive him crazy.

His chest swelled with excitement as he arrived beside his ship, its angular, black chassis making it look like it had been chiseled from a block of solid onyx. The airframe was designed for the lowest possible radar cross-section, the swept wings, dual tail fins and the pointed nose betraying the vessel's atmospheric flight capabilities. It was an FS-26 Beewolf spaceplane, a short-range fighter that could operate both in deep space and in the atmosphere of a planet when necessary. Looking closely, one could make out the innumerable nozzles and thrusters that were spaced out all along the hull, used to orient it in a vacuum where its aerodynamic design counted for naught.

He stepped out of the way as a Krell lumbered past him, the gigantic reptile carrying a missile in its muscular arms as if the nine foot, two hundred pound projectile weighed no more than a pool noodle. The alien looked to be about fifteen feet from nose to tail, eight feet tall due to its hunched, bipedal posture. Its back was covered in scales and armored scutes like a crocodile, spinach green in color, and it was wearing a yellow poncho that identified it as a member of the engineering crew.

Jaeger watched the alien as it leaned under the craft's delta wing and began to affix the missile to a vacant hardpoint. When it was done, it stepped out from beneath the plane, its long tail dragging along the deck.

We good to go, buddy?” Jaeger asked. The Krell turned its alligator-like snout in his direction, then curled its many-fingered hand into a fist, giving him a thumbs-up. The Krell lacked the vocal apparatus to reproduce human speech, but they understood the language well enough. They were just one of the many alien races that served alongside humanity in the multi-species Coalition.

Even as he climbed up to the cockpit, Jaeger could hear the other pilots spooling up their engines and running thruster diagnostics. The deck crew moved off as the vessels prepared to launch, Jaeger sliding into his seat and hitting the button that would close the transparent canopy. The cockpit was high on the nose of the craft, which provided excellent visibility, and he watched the yellow-clad figures retreat to safety as his suit jacked into the plane's internal systems.

The full-faced visor on his helmet slid down, sealing over his head with a hiss, the heads-up display overlaying his field of view with ghostly green graphics and information as it flickered to life. External cameras mounted all around the vessel streamed a video feed to his helmet, the latency low enough that it allowed him to see through the chassis in real time, giving him an unobstructed view in every direction. If an enemy craft were below, or even directly behind him, this system would allow him to view it as if he was looking through glass.

The helmet was designed both to feed him system information and targeting data, as well as to protect him from the certain death of decompression if his vessel should lose pressure. He felt cool air across his face as the oxygen supply turned on, his flight suit shifting like it was a living thing, flexing and tightening around his limbs. It could contract to restrict blood flow to his extremities during the extreme-G maneuvers that space combat often required, preventing him from blacking out, at least to a point.

As soon as his gloved hands found the joystick, he felt like he was home, hitting switches on the control panel and booting up the various systems. The vessel seemed to wake up, its thrusters swiveling and shooting puffs of gas as the flight computer ran diagnostics, the rudders and ailerons tilting. The main engine of the craft stretched like a limb, the vectoring nozzle expanding and contracting, Jaeger feeling a rumble beneath his feet as it spooled up. The data readout on his HUD showed that all systems were green, weapons operational, propulsion gas canisters and chemical fuel tanks full.

Before him was the hangar's shimmering force field, a flimsy energy barrier that would keep the atmosphere in, while allowing solid objects to pass. Beyond it was the velvet blackness of space, dotted with twinkling stars, the void calling to him. He listened intently to his radio as he secured his straps, waiting for the order to launch. They had been on standby for so long that he felt like he might explode if he didn't get out there in the next couple of minutes.

Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, feeding coordinates to your flight computers. Your orders are to follow the patrol route and investigate the anomalous heat signatures.”

That was Jaeger's plane, and Scorch had been assigned as his wingman, excellent. The callsigns that the pilots used might sound aggrandizing to the uninitiated, but they were more often than not assigned as a reference to some monumental fuckup or as a squadron in-joke. Richard Scorch Baker had earned his callsign when he had failed to retract his radiators during reentry while training at the academy, causing them to melt and overheat his engines. Fortunately, he had been able to glide to safety. Jaeger's callsign was Bullseye, a reference to him accidentally firing an extremely expensive missile into deep space during a combat exercise.

He looked around, noticing that two other fighters were starting to taxi into position as well, waiting for their turn to launch. They must have been ordered to patrol along a slightly different route to cover more ground. It looked like Boomer and Scratcher. Boomer hadn't figured out that breaking the sound barrier while doing a low flyby over a populated area was a bad idea, and Scratcher had been caught sharing a bed with a Borealan recruit within his first week on the job.

Jaeger lined up his plane ready for takeoff, using his helmet to look through the floor of his cockpit to make sure that he was properly aligned with the markings on the deck as Scorch taxied up beside him. He looked over his shoulder, watching as a metal panel rose from the deck of the hangar on a pneumatic piston, the angled square of blackened metal designed to deflect and absorb the heat from the engine during takeoff so that it didn't cook the vessels directly behind it. As large as the hangar was, there were still dozens of fighters and dropships crammed into the space.

Unlike in the atmosphere of a planet, there was no need to gain a great deal of speed in order to generate lift. One needed only to escape the artificial gravity field of the carrier and then they were in open space, where only short bursts from the engines and thrusters were necessary to maneuver. Extended burns were usually a very bad idea, because the more momentum that was generated, the more thrust would have to be applied in the opposite direction to slow down again. Space flight had almost nothing in common with atmospheric flight, there was no banking to turn, there was no danger of stalling. The aircraft could move in any direction, and at any speed in a three-dimensional space, the only limiting factor being fuel consumption and the G-forces applied to the pilot.

Some argued that fighters flown remotely would be better suited to the task, able to execute maneuvers that would turn an organic occupant to jelly. But due to the massive distances involved where space combat was concerned, the only way to ensure a low enough latency connection for that to be viable was by laser transmission, which could be obstructed by objects and hazards. You couldn't send a laser signal to a vessel that was on the other side of a planet, for example, not without satellites already in place to bounce the beam. Automated drones were a possibility, but so far the only species that had developed advanced enough computing technology to achieve that were the Brokers, and they weren't too keen on sharing it. At least for the foreseeable future, Jaeger wouldn't be out of a job.

The indicator on his HUD turned from red to green, signifying that he was clear to launch. Wasting no time, he gave the throttle a short squeeze, orange flames splashing against the panel behind him as the acceleration pinned him to his seat. In a flash, the brightly lit interior of the bay was replaced with the darkness of space, only the relatively thin barrier of his canopy protecting him from the freezing cold and the deadly radiation. Space looked so serene and pristine, but it was actually swarming with charged particles that would turn his chromosomes into Swiss cheese, along with dust and debris that could hit with the force of a bullet. The spacecraft were made of stern stuff, but every spacefarer feared the day that the cruel hand of fate might send an errant micrometeorite hurtling towards his head.

He rotated the fighter on its axis and retracted his landing gear, angling the nose towards the vast field of ice and rock in the distance. To his right, he could see the jump carrier and its trailing support vessels, torpedo boats and CIWS frigates floating along in a lazy formation like a pod of dolphins surfing the bow wave of a ship. Only the largest vessels in the Navy were big enough to house the nuclear reactors that were needed to power the jump drives, the smaller vessels had to be towed in their slipstream. The carrier was already dwindling to the size of a toy, the ocean-grey hull shaped vaguely like a giant snub-nosed bullet, with recesses along its length for docking dropships and other craft when the hangars were full. Its belly and flanks bristled with weaponry. There were lines of closed hatches that housed torpedo bays, long railguns on flexible arms, and point defense turrets jutting from its bulbous hull. A carrier could both defend itself and deal an incredible amount of damage to anything that was unwise enough to get into range.

A burst of flame drew his eye, and he made out Scorch leaving the hangar, using the telescope function on his visor to zoom in on the fighter as it drifted towards him. He heard crackling static in his earpiece, and then mission control came through.

We’ve got some weird heat signatures showing up on the thermal scans, could be recent collisions between large bodies, but it's not likely. Radar won't be of much use out there, there's a lot of shit floating around, so keep your eyes peeled. Remember, don't engage unless necessary, this is a recon mission.”

Copy that, mission control,” he replied. “We'll just do a little sight-seeing.”

Scorch moved into formation, the black fighter barely visible against the backdrop of space, but Jaeger's flight computer tagged the location of all friendly vessels in the immediate area and displayed them on his HUD.

Finally, an excuse to get out of that sardine can,” he heard his friend grumble over the back radio.

I hear that, Baker. Watch your ass out there. They have us going pretty deep into the asteroid field, and I don't want to have to engrave killed by a rock on your tombstone.”

Jaeger watched as two more fighters left the hangar, setting off on a different route, their afterburners flaring for a second or two before they coasted off into the blackness. Hanging in front of him was a giant wall of tumbling ice and rock that seemed to extend infinitely in every direction. Oort clouds were truly massive spheres of rock, ice, and debris that orbited a star at the extreme limits of its gravitational pull. Their boundaries were fuzzy at best, and the fleet was currently suitably far enough away that the danger of impacts was minimized. Bugs loved asteroid fields, they infested them like cockroaches, using the natural cover that they provided to launch attacks on planets further inside the system. Heat signatures this far out probably meant that Bugs were setting up shop here, likely scouts for a hive ship that was hidden somewhere in the cloud. The system was unmapped, but anything that the Bugs could use as a staging point to push further into Coalition space had to be checked out and cleared.

Let's give it a three-second burn on my mark,” Jaeger said, “ the gas.”

The two vessels accelerated in unison, the G-forces pressing Jaeger into his seat. After three seconds, the acceleration ceased, the fighters letting the momentum carry them forward. There was no air resistance in space, nothing to slow them down. If an object started to move, then it wouldn't stop until force was applied, or it encountered an obstacle. It was even possible to gain or lose momentum without wasting fuel by using gravitational assists, although they were currently too far out from the solar system to have to contend with planets.

The cloud looked like dust from this distance, but when he enhanced the image with his visor, Jaeger could see the individual rocks and balls of ice as they tumbled lazily through space. Some of them were barely larger than his own fighter, and some were the size of a mountain. It was so hard to judge distance and scale in space without using instruments, and the field of asteroids was dark, the system's sun too far away to provide much illumination at all. It was little more than a pinpoint in the distance, barely distinguishable from stars that were a thousand light years away.

The two fighters slowed their approach with bursts of gas from their forward thrusters as the asteroids ballooned in their field of view, becoming alarmingly large. Jaeger could see small fragments and particles of dust impacting on his canopy and making his hull shake. The vessels were designed to endure the rigors of combat, and so it wasn't too concerning, but they still needed to be careful and stay alert. It wouldn't do to get pancaked between two drifting hunks of rock the size of houses.

There was no clear limit to the asteroid field, but Jaeger was soon surrounded by larger rocks, his visor's optics doing their best to brighten the darkness and his flight computer tracking the nearby objects so as to warn him of any impending collisions.

Radar is useless in here,” Baker muttered, “it's like tryin' to find a needle in a haystack.”

You'd know all about haystacks, you hick,” Jaeger replied. Baker had a thick Southern accent, and everyone gave him shit for it.

Switchin' to thermal,” Baker said, “not seeing anything...I really don't want to move deeper. It ain't a good idea if you ask me.”

Well they didn't ask you, it's an order,” Jaeger said as he used his thrusters to inch forward. “Stay on my six and keep an eye out for movement, you know how sneaky these Bugs can be.”

Considerin' I got more confirmed kills than you, Bullseye, I sure do.”

Jaeger kept one eye on his sensors as they moved deeper into the cloud, following the route that had been planned out by command. The problem with fighting Bugs was that no two colonies were ever alike. Sure, they shared certain basic tenets and design principles, but the rate at which they adapted to their new environments and their willingness to mutate their own bodies meant that you could never accurately predict what you'd be facing off against. Fortunately, their violent xenophobia extended to their own kind too, different colonies never cooperated or shared tactical information between one another. It was a good job too, or the UNN would never be able to win the arms race that would ensue.

Hang on,” Baker said, “I got somethin' on the scope. It's a heat source, three o'clock high, hard to gauge the distance in this soup.”

I got it,” Jaeger replied, his HUD showing a red blip amongst the ghostly green outlines of the nearby asteroids. “It's faint, might be a critter trying to mask its engine signature.” He switched radio channels and put a call through to the Rorke. “This is Bullseye, we've picked up a heat signature, requesting instructions.”

Mission control came through with a hiss of static, the woman's voice crackling in his earpiece.

Roger that, Bullseye, marking your location. Your orders are to proceed and investigate.”

That's a solid copy mission control, proceeding deeper...”

He flipped to the back channel again, relaying the instructions to Baker.

Control says we should check it out.”

Fuck. Oh well, ladies first.”

Jaeger took point and drifted towards the faint heat source, maneuvering around obstacles with short bursts from his thrusters, the signal growing steadily weaker. He was almost certain by now that it was a cooling engine. Something had probably moved shortly before their arrival, and the heat that it had generated was slowly dissipating into space.

I got a bad feeling about this,” he said, “weapons going hot.”

He flipped up the guard on his joystick that covered one of the fire buttons, and he felt a tremor run through the hull as a hatch on the back of the fighter opened up like a trap door. As well as long-range missiles and affixed cannons that could be used both in atmosphere and in space, there was also another weapon mounted on the FS-26 that could only be used in a vacuum. A large, belt-fed railgun extended from the hull on a flexible arm, making it look like the head of a stork. It was invaluable in a close quarters dogfight, able to pivot and track independently of the fighter. A targeting reticle appeared on Jaeger's HUD as the weapon came online. It was primarily computer controlled, but UNN regulations required a human to pull the trigger...or at least a sapient creature.

As they neared the source of the signature and came upon a large asteroid, their railguns turning this way and that like curious geese as they scanned for targets, the blip on the radar completely vanished.

Heads up,” Baker muttered, “it's gone dark.”

Be ready, it was around this asteroid somewhere...”

They drifted slowly around the large, irregular hunk of rock, the scanners highlighting every contour on its pockmarked surface with a green wireframe. It was like orbiting a very small moon.

Picking up traces of methane,” Baker said, “something was definitely here. I'm gonna call it in.”

Contact! Contact!”

Something that looked like a cross between a gigantic roach and a shrimp climbed out of one of the many impact craters on several pairs of jointed legs. It was huge, at least as large as their fighters if not slightly larger, its segmented body encased within an iridescent shell that glittered in shades of blue and green. Its back was covered in ablative plates that looked like a suit of medieval armor, clearly artificial in nature, probably bolted onto its living body after the thing had matured.

The Betelgeusians used a combination of organic and artificial technology, and even their spaceships were living entities. There was no doubt a Bug pilot encased somewhere inside, its lanky body hooked directly into the craft's nervous system, surrounded on all sides by exposed meat as it drove the thing around like a puppet. Rather than viewports or a canopy, the craft had dozens of glistening, compound eyes that served as cameras for the occupant.

This one wasn't flying, it was walking along the surface of the asteroid, perhaps using modified landing gear as actual legs. There was a puff of dust, and a flare of green flame as the thing lifted off, tucking its many limbs beneath its body and pivoting to face its adversaries.

Its reaction speed was so quick that by the time the railguns began to fire, there were already bolts of crackling plasma hurtling towards the fighters. Beneath what could only be described as the bulbous head of the Bug ship were housed twin plasma cannons, lighting up its grotesque eyes and its jutting sensory antennae with flashes of green light as they unloaded at the enemy.

Jaeger took evasive action, the computer keeping the railgun locked onto the target even as his vessel rolled and tilted, the barrel as steady as a gyroscope. Keeping track of the different in-picture displays and camera views while the world spun around him would have been horribly disorienting, but this was what the pilots had trained for, frantic zero-G combat was their domain.

His vessel rocked as one of the high-velocity, magnetically-contained balls of green plasma splashed against his wing, arcing across its surface like electricity as the fighter's armor did its best to dissipate the heat and energy over a larger area. Still, the intensely hot plasma burned an ugly, black smear on the wing like someone had taken a giant cutting torch to it, the ferrite stealth coating slagging and melting away.

The barrel of the railgun rocked on its arm with every shot, rings of electromagnets sending tungsten slugs the size of beer bottles hurtling towards the target at a significant percentage of light speed. They were dumb-rounds, nothing more than pieces of shaped metal, but they impacted the asteroid like tiny meteors and blasted basketball-sized craters in the rock as they transferred their kinetic energy.

Everything was spinning. His fighter was spinning, the target was spinning, the asteroids around them were spinning. Jaeger's only point of reference was the indicator on his HUD that let him know which direction was up.

Contrary to popular belief, there was such a thing as up and down in space. The Galaxy was a flat disk with a swollen core, kind of like a celestial fried egg, except a hundred thousand light-years across. One's position could be calculated relative to it by mapping the visible stars, ensuring that UNN ships didn't end up at wildly different inclinations when they arrived in the same spot.

The thrusters flared as he righted himself, and he watched as Baker loosed one of his missiles, the projectile shooting puffs of gas from nozzles on its nose and tail to orient itself as it arced towards its target. The battle was close range, but in space, even close meant miles apart. The Bug ship moved to take evasive action, but it had taken some railgun hits, leaking what looked like pus or ichor from jagged tears in its hull as the jets of green flame down its right flank flickered.

There was a flash of light, and then all that was left of the Bug ship was a cloud of expanding debris, Jaeger zooming in on the fragments of torn flesh and bent metal as they flew apart. It looked like a smear on a windshield.

Splash one,” he heard Baker shout over the radio. “Looks like another notch on my belt, Bullseye. Are you even trying?”

He sounded out of breath, as was Jaeger. They were both rattled by the sudden appearance of this new enemy, but a little humor helped diffuse the tension.

Control this is Bullseye,” Jaeger said over the comms, “confirmed one bogey down. Kill goes to Scorch, as per usual. Where there's one Bug, more are never far, so I'd bet my wings that we've got more of them incoming. Please advise.”

Head back to the fleet, Bullseye. Redirecting Boomer and Scratcher to assist.”

He spun his fighter, aiming the nose back towards the edge of the asteroid field, preparing to gun the engine.

Let's get out of here, Baker. Make sure your flight assist is on, I don't want to be here any longer than necessary.”

Just like a game of billiards,” Baker chuckled, “except the goal is not to hit the other balls...”

Jaeger typed in a few commands on a touch screen that was mounted on his console, then watched as the flight computer calculated the most efficient path through the asteroids ahead of him, appearing on his HUD as a wireframe tube that snaked between the obstacles. He gripped the joysticks in his hands, his finger hovering over the throttle, excitement welling in his chest.

I'm keyed in,” Baker said. “This flight path is going to keep shifting, nothing in this cloud of shit is stationary.”

Wouldn't be any fun otherwise.”

Jaeger gave the throttle a short squeeze, his engine flaring as it propelled him forwards, crushing him into his padded seat. The computer couldn't fly the plane for him, but it could make small corrections and assist him with short bursts from the thrusters, the massive asteroids racing past as he accelerated. When he had gained enough speed, he coasted, using his thrusters to pitch and yaw, quick burns from the main engine helping him to change direction. It was like threading a needle in zero-G. He not only had to account for the usual pitch, roll, and yaw that one would have to contend with during atmospheric flight, but also lateral movements that were only possible in space.

He arced around the obstacles, his engine flashing almost imperceptibly, nozzles all over the chassis of the fighter blowing puffs of gas into space to keep him steady and to prevent him from drifting with minute corrections. A warning light flared on his HUD, and the computer highlighted an incoming piece of debris in red, along with its trajectory. Jaeger rolled the fighter with only seconds to spare, the chunk of rock zipping past his wing like a bullet, so close that he swore he could almost reach out and touch it.

The flight path was constantly shifting to account for the movements of the drifting asteroids, and it suddenly flickered as the computer tried to calculate a new route, a rock the size of a battleship blocking his way as it drifted into his path. It bumped a smaller rock out of its way like a celestial game of curling, the asteroid tumbling end over end as it headed straight for him. Jaeger wasted no time, pivoting so that his nose was facing directly upwards, watching the incoming obstacle through the cameras mounted on the underside of his fighter as he put his belly towards it. He gunned the engine, the vessel rising out of the asteroid's path, barreling through his exhaust trail like a rolling boulder.

Acting quickly, Jaeger engaged his forward thrusters. He shed his upward momentum and righted himself, even as the laws of physics carried him forwards. The flight path twitched for a moment and then became solid again, directing him through a narrow gap between two large bodies. He didn't have time to question it, trusting the computer's cold logic to see him through as he angled his nose towards the target, another controlled burn from his main engine sending him careening onwards.

Contacts on our six,” he heard Baker shout, his voice strained as he endured the wild acceleration.

Jaeger cursed, setting his railgun to point behind the fighter, an overlay showing the view from its camera in the corner of his visor. Multitasking was one thing, but maneuvering a craft traveling at a thousand knots through an asteroid field while also trying to shoot behind you was quite another.

He could make out Baker's fighter, tagged with his callsign as it followed behind, its flight computer sending it along a slightly different route. Behind it were three contacts, outlined in red as they burned towards the pair. More Bug ships, probably drawn by the carcass of their dead comrade. Their engines flared with green flame as they dodged and weaved through the debris, their compound eyes fixed on their prey.

One of them launched a torpedo that had been clasped in its legs, the grotesque limbs unfurling as the metallic tube rocketed towards Baker. He popped his flares, panels on the tail of his fighter opening like airbrakes to release a stream of decoys, bright balls of light trailing smoke behind them as they made a pattern that looked like the wings of an angel.

The torpedo veered towards them, then exploded into a bright ball of green light, the plasma contained within slagging the asteroids around it as it spread outwards in a crackling sphere. Baker stayed ahead of the energy wave, and the three Bug vessels appeared behind him as the cloud dissipated, the blast actually clearing the way for them.

One of them loosed a burst of plasma fire, trailing through space like tracer rounds, missing him by a hair as he evaded it.

God damn it,” Jaeger muttered under his breath. If he left Baker to fend for himself, he'd be toast. “Computer, safety off,” he said as he gripped the sticks and steeled himself for a high-G maneuver. A warning symbol flashed, confirming that the safety limits had been bypassed and that the fighter could now make maneuvers in excess of ten Gs. If he wasn't careful, he might black out, sending his craft smashing into an asteroid. If he lost control, the stresses could even liquefy his innards.

Hang on buddy, I'm coming for you,” he announced as he yanked the stick and hit the throttle. His fighter flipped upside-down on its axis, facing backwards towards the incoming Bug ships, the engine making the hull shake as he shed velocity. He was pressed deep into his seat, darkness eating at the corners of his vision. His suit tightened around his legs like a tourniquet, forcing more blood to his head to keep him conscious. He felt like he couldn't breathe, the icon on his HUD flashing orange and then red as it counted up. Six Gs, seven, eight, nine...

Finally, his vision began to clear, the pain in his chest abating as he focused his attention on the enemy fighters. He was now pointed directly at them, gaining speed as he roared towards them. The railgun tracked the targets, the reticle leading them as it calculated their positions. Jaeger squeezed the trigger, the weapon spewing tungsten slugs at the formation of fighters. He engaged his internal cannon too, a hatch to the left of his cockpit popping open, the twenty-five-millimeter gatling gun spooling for a second before it began to fire. It didn't have the velocity of a railgun, and it used conventional ammunition, but if he managed to land a hit, then it would do the job just as well. It sent an almost unbroken line of orange trails streaming towards the targets, more intended to scatter them than to actually disable them.

The Bugs broke their formation, shooting off in different directions as Jaeger dodged past a stray chunk of rock that had been displaced by the torpedo. His railgun tracked the nearest target, pivoting on its flexible arm to stay locked on, the Bug vessel shuddering as it took some hits. The high-velocity slugs tore straight through it like a hot knife through butter, the craft faltering and starting to drift as it lost control, crashing into a nearby asteroid and exploding into a flash of plasma and methane propellant.

One of them stayed on Baker, the second attempting to evade. Jaeger braced himself for another maneuver, a combination of his main engine and the thrusters on the underside of his fighter simulating banking as he turned, the Gs pressing down on him like there was an elephant standing on his shoulders. He tried to get a missile lock on the fleeing Bug ship, the railgun taking pot shots as it dodged and weaved through the asteroids. The computer finally managed to get a solid lock, and he thumbed the release, a missile flaring as it launched from beneath his wing and sped off into the distance.

It shadowed the escaping Bug, even as the giant insect rolled and twisted between the chunks of ice and rock, slowly gaining ground on the larger and less agile target. Once it was in range, the warhead exploded, sending out a spray of deadly shrapnel that eviscerated the Betelgeusian ship. It lost power, drifting away into the asteroid field as its engines sputtered and flickered, bodily fluids trailing behind it as they leaked from its perforated hull.

Could use a little help here,” he heard Baker say through gritted teeth, he sounded like he was in trouble.

Jaeger endured another tight turn, coming back around to target the remaining craft. It was still on Baker's tail, harrying him with volleys of plasma as the pair weaved between the asteroids, coming in and out of view. Baker's railgun was firing behind him, aiming between the fighter's twin tail fins. He scored a hit, Jaeger watching as the impact rocked the Bug vessel, ichor trailing from the wound. Still, the Bug pursued him relentlessly, Jaeger beginning to doubt that he could get into range of it in time to save his friend.

Just then, a twinkling beam of neon-green light appeared to spear the Bug ship. It was barely visible, ephemeral, glittering against the darkness of space. The metal armor of the organic craft melted like it was being burned by a cutting torch, glowing with heat as the sparkling beam seemed to sear through it. The beam held on the Bug ship until it penetrated deep enough to hit something flammable, the target exploding into a bright ball of fire, and then vanished as quickly as it had come.

Baker was clear, speeding away, and Jaeger scrutinized his display as he scanned the darkness for the source of the light. That had looked like someone flashing a laser pointer, could it be some kind of laser weapon? No ship in the fleet used such a device to his knowledge, their range made them useless at the distances that UNN ships usually engaged at. They would also scatter in an atmosphere, severely diminishing their lethality beyond a few feet.

Thanks for watching my back there, Bullseye, that was a hell of a shot.”

That wasn't me,” he replied, turning about and making for the edge of the asteroid field. As curious as he was, he didn't want to be sitting around scanning when more Bugs showed up.

If it wasn't you, then who was it?”

I don't know, it looked like some kind of laser.”

The radar was next to useless, it was impossible to distinguish ships from random pieces of rock. But if something had been firing off lasers, then it should show up on the thermal scans. He kept an eye on the display as he maneuvered between the asteroids, hoping that he could find something before he went out of range. There! A heat signature, the red blip appearing on his HUD. He turned his head and zoomed in on the area of space. He couldn't see anything, just blackness.

As he stared, there was a flurry of colored lights. They flashed in a wave, blues and purples moving from left to right like a neon sign outside a nightclub. It illuminated something metallic, a ship maybe, but it was so far away and so faint that he couldn't get a good idea of its size or shape.

What the hell is...”

He couldn't keep his eyes on it, he had to focus on the asteroids that were currently flying at his face. Hoping that the mysterious weapon didn't start firing at him too, he followed Baker to the edge of the Oort cloud. When they were clear of the asteroids, the reinforcements appeared, joining them in formation as they made their way back to the Rorke.

You guys took your sweet time,” Baker complained, “you missed the fight.”

Don't tell me that Bullseye actually hit something,” one of the other pilots said, it sounded like Boomer.

He saved my ass is what he did.”

This time I'm only about seventy-five percent responsible for saving Baker's ass,” Jaeger replied. “There was something out there, something I've never seen before.”

What are you talking about?” Boomer asked. “Some kind of new Bug design?”

Well, that too, yeah. But there was a ship out there, colorful, I don't know how to describe it. Something fired a laser weapon that destroyed the last Bug ship that was tailing Scorch, melted through it like a blowtorch. I saw the beam hold on it for a few seconds, and then it vanished. I picked up a thermal, but all I could see were these weird, flashing lights.”

Who uses laser weapons?” Scratcher asked skeptically.

Nobody that I know of,” Jaeger replied. “Maybe UNNI is testing something new out here?”

The Ninnies?” Baker added, “no way. If anything, a laser weapon sounds like a downgrade over what we already use.”

Maybe they found a new way to focus the lens or something?” Boomer suggested, but he didn't sound very convinced.

When we get back to the carrier, I'll see if my cameras picked anything up,” Jaeger said. “If I saw it, then something must have shown up on the video feed.”


You wanted to see me, Captain?” Jaeger asked, standing to attention as he stepped through the automatic door into the briefing room. Before him, Captain Fielding of the Rorke and several other high-ranking personnel were sat around a circular table, a hologram of the asteroid field projecting from its center. Fielding gestured for the pilot to be at ease, his hand gloved in the same pristine white as his uniform, Jaeger relaxing as he waited for further instructions. A few of the other attendants were also dressed in white, indicating that they were the captains of some of the support ships. Others were wearing the standard Navy blue, or the yellow of the engineering corps.

We've read your report concerning the incident in the Oort cloud, Lieutenant Jaeger,” Fielding began. “I wondered if you might give us a more...personal account of what you saw.”

Of course Captain,” he replied. He proceeded to go over the details of everything that he had seen in the asteroid field, the glittering green laser that had burned through the Bug vessel, the flashing colors in hues of blue and purple. When he was done, he glanced nervously around the table, hoping that they weren't about to ground him for a psych evaluation.

The Captain tapped at a touchpad that was embedded in the table, and then the hologram shifted, showing a three-dimensional image of one of the Bug ships.

Fortunately, your railgun's targeting optics were tracking the enemy vessel when the laser hit it,” Fielding said. “Watch closely.” He advanced the recording frame by frame, everyone leaning in as they concentrated on the flickering video. They gasped and muttered as the feed suddenly warped, corruption and digital artifacts tearing up the recording. “The green beam that you claim to have seen isn't visible on the camera. However, the light that it emitted seems to have damaged the recording. If we advance the footage, we can clearly see where it impacts the dorsal armor of the Betelgeusian fighter and begins to melt through”

He paused the video again, then zoomed in on a spot on the metallic armor. It was blurry and pixelated. The target had been far away, and the resolution wasn't great, but Jaeger could clearly make out an orange glow. The Captain advanced the video by another few frames, the armor slagging and becoming molten as the laser burned through it. A murmur passed around the table, a few of them glancing at Jaeger. They had probably been doubting his field report.

Chief Engineer Campbell, what can you tell us about this weapon?” the Captain asked as he gestured to a man wearing yellow overalls. The engineer stood, scrutinizing the still picture for a few more moments.

You said that the beam was green?” he asked, directing the question towards Jaeger who nodded in response. “In that case, my guess would be a very high wattage neodymium laser, continuous rather than pulsed it looks like. We use these lasers ourselves, mostly for medical purposes and for laser targeting equipment, but nothing this powerful.”

So we have this technology?” a man wearing blue who was sitting across from him asked.

Yes,” Campbell continued, “but it's not very effective as a weapon. Lasers have some value for point defense applications, but generally speaking, the range at which most fleet engagements take place renders them next to useless for offensive purposes. The problem with lasers is that they tend to scatter, the beam is dispersed as it passes through a medium and encounters microscopic particles. Let's say you fire a laser beam in an atmosphere, every droplet of water and mote of dust that it encounters is going to refract the light, which dramatically reduces the amount of photons that actually reach their target. That results in a huge damage falloff, and even in the vacuum of space, there's plenty of gas and dust particles that can interrupt the beam. That's the only reason that a laser beam is ever visible, because of scattered light that's being flung out of the beam by collisions. One solution is to increase the power of the laser so that even with scattering, the light that reaches the target is still enough to be lethal. But as the range and the density of the medium increases, so too do the power requirements. It's just not an efficient weapon.”

This one seems to be working pretty well,” the man added.

It's probably wasting an enormous amount of energy,” the engineer shot back.

If I could have your attention again, gentlemen?” Fielding asked. He moved his hand back to the touch screen, the display shifting once more. Jaeger recognized this new recording as the view from his helmet, looking back over his shoulder as he zoomed in on the area of space where he had picked up the heat signature. He waited with bated breath for the flash of purple light, hoping against hope that it had been in a spectrum that the cameras could capture, unlike the laser beam.

It was faint, barely larger than a fingernail at such extreme range, but the flurry of colored lights was clearly visible.

What the hell is that?” Campbell asked. “Can you enhance it, Captain?”

Fielding blew up the picture, and again the low resolution meant that the resulting image was blurry and pixelated, then he paused the footage as the blue light appeared. It was illuminating the hull of the ship around it, not by much, but enough to make out a vague shape. He played the video in slow motion, a light like a strobe moving from left to right in a wave, passing through different hues of azure and magenta.

Captain, if I may?” Campbell asked. Fielding nodded, stepping away from the touchpad as the engineer took his place. “If we can take snapshots of the footage and overlay them,” he began, “then we should be able to...”

Jaeger watched as Campbell manipulated the footage, taking screenshots and overlaying them one on top of the other as the wave of light passed along the side of the vessel. What resulted was a single view with the entire band illuminated, along with the rough outline of the ship itself, the light reflecting off the hull.

What kind of ship is that?” one of the other captains mused, leaning across the table to get a closer look.

I've never seen anything like it,” Campbell replied. “The UNN has no ships with a hull shaped like that to my knowledge.”

It was seen side-on, and so the exact composition of the wings was uncertain, but the shape of the hull was unlike anything that Jaeger had seen before. It was curved and smooth, almost teardrop-shaped, while UNN ships of that size were usually blockier and more angular. He couldn't make out any details beyond the vague outline, and the light seemed to be emitted by some kind of panel that was mounted along the flank of the vessel. Why would a ship have a need for something like that? Decoration? Communication?

What's the name of this system again?” the Captain asked, “I can never remember these damned numbers...”

We're currently on the outskirts of HD-217107, roughly sixty-four light-years from Earth,” one of the men sitting at the table volunteered.

Out in the sticks,” Fielding grumbled. “Coalition space is a bubble about a hundred light years across, and we're right on the edge of it. Has this system been surveyed for habitable planets?” He looked around the table as he waited for a reply, but nobody had an answer for him. Instead, he hunched over his touch screen, spending a minute or two digging through files. “Ah, here we are,” he said as he stood up straight again. “Two gas giants detected, no terrestrial planets.”

It's possible that the astronomers missed something,” Campbell suggested. “At this range, most planets are detected using transit photometry, measuring the light of a star to see if a planet passes in front of it. Usually, when they detect something the size of a terrestrial planet, they send a survey vessel to check it out. If they only picked up gas giants here, and no rocky planets, then they probably struck it off as a potential colony system.”

Or that these guys are from another system entirely,” one of the captains added. “Should we enact first contact protocols?”

Fielding considered for a moment. First contact protocols affected the entire fleet, it wasn't an order to be given lightly. When operating in what might well be alien territory, measures had to be taken to avoid potential misunderstandings and confrontations. The last thing they needed was a war on two fronts. That said, the Betelgeusians were also in the system, and getting shot out of the sky by some weird variation of Bug ship because you couldn't get a positive ID on it wasn't much better.

I don't think we have a choice,” he finally replied. “Enact first contact protocols across the fleet. Let's hope that this goes better than first contact with the Borealans...”

Jaeger looked about the table, everyone seemed just as nervous as he currently felt. First contact protocols meant that nobody could fire at an unidentified vessel unless they were first fired upon. If hostile action was taken against UNN ships, such as a shot across the bow or a target lock, then they were expected to give way and retreat to a safe distance. Absolutely no aggressive measures were to be taken against alien ships unless they were confirmed hostile. The problem was that if someone shot at you, you might not get the chance to shoot back. Jaeger also knew that they would have to watch that fucking video again...

You're all dismissed,” Fielding said, the hologram flickering off as he left the table. “Get back to your respective vessels and spread the word, FCP is in full effect. I don't want a single round fired unless you can get a positive ID on a Bug ship, and by positive I mean ironclad. There's a good chance that we're trespassing in someone else's airspace right now.”

There was a chorus of affirmations, and then everyone began to file out of the room. Fielding stopped beside Jaeger as he passed by, placing a gloved hand on his shoulder.

I want your squadron out on another patrol as soon as your fighters are spaceworthy again,” he said. “If we got a look at them, then these aliens have probably gotten a good look at you too, which means they'll likely recognize an FS-26 the next time they see one. If they're out here hunting Bugs the same as we are, then we might have a potential ally here. Make sure the next time you boys meet one, everything goes down smoothly.”

Yes Sir,” Jaeger replied with a salute.


The sound of chair legs squealing against the deck was deafening as Jaeger took a seat beside Scratcher, Baker sitting down next to him as they joined the other three hundred or so crew members who were waiting for the presentation to begin. The mess hall had been cleared, all of the tables had been pushed out of the way, and someone had brought in a projector that had been set up at the front of the expansive room. Above their heads was a maze of criss-crossing pipes, wires, and air ducts that reminded Jaeger that he was in a giant tin can. As large as the carrier was, over a thousand feet long and with a mass of a hundred thousand tons, it somehow still managed to feel cramped. Along with the hangar, the mess was one of the largest rooms on the vessel. As many people as there were crammed inside it, this was only a tiny fraction of the six thousand strong crew compliment, the others would be cycled in and out as their duties allowed for it. Jaeger could see blue and yellow uniforms, humans and towering Krell, even a handful of feline Borealans who looked even more surly than usual.

The sound of a hundred muttered conversations died down as an executive officer walked in and stood to attention before them.

Quiet down! As many of you know, Captain Fielding has enacted first contact protocols. This isn't a situation that any of us expected to be in, but it's crucial that every single one of you understands exactly what it means, and what your responsibilities are.”

He gave the pack of six Borealans a pointed look, their furry ears twitching with irritation. The aliens didn't make good pilots, but they were formidable shock troopers, boasting superhuman strength and resilience. They had claws like meat hooks on their fingers, their eight-foot frames cloaked in fuzzy fur and muscle, old scars visible on their faces and exposed forearms. There were always mad cats on carriers, just in case they were tasked with boarding an enemy ship or leading a landing party. They were about as sociable and as well adjusted as their appearance suggested.

Now you're all going to watch the video,” he continued, a groan passing through the crowd of personnel. “Don't give me that, I know half of you have probably forgotten most of this shit by now. Pay attention, and let's all do our best to avoid accidentally starting an interstellar war, shall we?”

He stepped aside and took a seat at the front, examining the touchpad that he was holding for a moment before pressing a button on it. The projector came to life, a device about the size and shape of an ammo crate projecting a hologram into the air above it, filling the available space. The image quality didn't even come close to that of an actual monitor, it was washed out and slightly transparent, but it was big enough that everyone in the room could see it clearly. There was a hiss as the built-in speakers came online, and then the fuzzy cloud of colors took shape, the giant image of a man in a blue uniform shown from the chest-up appearing before them. There was a line of white text superimposed across the center of the picture, First Contact: What You Need to Know.

The Galaxy is a big place,” the presenter began, the camera zooming out to follow him as he strolled across a terrible bridge set with a shit-eating grin on his face. “Nobody truly knows what lies out there beyond the stars,” he continued as he leaned on a nearby console, actors playing the roles of bridge crew randomly pushing buttons behind him. “But we can take a few simple precautions to ensure that if we do come across something alien and unknown, we can minimize the potential risks.”

Sir,” one of the women who was manning a flimsy approximation of a comms station began, “we're picking up an unknown vessel in the system!”

An unknown ship,” the presenter continued as he addressed the audience, pausing for dramatic effect. “We need FCP, first contact protocols!”

But what are first contact protocols?” another of the phony bridge crew asked, walking in awkwardly from out of frame and eliciting stifled laughter from the room.

I'm glad you asked,” the presenter replied, “FCP is something that we all need to understand when operating in uncharted space. There are more stars in the Galaxy than there are grains of sand on every one of Earth's beaches combined.”

That's a lot of stars!” the crewman added, his stilted performance causing another wave of snickering to pass through the mess hall.

Indeed it is. Around each one of those stars, there might be planets, planets which might harbor complex life. Odds are that there are thousands, even tens of thousands of advanced civilizations in our own backyard, and the further we venture into space, the more the odds of us encountering them increase. They might be friendly, like our allies the Krell.”

A still image of a Krell appeared on the hologram, the giant reptile sharing an Olympic swimming pool with its human neighbors, cruising along one of the lanes with only its snout and the hump of its armored back protruding from the water like a giant crocodile. One of the Krell in the audience rumbled happily, the sound making Jaeger's bones vibrate. Whether he appreciated the positive portrayal of his race, or if he just recognized that there was another Krell on the display was unclear.

Or...they might not be so friendly.”

This time a picture of a Betelgeusian drone appeared on the display, a bipedal insect about five feet in height, its vaguely humanoid body sheathed in a tough exoskeleton that shone in iridescent hues of blue and green. It had two pairs of arms, the upper pair longer and thicker than the secondary pair, which protruded from about where the ribs would have been on a person. Its thorax seemed to be split into two bulging segments, and there was layered armor covering all of its joints, whether artificial or natural in origin was hard to tell. The face was almost featureless, the head round and smooth. It had two large, compound eyes that glittered in the light, and a set of cutting mandibles where the mouth would have been. Sprouting from its forehead was an ornate antler or horn, branching off almost like the limbs of a tree.

Nobody needed to be reminded why the Coalition wasn't on friendly terms with the Betelgeusians, the alliance had been assembled for the sole purpose of stopping their incursions into civilized systems.

The most important task when interacting with an unknown species is to avoid confrontation,” the presenter said, turning to the comms operator again as if anticipating her next line.

The unidentified vessel is locking onto us!” she exclaimed, “take evasive action!”

Delay that order,” the presenter said with a dramatic wave of his hand, turning back towards the audience once again. “Locking might not be a hostile action, they may simply be targeting us with their sensors in an effort to find out what we are. Always keep in mind that in their neck of the woods, it's we who are the aliens. Always err on the side of caution, and don't assume hostile intent without good reason.”

Their weapons are powering up, they're bringing their forward guns into range!” the operator continued.

Don't act rashly!” the presenter warned. “Territorial behavior is a natural response in this situation, after all, how would you like it if someone came into your home uninvited? If the aliens show signs of aggression, back down, deescalate the situation. Let them know that you didn't travel across the stars to start a fight with them. If you must retreat, then retreat. The only circumstance that permits you to fire on an unidentified vessel while FPC is active is if you are being actively engaged. Always remember the three Ds,” he added as the words scrolled across the shot one by one. “Deescalate, diffuse, disengage.”

The vessel is signaling us,” the comms officer said, and what followed was a distorted voice listing off nonsense words that were intended to represent an alien transmission. The presenter started to speak again, pointing to his ear.

Communicating with an unknown species will be difficult, and it may even be impossible. What if they see in different wavelengths of light than we do, what if they hear at different frequencies? What if they're entirely deaf, and they communicate only through pheromones? They may be incapable of speech, or their concept of communication may have no equivalent in our experience. They won't understand common gestures and non-verbal communication either. Shaking your head to indicate no or waving as a greeting might seem self-explanatory to you, but it won't be to them! It might even frighten or startle them, so try not to make any sudden moves or violent gestures.”

They want to come aboard, Sir,” the woman added. “What should we do?”

If you manage to reach this stage, it will likely be under the supervision of your ship's captain, but let's assume for the sake of this demonstration that you have to make these decisions yourselves. Perhaps you're exploring an uncharted planet, and you've encountered sentient natives...”

The bridge set vanished as the video cut to a forest scene, clearly not an alien jungle, but a national park on Earth. A group of Marines in black combat armor walked into the flat shot from the right, the leader holding up his fist and indicating for the rest to stop. From the trees to the left emerged what looked like a B-movie alien, or something from a low-budget TV show. It held its arms out in front of it as it took exaggerated steps towards the soldiers, the mess hall erupting with laughter. The XO stood and turned to look back at them angrily, putting his finger to his lips as he gestured for the crew to be quiet.

One of the Marines raised his rifle and pointed it at the creature, but then the presenter appeared once again, leaping out from the background with almost comedic timing and standing between the two.

Stop! Just like in space, never assume that actions are hostile without good reason. If an alien attempts to invade your personal space, back away. If you can't back away, push it back gently and make it obvious that you don't want to be touched. Remember the three Ds,” the presenter repeated as he held up three fingers and counted off. “Deescalate, diffuse, disengage.”

The Marine demonstrated, letting his rifle hang from its sling as the monster approached. He placed his hand on the alien's chest, the other resting on his sidearm holster, gently pushing it back. After a couple of pushes, the pretend alien got the picture, keeping its distance. Jaeger tried to imagine someone trying that maneuver with a Borealan, they'd probably lose the arm...

If the alien becomes hostile, retreat if you're reasonably able to do so, and avoid responding with violence. You're on his turf, keep that in mind.”

The fictional alien advanced, waving its arms aggressively, and the squad of Marines began to retreat as they kept their rifles trained on it.

As UNN personnel, you are representing your entire species, so do your best to make that first impression a good one!”

The forest scene faded out, and this time it was replaced with a wall of text listing off regulations and rules of engagement.

Now we will review the rules of engagement and the clauses of the UN charter,” the disembodied voice of the presenter said. Another wave of groaning passed through the room, this time the XO was the only one who was laughing to himself.


I thought that fucking video would never end,” Baker groaned, walking beside Jaeger as they filed out of the mess hall along with the other personnel.

I see why they like to show it to us,” Jaeger said, dodging around a passing engineer who was hurrying off in the other direction along the cramped corridor. “ROE generally goes out the window when you're fighting Bugs. They don't surrender, they don't have anything like the Geneva Conventions, they don't shy away from using chemical and biological weapons. I guess some of the guys need a refresher, reminds them that there are supposed to be rules in war, even if they're only on paper most of the time.”

Some Bugs surrender,” Baker replied with a shrug. “You hear about what happened on Jarilo?”

Oh yeah. They caught a colony early, and the roaches gave up, right?”

That's what I heard, yeah. Don't know the details, it's all been very hush-hush. But of course, rumor gets around.”

Well, I've never heard of a Bug giving up. A drinking buddy of mine who's in the Marines told me that when he was deployed on Kruger III, he found a Bug on the battlefield after a CAS run that had been ripped in half at the waist. The main guns on those Penguins just chew up infantry. The thing had one arm left, and it was still trying to fire at him with a plasma pistol. They're not even sentient I don't think, no more than an ant or a termite.”

So the brass really thinks we'll be meetin' aliens?” Baker asked skeptically, “I mean...even you ain't sure what you saw out there.”

I know that I saw something, I'm just not sure what it was. Seems like they're serious about it though, this FCP shit is nothing to joke about, it really fucks us over. You know how fast Bugs react, sometimes the element of surprise is all you have. If you waste it scanning them, they're going to spin around and drill you a few new exhaust ports.”

The carrier was cavernous, the winding corridors and packed rooms stretching for literally miles. It was like being inside a giant submarine, and as huge as it was, everything still managed to feel claustrophobic. It was large enough that the bigger aliens like the Krell and the Borealans could get around. The ceilings were high enough that they didn't have to duck too low to avoid hitting their heads on pipes, and the passageways were wide enough that they could pass one another, but only barely. The Rorke was so large, and the crew were often stationed on it for so long, that it even had its own general store where they could buy things like snacks and drinks. Jaeger made a beeline for it, turning corners and passing innumerable side rooms. Every few feet there was a pressure door, intended to seal shut in the event of a decompression to prevent the whole ship from blowing all of its atmosphere into space. There were almost no bare surfaces in sight. The deck was covered in panels that opened up to grant access to internal systems, snaking wires and pipes decorated the walls and ceiling, miscellaneous electronics clinging to every available surface.

Jaeger hated it, it was like a giant, flying coffin. Yet it was the only way to see action as a fighter pilot. He had to endure the weeks or months of boredom and claustrophobia, just for those few hours of freedom. There was nothing like it, zipping through the emptiness at speeds that only a bullet could reach in atmosphere, with only his ship and his wits to rely on.

They came to a stop beside the line that had formed outside the store, Jaeger rummaging in his pocket for his tablet computer. He turned the handheld device on and tapped at the wafer-thin screen for a few moments, checking his account. When you were a dozen light years out from any civilized planet, you couldn't exactly access your bank account, and so the crew deposited their money into a Navy credit account for use during their deployment. He still had a fair amount left, he'd have to remember to top it up again next time they were in port. It would likely be several months yet. He couldn't imagine surviving one of these tours without enough sugar and nicotine to knock out a Polar.

So what did they talk about in that meeting they dragged you off to?” Baker asked, leaning against the bulkhead with his hands in the pockets of his jumpsuit as he made small talk. “Or is it all classified?”

They just wanted to hear my report in person,” Jaeger explained, keeping his eyes on his tablet as he thumbed through the messages. There was no internet connection on the carrier either. Even at the speed of light, a signal from the nearest inhabited planet would have taken decades to reach them this far out, but the vessel had an intranet that allowed the crew to communicate and access media.

It's been five or six years since we made contact with the Borealans, right?” Baker continued. “And before that, it was about twenty-five years since we met the Bugs and the Krell.”

And the Brokers,” Jaeger added.

Yeah, right. So that's...what? Four alien species in thirty years? Doesn't that seem too low? Think about all the explorin' we've done since then, we've traveled about a hundred light-years from Earth in every direction and we ain't seen shit for years. Where's everyone hidin'? Didn't the guy in the video say that there were probably tens of thousands of sentient species in the galaxy?”

I mean, we've found life,” Jaeger added with a shrug.

Yeah, animals and moss and shit like that. Fish and bacteria, nothing smart.”

The galaxy is a big place, I guess everyone is just spaced really far apart. That or the Bugs got to them before we did. We first encountered them at Betelgeuse, but nobody knows where they really come from. They could have colonized half the Galaxy for all we know.”

Well I hope we meet some more aliens,” Baker grumbled, pulling his hand out of his pocket and idly scratching his nose. “I want to be there, y'know? I was one year old when we joined the Coalition, I had only just joined the Navy when we met the mad cats. It's a once in a lifetime thing, I want to see it happen.”

Careful what you wish for,” Jaeger muttered, looking up from his tablet. “There's no guarantee that they'll be friendly.”

Well they saved my ass, didn't they?”

Yeah, but that might not be because they're on our side, they might just hate the Bugs more than they're worried about us.”

The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Baker stated confidently.

You know that the guy who came up that saying was assassinated, right?”


So how do we find a needle in a haystack?” Boomer asked, Jaeger glancing out of his canopy at the formation of three fighters that were lined up beside him. The dim glow from the nearby star reflected off their angular, stealthy hulls, like black glass when they caught the light. Only their canopies were illuminated, the glow of control panels and readouts lighting up the tiny pilots like someone holding a torch beneath their face while telling ghost stories around a campfire.

They had been tasked with scouring the Oort cloud for more Bugs, the Beewolf fighters small and light enough to cover a decent amount of ground. Pretty much every bird was in the air, split into groups of four and tasked with searching for contacts amongst the asteroids. They were skirting the wall of ice and rock right now, running long-range scans to pick up thermal radiation or any strange emissions.

We got lucky last time,” Jaeger said, “we have a vague idea of where they might be hiding. Those fighters that we encountered were short-range, which means there's a hive ship somewhere nearby. Find the hive ship, kill it, and we kill the Bug fleet. They can't operate without it.”

When Bug fleets took to the stars to colonize a new planet, as was part of their life cycle, they did so in one or more hive ships that were roughly equivalent to a carrier. The massive organic ships were not only used to transport other vessels and personnel, but also the crucial supplies necessary for founding a new colony. A hive fleet was both dangerous and vulnerable at the same time. It was the stage of their life cycle when the Bugs were at their most aggressive, but at the same time, they were at their most exposed. Kill enough of the hive ships, and you would negate their ability to found a successful colony.

Unless they've already colonized the inner planets and there are a billion of 'em further in-system,” Baker muttered.

Not likely,” Jaeger said, “there'd be a lot more activity if that were the case. Besides, I heard that there aren't any habitable planets in this system, only a couple of gas giants.”

Doesn't mean they can't colonize the moons.”

That isn't our problem right now,” Scratcher chimed in, “just keep your eyes on your sensors. If we pick up anything bigger than a fighter, we're supposed to call in backup. And make sure you get a positive ID on it before you call in the whole fleet.”

Yeah, y'all remember your three Ds,” Baker scoffed. “Be nice to the aliens.”

I prefer double-Ds,” Boomer added.

That's Scratcher's line,” Baker chuckled. “Remember the cans on that Borealan he got caught with? Bigger'n his head, they were.”

Scratcher's voice came through on the radio, attempting to talk over their laughter.

Alright, alright. Keep your heads in the game, guys.”

The chatter quietened down for a while, but there wasn't much to do or see out here, the sky was pitch black save for the twinkling of the far off stars. Contrary to popular belief, many of the beautiful nebulae and clouds of colorful gas that people imagined when they thought of space weren't in the visible spectrum. They might be seen through telescopes and other such devices, but not with the naked eye. To their left, the infinite wall of rocks passed them by. They were traveling at immense speed, and it was hard to get a frame of reference without checking the counter on the console.

After maybe an hour of cruising, Jaeger picked something up on his scope, a heat blip somewhere in the asteroids.

Eyes up people,” he called out, alerting his companions. “Picking something up on the infrared band. Something out there is kicking out a lot of heat.”

I got it,” Baker added, “it's hotter than the fighter we found yesterday.”

Peel off and spread out,” Jaeger said, “we're going in for a closer look.”

He gripped the stick, hitting the forward thrusters to shed velocity, straining against the straps that kept him secured to his seat. His squadron did the same, the thrusters on their bellies flaring and their engines burning brightly as they banked towards the asteroids one by one. They maintained formation, but they put some distance between the fighters, making themselves more difficult targets. Jaeger joined them, every change in velocity causing G-forces to tear at his body. He watched the small map in the bottom left of his visor that showed the locations of the other fighters relative to him, along with the red blip that they were now racing towards. The amount of heat either meant that whatever it was had been burning hard, or it was larger than what they had encountered the last time...

Remember, don't take any hostile actions until you can confirm that it's a Bug ship,” Scratcher said. His voice sounded strained, they were still shedding velocity as they neared the cloud. “Or if it starts fucking shooting at you, either way.”

They aren't going to give us the same courtesy,” Jaeger warned, “be careful.”

The loose formation of fighters slowed enough that the asteroids were navigable, each vessel making tiny adjustments with bursts of gas from their thrusters as they avoided the debris, perpetually rolling and dodging as they advanced deeper. It was enough of a challenge to keep from crashing without having to keep their eyes out for the enemy too.

Can we extend our railguns?” Boomer asked, “is that considered aggressive?”

Fuck that,” Baker replied, “I'm goin' hot.”

Alright, but don't point it at anything until we get a positive ID,” Jaeger said as he flipped the guard on his trigger. There was a rumbling sensation that reverberated through his boots as the hatch on the back of his ship opened, and the railgun arm extended, the targeting reticle appearing on his HUD.

Fuck!” Baker exclaimed, Jaeger's heart racing as he looked around for where the attack was coming from. “Fucking rock bounced off my wing,” he added.

You asshole, Baker,” Jaeger complained. “Maintain radio silence unless you see something.”

This time the heat signature wasn't fading, and the four fighters slowly maneuvered through the asteroids as they neared the source. One of the larger rocks slowly rotated amidst the cloud of debris, it must have been a few kilometers wide, jagged and pockmarked from a millennia of collisions. Jaeger pointed his scanners at it, watching as his computer drew a wireframe image of the object and overlaid it on top. The desire to target his railgun was strong, instinctual, he had to make a conscious effort to keep his finger away from the trigger as he scoured the surface of the rock for activity.

There! Got something,” Scratcher announced. “Feeding you video.”

Scratcher's ship was out of view, but he must have a clear line of sight, because Jaeger began to receive a video feed that appeared in a window in the top right of his HUD. It showed a grainy image of a rocky outcrop, what little light that actually made it from the system's star casting it into stark shadow. It was hard to get an idea of the size with no point of reference and no atmospheric haze, it could have been the size of a snowdrift or a mountain.

I'm gonna shine my floodlight on it,” Scratcher said, and then the feed was lit up by a bright light. It looked like there was ice beneath the outcrop, reflecting in the camera, but there was something else there too. Lodged beneath the lip of rock like an insect hiding beneath a log was...a thing. It had a long, segmented body like a mantis shrimp or a lobster, tapering into a kind of thick tail. The armor was shiny and iridescent, hues of red and orange illuminated by the beam. Beneath it were dozens of insectoid legs of varying lengths, anchoring it to the dusty surface of the asteroid, the ones towards the bulbous front of its body longer and covered in what looked like large hooks. Each segment of its long tail had strange bulges protruding from it, two on each one for a total of maybe ten, a glint of metal reflecting off them. It didn't really have a defined head, but there was a bundle of what looked like wiry antennae and compound eyes hidden beneath the lip of its shell, twitching and shifting as Scratcher's floodlight disturbed it.

They didn't need to scan the thing to know that it was of Bug origin, and the video feed showed Scratcher's guns firing as he began to pull back. Jaeger was already checking his position on the map, spinning his Beewolf's nose towards his friend and gunning the engine. Acceleration crushed him against the padding of his seat as he opened his gun port and armed his missiles.

The flashes of gunfire and the orange bloom of explosions appeared in the distance, Jaeger decelerating so as not to overshoot, the G-forces buffeting him in his cockpit like he was riding a mechanical bull. Slowing down went against his every instinct, but in space, you didn't shed velocity once you eased off the throttle, you just kept going. He gritted his teeth, swinging his vessel to face the enemy as he drifted sideways, the computer doing its best to compensate with bursts from the thrusters.

The thing was huge, far larger than it had appeared on the video. Compared to Scratcher's tiny fighter, it looked to be about as big as a frigate, at least a hundred and fifty meters long. The little speck was retreating as the monster rose from its hiding place like a Kraken, spraying it with lines of glowing tracer fire that ricocheted off its armored hull and peppering it with missiles. Jaeger joined the fight, locking on with his railgun and unloading into the massive target, relying on the computer to handle targeting as he focused on positioning. The two other fighters soon came into range, but it was immediately apparent that they lacked the firepower to take this monster on.

Don't waste your missiles!” Scratcher said, “it's too big. We need to call in backup!”

What do we have that can kill this thing?” Baker asked. “Torpedo boat?”

I'm calling it in,” Jaeger said, switching channels hurriedly. “Mayday, mayday. This is Bullseye, come in control.”

This is control,” a woman's voice crackled in his ear, “report.”

Have encountered a large Bug vessel hiding in the belt, too big for us to deal with. We need immediate support, this thing is the size of a frigate.”

Roger that, Bullseye, please hold.”

Please hold? Easier said than done, he thought, watching as one of the creature's long forelimbs swiped at Scratcher. The Beewolf dodged out of the way, lines of thrusters flaring along the sides of the Bug vessel's segmented body like green candles as it rose higher from the surface of the asteroid, its many legs tucking beneath its body.

Come in Bullseye,” control said.

Bullseye here, go ahead.”

Redirecting the UNN Baskeyfield to your position, stand by.”

The Baskeyfield, that was one of their torpedo frigates, it should be able to get the job done. They just had to hold out long enough for backup to arrive. Its engines were far larger and more powerful than those of the Beewolfs, resulting in a much higher top speed, but it had a lot more tonnage to move around. It would take longer to both accelerate and decelerate.

Can I get an ETA on that, control?”

Ten or fifteen minutes, Bullseye.”

Frigate is on the way in fifteen, guys,” he said as he switched channels. “Let's try and draw it out of the asteroids so that the torpedoes can get a lock on it.”

Watch the reach on its arms,” Scratcher said, grunting as he accelerated away from the biological spaceship. It flicked out one of its massive forelimbs again like a praying mantis, the barbs that lined it as long as a person was tall. It looked slow, but that was an illusion due to its size, Scratcher only just getting out of range of it as the limb missed him by a hair. Its spindly antennae twitched, its wet, glistening eyes shifting independently of one another as it tracked the different fighters. Didn't it have missiles, plasma guns, projectile weapons of any kind? What was its purpose? Did it fill some kind of non-combat role, like harvesting ice or other raw materials to take back to the hive ship?

Everyone kept their distance, backing off as the thing chased them, moving sluggishly through the asteroids due to its immense size. It was large enough that it could just knock any rock smaller than itself out of the way, pushing them aside with its limbs and letting them bounce off its tough shell. Unlike the hull of a traditional spaceship, the Bug's body was organic and flexible, which gave it an advantage in this kind of environment.

The cannons ain't doing shit, keep hittin' it with the railguns,” Baker said. The carapace might be too thick for the conventional ammo to penetrate, but the tungsten slugs from the railguns were definitely getting through. They might get lucky and hit the pilot, or an internal organ, or whatever the hell was lurking beneath that shiny shell.

One would expect shouting and panic in the heat of battle, but everyone stayed remarkably calm. There was something impersonal about space combat, the distances involved, the relative tranquility of the sealed cockpit in which the only sound to be heard was that of your own instruments.

Keep pulling back,” Scratcher said. “If we can lure him into open space, then he'll be vulnerable.”

The fleshy humps along its segmented back and tail began to wriggle, the movements immediately drawing Jaeger's eye.

Somethin' weird is happening,” Baker exclaimed, “look at it's back!”

He watched in horror as something living crawled out of one of the humps. Segmented legs gripped the shell of the creature, pulling its bulbous body out from beneath a fleshy hood, like a maggot emerging from a wound. It was one of the fighters that they had encountered the day before, its carapace lined with metal armor, its compound eyes reflecting the light. It looked like it had been living inside the hump on the larger vessel's back, like some kind of parasite.

It's some sort of carrier!” Jaeger exclaimed, “there must be ten of them on its back! Break off!”

More of the insectoid fighters pulled themselves from their organic hangars. Each one had a differently colored hull, birthed into space along with gas and fluids that froze into sparkling, crystalline clouds. Had they been refueling? Feeding on the larger vessel in the same way that a ship might siphon chemical fuel from a tanker?

Flashes of green light reflected on the curved carapace of the carrier as they blasted off, angling themselves towards the Beewolfs, their spindly legs tucking beneath their bellies and their glittering eyes fixed on their targets.

Chaos ensued, the Bug fighters scattering in all directions as they made for the Beewolfs, the human vessels scrambling as bursts of glowing plasma fire and tracer rounds lit up the darkness. Missiles left chemical trails in the sky as they burned towards their targets, impacting on rocks or exploding the Bugs into clouds of shattered carapace and organic mush, bright flares shooting out in mesmerizing patterns as the UNN ships took evasive action.

Jaeger veered off, disabling his safety limits as he burned away from the melee. His railgun continued to the track the enemy vessels, rotating and twisting on its arm as the Beewolf dodged and rolled.

Three of the Bugs had taken an interest in him, their plasma fire splashing against the rocks nearby like globs of acid, the not-quite-gas and not-quite-liquid melting into the stone like hot magma. One of them released a torpedo that sought him out like a bloodhound, perhaps attracted to heat or the smell of his engines, tiny eyes and protruding antennae clumped around the front of the metallic tube where the guidance system would have been on a human-made missile.

Jaeger flipped his vessel so that the nose was pointing upwards and slightly back, his engine flaring as he changed direction, the violent G-forces making his vision go grey as his flight suit constricted around his legs to prevent his blood from pooling there. His fighter rose in an upward arc, panels opening on the rear of his chassis to release a payload of glowing flares that spewed forth in a wing-like pattern. The Bug torpedo seemed drawn to them, veering off-course and slamming into a nearby asteroid, the rock crumbling and breaking apart as the missile exploded in a plume of green plasma.

Eight Gs, nine Gs, his HUD blinked a red warning symbol as it counted up and up. He had to ride that infinitely fine line between two deaths, blacking out and slamming into an asteroid, or burning up at the hands of the Bugs. It was like walking a tightrope over a bottomless chasm, as thin as a hair, the limitations of both his spacecraft and his own body guiding him.

As he leveled out, his vision cleared long enough to see his upside-down railgun score a hit on one of the pursuing vessels. The hail of slugs drilled through its forward sensor bank, as much of a head as a living spaceship could possess, the craft immediately losing coordination and beginning to drift.

Jaeger glanced across the battlefield at his comrades, just long enough to see the giant, shrimp-like carrier flick one of its arms out like a hatchet. It was aiming for Boomer's fighter, his callsign tagged on Jaeger's HUD, his vessel flying backwards as it fired its twenty-five-millimeter cannon at a pursuing Bug. He was too focused on the fight to see it, and before Jaeger could even speak a word of warning, the fifty-foot long limb cleaved his ship in half. It came down like a woodsman's axe, the sharp barbs that lined the forelimb tearing through the metal hull like it was made of paper, splitting it into two clean pieces. The half with the cockpit tumbled as it flew away, momentum carrying it off into the asteroid field, coolant and fuel spewing from the ruined airframe like dark blood.

I'm hit!” Boomer's distorted voice came through on the radio, Jaeger could hear his rapid breathing in the confines of his helmet. “I'm spinning!”

His radio transmission fizzled out, there wasn't anything that Jaeger could do for him right now. They would have to send out a search party once the fighting was over and hope that he hadn't smashed into an asteroid. His suit would be able to keep him alive for a few hours at least, if it wasn't breached or damaged. Dwelling on it would do no good, Jaeger cleared his mind and focused on the task at hand.

Pull back!” he ordered, “we're going to get overrun if we don't make it into open space!”

It was a fighting retreat, the vessels aiming their railguns behind them to lay down covering fire as they popped flares and pushed themselves to the limit. The G-forces threatened to make them black out as they dodged and rolled, using the asteroids as cover to avoid the volleys of plasma fire that followed after them. The Beewolfs were faster than the Bug fighters, but the Bugs were more maneuverable, their tolerances for the extreme Gs far higher than that of any human. They could endure harder accelerations, more sudden changes in velocity, things that would have turned a human to pulp in his suit. The carrier lagged behind, but it was slowly accelerating, knocking the asteroids aside like bowling pins as the lines of engines along its flanks propelled it forward on jets of green flame.

The flight computer couldn't calculate a safe route through the debris with all the dodging and weaving that Jaeger had to do to shake off the Bugs that were on his tail, and so he had to trust his instincts, relying on split-second reactions and raw gut feeling to navigate. There were still two Bugs locked onto him, bursts of plasma shooting past his wings so close that they singed his stealth coating. They weren't able to gain ground on him, but he couldn't lose them either. In the targeting window of the railgun that was serving as his rear-view mirror, he could see the monstrous, lobster-like carrier as it smashed through obstacles and turned the massive rocks to spreading clouds of rubble. It was relentless, its black, dead eyes fixed intently on its quarry.

They finally reached the edge of the asteroid field, bursting out into open space like they were breaching the surface of an ocean, dust and ice particles trailing from their wings like contrails. Immediately that sense of claustrophobia vanished, the twinkling stars greeting Jaeger like old friends, and he checked his HUD to make sure that his wingmen had made it out too. He could see Scratcher and Baker's callsigns tagged on his display, his radar mapping the wall of asteroids. He spun on his axis to face it, letting the momentum carry him away. Out here, the maneuverability of the Bug fighters wouldn't count for much. The Bugs followed close behind, seven of them left, shooting out of the dust cloud like bullets.

To their rear, the carrier emerged, exploding out of the Oort cloud like a battering ram. It sent the asteroids scattering, still gaining momentum as it surged towards the fighters, the rocks bouncing harmlessly off its thick shell.

Hold them off!” Scratcher said over the radio, his voice crackling with static. “The torpedo frigate can't be more than five minutes out.”

Now that the odds had been evened out, Jaeger felt a surge of excitement welling up inside him. This was he had trained for, what he lived for, six degrees of freedom and enough firepower at his fingertips to reduce a whole squadron of Bugs to worm food.

Keep drifting out, let them follow us, we'll lead them straight into range of the frigate. Focus fire on the fighters, ignore the carrier!”

The three Beewolf fighters opened up in unison, even the railguns having to lead their targets at such extreme range and velocity. The Bugs scattering to make themselves harder to hit as the distance between them was bridged by lines of tracer fire and missile trails. Jaeger watched as one of the missiles found its target, the Bug erupting into an explosion of viscera and tangled metal, another succumbing to a well-placed railgun salvo that must have hit some kind of critical system or organ. It spewed yellow goo from its wounds, the liquid turning to glittering crystals as it froze.

The fight was not entirely one-sided, however. The Bugs still outnumbered them, the Beewolfs forced to dodge a hail of glowing projectiles. One of the organic vessels loosed another torpedo, the weapon locking onto Scratcher and hurtling towards him.

Out of flares!” Scratcher shouted, breathing heavily into his helmet as he tried to evade. The missile was agile, Jaeger tearing his eyes away from his target for a moment to watch as his friend's ship burned away in a dangerously tight arc. It was risky, Jaeger could see that he was pulling too many Gs, the torpedo shooting bursts of gas from its nose and tail as it turned to chase him down.

Eject Scratcher, eject!” Jaeger shouted as he watched the torpedo close. There was no way that he could outrun it, the Bug weapon leaving a sparkling trail of propellant in space as if marking its path.

I got it!” Scratcher replied, his voice straining as he endured the acceleration. In a few seconds, he wouldn't be able to eject. He'd be unconscious, and his drifting vessel would be destroyed anyway. “I got it...I got...fuck!”

Jaeger breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the canopy pop off with a burst of gas, the oxygen contained within turning into a cloud of frozen crystals, the ejector seat propelling Scratcher clear of his doomed vessel on a plume of flame. Not a second later, the Bug torpedo hit the Beewolf. A billowing cloud of green energy engulfed it, the black chassis slagging like a plastic toy being melted under a magnifying glass before the fuel tanks exploded. The wreckage continued on, sparkling metal and molten hull material spraying into the void.

I think we're in trouble here, Bullseye,” Baker muttered. “Where the hell is the Baskeyfield?”

New contacts on radar,” Jaeger said, failing to conceal the alarm in his voice. “I'm picking up four, no, five contacts heading towards us at high speed.”

I see them,” Baker confirmed, “they're not coming from inside the asteroid field. They're skirting the edge of it. That formation is tighter than anything I've ever seen...”

Try and get a lock on them,” Jaeger said as he rolled his vessel upside-down, narrowly avoiding a trail of plasma rounds. Baker was right, they were in trouble. With two fighters down, they had to contend with three or four Bug fighters each. That was a tall order, even for him. “Fuck, watch out! Another missile!”

One of the remaining fighters released a projectile that had been clutched against its belly with its spindly legs, another plasma torpedo speeding towards Jaeger. His HUD flashed a warning symbol, alerting him that it was locked on, an ominous red blip appearing on his map. He gunned the main engine, veering away as he popped his flares, the bright beacons reflecting off his glassy hull as they spread out in their wing pattern. The corners of his vision began to darken once again, his suit tightening like he was being vacuum-packed, his every muscle straining as he pulled the flight stick back.

The missile was only temporarily distracted by the flares this time, quickly finding his scent again and barreling towards him as they faded.

It's on me,” he hissed through gritted teeth, using his thrusters to corkscrew his ship in an attempt to throw off his pursuer. It was smaller than him, faster and more agile, without an organic pilot to limit its maneuvers. His finger hovered over the emergency eject button, his mind fogging from the lack of blood, his railgun taking potshots at the closing missile and failing to hit the slim target.

A green beam of light was projected from the darkness, his video feed pixelating and corrupting, holding on the missile with perfect accuracy. It melted through the housing, a burst of escaping propellant sending the torpedo spinning off course. Jaeger struggled to turn his head, his bleary eyes widening as he located the source of the laser.

There was a formation of ships speeding towards the fight, his visor zooming in on the distant objects. It wasn't Bug reinforcements, it was the aliens that had come to Baker's aid the day before. Their ships looked like rounded, aerodynamic arrowheads, the hulls sleek and the points of their stubby wings upturned. There was a canopy towards the pointed nose, but he couldn't make out anything inside at this resolution.

The vessels were painted with speckled grey-blue camouflage, as if designed to make them harder to spot in an atmosphere, and along their flanks were the colored panels that Jaeger had spotted during their last encounter. They almost looked like LCD panels, running from the nose to the tail. As he watched, the lead vessel sent a wave of flashing light along its body like a cuttlefish. The other ships in the formation reciprocated, waves of indigo and deep purple flashing in the darkness. Could they be communicating with one another?

They were flying in such close formation, they couldn't have been more than a few meters apart. In space, that was close enough to be in spitting distance, and the coordination required could only have been matched by a trained aerobatics team.

As he watched, each of the five vessels produced a beam, the green lasers focusing on a single Bug ship. The target vessel immediately slagged and burst into flames, the heat igniting the gasses and fuels contained within it like pouring gasoline on a fire. The formation shot past like a bullet, more flashes emitted by their strange color panels as they banked in perfect sync, coming around for a second pass.

Hold your fire, they're friendly!” Jaeger warned.

You think I can't figure that out for myself?” Baker shot back, “keep firing!”

The tables had turned, and Jaeger engaged the nearest Bug ship with renewed confidence as the mysterious aliens targeted another with concentrated laser fire. The Betelgeusians seemed confused by the sudden appearance of the aliens, breaking off and splitting their attention between both targets. It took some of the heat off Baker and Jaeger, the pair firing their engines as they moved to support the strange fighters.

Look how they're flying!” Baker marveled, “it's like an airshow.”

The alien formation split into two groups, veering off in opposite directions to take on different targets, it was like watching a carefully choreographed dance. Jaeger fired his cannon at one of the distracted Bug ships, the rounds hammering it, drawing a long and bloody trail across the length of its hull. He swooped in to finish it off with a few railgun shots, zipping past the drifting carcass with only a few feet of clearance.

Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!”

The battle was turning in their favor now, the Bug squadron was in disarray, but Jaeger's excitement was soon marred by the looming shadow of the carrier. The giant lobster came into range, blocking out the light from the nearby star and casting him into darkness, Jaeger twisting his stick as he avoided its bulky body by a hair. He watched through his canopy as the segments of its long tail whipped past overhead, looking over his shoulder as the thing barreled forward.

Baker and their new allies mopped up the remaining fighters, the last one succumbing to a well-placed missile, the fragments of its ruined hull tumbling end over end as they hammered into the side of the giant carrier. The behemoth was unfazed, its long antennae twitching and its glittering eyes pivoting as it tracked the enemy vessels.

What was it going to do next? Its complement of fighters had been shot down, and it didn't seem to have any ranged weapons with which to fend off the Beewolfs and the colorful aliens. Jaeger and Baker kept up their railgun fire, peppering the thing's armored shell, the aliens pulling back into a formation of five as they drew burning trails across its hull with their lasers. Nothing was getting through, that shell could be meters thick, they would have to count on the frigate to deal the killing blow.

Shit,” he exclaimed, “the frigate!” He switched channels, trying to contact the incoming vessel before it arrived, it must be right on top of them by now. “Baskeyfield, come in Baskeyfield, this is Bullseye.” No reply, fuck. “Baskeyfield, come in!”

This is the Baskeyfield,” a distorted voice said, Jaeger exhaling the breath that he had been holding in.

Baskeyfield, we have friendly aliens on the field, do not target them. Repeat, we have friendly aliens on the field. Target only the...the big fucker. Do you copy?”

We copy you Bullseye, big fucker is on our radar. Repeat, eyes on big fucker. Suggest you get clear of the engagement zone.”

Jaeger turned his head this way and that, searching for the incoming frigate. There, a massive heat signature on his scanner, closing fast. He got a visual on it, zooming in to see the frigate's massive engines flaring at full burn, four nozzles arranged in a diamond shape that were spewing superheated gas as bright as a sun. It was coming at them ass-first, decelerating using its main engines, probably already locking torpedoes on the Bug carrier.

Get clear,” he warned, “the torp boat is on station.”

Baker didn't need to be told twice, spinning and putting his engine towards the carrier, burning away from it. The aliens were still doing passes, Jaeger had to find a way to get their attention. His mind raced, he couldn't just leave them here to potentially be caught in the crossfire, not after they had saved his ass. Think Jaeger, think!

He thumbed a button on his control panel, turning his nose towards the formation of arrowhead fighters, flashing his floodlight at them. They seemed to like light, maybe they would respond to it. He could practically feel the bulk of the Baskeyfield bearing down on them, he couldn't linger here for long, shining his beam and wiggling his wings as he let momentum carry him.

To his relief, they noticed him, turning towards him as he began to burn away. The giant Bug made to pursue them, but it had a lot of mass to move around, and it struggled to shed its forward momentum. It slid like it was on ice, its lines of thrusters moving independently as they tried to steer its bulk in a new direction.

The alien fighters took up formation beside Jaeger, giving him a closer look at their sleek hulls. Their aerodynamic chassis were lined with what almost looked like heat tiles, painted over with their ocean camouflage, the silver gleam of exposed machinery visible beneath it here and there. The color panels seemed to be made up of individual cells, like rows of computer monitors, and he could even make out what looked like scorch marks on the noses of the craft. Residue from atmospheric flight maybe? Were these vessels also spaceplanes? They couldn't be long-range, where had they been launched from?

He could see something moving around beneath the raised canopy of the nearest fighter, but he couldn't make out much detail, it was blurry and indistinct. These weren't drone ships, there was something piloting them...

Jaeger looked back over his shoulder at the pursuing Bug carrier, the glare of the frigate's engines reflecting off its iridescent carapace. The UNN vessel was still hundreds of miles away, but that was more than close enough for it to fire. As he zoomed in on the approaching ship, he saw a speck rise from its hull on a plume of flame. He couldn't see it at this range, but he knew from experience that one of the many torpedo hatches that were spaced out along the top of the roughly two hundred meter long vessel had opened, a missile the length of a city bus shooting out of the tube.

He tracked it as it sped towards the carrier, gaining velocity as its targeting systems made minute adjustments, crossing the distance alarming quickly. His visor darkened automatically to protect his eyes from the glare as the torpedo slammed into the Bug's midsection, a massive explosion tearing through the giant creature. The shockwave rocked it, the beast seeming to lurch, and then it was blasted into two clean halves. It resembled a lobster that had just been smashed with a hammer, fragments of its colorful shell spreading outwards in an expanding cloud along with charred flesh and torn metal, its many legs twitching and its engines petering out. The midship, if you could call it that, was partially vaporized where the torpedo had struck it. Gore and fluids leaked from its ruined body, the two halves drifting apart to expose what looked like organs and flesh on the inside, wrapped around metal structural beams like vines choking a tree.

Jaeger wanted to celebrate, but there were two pilots missing and every second counted. He opened a channel to the Baskeyfield, static crackling in his ear.

This is the Baskeyfield, go ahead Bullseye.”

We have two pilots down, one ejected and one is missing inside the asteroid field. You need to scramble rescue boats immediately. We can assist in the search efforts if necessary.”

Copy that Bullseye. We have Scratcher on our scope, his beacon is still active. Life signs are steady. No read on the second beacon, the asteroids might be blocking it.”

Roger that, Baskeyfield, me and Scorch are gonna stay on station and-”

Contact!” Baker announced.

Something large emerged from superlight nearby, its bulk vomited back into reality along with a cloud of colorful gas, like a technicolor smear on the black canvass of space. Jaeger's instruments lit up, warning him of the impending threat, radar and thermal sensors feeding him data on its mass and energy output. It was larger than the frigate, perhaps three hundred meters in length, the hull composed of various metallic alloys. There was a large nuclear generator inside that was kicking out a lot of heat, no doubt already recharging the jump drive. Where had it come from, and how had it found them?

He looked out of his canopy, the giant ship hanging in space at the edge of the Oort cloud, its white hull reflecting the light from the far off star. It was long and thin, seemingly made up of rounded segments or cylinders that were joined together, clearly not of Bug design. At one end was what resembled a bridge, with windows that looked out into space, and to the rear was a bulky engine module. In the center was a ring, not unlike that of the Pinwheel space station, connected to the main body of the ship via spokes as it slowly rotated. Centrifugal force to simulate gravity, did they not have artificial gravity generators?

The alien fighters left their formation, Jaeger watching them as they broke off, heading towards the strange vessel. It must be their mothership, was this their version of a carrier?

It's locking onto us,” Baker warned.

Hold your fire, I'm sure they're friendly,” Jaeger replied. “They're probably scanning us.” He switched channels to the Baskeyfield again, the captain of the ship outranked him. “Baskeyfield this is Bullseye, what are your orders?”

Captain says hold fast,” the operator replied, “we're putting a call through to the Rorke.”

I don't like this, not one bit,” Baker muttered. “They might have been friendly so far, but that ship is a lot bigger'n we are, and we have no idea what it's capable of.”

Baskeyfield says hold fast,” Jaeger said, relaying the orders. “They're scanning us, so scan them back if it makes you feel any better. Just remember your three Ds, and keep your railgun in your pants.”

Three Ds my ass,” he grumbled, but it looked like he was keeping his cool. His weapon ports were closed, and his railgun was stowed. Jaeger did likewise, closing the port on his cannon and retracting his railgun. The alien ships took up position around the larger vessel, docking with it belly-to-hull. Apparently, there was no hangar for them to land in. The more he looked at it, the more primitive this vessel seemed. Their carrier was too small to have a hangar, so they docked externally, the same method used by archaic human spacecraft. They couldn't generate their own gravity, so they had to use a spinning torus to simulate the effects. Unless that big ring served some other purpose, but Jaeger couldn't imagine what.

Either way, they had advanced weaponry and superlight technology, which made them a threat. He kept his sensors fixed on the ship, just in case they decided that the UNN were no more welcome here than the Bugs. The standoff continued for a few more minutes, and then there was another burst of multicolored gas. The Rorke emerged from the tear in reality, the colorful residue spreading in its wake like a ripple on the surface of a lake. Seeing its massive, ocean-grey bulk immediately set Jaeger at ease, it looked like a small moon in comparison to the alien vessel. Its hull bristled with weaponry, not currently targeting the unidentified ship, but it was an admirable show of force.

The rest of the support fleet followed behind it, pulled along in its superlight wake, drifting for a few moments as their crews recovered from the mental and physical shock of jump travel. They had sent the entire fleet, good. It might be interpreted as an aggressive move, but it would hopefully deter any aspirations of violence. There was a crackle as a voice came through on his radio.

This is Captain Fielding, hailing all UNN vessels. Maintain formation, FCP is in full effect, don't take any actions without orders from me.”

The Baskeyfield began to burn back towards the cluster of ships, the Beewolfs doing the same. Jaeger was about to remind them about the downed pilots, but he could see a swarm of rescue vessels leaving the Rorke's hangar, one group moving off into space and the other approaching the asteroid field. He wanted to assist, but it looked like Fielding was taking direct control of the situation. Things could get very hairy.

What would happen next? Should they try to communicate? Would the aliens send a delegation to the Rorke, or the other way around? The carcass of the ruined Bug carrier still drifted between them, pieces of its thick shell cluttering the sky. Had their cooperation been well-intentioned, or simply opportunistic? He waited a while longer as the higher-ups deliberated, and then Jaeger heard the Captain's voice in his ear again.

Lieutenant Jaeger, this is Captain Fielding, are you receiving me?”

Loud and clear, Sir.”

Good. The Captain of the Baskeyfield tells me that you were able to communicate with the aliens?”

I...wouldn't put it quite that way, Captain. I was able to signal them with my Beewolf's floodlight, they seemed to respond to that.”

In either case, it seems that you've had the most contact with them. They responded to your signals and took up formation with you, so I'm told. I want you to fly your Beewolf up close to the bridge of the unknown ship and signal them with your floodlight, like you did with their fighters. Try to make contact, show them that we're not here to fight them. You're the closest thing that we have to an ambassador right now.”

Jaeger swallowed, eyeing up the unidentified ship. The Rorke might make it look like a toy, but it was a damn sight bigger than his FS-26. It was a direct order from the Captain, however. He couldn't refuse it.

Yes, Sir.”

He could practically feel the eyes of thousands of crew members on his back as he slowly flew towards the alien ship, using short bursts from his thrusters rather than his main engine so as not to appear too aggressive or put out too much heat. He glided gently through space, nearing what appeared to be the front of the strange alien ship. As he closed, he could see that there were figures moving beyond the row of windows that wrapped around the rounded nose in a crescent shape. It was like watching people moving around on the ground from the window of a low flying plane, the distance still far too great to make out any meaningful details.

He exhaled, trying to calm the racing of his heart.

Here we go...”

He hit a button on his control panel, the floodlight that was mounted on his hull flashing on and off a few times. He waited for a response, not sure what to expect, hoping that they didn't mistake his lamp for a really shitty laser and proceed to blow him out of the sky.

After a short delay, there was a bright flash of light, a beam directing at his vessel and then turning on and off as it reproduced his sequence. His visor darkened automatically, it seemed to be some kind of searchlight. Alright, they had an understanding. Now how the hell should he signal that he wanted them to follow him back to the Rorke? It didn't seem like he could dock with the alien ship, there was no hangar, and the fighters had latched onto their carrier with what must be a proprietary system. There must be an airlock, but he didn't fancy leaving his Beewolf floating in space.

He turned his ship on its axis, using his thrusters to push himself away, feigning returning to his fleet and then coming back around to his original position. He mimed the gesture a couple more times, waiting for a response.

Yes, that's good,” he heard Fielding say over the radio. “Keep that up and see how they respond.” Jaeger could hear people talking in the background, there was probably a whole committee of people advising the Captain.

He repeated the maneuver again, and then a new heat signature appeared on his scope. He watched as a vessel emerged from out of view behind the ship's long, cylindrical hull. It was some kind of dropship, there was no mistaking it. Its design was pointed and sleek just like the arrowhead fighters had been, but it was far larger, with a wider wingspan and a swollen chassis. It looked like a cross between a spaceplane and a UNN shuttle, clearly designed for atmospheric flight as much as for space travel. It was almost as if someone had welded stubby, swept wings and a streamlined nose to a trailer, reminding him of the space shuttles that had pioneered the era of human expansion into space.

This one had the LCD panels along its flanks, and when he flashed his floodlight at them, they responded with a flurry of colors. Alright, he was in business.

Where am I leading this thing, Sir?”

To the starboard hangar bay,” Fielding replied, “we'll have a team ready to greet them.”

Roger that, Sir. Bringing them in...”

He turned about, keeping an eye on the unwieldy vessel as it followed behind him. It was painted in the same ocean camouflage colors as the fighters, the rounded nose and the flush underbelly charred by the flames of reentry. The canopy was placed far forward, near the nose, and he could just about make out shadows moving inside. It surprised him that they hadn't sent a lone fighter, it seemed that they wanted to send a team, if indeed this was a dropship and not some kind of flying bomb...

They neared the hangar, the force field that kept the atmosphere inside shimmering with a faint, blue light. Uh oh, the aliens didn't seem to have artificial gravity if the spinning torus was anything to go by. How would they react when they entered the hangar and found that it had gravity? Was there a way for him to signal that to them?

Er...Captain Fielding, Sir,” he began. “I don't think these guys have gravity on their ship. Any idea how we might warn them about our gravity generator so they don't nose dive into the deck?”

I'll have some engineers jump up and down on the deck as they land,” he replied. Jaeger was about to laugh, but then he realized that it wasn't a joke, it really was all that they could do to signal the aliens.

Roger that, proceeding...”

He extended his landing gear, making sure that the alien dropship could see it, and then he coasted slowly towards the translucent energy barrier. He passed through it, engaging the thrusters on the underside of his vessel as he gradually lowered it down to the deck. He felt the impact reverberate through the ship as he touched down, his engine powering off.

Jaeger struggled to pull off his helmet, disconnecting from the Beewolf's systems and opening the canopy. It rose painfully slowly, and when there was enough room, he leapt out onto the deck, his helmet clasped under his arm as he watched the alien dropship slowly approach.

Baker had already landed, he must have been ordered back to the Rorke. He was ecstatic, practically skipping as he made his way over to Jaeger's side. A space had been cleared in the usually busy hangar, they had moved the ships out of the way as much as they could. There were dozens of people watching, flight crews and engineers peering out from between the idle vessels, along with a few armored Marines just in case things went South. Jaeger had never seen the bay so quiet, he could have heard a pin drop.

The alien ship seemed hesitant, then the nose pushed through the force field, thrusters on the flat belly belching jets of fire as they compensated for the gravity. It was like watching a fridge trying to stay aloft. As a pilot, Jaeger got an immediate sense of how awkward this behemoth must have been to fly. It seemed relatively unsuited for VTOL, perhaps it was designed for gliding instead? A set of three, wheeled landing gear extended, the vessel swaying a little as they touched down, rolling for a second before hitting the breaks. It was inside, and now Jaeger could truly appreciate its size. It was big, at least fifteen, maybe twenty meters long and half as tall. The twin tail fins on the rear of its streamlined body must have been eight or nine meters from the deck to their tips. It was much larger than a UNN dropship, heavier too. Were these aliens giants? Or was this ship designed to carry a whole platoon of soldiers?

The light panels along the sides flashed in brilliant shades of orange and yellow, eliciting oohs and aahs from the crowd, even though nobody knew what they might be signaling. Jaeger saw a white uniform out of the corner of his eye, it seemed that Captain Fielding had come down from the bridge to observe the historic occasion personally, flanked on either side by two large Borealans wearing combat armor and full-faced visors. They weren't armed, but then again, a Borealan didn't need a rifle to be deadly.

There was a loud hiss as a large landing ramp at the rear of the vessel began to slowly descend on a pair of hydraulic cylinders, thick and heavy, possibly reinforced with armor plating. It reached the deck with a thud, facing towards the force field so that nobody could get a view inside the compartment. You could have cut the tension in the air with a knife, even Baker had stopped bouncing up and down excitedly and was watching with bated breath.

Something came down the ramp.

The first thing that Jaeger noticed was the ocean camo, splotches of grey and blue that matched the patterning on their ships. The alien was wearing a form-fitting suit, lighter than the combat armor that he was used to seeing, rubbery and flexible. He could make out what looked like insulated cabling for the internal electronics running along the limbs. The creature was between four and five feet tall, the body plan basically humanoid, with two digitigrade legs that were long and powerfully built in proportion to its relatively small and short torso. It had two arms that were tipped with two-fingered hands and an opposable thumb, along with a long, thick tail that it held above the ground like it was being used for balance.

It turned its helmeted head as it walked down the ramp, looking right at him through an opaque visor. It seemed to have a snout that protruded from its face, but that might just be some kind of respirator, it was impossible to tell. It had what looked like a pair of dangling, flexible ponytails snaking out of the back of its helmet, long enough that they reached the small of its back. He thought that they might be connected to an oxygen tank at first, or whatever it was that these creatures breathed, but on closer inspection, they were hanging free.

A second followed it down the ramp, and then a third, then two more. In all, five of the bizarre aliens emerged from their vessel, staying close together and moving as a group. They walked strangely, with an odd, halting gait that reminded him of a chicken. It wasn't as pronounced, but they bobbed their heads slightly with every step, craning their necks to look around the hangar.

One of them tapped its boot on the ground as if testing the gravity, balanced on what looked like two toes, while another stared at the blackness of space behind them. It was perhaps alarmed by how insubstantial the force field seemed. The one at the head of the group was examining the humans, and Jaeger had to remind himself that this was also their first contact with aliens. Well, Coalition aliens at least. Hopefully, the Betelgeusians hadn't instilled in them a xenophobic fear or suspicion of outsiders.

The leader held up an arm, and Jaeger was mesmerized as a colorful pattern flashed along the limb. They had the same LCD panels mounted on their suits that he had seen on their ships, a flexible bank of what looked like tiny computer monitors running from the wrist to the elbow along the outside of the material. It lifted the dangling ponytails too, they seemed to be prehensile like tentacles, more technicolor patterns flashing along their length. It was like watching some kind of bioluminescent squid, and its fellows seemed to respond to it with their own, more muted patterns.

What could be the purpose of these flashing lights? Surely it wasn't their only means of communication? It wasn't entirely unheard of, Bug ships sometimes used patterned sails to communicate between their larger vessels, but it seemed unlikely for what was clearly a technological civilization.

The group of aliens closed ranks, watching intently as Captain Fielding decided to move forward. He waved for the Borealans to wait, the felines flexing their curved claws and shifting their weight from foot to foot. Was Fielding making the right decision, approaching these unknown aliens alone? They didn't seem to be armed, but nobody could be completely certain of that.

He stopped within a few feet of the lead alien, the short creature cocking its head on its flexible neck as it looked up at him. It was about two feet shorter than he was, he must look like a giant to them. What would he do next?

Hello,” he said. “My name is Captain Fielding of the United Nations Navy. Welcome to the Rorke.”

Fielding waited, but there was no reply, the aliens merely cocking their heads in confusion. It seemed that he had a backup plan, however, producing a tablet computer and turning the screen towards them. He tapped at it, and a wave of color passed across it, mimicking the signals that the aliens had been sending during their fight with the Bugs. Someone must have examined the footage and reproduced the pattern, blues and purples swelling and fading.

This, the aliens responded to, one of them lifting its forearm and creating a similar pattern. Once that was done, it looked back over its shoulder, perhaps communicating with its companions in some way. They huddled, exchanging glances beneath their angular helmets, not using their colorful panels this time. Did they have onboard radios, were they psychic?

One of them tapped at the screen on its arm with its two fingers, it seemed that they used touch panels just like humans did. After a few moments, it showed the screen to its friends, the aliens crowding around to get a look. They were doing something, but he had no idea what, the angle was wrong for Jaeger to be able to see what was being displayed. They gestured to one another with their hands, their helmeted heads moving as if they were discussing something.

The lead alien turned back to Fielding, raising its hand towards its helmet. It hit some kind of button where the ear would have been on a human, and then there was a hiss of escaping gas as Jaeger watched with wide eyes, the helmet opening like a pair of jaws. It split into two halves, the lower staying still while the upper slowly rose up, not unlike the canopy of his fighter.

Beneath it was a hairless, smooth head. It was rounded, with a sloped forehead that tapered into a snout, and he was immediately reminded of a dinosaur or a lizard. It looked so small, almost dainty, covered in smooth skin that was a dull green in color. He was too far away to say if it was scaly or not. He could see its nostrils flaring at the end of its muzzle as it took in breaths of air, perhaps they had been discussing whether it was safe to breathe the atmosphere. It didn't seem to be having any great difficulty, which suggested that it also breathed a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen.

Its eyes were a vibrant shade of violet, reflective, and it met Jaeger's curious gaze for a brief second. There was intelligence in those eyes, recognition, the reptilian pupils dilating as they looked back at him.

It opened its mouth and spoke, its fleshy lips covering rows of small, pointed teeth. It emitted a series of high-pitched chirps and beeps, like bird song almost, warbling and cooing. Nobody had any idea what it had said, but it was capable of verbal communication of some kind, which made things a little easier at least.

The Captain waved over a group of people who approached cautiously, their uniforms a mixture of yellows and blues. There was even one of the medical staff, identified by their white lab coat. They were holding tablet computers, recording devices, various instruments and medical tools. The Rorke was not a science vessel, it was not especially well equipped for scientific or expeditionary missions, nor did it have a person or people who were dedicated to the task of making contact with aliens. It was a military vessel, after all, waging war was its primary purpose. But due to its sheer size, the crew compliment naturally included a number of people who might fill those roles in a pinch, doctors and engineers for example.

The aliens didn't seem concerned as the humans approached, and Fielding turned to a man wearing an engineer's uniform. Jaeger recognized him as Chief Engineer Campbell, he had met him during the meeting when they had been assessing video footage of the alien craft.

What do you suggest we do next, Mister Campbell?”

Protocol says that we're supposed to administer cognitive tests and that we should demonstrate our understanding of math and science,” he replied.

I think it's pretty clear that they're intelligent. They did arrive here in a spacecraft, after all,” the Captain replied.

Let's just see what happens, Sir, unless you have any other suggestions?”

Campbell always seemed rather aloof around the Captain, Jaeger had noted that their interactions were informal, perhaps indicating that they were friends. Then again, Campbell might be some kind of savant with an encyclopedic knowledge of the ship, but with poor social graces. That wasn't uncommon amongst the intellectual class.

The man tapped at the screen of his tablet, and then slowly offered it to the lead alien. The reptilian creature blinked at it, cocking its head like a dog, then snatched it from his hands. Campbell lurched backwards, alarmed, but the alien didn't seem to be aggressive. It turned the device over in its gloved hands, examining it. Campbell found the courage to reach out and grasp the tablet, angling it so that the screen was facing up, and tapping at it with his finger. He then gestured to his sleeve, indicating that it was similar to the panels that the aliens used on their suits.

The alien chirped, tapping at the screen, its head waving from side to side like a cat that was judging a jump from a bed to a dresser. Due to the upward angle of the tablet and how short the creature was, Jaeger could see what was displayed on the screen from his position beside his fighter, perhaps twenty feet from the group. It was a sequence of numbers, portrayed as dots rather than characters. They were lined up in a row. Four, two, six, four, eight. After a moment, he realized that it was a number puzzle, the user was expected to work out which number came next in the sequence.

The aliens crowded around, examining the tablet. Their leader chirped and warbled, presumably into some kind of microphone inside its helmet. Would they understand what it meant, and what was expected of them? Regardless of their logic skills, if the puzzle simply didn't translate, then it wouldn't be of any use.

The next number in that sequence should be six, Jaeger reasoned. Four minus two was two, two plus four was six, six minus two was four, four plus four was eight. It was a repeating sequence where two was subtracted, and four was added. Ergo, eight minus two would be six.

The alien that was holding the tablet tapped at the screen six times, and there was a beep from the tablet confirming that the puzzle had been solved successfully. To Campbell's surprise and Baker's amusement, the alien repeated the beep, mimicking the sound like a parrot.

Next, another sequence of numbers appeared, also arranged in a row from top to bottom. Two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen. Easy, those were prime numbers, the next number in the sequence would be seventeen.

The aliens examined the screen again, this time solving the puzzle quickly. The reptile tapped the number seventeen out with its finger, and another beep was emitted. Again it repeated the noise with surprising accuracy, it seemed to like how it sounded. Some of its companions began to open their own helmets too, leaning in to participate in the game. Jaeger noted that they had some slight variations in skin color. Some were spinach-green like a Krell, while a few had brighter or darker tones, others were closer to beige.

They chittered and whistled, communicating with one another. They really did sound like birds, it was uncanny.

The next test was more complex, it showed a grid made up of white boxes, and inside them were black shapes. Jaeger could make out circles, squares, and triangles. There were eight shapes on the grid, the ninth left empty, the player expected to find the next shape that fit the sequence. The options were lined up at the bottom of the screen. It was like something that one might find on an IQ test, another logic puzzle, pattern recognition. Jaeger couldn't quite see well enough to solve it from where he was standing. After a moment of deliberation, the alien appeared to select the correct answer, beeping in time with the device.

Campbell reached out his hand, waiting with his palm up, and the alien returned the tablet.

Well, we now know that they have a similar concept of mathematics,” he said with a smug tone. “It's a universal language. Even if we can't translate their speech, we have a way to communicate simple concepts.”

Concepts,” the alien repeated, mimicking Campbell's pronunciation of the word down to his British accent. Everyone was taken aback, staring at the alien as it followed with another loud beep. “Simple concepts!”

Its voice was high pitched and tinny, somewhat croaky, again reminding Jaeger of a parrot.

Did it just...speak?” Fielding asked, concern creeping into his voice.

No, no,” the woman in the white lab coat said. “It's mimicry! It doesn't understand what it's saying, it's reproducing the words phonetically, just like it mimicked the beep from the tablet!”

Like a parrot?” Campbell asked.

Yes, like a parrot or a myna bird,” the woman said as she peered at the reptilian creature. “Remarkable...”

Can we teach it to understand what it's saying, Doctor Evans?” Fielding asked. The creature turned its attention back to him when he spoke, attracted to the sounds.

Potentially,” Evans replied, already furiously typing on her tablet. “We could use context and association to teach them verbs and nouns, but sentence structure and grammar is going to be a challenge. Perhaps I could even rig up a Webber translator to work with these aliens instead of the Krell language, we're already miles ahead of where she had to start out.”

What's it doing now?” Campbell asked. The lead alien seemed to have lost interest in Fielding and was now looking straight at Jaeger, it's violet-colored eyes fixed on him intently. Jaeger was a little taken aback, the thing never blinked. It marched over to him, the four others bobbing along behind it, the group of engineers and doctors looking on in confusion.

It stopped about a foot in front of Jaeger, peering up at him curiously. Baker took a step back and got out of their way, he was clearly thrilled by the whole affair. Jaeger didn't know how to react, and so he stared back, watching as its reptilian pupils scrutinized him. After an uncomfortably long time, it turned its attention to his Beewolf, admiring its black, angular hull. It seemed to thrust its head towards the ship, and then chirped, looking up at him as if it expected a response. What was that, a nod? Their version of pointing? He looked over at Fielding, silently begging for instructions.

Just see what it does, Lieutenant,” the Captain said with a shrug. The alien gestured again and then held up its arm. A wave of purple and blue crawled across its sleeve, and Jaeger recognized it. That was the pattern that the aliens had used during the battle, did it have some significance?

He rummaged in his pocket and withdrew his phone, holding it up and using the camera flash to signal the reptile, as he had done with his floodlight. The alien beeped, mimicking the sound from the logic puzzle again. Did it think that the beep meant yes?

It turned and began to walk up and down the length of his fighter, examining it, ducking under the chassis and craning its neck to inspect some of the exposed machinery on the landing gear. It recognized him, and the ship. Had this alien been one of the pilots who had come to their aid during the battle?

It knows you,” Baker whispered gleefully. “Look, it recognizes your plane.”

That's my Beewolf,” Jaeger explained, getting the creature's attention as it looked back over its shoulder at him. He nodded to his ship and repeated the word. “Beewolf.”

Beewolf,” the alien mimed in that strange, tinny voice.

Should we stop them?” Campbell asked. “I don't know if it's very wise to let them run around the hangar unsupervised, examining all of our technology...”

Give them the run of the hangar,” Fielding replied, “but post guards on the exits and stop them from entering the rest of the ship for now. Why don't you go poke your head inside their lander and see what you can find?”

You think they'll mind?”

One of the aliens leapt up onto the wing of the Beewolf. They were incredibly agile, it must have jumped more than ten feet straight up. It landed almost silently, quite light apparently, walking along the chassis towards the nose and sticking its head inside the cockpit.

They seem to be taking the same liberty,” Fielding chuckled, “I don't think they have any room to complain.”

As Campbell moved off to inspect their dropship, Jaeger climbed up towards the cockpit of his fighter, hooking his hand around the lip and hanging off the side of the nose as the alien glanced up at him. Its neck was so flexible, and it moved in that odd, halting way that so reminded him of birds.

Cockpit,” he said, nodding to the interior of the ship.

Cockpit,” it trilled, colors flashing on the pair of pigtails that dangled from its head.

Beewolf, cockpit,” Jaeger said.

Beewolf cockpit,” it repeated, adding a beep at the end. He wasn't sure if the alien really understood the relation between the two words, but it couldn't hurt to teach it more phrases. That seemed to be what Fielding and the others were preoccupied with right now.

If they're like parrots, maybe they'll like this,” Baker mused as he drew a phone from his pocket and tapped at the screen. He held up the small device, an upbeat pop song beginning to play through the speakers. Campbell shot him a look of displeasure from across the hangar where he was inspecting the engines of the alien vessel, but the creatures seemed to like it. Their reptilian heads snapped around, trying to locate the source of the music, and they closed in on him like a pack of wolves. The one that had been climbing on the Beewolf leaned down from atop the wing, gripping the edge with its fingers, extending its neck and using its long tail for balance as it stared at the flashing visualization that was playing on the screen. It chirped and warbled, fascinated, its companions joining in. Baker laughed as the alien whistled along with the tune, doing a remarkable job of reproducing the different instruments. In fact, the range of vocalizations that they were capable of seemed to dwarf that of humans.

I think you've made a friend, Baker,” Jaeger chuckled. A few of the other people in the hangar were closing in now, other pilots and technicians wanting to get a closer look at the visitors and their strange ship. Fielding allowed it, the creatures seemed brave, certainly not as skittish as one might assume an animal of their stature to be.

I have important matters to attend to,” he called over to Campbell, “keep me updated.” At that he turned, gesturing for his Borealan guards to follow him as he made his way back in the direction of the bridge. No doubt he had a lot of planning to do, the appearance of the aliens had thrown a spanner in the works. Captaining a carrier came with a lot of responsibility, fleets were expected to take the initiative and to act on their own when they were on deployment, as messages couldn't be sent to the Admiralty asking for instructions. Lag-free communication between planets and large space stations was made possible using quantum entangled satellites, what happened to one was immediately reflected in the other regardless of its distance. Ships could not carry them, however. The fleet was on its own, and it would have to make its own decisions.

The leader of the alien pack lost interest in the music, walking back up the chassis and examining the hull beneath its feet. It seemed to be looking for something specific. It came across the hatch that concealed the railgun, chirping at Jaeger as it tapped the flush panel with its foot.

Oh, you want to see the railgun?” He was surprised that the alien remembered it, but then again, it must be as novel to them as the laser weapons that they used were to him. He leaned inside his cockpit and flipped the guard on the firing trigger, the doors of the hatch opening and the railgun extending on its flexible arm as the alien leapt back.

Railgun,” he said, the alien looking over at him quizzically. It took a step forward, inspecting the machinery, running its hands over the copper coils that lined the long barrel. It could barely reach, the arm was as tall as it was, the barrel just as long. Jaeger hopped up onto the chassis, walking over to join it as it pawed at the ammo belt. He disconnected the belt, pulling out one of the massive tungsten slugs and showing it to the alien. It was the length of a beer bottle, tapered into a sharp point at one end, far heavier than it looked. There was nothing sophisticated about the projectile, it was simply a hunk of metal that was propelled at great speed by the electromagnets that were spaced out along the barrel.

The alien reached out and took the slug, inspecting it more closely. It was strong for such a slight creature, the weight of that bullet was nothing to scoff at.

Railgun,” it trilled.

Jaeger heard heavy footsteps, turning to see a giant Krell approaching one of the more curious lizards. Krell were massive by human standards, and the size difference between the two aliens was astronomical. The little creature could have sat comfortably in the Krell's palm, it was like the difference between a Great Dane and a Chihuahua.

The Krell loosed a rumbling, reverberating call, so low that it was almost subsonic. Jaeger could feel it in his bones, and it might have been intimidating if he hadn't known how friendly the giant gators were. They would never hurt a fly under normal circumstances, until you threatened their friends, however. Then they would turn into living battering rams in order to protect their charges. They looked slow and cumbersome, but they could move like a charging bull when they needed to, and their armored bodies could absorb an impressive amount of damage.

The alien warbled in reply, the Krell leaning down close, the two practically bumping noses as they examined one another. The Krell's snout was almost as long as the alien was tall. Jaeger wasn't worried, there was no chance of one of the aliens being stepped on, he was just glad that there were no Borealans around. The felines might not take too kindly to having their personal space invaded by these presumptuous little critters, and they were just large enough to make for a good snack.

When Jaeger turned back around, the lead alien was peering at him, leaning alarmingly close and staring right into his eyes. Now he could make out the scales that coated its body. They were small and fine, interlocking like a mosaic, different to the overlapping scales and bony scutes of the Krell. Its snout was maybe an inch from his nose, and when he took a step back, it followed him.

Alright...” he said, wondering what the alien was trying to accomplish. “Getting a little close there, buddy. I take it your people don't have a concept of personal space?”

Space,” it chirped, “Beewolf railgun.”

Beewolf railgun, yeah...”

It whistled the tune from Baker's pop song, scrutinizing him intently as if waiting for something. When he blinked, the slit of its pupil dilated into a wider circle, and then it drew back as it chittered at him. It flashed a series of colors across its arms and pigtails, surging oranges tapering into reds. Did that mean something? Were staring contests part of their social interaction?

How about I show you more of the Beewolf?” he asked, not expecting any kind of answer that he could make sense of. “That's a language that we can both understand. You're a pilot, aren't you? You were flying out there with me.” He gestured to the force field that protected the hangar from the vacuum of space.

Beewolf,” it said, beeping again. One of the engineers appeared beneath the wing, clad in yellow overalls that were stained with what looked like coolant, taking off a pair of noise canceling headphones and letting them rest around his neck as he waved to Jaeger with a gloved hand.

Any damage to report on Beewolf two-oh-six?” he asked. “We're gonna get to work servicing her if you and your new friend are done walking around on my stealth coating. You know that thing costs more than you make in a lifetime, right?”

Jaeger dropped down onto the deck, waving for the alien to follow him. It seemed hesitant, wanting to examine the vessel some more, but after a moment it leapt gracefully from the wing of the plane and landed a few feet away.


I can't believe it, it's unprecedented,” Doctor Evans said as she sat cross-legged on the deck across from one of the aliens. “Their mimicry was one thing, that's not unheard of, but the rate at which they're learning and applying the language is incredible. It's like they have photographic memories, they don't even need to practice. You give them information and they just...retain it.”

She set her tablet down, running her fingers through her dark hair and giving Jaeger a wide-eyed glance. Their guests were milling about nearby, perched on crates like birds, or sitting with their two-toed feet dangling off the edge of a nearby fighter. They seemed to like being high up, and after the initial burst of excitement and activity, they had appeared to tire. Their leader seemed to want to stay close to Jaeger, and so he had remained in the hangar, assisting Evans in her work. He was still on call, but it wasn't like he'd have to go far if he had to rush to his Beewolf. A few hours had passed, and much of the initial novelty had worn off. The flight crews and engineers were going about their usual business, the familiar sounds of the hangar bay echoing throughout the space. Even Baker had run out of steam after a while and had returned to his quarters to sleep.

Why is that so unusual?” Jaeger asked.

Well, learning a language can take years,” she explained. “Granted, I'm no linguist, but I know enough about neurology to know that this is highly unusual. Young children, for example, are very adept at learning new languages. It generally gets harder as one grows older, due to a reduction in neuroplasticity. Young minds are more malleable, they form new connections between neurons at a far higher rate. You see the phenomenon a lot in expat families, where the children become fluent in the language very rapidly, and the parents tend to struggle. The neuroplasticity in these aliens is higher than anything I've ever seen, and their memories are flawless. Those factors combined result in an ability to learn at a pace that has no precedent. They aced the memory puzzles, they only needed to see a complex series of shapes and patterns once in order to reproduce it, even half an hour later.”

They don't sound so smart to me,” Jaeger muttered, nodding at the nearest alien to get its attention. “Hey you, what's your name?”

Shoes,” it replied.

What you fail to understand, Lieutenant, is that although they appear to be talking at the level of an infant, they've achieved that after only a few hours. Most human babies don't even start speaking until they're around six months old, and it usually takes two years before they start forming simple sentences. At this rate, they might be fluent in our language within only a few days.”

What we need to do is get them to tell us where they came from,” he replied, watching as one of the bird-like reptiles bowed its head and appeared to fall asleep inside its camouflaged suit. It was perched on top of a miscellaneous crate, maybe six feet off the deck, like a pigeon sitting on a telephone pole with its long tail held out straight for balance.

We need to build up to that,” Evans said, “we don't want to confuse them by bombarding them with information too quickly.”

Why not just show them a map of the system and get them to point to their base?”

They might not even be native to this system, and besides, they wouldn't know what we were asking them. We have to take things slow.”

So far they've only been repeating the words that they hear,” Jaeger said, glancing down at the alien that was sitting beside him on the floor. “How can we be sure that they even know what they mean?”

I'm certain that they've understood the contextual use of certain words,” Evans replied. “Here, watch this.” She held up the tablet computer and pointed to it, getting the attention of the nearest alien. “What is this?”

Tablet,” the alien chirped.

What is this?” Evans repeated, pointing to the fighter that was resting on the deck beside them.

Beewolf,” the alien said in its strange, high pitched voice.

They're even picking up human gestures too,” Evans concluded as she turned her eyes back to her tablet and took some more notes. “Remarkable...”

And what do we know about their language?”

Not much,” Evans admitted. “If I had to guess, I'd say that they lack the vocal cords that humans and Borealans have. They likely have a syrinx, it's a vocal organ used by birds, located at the base of the trachea where it joins to the lungs. Mammals have a larynx,” she said as she gestured to her throat. “It's an organ at the top of the neck that houses the vocal folds, mucous membranes that are stretched across the windpipe and which vibrate to modulate the flow of air being expelled. A syrinx, on the other hand, has vibrating membranes that are controlled by minute muscles that line the entire structure. They can even control the left and right valves of the syrinx independently to produce two distinct sounds at the same time.”

So that's why they sound like parrots?”

Possibly, yes. As for the color displays...I can't guess. It must have more basis in culture than biology.”

They remind me of a cuttlefish,” Jaeger mused. “You know, those squid-like creatures that have flashing colors along their bodies?”

Chromatophores? You may be onto something there, perhaps they have bioluminescent cells beneath their suits that they use to communicate, and these panels are a technological solution to having to conceal them beneath a space suit. Chameleons can change the color of their scales to match their environments or to express emotion, after all. It's not unheard of in reptile species...”

We could just ask one of them to take its helmet off,” Jaeger suggested. He turned to his tiny companion and nodded to the creature, then mimed taking off a helmet. It cocked its head at him, and he repeated the gesture. “Take your helmet off, little guy.”

Little guy,” it repeated, followed by a whistle. It seemed to understand his request, placing its hands to either side of its helmet and tugging it off. Evans and Jaeger watched as the alien pulled off the space helmet, revealing a head as round and as smooth as it had first appeared. There was no hair, no quills, just more flush scales. As it raised the helmet above its head, Jaeger noticed that the pigtails that dangled from the back of the helmet were filled with what looked like a pair of scaly tentacles, the same color and texture as the rest of its skin. They were prehensile, like twin tubes of muscle, flopping out of the recesses and flexing.

Tentacles on the back of its head?” Evans wondered, clearly as surprised as Jaeger was. “For what purpose?”

The two tubes suddenly became firm, the muscles within tensing, the dangling tentacles pointing straight out from the skull like long horns. There was an explosion of color, a rainbow halo appearing around the alien's head, at once alarming and hypnotic.

They were feathers! It looked as if the alien was now wearing a giant feather headdress, like something that you might see at a Brazilian carnivale or on a peacock's tail. The two muscular tubes had been concealing vibrant and colorful plumes, layered one on top of the other so that when they shifted, different shades were exposed. It must have such fine control over them, a wave of indigo and violet passing through the magnificent crown in a fluttering wave, much like what he had seen on their LCD panels. They caught the light beautifully, shimmering and iridescent, Jaeger unable to tear his eyes away from the display.

It seemed that the creature had only been stretching, because a second later, the feathers collapsed back into their fleshy sheaths, invisible now as the tentacle-like appendages went limp and dangled down the back of its suit. It held its helmet in its hands, glancing between the two humans.

Not chromatophores, feathers!” Evans gasped. “Of course, more avian features, I should have guessed. They can't flex their feathers inside the suits, and so they use these panels to mimic the color patterns. It must have some social function, like expressing emotion, or perhaps signaling prospective mates.”

They were using them on their fighters too,” Jaeger added, “maybe they have a tactical purpose?”



They were eventually forced to take a break, Jaeger returning to his quarters to eat and rest. He didn't stay in his bunk for long, there were too many questions running through his mind, so many possibilities that made sleep nigh impossible. He caught four or five hours of shut-eye, and then stopped by a vending machine on his way back down to the hangar, picking up a shrink-wrapped sandwich and a bottle of fruit juice.

When he returned to Evans, she was still sat in the same spot, dark circles under her eyes as she leaned against a crate amidst the flock of aliens. She looked like she had been working all night, as much as there was a night on a carrier.

You should get some rest,” he suggested, “it doesn't look like these guys are going anywhere.” The aliens were all perched nearby like camouflaged gargoyles, one of them chewing on what looked like a candy bar in a silver wrapper.

While you were gone, they returned to their ship and came out with food packets,” she said as she suppressed a yawn. “It seems that they've brought supplies with them, they must expect to be here for a while.”

They must want the same things that we want,” Jaeger said as he tore open the packaging on his sandwich and took a bite, talking through the mouthful of food. “They want to communicate with us, they want to know where we're from, and they probably want to know what we can do to help one another. It can't have escaped their attention that we came here to fight Bugs.”

It all seems so...informal,” Evans complained. “Here we are, making first contact with an alien species, and we're housing them in a busy hangar while a handful of unqualified people try to communicate with them? There should be diplomats here, xenolinguists, this should be a historic event broadcast for all the worlds to see. Yet everything continues on as normal, even the engineers have stopped gawking at them by now.”

This is a Navy vessel,” Jaeger replied with a shrug, “this is just the way that the Navy does things. We don't have any diplomats or linguists, we have to make do with what we brought with us. It'd take months to reach the nearest Coalition planet and get a message back to Earth.”

I just wish that I could do more,” she sighed, looking up at the nearest alien as it gnawed on its meal with its needle-like teeth.

Jaeger heard footsteps on the deck, and he turned to see Captain Fielding approaching them, the engineers along his path stopping to salute him as he passed them. He didn't have his Borealan guards with him this time, but Campbell was trailing after him.

Doctor Evans, Lieutenant Jaeger,” he said as the pilot snapped to attention. “At ease. Have you made any progress with the aliens?”

Some,” Evans said, “they're learning our language remarkably quickly. I estimate that they'll be able to form coherent sentences far sooner than I could have hoped. Days at the most.”

Excellent. Their mothership seems to be holding position, it hasn't moved an inch since they sent over the dropship. It appears that they won't be leaving until they get what they want from us, probably the same information that we're trying to get out of them.”

Sir, if I may?” Jaeger began. “Is there any word on the missing pilots yet?”

Scratcher was recovered safely. He's currently undergoing a routine assessment in sickbay, but he'll make a full recovery,” the Captain replied. “We're still searching for Boomer in the asteroid field. The possibility of encountering more Bugs is slowing down the search effort, as the rescue ships need to be escorted. That and the Oort cloud is a nightmare to navigate, even without the Bugs.”

Thank you, Sir,” he said. He was relieved to hear that Scratcher had been recovered safely, but every hour that passed reduced Boomer's chances of survival. If he had survived the crash with his suit intact, it could only support him for the better part of a day at most. The deadline was rapidly approaching. “Captain,” he added, “requesting permission to join the search effort.”

Request denied,” Fielding replied. “I understand that you're worried about your wingman, but right now, you can do more good here. I don't know why these aliens have taken such a liking to you, but keep doing whatever it is that you're doing. Once you get them talking coherently, let me know immediately.”

Of course, Sir.”

I thought that I'd come down to check on our guests,” Fielding continued, “and Campbell has completed his analysis of their ship. I thought that it might help you and Doctor Evans in some way.”

Oh yes,” Evans chimed in, “their level of technology could reveal aspects of their cultural development.”

Fielding nodded to Campbell, and the engineer produced a tablet computer, beginning to read from it.

Here are my observations,” he began. “Firstly, this vessel is obviously a spaceplane. Looking at the shape of the hull and the prevalence of heat shielding tiles, we can infer that this is an atmospheric glider, which suggests that the chemical engines that this vessel uses are weaker and less efficient than our own. I estimate that it should be able to break orbit under its own power, but that fuel economy would be an issue. Our own dropships are very efficient, they're able to enter and leave the gravitational well of a planet under their own power several times in succession before they need to be refueled. Not so for this craft. It's also covered in traces of helium-3, and judging by the large thermal output of their carrier, I think it's safe to say that they're using it as reactor fuel. Their shielding isn't very efficient, but fortunately, helium-3 is not radioactive.”

Is that different from what we use?” Evans asked.

Yes. Their method uses nuclear fusion, which is cleaner and safer than fission, but we use more primitive fission reactors for a very specific reason. This very carrier, for example, houses six nuclear generators whose job it is both to power the ship and to charge the superlight drive. We use simple water to cool those reactors, and they burn at a high enough temperature that the water undergoes a process known as thermochemical cracking. The oxygen and hydrogen molecules are separated, and we can then harvest those molecules to be used for life support in the case of oxygen, and chemical propellant in the case of hydrogen. In this sense, as long as the carrier has access to water ice, which is a very common resource, it can sustain itself and its support fleet for a very long time. Of course, there are still chemicals and elements that we can't get from this process, which need to be restocked when we dock. There are also spent fuel rods that need to be exchanged for new ones, but the process makes any large ship remarkably self-reliant.”

And these aliens can't do that?” she asked.

No,” he replied gleefully, “helium-3 and deuterium fusion produces heat by generating and containing super-heated plasma. There's no water to crack. They must have brought their chemical propellant with them, which is extremely wasteful. It appears more advanced on the surface, but it’s actually less practical.”

Move it along, Campbell,” Fielding sighed. “We all have places to be.”

In conclusion, their technology is analogous to our own during the start of the expansion period, when humanity first began colonizing the solar system and venturing into interstellar space. It's a few hundred years out of date by our standards, but otherwise perfectly serviceable. I recommend that as soon as we establish a dialogue with the aliens and negotiate their entry in the Coalition, we start sharing technology. They should be able to implement it rapidly, much of what they use is analogous to our own systems. For example, better magnetic containment of the plasma fields within their reactor would improve efficiency and prevent leakage, and would result in a net improvement to the energy generation on their carrier.”

Wait, wait,” Evans interjected. “Aren't we getting a little ahead of ourselves here? We barely know anything about these people, their culture, their history. Who are we to intrude on their home and accelerate their development by hundreds of years overnight? Who knows what that might do to their society?”

Campbell shrugged dismissively.

They're spacefaring, they have superlight technology, and they're clearly not fond of Bugs. Sounds like a prime Coalition candidate to me. Would you rather let them get overrun by the Betelgeusians?”

You're making a lot of assumptions,” Evans shot back, her face starting to redden. “We don't know that this is their home system, they may be visitors here, just like us. We don't know the extent of their dealings with the Betelgeusians, or whether their planet or planets are under threat.”

If they aren't already under threat from the Bugs, then they will be before long,” the engineer replied. “If these aliens are in jump range of Bugs, then the Bugs are in jump range of wherever they originated. If they can't hold out against the Bugs, then they need us. If they can hold out, then we need them.”

Evans looked unhappy, but she didn't have a retort. There had been much concern raised over the introduction of advanced technology to primitive planets like Borealis, which prior to contact with the UNN, had only recently discovered gunpowder and had not yet achieved space flight. Proponents of bringing every sapient species that humanity came across into the fold liked to point out that no great catastrophe had yet ensued after handing modern weaponry and spacecraft over to the Borealans, but conservationists would also point out that the balance of power on the planet had been permanently altered. The territories that cooperated with the UNN were given access to advanced technology, and those that didn't were left in the dust, at the mercy of regional powers like Elysia that supplied the UNN with the majority of its Borealan auxiliaries.

Jaeger had to side with Campbell in this case, however. These aliens were sufficiently advanced that giving them blueprints to build more efficient reactors, or supplying them with railguns wasn't going to change their world overnight. In fact, they were the closest thing to technological parity that humanity had yet encountered. The Borealans and the Krell were a thousand years behind, while the Brokers were a thousand years ahead, but unwilling to share their advancements. Bug biotech was so strange that it was hard to even classify. These new creatures, on the other hand, were only a couple of hundred years off. They were technological neighbors in cosmic terms.

He glanced over at the aliens. They were listening, cocking their heads and looking between the humans as they perched on their crates. They didn't speak enough English yet to follow the conversation, but they were certainly attentive.

Campbell is going to take another look at their ship,” Fielding announced. “Doctor Evans, go get your regulation eight, you look about ready to keel over. The aliens will be here when you get back.” She nodded, struggling to her feet and making her way towards the nearest exit. “Lieutenant, you're on babysitting duty.”

Yes, Sir.”

With that, the Captain turned and followed behind Evans, leaving Jaeger alone with the gaggle of reptiles. He waited for Evans to leave through one of the automatic doors, and then he pulled out his phone. The lead alien, the one who had taken off its helmet, was immediately interested. It chirped, hopping down from its perch on the wing of a nearby Beewolf and crouching beside him. It examined the phone, then warbled to him, reproducing the pop song that Baker had played for it the day before. He laughed, and it cocked its head at him, then mimicked the sound.

Yeah, funny,” he explained. “Evans doesn't think that I should overload you with information, but I think you can handle it. Check this out.”

He opened a video showing a gigantic space station, giant spokes connecting it to a wheel-like torus that rotated to produce artificial gravity. There were Navy vessels all around it like a cloud of ocean-grey insects. It was the Pinwheel, the largest space station in existence. The alien's eyes widened with wonderment, leaning closer as it followed the spinning motion.

That's a space station, it's a little like your carrier, right? It's too big for gravity generators, so we have to spin it.”

He swiped his fingers across the screen, bringing up a picture of a city at night. Towering skyscrapers made from glass and steel punctured the clouds, lights from their innumerable windows and the streets below making them shimmer and gleam. The alien whistled, captivated by the cityscape.

That's a human city, where most of us live.”

Next, he pulled up an animation of Earth, the blue planet spinning slowly as it hung against the black backdrop of space. The alien whistled, watching intently, reaching out with its two-fingered hand to point at the planet.

Earth,” he said. “Earth.”

Earth,” it trilled.

This is where we come from,” he said as he pointed to himself. “My home.”

My home,” it repeated, the spinning planet reflecting in its eyes. “Check this out.”

Yeah, check this out,” he chuckled. “Earth is my home. Where do 'you' come from?” He pointed at the planet again. “Earth, my home.” He swiped to a map of the local system that he had pulled from the carrier's intranet, a top-down view that showed the orbital paths of the two planets around their star. The system contained two gas giants, one of them orbiting extremely close to its sun. “Is this your home?”

The alien trilled, reacting to the image. It pointed at empty space, then gave him a beep. “Earth, my home,” it said.

Jaeger sighed, the alien hadn't understood. It was pointing at an empty region between the two planets, there was nothing there. It was like conversing with a chatbot, the alien appeared to understand what it was saying, but it was only repeating what it heard. It seemed to notice that he was disappointed, cocking its head at him. Its feathers flared, catching his eye as they puffed up, a wave of red and orange passing through them.

Earth, my home,” it chirped as it pointed to the empty region again. What did that flurry of color mean, was it frustrated with him?

That's empty space,” he said, “there's nothing there.”

You're making a lot of assumptions,” the creature snapped, mimicking Evans' voice.

He was shocked. It had heard Evans say that during her conversation with Campbell, it had remembered the phrase, and it had used it in the correct context. No, surely not. It had to be a coincidence.

Alright, let's try this.” He opened the file in an image editor, passing his phone to the alien and showing it how to draw shapes on the touch screen with its finger. It hunched over the device and drew for a few moments, then handed the phone back to him. “Well I'll be...”

It had drawn a third ring around the star, a planet orbiting between the two gas giants.

So you are from this system,” he mused, “I wonder why your planet didn't show up on the scans? Campbell did say that the...what was it called...the method that they use to detect planets might have missed something. I'd better go fetch him.”

He stood and made his way over to the alien dropship, the helmetless creature trailing behind him. He rounded the vessel and poked his head inside the troop bay, knocking on the hull.

Chief Engineer Campbell? I have something that you'll want to see.”

The ship was powered down, and it was dark inside, but he could still make out some of the details. It wasn't unlike their own dropships, there was a troop bay with odd seats lining the walls, about enough to house a couple of dozen aliens. They were like director's chairs with no backrest, and there were padded panels on the walls behind them with straps that looked like they would go around the chests of the occupants. Perhaps a backrest would have gotten in the way of their thick tails? It was surprisingly cramped for such a large ship, with lots of exposed machinery and piping, and there was a door at the far end that led to the cockpit.

Campbell was milling about near the door, and he shined a flashlight in Jaeger's face as he turned around.

Ah, Lieutenant, is there something you need?”


A third planet in the system? Do you think the information is reliable?” Fielding asked, directing his question towards Jaeger as he examined the edited picture on the phone and scratched his chin.

The alien seems to know what it's saying,” he replied with a shrug, “I believe it.”

So they are native to HD-217107,” Campbell said, “we should send out a scout. Do we have any ships in the fleet that can make a short jump? A Warden perhaps?”

No,” Fielding said, “but we can send out an unmanned probe. It should only take a few days to reach the inner system and report back. The signal will take a few hours to reach us at light speed, but I think it's a better solution than warping the entire fleet in there. We have no idea what kind of hazards we might encounter, and the aliens can't tell us yet.”

That gives me a few days to teach them more of our language,” Evans added, “they're learning so quickly that they may well be able to tell us about the composition of the inner system themselves. It's probably not necessary to waste a probe.”

I'd rather get confirmation using our own instruments,” the Captain said. “Is there any way that you can accelerate the process so we can get them talking sooner?”

Well,” she began hesitantly, “studies have shown that immersion is the most effective way to learn a new language.”

What does that mean?”

It means immersing them in an environment where people naturally speak that language, rather than teaching them in a more traditional and structured manner. Judging by the way that they mimic the words and phrases that they hear, I think it would be very effective in this case, but I have to say that I think keeping them in a controlled environment is the wisest course of action right now. We need to be able to monitor them, letting them loose in the ship to mingle with the crew is potentially dangerous.”

I agree with Doctor Evans,” Campbell said, “the risk of harm coming to the aliens outweighs any potential benefits. We can't let them interact with the crew at large. Imagine the political ramifications if something were to happen to one of them.”

But what could possibly happen to them?” Jaeger asked. Evans was an academic, she didn't mingle with the crew outside of their visits to the sickbay. Campbell spent all of his time with his head buried in machinery, he didn't socialize with the general population. Jaeger felt like the entire crew was being tarred with the same brush.

You disagree, Lieutenant?” Fielding asked, prompting him to speak freely.

With all due respect, Sir, do you trust your crew? I know these people, I put my life in their hands every time I wake up in the morning. I trust the navigators not to drop the Rorke out of superlight inside a star. I trust the engineers to maintain my Beewolf and to make sure that the reactors don't melt down. I eat my meals and shower with the men and women who live on this ship. Pick any random sailor on the Rorke out of a lineup, and I'd trust them with my life. I think it's perfectly safe to let the aliens loose on the carrier, everyone here understands their responsibilities.”

That was a heartfelt speech,” Fielding said, a wry smile curling his lips. “If you're so sure that your colleagues can be trusted to keep the aliens out of harm’s way, then you won't mind if I make their safety your personal responsibility?”


Then it's decided. Lieutenant Jaeger will be responsible for the safety of the aliens during their time on the Rorke.” Both Evans and Jaeger began to protest, but the Captain's mind was made up, and he silenced them with a wave of his hand. “Keep me informed as to any progress that you make. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must see to the launching of a probe.”

Fielding turned and set off across the hangar, both Campbell and Evans giving Jaeger a look that said don't fuck this up. He glanced over his shoulder, the brood of little aliens looking up at him expectantly. Surely they couldn't have followed the conversation?

Alright, I can do this,” he mumbled. He was trying to reassure himself as much as Campbell and Evans. “Come on aliens, let's go for a walk.”

He patted his thigh like he was calling a dog over, and they seemed to get the picture. The lead alien took up position behind him, and then the other four fell into line like a row of ducklings.

Now, where does one find immersion?” he mused. What was the most social area of the vessel? Probably either the mess hall or the ship's gym, maybe one of the more frequented ready rooms. Perhaps he'd give them the tour. The gym was closest, he would stop there first and see what the aliens made of it.

Jaeger set off, the line of aliens bobbing along behind him in their strange gait. The hallways of the carrier were narrow and cramped, although they must have seemed larger to the little creatures, their heads turning this way and that on their flexible necks as he led them towards the gym. They mounted several staircases that led to the higher decks, so steep that they might better have been described as vertical ladders. The aliens scaled them easily, their bodies light and agile, leaping two or three steps at a time. The people who passed by them in the corridors paused to stare curiously. Those who had not seen them in person yet had no doubt heard about their alien guests by now.

After a minute, they arrived at the automatic door to the gym, the aliens filing in after Jaeger as it closed behind them with a whoosh. Before them was an expansive space, at least as far as the carrier was concerned. The walls were lined with racks for dumbbells, and the floor was dotted with gym mats and various exercise machines. There were bench presses, leg curl machines, peck decks, and a few exercise balls.

Most of the equipment was occupied by humans, but there were a few Borealans too, the mad cats never traveled alone. The felines came from a planet with markedly higher gravity than Earth, and thus when operating in Earth-standard gravity, they were constantly in danger of muscle atrophy. They spent most of their free time working out, and Jaeger got the impression that they'd probably do the same even under conditions that were more suited to them. Describing them as muscular would be an understatement.

A few of the humans stopped using their machines, one man in shorts and a tank top dropping his dumbbells with a thud and walking over towards Jaeger.

So these are the aliens everyone has been talking about?” he asked, crouching down to look at them and wiping his brow. “Little fellas, aren't they?”

I'm showing them around,” Jaeger clarified, “feel free to talk to them. They're supposed to be learning English.”

Hello there,” the man said, still breathing heavily from his workout.

Hello there,” one of the aliens replied in its high pitched voice, mimicking him perfectly. He looked confused for a moment, and then he began to laugh.

So they're like parrots? They repeat what people say?”

Amongst other things,” Jaeger replied, “watch this.”

He whistled the tune that Baker had played for them on his phone, and then several of the aliens broke into song, mimicking both the instruments and the vocals as they recited a random excerpt from the piece by memory. It was remarkable how they were able to memorize such a complex series of sounds and words after only hearing it once. It was tinny and incomplete in places, clearly learned phonetically, but the popular song was immediately recognizable.

More of the gymgoers began to abandon their weights and machines, crowding around the visitors, fascinated by the odd singing and their strange appearance.

Where do they come from?” one woman who was wearing a sports bra asked, her hair tied back in a tight ponytail.

This system, we believe,” Jaeger replied. “But we don't have confirmation yet.”

What are they called?” another man asked.

No idea, we're still trying to teach them to speak.”

Can they copy any sound?”

So far, yeah.”

The man drew a phone from his pocket and tapped at the screen a few times, then another song began to play. This one was fast paced, a rap single, the aliens cocking their heads and chittering as they listened to the beat. He pressed stop, and then the aliens began to repeat it. It was only an approximation, many of the lyrics were slurred, but the rhythm and the melody were downright uncanny. When the humans laughed, that too was mimicked, eliciting more laughter.

Go on,” Jaeger said as he gestured to the lead alien, the creature fluttering its feathers at him. There was an impressed murmur from the small crowd, the woman in the sports bra cooing as she admired the colorful plumes. “Go mingle, learn some new words.”

The aliens looked at one another, chirping and clicking, and then they were off. The little creatures spread out around the gym, scattering to examine the different machines and equipment. One of them approached the Borealans, Jaeger's heart skipping a beat. Oh shit, it probably wasn't a good idea to let the two species interact without supervision. The natural surliness of the Borealans, when combined with the inquisitiveness and boldness of the little reptiles, was a decapitation waiting to happen.

He pushed through the crowd, nearly stumbling over an errant exercise ball, and came to a stop beside the alien. It was the lead one, without its helmet, its plumage erect and flashing in shades of orange as it peered up at the feline.

The Borealan was massive, she probably weighed five or six hundred pounds at least, and she was currently benching an enormous barbell. She was wearing a sweat-stained sports bra and a pair of shorts, her pale skin glistening with sudor, the light from the halogen lamps that lined the ceiling accentuating her impressive musculature and making her shine. This variety had fur, but only on the forelimbs, making her look like she was wearing tiger-striped knee socks and elbow gloves. She heaved, baring her sharp teeth, dropping the weight back into its rack with a tremendous crash. The rest of her pack was nearby, the one that had been spotting for her staring at the strange little reptile as it fluttered and chirped.

She sat up, rolling her massive shoulders and watching the alien out of the corner of her eye.

What is that?” she asked disdainfully, pointing to it with a clawed finger.

Don't know yet,” Jaeger replied with a shrug.

What's it doing here?”

I was ordered to give them the run of the ship, to help them learn English. You can talk to them, just...remember your three Ds...”

The Borealan stared at the reptile, it seemed fascinated by her. Before Jaeger could intervene, it reached up to touch her furry forearm. The feline bared her teeth at it, her brow furrowing in a threat display. She didn't strike it, however. She allowed the alien to run its gloved hand through her striped fur. The same gesture might have netted an overly curious human a dislocated arm, he was shocked that the giant creature didn't react more violently. As a general rule when dealing with Borealans, it was unwise to maintain eye contact for too long, to get in their personal space, or to touch them without solicitation. Perhaps the diminutive stature of the little alien meant that the Borealan didn't see it as a potential threat?

It drew its arm back and beeped at her cheerfully, the Borealan's round ears twitching.

Impudent little thing,” she huffed. “Brave for one so small.”

They were out there fighting the Bugs with us in the asteroid field,” Jaeger explained, “I've never seen formation flying like that before.”

You kill Bugs, little one?” the Borealan asked. “Then you and I have something in common.”

She lay back down, gripping her barbell again and hoisting it out of the rack, her muscles bulging from beneath her skin. Jaeger heard a commotion, turning to see that one of the aliens had clambered up a dumbbell rack and was perched atop it like a hawk, surveying the room. It was about six feet off the ground, and the humans beneath it were pointing and chuckling. They certainly had a good sense of balance, something to do with their tails maybe.

Another was watching a human who was doing bicep curls with a dumbbell, its eyes tracking the movement of the weight as it went up and down. It reached out its gloved hands as if it wanted to see the item. The dumbbell was at least fifty pounds, there was no way the little creature could possibly hold it. Its arms were only as thick as Jaeger's wrists, and it couldn't have weighed much more than a hundred pounds itself.

The man chuckled, pausing his routine and handing the dumbbell to the little alien. He kept a hold on it, making sure that it didn't fall and crush the creature, letting it rest in the palms of its hands. The reptile hoisted it easily, the man's smile faltering as it lifted the exercise equipment like it weighed nothing at all, turning it over and examining it. They were strong, far stronger than their stature would have suggested. No wonder they could leap so high, there must be a lot of muscle packed into their tiny frames.

It handed the dumbbell back to the man, who watched it with a confused expression on his face as it sauntered off to inspect a water fountain.

The little aliens really were fearless, and he could hear half a dozen conversations happening all at once. At least for now, the plan seemed to be working.


It called to her across the gulf of space, she could smell it in the light, the thousands of eyes and sensory organs that were scattered around the great beast's hull feeding her information in every wavelength and frequency. There was carbon in that atmosphere, the blue tint of oxygen and nitrogen, the green of biomass, and the sparkling reflection of oceans. It was a fertile womb, a haven for her children, an oasis.

Her scouts had already encountered resistance, local fauna defending their territory. This was to be expected, it was the course of nature, and she had come ready to fight. Her children bristled with weaponry, plasma and resin ready to stab and burn, claws and mandibles for cutting and biting. The struggle for living space was fierce, be it against aliens or her own kin, it was a purifying gauntlet that ensured that only the strongest and fittest inherited the rich soil and liquid waters.

The journey across barren space had been long and arduous. Resources were dwindling, and her young were ravenous. The Repletes were gaunt, their bellies emptied of their life-sustaining honey. The males were restless, already stretching their wings, eager to fertilize their Queen and begin the process of birthing a new generation of soldiers. She felt something almost akin to hunger, desire, a burning compulsion to claim this planet for herself and to satisfy those instincts.

She flexed her long, chitinous limbs, feeling the living walls of the vessel closing in around her in her chamber. The blend of meat and metal shifted and heaved, glistening with moisture, the thick column of nerves and wires that linked her twelve-foot frame to its nervous system relaying everything that the behemoth hive ship felt. She could feel the asteroids that battered against its thick shell, the clusters of smaller vessels that were docked to its belly, the thrusters along its body that belched super-heated methane to propel it through the debris field. It was like an extension of her body and her mind, it even had its own, simple intellect that was housed somewhere within the titanic lobes of its brain. She had been adrift for so long that she had almost forgotten what it felt like to use her own eyes, to smell pheromones with her own organs, to have a mind free of trajectory calculations and superlight equations.

Finally, her exodus had to come to its conclusion, but the ordeal was far from over. Now she must rally her forces to take this planet, to make it her own and to propagate her species. The coming war would be the ultimate test, there could be no surrender, only survival or extinction.

Chemicals in the gut of the great vessel were mixing, combining to produce an electrical charge that was building up inside the jump drive, ready to propel her and her fleet to the target world. A few more cycles and they would be ready. If their strain was worthy, they would prevail...


Get off the table!” Jaeger complained.

High up table,” the alien whistled.

I know you like being high up, but we don't walk on the tables in the mess hall. It can't be sanitary.”

Baker found it amusing, laughing through a mouthful of shepherd's pie as he watched the creature chirp and fluff up its vibrant feathers. The engineer seated to Jaeger's left found it less humorous, sliding his metal tray further away from the disruptive creature as it babbled. The rest of its brood were hanging around nearby, interacting with other crew members and generally being a nuisance. One of them had taken a liking to the Krell, and Jaeger was concerned that it was learning a useless blend of both languages. It kept climbing up them and sitting on their broad shoulders. Fortunately, the giant reptiles were a tolerant bunch.

I swear, it's like babysitting toddlers,” Jaeger grumbled.

The aliens had been making great strides over the last couple of days, they had accumulated quite a large vocabulary just from their interactions with the crew as Evans had predicted. They were running him ragged, however. The only time that he got any reprieve was when they returned to the hangar periodically to eat or sleep. He had noticed that they did everything as a group, a flock, if you will. They seemed to take long pauses between activities to huddle and talk, and when they encountered something new or unexpected, they seemed to stop in their tracks, as if they had to reach some kind of consensus before taking any further action. They were more egalitarian than a Borealan pack, for example, or a military unit. There was no clear leader, at least as far as he could tell. The one who had taken off its helmet was the most vocal and the bravest, it was that one that interacted with him the most, it tailed after him wherever he went like a puppy. Today he was trying to teach them names.

Jaeger,” he said, slowly and clearly as he pointed to his chest. “My name is Jaeger.”

Human,” it chittered.

Yeah, I'm a human, but my name is Jaeger. Look, this is Baker.”

Today's menu is shepherd's pie and collard greens,” the alien repeated, “get off the table!”

Jaeger cradled his face in his hands and groaned. All of the complete sentences that they spoke seemed to have been heard elsewhere. They were starting to form their own sentences now, and Evans said that he should try to encourage that behavior, but they were having problems with grammar. He snapped his fingers, getting the bird's attention.

Concentrate, will you? Jaeger.”

It cocked its head at him.

Jaeger,” it repeated.

Yes, good! You remember good, right?” The alien beeped affirmatively. “Good, good. Now, what is your name?” he asked as he pointed at the creature. “I am Jaeger, this is Baker, you are..?”

Maza'xol'natuih,” it replied. Jaeger snapped to attention, that hadn't been mimicry, that word was new. It was oddly halting, each syllable clearly separated from the rest by a short pause.

That's your name? Maza?”

Maza'xol'natuih,” it repeated, pointing to itself. “That's my name.”

He shared a surprised glance with Baker. The alien finally understood names, and it had picked up some contextual words and phrases too. He wanted to test if it could differentiate between different people, turning to point at the alien who was currently perched contentedly on the Krell's shoulders like a giant parrot.

What's their name?”

The creature cocked its head, looking to where he was gesturing.

Ayau'pal'lea,” it replied. Jaeger exchanged another glance with Baker. The aliens certainly had complex names, hard to pronounce too. How were they supposed to memorize them?

I guess if you learn as fast as these things do, having complicated names isn't much of an issue,” Jaeger mused as he watched the bird-like creature.

Give it a nickname,” Baker suggested, gesturing with his fork. “They split their names into sections, right? That's what it sounds like to me. So just call that one Ayau.”

I suppose that makes sense, it's certainly easier than trying to say Ayau...pal...whatever.” He pulled out his phone, bringing up the edited image of the system again, with the extra circle that the reptile had drawn.

And what is this called, Maza?” The alien cocked its head, brushing the touch screen with its fingers, not seeming to understand. He swiped and brought up a picture of Earth. “Its name is Earth.”

Earth,” it repeated. It turned its violet eyes towards Jaeger, reaching out and prodding his chest. He watched as its pupils shifted and dilated, the colored irises were patterned like a nebula when seen so closely. “Earth'nay.”

Earth...nay?” he repeated, “what does that mean?”

It swiped back to the picture of its home system, pointing to the crude circle.

Val'ba'ra,” it said, then it pointed to itself again. “Val'ba'ra'nay.”

Oh!” Baker exclaimed, “I get it! It's a...fuck, what's it called?” he said as he snapped his fingers. “A suffix, that's it. It's calling you an Earthling, nay is a suffix.”

So their planet is called Valbara?”

Baker nodded emphatically, eating another forkful of pie.

Valbara,” Jaeger mused, “that would make them Valbarans. Finally, something I can report to Doctor Evans to prove that I haven't been goofing off.”

They're learning fast,” Baker said, “it's a little scary actually. Imagine if they could learn to fly a ship, or field strip an XMR just from a single demonstration?”

Evans said that they seemed to have photographic memories,” he replied, watching the alien as it peered back at him. No, not the alien, its name was Maza. He wondered if it was male or female, or indeed if their species made such distinctions at all. None of the creatures had taken their camouflaged space suits off in the presence of humans yet. Was that for modesty, or perhaps some other reason? Due to the flashing color panels on their forearms, he had surmised that they likely had feathers there too, just like on their heads. The plumes certainly seemed to express emotion, but they must have other purposes too, nobody would install a massive LCD panel along the side of their ship simply to convey their mood.

Jaeger,” Maza said, leaning closer and staring into his eyes. It made him uncomfortable, but he didn't avert his gaze, the alien seeming to stare into his soul. “You Beewolf. You kill Bugs, you and I have something in common.”

The voice that the reptile was mimicking was that of the Borealan that it had encountered in the gym, course and gruff, with that rolling accent that almost made it sound Russian. Again, he wondered if the alien knew what it was saying. It certainly seemed to be associating the words in a way that made sense, even if they were a patchwork of disconnected voices and accents.

And what do you know about Bugs?” Jaeger asked.

Bugs, get off the Val'ba'ra!” it chirped in response.

We can probably help you out on that front,” he replied. “Here, look at this.” He opened the intranet browser on his phone and pulled up information on alien species. “Borealan, Krell, Broker. Borealis'nay, Krell'nay. See? We work together,” he said as he set the phone on the table, meshing his fingers together. “Coalition, a team.”

Coalition kill Bugs.”

That's right, that's what we do.”

The alien picked up the phone, swiping through the pictures. Jaeger reached out to take it back, but the reptile pulled it out of reach, scurrying towards the center of the table and sitting there as its eyes scanned the pages.

You think giving it access to the intranet is a good idea?” Baker asked. “There's a lot of info on there, amongst other things...”

I can't teach itself to read, surely? What's the worst that could happen?”

Baker shrugged, shoveling another forkful of shepherd's pie into his mouth.


I have to shower,” Jaeger said, the aliens that were trailing behind him in an orderly line cocking their heads and looking up at him like curious puppies. “Just...hang around out here and wait until I'm finished. Stay out of mischief.”

He opened the sliding door to the communal showers, and he was immediately met by a wall of steam, the sound of water hitting the tiled floor echoing through the room. It was large enough to fit maybe twelve humans at once and tall enough that a Borealan could stand inside without having to crouch. There were a good number of these showers spaced out around the carrier, and even then it was sometimes an ordeal to find one that wasn't occupied, considering that there were more than six thousand people living on the ship.

This one was fairly empty, occupied only by a solitary Krell who was lying on the floor like a giant alligator basking on a shore, taking up one entire side of the communal showers as it let the water cascade over its scales. They liked water, being amphibious creatures, and there were no pools that they could lounge in onboard the carrier. It seemed to be sleeping, its eyes were closed, and its massive body was rising and falling subtly as it breathed.

He began to strip off his jacket and shirt, stowing them in a nearby locker, but he soon stopped in his tracks. He could feel eyes on his back, and when he turned around, the aliens were standing nearby and peering up at him. Jaeger was used to showering with other people. Men, women, aliens. It hardly mattered, maintaining one's sense of modesty in such a cramped professional environment was basically impossible, you just had to get used to showering with women and seeing the occasional alien junk. The staring of the Valbarans was putting him on edge, however.

Shoo,” he said, waving his hand at them. They just stared at him. He sighed, then shrugged and continued to remove his clothing. Who knew, maybe they wanted to see his anatomy. The one named Ayau went off to bother the Krell, rumbling in an approximation of the alien language as it clambered up the creature’s back.

Oh, leave him alone,” Jaeger grumbled. “What is it with you and Krell?”

It wasn't listening, and he noticed that it had closed the visor on its helmet. Did they not like water? He stripped down to his underwear, then hesitated, deciding to keep his shorts on. Something about exposing himself in front of these little creatures felt...odd. The rest of the aliens set off to explore the room, playing with the dials, changing the temperature and the flow of the water as they frolicked beneath it. They also closed their helmets, and he supposed that he wouldn't like to shower with an open helmet either, maybe it would flood the inside of their suits.

Maza stayed with him, however, watching him intently with its violet eyes. It must be curious, it had never seen a naked human before, after all. Nor any alien for that matter. He felt strange referring to the alien as it, he hadn't asked the creature its gender yet, or if its species even had genders. Right now didn't seem like the right time to broach the subject.

As he moved beneath the stream of the nearest showerhead and set the temperature to his liking, Maza reached up and sealed its helmet. He couldn't see where it was looking beneath the opaque visor. He squirted some shower gel into his hand from a wall-mounted dispenser and began to spread it, coating his arms and upper body in the soapy suds. He was facing the wall, but he could still feel eyes on his back, his instincts informing him that he had an audience.

When he turned around, Maza had taken a few steps closer, the water splashing on its insulated suit and rolling down its helmet in sheets. The snout of its helmet was only inches away from him, a little below chest height. As he watched, the alien reached over and fumbled with its right wrist. The bulky metal pressure seal popped open with a hiss, and it removed the glove to expose its bare hand. The two fingers and its thumb were tipped with dull claws, covered in the same green scales that were present on its head. Their entire bodies were likely scaly too.

It reached out towards him tentatively. For a moment, he considered batting it away, but he had no idea if this was appropriate behavior in their culture or not. They didn't seem to have much concept of personal space, and he didn't want to frighten the creature or risk insulting it.

Its fingers brushed his abdomen, sliding slowly across his soapy skin as if testing its texture. He was suddenly aware of how much he was moving. His abdominal muscles tensed where its fingers roamed, his chest rising and falling, his heart beating as the alien explored him. He noted that its touch was warm, not cool like a Krell. Did that mean that the Valbarans were warm-blooded, like mammals? With the visor closed, he couldn't read its expression, couldn't gauge where it was looking.

It reached up above its head and took his wrist in its gloved hand. It was surprisingly strong, it had a grip like iron, but it was gentle with him. It guided his hand down and opened his fingers with its ungloved hand, stroking his palm, tickling him. It watched his digits flex, inspecting them, perhaps surprised by the number. After a moment, it placed its palm against his, comparing their two hands. Its scaly skin was as smooth as glass and oddly soft. He hadn't expected it to feel like this, he had assumed that their scales would be rough and dry. It was so small, the span of its fingers just barely filled his palm.

It was an oddly intimate moment, it made him feel...strange.

W-what are you doing?” he mumbled, not knowing if it could even hear him inside that helmet. After a moment, an external speaker crackled to life, and its high-pitched voice came through.

Coalition,” it said, interlocking its mismatched fingers with his. “Together.”

Uh, yeah...” He drew his hand back, resuming his shower as the little alien watched him. After a moment, it reached out to tug at his shorts, but he gently pushed its grasping fingers away. “Nope, if you want to learn about our anatomy, you can do that on your own time.”

Maza took a step back, letting him resume his shower, wiping its hand dry on its suit and then locking the glove back into place. Jaeger was accustomed to getting his shower over with quickly, as he was usually on call, and so it was only a couple of minutes before he was drying himself off. Once he had gotten his clothes back on, minus his wet shorts, he noted that the gaggle of little reptiles were all soaked. He sighed, preparing his towel, memories of his attempts to wash his rowdy childhood dog flashing through his mind.

Alright you little monsters, line up, you can't go running around the carrier when you're soaking wet.”

Incredibly, they actually did as he asked, lining up in a row. He dried their suits off one by one with the towel, the sleepy Krell watching the odd scene with one eye open, apparently not interested enough to dedicate two to the task. Their camouflaged clothing was thick and insulated. He couldn't feel much beneath it, and so he was unable to tell if their wide hips and narrow torsos were a result of their biology, or if it was just the shape of their suits.

When he was done, they followed him out of the room dutifully, off to their next adventure.


Valbara?” Doctor Evans asked, giving the aliens a concerned glance as one of them rummaged through a metal tray of medical tools. She walked over to it and pulled its hand away, the alien chirping its displeasure as it scurried away to examine a rack of lab coats, vanishing into the fabric with only its long tail visible.

That's what Maza said,” Jaeger replied with a shrug, “that's the one that took off its helmet for us. It also implied that there are Bugs on their home planet, or maybe there were, it's hard to be sure. They're making progress with the language, ask them something and see for yourself.”

Very well,” she said, clearing her throat. “Maza, come here.” The little alien trotted over, its head bobbing with every step, looking up at the physician expectantly. “Do you know where you are?”

Rorke, carrier of Earth'nay,” it replied.

Earth...nay?” Evans asked, turning to Jaeger and raising an eyebrow.

I think it means Earthling, or from Earth, that's their word for us. They call themselves Valbaranay.”

And what is your name?” Evans continued.


How many fingers am I holding up?” she asked, extending two fingers.

Two finger,” Maza said, followed by a beep.

I have to admit, I had my doubts when the Captain ordered us to let them loose on the ship, but it seems to be doing wonders for their vocabulary. None of them have fallen into a waste disposal chute or been sat on by a Krell so far, so I guess I have you to thank for that, Lieutenant.”

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Doc.”

I wonder if they'll consent to a physical examination now?” she pondered aloud.

Worth a try,” Jaeger said, “they've not taken their suits off as far as I know. Not outside their dropship, at least. I'm getting pretty curious about what they have hidden under there myself.”

Maza,” Evans began, crouching down to eye level with the creature as it stared at her with its unblinking eyes. “Would you remove your clothes so that I can examine you? Do you understand?”

She mimed taking her clothes off, and Maza cocked its head.

Nope, if you want to learn about our anatomy, you can do that on your own time.”

Evans stood rapidly, scowling at Jaeger as he laughed.

Did you teach it to say that?”

At least it understood the question,” he chuckled.

I suppose so. You know that these aliens mimic the accents and mannerisms of the people they copy, right? If someone teaches them to curse as a joke, we'll know who did it.”

I promise not to teach them to curse, Doctor.”

If they won't consent to an examination then there's not much more that we can learn from them,” Evans grumbled, clearly disappointed by Maza's reaction. “With a little more practice, perhaps we can simply ask them what we want to know.”

Yes, Ma'am. By the way, have you heard anything about Scratcher?”

Who or what is Scratcher?” she asked.

He was the Beewolf pilot that got brought in recently, Captain Fielding told me that he was undergoing evaluation in the sickbay.”

I'm not aware of any-”

This your female?” Maza asked, interrupting Evans as it thrust the phone that it had swiped earlier into Jaeger's face. On the screen was a picture of a Borealan taken from some kind of fact sheet, showing its internal workings like the bone structure and placement of the organs.

My female?” Jaeger asked, confused. “I don't have a girlfriend if that's what you're asking. You should ask Scratcher about that when he gets out of the infirmary.”

No,” the alien chirped, frustrated. “You species female.”

You're asking if the Borealans are the females of my species? Of course not, why do you say that?”

Maza seemed surprised, examining the picture again.

You smaller.”

So? Should a male be smaller than a female?”

Males smaller than females.”

Not for humans, nor Borealans for that matter,” Evans added. “Our genders are about the same size. Is that not the case on Valbara? Your friends all seem to be about the same height,” she said as she glanced at the other aliens who were currently exploring her office. Again Maza seemed confused, cocking its head at the humans.

No males.”

There are no males with you?” Jaeger asked. “Why?”

Male can't fight.”

That's plural,” he corrected, “males can't fight.”

Males can't fight.”

Better, now why can't males fight?”

Males is for...” Maza thought for a moment, “raise young.”

Strange, so your gender roles must be the reverse of ours,” Evans wondered. “I'm somewhat surprised to see that kind of attitude prevailing in such an advanced species.”

Don't make judgments just yet, Doctor. Their males really could be three feet tall for all we know.”

It wouldn't be unheard of,” she said. “In fact, mammals are quite unusual in being a patriarchal species. In most animal classes, it's the females who are larger and more dominant than the males. In insect and fish species, the female can sometimes be many times larger than the male counterpart, and quite anatomically distinct. If you were to see a male and a female golden silk spider side by side, for example, you could be forgiven for assuming that they were entirely separate species. The female is six times the size of the male. Perhaps we can forgive our guests for making the same assumptions about us.”

So that means these guys, or rather gals, are all females?”

It appears so,” Evans replied.

I suppose we must all look the same to them if they can't tell our males apart from our females.”

Well, we're a lot less sexually dimorphic than many species. We don't have any flamboyant crests, no antlers or peacock feathers, nothing to differentiate us if we're fully clothed. Perhaps that's a lesson for a different time, however. I'd rather keep my lab coat on today.”

So what do you think?” Jaeger asked, “are they ready to talk to the Captain yet?”

I'd give them another day. This one, Maza, seems especially good at reproducing human speech. She's almost got it down. Make sure you keep her talking, give her lots of one-on-one practice.”

Will do,” he said, patting his thigh to get the attention of the Valbarans. “Come on girls, let's give Doctor Evans some peace. No...put that back,” he chided as one of the aliens lifted a microscope from the worktop. “Maza, what's this one called?”

Coza'ma'lotl,” she replied with a trill.

Right, Coza then. Coza, come here.”

The curious alien set the item down and trailed after him reluctantly as he led them out of Evans' office and into one of the Rorke's many winding corridors.


So you're female?” Jaeger asked, Maza bobbing along beside him as they walked.

You male?”

Yeah, I'm male.”

She looked him up and down, almost as if she didn't believe him.

Earth'nay males fight?”

Where I come from, everyone fights. Some are better suited to certain jobs than others, you'll probably find more male Marines than females, but we all do our part. What are your males like?”

Small,” she replied.

Describe them to me, it's good practice.”

She hesitated for a moment, thinking hard.

Male has...”

Plural,” Jaeger added, “males have...”

Males have beautiful feathers,” she said, gesturing to her head and puffing up her crown of colorful plumes. They must be impressive indeed if she was suggesting that hers weren't beautiful in comparison. “Smaller, weaker, but pretty.”

And what about your homeworld? What's it like? Do you have jungles, forests, oceans?”

She cocked her head at him, and he gestured for her to pass him the phone, then he pulled up some vistas of Earth's different environments. There were mountains and rolling hills, verdant forests, and grassy savannas. He passed the device to her, and she examined it, stopping in the hallway as her friends crowded around to see. She swiped through the pictures, her eyes wide, chittering and whistling to her companions.

Not so different,” she finally said, “your world is beautiful. What is this?”

He leaned over to see what she was pointing at. It was a giraffe in one of the nature shots, the sun setting behind it on the Serengeti.

That's an Earth animal,” he explained, “it's called a giraffe.”

What's this?” another asked, and he recognized her as Ayau due to her tan scales.

That's a Zebra.”

This, this!” another warbled as she pointed at a picture of an elephant. She had far darker scales than her companions, a deep shade of spinach green visible beneath the open visor on her helmet. She looked up at him eagerly as she waited for his reply.

That's an elephant,” he explained. “I don't believe we've been introduced, what's your name?”

Xico'hte'otl,” she announced as she patted herself on the chest, then she went back to staring at the pictures. The aliens were fascinated, and he wondered what kind of fauna might exist on Valbara.

Come on,” he said. “I'll take you to one of the ready rooms, and we can put on a nature documentary for you. You'll be able to see lots of Earth animals.”

They seemed excited by the prospect, pausing for a moment to huddle together like football players before a game. They always seemed to do that whenever he suggested a new activity, it was like they wouldn't act unless each one of them was in agreement on exactly what they'd be doing. After a few moments, they formed an orderly line and began to follow him again as he set off down the narrow corridor.

You said earlier that you wanted to get the Bugs off Valbara,” he said. “Have they invaded? Did they attack you?”

Maza considered again, choosing her words carefully.

Val'ba'ra'nay have two worlds, another star, Ker'gue'la. We make new life there, grow, spread for thirty rotations. Aliens appear, we meet Bugs. They are not friendly like Coalition.”

They kill Ker'gue'la'nay,” the one called Coza added, “take world. Survivors flee to Val'ba'ra, return home. We convert carriers for defend, make new weapons, wait many rotations for Bugs to find us again. Now they come, but Coalition come too.”

Maybe this time will be different,” Maza said with a flurry of yellow feathers.

Maybe Earth'nay protect Val'bra'ra,” Ayau said with another flash of colorful plumes.

Jaeger's heart sank. So the Valbarans had been a multi-planet species at one point, for at least thirty years, or however long a Valbaran rotation was. They must have discovered superlight travel relatively recently, and they had done what every species who discovers it eventually does, expand their living space. Then one day the Bugs had arrived, their compound eyes fixed on the habitable planet, and they had driven the Valbarans from their colony. He had seen what happened to colonies that succumbed to the Betelgeusians, the insects had no qualms with genocide and war crimes, they saw the defenders as simple vermin to be eradicated by any means necessary. The survivors had fled back to their home system, and the Valbarans had geared up to defend it from what they probably assumed to be an imminent invasion by an organized force.

It seemed that they didn't yet know the true nature of the Bugs and how they propagated, what their goals were. It was a fact that the Coalition had only recently discovered themselves. There was no organized Bug armada, there was no communication between their hives. Once a new Queen was birthed on a Bug colony, she was compelled to build a small fleet, and then she had to leave in search of a new planet where she could found her own colony. It was likely that the fleet that was currently scouting the Oort cloud of HD-217107 had originated from the very same world that the Valbarans had surrendered years prior.

We won't let them take Valbara,” he said confidently, “the Rorke will stop them.”

Coalition fights Bugs,” Maza replied, her feathers fluttering in shades of yellow and orange. She seemed hopeful, was that the emotion conveyed by her plumage?

Rorke smash Bugs,” Coza declared, her feathers standing up in shades of red and orange. “Railgun, big railgun, Beewolf!” The other aliens chirped in agreement, She certainly seemed to be the more aggressive of the bunch, she was a hair larger than the other members of her flock too. Maybe she was the muscle.

Damn straight, that's our job,” Jaeger said with a nod.

He wasn't sure that she fully understood, but she seemed happier now. It really had been a stroke of luck that they had happened upon each other when they had. If the UNN had chosen to patrol this sector of space a week earlier or later, they might not have crossed paths at all. The Rorke might have continued on, none the wiser of the mortal struggle that was about to ensue in the humble little star system. But now they had a chance to help these people, and that was what the job was all about when it came down to it. That was why everyone joined the UNN, even if that original intent often became lost in the realities of war. A technologically and militarily superior force had been dropped into the lap of the Valbarans at just the right moment, like the answer to a prayer.


The prosperity of the pride depends on a successful hunt,” the narrator said as a lioness stalked through the brush, her straw-colored coat shining in the hot African sun. Her round ears pricked up, and the camera panned over to a warthog, the tusked animal raising its head from the ground to sniff at the air intently as clouds of flies swarmed around it. “She approaches, silent, waiting for the perfect moment to strike...”

There was a surge of drums as the lioness leapt from her hiding spot, the footage playing back in slow motion as she powered through the undergrowth towards her quarry. The warthog skidded as it took off, kicking up a cloud of dust as it fled from the charging predator. It was too late, however. The beast sank its claws into the warthog, dragging it to the dusty ground and biting at the back of the animal's vulnerable neck. Her companions joined her, the warthog struggling ardently as sounds of snarling and growling came through the speakers.

It has been a while since their last kill,” the narrator continued, “the hungry pride piles in to claim their share of the spoils.”

One of the lionesses rose from the carcass as the camera zoomed in on her, her furry mouth stained red with blood. The Valbarans were transfixed, perhaps not understanding the subtleties of the narration, but reveling in the scenes of this alien planet and its magnificent species all the same. Jaeger was sat behind them, watching their reactions as much as the documentary, and he couldn't help but feel a sense of pride as they stared at the wall-mounted monitor. Would the Rorke soon be orbiting their home planet? Would he be able to see Valbaran documentaries about their native life, if indeed they made such things?

He heard the whoosh of the automatic door opening behind him, turning to look over his shoulder. Scratcher was standing in the doorway, one arm in a sling.

Thought I was gonna have to search the whole carrier for you,” he laughed.

Jaeger rose to his feet and hurried over to his friend, trapping him in a bear hug, Scratcher wincing as he bumped into his arm.

Sorry,” Jaeger said, taking a step back and patting Scratcher on the shoulder. “I kept asking after you, but they wouldn't tell me shit. Glad to see you're still in one piece.”

More or less,” Scratcher replied, gesturing to his bandaged arm. “Caught it on the edge of the cockpit on my way out, turned the bones to powder. Luckily, it didn't breach the suit, or I'd have to get one of those prosthetic limbs that the station chief is so proud of. Looks like I'm gonna be grounded for a few weeks.”

You're in better shape than your Beewolf, let's put it that way.”

Did Boomer and Scorch make it out alright?”

Jaeger's face fell, and he slowly shook his head.

Baker is fine, but...they never found Boomer. The rocks blocked his beacon, and that's if he survived his Beewolf breaking up.”


I wanted to go help look for him, but they wouldn't let me.”

Yeah, I heard that you've become the resident alien-sitter.”

Wasn't my idea, they just seem to like me, they won't leave me alone.”

So these guys were what you saw in the belt?” Scratcher asked, watching as the aliens left their seats and trotted over to him. “Curious little things...”

The Valbarans peered up at him, then Maza noticed his arm, pointing to it with her two-fingered hand.

You injured?”

They talk?” Scratcher asked, and Jaeger nodded. “Yeah, my arm was broken during the battle. Fucking Bugs totaled my Beewolf.”

You are Beewolf pilot?” Coza asked, her companions exchanging glances.

Yeah, unfortunately, I checked out before you guys showed up.”

To both their surprise, Maza and her friends extended the tentacle-like sheaths on their heads, the feathers puffing up into a display and turning a shade of blood red. They clasped their hands in front of them, the LCD panels on their forearms flooding the same shade of crimson. It was like some sort of salute or ritual. Scratcher shot Jaeger a questioning look, but he just shrugged. Realizing that they didn't understand, Coza elaborated as best she could.

You shed blood in battle,” she explained, “We give respect.”

Oh,” Scratcher said, “okay then. Thanks.”

The aliens collapsed their feathers back into their protective sheaths, watching the pair of humans as they interacted.

So what are you doing with these guys?” Scratcher asked. “I'm surprised that the Captain is giving them the run of the ship.”

I'm supposed to be teaching them English, they're learning really quickly. A couple of days ago they couldn't speak a word, and now they're almost fluent.”

Is there going to be a service for Boomer? I know he's technically MIA, but he couldn't realistically survive for this length of time, assuming he lived through his ejection. His life support would have run out after about a day.”

I think they're still searching for him. Better wait a little longer and see if they can recover anything. I never liked the empty casket deal, it feels...weird, y'know?”

Yeah. Fuck man, I feel like I was only talking to him yesterday. How about we go find Scorch and hit the bar? You're on alien duty, and I'm grounded, so we can blow some creds on booze and make fun of him for not being able to drink because he's on call. It's what Boomer would have wanted.”

Yeah, alright. I’ll have to bring these guys along, but they were fighting with us, it feels appropriate. If they hadn't turned up when they did, you'd probably be drinking alone today.”

Any friends of Bullseye are friends of mine,” Scratcher said, grinning at the aliens.


The bar was suitably dingy, it was a fairly small room in comparison to the galley or the mess hall, not much more than a dozen stools lined up in front of a crescent-shaped countertop. The Rorke had four bars spaced throughout the ship, and recreational drinking was tolerated under certain conditions, as the morale boost for crew members who might be stationed on the vessel for months at a time was significant. You had to be off call, meaning that you weren't on standby waiting to rush to your post if the shooting suddenly started, and you were limited to two alcoholic beverages per twenty-four hour period. If you got caught wandering the halls while over the limit, you'd get thrown into the brig until you sobered up, and you'd also get a dock to your pay for the rest of the voyage.

This one was vacant, probably because much of the crew was on duty due to the recent encounter with the Bugs in the belt. Rather than having a human bartender sitting behind the counter, these were staffed by robots. You entered your credit account number, selected the beverage that you wanted from a touch screen, and then a disembodied mechanical arm would mix it for you. It couldn't listen to your problems, but it was programmed to prevent you from getting wasted.

The three pilots sat at the bar while the aliens milled about nearby, observing as the humans started their strange ritual, tapping in their orders and then watching as the silver arm whirred to life. The bottles were inserted into recesses in the wall behind it, and it pulled them out with mechanical precision, mixing and shaking the drinks before placing them on the faux wood bar in front of the patrons.

Jaeger and Scratcher sipped at their mixed drinks, trying to make their small allowance of alcohol last, while Baker could only drink soda. They reminisced about Boomer, and about their time at the flight academy, sharing humorous stories about his exploits.

Did he really smash all the windows?” Baker asked.

He did,” Scratcher laughed. “He flew over the town at about two thousand feet, but he was going hypersonic, Mach five in atmosphere. The sonic boom smashed a bunch of windows and set off car alarms for miles. It's a miracle he didn't get kicked out of the Navy. He was cleaning toilets after that stunt for months.”

Might'a been better for him if he had,” Baker mumbled, taking a swig from his glass of soda.

Nah,” Jaeger said, “he loved it out here. He loved flying. If you built a time machine and went back to the day that he joined up, and then told him his fate, I think he'd still sign his name on that form regardless. The same could happen to any one of us, but we're not going to quit, are we?”

Here here,” his friends chorused, taking a drink. The Valbarans had been sitting patiently, but now Maza sidled up to Jaeger, tugging at his clothes to get his attention.

What is this ritual?” she asked, her voice low. She was being respectful, she knew that something of significance was happening, but not exactly what.

We're mourning a friend,” he explained as he looked down at her from atop his bar stool, “he was lost in the battle.”

Ah. This is...Earth'nay funeral?”

Not quite, we're just getting together to remember him. There will be a funeral later.”

Do we intrude?” she asked, her fleshy pigtails twitching as if she wanted to puff up her feathers but was restraining herself.

No, no. You guys fought with us, you're welcome here.”

What was his name?” she asked.


The Valbarans clasped their hands together again, putting on another display of red feathers and flashing LCD panels.

What are they doing?” Baker whispered.

Saluting Boomer,” Scratcher explained, “it's a thing they do.”

I'd buy them a drink, but for all I know, the alcohol could melt them or make them explode,” Baker added.

The humans took another drink, and then the aliens stowed their feathers, Jaeger and Maza sharing a lingering glance. He felt a new appreciation for her, seeing her in a different light. She was no longer a strange and sometimes silly alien that climbed on tables and mimicked pop songs, she was an emotional creature, she understood both his loss and his pride on some level. A Krell would fight viciously to protect its friends, and it would mourn their loss, but would it truly understand the significance of toasting to their memory? A Borealan would seek to avenge its pack mates through any means necessary, but honor and vengeance were moral absolutes in their culture, they were expected to mourn in specific ways. This little alien understood him, however. She knew what was going through his mind, he could feel it in the way that she was looking at him.

A toast to our new allies,” Jaeger said, elbowing Baker who was sitting beside him. “To the Valbarans, without whom we might have ended up as Bug chow.”

To the Valbarans,” they echoed, taking a drink.

You know,” Scratcher said, leaning around Baker to address the aliens directly. “UNN pilots get a callsign, like a nickname. You guys are all pilots, right? If you're going to fly with us, then you need a callsign. Tradition dictates that we pick one for you.”

Maza cocked her head at Jaeger, but he just grinned at her.

Me first,” Baker said, clearing his throat and waving his finger between the five aliens. He selected Ayau, narrowing his eyes at her as she glanced to her fellows nervously. “What's this one called?”

That one's name is Ayau,” Jaeger said.

You, your callsign will be...Velocity.”

What? That's terrible,” Scratcher complained.

It's a play on words!” Baker protested. “Velocity 'cos they're going fast, and it's also like velociraptor. What, didn't you like dinosaurs as a kid?”

No, I was more into not being a fucking dork. Me next,” Scratcher said, singling out another of the aliens. He selected Coza, the alien standing defiantly with her hands on her wide hips. “Your callsign will be...Eagle Eye. I hear those lasers you Valbarans use are pinpoint accurate.”

Let me do another,” Baker said as he once again singled out one of the five aliens. “That one, what's her name?”

I don't know what that one is called,” Jaeger admitted, turning to the little alien. “Can you tell us your name?”

This one seemed a little timider than the rest, almost as if she didn't want to draw attention to herself. When Jaeger spoke to her, she shuffled backwards a little, like she was trying to fade into her flock and avoid scrutiny.

Her name is Tacka'hauh'qui,” Maza volunteered.

That's quite a mouthful,” Scratcher said, taking another sip of his drink.

Tacka, then,” Baker continued. “Tacka, your callsign will be...Ghost.”

The fourth alien cocked her head at them, perhaps not really understanding what was happening, but wanting to be included all the same. It was Xico, the one with the dark scales.

Xico'hte'otl,” she said as she pointed to her chest.

Xico,” Scratcher said, resting his injured arm on the counter as he held his drink in the other. “For you, Camouflage. That shade of green makes me think of woodland camo.”

Not bad, not bad,” Baker said. “Let Bullseye do one next.”

Jaeger looked down at Maza, scratching his chin as he wracked his mind for a good nickname.

Laserbird,” he said.


Jaeger bade farewell to his friends, setting off back towards the hangar. The aliens trailed after him, bobbing along behind him as they followed him through the twisting bowels of the carrier. The bar was located far at one end of the vessel, towards the aft, and it was somewhat of a trek to get back to the hangar from there.

After what must have been half a mile of walking through branching corridors and up and down vertical staircases, Maza signaled that she and her friends needed a breather. The aliens stood in place, seeming to rest, and yet they were standing upright.

Don't you want to sit down?” he asked. “I figured you might have trouble keeping up on those little legs.”

Sit? Why?” she asked.

You don't have to stand up, you know. Aren't you uncomfortable?”

She seemed as confused as he was, cocking her head at him.

Earth'nay must sit to rest?”

Something was up, and he circled her as he examined her legs. They looked like those of a dinosaur, or some kind of bird. The Valbarans stood on their two toes, and they had a slightly forward-leaning posture that made them look as if they might fall over without their balancing tails. Her digitigrade limbs were very thick and strong around the thighs, and they tapered into thinner, more bony shins. It was hard to tell if the bulk around their legs was biological, or a result of their suits. Perhaps they had some kind of padding or electronics housed there. The same was true for the way that their wide hips tapered into such a thin waist, it just didn't look natural to him.

He noticed that they weren't shifting their weight from foot to foot as a human would have done while standing in one place for a long time, they were perfectly level, their legs immobile. All five of the aliens were standing in the exact same posture.

Have you...locked your leg joints?” he asked.

This is unusual for Earth'nay?”

Amazing, so that was how they were able to crouch and perch on crates for such long periods of time. When they tired, they just locked their legs, and their skeletons would take the load off their muscles.

We can't do that,” he replied, “we have to sit down. Can you sleep standing up too?”

Earth'nay cannot?”

Well, now he had something of interest to relay to Evans, at least.

Earth'nay have stamina,” she continued, “walk for long time. Strong.” She looked him up and down with those unblinking eyes, and for a moment he felt a little self-conscious. She met his gaze unflinchingly, and when he blinked, it seemed to please her. “I wonder how well you fight, will have to find out some time soon.”

He remembered how easily one of the aliens had lifted that massive dumbbell in the gym. Despite their size, they seemed to be extraordinarily strong, so why was she praising his stamina just for walking around the ship?

You speech is getting much clearer,” he said, making small talk as he waited for the aliens to recover. “When Doctor Evans told me that you'd probably be speaking fluently in less than a week, I didn't really believe her. You learn quickly, at least more quickly than what we're used to. I feel like I could have a real conversation with you now.”

You asked me of my world,” she said, “I was distracted by your animals.”

Yeah, I remember, I think I'd be distracted too if you showed me pictures of Valbaran animals.”

We have many, they will impress. Soon I hope to show you.”

Show me? Pictures?”

No,” she said, struggling to find the words. “Soon we will visit Val'ba'ra, my flock and I believe it to be so. There I will show you my world, as you have shown me your Rorke.”

I hope you're right, I'll look forward to that. I could do with some shore leave after spending so many months cooped up on the carrier.”

I like you, Jaeger,” she said as she looked him in the eyes again. Her irises were so strikingly violet, reflective and shiny under the harsh halogen lighting of the ship, the slits of her reptilian pupils expanding into large circles as she watched him. She fluttered her feathery headdress, shades of pink and red flashing, her companions sharing glances between one another. He felt like he was being left out of the loop, their subtle feather displays completely outside of his understanding. “You are not like other males, you are...competent.”

I guess I'll take that as a compliment,” he chuckled.

CHAPTER 7: HD-217107

The findings of the probe confirm the claims of the aliens,” Campbell said, pacing in front of the table in the briefing room as a hologram of the system flickered above it. Jaeger was once again in attendance, along with Doctor Evans, some of the more senior personnel, and the Valbarans. The Captain was standing beside the engineer, his hands clasped behind his back as he examined the ghostly display. “There is a third planet in the HD-217107 system, between the orbits of the two gas giants. Its distance from the star is calculated to be one point two AU, with an orbital period of one point three Earth-standard years. Due to the luminosity of the star, approximately ten percent brighter than Sol and ninety-eight percent of its mass, it puts Valbara well within the habitable zone. Valbara appears to have a slightly lower mass than Earth, but not enough to have any serious impact on any potential ground operations.”

What kind of activity did the probe pick up?” Fielding asked.

Lots of radio chatter, lots of interplanetary and orbital traffic. It appears that the Valbarans have established outposts on several moons of the outer gas giant, which is likely where they mine the helium-3 that they use in their reactors. Interestingly, the inner gas giant orbits at point zero zero seven AU from the star, and its year lasts only point zero two standard, that's a little over a week. It's incredibly hot and fast, I've never seen anything like it.”

Defenses?” Fielding asked.

A series of orbital defense platforms using high-powered laser batteries, and several more carriers like the one we encountered. Their reactors are kicking out immense heat. Not the most practical orbital defense system, but I wouldn't want to be in the aperture of those mirrors all the same. Personally, I don't think they'd be able to burn through the hull of a hive ship at any significant range, even if they concentrated their beams. I don't know how effective they'd be at holding off a Bug invasion. There's radioactivity too, likely nuclear weapons. Those might be more effective, but their use is obviously limited. Their strategy might have been to bombard the Bug fleet at range with their nuclear warheads, and then finish off the stragglers with laser fire.”

Did we miss anything?” Fielding asked, directing his question to Maza.

No, Captain,” she replied. “I must admit, I am a little...perturbed by your ability to spy on us.”

Her language skills were now so good that she was very nearly fluent, she might have been mistaken for a human if it wasn't for the pitch of her voice and the way that she seemed to hesitate before making a statement. It was remarkable to hear her speak so clearly after days of her parroting everything that she heard like...well, a parrot.

It's strictly for our own security, I assure you,” he replied.

So your evaluation is that our defenses would have been inadequate?” Coza asked, glancing at Campbell. “Ever since our defeat at Ker'gue'la, we have known that the Bugs would come for Val'ba'ra, and that it was only a matter of time. We have been preparing to face them for twenty rotations.”

There are a lot of holes in your defenses,” Fielding replied. It wasn’t a criticism, but a simple statement of fact. “Your defense stations lack the ability to take out small vessels, which would allow the Bugs to board and disable them. They would also slip between the stations and make landfall, effectively bypassing the majority of your firepower.”

We would use the fighters housed on our carriers to counter that threat,” Coza protested, her feathers fluttering with what might have been frustration or embarrassment. “Our commandos would hold the defense platforms against boarding parties.”

Have you ever seen what a Betelgeusian warrior can do in close quarters?” Fielding asked.

N-no,” she admitted, her feathers drooping.

They can turn even a Krell into strips of meat. We've seen the Bugs launch large dropships, small landers, even individual drones contained within drop pods during a planetary invasion. Your fighters would not be able to track and destroy them all. I don't know what your people encountered at Kerguela, but there's no guarantee that this fleet will have anything in common with that hive. The Bugs mutate and genetically engineer themselves to suit whatever situation they find themselves in.”

With all due respect, Captain, it is...difficult to accept that all of our preparations have been for nothing,” Maza said as Coza glared at the flickering hologram. She more than any of the other aliens seemed to be shaken by the revelation.

Not for nothing,” Campbell added, “we can make use of them to supplement the fleet's firepower.” will not seek help from your homeworld?” Maza asked, surprised.

We can't,” Fielding explained, “it would take about a year to return to Coalition space and then make it back here with reinforcements. The Bugs are already probing the system for weaknesses.”

My apologies, it's just that your technology is so impressive to us. We assumed that you could communicate over great distances instantly, or perhaps travel faster than we can.”

Don't worry,” Jaeger said, trying to reassure her. “The Rorke and its fleet were sent out here with the aim of tracking down and killing Bugs. We're equipped for this.”

Campbell grumbled under his breath, leaning across the table and staring at the hologram.

Still, this fleet wasn't assembled to defend an inhabited planet,” the surly engineer said. “We have only one carrier, we don't have any battleships or cruisers, and our support fleet is fairly limited. We'll be stretched thin if we try to maintain control of Valbara's gravity well.”

Then we rely on the Valbarans for support,” the Captain said, glancing in the flock's direction. “They have a dozen carriers, numerous defense platforms, and an entire civilization's worth of resources and manpower. With the right strategy, I'm confident that we can repel an invasion.”

Campbell didn't look as convinced as the Captain, shooting Jaeger a sideways glance.

Quartermaster, the first thing that I want is an inventory of everything we have onboard,” the Captain ordered. “I want to know about every surplus XMR and every extra missile that we can spare, we're going to give the Valbarans the best chance that we can. I want information sharing to begin immediately, treaties and trade deals be damned. Transfer blueprints, plans, manufacturing techniques if necessary. I want them converting their current armaments and building new ones ASAP, and I want advisors on the ground to help them along.”

Captain!” Doctor Evans exclaimed, “do you have any idea what kind of impact that might have on their society?”

It might be a bit of a shock to their economy, but they can deal with the fallout if we survive this.”

You're us all of your technology?” Xico asked in disbelief, her feathers flashing in shades of excited yellow.

You would risk your lives for ours?” Coza added.

I'm under orders from the Admiralty to scour this sector for Bugs and to prevent them from establishing a foothold on the borders of Coalition space from which they could launch further incursions,” Fielding replied without faltering. “I'm just carrying out my duties, Ma'am.”

The aliens closed ranks and began to chitter to one another in their native language. Apparently, they hadn't expected this kind of support. Campbell sighed loudly, running his fingers through his hair.

Alright...well the defense platforms have reactors, and if they can power lasers, then they can power a railgun. That's going to help with range and penetration. Assuming that the Valbarans have the lifting capability to get them into orbit, we can build some twenty-millimeter turrets and hook them up to the power grid. Ammo is easy enough, it's just a matter of getting enough of it to where it will be most needed. We can equip the commandos stationed on the orbital platforms with surplus XMRs, and we can transmit the blueprints to build more. If they don't have the battery technology required to power them, then we can teach them to manufacture those too. If they can mine lithium, and they can make graphene, then they can manufacture batteries.”

We can plug some of the holes in their defenses with our CWIS frigates,” Fielding said, pacing around the table as he scrutinized the hologram. “Have them protect the defense platforms and prevent the Bugs from slipping through the cracks as best they can. What about their carriers?”

I don't think we can retrofit them,” Campbell said, bringing up a three-dimensional image of one of the Valbaran ships. The aliens again seemed disturbed by the ease at which the UNN was able to scan their technology and expose their military secrets. “One possibility would be to slave the targeting systems on those ships to the Rorke's flight computer. I think they would be more effective filling in for the CWIS frigates than as ships of the line. If we can direct those laser batteries, then we can use them to shoot down incoming torpedoes and fighters. The same goes for the lasers on the defense platforms.”

Can the Rorke's computers handle that kind of load?” Fielding asked.

Bandwidth might be an issue, but if we boost the capacity of the main comms array, then I think we'll have enough throughput. We'll need to write some new software to interface with the Valbaran computers, of course. We're going to be kicking out a stupid amount of radio chatter, which is going to light us up like a beacon. The Bugs will know what we're doing.”

If I might interject, Sir,” Jaeger began. “How will we know when and where they'll attack from? If we concentrate our defenses on one side of the planet, and they exit superlight on the other, we'll lose time burning to them. Right now, they're sniffing about in the Oort cloud, but they could jump in from any direction. We don't have the numbers to cover the whole planet.”

The defense platforms are spread out around the planet's equator in high orbit,” Campbell replied, “we'll have to relay the signal between them if we're going to hijack all of them at once.”

We will station the mainstay of the fleet in orbit above the North pole,” Fielding said, “that way we can waste the shortest amount of time burning to their entry point. There's no reason for them to jump in at either of the poles, the Valbaran cities and manufacturing centers are mostly based around the equators, judging by their carbon emissions.”

What do you require of us, Captain?” Maza asked. Perhaps the aliens were feeling left out.

I need your team to contact your carrier, inform them of everything that you've learned during your time on the Rorke. We'll be sending them some large data packets soon, so make sure that they’re ready to receive and store them. I also need you to ask them for jump coordinates, I don't want to land the Rorke in the middle of a shipping lane.”

She nodded, another gesture that she had picked up from the humans.

We must discuss this further, please excuse us.”

The aliens filed out of the room one by one, no doubt about to huddle again and come to a decision on what to do.

You all have your orders,” Fielding said, clasping his hands behind his back as he glanced at each of the people sitting around the table in turn. “Let's not waste any time, the Bugs could start their attack tomorrow, or in a month. The faster you work, the more we can prepare, and the better odds we'll have of succeeding.”

There was a chorus of yes sir's, and then the personnel in attendance stood, making their way out into the corridor.

Stay with the Valbarans,” Fielding said, stopping Jaeger as he made his way to the door. “It looks like fate has chosen you to be our ambassador, Lieutenant. You know these aliens better than anyone onboard. This is going to be jarring for them, I want to make sure that everything goes smoothly. Let me know if you anticipate any problems.”

Yes, Sir.”

Lord knows that if an advanced species showed up out of nowhere and offered to take control of our entire military, I'd be nervous.”

Maza understands what we're trying to accomplish here,” Jaeger said, “I'm sure of that. The rest of her species though, is another matter.”

You've done well so far, I know that none of this is in your job description. Keep it up.”


The Rorke left superlight just behind the Valbaran carrier, showering it in a cloud of colorful gas and particles, the rest of the support fleet dragged along in its wake. The vessels drifted for a moment as the miniature nebula spread and dissipated, the autopilots taking temporary control to prevent collisions as their crews endured the wracking energies of jump travel.

When they came to, before them was a gleaming jewel hanging in the blackness of space like some kind of beautiful bauble. There were shining oceans, their deep blue surfaces glittering under the light of the sun, swirling clouds cloaking continents of greenery. There was pink and purple too, odd colors for plants, staining the landscape like someone had spilled a giant cup of grape juice across the globe. The white hulls of the carriers and the defense platforms that were stationed in orbit shone brightly like beacons even at range, like motes of dust that ringed the equator. There were poles sheathed in white ice, but not much of it, they were small and reduced in comparison to those of Earth. It must be a warm planet.

The massive engines to the aft of the Rorke flared to life, belching blue flame as they propelled the behemoth towards Valbara. It was the largest thing in the sky, a whale swimming amidst a school of dolphins, the Valbaran carrier leading from the front like a tug guiding a tanker into port. The frigates that accompanied the giant vessel took up parade formation beside it, spread out in an impressive delta shape. The Captain's orders were to awe the aliens, both to inspire hope, and perhaps to dissuade any potential hostilities.

The Valbaran vessels are communicating, Captain. There's a lot of radio chatter,” the comms officer announced. Fielding was standing in front of the large viewport at the front of the bridge, his arms crossed as he watched the planet slowly grow.

Keep her steady, helmsman. Head for the North pole and park us in orbit. What's the status on the ground team?”

Ready to launch,” the comms officer replied, touching a finger to her ear as she communicated with the hangar crew. “Shall I give them the go-ahead?”

No,” Fielding replied, “let's wait until we're a little closer first.”

As the planet ballooned in the viewport, a trio of carriers began to burn towards them, squadrons of fighters detaching from their hulls and taking defensive positions.

They're on an intercept course, Captain,” the weapons officer said as he looked up from his control bank. “Should we be worried?”

No, keep our weapons cold. Remember, we're guests here. How would you feel if an unidentified ship, larger than any that you've ever seen, suddenly showed up in your skies? It's natural for them to be a little nervous.”

The ships neared until their spinning toruses were clearly visible, their long, segmented hulls glinting in the light of the system's star. A formation of fighters did a fairly close flyby, their colored panels flashing as they buzzed the bridge. They came back around, matching velocity, guiding the Rorke in as their engines pulsed.

See?” Fielding said with a wave of his gloved hand, “here's our welcome party. Let's send the ground crew down to the surface.”

Yes, Captain.”


Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, feeding coordinates to your flight computers, your orders are to follow the Valbaran lander down to the surface and make landfall. Ensure the safety of the dropships, they're carrying the engineering and security teams.”

Roger that, control,” Jaeger said as he spooled his engine. “You get all that, Baker?”

Yep,” his wingman said, taxiing into position beside him as the heat shields rose out of the deck behind them. “I can't believe this, I never thought they'd actually let us take shore leave on Valbara. Imagine all the crazy shit we're about to see!”

It's not shore leave, we're working.”

Tropical climate, no orders once we get out of the cockpit besides lookin' around and takin' in the local culture, sure sounds like shore leave to me!”

Jaeger watched as the camouflaged Valbaran lander lifted off the deck on its thrusters, inching towards the glimmering force field as it battled against the gravity in the enclosed hangar. It edged its way out into space, the wheeled landing gear stowing as it drifted, the momentum of the Rorke carrying it along.

The indicator on Jaeger's HUD turned from red to green, signifying that he was clear to launch, and he gunned the engine. Acceleration pressed him into the padding of his seat as he shot out into the void, using his forward thrusters to slow himself as he came back around and located the Valbaran ship. Baker shot out to his rear, flame trailing from his engine as he banked to take up formation beside him.

You picking me up, Laserbird?” Jaeger asked as he tuned his radio to the frequency that the aliens used.

I read you, Jaeger...and do refrain from calling me Laserbird over an open channel...”

Negative on that last request, Laserbird.”

He watched as three UNN dropships left the hangar one by one, bulky craft with stubby wings that were painted the same ocean grey as the carrier, the cockpits placed high on their blunt noses. These were the main troop transports of the Coalition, able to hold a couple of dozen Marines or half as many alien auxiliaries, as armored as you could make something before piloting it became more akin to trying to make a breeze block fly. He had flown them during his training, and gliding during a simulated engine failure could be better described as controlled falling.

Everyone took up formation with the Valbarans, the camouflaged vessel firing its engines and leading them towards the planet. It was already so close that it was more of a curved horizon than a sphere, his flight computer tagging nearby alien vessels and satellites on his way in. He could see the massive defense stations, nowhere near the scale of the Pinwheel, but large enough to be impressive. The Valbarans weren't half bad engineers. The stations were colored the same white as the carriers, their ring-shaped hulls dotted with stubby-barreled laser cannon batteries. There were two rings, an outer one that housed the weapons, and an inner one that rotated to simulate gravity. There was no central hub, the crew must work on the outer torus and then live on the inner, a compromise that was necessary for a species that lacked artificial gravity technology.

There were satellites everywhere, probably for global communications, and the carriers were spaced out all over the place. He was picking up a dozen in radar range alone.

Match my trajectory,” Maza said, “we'll be landing at the spaceport in Yilgarn city.”

He watched as her engines went cold, the lander rocking as it entered the atmosphere. Heat built up until flames licked across the canopy, leaving black smears where they came into contact with the heat tiles. Meanwhile, the two Beewolfs cut through the atmosphere like knives through butter, using their thrusters to brake as they glided effortlessly. The Valbaran ship looked so strained, like it was about to shake apart, the air currents buffeting it as it left a smoking trail through the cloud layer.

They soon emerged into open air, and Jaeger looked down past his feet to take in the landscape as it rushed past below them, zooming in with his visor to magnify the image from the camera feeds. As they dropped in altitude, he could make out what looked like lush forests, the trees resembling conifers and ferns. Large lakes and snaking rivers were everywhere, shining like bands of silver as they reflected the sunlight. There was purple too, patches of pink and violet that seemed to stain the landscape.

The fighters maintained their formation with the dropships as they flew in lazy circles, aerobraking to shed velocity, the flames of reentry fading. It seemed that the Valbarans were no longer making use of their main engines at all, they were simply gliding, like a spaceplane from humanity's distant past. It was actually rather difficult to match speed with them, they were making the unwieldy UNN dropships look graceful and spry in comparison.

As they shot over the wilderness, Jaeger couldn't help but feel confused.

Hey Maza,” he said, switching to the open channel. “I thought you said that we were headed to a city?”

We are,” she replied.

Alright...but I'm not seeing any buildings yet. There's no sprawl, no industry, I feel like we should have seen something by now.”

Just wait,” she replied, “you'll understand soon enough.”

His scope picked up a white glint in the distance, his sensors detecting the heat signatures of fusion reactors, even above the balmy thirty degrees centigrade of the local atmosphere. He zoomed in, but the heat haze made it hard to see much at such a great distance. As they neared it, the land below still devoid of anything remotely artificial, the city came into full view.

Amidst the rolling plains and pockets of dense forest, there was a white ring. It was a wall, it must have been about two hundred feet high, built from the same material as their orbital platforms it seemed. It was maybe twenty miles from side to side, with an area of perhaps a thousand square miles, and contained within it was Yilgarn.

Vast urban sprawl, ugly industrial centers, and towering financial districts characterized most human cities. They were overpopulated, with massive skyscrapers a mile tall that broke up the horizon, tens or even hundreds of millions of people packed as densely as they could manage over thousands of square miles. He had seen the domed cities of Mars, which were similarly overcrowded, and this construct was even larger than their glass bubbles.

The first thing that stood out to him about the walled city was the greenery. Within its boundaries, the flora continued to flourish, there were no concrete parking lots or asphalt roads to break it up. Rolling hills and carefully tended forests made it almost indistinguishable from what lay beyond its borders. Everything was laid out in concentric rings. The outermost of these bands was made up mostly of grassland, criss-crossed by pathways that threaded between patches of forest and purple plants, dotted with small streams and lakes. There were no buildings there of any kind, at least none that were visible. Was it some kind of nature park or botanical garden?

The next band was occupied by twelve massive towers spaced out at regular intervals around the circle, at least twelve hundred feet tall. The giant cylinders were made from the same snow-white material, rows of glass windows glittering as the sun bathed them in its glow. Each one was subtly different from the last, curved buttresses and artistically designed facades making each one an architectural marvel. Atop their domed roofs were laser batteries, clearly designed to be the air defense platforms for the city. At the base of the towers there were buttresses that were spread out in a regular pattern to reinforce them, like the outriggers of a crane, and surrounding them were more landscaped gardens and forests.

Deeper into the circle was a wide band that was populated by what looked like white pinheads, spaced out in a very random and organic manner, as though they had been scattered there by the hand of some clumsy giant. Pathways led between them, and they were surrounded by trees and lakes. Upon closer inspection, he realized that it was not random at all, but very thoughtfully arranged so that the hills and trees masked each of the small buildings from the view of its neighbors. These were dwellings, must be, the Valbaran equivalent of a suburb.

Further in still was another thin band of parkland, and then the nature finally gave way to something more recognizable. Rows of what looked like tower blocks occupied the next circle, shorter than the defense towers, but probably still six hundred feet high. Beyond them were skyscrapers, not as tall as those of Earth, but still imposing. They were built from white and silver metal, lined with large windows. What stood out to him most were the terraces, large balconies that extended from the sides of the high-rises at seemingly random intervals, blanketed with green and purple foliage like rooftop gardens. Each skyscraper was unique in its design, with odd and exciting architectural features, their curving and organic shapes making them feel as though they were a natural part of the surrounding landscape. It was as if someone had taken all of the most outlandish and unusual structures from London, Dubai, and Hong Kong, and then had crammed them all into one city center.

Ritzy...” Baker muttered over the radio.

Follow me down to the runway,” Maza said, banking her lander in the direction of the skyscrapers. The tips of her stubby wings left contrails in the air behind her, what looked like air brakes opening along the hull. As they rounded the cluster of towering structures, a long landing strip came into view, leading to what must be the spaceport. It was small by UNN standards, there was nowhere that the Rorke could have made landfall, or even one of the frigates. Could the Valbaran carriers not land on a planet? The more he thought about it, the less likely it seemed, they were shaped all wrong for atmospheric flight.

He watched as Maza glided down to the ground, deploying her wheels and touching down, bouncing for a few feet as the lander braked. It finally came to a stop, then it began to taxi towards a series of hangars that were off to the right.

Let's make a vertical landing on the runway,” Jaeger suggested, angling the nose of his Beewolf down. He thought he'd give the Valbarans something to gawk at, coming in hot and hitting his forward thrusters, slowing abruptly and hovering above the tarmac. He could see that there were bystanders near the hangars, zooming in on them to see aliens standing with their jaws agape and their feathers puffed up, shielding their eyes from the sun with their hands as they watched him.

Baker came in doubly hot, angling his nose up towards the sky as he used the thrusters on his belly to brake, pivoting towards the hangars as he kicked up a cloud of dust. The dropships came down after them, lowering themselves a little more gently, touching their gear down on the ground. Their grey hulls shone, their canopies reflecting the sun.

Where do you want us, Maza?” Jaeger asked over the comms.

Taxi into the nearest hangar,” she replied, her voice hissing with static. “And Jaeger, welcome to Val'ba'ra.”


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.


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 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.”


The train car raced along the track with a silent grace, the twisted, sculpted spires of the city center rising in front of them as they descended the wall. They took a branching path, turning away from the city and angling off towards what Jaeger had assumed to be the residential band. The little domed houses sped past beneath him as he peered out of the window, cloaked in rolling hills and picturesque nature.

I thought we were going to the city?” he asked, turning to Maza who was sat beside him.

We should drop your gear off at our home first, and I need to change into something more casual. I can't walk around in my flight suit all day.”

I wish I could say the same,” he grumbled, turning back to the window. “We're supposed to wear our uniforms for the duration of our stay, we're representing the UNN, after all.”

He was starting to see other Valbarans for the first time, pedestrians walking about on the twisting paths below, some on foot and some riding scooters. They wore colorful clothes, resembling flowing shirts and tunics, with shorts of varying lengths. Not one of them traveled alone, they all had several companions, moving around in groups like the flocks of birds from which they got their name.

As much as he envied the Valbarans for essentially eliminating loneliness, it was all becoming a little...utopian for his liking. The aliens were clearly deeply collectivist by nature, and it made him wonder what kind of individualism had developed in their culture, if any. Their pristine, sparkling city, their environmentalism and their dedication to sustainable living. Surely there had to be some kind of caveat, something ugly lurking beneath the whitewashed surface? Or maybe he was just being cynical, unwilling to admit that their culture did certain things better than his own.

The train slid into another one of the sculpted awnings, and the party stepped off, the car zipping away to service another citizen somewhere along the massive rail network. That was one of the benefits of planning out your city as a cohesive engineering project with no intention of expanding it beyond the initial design, it made public transportation very easy to manage. The Valbarans had little need for cars, or indeed anything larger than their scooters.

He found himself standing in what looked very much like a park. There was a pathway beneath his boots made from what almost looked like white sand, sparkling in the sunlight. It wasn't loose like sand, however. The texture was more like asphalt. He was surrounded by trees, their leaves swaying gently in the wind, and there were bushes with colorful flowers that lined the walkway to either side. He couldn't see very far. Wherever he looked, his line of sight seemed to be obscured, either by the fat tree trunks or by the very landscape itself, carefully shaped to obscure all artificial structures from view. It was sublime, they must have put so much thought and planning into it.

I feel like I'm on a golf course at a country club,” Baker whispered, Jaeger chuckling at the visual.

Shall we get some scooters?” Jaeger asked, but Maza shook her head.

We'll do things the human way, it's not too far of a trek. I got the impression that you didn't much care for our transportation methods.”

A little precarious maybe,” he admitted. “Not all of us have stabilizing tails, you know.”

You just suck at driving,” Baker added.

That's a fair point actually,” Maza said. She flashed her feathers, then she and her friends huddled together again, chittering and warbling in their native tongue. When they broke ranks, Maza made her way over to Jaeger, taking him firmly by the hand and beginning to lead him down the pathway. He turned to look back at Baker, who was being rapidly ferried away by the four other aliens, ushering him towards the scooter racks beside the mag-lev station.

Aren't they coming with us?” Jaeger asked.

Baker and my companions prefer to use the Scooters,” she explained, “but you and I can take a more scenic route if you should prefer.”

I really don't mind that much,” he protested, “if you want to-”

Maza wasn't having any of it, the feather sheath on her forearm snaking out to wrap around his wrist, her sleeves still rolled up to her elbows from their sparring match.

Nonsense, come. You are my guest.”

Baker looked alarmed, the gaggle of aliens chattering and whistling as they practically pushed him onto the scooter and set him off along a different branch of the pathway, the whir of their electric motors fading. Jaeger paused, watching his friend vanish into the trees, Maza giving him a tug to encourage him along.

Uh...alright then,” he conceded.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, Jaeger taking in the sights and sounds of the local environment. The blue-green leaves rustled in the wind, and he could hear the calls of alien birds, though they were unfortunately out of sight.

How does it compare to Earth?” she asked, glancing up at him. She seemed chipper, happy to have some time alone with him perhaps.

It's similar in some ways, very different in others,” he replied as he turned his head this way and that. “These fat trees, for example. We have a species on Earth called a baobab that looks very similar, except that it grows only in very arid environments, and the leaves don't look like palm fronds.”

Palm fronds?” she asked.

Another type of tropical tree, their leaves look like these,” he said as he pointed to the blue-tinted canopy. “I wanted to ask, why are there so many blue and purple plants?”

Oh?” she responded curiously, “what color are the plants on earth?”

Pretty much exclusively green. I thought it might be because your sun is a little different to ours, maybe they can photosynthesize in different spectrums of light or something like that.”

Maybe. Of course, from my perspective, some plants have always been that color.”

It's nice,” he added, “refreshing.”

I wanted to ask you something too,” she said, her head bobbing as she walked along beside him. She still had a tight hold on his hand. “You said that with Earth'nay, the males are larger than the females, correct?”

Yeah, that's the case for all mammals, I'm pretty sure. It's not really very pronounced. You've met human women, Doctor Evans for example.”

So Earth'nay like their women to be smaller than them?”

Some do, I suppose,” he said with a shrug. “Scratcher certainly doesn't...”

And how about you?”

I guess I've never really thought about it.”

Maza stopped beside the pathway, keeping her tight hold on his hand as if afraid that he might escape her, and reached down to pick a yellow flower from one of the bushes. She held it to her nose for a moment, and then raised it towards his face. He felt her dexterous tail on his shoulder, guiding him down, and he crouched obediently to smell it. The scent reminded him of oranges, and she watched him expectantly with her unblinking eyes, as if expecting a response.

Smells nice,” he said, and she gave him a flutter of pink from her feathers. She caught the flower by its stem in her tentacle with remarkable finesse, she had such fine control over it that it might as well have been an extra finger, using it to reach his head which was slightly out of range of her hand.

She placed it in his hair, then drew back, the tentacle opening into a flare of pink plumes along with those on her head. He wasn't sure how to react, military men didn't commonly wear flowers in their hair. Perhaps it was some kind of ritual, like the wreaths of flowers presented to visitors on the Hawaiian islands?

You should let your hair grow out,” she said, “it would look good.”

I...don't think UNN regulations allow that,” he replied stiffly, averting his eyes from her intense stare again.

Come,” she said, changing the subject and tugging him along the path. “I'll show you the lake by our house.”

They carried on, the sand-colored walkway snaking through the trees, Jaeger always keeping an eye out for a peek of white as if trying to confirm to himself that these aliens weren't quite as perfect as they seemed. He never once spotted an artificial structure from the path, as hard as he tried. The nature around them was immaculate. They finally arrived at the shore of the small lake that Maza had described, more of a pond in his opinion, wrapping around the base of a hill that was covered in vibrant flowers. Winged insects buzzed between the petals, and he could make out fish swimming beneath the water. The Valbaran equivalent of a Koi carp perhaps?

His willful companion let go of his arm, locking her legs to rest for a moment after their short walk, while he approached the water's edge and crouched to peer at the aquatic creatures. There was movement beneath the surface, but what he saw was not the silvery, shining scales of a fish. These animals were bulky and armored, with bony plates protecting their bodies. Their fins were not gossamer skin stretched over spines, but rather muscular flippers. They were about the same size as a trout, but far heavier, colored a dull brown that camouflaged them against the pond bed. When one of them rose to the surface to catch an errant, pond-skipping insect, he noticed that their jaws were lined with blade-like teeth.

Don't worry, they're afraid of anything larger than they are,” Maza said. “You can dip your feet into the water without worrying about losing your toes if you want to. It's nice to go for a swim sometimes, helps you to cool off.”

I think I'm good,” he replied, rising to his feet. Even across the lake, he couldn't see another building, and he noticed that the water seemed to be supplied by an underground pipe that was only visible when he made a point of searching for it. All of the lakes and rivers might be connected through one invisible network, and he remembered the larger spillways that he had seen spewing water at the base of the wall.

We should press on,” Maza said, unlocking her legs and gesturing for him to follow. There was probably a specific feather flutter in Valbaran body language that meant follow me, but she mostly switched to the human equivalents that she had picked up during her time on the Rorke in his presence, smiling and nodding and other such things. It was remarkable that she had managed to remember them all, and what context they were supposed to be used in.

He followed behind her as she led him around the corner, and after maybe another hundred feet, a building finally came into view. The first impression that it gave him was that of a plastic igloo. The dwelling was dome-shaped and made from smooth, white material. It was featureless save for the round windows and the low door which had a tunnel-like porch. There was one dome that seemed to serve as the main house, and then there were two smaller ones that branched off it, it almost looked like a trio of soap bubbles. The roof looked low, even for the Valbarans, and he worried that he might have some serious trouble walking about inside. The structure was nestled between two hills, and there was a carpet of flowers around it, with a small grove of trees nearby to provide shade. It was certainly picturesque, like a space-age country cottage.

This is where we live,” Maza announced, “what do you think?”

Why the dome shape?” he asked.

It's the most efficient shape for a dwelling. It's structurally very strong, it's easier to heat and to cool, thus making it friendlier to the environment.”

As they made their way to the tunnel-like entrance, he noticed that there were five scooters lined up in a long rack beside it. Baker and the rest of Maza's flock had arrived long before they had. The entrance too was arched, and he had to duck down to avoid hitting his head. It was narrow as well, his shoulders scuffed the walls as Maza led him towards the door. It swung inwards, the alien holding the door open for him courteously, and when he stepped over the threshold, he saw that the building actually extended a fair distance below ground. This made the roof much higher than it had appeared on the outside, and he found himself able to stand unhindered, at least towards the center of the domed ceiling.

The interior was as strange as the exterior. It was indeed perfectly circular on the inside, and it seemed that every item of furniture had been made with that in mind. The tables and shelves were crescent-shaped, adhering to the curve of the walls, and even what looked like a television screen was subtly concave so as to conform to the angle of the surface that it was mounted on. The only exceptions were the seating arrangements, which along with a couple of circular tables, were the only things that weren't pressed up against the walls. There were the usual director's chairs that he had grown accustomed to seeing, along with a long couch that had no backrest, which looked as if it could seat several of the little creatures at once.

The floor was carpeted with a deep shag that was almost like fur, although it must be synthetic, as Maza had told him that the only mammals on Valbara were small rodent-like creatures. You'd need a hell of a lot of them to carpet a floor of this size. The interior walls were also white, although the tone was a little warmer, closer to beige perhaps. Sunlight flooded in through the round windows, they looked like portholes, and the interior was well lit by natural light.

The decorations were just like the trees, familiar in some ways, yet alien and unrecognizable in others. There were a lot of potted plants around the room, sitting on the shelves and spaced around the base of the wall. It almost made the furniture look like it was protruding from the undergrowth of a sparse jungle. There were photographs too, not framed pictures, but rather holographic images displayed using some kind of metal disk with a lens in its center. They displayed pictures of Valbarans at various stages of life, engaged in diverse activities. Jaeger found it a little hard to tell them apart, at least the ones that he hadn't personally met. If he had to guess, it was probably Maza's flock, and perhaps their relatives.

One of them was clearly a photo of the flock, standing in a row and holding some kind of Y-shaped sticks with netting on the end. They were wearing tunics that were the same color and design, with alien markings that he couldn't decipher. Was it some kind of sport perhaps, like hockey or lacrosse? There were a few other sundries scattered about, ornaments of alien design and what might have been shelves of either books or data storage containers.

The rest of Maza's flock spilled into the living area from an adjacent room, greeting their fellow with high-pitched whistles and feather displays, Baker trailing behind them.

You gotta try this, Jaeger,” he said. He was eating some kind of bar-shaped food item that was wrapped in foil. “It's great! Why do you have a flower in your hair?”

Jaeger hastily brushed the plant away, then he narrowed his eyes at Baker's snack.

Oh for- did you use the scanner on that?”

No,” he mumbled through a mouthful of whatever it was.

For fuck's sake Baker, bring it here. If we have to go get your stomach pumped I'm going to throw you to the Teth'rak.”

He slung his pack off his back and rummaged inside it, retrieving the handheld scanner. It was a food analyzer used by Marines in the field, designed to let then know if alien food sources were safe to eat or not. Baker handed over the candy bar, and Jaeger ran the scanner over it, watching as the results displayed on a small built-in screen.

You're in luck, there's nothing we can't digest in it,” he said as he passed it back to his friend.

Oh, that's a relief,” Baker replied as he took another large bite, talking as he chewed. “What's it made from?”

Sugar, some kind of native grain,” Jaeger said as he read from the display. “Fruit enzymes and...insect protein.” Baker stopped chewing, his face turning an unhealthy shade of white, and he slowly turned his eyes down to the brown bar of food. “You're eating processed bugs, Baker.”

He considered for a moment, then swallowed, shrugging his shoulders.

Can't be any worse than the Chinese food we ate that time we refueled on Ganymede. I'm pretty sure those pork buns were actually rat meat.”

That's what you get for buying food from street vendors,” Jaeger sighed, “I told you not to trust that guy. It could have been cooked over a reactor exhaust vent for all you know.”

Do humans not eat insects?” Maza asked.

Not commonly,” Jaeger replied. “It's been proposed as a meat substitute in a lot of places, but it never catches on.”

Really? But it's such a good source of protein, and it's so much easier to farm than large herbivores. We raise food insects alongside our hydroponic farms.”

Hydroponics?” Jaeger asked, “I wondered why I couldn't see any farmland from the air.”

We do have more traditional farms,” she explained, “mostly in the mountains where the large predators don't roam. But hydroponic farms allow us to grow our crops inside the city limits, which has obvious benefits.”

Yeah, like not ending up on someone else's plate...”

Let me show you around,” she said, taking him by the hand again. She dragged him over to the room that the flock had just left, the doorway was small and arched, and he ducked through it into another dome. This must be one of the three that he had seen from the exterior. It was round like the living room, and rather than carpeting, the floor was lined with bare material. This one had countertops and what looked like a stove pressed up against the walls. There was a water basin, what might have been fridge, and other kitchen utensils that he couldn't begin to identify.

This is where we prepare our food,” she said, “although we'll take you somewhere in the city if you'd like to sample Val'ba'ra'nay cuisine. I'm afraid that only Xico is much good at cooking.”

The next room of their domed house was apparently the bedroom. It was a little smaller than the main dome, about the same size as the kitchen, and the entire floor was covered in a thick layer of plush cushioning. It was as if they had found a mattress that was the exact dimensions of the room and had just dropped it inside, like a marshmallow in a coffee cup. There were cushions and pillows scattered all around seemingly at random, and the bare walls had been draped with gossamer fabric that looked like curtains in shades of red and pink. They were purely decorative, perhaps the aliens found it more homely than the bare construction material. There were no windows in this dome, it was gloomy in comparison to the others, it certainly looked like an appropriate place to sleep.

No blankets?” he asked, “don't you get cold?”

Why would we be cold? We would just increase the temperature.”

Fair enough.”

It seemed that they all slept together on the same There wasn't really a distinction between the two, the room itself was the bed. It seemed strange to him, but he had to remember that their culture was entirely alien. They were a collectivist species, and so sleeping with other people might not carry the same connotations that it did in human culture. Borealans were the same, and the Krell too liked to sleep in gigantic piles by the edge of their basking pools. Perhaps it was just humans who had hangups.

I noticed that Earth'nay all have separate bunks,” she said, perhaps picking up on what he was thinking. “Val'ba'ra'nay all sleep together.”

You guys really do everything together, huh? I have a question though, where's the bathroom?”

The bathroom?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

Yeah, you know what a bathroom is. You've seen them on the Rorke.”

You're telling me that Earth'nay have bathrooms inside their own dwellings?” she asked with a shocked flurry of feathers. “I thought that the ones on the Rorke were just there due to necessity.”

We do, yes. Where else would you put a bathroom?”

Outside, away from your living area. It's basic hygiene. There's another dome that's separate from the main structure, off behind the hill where it's out of view. That's where our bathroom is.”

So you have outhouses? Weird. Where do you bathe?”

Usually in the lakes.”

Really?” he asked skeptically, raising an eyebrow at her. “I always pegged the Valbarans as a modest people. I remember that you wouldn't disrobe so that Evans could inspect you. I'm surprised to hear that you bathe in public.”

It's not in public, the private lakes are hidden from view to people walking along the footpaths. They're obscured by the forests and terrain. That's one of the reasons that each house has its own water source, as well as being aesthetically pleasing. Bathing should be a relaxing affair, therapeutic, meditative.”

But what if a stranger should wander onto your property?”

Why would they do that?” she asked, and he had no answer. Did they have no crime and trespassing on Valbara? No peeping Toms? Could a society really be so cohesive that the very concept of someone entering their property without permission was completely foreign to them?

But your flock can see you?”

That's different,” she said, “my flock are a part of me. They're my family. We bathe together, we bathe each other, there's no shame in that.”

And if you were to bathe in front of someone who wasn't a part of your flock?”

That would be very rude,” she said, “socially unacceptable. It would be seen either as an insult or as an invitation to engage in...sexual activity.”

She flashed her feathers again in shades of pink and purple, a display of embarrassment perhaps? They really were a prudish species. Sure, nudity was looked down upon in most human societies, but there were contexts in which being naked was socially acceptable. In a sauna or in communal showers for example. The Borealans had far less shame than their human counterparts, they saw nudity as being completely natural, and the Krell didn't even have external genitalia to conceal. In the cramped quarters of a carrier or on a UNN station, privacy was a luxury, people just had to deal with it.

So when you followed me into the shower room on the Rorke...” he began.

Think nothing of it,” she replied, “I know that your culture is different from ours. We were guests on your ship, and it was obviously normal for Earth'nay. It would be wrong of me to judge you by our standards. Besides, you kept your...underclothes on for our benefit.”

Still, I didn't mean to offend you,” he said.

Oh, you didn't offend me,” she replied with a flash of pink.

Baker poked his head into the bedroom, interrupting them.

So are we going to the city or what?” he asked.

Yes,” Maza replied, “you may put your bags in the living room and unpack anything that you need. Please wait for us while we change out of our uniforms.”

She whistled to her friends, and they filed into the room one by one, Maza giving a Jaeger a smirk before pushing him out of the bedroom and closing the door behind him.

So if they all sleep in the same room, and they all bathe together, what are me and you supposed to do?” Baker continued.

We'll deal with that hurdle when we come to it. Come on, let's get our gear unpacked.”


She could taste it, smell it, see it through her arrays of photosensitive eyes and her clusters of antennae. The biomass that carpeted the planet's surface and filled its oceans, the fresh water, and the oxygen. The hunger that she had been struggling to stave off rose up once again to scratch at the back of her mind, impossible to ignore. It was so verdant and fertile, ripe for exploitation, even moreso than her mother's world had been. Her offspring could spread across its entire surface and colonize every continent, they could build tunnels deep beneath the fecund soil, where she would birth children by the millions. She would mother daughters of her own in time, and they would spread throughout the cosmos as she had, founding their own colonies and propagating the species.

There would be soft, wet flesh to feast on, forests to strip of their succulent leaves. The Repletes would break every blade of grass and every bone down to their component parts, a sweet nectar of sugars and proteins, ready to feed the hungry mouths of her fleet. She could smell their pheromones from within the ship, the scents conveying their desperate need to eat, but all that she could do was reassure them that relief would come soon. She must act quickly, before her army grew too weak to fight and they had to begin cannibalizing their own, but acting rashly would be a mistake.

The prize would be hard-won, the local fauna were organizing a defense. The entire globe was blanketed in a shield of artificial constructs and hostile ships, the heat that they radiated betraying the armaments that they no doubt carried. They had covered every angle, no matter where she emerged, her fleet would be met with fierce resistance. The aliens too had a Queen, however. It floated above the planet's Northern pole, radio signals from all of the other objects feeding into it, it commanded them. She could see the bursts of electromagnetic radiation like the flow of a stream, and that ship was the mouth. To stem the flow, she would have to kill it.

While the planet's orbit was well defended, the surface was sparsely populated, she could taste the emissions that their puny hives leaked into the atmosphere. The population centers were small and scattered about the equator, easy targets. If she could break through the orbital defenses and land her Warriors and Drones on the ground, she could be assured of a swift victory. Perhaps she could use the mainstay of her fleet to poke holes in their blockade, and then land troops on the surface?

She had to be decisive, there was no room for false starts. More information was needed, she must be sure that the surface was as ill-protected as it seemed...

Her thoughts traveled up through the thick tube that secured her to the fleshy ceiling of her chamber, and which linked her nervous system to that of the hive ship, something in the bowels of the great beast stirring in response. She felt it as if it was happening to her own body, the simple intellect of the ship commanding one of the probes to awaken and crawl from its recess in the hull. It tickled the thick hide of the vessel as it crawled along its flank, its many pairs of jointed legs clutching the irregular and pockmarked carapace. It made its way to one of the magnetic accelerators, usually intended for plasma rounds, burrowing into the flexible joint with its sharp mandibles.

The hive ship communicated its pain to her, but she knew that it would soon heal the damage, the living probe embedding itself into the barrel of the cannon. She had suspected that she might have to examine the planet from a distance, and so she had engineered this breed of probe for that very purpose. It was designed to be fired like a projectile rather than to be released from the ship's belly in clusters, as they were usually employed. It rolled up into a tight ball, its thick, reinforced shell partially composed of magnetic alloys. There was iron to ensure that it could be accelerated by the cannon, and titanium, which was weakly magnetic but which would protect it from the heat of reentry.

She aimed the cannon carefully, accounting for gravity and rotation, the orbits of the planets and the placement of the alien objects. She had to be sure that the probe would enter the atmosphere at the right speed and angle so as not to burn up. Confident in her calculations, she ordered the ship to fire. A pulse of chemically-generated electricity created a magnetic field, which captured the probe bug and sent it hurtling into space.

If her plan came to fruition, the probe would soon make it to the inner solar system. It would then arc around the star, using the gas giant's gravity well to decelerate to a speed where it could make an orbital insertion. It should be small and strong enough to survive reentry, as well as to avoid the attention of the defenders, and then it could evaluate a potential landing site.

She soothed the vessel's simple mind as more of the probes emerged to scurry towards the cannon. Yes, it would hurt, but the more probes that she fired, the better a picture she would have of their ground fortifications and numbers. The beast bellowed silently as she performed more calculations, watching the green planet hungrily through the glittering eyes that she shared with the hive ship.


The train car sped towards the city, the bands of greenery and the clusters of white structures flying past below. Jaeger watched the high-rise buildings race towards them, the mag-lev track passing between two of the curved structures.

Maza and her friends were wearing the same loose-fitting tunics and knee-length shorts that seemed to be the fashion on Valbara. It was the most revealing thing that he had seen her wear. He was only interested in her anatomy, of course, which had previously been concealed beneath her full-body flight suit.

Now he could see that her figure wasn't due to the suit itself, she was just naturally shaped that way. Her tight shorts gave away the shape of her body beneath the fabric, her thighs thick and powerful, disproportionate to her size. Her hips were similarly wide, tapering into a pinched waist, her torso short and narrow. Her entire lower body seemed to be powerfully built, which was no doubt the source of her inhuman speed and agility. Her flowing top concealed much of her upper body, and so it was hard to discern what lay beneath it. He could see more of her flexible neck and her arms than when she had been wearing her suit, however.

The scales that coated her body were so fine and smooth, like a tiny mosaic, very slightly reflective when they caught the light at the right angle. Her companions were all similarly dressed, though the colors and patterning on their clothing differed, as did the subtleties of the design of their collars and sleeves. Some wore shirts that they tucked into their shorts, leaving a billowy pocket of fabric, and others wore them long so that they reached down to their thighs, which was how Maza preferred it. He noted that they wore no jewelry, no necklaces or rings. The only item that they all kept on their person was a small touch device that very much resembled a phone, and which fit snugly in their pockets.

Baker caught him staring at the aliens, and leaned over to nudge him.

Wish we could wear shorts too,” he said, “I'm sweatin' my ass off in this uniform.”

The train car had some kind of climate control, but the Valbarans seemed to like it a little hotter than humans did, and their uniforms were indeed stifling. Jaeger deigned to undo the top button on his collar, just to let himself breathe a little better. As he relaxed in his seat, he noticed something strange. He leaned forward to get a better look at the Valbaran who was sitting in front of him, his eyes widening.

What that fur?”

Ayau turned around, looking back at him over her shoulder. He hadn't noticed it before because it was the same color as her tan scales, but she had a coat of what looked like fine fur. There was none on her face, it seemed to start between her head-sheaths, and it grew thicker as it ran down her spine. It covered her back and shoulders where they were visible, running down her tail. There was even some of it on her legs, which was peeking out in tufts beneath the long shorts that she was wearing. It had previously been covered up by her flight suit, and the casual clothing that she now wore mostly exposed the non-furred parts of her body like her forearms, her lower legs, and her head.

Baker leaned in too, the alien cocking her head at them as the two humans inspected her.

Did you not notice before?” Ayau asked, waving her fluffy tail back and forth. The smooth, hair-like structures seemed to taper into what more resembled feathers at the tip.

No!” Jaeger replied, fascinated. “Do all of you have fur under your clothes?”

It's not fur,” Xico corrected, “those are proto-feathers. And no, we don't all have them. Ayau'pal'lea is descended from ancestors who lived in the arctic forests and who used them as insulation.”

How is a proto-feather different from a feather?” Jaeger asked.

Well,” Xico began, “a feather used for flight or display is made up of a long stem called a rachis. That stem then supports branching barbs which form a vane, a little like the branches of a tree. Less developed feathers used for insulation consist of a short, stubby rachis, from which a cluster of soft and flexible barbs extend. I suppose it looks a little like fur, and it serves the same function, but it’s actually a kind of feather.”

Can I touch it?” Baker asked, Jaeger elbowing him and shaking his head.

You can touch it,” Ayau said, “but only if you let me touch your fur.”

My fur?” Baker asked, confused. She pointed to his head, and he laughed. “Alright.”

He leaned forward, and Ayau reached out a hand, running her fingers through his straw-colored hair. More of the flock became interested, two more hands reaching out to comb the strands. Xico laughed at the texture, and even the usually reserved Tacka was joining in, a smile on her scaly face. Being military men, there wasn't much more than about an inch, but it was long enough for the aliens to bury their small digits in it.

It's like mouse fur!” Ayau exclaimed.

Maza and Coza were sat behind the two humans, and Jaeger turned his head to look back at them. Coza was sitting with her arms crossed, apparently not impressed, and Maza was peering at him expectantly. She reached out a hand, and Jaeger acquiesced, leaning backwards so that she could reach his hair. He felt her two dull claws on his scalp, the alien stroking his dark hair like a human might stroke a pet.

It's so soft,” she chuckled, glancing past him and sharing a flurry of pink and yellow feathers with Ayau. “Don't you want to touch it, Coza?”

The surly Valbaran rolled her eyes, then uncrossed her arms and reached out to delve her fingers into Jaeger's hair. She was rougher than Maza, tugging at the strands, but she seemed to like the texture.

Alright, my turn,” Baker said as he warded off the aliens. He reached down towards Ayau's tail and combed his fingers through her feathery coat, his face lighting up. “Jaeger, come see this! It feels just like down.”

Maza withdrew her hand from his hair as he leaned forward, joining Baker as he stroked the smooth feathers on Ayau's long tail. It really did feel like the down that you might find inside a pillow, incredibly soft and fluffy.

So is Ayau a different race than the rest of you?” Jaeger asked.

Yes,” Maza replied. “Is that so unusual? I noticed that you Earth'nay have several different variations. I didn't know if they were races or subspecies, or perhaps just environmental adaptations. I saw ones that had very dark skin and curly hair, ones with brown and tan skin, then there were some with very light skin and yellow hair.”

Yeah, those are races,” he said with a nod. “Those humans all come from different geographical regions of Earth, or at least they have a parent who did.”

As Xico explained, Ayau's ancestors lived in cold regions where they needed feathers to keep warm. My ancestors don't have them, we've always lived in temperate regions.”

But now you all live at the equator?” Jaeger asked.

Most Val'ba'ra'nay do, yes. We plan on a global scale, cities are placed with efficiency and their impact on the local ecosystem in mind. There are still cities in the colder regions, and in the sub-tropics, but the majority of our civilization is spread out around the equatorial regions. Especially following the exodus from Ker'gue'la, there are few cities divided along racial lines.”

We're coming up on the city,” Xico said, turning her head to look back at him. “Don't be worried if people stare, they mean you no harm. It's the first time many of them will have seen an alien in the flesh.”

The skyscrapers just kept growing in the forward viewport of the car, towering above them, glinting in the sunlight. Below, the walkways were choked with natives, thousands of them rubbing shoulders as they went to and fro. The city center was no doubt where they worked, and also where most of the recreational facilities were, it would make sense judging by the circular design of the city. That kind of layout would make such things equally accessible to everyone regardless of where they lived.

The train car slid to a stop at another awning, and they filed out onto the platform, the strange smells and sounds of the Valbaran city hitting him like a wall. In a human city, one would expect to smell smog and fumes, the air would be thick with the sound of vehicles driving and honking their horns. Here, the only sound was the chatter of voices, a chorus of whistles and warbles. It came across more like the song of a thousand tropical birds than as coherent speech. There were no foul odors, even here in the urban center, he could still smell the fresh air and the scents of native plants.

Clean,” Baker muttered, “sure makes Earth look like a shithole.”

Come on man,” Jaeger whispered, “we're representing humanity here. Try not to curse like a sailor.”

I am a sailor.”

As they followed Maza and her flock down the escalator, there was already a group of Valbarans ascending towards the platform on the adjacent side, their violet eyes fixing on the two humans as they passed. They seemed fascinated, their heads pivoting on their flexible necks to keep their gaze fixed on the aliens until they reach the top. When Jaeger stepped off onto the street, the tall buildings towering to either side of it, the crowd of Valbarans parted before him like the Red Sea. He felt a little self-conscious, there were a hundred pairs of eyes fixed on him, unblinking as they scrutinized his strange physiology and attire. It didn't help that he and Baker were a clear foot taller than everyone else. Their clothing was as diverse and as colorful as their feathers, which flashed and fluttered in all manner of hues, conveying emotions that probably ranged from shock and fear to excitement and curiosity. Immediately, a hundred recording devices were aimed at him. At least in that respect, the aliens had something in common with humans...

Maza whistled to her flock, and they formed a perimeter around the humans, surprising Jaeger with their speed and coordination. Perhaps they had been prepared for this.

A group of aliens stepped forward, another flock, and Maza warded them off with a flash of red and orange from her feathers. They halted and then began to talk with her, exchanging chirps and warbles. After a moment, they seemed to reach an understanding, Maza and her flock lowering their feathers.

You are Earth'nay!” one of the strangers said, “you come to help us?”

Are the Bugs coming for us?” another chimed, a worried murmur spreading through the crowd.

Is it true that you bring us weapons and ships?”

Where have you come from?”

They speak English too?” Baker muttered, “fuckin' language is spreadin' like a virus. How are they learnin' it so fast?”

They want to speak to you,” Maza explained, Jaeger straightening his uniform and taking a couple of steps forward. What was he supposed to say? There were a hundred cameras filming him, this footage would probably end up all over the planet in mere minutes. If he fudged this, Fielding would have his head, but he was no ambassador. The least he could do was take the initiative before Baker made an ass of them both.

How much did they know? What was he authorized to tell them about the impending Bug invasion? In UNN space, the military often kept crucial information secret from the general public so as not to cause a panic, or for strategic reasons. Perhaps he should avoid that subject altogether.

Greetings,” he began, the city seeming to go silent as his voice echoed between the buildings. “My name is Lieutenant Jaeger, of the Coalition. My people, the Earth'nay, are members of a multi-species alliance that was assembled for our mutual protection. We were on a routine patrol, hunting for Bugs on the outskirts of your system, when we made contact with one of your ships. We come from a planet that's about sixty-five light-years away, we had no idea that you were here until we stumbled across you.”

Maza gave him a reassuring nod, and so he continued, the crowd was captivated.

We came here on our jump carrier, the UNN Rorke, and we have a support fleet comprised of several smaller frigates. At this moment, our leader, Captain Fielding, is organizing and updating the defenses of your planet. We are indeed sharing weapons technology, manufacturing techniques, and other resources that will help to protect you in the event of a Bug attack.”

Are they coming?” someone shouted from the crowd.

Will it be like Ker'gue'la?”

Can the Earth'nay ships stop them?”

Jaeger waved his hands, trying to calm them.

Rest assured, we are taking every measure to fortify your planetary defenses, and we're working closely with your military to coordinate our forces.”

That seemed to satisfy most of them, the sound of their musical language returning as they discussed what he had said, many of them still filming him with what looked like phones or handheld computers. Maza whistled something in her native tongue and then ferried him away, her flock keeping the crowd from closing around them as they made their way through the throngs. Everyone wanted a look at the aliens, and Jaeger couldn't blame them. He remembered the first time that he had seen an alien in person, he had gawked at the poor Krell with his jaw agape for far longer than was polite.

He raised his eyes to the sky, the spires of the alien buildings rising to either side of the path like the walls of a canyon, built from glass and metal rather than rock. They were smaller than some that he had seen on Earth, but still massive, their facades decorated with artistic buttresses and curving architecture. Unlike in human cities, there were no walkways linking them together above the street, each was its own self-contained building. He marveled at the ever-present balconies, protruding from the sides of the skyscrapers at seemingly random intervals, further than seemed structurally sound. They were covered in explosions of greenery, plants and vines spilling over the sides to hang precariously. He couldn't see any guard rails. The Valbarans liked heights, but even a seasoned pilot would probably find his head spinning if he approached the edge of one of those terraces and looked down to the street below.

Stay close to us,” Maza said. “There is no danger, but we don't want to become separated from you. The hospital is this way.”

Jaeger felt like a celebrity. Everyone wanted a picture of him, there were so many questions being shouted at him that he couldn't even differentiate between the voices. As usual, there were no vehicles on the street, but there was what appeared to be a bike lane for scooters that was separate from the pathway so as to avoid collisions. The aliens driving along it turned their heads to gawk at him, and he was mildly concerned that the distraction he and Baker were creating might cause an accident.

I feel like they're gonna start asking us for autographs,” Baker said with a chuckle, apparently reveling in the attention. He was waving to the aliens like a monarch.

The city center was barely the size of a few blocks back on Earth, and so they quickly reached the hospital building. It was just as large as the other skyscrapers, although perhaps a little wider and deeper. Where the other buildings had balconies covered in plants, this one had landing pads jutting from its walls at various floors. They were clearly designed for airborne emergency vehicles of some sort, but he couldn't see much from below. He was curious as to what kind of propulsion they used, as the VTOL capability of the Valbaran vessels that he had encountered so far had not been very impressive. He was amused to see a glowing sign above the door in alien text, which must be designed to be visible at night, just like the neon signs back on Earth.

They entered through an expansive lobby that was sparsely decorated with potted plants, dozens of Valbarans who were sitting in rows on benches as they waited to be seen staring at them as they walked up to a counter at the far end of the room. Standing behind it and peering intently at a holographic display was a new type of Valbaran that Jaeger hadn't seen before.

It was slight, even in comparison to the likes of Maza, who was already small by human standards. Its physiology was overall lighter and less muscular, and it was an inch shorter than the others, with smaller jaws and a slightly less pronounced snout. Oddly, the tentacles on the head and forearms were larger and thicker than those of Maza and the other Valbarans. It was quite pretty, Jaeger thought. Its scales seemed to have been polished to a glossy sheen, and its eyes were wide and bright. Was that...some kind of paint or makeup around its eyes, like mascara? It wore jewelry too. There was a silver chain around its neck made from fine links, from which hung a pendant, decorated with tufts of colorful feathers that must have been sourced from one of the animals that lived outside the wall. There was another silver chain draped over its forehead, apparently secured around the base of the feather sheaths on its head, with a shining gemstone that looked like emerald or jade hanging down between its eyes.

Maza flashed a feathery greeting, the alien bowing its head and returning the gesture. Jaeger lurched backwards in alarm as it extended its two massive tentacles, the feathers within exploding outwards. Its headdress was huge, probably a third larger than Maza's. Not only were the plumes vibrant and colorful, but they were decorated with peacock-like patterning and branching quills. It looked heavy, and he found himself wondering how the creature could even keep its head up.

Relax, it's just a male,” Coza whispered to him. “A cute one at that...”

Apparently, the male was some kind of secretary, and he directed the group towards one of several automatic doors to either side of the counter. When they opened, Jaeger saw that they were cylindrical elevators, small and cramped by human standards but large enough to fit maybe ten Valbarans. Of course, they did everything as a flock, and so things like elevators would need to be larger to accommodate so many of them.

They stepped inside, and the elevator began to rise silently, only the feeling of acceleration giving it away. More magnetic technology, the aliens seemed to use it for everything. It was a good thing that his phone was shielded or the memory would have been scrambled a dozen times by now. Suddenly, a flash of light illuminated the dingy capsule from behind him, and he turned to see windows racing by. The rear wall was made of transparent material. Jaeger looked out on the city as the elevator shot upwards at alarming speed, able to see some of the balconies on the adjacent skyscrapers from above now, like tiny gardens cloaked in green and purple leaves. There were a few natives milling about on them, relaxing or peering over the edges. They really did take to heights, there wasn't a guard rail in sight.

He felt himself grow lighter as the elevator decelerated, coming to a stop at their desired floor. The doors opened, and the group stepped out onto a carpeted surface, Baker and Jaeger having to duck to avoid hitting their heads on the door frame. The corridor that they were standing in was small too, Jaeger could feel his head brushing against the ceiling, and it was barely wide enough to let two humans pass each other. This must be how Borealans felt walking around in human facilities.

There were more doors lining the whitewashed walls, and one of them slid open, another male stepping out with a tablet computer of some sort clasped in his two-fingered hand. He was wearing a form-fitting jumpsuit, not dissimilar from those worn by the military and the air force, but this one was a pale green in color. Jaeger was surprised to see that his figure was not so different from that of the females, he had the same large thighs and wide hips, along with a short torso and narrow shoulders. This one wasn't wearing any decorations, perhaps because of his job. He seemed to be some kind of medical professional judging by the unidentifiable tools that were dangling from his belt. He looked up at them, flashing his massive, ornate headdress in greeting and bowing his head in deference. They were certainly submissive.

This way, please.”

He led them down the hallway, bobbing along in the strange way that his kind did, and Jaeger chatted with Maza as he walked along beside her.

So what's the deal with the males? These are the first that I've seen. I don't think there were even any of them on the street, at least that I noticed.”

There were a few,” she replied. “But males are less numerous than females, and they tend to do work that keeps them inside.”

Like what?” Jaeger asked, “and what do you mean by them being less numerous?” He had known that there was some gender imbalance in Valbaran society, but not to this extent.

Based on the population of your carrier, I'm going to assume that there are as many male Earth'nay born as females, correct?”

Just about, yeah. I think it's slightly skewed in favor of women, but not by a lot.”

On Val'ba'ra, there is one male born for around every eight females,” she explained. “It is possible to induce a male birth through medical means, but since most families want female heirs, it doesn't make much of an impact.”

And that's normal for your kind?” Jaeger asked skeptically.

It's perfectly natural.”

How does that dynamic impact your relationships? Your courtship? Surely that would mean that seven out of every eight Valbarans can't find a mate? How is that sustainable?”

What do you mean?” she asked, cocking her head as she looked up at him.

If there's only one male for every eight females, how do the other seven find mates and reproduce?”

Her feathers puffed up in a shade of yellow. He was starting to recognize their feather patterns now, able to read them better, and he was fairly certain that yellow meant excitement or surprise.

Earth'nay each have one mate? Is that what you're saying?”

Is...that not the case for you?”

How decadent,” she muttered with a flutter of pink plumes. “Imagine having enough males to fill a bedchamber...”

Coza and Ayau began to whisper to one another, no doubt sharing Maza's sentiment, flashing their feathers and snickering. Tacka seemed more embarrassed by the idea, and Xico was listening intently, probably more interested in the social dynamics than in the prospect of a harem.

No,” he said, struggling to explain. “One male mates with one female, that's it. Or at least, that's how it's supposed to happen, but traditionally humans are monogamous. Mono, it means we take one mate.”

Oh,” she said with a roll of her eyes, “I should have guessed. Earth'nay don't live in flocks, your relationships with your friends and coworkers are selective, impermanent. On Val'ba'ra, a flock of females will take a single male mate between them.”

Really?” Jaeger asked. This time it was his turn to be surprised. “So what, the whole flock has to decide on a match, and then they all...”

Without going into too much detail, yes. That male becomes part of their flock, and they will continue to reproduce with him on a permanent basis.”

I don't know if I should be jealous, or if I should feel sorry for the little guys,” Baker said as he nudged Jaeger with his elbow.

So if male Valbarans become part of the female's flock, why haven't I seen any males until now?” Jaeger continued. “Wouldn't most flocks have a male in tow?”

They wouldn't bring their male to work with them,” Maza laughed, “imagine how that would go!”

A male can't be a soldier or a laborer, there are no male pilots or male Ensi,” Coza added with a chuckle.

Why not?” Jaeger asked.

Because they're just not suited to that kind of work,” Maza explained. “They're smaller than females, weaker, more emotional. They're fragile, unsuited to any physically demanding work, really.”

Their place is in the home, raising young and caring for the flock,” Coza said with a flurry of agreement. “They usually take care of household chores, cooking and cleaning, things like that.”

So they're husbands? But what about this guy here, and the secretary downstairs? Aren't they working?”

Yes,” Maza replied with a feather display that Jaeger had come to associate with shrugging, “but these are jobs more suited to a male. This boy, for example, is a nurse. It's a nurturing role, he assists the doctors and cares for patients. A male can make a fine nurse, a teacher, perhaps a receptionist or a waiter. Besides, letting them work alongside the females would be dangerous. We can't throw male lives away on the front lines, or let them work perilous construction jobs. In terms of numbers, females are downright expendable in comparison.”

They would be too weak to qualify for military service regardless,” Coza said, “they wouldn't meet the physical requirements.”

Jaeger found it hard to conceal his shock. It seemed sexist from his perspective, downright archaic for a spacefaring species, and yet he didn't know enough about their culture to make such sweeping judgments. They might well be correct, the males certainly seemed smaller and more lightly built, which could mean that they were markedly weaker. If they were less competent and more emotional was harder to say, but he suspected that those attitudes might be more a result of the Valbaran's desire to protect their limited number of reproductive partners than anything to do with their performance. If there was indeed only one male for every eight females, then losing one to a workplace accident would be a severe blow to the gene pool.

What about these ones?” he asked, gesturing to the male that was leading them along the corridor. “Are their flocks working somewhere else?”

They're probably not joined to a flock yet,” Maza replied.

So they live on their own?”

They usually live with their family until they find a flock, or on occasion alone, yes. That's more of a modern trend, they want a little independence before they become a member of a flock.”

So how do Valbarans court?” Jaeger asked, “do they date like humans?”

Maza thought for a moment, then turned her head on her flexible neck, whispering to her flock conspiratorially. They talked in hushed voices, no doubt so that their guide couldn't overhear them, then she turned back to Jaeger with a grin on her face.

Perhaps we can show you. After the appointment, of course. I think you'll find it very interesting.”

They arrived at their destination, and the male led them in through another automatic door, the only thing that differentiated them was alien script that Jaeger couldn't read. Inside was a room that very much resembled a doctor's office. It was just as whitewashed as everywhere else, but here the floor was comprised of bare construction material rather than carpet, like the kitchen in Maza's domed house. There were countertops strewn with various tools and instruments that Jaeger couldn't identify, devices bolted to the walls that must be medical in nature, along with monitors that were currently displaying alien text and what could only be surgical information. There was a raised bed in the middle of the room that was covered in green material, clearly for performing examinations, and standing beside it were three female Valbarans wearing green jumpsuits like that of the male.

The doctors greeted them with a feather display, which the flock returned, the male bowing his head and standing to the side as they entered. The doctors immediately set upon Jaeger and Baker, circling the humans as they examined them with unknown handheld instruments, chirping and warbling to one another in their native tongue.

Uh, Maza?” Jaeger asked as one of the women took his hand and began to count his fingers.

My apologies,” Maza said, “they're excited. It's the first time that they've seen an alien up close.”

One of the doctors stepped back, her yellow headdress collapsing into its sheaths as she composed herself.

Forgive us, Earth'nay, but you are simply remarkable.” She flashed some kind of scanner at him, Jaeger blinking to clear his eyes as she examined the readout. “The pupils remain round even when exposed to bright lights!”

My name is Lieutenant Jaeger,” he said, trying to get her attention. “And this is Baker,” he added, his friend waving at her.

Yes, yes, you are the pair of Earth'nay who came from the alien carrier. We have been awaiting your arrival anxiously ever since Maza'xol'natuih arranged this appointment. To think that we might be some of the first physicians to examine you...”

She aimed some kind of red laser pointer at him, then took notes on her handheld computer, tapping away with her gloved fingers. She barked something at her companions, one of whom produced a cup-shaped device that she then pressed against Baker's chest.

Maybe we should slow things down a little,” Maza suggested, “I think you're frightening them.”

The doctor called her two companions away, but they kept their unblinking eyes fixed on the two humans eagerly.

My name is Doctor Matla'xau'tack, my flock and I are the head physicians at this facility.”

Just the three of you?” Baker asked.

Our counterparts are regrettably indisposed, we do have a hospital to run, after all. Still, the three of us should be more than sufficient to perform the examinations. Shall we begin?”

Hold on,” Jaeger said, raising his hands. “What examinations, exactly?”

Oh, nothing too invasive. We merely want to collect data on your species' physiology, and Maza'xol'natuih has informed us that a mutual exchange of medical information might be agreeable to you?”

Yeah, that's what we had in mind. We're as curious about you as you are about us. I've seen some...strange things while I've been here that I'd like to get my head around.”

Good, good. You are male, correct?”

Last time I checked,” Baker replied.

Yes, we're male,” Jaeger clarified as he gave his friend a stop fucking around look.

What a shame that we won't be able to examine a female too. Oh well. Please take a seat on the examination table, and we can begin.”

No, not you,” she said as Jaeger followed Baker over to the table. “We would like to perform a more private examination on you, if you will permit it. It would be inappropriate for a female to perform such an examination of course, and so our nurse will provide assistance. Yaotl'mal'atzi, please take Lieutenant Jaeger into the adjacent room.”

Yeah, alright,” Jaeger replied as the male hurried over to him. He looked over his shoulder at Baker as the nurse led him towards a side door, the three doctors crowding around his friend as he sat on the table, pointing all kinds of alien instruments at him. He was surprised that no alien probing jokes passed his lips, but Baker looked about as white as when he had eaten the insect candy bar.

The little male guided him through into a smaller, but similarly furnished room, sealing the door behind them. There was a second examination table, and so Jaeger sat down on it, the supports creaking worryingly under his exaggerated weight.

Yaotl, that was his name, made his way over to an adjacent countertop and lifted some kind of medical device. He kept his back to Jaeger, as if frightened of him, or embarrassed. He had the same basic body type as Maza, albeit of smaller stature and with less muscle, the round thighs and wide hips seemed to be common to both genders. The pale green jumpsuit that he was wearing left little to the imagination. Jaeger wondered idly if the Valbarans had a concept of sexy nurses and if this qualified, the females certainly seemed to prefer loose fitting clothing when they dressed casually. It was hard to see this creature as a male, his figure was so feminine and his mannerisms so...submissive.

The male turned to face him, and Jaeger noted that while he lacked the elaborate jewelry that the secretary in the lobby had been wearing, he was sporting the same dark eye shadow. It was painted onto the fine scales around his eyes, accentuating their striking violet color.

Please disrobe,” Yaotl said, his vibrant feathers fluttering in shades of pink and blue. They really were magnificent, so much larger and more ornate than those of the females. He did as the nurse asked, standing up and pulling down the zipper on his blue uniform, shrugging out of the upper half of his overalls. It was relieving to be rid of the heavy garment, the white shirt that he wore beneath was stained with sweat. He kicked off his boots and then stepped out of the lower half, tugging off his shirt until he was wearing only his briefs.

The alien looked him up and down, his feathers extending from their sheaths and flushing deep shades of red and pink. Jaeger couldn't tell whether it was curiosity, fear, or something else. Beads of perspiration slid slowly down his chest and stomach, Yaotl tracking them with his eyes as they traced the contours of Jaeger's body, his reptilian pupils expanding into circles.

You may...retain those...” he said as he gestured to the briefs. It seemed that his grasp of English was a little worse than that of the other Valbarans that Jaeger had interacted with. Perhaps he had been given less time to practice, not expecting to ever encounter one of the alien visitors.

So...what are you examining, exactly?” Jaeger asked as he watched the little alien fumble with his medical implement. It looked like some kind of hand-held scanner, shaped vaguely like the multimeters that he sometimes saw the engineers using.

I am to document your physiology,” it replied in its high-pitched voice. “It would be...inappropriate for the females to assist.”

I've been examined by plenty of female doctors and medics,” he replied with a shrug, “it doesn't bother me. But if that's what you want to do, go ahead. Do you need me to do anything?”

No, just...sit please.”

Yaotl ran the scanner up and down Jaeger's body, standing a few feet away from him, struggling to reach his torso. The little creature was scarcely four and a half feet tall.

You can get closer,” Jaeger suggested, “I don't bite.”

The alien seemed conflicted, glancing at the door for a moment and loosing a flurry of blue feathers, perhaps worried about what his superiors would say if he didn't collect enough data. There was a long pause as he seemed to consider, then he took a few tentative steps forwards, reaching up high to get a scan of Jaeger's head. It still seemed to be too far away, and Jaeger became frustrated, reaching down suddenly to lift the little Valbaran. He flashed his headdress in shades of pink and yellow as Jaeger hooked his hands under the alien's arms, shocked by the sudden movement, the feathers slowly collapsing back down as Jaeger deposited him on the table beside him.

Now Yaotl could reach, averting his eyes as he completed his scan. Maza and her ilk always maintained steady eye contact, they practically stared into his soul to the point that it made him feel uncomfortable, but this male did the opposite. His eyelids fluttered, he kept blinking, and he wouldn't meet Jaeger's gaze. It made him appear submissive, cowed. Was that how Jaeger appeared when he lost his staring contests with Maza?

I must take...measurements,” the alien said, setting the device down and retrieving a round object from his belt. Jaeger was amused to see that it was basically a tape measure, the alien pulling a line of flexible material from one end. He placed it against Jaeger's neck, trailing it down to the elastic waistband of his shorts. The accumulated perspiration of the day made his skin slippery, and he could feel the alien's small, gloved hands as they brushed over his abdominal muscles.

The nurse made a note of the measurement, then asked Jaeger to stand. The alien remained on the table as Jaeger stood beside it, putting the two at about head height to one another. Jaeger noted that the Valbaran smelled like the flower that Maza had put in his hair earlier that day, was he wearing perfume?

Yaotl extended his arms wide, trying to get the tape measure around Jaeger's chest, which was almost twice the width of the creature's narrow shoulders. He had to get closer, brushing up against Jaeger with his light green suit, the material like rubber or plastic. Now practically hugging the human, his feathers emerged from their sheaths, plumes in shades of purple and pink tickling Jaeger's nose. He could feel the alien's breath on his chest, he seemed to be breathing rapidly, but Jaeger didn't know enough about their biology to say for sure.

After getting his measurement, the nurse retreated a little, accidentally meeting Jaeger's gaze for the first time and quickly looking down and away.

P-please raise your arm, I need to measure...circumference...” he mumbled.

Jaeger did as he was asked, flexing his bicep when he saw that the alien wanted to wrap the measuring device around it. He wasn't exactly a bodybuilder, he didn't spend much more time in the gym than UNN regulations required of him, but the muscle was as large as the alien's head. With trembling hands, Yaotl wrapped the tape measure around it, quickly pulling away once the deed was done.

Certainly a...large specimen,” he muttered as he entered the data into a handheld computer. “I must time your heartbeat, where is it located, please?”

Jaeger gestured to his chest, the alien's headdress flashing pink again, it looked like he was fighting to suppress it. Jaeger wasn't sure what pink meant, could it be their equivalent of blushing, or maybe embarrassment?

It's alright,” he said, trying to reassure the alien. “Here, let me help you.” He reached up and took Yaotl's hand in his, feeling the alien jump at his touch, then guided it towards his chest. “You won't be able to feel it through the glove, though.”

Wait...I have a scanner that I can-”

Jaeger had seen Maza do it before, and so he a had good idea of how the seals on their wrists worked, popping it with a hiss of escaping air and sliding it off. The alien's two clawed fingers twitched, his fine scales as smooth and as soft as human skin as Jaeger took his hand again, setting the glove down on the table beside him.

B-but it's against protocol,” the nurse protested, “there are hygiene concerns...”

Jaeger ignored him, planting his bare hand against his pectoral muscle, just over his heart. He felt the alien's fingers move, testing the firmness, sliding against his slippery skin.

Do you feel it?” Jaeger asked.


So? Time it.”

The nurse snapped out of his stupor, paying more attention as he felt the human's heart pulse beneath his palm. He lingered there for a few more moments, then turned his attention back to the computer, typing in some unknown metrics. Next, he tried to test Jaeger's blood pressure. The armband-shaped device was immediately recognizable, but the little alien couldn't find anywhere that it would fit. The upper arms of the Valbarans were only the size of a human wrist, and so trying to get it around his bicep was hopeless. The nurse eventually gave up.

He shone a light in Jaeger's eyes to test his response, opened his mouth to examine his teeth, and then asked him to breathe into what looked like a breathalyzer test. Something about that seemed to confuse the nurse, and he reexamined Jaeger's chest, watching as it rose and fell. He produced a cup-shaped tool that he seemed to be using to listen to his breathing, sliding it across his patient's torso, unable to find whatever it was that he was searching for.

What are you trying to do?” Jaeger asked, becoming frustrated with the little creature again.

I need to make a record of your breathing, but I...I can't locate your thoracic air sacks.”

I don't know what those are, you mean my lungs?” Yaotl looked up at him, flashing his feathers in confusion. “Here, try this if your tool isn't working.”

Jaeger took the alien's tiny head in his hand, the span of his fingers almost large enough to encompass it entirely, and pressed it up against his chest. He wasn't quite sure where the alien's ears were, they didn't have any visible flaps, and so what resulted was more him sliding Yaotl's face against his torso. He froze up, his little body shaking and his feathers fluffing up in bright pinks and yellows, the downy plumes tickling Jaeger's skin as they brushed against him.

He felt the alien's bare hand grip his hip in surprise, Yaotl's eyelids fluttering as he breathed in Jaeger's scent, his head rising and falling along with the human's barrel chest. The scales on his face were soft too, varnished to a bright sheen, as smooth as glass.

The Valbaran lingered there for a little too long, then skipped away, hopping off the side of the table and down onto the floor as if he was afraid of Jaeger. It didn't make much sense to him, Maza had no respect for personal space, so why was this alien reacting so strongly to such innocuous contact?

What's wrong?” he asked, the nurse fumbling with his tablet computer as he tried in vain to control the fluttering of his plumes.

I-I have what is needed,” he stammered, “please clothe yourself and return with me.”

Jaeger shrugged, stooping to pick up his discarded garments and putting them back on, catching Yaotl staring at him when he pulled his shirt back over his head. The little nurse averted his eyes again, examining the floor intently.

So what's my diagnosis?” Jaeger joked, trying to keep the alien talking in an attempt to set him more at ease.

You are...larger than any male that I have ever seen,” the nurse admitted as he let his eyes linger on Jaeger's torso. “Larger than any female. You smell...alien.”

I meant the measurements that you took.”

The alien flared his feathers in reds and pinks, quickly turning his eyes down to his tablet computer.

I-I don't know how to convert it into Earth'nay metrics,” he admitted. “The doctors will be able to tell you more. Please, come.”


The doctor used her laser pointer to draw their attention to one of the large monitors that were mounted on the wall, which was displaying a pair of three-dimensional renderings side by side, X-rays of human and Valbaran skeletons that slowly rotated. Everyone crowded around, Baker still sat on the examination table as they watched in fascination.

Here we can see the most obvious differences,” the doctor began, “in the skeletal structure and the respiratory system.”

She traced the line of the Valbaran spine with her pointer, dark cavities standing out against the lighter bone. It looked like the skeleton had holes running through it.

In Val'ba'ra'nay, we can see that the respiratory system extends deeper into the body, with anterior, posterior, and thoracic air sacks. There are air pockets along the vertebrae, as well as inside the femur and the humerus, that expand along with the lungs to fill with oxygen. This makes the skeleton lighter, thus reducing the energy required to move it, and also provides a larger store of oxygen that can be expended more rapidly. We inhale and exhale through pressure changes, the expansion and contraction of muscles in the sternum either drawing in or pushing out air. Val'ba'ra'nay physiology is very fuel efficient.”

She turned her pointer towards the human skeleton now, the red dot sliding down the spine.

In the Earth'nay, on the other hand, we see no such air pockets. The bones are heavy and solid, and the respiratory system consists of a simple pair of lungs. Here we see what is called a diaphragm, a sheet of muscle and fibrous tissue that extends across the bottom of the thoracic cavity. When this structure contracts, it creates a partial vacuum inside the thorax, causing the lungs to expand and take in air. It's far less efficient than the Val'ba'ra'nay method, but there are advantages associated with this system, stronger bones being one of them. Although it could be argued that lighter bones present different advantages, it's a hard comparison to make, as the two species have evolved to fill very different ecological niches. This brings us to the next major difference,” she said as she swung her pointer down towards the legs.

The view zoomed in on the muscles, cross-sections expanding to fill the monitor.

As you may know, there are several types of muscle. Skeletal, cardiac, voluntary, and involuntary, for example. The primary kinds of muscle fibers responsible for moving the skeleton can be divided into two categories, what we call fast-twitch and slow-twitch. The former provides rapid, powerful contractions, while the latter provides slower contractions with greater endurance.”

She moved her laser to the Valbaran X-ray, pointing at the muscle fibers.

Save for the cardiac and respiratory muscles, almost all of the muscle fibers that we see in Val'ba'ra'nay skeletal muscles are fast-twitch. They can produce proportionally impressive speed and force, but only in short bursts, the subject tiring very quickly and needing to recuperate before activity can resume. Meanwhile, the muscle fibers in Earth'nay are far more evenly distributed, with a focus on extreme endurance. Based on the factors that we've just outlined, we can conclude that a healthy Earth'nay could potentially run, or indeed perform other strenuous activities, for dramatically longer than even the fittest Val'ba'ra'nay. The differences don't stop there.”

Well, there was the explanation as to how Maza could move so fast, and why she had so little stamina. Her whole body was designed to provide short, brutal bursts of power and speed, which had no doubt been advantageous during their time as ambush hunters. A Valbaran would have burst out from the undergrowth and attacked with such speed and ferocity that the prey wouldn't even have been able to react before it was dead. There was no need for endurance if the target could be dispatched quickly enough, and if one of them failed, the rest of the flock would get the job done.

Something that is far harder to demonstrate are the neurological differences,” she said as the image changed to what looked like CAT scans of the two respective subjects. “It might not be apparent to a layman, but there are subtle differences in the way that the neural pathways are formed. I have prepared a simple experiment that I believe should give you a better understanding.”

She lowered her pointer and pulled out her tablet computer, tapping at the touch screen before handing it to Jaeger. On the screen were a series of shapes, perhaps twenty of them in a row. Triangles, squares, circles, and hexagons. A dozen different icons all laid out in a sequence. It was just like the logic puzzles that Evans had used to test the Valbarans when they had first boarded the Rorke.

Please pay attention to the sequence,” the doctor said. After a moment, she took the tablet from him and passed it to Maza, who examined the shapes intently for a few seconds before handing it back. “Now,” the doctor continued, “describe the sequence of shapes.”

From memory?” Jaeger asked, perplexed.

Yes, from memory.”

I can't,” he admitted with a shrug, “I could maybe tell you the first four or five, but I'd need to study it for a lot longer than that to remember the entire sequence.”

Can you tell me how many individual shapes the sequence was comprised of?”

No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not with any certainty.”

The doctor gestured to Maza, who promptly recited the entire sequence by memory, and then listed the number of individual shapes. The two humans stared at her, their eyes wide. Evans had said that the aliens possessed an accelerated capacity for learning, but it hadn't dawned on him until now just how different their capabilities were. They had looked at the same picture for the same amount of time, and Maza had been able to recall it like she had taken a photograph, while Jaeger had scarcely been able to remember the beginning of the sequence.

We can see in these scans,” the doctor continued, “that the neural pathways in Earth'nay are both weaker and take longer to form. This results in an overall weaker and less efficient memory. The same logic applies to non-declarative memories, which impact motor skills. When a Val'ba'ra'nay learns, the neural pathways cement themselves very quickly, which means that muscle memory actions can be performed with extreme speed and precision. The Earth'nay seem to entirely lack stacking behavior, whereby sequences of learned actions can be executed one after another. Let's take martial arts as an example, where stances and moves are learned by rote, repeated over and over again until it becomes second nature and the individual in question no longer has to think about what they're doing. They merely react, bypassing the conscious mind almost entirely. The individual sees a kick coming their way, non-declarative memory is accessed to find the appropriate reaction, and that action is then executed with very little delay. This phenomenon exists in Earth'nay, but it is massively reduced, almost entirely absent in comparison to what we're familiar with.”

So that's how you were able to fight so quickly when we sparred,” Jaeger said, turning to Maza. “You weren't thinking, it was like your body was running on auto-pilot.”

Combined with our great speed and strength, the advantages are obvious,” the doctor continued. “However, there is one significant detriment, one that does not exist in Earth'nay. Maza, what would you do if you found yourself in an entirely unforeseen situation? One which you had no prior knowledge of, and no plan for?”

I would stop what I was doing and consult with my flock to formulate a new plan,” she said, as if it was an obvious answer.

See, here is where the disadvantage lies. In the time that it would take you to assess the situation and come up with an appropriate response, an Earth'nay would have already adapted and changed its strategy.”

How do you mean?” she asked, flashing her feathers in confusion.

Because they don't plan extensively, and they don't rely on non-declarative memory in the way that Val'ba'ra'nay do, they have developed an incredible ability to adapt to a changing environment. The plasticity of their neural pathways is incredible. Where evolution has robbed them of one attribute, it has substituted another. Where a Val'ba'ra'nay must plan extensively in advance, drawing from practice and experience to tackle a problem, an Earth'nay can think entirely on the fly. They don't need to waste precious time formulating a new plan. I can only describe it as a kind of emergent thought pattern.”

Now it was the flock's turn to stare at the two humans in awe, their violet eyes wide and their plumes puffed up in shades of yellow. Jaeger was having a hard time wrapping his head around the concept. So the aliens performed tasks, and even thought, like a computer program going through a sequence of commands? That explained the odd pauses during conversation. What was that like? What was their experience of the world, where an unexpected event or situation could completely throw them off to the point that they practically had to retreat in order to collect themselves? Was that why it had taken them so long to make contact out in the asteroid field?

Perhaps the answer once again lay in their evolutionary history. Humans had lived through ice ages and the extinction of innumerable species, they had spread across the world and faced all manner of diverse climates and dangers. It was through adaptation that they had endured, the ability to change along with their surroundings.

What if instead of being adaptable, the Valbarans had evolved to be absurdly efficient at their chosen tasks? It was certainly possible, rising to dominance simply by being the most brutally efficient and perfectly sculpted predators for their given environment, developing society and eventually civilization through a cooperation that transcended simple pack behavior. They were like savants in a way, inhumanly proficient in their specific fields of interest, but inflexible and inhibited outside of them.

Y'all are gonna have to help me get this straight,” Baker said, addressing his question to Maza and her flock. “How much plannin' do y'all do, exactly?”

Everything is planned,” Xico replied. “We formulated a plan for what we were going to do this afternoon, for example, we reached consensus before we left the house. We knew whether we would be walking or taking scooters, we knew precisely which mag-lev stations to travel to, and where they were located. We knew what the weather would be like, and what clothing would be appropriate to wear. We had planned for potential encounters with crowds of strangers, we had discussed what questions might be asked, and how we might escort you safely to the hospital. We had several contingencies prepared in case our appointment with the head physicians was delayed due to some kind of large scale accident or emergency.”

So you live your entire lives on a predetermined itinerary?” Jaeger asked in disbelief. “How would you possibly have the time to plan all of that?”

Our language is a lot faster than yours,” Maza said, “we can convey information much more quickly.”

The speech center of the brain is also more developed,” one of the doctors added, “which means that more information can be processed.”

Well this is some information that we can bring back to Fielding,” Jaeger said. “Can we...transfer the data? Have they finished writing software that can interface Valbaran and UNN technology yet?”

I can do you one better,” Baker said, waving his phone at Jaeger. “Recorded the whole presentation.”

That's...surprisingly clever of you, Baker.”

If I learned one thing at Texas A&M, it was how to take notes durin' a lecture without havin' to do any writing.”

We will continue to study the data that we collected,” Doctor Matla said, “these are only the preliminary findings. We will keep you updated as much as we are able. I suspect that it will become easier to share information once your engineers are able to finish work on the software that you mentioned. Thank you for your assistance, Earth'nay. Nurse, please see our guests to the elevator.”

That was their cue to leave, Baker hopping down from his seat on the examination table as the rest of the party made for the door, following behind the male Valbaran. He led them out into the carpeted corridor again, Jaeger only just remembering to duck beneath the door frame in time to avoid hitting his head.

As they walked down the corridor, Maza tapped him on the arm, gesturing for him to lean down so that she could whisper to him.

You wanted to see Val'ba'ra'nay courtship? Watch this...”

She whistled, and then her flock rushed forwards, surrounding the hapless male like wolves about to bring down a deer. He was frightened at first, his feathers flashing blue and yellow, his eyes snapping between the five females. The two humans watched in fascination as the ritual began.

Coza stepped out of the circle, the male turning to face her. He seemed at once worried and flattered, his body language submissive as he looked down at the carpet and fluttered his ornate plumes in shades of pink and purple. The flock moved as one, closing ranks behind her, swaying gently to the left and right as though they were building up to a dance number.

Coza suddenly flashed her plumes, the feathers standing up on her head and forearms, the suitor pressing her arms together horizontally in front of her to create a symmetrical display. Rather than just one or two colors, the layered feathers cycled, creating a hypnotic wave pattern as they shifted and moved to reveal the hues beneath them. The females standing behind her did the same, opening their feather sheaths and angling the plumes so that their friend was framed by them, creating an explosion of cycling colors from the male's perspective. His eyes snapped to the lead female, captivated, her slow swaying seeming to hypnotize him like a cobra being charmed by a pipe player. He cocked his head, his own massive headdress extending, fluttering as it replicated the color pattern.

It was so elaborate and complex, like watching a pair of tropical birds engaged in a mating display, Jaeger couldn't pull his eyes away from it. The swaying grew faster, as did the rhythmic fluttering of the multicolored feathers, the rest of the flock following the lead like backup dancers. They rolled their hips in perfect synchronization, shaking their arms and heads to make the feathers vibrate, the sound that they produced was almost like that of a rattlesnake.

The male began to shake his head too, the large, peacock-like feathers with their circular tips blurring into an iridescent haze. It looked to Jaeger like he was having a colorful seizure. The pattern that it created seemed to float in the air, the thinner stalks that linked the main body of the plume to the ornate tips rendered nearly invisible by the rapid motion.

We're gonna make a fortune exportin' glow sticks and rave music,” Baker whispered.

The ritual ended as suddenly as it had begun, their feathers folding back down into their protective sheaths, and the flock breaking their tight formation. The male fished for something in his pocket, then withdrew a handheld computer, tapping at the touch screen. Coza did the same, the two warbling and chirping for a moment. When they were done, they stowed their computers and set off again, Maza waving for the humans to join them. The male was walking nearer to Coza, his plumes flashing in shades of pink as they chattered to one another.

What the hell was that?” Jaeger asked, Maza laughing at his question.

Coza'ma'lotl put on a display for the male, and he reciprocated. It means that he likes her, and wants to see her again.”

And the thing with the phones?”

He gave her his communicator address so that they can stay in contact.”

She got his number,” Baker clarified, clearly amused by the whole affair.

That was certainly...elaborate,” Jaeger said, “does all Valbaran courtship go that way?”

If the male doesn't like the look of the female or her flock, then he doesn't respond with his own dance. But besides that, yes, that's how we court. Is it different for Earth'nay?”

Humans usually court entirely through verbal means, maybe with a little body language involved for the more perceptive. If we like someone, we usually ask them on a date, we take them somewhere fun like a restaurant and get to know them better. If everything goes well, then they might date a couple more times before starting a relationship.”

Oh, Coza'ma'lotl and the nurse aren't in a relationship yet,” she clarified. “They will date too, the next step is to spend some time with the flock and see if everyone gets along. After that, a more formal relationship can begin.”

I feel a little bad for him,” Jaeger said as he watched the male bob along beside Coza. “I hope you aren't leading him on just to show me what Valbaran courtship looks like.”

Maza shrugged her feathers.

Not really. He's pretty cute, and we're not in a relationship with any males right now. Maybe it will go somewhere, and maybe it won't.”

So what makes him cute?” Jaeger asked, “what qualities do you look for in a male?”

Let's see,” she said, lowering her voice so that the nurse couldn't overhear her. “Clean, shiny scales are a must, buffed or polished is even better. Nice, big feathers, properly groomed. A short snout, having a long snout and a large jaw is considered a very feminine trait. Bright eyes, a nice figure, things like that.” we look masculine to you?” Baker asked. “Humans have, snout at all.”

I guess it does make you Earth'nay look kind of...nubile,” she said as she cocked her head and peered up at them. She hurried ahead, walking beside her friends as they chatted with the nurse, Jaeger giving Baker a confused glance.

Did you teach her that word?”

Don't look at me,” he replied with a shrug.


They arrived back at the flock's domed dwelling, the two humans ducking under the low doorway as they stepped through into the carpeted living area. The planet's star was getting low in the sky, its pale glow dimming as it dipped below the horizon.

So where are me and Baker sleeping?” Jaeger asked, eyeing the bedroom warily. He didn't know how he felt about sharing it with the whole flock, but they didn't exactly have a fold-out couch, where else were they going to sleep?

Is there a reason you can't sleep with us?” Maza asked, “cultural maybe? We just assumed that it would be alright.”

No, nothing like that,” Jaeger replied. “There's an attitude in human culture that if a male and a female share a bed, it implies that's silly anyway, we can sleep together.”

As long as y'all don't sleep in a pile like Borealans,” Baker added, “give us enough space and it'll be peachy.”

I see,” Maza said. “That will work. We'll take one side of the room, and leave the other for the Earth'nay. There's plenty of space to go around, and we'll all wear night clothing to preserve our modesty.”

Pajamas?” Jaeger suggested.

Is that the correct term? Pajamas, then. We should eat first, however. Can we offer you anything?”

Want more bug bars, Baker?” Jaeger asked. He laughed as his friend stuck out his tongue and pulled a disgusted face.

No thanks, I'm good. We brought MREs.”

We'll just need some water,” Jaeger added.

We will prepare food for ourselves then,” Maza said, directing her flock to the kitchen. “In Val'ba'ra'nay culture, it is customary for everyone to eat meals around the same table, it would be nice if you joined us.”

Sure,” Jaeger said, “we have similar customs.”

My family used to eat TV dinners on the couch,” Baker said with a sigh, “even at Thanksgiving.”

Alright Baker, keep your unresolved family issues to yourself and let's get some grub.”

They had set their laden rucksacks on the round table earlier in the day, and they rummaged inside for their MREs, withdrawing the Navy-blue colored packets. They leaned the rucksacks against the nearest wall to get them out of the way, the two humans perching on the small chairs and leaning down to reach the surface as they opened the packets.

Tacka returned with a jug of water, placing it on the table before scurrying away to the safety of the domed kitchen. She was still so timid around them.

What did you get?” Baker asked, spreading the various packaged food items out and examining them.

I got...ravioli in tomato sauce, chicken pate and crackers, and...oh sweet, I got some pop tarts. How about you?” Jaeger opened one of the transparent ziplock bags and fished for his plastic cutlery, setting them down on the table along with some napkins and the salt and pepper sachets.

I got beans and pork, blackcurrant jam with some biscuits, and a chocolate chip muffin. Fuck, they gave me a raspberry flavored drink, what's yours?”


Trade me?”

Yeah, alright,” Jaeger said as he passed Baker the packet of flavored powder. There was also instant coffee, some gum and chewy candies, and a dried fruit bar. Pretty standard affair for MREs. It wasn't exactly gourmet food, but there was no spice like hunger.

They placed the main courses inside the flameless heaters that they came with, then added water, steam quickly shooting from the packets as they did their work. They poured water into the packets of flavored powder, placing a straw inside them like giant juice boxes, the pair starting on the biscuits and crackers as they waited for their meals to cook. They had purification tablets, but if the Valbarans could drink the water, then they probably could too.

Within about fifteen minutes, the Valbarans returned from the kitchen, each of them carrying a large ceramic dish. They set them down towards the center of the table, pulling up chairs as they took seats around it. The dishes were varied, there was some kind of meat in a brown-colored sauce, an assorted bowl of grains and what might be root vegetables of some kind, along with other pastes and food items that Jaeger couldn't begin to identify.

They were just in time for the flameless ration heaters to have finished their work, and so the group ate together, the aliens eating directly from the communal bowls with implements that resembled two-pronged forks and ladle-like spoons. They passed the dishes between them, so organized and in tune with one another's needs that they scarcely had to ask. Every aspect of their life was shared, they even ate from the same plates. Jaeger tried to imagine a similar scenario occurring in his childhood home, his siblings sharing the meal equally between themselves with no fighting or complaining, which seemed like an impossibility.

What do you have?” Maza asked, craning her flexible neck to get a look at their dishes.

This is ravioli in a vegetable sauce,” Jaeger explained, showing her his open container as steam rose from the plastic bag. “It comes from Italy, a region of Earth. It's beef, meat from Earth livestock, sandwiched between two pieces of dough which are made from grain.”

What's that white powder that you put on it?” Xico asked.

Salt, a seasoning that enhances the flavor. I'd offer you a taste, but I'm not sure if Valbarans can digest all of the components.”

Yeah, it's probably safer not to share it,” Baker added.

You can probably eat this though,” Jaeger said as he brandished the small, plastic bag of gummy candies. “It's mostly just animal gelatin and sugar. You guys have sugar, right? I remember seeing it in the analysis of the insect bar that you gave to Baker.”

Yes, that should be edible for us,” Maza replied as she eyed the brightly colored sweets.

He broke open the packet and placed a gummy candy in front of each Valbaran.

They're chewy,” he explained as they examined them, Ayau sniffing the alien treat while Xico licked it experimentally. Baker laughed as they popped them into their mouths and began to chew on them. It was like giving a dog peanut butter, the aliens smacking and licking as the candies stuck to the roof of their mouth and between their teeth.

To his surprise, Tacka especially seemed to like the taste, eyeing the rest of the packet from across the table. Jaeger wanted to see if she would overcome her apparent wariness of him for another snack, holding the ziplock bag just out of reach of her little arms, accounting for the extra reach that her feather sheaths afforded her. He gestured for her to come to him, watching as the alien slowly slid off her chair and bobbed around the side of the table. Coza nudged Ayau, who was sitting beside her, the two smirking as Tacka inched closer to the human.

It was like feeding a wild raccoon, Jaeger holding out the packet so that she had to reach out to take it from him, the alien snatching it and scurrying back to her seat with her prize clutched protectively against her chest. She shared the spoils with her sisters, but they let her eat the majority of the gummy candies herself. It was the happiest and most relaxed that Jaeger had seen her so far, and he started on his pop tarts as he watched her chew intently.

There wasn't a lot of room for conversation, the aliens seemed fixated on their meal. When they were finished, they cleared the table quickly. Jaeger asked if there was anywhere that he and Baker could dispose of their empty food packets, and Maza showed them into the kitchen where there was what looked like a tall, cylindrical garbage can. She opened the transparent lid and dropped the empty wrappers inside, Jaeger leaning over to see that the cylinder was full of what looked like rotary blades, almost like a jet engine. She closed the lid, hit a switch, and then the blades inside churned the garbage into fine dust like a giant blender. It then vacuumed the leavings away, apparently into the floor.

It's some kind of giant garbage disposal chute,” Baker marveled, looking at Jaeger with an excited expression on his face. “Let's find more stuff to put in it!”

Jaeger was about to warn Baker that it wasn't a toy and that he was an adult, but Maza passed him some kind of discarded plastic container, which he gleefully dropped into the chute. He hit the switch, watching as the spinning blades pulverized it, stopping just short of clapping his hands as the powder vanished down the chute.

Where does it go?” Jaeger asked.

To the waste processing plant,” Maza replied. “We dispose of all of our refuse this way, both organic and synthetic.”

No doubt the Valbarans used some kind of advanced recycling process in keeping with their staunch environmentalism.

Are you ready to sleep?” Maza asked, Jaeger nodding in reply. “Good, we will change into our pajamas, please do the same.”

The flock moved off to the bedroom, closing the door behind them to protect their privacy. The two humans shared a glance, then shrugged, beginning to strip off their uniforms. They didn't have pajamas, but a shirt and briefs should do the job just as well.

After a minute or two, the door opened, Maza leaning out to beckon to them. She was wearing another floaty garment made of gossamer fabric. It wasn’t unlike the tunics that she favored, but a little longer, kind of like a nightie. It wasn't lingerie, it was a simple grey in color, and it wasn't adorned with any lace or patterns, nor was it especially revealing. Jaeger and Baker made their way over to the bedroom, ducking through the low doorway. It was gloomy inside, there was just enough light to see by, tinted red so that it bathed everything in a crimson glow. The floor-spanning mattress was soft and spongy beneath their feet, and the hanging curtains gave it an almost Arabian vibe.

The flock was bunched up to the left side of the room, scattered in a fairly random pattern, resting their heads on tube-shaped pillows. They were close together, but not exactly in a pile, reminding Jaeger of a slumber party. They wore similar clothes to Maza, the only variation being the color.

The humans moved over to the right, lying down gingerly and stacking various cushions and pillows to support their heads as they struggled to get comfortable. It wasn't the worst place that they Jaeger had slept, it could be quite pleasant once he got used to it.

There was plenty of space, and so the concerns of being forced to sleep in a dogpile with the aliens were soon forgotten, the humans drifting off to sleep without too much difficulty after their long and exciting day.


Jaeger was snapped out of a dream by a beeping alarm, struggling to his feet and stumbling on the squashy mattress as he made his way to the door, fumbling with the little handle.

I'm up, I'm up,” he heard Baker mumble groggily. “What's...what's going on?”

The aliens too were stirring, blinking their eyes and flexing their feathers as they looked about the bedroom. Coza scowled at him, apparently not thrilled about being woken up. Jaeger succeeded in making it into the living room, retrieving his phone from the pocket of his uniform, which was draped over the table. Baker's was ringing too, it must be a communication from fleet command. He swiped on the screen and held the device to his ear, shielding his eyes against the early morning light that was pouring in through the round windows.

Lieutenant Jaeger reporting.”

Lieutenant Jaeger, this is fleetcom. You are to report to the Yilgarn spaceport for briefing immediately.”

Yes Ma'am, has something happened?”

Colonel Roberts will brief you on the details.”

Yes Ma'am, I'll relay the message to Baker, we're on our way.” He ended the call, turning to shout to his friend. “Get your ass out of bed Baker, we have to get to the spaceport ASAP. Something's going down.”

I'm coming, I'm coming,” he complained as he stumbled out of the bedroom and checked his phone. Maza followed behind him, some of her companions poking their heads out of the doorway.

Jaeger? What's happening?”

We just received orders to go to the spaceport for briefing,” he explained, “can you get us there?”

Of course,” she replied, “give us a few minutes to get dressed first.”

There was another alarm sound, high-pitched and trilling, this one coming from one of the Valbaran tablet computers. Maza hurried over to it and picked it up, holding it up to her face as she spoke into it in her native language. After a moment she turned to Jaeger, a concerned flutter of purple spreading through her headdress.

We've been ordered to the spaceport too. It must be something serious.”

Alright, let's get our gear,” Jaeger said as he began to pull on his uniform.


When they emerged from the patch of woodland beside the airfield, they noticed that there were several Valbaran landers lined up on the runway, their engines idling. A pair of Valbaran guards dressed in green camouflage and wielding laser rifles directed them towards the hangar where the UNN vessels were parked. When they entered through the massive doors, they saw that several Valbaran flocks, and what looked like all of the UNN combat personnel who had been deployed to Yilgarn were standing around in loose groups. Colonel Roberts was at the front of the pack, as sharply dressed as ever, his hands clasped tightly behind his back as he waited for everyone to arrive. It seemed that Jaeger and Baker were the last, and so he called for everyone's attention, the crowd turning to face him as the newcomers joined their ranks.

Two hours ago, an unidentified object entered Valbara's atmosphere,” Roberts began. “It appeared to be under some measure of intelligent control, as it approached the planet at a velocity and angle that was conducive to surviving reentry. Judging by its trajectory, it slingshotted around the sun and used the inner gas giant to decelerate. The likely point of origin is the very edge of the solar system, inside the Oort cloud. It's undoubtedly of Bug origin.”

A concerned murmur passed through the crowd. Everyone had known that a Bug invasion was imminent, but they had hoped to have more time to prepare. Xico and Tacka shared a worried glance, while Coza crossed her arms, her brow furrowing.

It was a very small object, and as such, it barely registered on our instruments. It might have been dismissed as innocuous space debris, had it not landed just a few miles outside of Yilgarn's walls. Two dozen more of these objects soon followed, which confirmed our fears, each of them landing in close proximity to a Valbaran population center. Our experts believe that these might be some kind of long-range probes and that the Bugs are testing our defenses. Due to their small size, they can't be investigated from orbit, and so we're going to be organizing you into several groups in order to travel to the impact sites and determine the exact nature of these objects. Because UNN personnel have more experience in dealing with Betelgeusians than their Valbaran counterparts, we'll be sending a couple of humans with each team. Your orders are to locate the objects, document what you find, and recover them if possible. If you deem recovery to be too dangerous or otherwise impractical, you are to destroy them.”

He pulled out a tablet computer and began to list off names, the humans joining groups of Valbarans who then collected their equipment and weapons, finally making their way over to one of the idling landers.

Jaeger's name came up, followed by Baker's, and they were assigned to a flock of Valbarans wearing the green and purple camouflage that denoted them as military. It made Jaeger wonder how the chain of command worked. Was the whole flock of equal rank, and were their subordinates expected to take orders from all of them at once?

Maza's flock joined them too. Apparently, the higher-ups didn't see any point in separating them. They were clad in their usual form-fitting jumpsuits, blue and grey instead of green and purple. The UNN personnel began to pass out XMRs, along with the black body armor that was commonly worn by Marines. The aliens took the rifles, but they had their own variety of armor. Jaeger was shocked to see that the Valbaran soldiers were already proficient enough with the railguns to be trusted with them in the field, no doubt another product of their accelerated learning. They were a little larger than was convenient in the hands of the aliens, but they were strong for their size, and they had no trouble lifting them. Maza and her flock were given the blocky laser rifles of Valbaran design, they had been with Jaeger and Baker since they had landed on the planet, and so they hadn't had time to practice with the UNN tech.

Are we expecting to get into a firefight?” Baker asked, pulling on a black chest piece over his uniform and fiddling with the straps.

You never know with Bugs,” Jaeger replied, affixing his helmet and switching on his HUD. It fizzled to life inside his visor, displaying a green overlay, and he began to tune the radio to local frequencies. “They say it's a probe, but for all we know, it might start spontaneously spitting acid or lobbing plasma grenades.”

He checked his weapon, syncing the scope with his helmet and making sure that the battery was charged.

Alright, here are our orders,” one of the green-clad Valbarans began. “Our team is charged with investigating the object that fell outside Yilgarn. It's a short distance beyond the East wall. We will leave through the East gate and make our way towards the target on foot, where we will establish if the object poses an immediate threat, and then respond accordingly.”

The East wall?” Maza asked, concern creeping into her voice. “That's Teth'rak territory.”

We're aware of that,” the soldier replied, “which is why we'll be treading carefully. We'll have a spotter in the lookout tower keeping watch for the Teth'rak.”

Can't we just take one of the dropships and land directly at the target site?” Baker suggested.

No, the Teth'rak will attack it,” Maza replied.

What? It would attack a dropship?” he scoffed. “They're designed to withstand reentry and AA fire, there's no way an animal could bring one down.”

It doesn't matter if she can bring it down or not, what matters is that she will try. A Teth'rak will attack anything that enters its territory. She would spot a big, loud spaceship from miles away and she would see it as an invading enemy. If she attacks the dropship, then we would be compelled to defend ourselves, which we need to avoid at all costs. The Teth'rak sustaining any injuries is unacceptable.”

So we can't fire on that giant thing if it attacks us?” Baker asked.

Absolutely not,” Maza replied, “under no circumstances are you to fire on the Teth'rak.”

Even if it's about to eat me?”

Even then,” she said with a red flurry of feathers. “We are intruding on her territory, we must be respectful.”

I guess it's like shooting a white rhino or something,” Jaeger suggested with a shrug. “I'm not sure an XMR could bring that thing down anyway, not unless you hit the brain or the heart. You'd probably just piss it off even more.”

That's why we have this,” one of the Valbaran soldiers said, brandishing a weapon that looked very much like a forty-millimeter grenade launcher.

And what's that?” Baker asked.

The soldier plucked a metallic ball from her belt, showing it to him.

Pheromone grenades. If there's one thing that the Teth'rak hates more than anything else, it's the scent of urine from other females of its species. The launcher will fire the grenade a good distance away from the user, where it will start to mimic the smell of Teth'rak scent marking. The attacking animal should then divert its attention away from us in order to defend its claim...probably.”

So all we have to save us from the giant dinosaur is stink bombs? Got it,” Baker complained.


The giant wall began to split open, Jaeger watching as the two doors parted to reveal the countryside beyond. It was like a fortress. If the wall was two hundred feet tall, then the doors must have been fifty feet at least, opening wide enough that you could have driven five or six trucks through the opening side by side. He wouldn't have even known that the gate was here, it was seamless, sliding into the wall to either side of it much like the gravity plate in the floor of the lookout tower had.

Stay close,” one of the soldiers said, “roll up your sleeves and don't make use of your color panels. The light might attract the Teth'rak if it comes into visual range.” She raised her arm, extending the plumes in a deep shade of red. “For the benefit of the Earth'nay, red means stop.”

The Valbarans rolled up their sleeves as instructed, flexing their sheaths like a human might roll his shoulders or stretch his arms. Jaeger was as excited as he was apprehensive. For the duration of his stay in Yilgarn so far, he had been confined within its walls, the only nature around him carefully sculpted and tended by the Valbarans. Now they were about to venture out into the wilderness, intentionally left to grow wild by the planet's inhabitants.

The soldier waved them forward, and they began to march, their pace scarcely a brisk walk by human standards so as not to exhaust them too quickly. The first thing that Jaeger noticed was the heat and humidity, it was even more apparent on the outside. Were the city walls able to influence the climate within in some way?

Before them was a plain of blue-green grass, the ankle-length blades waving gently in the wind, making it look almost like an ocean. The fields and rolling hills extended far into the distance, punctuated here and there by large pockets of forest and patches of scrub like islands. The terrain wasn't entirely flat, but it was flat enough that Jaeger could see straight to the horizon. Water was ever present, the lakes and rivers reflecting the light of the sun with a silver glow. Beyond the atmospheric haze, blue mountains rose into the azure sky, wisps of cloud smeared across it like the strokes of a paintbrush. It was an alien Serengeti, like the Valbarans had dropped their city into the middle of a savanna.

He looked back over his shoulder as they walked forwards, the white wall rising into the air behind him, almost devoid of any detail. The gate was already closing, locking them beyond the safety of the city. What Jaeger wouldn't have given for an APC right about now, but even the most rudimentary vehicle would draw the monster, according to the Valbarans. They had to rely on being small and quiet, no doubt the same way that the aliens had survived their prehistory. They had to be sneaky and fast to escape anything that was bigger than they were.

I'm already regretting putting this armor on,” Baker muttered as he walked beside him. “Whose bright idea was it to make these plates black? I feel like I'm going to melt out here.”

Jaeger too was beginning to sweat profusely. The system's star was beating down on them, baking the ceramic plates that they were wearing, he couldn't wait to get to the cover of the trees ahead. They were the same variety that he had seen inside the city, thick, fat trunks with leaves like palm fronds. As they neared the shade, he noticed that there were many other varieties of plants here too, growing wild and untended by the careful hands of the Valbarans.

There was a thick blanket of ferns, their colorful leaves a blend of greens and pinks, along with what looked like miniature trees with trunks that reminded him of pine cones. Splashes of red and yellow from flowering plants broke up the uniformity, and in an instant, they transitioned from open plains to what felt like a tropical jungle. It was even more humid inside, as if the plants were trapping the moisture in the air, the canopy above them blocking the sunlight and preventing the water from evaporating. The trees were so densely packed that Jaeger could no longer see beyond them after walking only twenty feet or so, it was like being teleported to a different planet entirely. we need to watch out for snakes or anything like that?” Baker asked, the ferns rustling as he trudged through them.

What's a snake?” Maza asked as she walked beside him. Inside the forest, the purple and green camouflage worked remarkably well, and even the various shades of green and beige that colored the alien's scales helped them to blend into the background. What was it that they had said about the Teth'rak, that it could see prey at a distance of about six miles? It must have eyes like a hawk, and maybe other predators that inhabited these regions did too. Even Maza and her flock were harder to spot with their ocean camo.

It's like a long, poisonous reptile with no legs,” Baker said as he lifted his foot over a protruding root.

Venomous,” Jaeger corrected. “Venomous animals kill you with a bite or a sting, and poisonous animals kill you if you eat them.”

I'm not sure,” Maza replied, the brush high enough that only her head and shoulders were peeking out. “We have some venomous reptiles and insects, but I don't know how an Earth'nay might react to the toxins.”

Well this day just keeps getting better,” Baker grumbled.

The Valbarans all seemed to have spread out to cover more ground, Jaeger could scarcely see most of them. Only the occasional flutter of color from their crests gave them away, the aliens communicating silently using their feathers. He had expected it to be very revealing, and yet the plants around them were colorful enough that it didn't jump out like he had expected. For every flurry of yellow, there was a patch of yellow flowers to mask it. For every shade of pink and purple, there was a cycad with leaves in the same hues, blues and greens were of course abundant.

There was bird song everywhere, loud enough to be annoying, and for the first time, Jaeger was able to get a glimpse of one of the creatures. Something feathery flitted between the branches of a nearby tree, colorful like a tropical parrot, its little head twitching as it eyed the intruders from its perch.

A bird this was not, it looked more like an extinct missing link between birds and reptiles. It was shaped like a lizard with a long, flexible tail and dinosaur-like legs, its wings tipped with grasping claws and its snout missing a beak. It opened its mouth to reveal rows of tiny, needle-like teeth as it puffed up the plumes around its neck, chirping a song at them before fluttering away to another branch.

Watch out for those,” Coza said as she gestured to the bird-lizard, “it might swoop down at you if it's nesting nearby.”

I'm surprised you can even see anything at all in here,” Baker said, “it's just a mess of color to me. I feel like I can't see five feet in front of my face.”

Oh?” she asked, cocking her head. “Perhaps Earth'nay eyes aren't suited to this environment.” It seemed more like a jab than an observation, Jaeger watching the camouflaged Valbaran slink away into the ferns like a ghost, her blocky rifle at the ready.

They continued on, Jaeger keeping one eye on the treetops. There were so many different kinds of plants that it became hard to keep track, and everything was so tightly packed together, like someone had taken five different botanical gardens and had thrown them into a blender. It was beautiful and confusing.

The lead Valbaran stopped abruptly, raising an arm and flashing its feathers in a shade of red. Everyone halted, Baker and Jaeger taking a knee amidst the pink ferns and shouldering their weapons. They had flipped up their full-faced visors because of the heat, and now Jaeger closed his, the integrated computer scanning his field of view for movement and heat signatures. He spotted something moving between two thick trunks a short distance ahead of them, scoping in on it.

Two large eyes peered back at him, and he recognized it as one of the brown-feathered ostrich-lizards that they had seen from the observation tower on the wall.

It's just a Gue'tra,” he heard someone say, “keep moving.”

The alien creature was skittish, abandoning the blue moss that it had been scraping off the trunk of a tree and fluttering its white-tipped wings as it fled away into the undergrowth. After a while, they arrived at the far side of the patch of forest, the Valbarans lurking at the edge of the plain as they peered out from between the trees. It seemed to be safe, and so they left the shade, emerging onto the savanna again. The change in heat and humidity was stark, another shock to the system. Jaeger couldn't decide whether he wanted to make use of the automatic darkening feature on his visor to protect his eyes from the sun's glare, or if he would rather feel the breeze on his face. The breeze eventually won out, and he flipped his visor up again, doing his best to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes.

More movement drew his attention, and he looked up to see a flock of birds, different from those that he had seen in the patch of forest. These were smaller and lighter, more traditionally bird-like, swarming through the air in an ever-changing pattern like a shoal of fish swimming through the water. They were far off, so he couldn't make out very much detail.

He noted that the leader of the group had changed, now one of the Valbaran soldiers with a notably lighter scale color was at the head of the flock. It seemed that they were all of equal standing, all seven of them equally in charge. How did that work? How did they decide who got to make the decisions and when? They hadn't paused so far to make a new plan, so whatever they were doing, they were doing it without any obvious communication. It was like second nature to them.

Maza's flock was on the same page, moving silently save for the occasional feather signal. These were more complex than the simple flashes of color used to convey emotion, patterns and alternating hues sharing information that the humans couldn't parse. This was probably how they hunted silently in their distant past, not so much as a whisper giving them away to their prey. Unlike humans, the Valbarans did not seem eager to distance themselves from their predatory, carnivorous past. They seemed to see themselves, and indeed they described themselves, as pack hunters.

Even Tacka, usually so timid and reserved, stalked the forest along with her sisters. He had to keep in mind that she too had flown a fighter during the dogfight in the Oort cloud, she was no less qualified than Maza or Coza to wield that rifle. It was as if by working as such a cohesive unit, they were able to lessen the weaknesses of each individual, Tacka's meekness and Coza's bravado less apparent when they were focused on a common goal. The flock really was greater than the sum of its parts.

They reached another island of forest, and this time the group stopped for a few minutes, the Valbarans resting and checking in with their superiors. There was no sign of the Teth'rak yet, and there had been no new Bug activity. Jaeger and Baker decided to do a little exploring while they waited for their companions to recover their strength, wading through the ferns and checking out all of the strange plants and animals.

They found some kind of lizard clinging to a tree trunk that was covered in green fluff, not quite fur and not quite feathers, along with more of the colorful reptilian birds that were hopping between the branches above them. There were insects everywhere, fluttering things with iridescent wings that seemed to be pollinating the colorful flowers.

When they reached the edge of the patch of forest, they crouched between the trees, staying in cover as they had seen the Valbarans do so as not to draw any unwanted attention. Across the plain, they saw something massive in the distance. There was a whole herd of creatures, perhaps two dozen of them standing around a pocket of jungle as they used their long necks to nibble the tops of the trees.

Sauropods,” Baker marveled. “How far away do you think they are? They must be a hundred and twenty feet long at least, probably a hundred tons. It's like seein' a whale walking around on the land...”

They did indeed look like dinosaurs, they had round bodies that were propped up on four massive, elephant-like legs. Much like the Teth'rak and the Geu'tra, they were covered in a coat of feathers, these ones a vibrant blue in color. They sported tall, decorative crests that rose from their spines. Behind them trailed a long and flexible tail that tapered into a whip, a counterbalance to their long, giraffe-like necks. They were stripping leaves from the tallest trees using horny beaks, the ornate crests that rose from the tops of their heads catching the sunlight, they were like walking lighthouses.

I never thought I'd be seeing anything like this when I became a pilot,” Jaeger laughed, taking a photograph of them with his phone. They heard rustling behind them, and Maza emerged from the undergrowth.

Come on, we're moving out. The target site is near.”

They made their way back to the group, following them out of the forest and into the open once more. Jaeger felt vulnerable as they marched across the open grassland with no jungle canopy to protect them. The patches of forest were perhaps a half mile apart on average, and so it was quite a sprint to make it back to safety.

The impact crater came into view in the distance, the grass around it charred and burned. The Valbarans advanced on it with their weapons raised, craning their flexible necks as they kept watch for danger. As the resident experts on Bug tech, Baker and Jaeger jogged to the front of the pack, reaching the lip of the crater and leaning over to peer inside with their rifles shouldered.

It was a perfect bowl-shape, the sand and dirt had been turned to glass in places by the heat of the impact, but it was empty.

Uh...wasn't there supposed to be a Bug probe here or somethin'?” Baker asked.

Jaeger walked around the circumference of the hole as the Valbarans looked on in confusion, deferring to the more experienced humans.

We should not linger in the open for too long, Earth'nay,” one of the soldiers warned as she scanned the horizon for danger. They had taken up a defensive position, set up in a rough circle with each of them facing a different direction.

Wait, there's something here,” Jaeger said as he took a knee beside a patch of scorched grass. “Look at this. There are tracks coming up this side of the crater and out into the field. They're like little indents, see that?”

Yeah,” Baker confirmed as he leaned over his shoulder. “So our probe got up and walked out of here? It could be fuckin' anywhere by now.”

A Valbaran in green camo sidled up beside him, peering down at the indentations in the soil.

So you are suggesting that an organic probe could be fired from a spaceship, enter the atmosphere, dig a crater six feet deep, and then get up and walk away? These Betelgeusians are capable of such things?”

Oh yeah,” Baker replied, “that's the least impressive thing we've seen them do.”

The Valbaran seemed to pause, it was like watching a computer freeze up.

What do we do?” she finally asked.

We should probably follow the tracks,” Jaeger suggested, rising to his feet and shielding his eyes from the sun as he peered out across the savanna in the direction that the probe must have gone. “Any of you guys know anything about tracking?”

The Valbaran soldier whistled for her flock, Maza and her companions joining them in a huddle as the two humans waited nearby. They chittered and schemed, flashing their colorful plumes as they formulated a new plan to follow. They also made use of their handheld computers, holding what looked like a conference call with the higher-ups, a solitary head popping out to check for danger every few seconds. For not wanting to remain out in the open for too long, they certainly took their time, a UNN squad would already have moved out by now.

We will follow the trail,” one of the soldiers finally said, Jaeger and Baker sharing a look of relief as they set off again. It was difficult to follow the tracks through the tall grass, they were little more than round indentations, no doubt left by pointed limbs like those of an insect. They were only about two feet apart, so whatever they were looking for wasn't very large, and would likely be hidden by the grass. The aliens had a keen sense of smell, however. They picked up a scent that they described as a blend of burnt metal and ozone, following their noses where the tracks disappeared.

After meandering around for a while, seemingly directionless, the thing seemed to have chosen a target and set off with more purpose. The tracks formed a straight line, leading back in the direction of the city.

It came here with a mission, obviously,” Jaeger said as they traced its steps. “It's heading straight back to the city, probably so it can crawl up the wall and tell its hive ship what kind of defenses we have.”

Have you seen this behavior before?” Maza asked as she bobbed along beside him. She seemed concerned, and after what her people had gone through on their lost colony planet, he couldn't blame her.

Not personally,” he replied, “but that's the tricky thing about Bugs. They're always changing, no two fleets are exactly alike. They usually build off of a kind of genetic blueprint that seems to be common to all hives, like they all start out with the same basic designs and then start...mutating them, based on their immediate needs.”

So...your people don't really know what we'll be facing when the Bugs launch their attack?”

Not exactly,” he admitted, “but let me put it another way. We've collectively fought dozens of individual Bug fleets over the last thirty years, and we beat most of them. Planets and systems changed hands a few times, we've had to give ground, but not often. That we're here at all is proof that we've been able to push them back and expand our borders. Nobody is more qualified for this job than the UNN.”

That seemed to reassure her a little, but to be honest, he wasn't entirely sure himself. It usually took fleets comprised of two or more carriers along with an armada of support ships, not to mention massive battleships that could dole out some serious damage, in order to defend an inhabited planet from a full-blown invasion. It didn't happen very often either. The Bugs had never made it very far into UNN controlled space, they were mostly a problem on the outskirts where the colonies were less populated and harder to defend due to their remoteness.

Could the Rorke defend the planet with only the Valbarans for support? It depended on the size of the Bug fleet. It sounded as if the abandoned Valbaran colony that was likely its point of origin had been a fertile planet, and the more raw materials the Bugs had access to, the better equipped the fleets that they sent out would be. One hive ship and a limited support fleet they could definitely deal with. Two or three and a suitable number of support ships would be stretching it.

We need to rest,” one of the soldiers said as she sidled up beside them, directing them to a nearby forest. They turned and made for the cover of the trees, the aliens locking their legs and checking in with command as they caught their breath in the shade. Jaeger wondered what kind of role the Coalition might be able to find for them if they should choose to join, they certainly couldn't keep pace with UNN Marines on the ground. Perhaps they would be better suited to piloting roles.

Maza talked with the other aliens for a minute, pointing to something on one of the tablet computers, then returned to Jaeger and Baker.

We have people checking the top of the wall, it doesn't look like anything has climbed over it. At least there's no evidence of that. The probe is probably still between the crater and the city.”

That's good news at least,” Baker said.

There's another problem, however. They have eyes on the Teth'rak, and she's wandering this way. She hasn't seen us yet, or she'd be moving faster, and we're downwind of her so she won't pick up our scent. Even so, we should try to get this done and get back to Yilgarn as quickly as possible. She's about five miles South of us, and she can run at about twenty miles per hour, so if she spots us, we're going to have...a little under fifteen minutes to get to safety.”

We really don't want to be out here in the open when she notices we're here,” Coza added, “there's no weapon or armor that will do us any good against her.”

Shouldn't we get back behind the wall and then come take another look when she's moved off again?” Baker asked.

No,” Jaeger replied. “We don't know whether that probe is trying to send information back to the fleet, trying to poison the water supply, or trying to release some kind of deadly virus. Letting it run amok while we wait out the Teth'rak isn't an option. We don't have any time to waste, let's get moving.”

They broke from cover and returned to the trail of Bug tracks, the city wall looming in front of them. They were almost back to the gate now, it was perhaps a quarter mile away from them to the right, still open a sliver. There was a large patch of forest to either side of them, maybe another half mile apart, and the Bug's tracks arced off to the left where they seemed to end at the foot of the structure.

If what Maza had said was accurate, then the Teth'rak was probably a good distance South of the gate relative to them. They would have to move towards it to reach the probe. It was said to have good vision, and so it seemed likely that they would be spotted on this open field. They needed to get in and out fast if they didn't want to end up as dinosaur food.

They reached the foot of the wall, and the tracks changed. Jaeger didn't need to be a master hunter to see that the insect had tried to climb up the glassy surface, leaving scratch marks where it had scrambled to find purchase, and then it had given up and walked along to the wall to the left. They followed the trail a little further, the subtle curvature of the structure masking the end of it, and a hole eventually came into view. It looked about the right size for a large dog, and there was a mound of dirt nearby, the creature had tried to dig its way under the wall to get inside the city.

Jaeger took point, shouldering his rifle and edging closer to the hole. As he neared it, another spray of dirt was ejected from it, landing nearby to join the growing pile.

It's still here!” Jaeger announced, “back me up!”

The Valbarans formed a rough crescent around the burrow as Jaeger leaned over to look inside. It was dark, he couldn't see very far, the thing had dug a pretty deep tunnel.

So are we going to try and recover this thing?” Baker asked.

If you want to squeeze down that hole and wrangle it, be my guest,” Jaeger replied. “I don't see any conceivable way to get it out of there. Maybe we can lure it out with something? Scare it out?”

Baker stepped forward, aiming his XMR straight down into the hole and firing off a couple of rounds, the loud crack echoing across the plains. They heard the creaking sound of scurrying insect limbs, and then the probe burst out of the hole like a bat out of hell, vanishing into the tall grass. Jaeger hadn't gotten more than a glimpse of it, but it looked like a giant, blue-shelled isopod or a woodlouse.

Get after it!” Baker shouted, but the Valbarans were already moving. They raced through the grass, even faster than the Bug, quickly surrounding it and blocking off its escape route. They kicked at it with their taloned feet like birds trying to kill a snake, hissing and spitting as their feathery plumes rose into vibrant displays of red and orange. When Baker and Jaeger arrived, the Bug had curled up into a tight sphere about the size of an exercise ball. Its iridescent, blue shell was divided into segments, again very much like a woodlouse. The carapace was charred and scored, no doubt damage sustained during its hard landing, and there was a hole in its rear that was leaking yellow ichor where Baker had shot it.

Alright, alright, back off,” Baker said as he warded the furious Valbarans away. Coza gave it one extra kick for good measure. He examined the creature, letting his rifle hang from its sling and scratching his chin. “Can we move it?”

Jaeger shrugged.

I'm not going to try to pick it up.”

Baker walked forward and slipped his hands underneath the blue carapace, straining to lift the thing. It wasn't very large, but it looked heavy, the shell was probably partially composed of metal in order to shield it from the heat of reentry.

Don't just stand there, Bullseye, give me a hand here.”

Jaeger cursed, dropping his weapon to let it hang from his chest and making his way over to help Baker, taking the other side and struggling to raise it off the ground. Between them, they were able to carry it, the little critter seemed to want to stay inside its shell.

Alright,” Baker sighed, shifting the weight around. “Let's walk this thing back to the gate and-”

The Bug sprang to life again, uncurling in a flash and flailing its sharp legs, Baker and Jaeger yelling in unison as they released it. The pointed, chitinous limbs tore into their body armor, scoring it like a penknife on a wooden desk and leaving deep scars in the material. Jaeger caught a leg to the face, his visor cracking and the HUD fizzling out as the thing made another break for it.

Fucking- just shoot it!” he shouted.

There was a chorus of gunfire, and then the scurrying probe lay motionless in the grass, its segmented body limp as a dozen holes in its blue shell leaked syrupy fluids. Some of them were smoking, no doubt a result of the laser weapons.

Motherfucker,” Baker muttered, rising to his feet and brushing himself off. “I take back what I said about the body armor,” he grumbled as he looked himself over, “that thing had feet like knives.”

Let's take the body and get back to the gate,” Jaeger said, “I think that's enough excitement for one day.”

As he walked over to the carcass and gave it a wary prod with the barrel of his XMR, he heard one of the Valbaran soldiers call out.

Stand by, receiving a message from control.” Her feathers fluttered in shades of yellow and blue as she listened, turning to the humans with a frightened expression. “Teth'rak comes this way, we must hurry, Earth'nay.”

The noise must have attracted it,” Maza added, her tone urgent. “Come, collect the Bug and let's go!”

Baker and Jaeger took a couple of legs each, lifting it between them and hurrying in the direction of the gate. The thing was heavy and unwieldy, it was like trying to move a couch. The Valbarans clustered around them, weapons at the ready, and yet Jaeger knew that they would not fire on the creature. Not even if their own lives were on the line.

As they rounded the wall, the gate came into view, and then Jaeger heard a low-frequency pulse. It wasn't heard so much as felt, the vibration shaking the ground and traveling up his spine, resonating in his very bones. He turned his head to look behind him and saw what looked like an angry explosion staring back at him. The Teth'rak was standing perhaps a quarter mile away.

It was looking straight at them, the orange feathers around its neck and shoulders puffed up to expose the red hues beneath, framing its massive jaws as it panted and dripped strands of saliva. Its beady eyes watched them, the two streaks of white coloration on its snout making them appear far larger than they actually were, its pearly teeth contrasting with its fiery plumage.

It emitted another call, the sound seeming to shake the earth. One would have expected the creature to open its jaws and loose an intimidating roar, but it sounded more like a whale, or maybe an unimaginably large alligator.

Everyone froze, Baker and Jaeger included, a deeply primal dread overcoming them. It was one thing to be shot at by an enemy, but there was an ancient terror associated with being eaten by a predator, rooted deep in the amygdala.

The two parties stared each other down for a moment, time crawling to a standstill. It began to walk towards them, its massive, three-toed feet splaying to carry its weight. Then it began to run, slowly gaining speed as it gave chase.

By the time Jaeger and Baker had dropped the Bug carcass, the Valbarans were already halfway to the patch of woodland nearest the gate, about seven hundred feet away. Only Maza lingered as she hastily gestured for them to follow.

Come on, come on!”

They ran, following after the aliens who were already nearing the edge of the forest, the Teth'rak growing in size alarmingly quickly as it drew closer. Jaeger felt like he was trying to run in molasses, as if he was trapped in a nightmare. He was sprinting faster than he ever had before, but he was slower than everything else on this damned planet. The beast's footsteps were reverberating through the ground like an earthquake, he could feel the thing gaining ground. The Valbarans had exhausted themselves, struggling the last two hundred feet or so and leaping between the cover of the stout tree trunks, Maza not far behind them. The two humans ran as fast as their legs would carry them, but their endurance was of no benefit here.

The Teth'rak was moving rapidly. About twenty seconds had passed, and it had covered half of the distance already, bearing down on them like a freight train made of teeth. There was something about the upward curve of its mouth that made it look like it was smiling at them, which somehow made it even more terrifying.

The forest was nearly within reach, and as the two humans neared the edge of the colorful ferns, they threw themselves between the thick trunks. Jaeger could feel the thing's hot breath on his back, rolling as he hit the ground. A tremendous crash shook the canopy above him, showering him with leaves and broken twigs as the Teth'rak rammed the barrier with its titanic head.

Wood creaked, leaves rustled, and frightened birds took to the sky. But the roots ran deep, and the trees were strong enough to ward it off. As Jaeger scrambled away, shuffling backwards on his ass, he saw the Teth'rak's orange snout press between the two round trunks as it tried to force its way through. He was close enough to smell the carrion on its breath, its nostrils flaring and blowing the nearby ferns as it took in his scent. It reminded him of a dog trying to grab a chew toy that had rolled beneath the couch, twisting and gnashing, its prey just out of reach.

It gave up, pulling back, the great head seeming to rise up into the sky. His heart leapt again as it came back into view, turning to the side and pressing its eye up against the gap. The proportionally tiny organ blinked as it focused, framed with that red and white patterning, the iris a striking shade of yellow. It looked right at him, and he saw a kind of dull awareness in its gaze, its pupil expanding as it watched him hungrily.

Again it rose out of view, and this time the creature moved off, legs as tall and as thick as the tree trunks walking by as it shook the earth beneath it. It was circling the patch of forest, trying to find a way inside.

Maza and Ayau rushed to his aid, helping him to his feet, the humans now as exhausted as the Valbarans. Jaeger's heart was pounding in his chest in a way that he had never felt before, like it was trying to escape through his throat. Even during a dogfight, he always remained calm and collected. There was a kind of detachment to space combat, an odd tranquility that came with the total lack of sound. But now, he was scared almost out of his wits, sweat stinging his eyes as he flung off his damaged helmet and ran his hands over his damp face.

You barely made it,” Maza gasped, “I thought I was going to have to watch you get eaten.”

My sixth birthday,” Baker wheezed, Jaeger turning his head to see his friend sitting in the ferns beside him.

What?” he snapped.

When I blew out the candles on my birthday cake, my wish was to see a real live dinosaur. This wasn't what I had in mind.”

The Teth'rak released another resonating call, Jaeger cursing as it shook him to the bone. It was behind them now, trying to find a way to get at them, but it seemed as if the trees were too dense.

Now what?” he asked, directing his question to Maza. “You guys won't let us shoot it, so how do we get out of here? We can't go back for the probe now.”

Maybe we can get a dropship to come pick us up,” Baker suggested.

No, the Teth'rak won't let it land,” Maza warned.

Jeez, maybe they could throw us a fucking rope?”

Maza whistled to one of the Valbarans, seeming to argue with her for a moment, and then the alien tossed her the grenade launcher. The weapon was breech loaded, and she snapped it open, checking the barrel before clicking it back into place with a look of determination on her face.

We have the scent grenades, we can distract her, at least for a time.”

Enough time to run back to the gate?” Jaeger asked.

Probably,” she replied, a little more non-committal than Jaeger had been hoping for.

She whistled, calling the other Valbarans over, the aliens unlocking their legs and huddling.

No, no huddling,” Jaeger said as they peered up at him with confused flurries of feathers. “There's no time to waste, that thing could break through the trees at any moment. Maza, you're going to fire that scent grenade as far as you can to our rear. We're gonna wait for the Teth'rak to go check it out, and once it gets far enough away, we're going to make a run for the gate.”

The grenade will only distract it for so long,” she replied.

They jumped as there was another loud crash, the Teth'rak slamming the trees, using its head as a battering ram. More frightened birds erupted into the sky, screeching their alarm as it moved on, the orange feathers just visible through the dense trees as it stalked past.

I guess there's no point waiting,” Maza conceded, shouldering the grenade launcher and aiming above the canopy to the East of them. With any luck, it would draw the animal to the rear of the forest, blocking them from view when they made their escape.

Just follow the plan,” Jaeger replied. “That's what you guys do best, right?”

Maza pulled the trigger, the grenade shooting through the leaves and arcing into the distance. After a moment, they heard a crashing sound, followed by a low-frequency call as the creature abandoned its game of cat and mouse. The heavy footsteps grew fainter as it ran off to investigate the smell.

That was their signal, the Valbarans who had been poised at the edge of the forest shooting out like Olympic sprinters. Baker and Jaeger followed behind them, running out of cover and across the open plain, the wind rushing in their ears. They had discarded their heavy armor plating and their rifles, it wouldn't do them any good if they ended up in the jaws of the Teth'rak.

As Jaeger ran, he turned his head to look over his shoulder, seeing the tail of the gigantic monster vanish around the edge of the small island of trees. When he swiveled his head to look in front of him again, he had almost caught up to the group of now spent Valbarans. They had run as far as they could, and now they were exhausted, limping along and panting. They were about halfway there, the open gate was tantalizingly close, but the little aliens had expended their energy. All they could manage now was a kind of slow jog, little better than walking.

Heads up!” Baker shouted, scooping up the two slowest aliens who were lingering at the rear and carrying them under his arms. He ran ahead of the pack, reaching the door and flinging them through the narrow gap, where Valbarans wearing the light green of medical personnel were waiting to catch them. Jaeger saw what he was trying to do and followed suit, bundling the next two slowest aliens in his arms and pushing himself towards the gate, Xico yelping as he plucked her off the ground. He passed Baker, who was turning back to help the rest of them, releasing his charges near the opening before he too turned about and made his way back into the proverbial fire.

By now, the faster Valbarans were reaching the gate, Maza and the rest of her flock among them. As Baker returned with two more passengers, Jaeger made for the last straggler. To his horror, from around the patch of forest appeared the Teth'rak's massive head, its orange plumes flaring into shades of red as it laid eyes on the intruders. It was done investigating the scent grenade, and now it was back to finish the job. It rounded the trees, breaking into a ponderous run that looked deceptively slow. Its size made its movements appear sluggish, and yet it must be running at twenty miles an hour or more, loosing another reverberating pulse of low-frequency noise. It sounded like the musical sting for a fucking horror movie.

Every fiber of his being told Jaeger to turn around and save his own skin, and yet he couldn't abandon that last Valbaran. The little alien turned her head to look behind her as she struggled forward, her crown of feathers flaring in shades of shocked yellow and dismayed blue. He didn't know this one's name, she was one of the soldiers clad in green and purple camouflage, but something inside him compelled him to sprint towards the open jaws of the advancing beast. Images of Boomer's Beewolf being split in half by the claw of the Bug carrier flashed in his mind, his friend's torn cockpit tumbling away into the asteroids, Jaeger within spitting distance yet powerless to help.

Not again. Never again.

He skidded to a stop like a batter arriving at home base, the Valbaran extending her arms towards him, and he caught her around the waist as he dug his boots into the dirt. He summoned the last of his strength to power his body forwards, adrenaline coursing through his veins, his muscles burning as he felt the Teth'rak's thunderous footsteps shake the earth.

The Valbaran clung to him like a baby monkey, her arms wrapped around his neck, her legs locked around his waist and her tail coiling around him like a snake. As he raced towards the gate, his friends beckoned to him, urging him on with dread etched into their expressions. No doubt the Teth'rak was right on his heels, its mouth open wide enough to swallow him whole, but he didn't turn his head to look at it. He had one mission right now, and he wasn't going to fail.

He flew through the small gap, rolling to the ground with his charge clutched in his arms, the Teth'rak ramming the gate with its sledgehammer head barely a second after him. The gates were already closing, and the gap was too small for the thing to get its wide snout through, but it tried all the same. There was the sound of rending metal as it used its teeth like a hatchet, swinging its head to drive them into the gate, throwing all of its immense weight at the obstacle. Jaeger kept a tight hold on the Valbaran as he sat on the ground, watching as the gates closed and the last sliver of orange feathers vanished. It looked like the door would hold, and as the monster loosed one final hair-raising call, the banging ceased.

The next thing he knew, the doctors were prying his arms apart. They guided the exhausted Valbaran towards the rest of the team, who were standing with their legs locked, or lying down as the medics tended to them. There was what looked like some kind of helicopter parked on the grass nearby, the same white color as all of their technology, save for markings in light green along the side. It seemed to have a single large rotor mounted on the top, the chassis rounded and streamlined, a landing ramp on the rear open to expose the interior. It was some kind of air ambulance, these must be what were parked on the landing pads at the hospital.

Baker was crouched off to the right, giving Jaeger a thumbs up as he drank from a water bottle that they had provided him. One of the medics scurried over to him and handed him a bottle of vaguely blue liquid, Jaeger wiping the sweat from his face on his sleeve and taking a long draw. It tasted sugary, like a sports drink.

Did everyone make it back?” Jaeger asked, still catching his breath. The adrenaline was starting to wear off now, and he just felt exhausted.

You saved them!” Maza threw herself into his arms, pushing her snout into the nape of his neck and nuzzling as she laughed giddily. She knocked him off balance, and he lay on his back, her face framed by the blue sky above them. “You went back for that soldier, she would have been eaten for sure. A second later and you would both have ended up in the Teth'rak's stomach!”

I...didn't want to leave anyone behind,” he explained. She pressed her forehead against his, her sheaths extending and her feathers rising in shades of deep pink, her scales cool against his burning skin. For a moment, it was like nobody else existed, her violet eyes opening to meet his gaze, her pupils round and dark. She realized that she was straddling him, and she hopped off, seeming embarrassed by her impromptu show of affection.

Drink,” she said, leaning in and guiding the rim of the plastic bottle to his lips. “Recover your strength.”

Don't worry about it, I'll be fine in a few minutes,” he protested. “I've run a lot further than that before, but I think I might have just beaten my record for the hundred-yard dash.”

She laughed, probably having no idea what he was talking about, but her relief was palpable.

You two are heroes,” she said as Baker walked over to join them, reaching up to pat him on the back.

All credit goes to Baker,” Jaeger said as he took another swig from the bottle. “Carrying the Valbarans was his idea, I was just following his example.”

Yeah, but you were the one who almost got eaten by a dinosaur,” Baker chuckled as he offered him his hand. Jaeger took it, his friend pulling him to his feet and trapping him in a one-armed hug. “So what do we get? A medal, a key to the city?” Baker asked as he released Jaeger. “I'll settle for a chance to fire a riot control grenade off the top of the wall at that toothy asshole. Fucker's as mean as a rattlesnake.”

He's joking,” Jaeger said as Maza gave Baker a confused look. “Any injuries to report?”

Everyone is fine, they're just tired, a few pulled muscles and sprained ankles maybe. The medical personnel are administering fluids.”

You guys really suffer when you push yourselves too hard,” Jaeger mused as he looked over the group of resting aliens. It looked like the scene of some kind of natural disaster or maybe a car accident.

I assume that Earth'nay do too when they exceed their limitations,” she replied.

I guess that's true. How about you? Shouldn't you be resting with the others?”

I'll survive,” she replied with a toothy grin.

We need to report in,” Baker said, “fleetcom is going to be wondering where we are.”

Oh shit, you're right,” Jaeger muttered as he dug in his pocket for his phone. They had left the helmets, along with the rest of their gear, out on the plains. The people in charge of requisitions probably wouldn't be too happy with them. The mission had been accomplished, however. The Bug probe had been destroyed. Perhaps someone could go out and recover the carcass when the Teth'rak had moved off, Jaeger certainly wasn't going to set foot outside the gate a second time.

He saw something moving out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see the flock of soldiers approaching him, the rest of Maza's flock following close behind them. The one at the front of the pack was the one that Jaeger had saved last, he recognized her tan scales.

My name is Cuetz'xauh'qui,” she said, bowing her head. “You have saved my life, and the lives of my flock, Earth'nay. We are indebted to you.”

The aliens puffed up their plumes in a deep shade of red in unison, bowing before the two humans in what Jaeger recognized as a show of respect.

You're welcome,” Jaeger replied, not really knowing how else to respond.


After a short debriefing back at the spaceport, they were dismissed, Jaeger and Baker returning to Maza's domed house on one of the mag-lev trains. Several of the probes had been destroyed, but a few had been recovered, and as had been expected they were packed with transmitters and sensory equipment. They were spies, sent to assess the defenses on the ground. You didn't have to be a master strategist to guess that it was the precursor to a full-on invasion. The Bugs had moved up their timetable, an attack could come any day now.

Maza stared vacantly out of the window as she sat beside him in the train car, Jaeger nudging her with his elbow to get her attention.

Hey, you alright?”

I was just thinking,” she said, looking forlorn. “The Bugs have set foot on Val'ba'ra, this is only the beginning. Soon we'll be at war. It will be like what happened on Ker'gue'la.”

No it won't,” Jaeger replied, doing his best to reassure her. “We're here this time. We have ships, weapons, experience. There's no way we're going to let them take this planet.”

But even if we win, lots of people are going to die all the same. Entire cities might be razed.”

We're going to do all that we can to prevent that.”

I saw how worried everyone was at the debriefing,” she continued, “I can read Earth'nay facial expressions pretty well by now. The appearance of the probes bothered them, they expected to have more time to prepare. It's only been a few days, they won't have had time to manufacture enough new weapons for the orbital defense grid, they won't have been able to install them yet...”

It's no use worrying,” Jaeger said with a shrug. “You won't do yourself, nor anyone else any good by making yourself miserable.”

How can you be so...aloof?” she asked, looking up at him with a flurry of purple feathers. “The world might end tomorrow for all we know, but you're not worried at all?”

Sure I'm worried, but like I said, worrying doesn't help anyone. Being a soldier is ninety percent waiting, ten percent fighting. If you let it, your worry and your apprehension will drive you crazy, fry your nerves. You have to accept that some things are outside of your control, you have to distract yourself.”

Distract myself?”

Yeah. What do Valbarans do to unwind, what do you do to relax? If this really was your last day, how would you want to spend it?”

You've really...put a lot of thought into this,” Maza said, a hint of pity in her voice. “Before we encountered the Bugs, we always imagined joining this...advanced, enlightened Galactic community. They'd share with us advanced technology, philosophies, medicines. They'd show us wonders that we could never have imagined. Instead, the Galactic community is at war. First contact with the Bugs was followed by the complete destruction of our colony, and the next group of aliens that we met was a war fleet. We thought that we could escape our problems by reaching the stars. Instead, we just traded old problems for new ones.”

It's not all that grim,” Jaeger said. “Sure, we're at war with the Bugs, but the other species all get along pretty well. You saw that the Rorke's crew compliment was made up of several different alien races. Further inside Coalition space, things are pretty peaceful. We have to deal with organized crime and piracy on occasion, but it's only on the borders that wars flare up. If we survive...I mean, when this is all over, if you guys choose to join us then we can bring you into the fold. You'll have the chance to found new colonies, we'll be able to open up trade routes to Valbara, we'll be able to protect you from the Bugs. This can still turn out okay.”

You asked me what I'd do if this really was our last night alive,” she said, glancing up at him wistfully. “Perhaps I should show you how Val'ba'ra'nay have fun?”

That sounds like a good start,” he said with a grin.


They stopped at the dwelling so that the aliens could change out of their uniforms. Unfortunately, Baker and Jaeger had no choice but to keep theirs on. When they were done, the group set off towards the city in another mag-lev train. Baker was always the first one off the carrier when they had shore leave, he was always seeking out street vendors and dive bars, eager to explore the bowels of stations and outposts. He had no complaints, the prospect of a night on the town had him excited.

Jaeger might have preferred a quiet night of reflection, excitement would not be something that they were going to be lacking in the coming days, but he was also interested in exploring more aspects of Valbaran society. He would never share the sentiment with Maza and her friends, of course, but that society might not be around for very much longer. There was something oddly melancholic about the idea of dancing in a nightclub or drinking in a bar that might be razed to the ground the next day.

The familiar spires of the city rose up in front of them as they raced along the track, the train having to tilt at a ninety-degree angle again to avoid an oncoming car, the motion never failing to alarm Jaeger and amuse Baker. By the time the train car slid into the station, the setting sun was already painting the sky in shades of pink and orange, stars just starting to become visible above their heads.

They say that the setting sun's colors are a premonition of the coming day,” Maza said, noticing that he was staring at it.

And what do pink and orange mean to a Valbaran?”

Pink is love and romance, orange is somewhere between anger and surprise, blue is sadness.”

Somehow, I doubt that you get many greens and purples in your sunsets.”

She fluttered her feathers in a Valbaran shrug.

It's just a myth. There's a lot of pink today, though...”

They descended the escalator that led to the city street. Once again, the crowds of Valbarans gawked at the aliens, their heads pivoting on their long necks to get a look. This time, Maza had no patience for press conferences, her flock surrounding the two humans as they ferried them away. They must have made one of their plans at some point, because they knew exactly where they were going, in perfect coordination as they pushed and dragged the humans towards their destination.

Valbaran cities were far smaller than their human equivalents, and it didn’t take long before Jaeger found himself in a side street, away from the prying eyes of the crowds. Here, only a few Valbaran flocks disturbed them, peering at the aliens as they passed them by.

There was an abundance of neon signs here, the alien text that adorned them indecipherable, but it was such an oddly human sight. If it had not been for the strange lettering, he might have assumed that he was in some East Asian city like Hong Kong or Shanghai, maybe Tokyo. The signs came in all colors, mostly yellows that no doubt promised excitement, and greens that perhaps promised relaxation or tranquility. He would have to ask Maza about more of their colors and how they related to different emotions. It was easy to guess some of them based on the context, but he had never seen any of the green hues before.

This was the only place that he had visited within the walls of the Valbaran city that didn't look like it had been thoughtfully sculpted. There were no rolling hills here, no trees or flowers, no swooping buttresses or elaborate decorations. It was just a regular alley that was sandwiched between two large buildings, nothing clinical or planned about it. There were exposed cables hanging between the two structures, and many of the signs were askew. The buildings blocked the sunlight to make it darker, it all looked very makeshift. A hiccup in the grand design, perhaps?

Maza noticed his confused expression, tugging him along by the hand as she explained.

Even we can't foresee every eventuality, sometimes city planners fail to account for certain factors or make mistakes. Here we have an alleyway where there was supposed to be some kind of facility or service, but it was deemed unnecessary sometime after it was constructed, and subsequently abandoned. Entrepreneurs moved in and took advantage of the vacant space.”

Is that the only way that Valbarans can start their own businesses?” Jaeger asked. He hadn't thought about it until now, but if everything was pre-planned, how did they account for people wanting to open their own stores or purchase more land? Expansion was impossible in a walled city.

Not entirely, there are a certain number of buildings and allotments created for that purpose, but this is one of the more...unorthodox establishments.”

Illegal..?” Jaeger asked apprehensively.

Not illegal, no. Val'ba'ra'nay consider such places...unsavory. There's a word in our language that has no translation in yours, it means to act outside of the plan. This establishment acts outside of the plan.”

But you're bringing us here all the same?”

You said that you wanted to see what we do for fun,” she said with a shrug, “and places like this can be fun.”

Come on,” Coza said, giving him a shove from behind. “You faced the jaws of the Teth'rak, Earth'nay, you can face this too. Baker shares none of your fears.”

Dive bar,” Baker whispered, nudging Jaeger with his elbow.

Don't eat or drink anything until we scan it first,” Jaeger warned, patting the pocket where he had stored the food scanning device.

Maza led them towards a small door at the base of one of the buildings, all of the neon signs appeared to be directing pedestrians to it. It might otherwise have been invisible from the street, but still, that was a lot of fucking signs for one dive bar.

He and Baker ducked under the low doorway, proceeding down a narrow staircase into what looked like a dingy basement. If this place wasn't illegal, it was certainly as close to illegal as one could get before the police came knocking.

The main reason that I'm bringing you here is because it will be quiet,” she explained as she held another door open for him. “There are upscale restaurants in the city, but they'll be packed, and we would spend the whole night fighting off curious locals. I thought that some privacy might be appreciated.”

Jaeger ducked through another doorway and emerged into some kind of dingy parlor. The ceiling was low enough that he had to slouch to avoid bumping his head, and immediately, something that smelled like herbs or maybe incense reached his nose. He was standing in a roughly circular room with no windows, as it was below street level, and the walls were adorned with the same style of fabric curtains that he had seen in Maza's bedroom. It was lit with a similar red glow, and the air was thick with what looked like cigarette smoke, the floor carpeted in a thick shag. There was what might be a bar off to one side, and there were a few tables scattered about the center of the space, some of them occupied by locals who turned their heads to peer at the visitors. Around the circumference of the room were a series of booths separated by low walls, seemingly designed to grant the occupants some privacy. The interiors were packed with cushions like those that the Valbarans slept on, arranged around a low table, clearly designed to let the occupants lounge around while they presumably ate or drank.

Maza led the group over to one of the booths, the Valbarans taking seats on the plush cushions. With their long tails, they weren't especially suited to sitting down in the way that a human would, at least not without their director's chairs. Instead, they lounged slightly on their sides as they shifted their weight to get comfortable. Baker and Jaeger joined them, there wasn't much leg room between the seating and the table, and so Jaeger sat cross-legged while Baker sat with his knees up near his chin. The curtains that decorated the walls of the booth were hanging a little low for their liking too, brushing against them from behind.

They got some stares from the other patrons, but the interest quickly evaporated, they seemed more concerned with whatever it was that they were drinking from what looked like champagne flutes. Trouble in paradise perhaps? Yilgarn wasn't all whitewashed metal and happy smiles after all. In a way, Jaeger felt relieved, their seemingly perfect society had been starting to make him feel inadequate.

Seeing that they had chosen a booth, one of the several aliens who was staffing the counter made its way over to them, talking with Maza for a moment before leaving again. The two humans watched curiously, wondering what was going to happen next.

So is this like a bar?” Jaeger asked, “like the one we showed you on the Rorke?”

A little,” Maza replied. “I think they serve the same purpose, even if the substances are different.”

Do Valbarans drink alcohol?” Baker wondered, watching the other patrons who were sipping from their glass tubes.

We ferment grains to make alcohol,” Xico confirmed as she lay on the cushions across from them, “though Earth'nay seem to be able to consume more of it. Probably due to your larger size.”

A different Valbaran walked over, carrying something on a metal tray, and set it down in the middle of the table. It was a vaguely bulb-shaped device with a long neck, a bowl at the top, and half a dozen flexible hoses trailing out of it. It seemed to be made from blown glass, embellished with colorful resins or maybe metals in shades of green.

Maza reached over, picking up a small container that was resting beside the device on the tray, upending it into the bowl and placing a metal cap that was dotted with ventilation holes over the top of it. The stuff had looked like dried grass or maybe tobacco. There was some kind of heating element in the top, and she lit it with the press of a switch, a red glow emanating from the device.

What's this?” Jaeger asked, watching as Coza reached over to pick up one of the tubes. She pressed the tip of it against her lips, the flexible hose adorned with what looked a little like a metal whistle. When she drew on it, a bubbling sound emanated from the vase-shaped bottom of the device, the alien leaning back into the cushions and exhaling a cloud of smoke or vapor.

Oh, it's like a hookah!” Baker exclaimed. Jaeger shot him a questioning look.

A what?”

A hookah. It's for smoking. I guess the Valbarans smoke!”

What's in there?” Jaeger asked warily, directing his question towards Maza as she took another one of the tubes in her hand and drew on it for a moment.

A mixture of dried herbs and fruits,” she said, grey smoke trailing out of her mouth with every word and reminding Jaeger of a fire breathing dragon. “You should try it, I doubt there's anything in there that your kind can't tolerate.”

Baker leaned forward to pick up one of the tubes, but Jaeger batted his hand away.

Use the scanner, for fuck's sake. For all you know, this shit could make your lungs collapse.”

Jaeger rummaged in his pocket for the handheld device, holding it up to the hookah as Baker leaned closer to read the tiny display. The vase-like base was simply full of water, while the tray on the top contained a mixture of plant fibers and fruit sugars. The chemical compounds were more complex, however. There were significant traces of something analogous to nicotine, along with a lesser amount of something that the scanner listed as tetrahydrocannabinol.

The scanner says it's safe to consume, but I don't think this thing has a setting for smoking,” Jaeger said. “I don't recognize this chemical either, any ideas, Baker?”

That's THC,” Baker chuckled.

Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

It's pot, dude. Cannabis. These guys must have something similar to hemp that grows here.”

Oh,” Jaeger mumbled, not sure how to react. The flock of aliens were all drawing on their respective hoses, and there was one left for the two humans, the smoke that they exhaled rising to join the thick smog that was already hanging in the air. This wasn't so much a bar as a smoking lounge.

Ayau took a long draw, letting the wisps of smoke rise from her nostrils, then sank into the nest of cushions as her headdress flared in a relaxed shade of green.

Do Earth'nay not partake?” Maza asked, cocking her head.

Hell, I'll try it,” Baker said.

Hang on, I don't know if we should be getting high in uniform,” Jaeger warned. “Or at all. We're still on call, what if something happens and we need to report in?”

Anything that gets these little guys wasted won't do much more than give us a buzz,” Baker said. “And besides, Captain Fielding sent us here to investigate the alien culture, we're ambassadors! It would be rude to refuse.”

The aliens were a lot smaller than the humans, maybe the hit really was a lot more powerful for them than it would be for him and Baker. He watched as his friend lifted one of the tubes to his lips and drew on it, blowing a smoke ring that rose slowly into the air, the flock of aliens watching with wide eyes.

Do that again!” Ayau exclaimed. Apparently, the Valbarans had never seen someone do that trick before. Baker obliged, a yellow flutter of excitement passing around the table as they chittered and warbled. If they had known how to clap, they probably would have applauded him.

I didn't know you were a smoker,” Jaeger said, Baker shrugging as he took another puff from the hookah.

Let's just say that I did a lot more than studying during my college years.”

Another Valbaran approached their table, talking briefly with Maza in their native language before returning to the counter. This establishment must be run by a flock, was this one taking their orders?

Should we be ordering anything?” Jaeger asked, “do we need money?”

Don't worry about it,” Maza said, “just relax. We'll take care of the rest.”

We won't have much use for money if we're going to be dead in a few days,” Coza added, laughing bitterly. “I hadn't been born yet when Ker'gue'la fell, I had only ever seen Bugs in pictures and video files, recordings from the war. Now I've seen one with my own two eyes, I've touched it, it was as real as you or I. It was walking around on our planet, digging in our dirt, it slipped right past our defenses. Tell me Earth'nay, is what your Captain said true? Will our defenses be useless against a Bug invasion fleet?”

The flock watched him expectantly as he attempted to formulate a reply that wouldn't further darken the mood, puffing on their hoses. He decided to skirt the issue altogether, trying to instill a little hope in the aliens.

It doesn't matter. With our upgrades, your defense platforms are going to be equipped with the same railguns that we use on our gunboats. Those twenty-millimeter cannons will shred small fighters that get close. We have the Rorke, the support fleet, a whole squadron of Beewolfs. It's all top of the line, cutting edge.”

This isn't our first rodeo,” Baker added, “we're seasoned exterminators. A Bug fleet has never taken down a UNN carrier, not even once. I ain't been shot down yet, and I don't intend to start any time soon.”

His bluster seemed to put Coza more at ease, the alien nodding appreciatively as she flashed her plumes in a shade of deep red.

You Earth'nay are braver than I gave you credit for. I wasn't sure that you were being sincere before, when you said that you were here to help us. I thought that the Ensi trusted you too readily. After all, we spend twenty rotations building up our defenses, and then an alien fleet jumps in out of nowhere and volunteers to protect us? It sounded too good to be true. What if the second you gained control, you just turned everything off and took the planet in a day? What made your people better suited to the job than ours? The Bugs weren't friendly, why should you be any different? Your ships were equipped for war, after all.”

She took another long draw from the hookah, which seemed to calm her nerves, leaning back against the cushions as she turned her head towards the ceiling and exhaled slowly.

But today, I saw you two save Xico and the others. Jaeger, I watched you pluck that soldier from the very jaws of the Teth'rak. You didn't even know her name, but you risked your life for hers. That's no small thing, not in our culture, at least.”

She didn't say it in so many words, but Jaeger was starting to get the impression that they had earned the surly alien's respect, perhaps even her trust.

All in a day's work,” Baker said.

Perhaps if we survive this,” she continued, “there might be a future for us in your Coalition.”

What must be the waiter returned with another tray, this one loaded with the same champagne flutes that Jaeger had seen the other patrons using. They were thin and tall, made from glass or some kind of clear plastic, kind of like test tubes. They were filled with a vaguely yellow-colored, but otherwise transparent liquid. The alien set the tray down on the table and then left without another word, the flock leaning in, each member taking one of the glasses. There were two left, one for each human.

This time Baker waited for Jaeger to scan them, and the results showed nothing that they couldn't stomach. Jaeger watched as his friend took a sip, the glass tiny in his oversized hands, smacking his lips as he sampled the flavor.

Tastes kind of like dry wine,” he said, “it's bitter.”

Jaeger saw no harm in trying some himself, they were allowed two alcoholic beverages per day while stationed on the Rorke, after all. He brought the narrow glass to his lips and sipped at it experimentally. It was chilled, cool on his tongue, and there was indeed a bitter aftertaste to it. There wasn't enough alcohol content to be of any real significance, it probably wasn't much more potent than a beer.

Maza seemed pleased that he was participating, watching him intently with her unblinking eyes as he took another sip from the glass. He was trying to make it last, there wasn't much more than a couple of mouthfuls for a human. Everyone seemed to be relaxing now, letting off steam, the aliens lounging on the cushions as they drank and smoked. Jaeger hadn't imagined them this way, they had seemed downright prudish at times, but now he was seeing them in a more human light. They got depressed sometimes, they got drunk, and they took drugs, they went to seedy bars. Their society wasn't any more perfect than his own, they just did things differently, they had different priorities.

So this is how you like to relax?” Jaeger asked, looking pointedly around the dingy lounge.

When we need to do a whole lot of relaxing in a short amount of time, yes,” Maza replied with a chuckle. “Don't Earth'nay have anything similar?”

We do, that's what I find so surprising. I can travel sixty-five light-years from home and still find people getting drunk in a bar.”

She laughed at that, taking another drink from her glass.

Maybe integrating into the Galactic community won't be so difficult for us after all...”

All living things function on the same biological reward system,” Xico said, coughing a little as she exhaled a plume of smoke. “We all have dopamine receptors in our brains, or something similar, chemicals that incentivize us to pursue certain behaviors. Any sufficiently advanced species that develops a knowledge of chemistry, or even one that stumbles across a substance that has the same effect, will inevitably find a way to hack that system and obtain the rewards without the associated behaviors.”

That certainly seems to be the case,” Jaeger said, shifting his weight as he tried to get comfortable on the cushions. “The Borealans developed a drink called raises the hair, humans have all kinds of alcoholic beverages and other substances. I'm not sure about the Krell, they probably have some kind of hallucinogenic plant or something like that.”

Tell me more about the Krell'nay,” Ayau said, leaning across the table excitedly. “What's their home planet like?”

It's mostly mud flats and swamps, they're semi-aquatic, so they're as at home in the water as they are on land. I've seen pictures of their planet, their villages are made from wood, built around ancient trees and supported by stilts that raise them above the ground.”

They sound primitive, yet they are spacefaring?”

Not exactly, they have a special relationship with another species called the Brokers, who ferry them to and from the planet. Why are you so interested in the Krell anyway, Ayau? I remember you kept climbing on their shoulders back on the Rorke.”

She took another draw from the pipe, her feathers fluttering a calming shade of spearmint.

Can't you tell? They're monstrously large, muscular, snouts longer than anything I've ever seen. They're like the ultimate females, like a war Goddess from ancient Val'ba'ra'nay legend.”

They're all male,” Baker added, her feathers fluttering in shades of surprised yellow.


Yep, every Krell that serves as an auxiliary in the UNN is male, except when they change their sex. When there are too many males packed into one place, some of 'em start to change gender. They have to take a special plant supplement from their homeworld to stop it, or they'll start breedin' endlessly.”

I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything less from aliens,” Ayau said as she leaned back into the plush cushions.

Let me ask you guys a question,” Jaeger began, “what's with the names?”

How do you mean?” Maza replied.

What about our names?” Ayau asked.

Why are your names so complicated, and why are they split into three sections?”

I always found it strange that your people only have one name,” Ayau said. “Excluding honorifics like Captain or Lieutenant, and callsigns, of course.”

Well...technically we do have more than one name,” he admitted, “but in a professional environment people usually only refer to you by your family name.”

Oh? Then what are your full names?” Maza asked, “is it impolite to ask?”

No, no, it's fine. We usually have a first name, which is given to us by our parents, and then a surname which is inherited from our family. Some people have a middle name too, usually as a reference to their heritage or a public figure. My first name is Carl, for example, given to me by my parents. Then Jaeger is a family name that I inherited from my father. I don't have a middle name.”

My given name is Richard, and my surname is Baker,” Baker added. “My middle name is Harold, after my grandfather.”

Richard Harold Baker,” Maza repeated. “Is that much more complicated than Maza'xol'natuih, or Ayau'pal'lea?”

I suppose not,” Jaeger said as he took another sip from his glass. “Do Valbaran names have a similar significance?”

Ours are a little different. Val'ba'ra'nay names are made up of three sections, all of which combine to form a unified name, much in the same way that a flock comes together to form a whole. It's given by the parents, or rather the flock to which the child's parents belong. There isn't much of a distinction between different members of the flock and who actually sired the child, they all make up a family unit.”

So that means you had like six moms and one dad?” Baker asked, and she nodded.

My parent flock had seven mothers, actually.

What do your names mean?” Jaeger continued. She fluttered her feathers in a shade of purple, a little embarrassed perhaps.

Well...Maza is the first of my names, it's a kind of blooming flower that grows in this region. Naming children after flowers is fairly popular in our culture, the more superstitious will say that it helps them achieve their goals later in life.”

Yeah, it's the same in ours,” Jaeger said. “Daisy or Jasmine, for example.”

Then there's Xol, a name that means...” She thought for a moment, staring off into space. “I suppose the best translation is to fly or to soar. It's not so much a literal translation, the word conveys a concept in our language that it probably doesn't in yours, a feeling. When you hear it, you get a sense of...freedom, of flying like a bird. Perhaps it's one of the reasons that I wanted to join the Air Force and become a pilot at such an early age.”

What about the last name?” Baker asked, taking another puff from the hookah.

That one is Natuih, the last name usually consists of a reference to an emotion or a concept that the parent flock hopes the child will achieve. Mine means happiness, it's rather generic.”

Do Earth'nay names have any special meaning?” Xico asked.

Not always,” Jaeger replied, uncrossing his legs for a moment as they were starting to cramp. “First names rarely have a special meaning, but surnames usually do. Baker, for example, refers to a profession from the ancient world, a person who used to make bread and other baked goods. Smith is a common name, that refers to a person who used to forge metal and make things like tools or weapons. My name is an old German word for hunter, my ancestors came from that region.”

And what about you, Coza?” Baker asked, keeping the conversation going. “What does your name mean?”

The name Coza refers to an ancient bladed weapon used in warfare,” she replied, her tone somber. “My second name, Ma conveys the concept of safety or perhaps fortification. As Maza'xol'natuih already explained, the feeling that it conveys is hard to translate.” She brought one of the flexible hoses to her mouth, inhaling before letting the smoke slowly billow from her nostrils, the two humans waiting for her to continue with bated breath. “My last name is Lotl, which means vengeance.”

Ok then...” Baker mumbled, giving Jaeger a sideways glance. “Is there any particular reason that your parents chose such...uh...colorful names for you?”

I was born on Val'ba'ra, but my parents were among those that made the journey to Ker'gue'la before the invasion. When their city was attacked, they lost two members of their flock. The remaining four were able to evacuate, but...losing a member of one's family in that way inflicts a wound that never really heals.”

She lay back in her nest of pillows, letting the tobacco do its work for a moment, Baker clearly regretting asking the question.

I never knew them,” she finally said, “I only knew what my parents told me about them. But I suppose they imagined me avenging them, finding a way to right the wrong somehow. All of my sisters entered the military in some capacity, and it was at the flight academy that I met Maza'xol'natuih and the others. I suppose I thought that space would be the first line of defense if the Bugs should find us here.”

Well, that certainly went some way to explaining why Coza was such a hardass compared to the others, but Jaeger could sympathize. Boomer's death was still fresh in his mind, and he knew other people who had died an untimely death at the hands of the Bugs. When you were a soldier in the UNN, it came with the territory. But to lose a family member...parents...he couldn't imagine how that would feel. For a moment, he thanked his stars that his parents were living safely on Earth, deep in the heart of UNN space where nothing could reach them without first going through a dozen other worlds and the combined fleets of the Coalition.

You'll get your chance,” he said, Coza meeting his gaze across the table. “When that hive fleet shows up here, there will be hundreds of thousands of Bugs, and we're going to kill every last one of them. And when that's done, the Coalition will help you retake Kerguela, I'm certain of it. We have no choice, the planet will keep producing fleets and sending them out unless we cut them off at the source. It will require multiple carriers working in concert, and massive Martian battleships like the Kartikeya or the Shiva, they have enough firepower to punch a mile wide hole straight through the planet if they need to. It might take a few years, but you'll see that planet either back in Valbaran hands or turned to radioactive glass.”

She nodded, her plumes flashing red as she slammed the rest of her drink and set the empty glass down on the table.

I would like that, Earth'nay...”


They ordered another round of drinks, Maza and Jaeger trying to steer the conversation in a more lighthearted direction as the night went on. The group discussed everything from exopolitics, to the presence of bathrooms inside human dwellings, their jokes increasing in volume and decreasing in complexity the more alcohol that they consumed. Ayau engaged Baker in a long conversation about the Krell, the pilot telling her everything that he knew on the subject, fascinating her with stories about the giant specimens that were said to exist in remote regions of their homeworld. She let him stroke her feathers again too, Baker laughing with his tiny beverage in hand as he ran his fingers through the downy covering on her tail. Xico, as it turned out, had some experience in the field of engineering. She finally took the opportunity to pick Jaeger's brain about the finer aspects of UNN ship designs, marveling at the footage of battleships that he had on his phone. Even Tacka chimed in now and then, the drink loosening her scaly lips.

To his surprise, he was actually beginning to relax and have some fun, the aliens buying the two humans as many drinks as they required to feel the effects. It reminded him of spending an evening with a group of close friends, then he realized that these were his friends. They had spent enough time together, been through so much, that he felt comfortable describing them as such.

After a while, the table was littered with empty glasses, the bowl of tobacco almost used up as the aliens took their last puffs. Jaeger was pleasantly tipsy, while Baker was as wasted as it was possible to get on such small quantities of drink and herb, already beginning to drift off to sleep on the pile of cushions. The aliens were still very much alert and awake, on the other hand, giving Jaeger the impression that their night had only just begun.

Coza and Maza seemed to discuss something for a minute, there were lots of flashes of colored feathers that Jaeger couldn't follow, Maza glancing in his direction every so often as the two argued. The other aliens chimed in too, but they seemed less invested. Coza pulled her communicator out of her pocket and began to tap at the touch screen. She was quite drunk, and she still seemed surly, her eyes fixed intently on the phone as she typed.

What's going on?” Jaeger asked, looking between the two aliens. He had never seen them disagree like this before.

If this really is my last night alive, then I want some company,” Coza muttered. “I'm calling Yaotl'mal'atzi.”

Jaeger looked to Maza for an explanation, unable to remember the complicated name.

He's the nurse that you met at the hospital,” she explained. “I'm of the opinion that we already have company, but this is what Coza'ma'lotl wants...”

It was interesting to see that disagreements could happen within the tightly-knit flocks, though the alcohol was certainly playing a part. Jaeger had gotten the impression that Coza had meant something quite different by company, or perhaps Maza saw him as...that kind of company?

He's on his way,” Coza said, returning the phone to her pocket. “I think...I think I need someone tonight...”

She leaned her head on Maza's shoulder, her friend resting an arm around her. Jaeger wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright, that they were going to prevail against the Bugs, but there was nothing that he could say to her that he hadn't said already.

Let's get one more round,” Maza said, whistling for the waiter.


Due to the exemplary transit system, it didn't take the nurse more than fifteen minutes to arrive, and Jaeger saw him descend the steps at the entrance to the lounge. He seemed out of his element, looking around nervously as he searched for Coza. His vibrant plumes puffed up in shades of pink and yellow when he laid eyes on Jaeger, who was impossible to miss due to his size and alien appearance, the display drawing the attention of the other patrons. Jaeger had to keep in mind that from a Valbaran perspective, a beautiful woman in a red dress had just stepped into their dingy bar.

His green scales shone under the red glow of the lounge's lighting, buffed or waxed perhaps, and he was sporting jewelry of the same kind that Jaeger had seen the receptionist at the hospital wearing. He could see the glint of the necklace and the headband from across the room. His clothing was a little more revealing than that worn by the females, his tunic cut low to expose his shoulders, and his tight shorts leaving little to the imagination. Jaeger had to remind himself that this wasn't a female, despite the distinctly feminine shape of his hips. The male was dolled up in a sense, perhaps Coza would have her companion for the night after all.

She warbled to him, and he a made a beeline to their booth, Maza stepping out to let him sit beside Coza. She took a seat beside him, sandwiching him between the two females, Coza immediately draping an arm about his shoulders. His feathers were so large that they were downright unwieldy, he couldn't even turn his head in such a tight space when he emoted, which was something that he did frequently due to Coza's clumsy advances. She was drunk, coming on strong, whispering things in his ear in their native tongue. They must be salacious indeed, judging by the shades of his fluttering headdress.

Maza seemed less interested, more annoyed by his presence than anything, but Coza soon passed him over her lap and sat him between her and Ayau. The feathery Valbaran was more enthusiastic, placing a hand on his thigh as she joined the whispered conversation. Yaotl glanced at Jaeger every so often, always blinking rapidly and averting his gaze whenever the human met it, just as he had in the examination room.

Is this how Valbaran courtship usually goes?” Jaeger asked Maza. Not wanting to be overheard by the male perhaps, she got up from her seat on the cushions and walked around the table to his side, sliding in beside him.

Coza'ma'lotl is a little...emotional right now,” she explained. “She's also very drunk. You asked us how we would spend this night if it was our last, and I can't really fault her for wanting some male company.” about you?” Jaeger asked. She shrugged her feathers, not really giving him much of an answer. “Is uh...Yaotl alright?” he continued, watching as Coza began to nibble delicately at his slim neck.

He wouldn't have come if he didn't like her.”

So what happens now? Supposing that Coza takes him home, do you guys all...together?”

It's a little more voluntary than that,” she explained. “Under normal circumstances, we'd probably all join in, have a go at him, see if we all share the same chemistry. He's pretty cute, and he clearly has that outcome in mind, judging by that top that he's wearing, and the way that he's polished his scales. He probably did the same all down his torso, I bet his stomach is as smooth as glass,” she muttered as she glanced across the table at him.

Jaeger was a little shocked. The aliens were usually prudish when it came to such matters, but perhaps this was the alcohol and the weed talking. In any case, he kind of liked her new directness...

But these aren't normal circumstances?”

She leaned forward, making sure that Baker was soundly asleep before reaching across the table to pick up Jaeger's near-empty glass, downing what was left. She hissed, her plumes flaring in yellow and purple, then set it back down on the varnished surface.

Yaotl would make an admirable bed warmer, but I kind of had someone else in mind.”

Jaeger felt his heart begin to beat faster, suddenly all too aware of the feeling of Maza's soft thigh pressing against him through the insubstantial fabric of her shorts. The fluttering of her feathers brushed his cheek, tickling his skin, and he looked down to see her staring up at him. He blinked, and her expression changed, becoming somehow hungry.

You always blink like that, do you even know what signals you're sending me?”

By blinking?” he asked, confused.

Look at Yaotl, see how he always looks away when you make eye contact? It's the behavior of a submissive male, a receptive male. You're saying come flirt with me, come seduce me, it signals that you're attracted to me.”

Humans have to blink regularly,” he laughed, “I'm not doing it on purpose.”

Yeah, I figured as much, but it's still maddening.” She stared at the empty glasses for a few moments, summoning the courage to continue, then shuffled a little closer to him as she began to speak again. He felt her warmth through his uniform, one of her hands resting on his thigh as he sat cross-legged, Maza's tail coiling and fidgeting on the cushions beside her like a restless snake.

Where you come from, in your Coalition,” she began. “Do different different species get together? I remember you always made fun of your friend, you called him Scratcher, you implied that he had slept with a Borealis'nay. Is that right?”

We...some,” he replied stiffly. “I can't say that it's looked down upon at all. People have their preferences, of course, but-”

Have you ever been a relationship with an alien?” she asked. Straight to the point, he'd have to a be lot drunker than he was right now not to see where this line of questioning was leading.

No, but I've thought about it. I suppose everyone has once or twice.”

How do they make it work, being so different? How could a Krell'nay and an Earth' together?”

I guess they just do what they can.”

I usually let Coza do the flirting,” Maza muttered, “I'm not very good at it myself. I tend to...ramble. But theoretically speaking...if I were to tell you that I'd like to take you home tonight and try to make it work, that I wanted to have you, what would you say? Am I too drunk to think straight, or is there something more than friendship between us?”

I'd say...let's do what we can.”

Her sheaths shot out as straight as a board, and her feathers exploded into a display of pink and yellow, Maza trying in vain to suppress them and struggling to keep her cool. She leaned against him, wrapping both of her arms around his bicep and pressing her face against his shoulder. He was so much larger than she was, it was about as much of an embrace as she could muster.

I feel like I'm swimming,” she chuckled drunkenly, “and it's not the drink. How are we going to...I guess it doesn't matter, we can figure it out as we go. You're so strange and alien, yet some parts of you are so familiar, it's like my brain gets all muddled. You're cute like a male, you have the short snout, the smooth skin...yet you don't act like a male. It's like being attracted to a female, who looks male, but behaves like...oh maybe I'm overthinking it.”

I think if we start asking too many questions, we're going to get confused pretty quickly,” Jaeger chuckled. “Just go with your gut, or your heart. Whichever one your culture references.”

Do you like that way?” Maza asked. “I was so afraid that you wouldn't be attracted to me, that I would be too alien for you. You don't seem at all surprised to hear any of this.”

It's not as if this is coming out of nowhere,” he replied, “you've been flashing pink feathers at me for days. You must have known that I'd figure it out eventually.”

I guess I underestimated the Earth'nay,” she chuckled.

And yeah, I'm attracted to you.”

Were they really going to do this? He didn't even know what parts she had, if they would even be compatible. But ever since that moment in the showers on the Rorke, he had felt a kind of tension building between them, their mutual ignorance of one another's cultures and customs preventing it from coming to a head. Finally, those feelings were out in the open. The barriers had come down, and they had reached an understanding. He didn't care if they were rushing into things, if neither one of them really had any idea how it was going to work, or if they'd even be alive in a week's time. It felt right, he wanted this.

Jaeger realized that her flock were staring at them intently. Xico and Ayau had toothy grins on their faces, while Tacka was looking between them a little apprehensively. Coza was lying beside Yaotl in the gloom, the male's upper body out of view, cast into shadow. All that Jaeger could make out was the rapid rise and fall of his chest, and the curling of his toes. Coza wet her lips before she spoke, as if she had been making out with him, a sly look in her eyes as she glanced across the table.

Took you long enough,” she muttered. “I don't know why you waited all this time, rather than just telling him what you wanted. This is why I always have to do the flirting, because you can't take charge when it comes to males.”

We are a flock after all,” Maza said as she gazed up at Jaeger, “we must reach consensus if you and I are to take this any further.” She turned her eyes to her companions, waiting for them to speak.

Of course we can take him to bed,” Ayau said, “you've had your eye on him practically since we set foot on the Rorke. He's so strange, exotic. It'll be fun.”

Besides,” Xico added, her violet eyes fixed intently on his own. “He is a fine specimen, it would be...illuminating to study his alien anatomy more closely. Intimately...”

Coza's head rose from the darkness once more on her flexible neck, one of her hands sliding conspicuously beneath the male's loose-fitting tunic, looking Jaeger up and down as if appraising him. One of her thick thighs was pressing between Yaotl's legs, and her long tail was coiled around his waist, it looked like she was really going to town on the poor creature.

Sharing a bed with two males? An alien at that? Let the Earth'nay come, if the world is to end, then why not indulge?”

Finally, Maza looked to Tacka, the meek alien nodding her head after a moment of hesitation.

It seemed like everyone approved, even Coza, a fresh surge of excitement rising in Jaeger's belly along with a twinge of apprehension. What was this going to be like with all five of them joining in, six including the nurse? He hadn't been in a relationship for a while, never mind one with an alien, and he had never done anything with more than one partner before. It was pointless to speculate, he would just have to wait and see.

The drinks had all been drunk, and the tobacco had been smoked, it was time to leave. Maza rose from her seat at the table, taking him by the hand and coiling her feather sheath around his wrist possessively, guiding him towards the door. Coza did the same with her prize, tugging a very flustered and dazed Yaotl out of the nest of cushions, wrapping an arm around him to keep him close.

Hang on,” Jaeger said, “I need to help Baker along.”

She released him, and he struggled to get Baker out of his seat, his friend just coherent enough to walk with a little help.

Come on, Baker. Let's get you home, I think you've had enough Valbaran culture for one night.”


When they arrived back at the flock's dwelling, Jaeger lay Baker down on the shag carpet in the main dome, putting a cushion beneath his head and leaving him to sleep off his overindulgence. He couldn't blame him too much, they had been celebrating, and Baker had spent months on the Rorke where his consumption of alcohol was strictly moderated. He would be comfortable enough here while Jaeger and the flock occupied the bedroom... does this work?” he asked, turning to the flock. They were all bunched up together, save for Coza who was off to one side with Yaotl. She had pushed him against the wall and was already nibbling at his neck again, the little male squirming as she put the moves on him. She was downright ravenous, sliding her hand beneath his floaty tunic, shooting Jaeger a sideways glance as if to say you're next. The rest of the flock craned their long necks to peer at him, talk about being put in the spotlight…

What do Earth'nay usually do?” Maza asked.

What do Valbarans usually do?” he replied.

I think we should take your advice and just follow our guts, or our hearts,” she chuckled. She took his hand again, her grip like iron, and guided him over towards the door to the bedroom. He ducked under the low doorway, feeling the plush surface of the room-spanning mattress beneath his feet. She released him in the center of the domed room, her flock following behind them, Coza closing the door as she was the last to enter. She had the male in tow, practically hurling the poor creature down into a nearby rat's nest of cushions, pouncing on him like a velociraptor. The room was plunged into a vaguely red gloom, much like the lounge, and once again the hanging curtains that decorated the walls gave him the same vibe.

Jaeger felt like he was being surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves, the aliens forming a circle around him, peering up at him as their violet eyes reflected what little light there was. They whispered and warbled in their native language, indecipherable to Jaeger, flashing their feathers and scheming as he waited for them to make the next move. The females were the dominant sex in their species, the way that Coza was currently making Yaotl her plaything really hammered that fact home, and so he should probably let them take the lead. When in Rome, as Baker liked to say...

I want to see what you look like,” Maza said, stepping closer to him. She was so short, he had to look directly down at her as she rested her hands on his stomach and pressed her snout up against his chest. She reached up and gripped the zipper on his suit between her thumb and one of her two fingers, pulling it down slowly until it reached his waist. He shrugged it off, then kicked off his shoes and stepped out of the lower half, standing before the aliens wearing only his white shirt and his shorts.

She wanted to pull his shirt over his head, but she couldn't reach, Jaeger doing it in her stead. He tugged it off and discarded it with a little difficulty, it was stuck to his skin due to the heat and humidity. Before the garment had even hit the mattress, Maza's small hands were back at work. She traced the contours of his muscles beneath his damp skin, Jaeger flexing and twitching at her touch.

When you took us into the shower back on your carrier,” she began, her eyes fixed on his belly as she stroked it with her hand. Her skin, or rather scales, were soft and smooth. They weren't like the armored, overlapping scales of a Krell, which were arranged like medieval armor. These were made up of a tiny mosaic of shiny scales, minute, irregular squares and hexagons that interlocked perfectly to create a surface that was as flush as varnished wood. “I thought that you were propositioning me,” she laughed. “I didn't know much about your customs yet, I saw that all of the alien races on the Rorke lived together, male and female alike. Sordid thoughts ran through my head. What if this was how the rest of the Galaxy behaved, what if they expected the same of us? Had this vessel, packed with strange and exotic aliens, jumped into our system with the expectation that we would all make love as if that was their way of greeting us? I quickly discovered that I was wrong, of course,” she continued, her warm breath blowing on his skin and her hands crawling down towards the bulge in his shorts. “But for a moment, I was ready for that to be the case, I was willing...”

She hooked a finger beneath the elastic waistband of his shorts, Ayau and Xico flanking her and leaning closer to get a better look. Tacka was lounging on the cushions nearby, observing them from a distance, while Coza was too occupied with her new bedmate to pay him any mind. Jaeger didn't know if her sexual aggression was a result of the drink, the weed, or if that was just how she behaved even when sober. She was a beast of a woman, and he thanked his stars that she was too small to give him the same treatment, the breathy cries and lustful warbling of the male echoing in the room.

Maza slid his shorts down to his thighs, slowly exposing his member, already swelling and heavy with blood as it bounced free. Their eyes widened, apparently surprised by what they saw, Maza glancing up at him as she gently lifted it in her palm.

There's only one!” Xico exclaimed, her eyes fixed intently on his growing member. “It's covered in skin, it's so large and...vascular...”

It's getting heavier,” Maza whispered, “swelling with blood. It's beating like a heart in my hand.”

What's this?” Ayau asked, reaching below and cupping his balls in her palm. Jaeger twitched, the fluffy Valbaran grinning at his response. “It's sensitive.”

Their explorations caused him to reach full mast, rising out of Maza's hand, his organ standing erect in front of them and twitching softly with every pulse of blood that rushed through it. It was almost as long and as thick as Maza's forearm, her eyes slowly crawling up its length as her feathers flashed in a shade of deep pink.

Is it...okay?” Jaeger stammered. “I mean, can we...will it fit?”

I guess we'll find out,” Xico said, smirking as she looked pointedly between Jaeger and Maza. His would-be lover rested her head just below his chest, looking down at his member as she played with it in her hand. She ran her fingers from the base to the tip, pushing it down gently, then letting it spring back up again.

It's so smooth,” she muttered, transfixed. Every touch of her fingers brought with it a jolt of electrical pleasure that coursed up through his body, his breathing growing heavier as she inadvertently teased him. Ayau combed her fingers through his pubic hair, cocking her head.

It's course and curly,” she said, “nothing like the fur on his head.”

Maza stepped back, a distinctly eager look in her eye as she stared up at him, fumbling with the clasps on her tunic. She loosened the collar just enough that she could get it over her large head, the sheaths that extended out of the back of her skull getting in the way. Beneath it, she was wearing what looked like a black tube top, the same color and style as her impossibly form-fitting shorts. Jaeger had been wondering if the aliens had boobs or not, and as she pulled the elastic material away, he got his answer.

Two firm, pert breasts fell free of the material as she pulled it over her head, bouncing gently with the motion. Her pink nipples stood erect, and she covered the globes with her forearm as she let her top fall to the floor, the soft flesh deforming around her limb enticingly. They were perfect handfuls, covered in the same green scales as the rest of her body, which gave them a waxy sheen under the light. They were slightly discolored, as was her stomach, the scales there a lighter shade like the underbelly of a lizard.

Twin rows of chiseled abdominal muscles protruded from beneath her skin, firm and tight, shifting as she moved. Now he could get a better look at the hourglass shape of her inhumanly wide hips, the anchors that attached her powerful legs to the rest of her little body. She was still wearing her shorts, the thin, black fabric clinging to her like a second skin. It almost looked like the material that one would use to make swimwear. Her thighs were longer and proportionally thicker than those of a human, joining to digitigrade legs, bony and sinewy below the ankle joint. Despite her obvious physical fitness, she was still plump in all the right places, her curves drawing his gaze and seeming to guide it across her voluptuous figure.

Maza angled her thick tail downwards and then slid off her shorts, stepping out of them to reveal that she was wearing nothing beneath. Now Jaeger could see that the discoloration of her scales extended to her inner thighs and down the underside of her tail, almost as if designed to draw his eyes to her most sensitive regions. Between her legs, she had a mound as smooth and as polished as the rest of her, a pair of subtle lips that were tinted a familiar pink just visible.

She released her breasts, standing before him with everything on display, as if waiting for his approval.

Do me?”

As if the incessant pulsing of his erection wasn't enough of an answer for her, he took a step forward, reaching down to grip her comely hips. His fingers immediately sank into her yielding fat, the span of his hands large enough that his thumbs very nearly met across her belly. What had looked like muscle was actually flesh as soft as melted butter, her scales smooth like the most exquisite silk. His member brushed up against her abs, her small boobs pressing against his torso as he pulled her short frame into him. She angled her face to look up at him, her snout only just managing to brush his chin.

He slid a hand down to cup her ass, taking a generous handful of more of her delicate fat, the alien cooing in a blend of surprise and delight. Beneath it lurked muscle so springy and perfectly rounded that if he were to lift her up and drop her on her butt, he felt certain that she would bounce like a basketball. His fingers roamed lower, her stout thighs just as firm, muscles like steel cables sheathed in a layer of plumpness that he found impossible to resist. His digits sank down to the first joint, it was like kneading freshly-baked dough.

I didn't realize that Earth'nay males would be so...assertive,” she whispered, standing on her toes and reaching up to gently nibble at his neck. He felt the points of her needle-like teeth, but she had scaly lips too, mouthing and sucking as she wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled herself tighter against him. It sandwiched his member between the two of them, the bumps of her sculpted abs rubbing against the sensitive underside.

He slid his hands up her back, exploring her, tracing the furrow of her spine with his fingertips. Her scaly skin was so inviting, it was as smooth as polished metal and slightly moist, likely due to the humidity in the air. The contrast between fat and muscle made her irresistible to the touch, he wouldn't have been able to keep his hands off her if he had tried, it was like she was wrapped in a layer of soft velvet. He would have assumed that scaly skin would be coarse and dry, but that wasn't the case at all.

Is this how you kiss?” he chuckled, her pointed teeth tickling his neck.

Does it not feel good to you?” she asked, pausing for a moment.

It feels good,” he whispered. He cupped his hands under her rump, lifting her off the ground like she weighed nothing, Maza's feathers flaring in yellow and pink as she laughed excitedly. He brought her up to head height, the alien crossing her arms behind his neck and closing her powerful thighs around his waist like a vice. Her long, serpentine tail coiled around him too, giving her enough purchase that he scarcely needed to support her weight.

He buried his face in the nape of her neck, feeling her grip on him tighten and hearing a sigh escape her lips as he planted a kiss on her shoulder. He crawled slowly higher, nibbling and mouthing softly as he roamed up her long, flexible throat. It seemed to tickle her, and she squirmed in his arms, her dull claws scratching at his naked back. He could feel the details of her tiny scales beneath his tongue where he dragged it across her skin, her taste was neutral, but she had a pleasant wet leather scent about her.

Jaeger reached down and pulled his shorts all the way off, Maza clinging to him as he walked her over towards the nearest wall, where the cushions were piled high. He knelt and released her onto the pillows, the little alien lying spreadeagled beneath him, the rapid rise and fall of her chest making her breasts wobble. He reached down and enclosed one of them in his hand, it was small enough that he could encompass it entirely, her hard nipple pressing into his palm. He kneaded and squeezed, her flesh as malleable as cookie batter, the pert globe springing back into its original shape when he released it. She arched her spine, squirming on the mattress as he teased her, his fingers seeking out the sensitive breast tissue beneath the layer of buttery fat.

He planted another sucking kiss on her neck, then began to crawl his lips down towards her chest, pausing to catch one of her nipples in his mouth. He mauled the adjacent breast with his fingers as he drew on the firm nub of flesh, sucking and chewing gently, pinching it between his lips and his teeth. Her tail waved back and forth on the mattress beneath him, batting his thighs, her small frame writhing as he circled her nipple with his tongue.

Like that,” she gasped, sinking her fingers into his hair and taking desperate handfuls. “That feels good...”

After lingering for a moment, he roamed downwards, dragging his tongue across her six pack and following the deep channels that they carved in her abdomen. Droplets of moisture from the humid air around them clung to her shining body like beads of sweat, but there was no taste of salt, it was simply water. Her taut muscles bulged and flexed where his lips roamed, the alien tensing and shuddering as he drew shapes on her belly. Her scales were even softer and more delicate here, nearly indistinguishable from human skin, and she seemed more sensitive too. He slid the tip of his tongue into her navel, then realized that she had a navel.

Breasts, a navel, all features that suggested live birth. Could they be placental reptiles, or birds, or whatever animal group they most closely resembled? Warm-blooded reptiles with feathers that lactated and gave birth to live young? It was like discovering the Platypus all over again.

Maza was shivering like a leaf, perhaps their sharp teeth and long snouts precluded a lot of the sex acts that were par for the course in human lovemaking. She still had her hands in his hair, combing it softly, he could feel her dull claws raking his scalp as he continued his journey downwards. She seemed to enjoy the texture, tugging on it as he took a firm grip on her hips. He lifted her butt off the mattress, she was so light that she was trivial to hold up, Maza practically hanging upside-down with her shoulders and head resting on the cushions as he brought his lips towards her thighs. He doted on them where the scales were lighter and softer, peppering them with sucking kisses and gentle bites, deliberately avoiding the plump lips that lay between them as he teased her. Her clawed toes curled, and her tail whipped back and forth, her fingers gripping the mattress beneath her.

He finally relented, Maza looking up at him imploringly, and he turned his attention to her loins. They were not dissimilar from those of a human woman, puffy and swollen with arousal, the same pale color as her belly. Here, however, there was glistening, pink flesh peeking out from between the folds. He watched as a trickle of clear fluid escaping to slide down her tail. He had been expecting some kind of cloaca, but there was a pink bud further down her tail, indicating that she was arranged more like a mammal.

Unable to resist, he dragged his tongue between her puffy labia, her juices making her flesh wet and slippery. She tasted sour, tangy, it was an oddly pleasant flavor. His mouth was large enough that he could get it around her entire mound, sucking as he raked her loins with his roving organ, coating every crease of her burning vulva. Her spine arched again, her thighs trembling and her tail coiling tightly around one of his thighs as a high pitched whine slipped past her pursed lips.

There!” she gasped, “don't stop!”

He needed no encouragement, pushing his tongue deeper, tracing her delicate folds as he drew softly on her lips. He could feel the heat that she radiated, almost hot enough to scald his tongue, her muscles flexing and twitching with every glance and stroke. He pulled back, parting the fleshy labia with his fingers, looking down to examine her intimate anatomy as she covered her face in embarrassment. Her slit was small compared to what he was familiar with, and her twitching, winking opening was tiny enough that it looked like he would struggle to get two fingers inside her. It leaked a steady stream of colorless, syrupy fluid that made her rosy vulva glisten, dripping down her tail in a way that made it look like droplets of dew. It made his mouth water, her wet leather scent goading him on. There was no clitoris that he could see, but it didn't seem to diminish her sensitivity at all.

He dove back in, licking and mouthing, the small size of her loins meaning that he could cover more of them with every stroke. Her vulva was smaller than the flat of his tongue, Jaeger lapping at her like an ice cream cone as his saliva blended with her tangy fluid. It almost tasted like citrus fruit, but a little weaker, he felt like he could keep this up all day.

Xico and Ayau hovered nearby, watching intently as he turned their friend into a moaning, shuddering mess. Xico was chewing absent-mindedly on one of her claws, while Ayau had snuck a hand between her legs, rubbing slowly as Maza thrust her hips against Jaeger's mouth.

She doubled over as he pushed the tip of his tongue inside her, feeling her silken walls grip him tightly, her abs bulging from beneath her skin beautifully as they tensed up. She let herself fall back to the mattress, groaning as he buried his organ deeper, parting her insides as they spasmed around him.

The flesh that lined her tunnel was so pillowy and slimy, moving ceaselessly, writhing and contracting violently as if trying to tear his tongue from his skull. Her clenching passage felt like satin that had been soaked in honey, the taut muscles massaging him in waves.

Maza seemed to be in a state of pure bliss. Her eyelids drooped as she lay on the cushions, her scaly lips pulling back to expose her teeth in a kind of snarl, her brow furrowing when he dragged his tongue across her sensitive walls.

When he drew back, his lips were linked to hers by a sagging web of clear fluid, which fell to slide down the underside of her tail. He brought a finger up to her opening, circling her spasming entrance and wetting it with her slimy emissions.

Tell me if this gets uncomfortable,” he said, pressing it inside her. It sank up to the first joint, then the second, Maza whining as her slick muscles seized around it. He wouldn't have been able to slide any deeper had it not been for her copious fluids, spilling around his digit and glazing his skin in a slippery sheen. He reached the knuckle, burying his entire finger inside of her, Maza shivering as he brushed what felt like the reaches of her tunnel. It would have been painful for a human, but Maza didn't complain or pull away.

God, she was tight. He didn't know if sex was going to work between them, he might simply be too large for her. He began to slide his finger slowly in and out, her loins sucking on him, sticking to his skin as they created a vacuum. The feeling of her silken walls gliding against him was wonderful, a twinge of disappointment flaring in his belly as he considered that he might not be able to feel these luxuriant muscles wrapping around his cock.

On the roof towards the back,” she mumbled through her haze of arousal, “you should feel a firm knot. Rub it...”

Jaeger changed the angle of his finger as he searched for it, probing the roof of her tunnel, feeling her tighten and tremble when he located it. There was a firm bud of flesh inside her, almost like an uvula, the little dangling thing in the back of your throat. Judging by the drawn-out moan that she uttered when he rubbed it, it was rich in nerve endings. Was this the Valbaran equivalent of a clitoris? It was so far inside of her, evolved perhaps to encourage deep penetration, increasing the chances of successful insemination.

The backs of her knees were resting across his shoulders now, and her tail had a tight grip around his midsection, leaving both of his hands free as he no longer needed to support her. He placed one hand on her belly just above her mound and began to thrust his finger in and out of her, brushing her sweet spot in a way that made her clench her fists and buck violently. She was warbling in her own language, it sounded like bird song, but whatever she was saying it seemed to be drawing in her flock. Xico and Ayau were close enough that he could feel their breath on his forearms, watching intently as his alien digit splayed Maza's delicate flesh. Even Coza was looking up from her respective pile of cushions, giving Yaotl a moment of respite, her feathers flaring in pink as she watched her friend squirm in his grasp.

A violent tremor passed through Maza's small frame, every muscle in her body seeming to tense up, her grip on his finger becoming so tight that it was almost painful. She bared her teeth, her eyes snapping shut and her plumes rising in a rainbow of seemingly random colors and patterns. It was like he had short-circuited her, her feathers shifting and fluttering in waves of color, her spine arching and her tail constricting around his waist like an anaconda. Jaeger kept up the pace as he drew out every last throb of her orgasm, her insides gripping him like a fist as the tingling pleasure forced adorable mewls and whines from her lips, her syrupy juices flowing around his buried digit and hanging from her loins in glistening strands.

He slowly lowered her down onto the mattress as she relaxed her hold on him, her little chest pumping like a pair of bellows as she rode out the last wracking pangs of her climax. She seemed exhausted, and he had to remind himself that these aliens didn't have the stamina that humans had, she would probably need time to recover before they could continue.

She looked up at him, her eyes unfocused, laughing giddily as she slowly ran her hands across her chest and belly. She seemed more drunk now than she had been back at the lounge, high on a far more powerful drug than any plant fiber could produce. He considered lying down beside her, holding her, running his hands across her still receptive body as she recovered the strength to go again. But before he could do so, he found himself on his back.

Ayau and Xico had pounced on him like a pair of lions bringing down a zebra, the little aliens incredibly strong and fast when they needed to be. Ayau was holding his wrists in her hands, pinning his arms above his head, the tentacle-like feather sheaths on her forearms coiling around them to tie them together. Even the slim muscles contained with the sheaths were like steel, he couldn't have freed himself if he had tried.

Xico, meanwhile, was crouched between his parted thighs with her eyes fixed on his prominent erection. She cocked her head at it curiously, reaching down to run her hands across his exposed glans, and feeling him twitch. As he watched, she shed her loose-fitting tunic and slipped out of her shorts, her body nearly identical to Maza's save for the darker shade of her scales.

She began to stroke his member, running her fingers up and down his shaft, her scales so smooth and fine that it felt like she was wearing silk gloves. Jaeger relaxed, letting her do her thing, her violet eyes fixed on his organ as she examined it intently. Ayau peered over his prone body, watching her friend as she held Jaeger's arms steady. It was a little unnecessary, he wasn't going to try to escape, but whatever made the willful creatures happy...

A single shaft,” Xico said, perhaps trying to mask her arousal by feigning a kind of clinical detachment. “Large...obviously, with no external channel for the, uh...semen to flow through. It looks like the channel is situated inside the organ, judging by the small opening at the end...”

She ran the tip of her finger around his glans, making him shiver, her warm breath blowing on the head.

Sensitive, smooth. Judging by the way that it...throbs, it can be assumed that it inflates with blood, unlike the eversion process used by Val'ba'ra'nay reproductive organs. There seems to be a covering of nerve-rich skin that protects the underlying flesh.”

Uh...what are you talking about, exactly?” Jaeger asked.

I'm making some...observations,” she replied hesitantly, still holding his pulsing shaft in her palm. It was massive in comparison to her, she could barely get her hand around it. “The reproductive organ of a Val'ba'ra'nay male is made up of two shafts, it's housed inside the body, everting during arousal.” She ran her finger from the base of his shaft to the tip, making him buck. “There's a channel on the outside of the organ where the emission flows, and there's no covering of skin.”

So...they have two cocks?”

N-no, it's a single organ, but it has two shafts.”

This is an odd kind of foreplay,” he mumbled.

As the first Val'ba'ra'nay with any kind of technical expertise to examine an Earth'nay so...closely, it's my duty to make observations,” she said. “To make a record of your...anatomy...”

And what technical background do you have, exactly?” he asked.

Uh...flight engineer...”

I see.”

She pulled back his foreskin to expose his glans fully, gazing at his shining head with what could only be described as lust. She bit her scaly lip, then wet them with her pink tongue, beginning a slow and rhythmic stroking. He didn't know what a Valbaran penis looked like exactly, but the shape and texture of his member seemed to encourage the alien to run her hands up and down it, tracing the protruding veins with the tips of her dull claws. She was focused on it so intently, her nose not an inch from the tip as she watched it jump and pulse. A bead of his excitement leaked out, and she opened her mouth, her flexible tongue snaking out to lap at the clear fluid.

It was like wet velvet, a shiver running up his spine and making his head spin as her damp flesh dragged across his tender glans. She noted his reaction, her feathers puffing up in a rosy shade of pink. It could be the Valbaran equivalent of a blush, or it could be a more overt display of arousal, he wasn't entirely sure yet.

The subject responds strongly to stimulation,” she whispered, “his fluids taste salty...”

He likes it,” Ayau chimed in from somewhere above his head, “lick him again...”

Her tongue was not very wide, but it was long and agile, the tip tapered into a point. It was about the same length as her snout, maybe eight or nine inches long and scarcely one inch wide. As she opened her jaws to reveal her rows of needle-like teeth, he felt a pang of apprehension. That toothy maw was not suited to oral sex, not even slightly. As she lowered her snout down towards his member, she was careful to keep her teeth clear of him, coiling her slippery tongue around his shaft as she breathed warm air on it.

Xico couldn't suck, but she could certainly lick, her dexterous tongue flicking across his glans and painting his shaft with her viscous saliva as he struggled to keep from bucking. It was death by a thousand cuts, every glance sending a jolt ecstasy tearing through him, fireworks exploding in his brain. She kept up her stroking all the while, pumping her little hands up and down his length, her touch made slick and warm by her spit.

Does it feel good?” Ayau chirped, her eager face appearing above him as she looked down at his reddening cheeks. “You're going all pink.”

Yeah,” he said, his eyelids drooping as Xico swirled her tongue around his tip.

He felt Ayau release him from her grasp, the excitable alien quickly stripping off her clothes and draping herself over him, giving him a kind of upside-down hug as she rubbed her scaly cheek on his belly. Her thighs were to the right of his head, her arms wrapped around his chest as she nuzzled and giggled.

You're so big! So smooth!”

Her entire body was coated in downy proto-feathers, save for her hands, her lower legs, and her face. It was so fluffy, it really did feel like fur, tickling his naked skin as she brushed against him. He could feel her breasts as they squashed against his chest, those too coated in a layer of feathery down the same beige color as her exposed scales. He felt her nibble and lick softly, their version of a kiss, her tongue flicking into his navel as Xico kept up her maddening investigations.

Ayau swung one of her legs over his face, the base of her fluffy tail resting on his forehead as she pushed her loins up against his chin, her upper body still lying on his chest like he was a giant inflatable pool animal.

Do me too,” she said, patting his forehead with her tail as if she needed to get his attention. “Like you did for Maza'xol'natuih, make me feel good too.”

He raised his hands and sank them into her ass, feeling her muscles tense, and hearing her coo excitedly as he delved his fingers into her velvety flesh. Just like Maza, her rump was packed with springy muscle. He could have bounced a penny off her butt, and it was all cloaked in a layer of inviting fat that was as squishy as memory foam. Ayau had her feather covering too, it felt like the feathers that you might find on a baby bird or the ones that were used to stuff pillows. It gave her an extra layer of softness, the sensation so novel and strange that he couldn't help but comb it with his digits as he kneaded her round cheeks.

She closed her thighs around his face, her tail draped over his head, giving him little choice other than to take in her feminine scent. There was still that wet leather smell, but there was something a little thicker there too. It reminded him of sinking his face into his ex's hair after she had just gotten out of the shower, the aromas of soaps and the natural scent of her body mingling.

Ayau's mound wasn't bald and scaly, it was surrounded by fluffy feathers, already damp and matted with her leaking anticipation. It was far softer and more delicate than pubic hair, however. It felt pleasant against his cheeks as he pressed forward and dragged his tongue between her lips. He gripped her ass as she shivered, resting her head on his stomach as he began to lick, he could feel her breath on his cock even as Xico massaged it.

Oh, that feels good,” Ayau whined. “You have to try this, Xico'hte'otl, it's so smooth and warm...” Her friend didn't reply, still transfixed by his erection. “Does it taste good?” Ayau asked, Jaeger shuddering as he felt a second tongue glance his shaft. “His skin is salty. It's smooth though, damp, he has no scales.” She rubbed her cheek on his belly again, apparently enjoying the texture of his skin as much he enjoyed her feathery covering. “I think we should keep him, he won't get tired out like a Val'ba'ra'nay male.”

Keep me?” Jaeger asked, his voice muffled by her rump.

Don't slow down,” she grumbled, leaning back so that she was sitting on his face and cutting off his complaints. She wriggled to get comfortable, kneading one of her furry breasts with her hand as she planted the other on his chest for balance, her tangy fluids leaking down his cheeks and making her downy feathers stick to his skin.

Maza seemed to have recovered enough strength to join in again, Jaeger hearing her chuckle as he felt another hand on his member.

It feels so alive,” she muttered, Jaeger unable to see her due to the feathery butt that was currently occupying his field of view. “It's always throbbing and flexing, what do you think it would feel like inside of you?”

It would certainly be an...enlightening experience,” Xico replied, pausing her clumsy blowjob for a moment so that she could speak.

Jaeger kept up his licking, Ayau squirming occasionally as he teased her satin folds, pushing his tongue deep inside her as he had done for Maza. Her tail waved back and forth in an almost absent-minded fashion, tickling his forehead as her downy plumage brushed it. He couldn't keep his hands off her ass and thighs, the chiseled muscle shifting beneath the pudgy fat in a way that he found irresistible.

Xico's tongue was joined by Maza's, he could feel her resting her weight on his hip as she leaned forward to reach his shaft, her pink organ snaking out of her jaws to stroke his skin. If she was bothered by the presence of her friend's bubbling saliva, she didn't show it, the aliens certainly had very intimate relationships within their flock. He bucked as his brain sparked and fizzed, the presence of two tongues and two pairs of hands doubling the intensity of the sensations, like his nerves had been kicked into overdrive. There was so much warmth and wetness, the two Valbarans kneading and massaging as they coated his skin with flurries of licks and scaly kisses. An orgasm was boiling up inside him like a volcano threatening to erupt, he couldn't take much more of it.

The aliens seemed to notice that his rump was rising from the mattress, his muffled breathing becoming ragged, and his thrusting irregular. Ayau shifted, he felt her little hands rest on his belly as she leaned closer, laughing excitedly as she added her own tongue to the collective effort. Every delicate stroke of that wet, velvet flesh against his tender organ made his head spin. One of them was sneaking the tapered tip of their tongue beneath his foreskin and circling, it felt divine, it was enough to make his toes curl.

He's close,” Ayau chuckled, the energetic little alien seeming to see the whole encounter as a kind of game. “I wonder what will happen when he...”

Someone cupped his balls in their hands, another dragging the flat of their tongue across the sensitive spot beneath his glans, his climax surging forth like a dam breaking. There was a jolt of pleasure so intense that it forced his eyes closed, the muscles in his abdomen contracting as they forced a thick, cloudy rope of his emission from his body. His member bounced and jumped, the aliens pulling back in alarm, save for Xico who he had to assume was observing intently. He could still feel her crouched between his thighs, even if all that he could see was Ayau's rear.

The searing pleasure made him see stars, his body pumping out hot wads of his ejaculate, falling to cling to his thighs and belly as the aliens let it flow. When he eventually relaxed back down onto the mattress, the involuntary spasming of his hips ceasing, Ayau slid off his face. She was snickering to herself, clearly amused by something, and Jaeger wiped her juices from his mouth as he propped himself up on his elbows.

Xico was perched between his parted thighs, her hands resting around his still twitching cock, her face and chest draped in gelatinous strands of his pearly semen. There had been a lot of it, he hadn't exactly had much time to relieve himself lately, and her small stature only enhanced the effect. It almost looked like someone had taken a pastry bag full of frosting to her.

He began to apologize, then stopped, watching as she caught one of the dangling strings that were hanging from her snout with her tongue. She ran a finger through the clumps that were sticking to her scaly chest, smearing them, pulling her hand away and watching the sagging rope that it created break and fall to her thighs. Ayau was laughing, and Maza was lying at his side, smirking at him.

Xico met his gaze with drooping eyelids, bringing her finger to her mouth as gravity made the mess slowly slide down her flat belly, a lingering pulse of pleasure tearing through Jaeger's afterglow at the lurid sight.

Impressive...volume,” she muttered, struggling to maintain her facade of clinical detachment. “It's so thick”

Imagine what that would feel like welling up inside of you,” Ayau muttered, chewing on one of her claws as she gazed at Xico. She shuffled closer to her, scraping some of the mess from Xico's modest bust, the alien shivering as her companion's finger glanced her nipple. She let it dangle, watching it wobble, Jaeger still at full mast.

It's sticky,” Xico warned in a breathy voice that betrayed her arousal, “don't get it on your feathers.”

He noticed that both Tacka and Coza were watching from afar. The former seemed to be keeping her distance, while Coza was apparently done with the hapless Yaotl, who was buried in a pile of cushions save for his tail and his feet. She was lying on her side now, watching with a hint of jealousy in her reptilian eyes. The aliens really didn't have any stamina when it came to lovemaking.

Which one of us is going to try first?” Ayau asked, glancing at his erection. He knew what she meant, Jaeger was so much larger than they were that actual penetration might be very difficult, if not impossible. He was actually surprised that the aliens were willing to attempt it at all.

Hang on, I need some downtime,” Jaeger said. “Give me ten minutes.”

Good, then you have time to finish me off,” Ayau purred. She leapt into the air like a pouncing tiger, landing with her clawed feet to either side of his head, then she crouched and brought her still dripping loins into range of his mouth. Her long tail was draped across his chest, tickling his skin as it waved back and forth. She took handfuls of his hair, guiding his lips towards hers, shivering contentedly as he closed his hands around her butt and resumed his ardent licking. He took his time, tracing every crease and fold of her sex, slow and devoted.

When she was wet enough that her juices were dripping down his chin, his slid a finger inside her, the alien trembling and closing her thighs around his face as he brushed the sensitive bud of flesh in the depths of her tunnel that Maza had introduced him to. She ground her hips against his digit, her muscles wringing him, her pace becoming desperate and clumsy as he pushed her closer and closer to the edge. Maza and Xico were nearby, watching their friend's shivering frame as she came.

The feathery Valbaran loosed a pained whine, then fell off him, curling up on the mattress beside his head as she trembled and cooed. Just like when Maza had climaxed, Ayau's feather sheaths went wild, flashing nonsensical colors and patterns like a broken computer monitor. She curled herself up almost into a ball, her eyes shut tightly and her hands moving between her closed thighs, riding the waves of her orgasm for as long as she could prolong it. After a solid minute of twitching and mumbling, she finally relaxed, uncurling to lie on her back on the bed as she caught her breath.

She looked so cute that Jaeger could scarcely help himself, rolling over onto his side and wrapping an arm around her waist. He pulled her tight against his body, her feathers sticking to his damp skin, the little alien giggling as he buried his face in her fluffy neck and approximated their odd way of kissing. He slid his free hand across her belly and chest, combing her downy covering with his fingers and kneading her breasts, like stress balls in his oversized hands. She rubbed her scaly snout in his hair as he nuzzled her neck and shoulder, apparently delighted by the attention, and he felt a few aftershocks rock her beleaguered body.

We're definitely keeping him,” she sighed, rubbing her feathery rump against his renewed erection. He gripped her hips, the soft feathers tickling him, his every instinct demanding that he thrust his member between those round cheeks and bury it to the hilt.

What's the matter, spaceman?” Ayau cooed. “Want to put that big thing inside me and fill me up with your slime?”

Something like that,” he grumbled, and she laughed at his obvious frustration. “Looks like Maza'xol'natuih might want to try and make it work...”

He looked up, releasing the giggling alien from his grasp as Maza walked towards him. She planted her feet to either side of his hips, a trickle of her excitement already sliding down her inner thigh. Her feathers were puffed up in pink, and her little chest was pumping, her breasts shaking enticingly with the motion. Xico too had crawled closer, she had cleaned herself off on a cushion it seemed, but there was still some obscene residue clinging to her snout and her belly. She looked ready for a show, her eyes wide as she waited with bated breath.

I want to try,” Maza said, staring down at him with those unblinking eyes. “Try not to buck, or you know...kill me...”

He watched as she splayed her pink opening with her two fingers, a droplet of her juices falling to wet his erection as she slowly lowered herself down towards it. Jaeger didn't know if this was going to work, but he wasn't about to tell her to stop. The prospect of feeling those impossibly soft, tight walls enclosing his most sensitive anatomy had his heart beating like a drum, and she knew her limitations far better than he did.

Maza crouched over him, the two of them sucking in a gasp of air in unison as her rosy, satin flesh met his swollen glans. She was fever-hot, so wet that it dribbled down his shaft, his tip pressing against her tiny opening. She was trembling, perhaps from fear or arousal, or a combination of the two.

Go slow,” Xico warned, “take your time...”

Ayau was lying prone beside him, her eyes following Maza's mound as it gradually slid over the head of his penis. A force like an angry fist gripped him, Maza wincing as his member opened her up, her fleshy walls parting as they rippled and clenched. It was like her body was fighting him for every millimeter, yet her insides were drenched in her syrupy fluids, their texture like the most luxurious silk as they raked across his exposed glans. Harsh, raw pleasure coursed through him, and he dug his fingers into the mattress beneath him as he struggled to keep still.

Oh, she got the tip in!” Ayau exclaimed.

Maza paused, resting her hands on her knees as she gave herself time to grow accustomed to the feeling of having him inside her. She wrapped her flexible tail around the base, using it to guide him as she resumed her downward crawl.

The sensation was inc