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Quite a Catch

by Salvatore Buttaci

The welcoming crowd dizzied him. His belly squeaked with a queasiness hard to shake. Perhaps a part of him missed a skynaut’s loneliness, the sense of being the only one in an infinite universe and then, with his discovery, finding that all had changed because of his good fortune.

Around him, old familiar faces he had carried with him through space and time now radiated with joyous pride. Inside him, a feeling like satisfied hunger coursed through him. He was home again.

Years and years, plowing the universe for a sign of intelligent life. What he brought back, would it make the sacrifice all worthwhile? Would they hail him a hero, reward him with higher rank and space-travel retirement? They hadn’t, after his previous missions. Why think they would now?

“Wing Master, you’ve done well.”

He returned Leader 09’s salute.

Meanwhile the port-techs hauled the caged specimen from the Dheqa and rolled it down the ramp, aiming the silent transport towards the sci-bloc, where studies were done. Experiments, really, the findings of which would be made known to few, not even to the wing master who had delivered the goods. The port techs stood at attention, awaiting further orders.

“Do any chatting up there?” asked Leader 09.

Wing Master allowed himself a half-laugh. “Sir, one-way chatter, for sure. It hollered, waved its appendages, and spit like a drax on fire, but I shot it to sleep so I’d have a little peace.”

“Quite a catch,” said Leader 09, watching the port-techs tighten the straps that secured the cage to the transport. “Maybe this will be just what the sci-galactic crew will accept as an answer to their question: ‘Does intelligent life exist out there?’ We shall know soon enough.”

“Intelligent life?” asked Wing Master. “That?” He pointed at the caged alien. Leader 09 followed Wing Master’s hand to the transport, where the quarry huddled inside the cage, alternating between screaming, rattling the bars, and waving what were most likely threats. Empty ones.

Leader 09 stood silently and Wing Master continued. “I’ve been gone nearly twenty years for this?” Then he paused, and for a few seconds only the alien’s sounds filled the afternoon air. “There was a war.”

“A war?”

“Creatures like this, sir. Explosions. Fire. Bloodless bodies heaped like stones while those still standing led more of them to their deaths.”

“A poor indicator, isn’t it, Wing Master? Not much intelligence there.”

Wing Master nodded. “Leader 09, there were times up there I struggled with myself. A part of me ordered that I hurl it out of my ship, and I nearly complied.”

“The less said, the better,” warned the Leader. “Let the sci-galactics worry now whether this thing is worthy.”

Wing Master shifted his weight from one leg to the other, a sure sign the long journey had taken its toll. “Sir, I found the creature underground, on the brink of joining the other creatures lying dead around him. It held against its skull what looked like a weapon. I willed it disintegrate and then watched the alien cower on the floor as I approached.”

“A war, you say.”

“A world at war, sir.”

“No, Wing Master, we have nothing to fear, if this is what is out there, do we?”

The two of them eyed the creature inside the cage, the dark rectangular swath of hair beneath its snout, a stroke of skull hair diagonally slanted above what appeared to be eyes.

Now the alien was ranting again, but the sounds no longer seemed threatening, more like the sounds of fear.

“Meaningless chatter,” said Leader 09. “The scientists will see and hear for themselves what the Dheqa has dragged in.”

Wing Master had first endured the beast’s howling when he had dragged him from the ground. From its sound hole gushed a venomous string of incomprehensible noise. It was all beast talk, nothing Wing Master could either understand or repeat, except for the one sound the creature cried out over and over again.

Wing Master tried mimicking it. “Deutschland,” he said, letting it roll off his tongue. It seemed to please the creature in the cage, enough that he was silenced for a time. And it seemed to please Leader 09 as well. Paternally he clapped Wing Master on the shoulder. “Yes,” he said, as though the uttered word were some kind of key to a mystery. “Yes, Deutschland!

Leader 09 motioned to the port-techs to start the transport and deliver the alien to sci-bloc.

“Whatever they decide,” he reassured the Wing Master, “you are grounded for good!”

The two of them smiled, ignoring the shattering screams racing down the runway.

Copyright © 2011 by Salvatore Buttaci

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