Michael Frederick paused as he strolled along the road, his nose wrinkling slightly. Something smelled off, he thought to himself. He took a deep breath of air, and frowned as the word “acrid” wandered through his mind.
For a moment, he glanced down at the muddy road beneath his feet. “Road” was an optimistic term for it, he thought to himself with a touch of wryness. The dirt track leading back to his little town of Deven Ride was splashed with puddles and ruts from farmer’s wagons, adding to the already thick layer of dirt coating his boots.
All around him, the scene was quiet, pastoral. The rolling hills of Idris around him undulated gently, the nearly four foot high crops swaying back and forth in the soft breeze. If Mike ignored the second moon glowing faintly even in the brightness of the early afternoon sky, he could pretend that he still stood back in the fields of his childhood home in Iowa.
His farmer’s eyes instinctively scanned the horizon. There! Up ahead of him, a thin plume of smoke rose up above the crops. The wind carried the hint of smoky ash towards him.
“Damn,” Mike cursed, quickening his pace slightly. Deven Ride, the little village that he and Kate called home lay in that direction. His boots splashed in the shallow puddles as he stomped along, fighting the sucking mud.
Could something have caught fire? Usually the Ehftians were pretty good at getting any accidental fires put out pretty quickly. A necessary skill, considering that they still built most structures out of wood. On Idris, the trees grew quickly, and their small community needed far more material than they could fabricate with the tech they’d brought over.
At first, Mike had balked at the idea of settling on this new world. “I’m not a settler,” he had protested, standing over the kitchen table in their cramped little apartment. “And you know how aliens make me uncomfortable.”
“But you are a farmer,” Kate had replied serenely, looking as calm and composed as she sat at the table as Mike had ever seen her. “And I know you’re miserable here, in the city. You miss gazing out at fields of crops.”
Mike shook his head, but they both knew that Kate was correct. Even now, in the midst of this debate, he felt a surge of affection towards his wife. She was the best thing to happen to him, and he still sometimes couldn’t believe that, when she took his diner order all those years ago, he’d managed to summon up the courage to ask for her number.
A farmer and a waitress, he had thought to himself, shaking his head ruefully as he settled down at the kitchen table across from his wife. Two of the most unlikely choices for interplanetary settlers that anyone could pick.
“Okay,” he finally gave in, after a long sigh. “Tell me about this crazy plan of yours.”
And Kate told him.
The planet was twenty-seven light years away, discovered several centuries ago and given the name Idris, after the prophet. Humanity knew it was habitable, but Idris’s borders only recently opened up for immigration. “The Ehft technically control the planet, but they’re opening it up to us as a sign of goodwill,” his wife read from the pamphlet she’d brought home. “It’s a little milder climate than Earth, slightly higher gravity. And it’s got great soil, a lot like our own planet.”
There had been more debate, of course, but Mike and Kate both already knew the final outcome. Kate had made up her mind, and although a strong man in many respects, Mike was perenially powerless to argue against her.
Now, four years later, he looked back on that decision as one of the best in his life.
Sure, settling on Idris hadn’t been easy. The Ehft, stocky meter-tall feathery creatures that reminded Mike of old drawings of Kiwi birds, proved to be friendly enough. Their beaks gave their speech a curious clipped accent, but they quickly mastered Galactic English, and Mike even picked up some phrases in their curious squawking tongue. He sometimes felt like a giant when he passed through a crowd of the short little aliens, but they were always polite and cordial in their greetings.
Mike reflected on the strange little aliens for a moment. They weren’t what the farmer would call “his people,” that much was certain. But they were agreeable, in their own little way. They always inquired about Kate, and now asked about little Ethan’s health as well. Mike always smiled when he replied. In some way, the little birdlike Ehft reminded him of his own child.
After some thought, he and his wife chose a plot of land on the northern continent, inland but near a river. The climate proved as mild as promised, and although fluctuating rain levels sometimes made him worry about their crops, the river’s irrigation proved a blessing. His house sat in the little village of Deven Ride, a larger mother bird surrounded by the smaller Ehftian dome-shaped huts.
That little village was just over the next hill. Still eyeing that plume of smoke with concern, Mike picked up his pace, cutting through the nearest field and climbing up until he could see over the waving crops.
As he crested the hill, he stopped, staring.
The village hadn’t been laid out in any real order. The Ehft tended to add more homes as their population grew, spreading out in all directions without any true pattern. But they had made sure to leave a central green, where the Ehft youngsters flapped and bounced off each other. Mike and Kate imagined that Ethan would soon be running about as well, once he grew steadier on his chubby feet. Normally, the village reminded Mike of a cluster of mushrooms.
But now, those mushrooms were smoldering and scattered. Something must have happened, Mike thought blankly to himself as he stared down, trying to make sense of the chaos in front of him. A meteor strike of some sort, perhaps?
Several of the Ehftian domes looked flattened, completely demolished. Others looked shattered, burnt and blackened. Several of the round homes still burned, sending up that plume of smoke.
Where were the Ehft? Mike thought wildly, taking another step down the hill towards the village. Surely, they would be hurrying to extinguish those fires!
But his eyes fell on an object in the middle of the village and he stopped, staring.
A large, bulbous shape sat in the middle of the destruction, its oval shape distorted by strange blobby growths. Several short rods protruded from some of those blisters, and with a thrill of terror, Mike realized that he was looking at some sort of armed spaceship.
The ship didn’t look like any he’d seen, either Ehftian or Terran. But who else could it be?
Movement suddenly caught Mike’s eye. There! An Ehft came scurrying out of the wreckage of one of the huts, sprinting across the charred ground.
Mike started to call out, but as his mouth opened, some thrown object shot out from between the huts, and the Ehft stumbled and collapsed with a cry. As Mike stared in confusion and horror, a new creature emerged from behind one of the huts, advancing on the injured little birdlike alien.
This new creature stood on two legs, like Mike, with a bipedal body, but that was where the similarities ended. Instead of two arms, it had four, and it looked almost unnaturally thin. In one of its four arms, it brandished a nasty-looking knife, which it kept pointed at the whimpering Ehft.
Invaders! Mike’s mind still reeled, but he crouched back, down amid the cover of the plants around him. The Ehft whimpered again, prompting the attacker to deliver a savage kick. It made some sort of noise, a harsh scraping sound like nails on a chalkboard, and then raised the long knife in its hands. Standing over the injured Ehft, it lifted the blade high.
Mike tore his eyes away, but he still heard the crunch and the organic sound that followed.
It still didn’t make sense! Some sort of unknown alien race, attacking out of the blue? And why pick their little farming community on Idris? There was no military presence here, no valuable strategic base.
Confusion weighed heavily on Mike’s mind – but beneath it, he felt a rising tide of burning, furious anger. The little bird couldn’t have meant any harm! And this alien had butchered it without a thought!
He heard another squawk, and dragged his attention back down at the ruins of the village. The six-limbed alien had advanced on one of the still-standing huts, knocking down the door. Another Ehft scurried outside, clearly cringing away from the weapon in the attacker’s hands.
More movement danced around this Ehft’s legs, and Mike’s blood suddenly turned to ice in his veins as he squinted. There were chicks, little Ehft youngsters, clinging to their mother’s legs!
It didn’t seem to make a difference to the attacker. The sword’s blade flashed again, and the Ehft collapsed. The chicks squealed in alarm and fear, trying to cluster up against their fallen parent. The alien just grunted, bringing its blade up again for another slaughtering strike.
The boiling anger overflowed. Without thought, Mike was on his feet, charging forward. Aliens or not, the little chicks were helpless! And this attacker was going to slaughter them? Never!
The six-limbed alien glanced up at the sound of his pounding footsteps, but Mike was moving too quickly for the alien to react. It tried to bring the blade around, but Mike tackled it, his weight bringing them both to the ground.
Those four limbs scrabbled at Mike, but his vision was edged with red, and he barely felt as slashes cut through his clothes. He slammed an elbow down, grinning with bitter, humorless satisfaction as something crunched beneath the blow.
His questing hand closed on something hard, something of cool metal. The blade slid into his hand awkwardly, but he brought it around, slamming it over and over into the creature beneath him until its spasms ceased.
Mike rose up uncertainly to his feet. The Ehft youngsters had scattered, probably out into the fields. He stared around at the burning village, suddenly feeling overwhelmed. He glanced down at the six-limbed alien at his feet, but the creature sprawled, clearly dead. No creature, human or alien, could survive with its chest shattered like that.
His thoughts felt like sludge, mired and lost in fog. The blade, still clutched in his hand, felt heavy and useless.
He stood in a waking nightmare. All around him, little Ehft lay in motionless piles of feathers, while their homes and structures burned.
And then, piercing down to his very soul, he heard the scream.
This wasn’t the squawking cry of an Ehft. This scream was uniquely human, the shriek of a woman in mortal danger.
His heart stopped, and all conscious thought ceased inside the Terran’s mind.
The two Kung cautiously entered the house. This building seemed larger than the little huts surrounding it. They didn’t anticipate trouble, but both clutched their scimitari in their more powerful upper hands.
Outside, their companions were probably cutting down the last of the little bird-creatures that populated this planet. There was little honor in killing such weak and worthless opponents, but their duty was to exterminate. And perhaps, this Kung considered hopefully, this larger building would contain a chieftain of some sort, whose death would bring them more honor.
There! One of the Kung caught a hint of motion, and leapt forward. His kick shattered the closed door, and the sentient on the other side let out a loud cry and shrank back.
No bird-creature, this! Larger, the Kung observed, nearly as tall as he stood. But flabby, with none of his deadly thinness. Only two arms, not four. Pale skin, clutching what looked like a smaller version of itself to its chest. The smaller, perhaps a juvenile, stared at the Kung with large, watery eyes.
The creature let out another scream, trying to back away from the Kung. No fighter, this one. Not worth much honor. But the Kung were here to purge these lesser sentients. He raised his scimitari and advanced.
From behind, the Kung heard a pounding sound, drawing closer. Something approaching? His companion turned, brandishing the knife and watching the door.
Something burst in, slamming into the Kung nearer to the door with a roar of deep-throated rage. It yelled something, but even if the Kung could have understood the language, the words blended together into a cry of raw, unhinged emotion.
“I’ll kill you I’ll kill youkillyoukillyoukillkillkill you I’ll kill you kill you I’ll kill you-“
It was another one of these flabby two-armed alien creatures! Larger and more muscular than the cowering specimen – a male, perhaps? But even as the Kung drew this connection, his fellow slumped back, as the screaming alien slammed a scimitari over and over into his fellow Kung’s carapace.
Grinning, the Kung turned towards this new threat, hefting his own scimitari. This, now, this was a fight that promised honor! He squared off, one blade forward to defend, the other drawn back and poised to strike.
This screaming, raging alien didn’t bother with any form, however. He threw himself forward, still bellowing at the Kung.
“You hurt her I’ll kill you kill you kill kill killyoukillyou I’ll kill-“
Its first strike was sloppy, wild. The Kung parried the attack and brought his own blade around to counter, slicing open a line along the alien’s flabby arm.
But then the Kung made his first mistake.
Another Kung, after failing on the attack, would have pulled back and recalculated, planning its second assault. But this screaming, shouting alien didn’t pause. Even as strangely red blood erupted from its arm, it slammed the injured limb forward, knocking the Kung off balance from sheer fury. Its leg swept forward as well, smashing against the Kung’s own leg and upsetting his battle stance. They both toppled backward.
On the ground, the Kung kicked back wildly against this alien on top of him. It never entered the Kung’s mind that he might be losing this fight. He was trained to win, to always seek victory.
Another hit scored, this time along the alien’s ribcage! The Kung felt his knife sink in deeply, and knew that he’d won. Victory, as he’d been trained to seek!
Yet still the alien flailed at him. It howled in pain, but still didn’t retreat. Did this creature not know reason? Was it some sort of berserker?
That wondering thought was the second-last thing to pass through the Kung’s mind.
The last thing was the blade of the alien’s scimitari, stolen from his fallen companion, piercing his skull and turning the Kung’s brains to pulp.
The six-limbed creature slumped back, still twitching, and Mike found himself thinking again.
He stared down at the thing, below him. His final, desperate attack, guided by unthinking rage, literally nailed the creature to the floor of the farmhouse. His hands dripped blue gore, coated up to the elbow.
Mike raised his eyes to Kate, who still clutched little Ethan to his chest. “Are you-“ he began, unable to even finish the sentence.
She nodded, shaking off her paralysis and rushing forward to him. “You’re hurt, Mike! We have to-“
He waved her off, even as the pain hit him and he doubled over, clutching at his side. “No!” he rasped, covering the wound in his stomach, unwilling to let her see. “You have to get Ethan out of here. Get to safety – tell someone about this-“
“I can’t!” Now she was sobbing as well, her hands grabbing at him, sounding almost hysterical. “What about you-“
His teeth gritted as he fought the pain, Mike pulled himself back up to his feet. “There could be more of these things out there,” he said, picking up the dead monster’s knife with his good hand. “You go. I’ll hold them off.”
Kate shook her head, but Mike leaned up against her, kissing her softly, almost tenderly, on the cheek. “Please,” he begged her, his voice a hoarse whisper. “I can’t – I need for you to be safe. I need it, more than anything.”
Now, Kate was weeping as well, their tears mingling together as she embraced him. “Oh, Mike,” she sobbed, holding him for what they both knew would be the last time. “Mike, I love you.”
“I love you too,” Mike whispered back, meaning the words with all his heart.
After a moment, however, another spasm of pain hit his body, and he straightened back up. “Now, go! Away from the ship, and don’t look back. Head for Caemlyn, over the hill – they’ll have a radio. Keep Ethan safe.”
Kate nodded, and although her eyes shone with still more tears, she managed to straighten up, showing off the iron spine she possessed. Mike saw that iron, knew it for the surge of love it summoned up within him. He watched as the love of his life picked up their son, who still stared, too young to understand, and headed out the back door of their farmhouse.
As she left, Mike staggered back to the front door. Still clutching the stolen knife from his dead foe, he stared up at the bulbous, ugly ship that stood in the middle of the destroyed village.
“Fuck you,” he growled under his breath, as he started forward. Once again, the redness crept into the corners of his vision, letting him ignore the burning pain.
The Kung commander narrowed his eyes as he turned to the subordinate officer who’d dared to speak aloud. “What is it, navigator?” he growled, considering executing the impertinent officer right there for daring to speak without addressing him by his proper title.
The juvenile officer, perhaps not realizing his error, gestured down at the screen below him. “One of our shuttles, victor. It’s coming back up – but we received no signal before its launch.”
Now, at least, the officer used the proper term of respect. The commander leaned over the display panel, watching as the little dot representing the landing craft rose up from the planet’s surface. “It’s moving quite fast,” he observed.
“Yes, victor. In fact, it should be visible on the main screen in a moment.”
They both raised their eyes up to the main display, higher than the other screens. Sure enough, there was the flare of the approaching shuttle. Its flight path seemed very erratic, and the engines looked out of sync, but it was definitely headed towards them – and accelerating. Whoever sat behind the ship’s controls clearly hadn’t piloted a vessel like this before, but the ship still advanced – rapidly.
“It’s not diverting its course towards the docking bay, victor,” the navigation officer commented unnecessarily. Everyone on the ship’s deck could see that, whatever the shuttle was doing, it wasn’t changing course.
The commander sprang into action as the shuttle continued to grow larger. “Open a line of communication to its comm!” he demanded, waving a hand at the communications officer.
That Kung was already flying his fingers over his keyboard. “Shuttle 23, this is the main ship,” he called into the microphone. “To avoid a collision, cut speed and shift heading to-“
The growled, half-garbled response that came back over the channel made no sense to the Kung. Their ship’s computers could perhaps have created some sort of translation, given enough time, but time was one advantage that they no longer possessed.
For just a moment, before the shuttle slammed into the side of the warship at full power and underwent cataclysmic meltdown of its main drive core, the Kung commander frowned at the nonsensical sounds from the shuttle.
*Author’s note: Yes, this will (probably) be a series! I really want the chance to try and develop some good characters. Personally, it’s that defiant middle finger, fighting back against impossible odds because it’s the honorable thing to do, that gives me a sense of frisson, that chill running down my spine. That’s what I want to capture here.