[The Kung War] The Diplomat at War, Part I

If he ignored the lurking sense of uselessness that sulked constantly at the back of his mind, Nils told himself, it was a great day.

To be fair, he wasn’t wrong.  The yellow sun overhead cast down its gentle warmth on civilized Ehftia, and a gentle breeze blew across the glassy walkways.  This close to one of the warm freshwater oceans, there was always a slight little hint of moisture and freshness in the air.  The thread-thin glassine supports that held up the walkways in suspension, high above the ground, vibrated tightly as the air blew through them.  Nils was slightly shy of his fortieth birthday, but he still appreciated the mildly reduced gravity of Ehftia.

It was, Nils reminded himself, the dream appointment of any diplomat.  He ought to be thrilled at this posting.

And yet, try as he might, he couldn’t shake that little sense of useless melancholy.

Reaching his building, Nils passed through the open doorway.  The Ehft, he’d found, were not big believers in the need for solid doors.  And really, why should they bother?  Here on their home world, there were no bugs to swat away, no hazardous weather to keep out.  The most that the Ehft ever received was a light shower of rain, and they cleverly angled and curved their buildings to blow that rain right past the entrances.

Of course, bathrooms had been a rather sore spot, Nils thought to himself with a little chuckle.  Xenobiology was back in fashion as a popular field of study, but many potential xenobiologists quickly changed their tune when they realized that one of the most pressing problems was designing a multi-species bathroom.

Here in his building, fortunately enough, Nils had managed to convince the Ehft that doors were necessary.  “A long-standing custom of our species that must be respected,” he recalled telling one of the meter-tall little birdlike aliens.

“Morning, Nils!  Anything new on the docket?”  Charlie, Nils’s second in command, greeted him cheerily as he entered the office.

Nils shook his head at the younger man behind the desk.  “Afraid not, Charlie.  No update from home.  Maintain diplomatic relations, don’t promise anything.”

Charlie’s grin spread a little wider, and the young man kicked back in his seat, propping his long, lanky legs up on the desk.  “Sounds good to me, boss.  Maybe I’ll cut out early, go try and convince the birds that surfing’s a worthwhile hobby.”

The young man was truly irrepressible.  Nils had watched Charlie attempt several times to convince the Ehft that riding a long, flattened spar of wood along the gentle breakers that swept into the bay of Apteryx was fun.

The Ehft, smartly enough, had watched politely, clucking their beaks softly in respectful acknowledgement, and then kept their distance.

Stepping into his office, Nils dropped down into the chair behind his own desk, running his eyes over the mostly empty surface in front of him.  His nameplate caught his eye, and he ran a finger over it to wipe off any nonexistent dust.

“Nils Ekstrom, Displomatic Science Policy Advisor to the Ehft,” he read off aloud, unable to keep a note of sarcasm from creeping into his voice.  “Sure, Tomlinson.  Whatever you say.”

He dropped the nameplate back down with another sigh.  He could still remember, almost three years ago now, when the general himself had showed up at his office to deliver the news of his “promotion.”

At the time, of course, Nils hadn’t even hesitated in accepting the offer.  Humanity’s fledgling little empire had just made contact with the Ehft, and the whole world was abuzz with energy and excitement.  The first alien species still to be alive when discovered!  And even better, the Ehft had similar interplanetary capabilities as the humans, and appeared friendly!

When General Tomlinson came to Nils with his offer, the whole world had been gripped with Ehft fever, if there was such a thing.  Plush toys of little Ehft filled the markets, and speculation of joint ventures filled all hours of television programming.  Just imagine, pundits cried out shrilly, what could be accomplished through the combination of Terran and Ehft technology!

Now, sitting in his empty office with nothing to do, Nils couldn’t help scoffing to himself.  “Fat lot of nothing came from that,” he grumbled to himself.

It was true, unfortunately enough.  Sure, the Ehft had figured out how to do some crazy tricks with magnets, and their spacefaring ships used a different drive propulsion system than Terran explorers, but there were no great leaps in knowledge to be drawn from these differences.  Indeed, the Ehft quickly recognized that the Terran ion-acceleration drive was a superior system to their own magnetic flux drives, and began adapting their own systems to mimic the Terran model.

The commerce angle, another highly touted area of speculation by the pundits a couple of years back, had also fizzled into nothing.  Ehftia turned out to be fairly poor in rare elements, and the Ehft technology didn’t show much advantage over Terran inventions.  The Ehft also simply weren’t big consumers; instead of striving to outdo each other with bigger and more expensive gadgets and toys, they preferred to spend their free time engaged in freewheeling discussions and philosophical ponderings.

So far, Nils thought blackly to himself, even the most conniving Terran entrepreneurs hadn’t figured out how to establish a big sales base among the Ehft.

Over the last twenty-four months or so, communication and travel between the Ehft and the Terrans had largely declined.  Only a couple of supply ships still bothered to take the long detour to Ehftia, and they mostly just carried a handful of tourist sightseers.  The Terran government now seemed to be focusing on expanding in towards the galaxy’s center, moving away from the Ehft so as to best avoid any territorial disputes.

Dragging himself out of his thoughts of history, Nils forced himself to look through the light handful of documents on his desk.  One of the Ehft kitchens wanted to try setting up a food import program, exchanging some of the bland but nutritious foodstuffs produced here for some classic Terran spices.  Nils tried unsuccessfully to muster up some sort of enthusiasm for the program, but he just couldn’t quite pull it off.

His roaming eyes fell on the only decoration he’d brought to his office – an old classic Terran pistol, hanging in a wall-mounted glass case.  Before he’d left the military service to take a position in the diplomatic corps, where he was less likely to be shot at, he’d been one of the best pistol shots, winning most of his unit’s competitions.

But there was no point in getting lost in misty-eyed recollection, Nils told himself with a shake of his head.  Aside from Charlie, he was the only human in the city, quite possibly the whole planet.  And while the Ehft were always polite enough, the little bird-like aliens didn’t really understand the idea of friendly competition.

Besides, he thought to himself, allowing himself a brief grin, the Ehft didn’t really possess the necessary evolutionary appendages for shooting.  They were very dexterous with their beaks and taloned toes, but they didn’t gravitate towards the tool use like humans.

Nils looked back down at the other documents for his appraisal, but the buzz of his holocomm, the Ehft version of a telephone, came to his rescue.  “Head Terran diplomat Nils Ekstrom,” he said as he hit the button to take the call.

“Yes, Diplomat Ekstrom,” replied the Ehft voice at the other end, managing quite passable Terran English.  Nils was glad he wouldn’t have to strain his voice with the squawking Ehft tongue.  “This is Khal, flight leader at the spaceport.  I have an incoming shuttle, from the Terran freighter *Spaceman from Pluto*, requesting to speak with you.”

Nils frowned.  He wasn’t expecting any messages, and didn’t recognize the ship’s name.  “Uh, sure.  Put them through.”

A pause for a moment.  “That is, you wish for me to connect you now?” Khal asked.  Clearly, the Ehft didn’t quite understand all the subtleties of English quite yet.

“Yeah, that’s what I meant.  Connect me.”

The Ehft made the little beak-click that signaled assent, and the line crackled with static for a moment.  After a few seconds, the static shifted.  “Hello?  Is this another person?” called out a female voice at the other end.

“This is Nils Ekstrom, the Diplomatic Science Policy Advisor to the Ehft – do you have a message-“ Nils started, but the voice cut him off before he could finish.

“Are you in charge?”  Nils couldn’t be sure, given the rather rough comm connection, but he thought the woman on the other end sounded off, like something was wrong.

“Erm.”  Nils had an unfortunate streak of honesty – not the best trait in a diplomat.  “I’m in charge, but only because there’s not really anyone else here.  Just me and Charlie.”

The woman at the other end of the connection let out what sounded like a huff of exasperation.  “Ugh, listen.  I’ve got secure information, something that I can’t send over a comm connection like this.  I’m headed down to the spaceport now – can you get here by the time I land?”

The spaceport wasn’t far.  Nils glanced once more at his meager pile of diplomatic duties, and then rolled his eyes.  Who would even report him for leaving his post?  Charlie certainly wouldn’t say anything.  “Yeah, I’ll be there when you touch down,” he promised.

“Great.  Get there now.”  The woman on the other end of the line hung up.

For a moment, Nils stared down at the little black box of the holocomm.  Had he grown too used to the overly polite Ehft?  Were all humans this uncouth, and he simply hadn’t noticed before?

After a second, however, he hauled himself up from his chair and headed out of the office, towards the spaceport across the gently waving glass bridges.  He sent one last glance at the displayed pistol in his office as he headed out, but he didn’t even consider taking it, removing it from its case.  What danger could he face here in the heart of the civilized Ehft homeworld, in their capitol city?

*****

Nils had anticipated that he would beat the descending shuttle to the spaceport by several minutes, but the shuttle was already touching down as he arrived.  From the look and sound of the ship, the pilot had been in a hell of a hurry, he considered.  The whole underside of the shuttle, coated in heat shielding, glowed a dull orange with excess heat, and the engines crackled and hissed as the exhaust vents cooled.  The pilot must have been redlining the thing the whole way down, Nils thought to himself.

He hurried towards the landing pad as the shuttle’s door opened.  A blonde-haired woman poked her head out, her expression set in a frown, which only deepened as she spotted Nils.

Not waiting for the shuttle’s little ramp to extend out, she hopped down to the ground and stalked towards Nils.  “Are you that diplomat from the comm?” she demanded, not waiting for any introduction.

No, Nils thought to himself, it couldn’t be that all humans were this rude, and he’d merely grown too accustomed to the polite Ehft.  This woman just happened to be especially impolite.  “Yes, Nils Ekstrom,” he greeted her, holding out his hand.  “And you are-“

“Sarah Walker, *Spaceman from Pluto* captain,” the woman replied, giving his hand a perfunctory shake, looking as though she was fulfilling a particularly distasteful favor.  “Listen, this is important.  Can you get a line open to Earth?”

Nils blinked.  “And what,” he asked, drawing on his diplomatic stiffness, “is this regarding?”

The woman, Sarah, just stared back at him flatly.  “We’re under attack,” she responded, glaring.

Again, the diplomat had to blink as he tried to wrap his head around these words.  “Excuse me?  Under attack?  Who?  From whom?”

Sarah shook her head, muttering something under her breath.  Nils didn’t quite catch the words, but he correctly ascertained their meaning.  “I don’t know,” she admitted tersely.  “But I just came from Idris, and someone there was transmitting an emergency SOS.”

Idris.  Nils knew the name.  It was a small agricultural planet, owned by the Ehft and in their territory, but recently opened up to human settlers for expansion.  Fairly remote from Ehftia, even more distant from Earth.  “And this SOS stated something about an attack, maybe a failure of some equipment?” he asked, hoping his tone would soothe Sarah.

It didn’t seem to be doing the trick.  “Not just an equipment failure.  An attack.  An alien attack.”

”It couldn’t have been some kind of miscommunication from the Ehft-“

“It was in English – from a Terran settler.  She witnessed it firsthand.  They got her husband.”  Sarah’s eyes flashed, daring him to challenge her again.

Nils paused again – but this time, his brain was racing.

His first thought was that this sounded like it was definitely above his pay grade.

His second thought, however, was that he didn’t really have much choice but to handle it.  He could escalate the information back to Earth, of course, but it would be days before he heard a response.  At the moment, he was the highest ranked human within several light-years.

“Okay,” he said, surprising himself with the calmness of his voice.  “Can you come back to my office and give a full report?”

Sarah nodded, reaching up and brushing a few strands of her blonde hair back behind an ear.  “Yeah, sure,” she said.  “It’s not like I’m losing money sitting on a shipment.  After getting that SOS, I figured I needed to haul ass back here and pass on the message.”

“Probably smartest,” Nils agreed, gesturing to the freighter captain.  “Let’s head up to my office, and I can get all the details.”

As he led the stressed-looking woman up to his building, Nils eyed her, trying to get a good assessment of her.  She looked to be in her early to mid thirties, perhaps, he guessed, although age was difficult to even calculate for freighter merchants.  A trim figure, suggesting she kept in shape on her long flights.  That spoke to inner strength, perhaps less likely to lie.

In any case, Nils pointed out to himself, what would be a reason to lie, especially with a lie so fantastic!  He tried to wrap his head around this almost unbelievable new piece of information, assuming for the moment that this was true.

Someone had launched an attack on Idris?  Some other alien race, not only previously unknown to humans and the Ehft, but hostile?

Nils didn’t usually let his brain wander off on flights of fancy.  Even in his office, with very little to consume his time, he did his best to keep his mind on current challenges.  He knew that daydreaming could quickly mire him in deep trouble.  Fantasies didn’t belong in his mind, his job, or his life.

Now, however, an idea that, only minutes before, he might have described as fantasy was suddenly becoming very real.  He didn’t know how trustworthy Sarah Walker might be, but surely she’d had the presence of mind to bring the transmitted logs from Idris.

He’d pass this on to his superiors, Nils decided, glancing sidelong at the woman’s resolute expression.  After that, this would be out of his hands.  He’d probably have to interface with the Ehft, of course, but surely the Terran United Worlds would send someone with better skills to handle this new issue.

Nils led Sarah into his building, but as he stepped inside, the diplomat couldn’t help glancing up at the sky, his expression concerned.  Nothing looked out of place among the soft, fluffy, thin clouds, but he didn’t feel comforted.

If Sarah Walker was right, something – something dangerous – was lurking up amid the stars.

Hidden – but perhaps not for much longer.

[The Kung War] First Contact

Frisson (n): a sudden, passing sensation of excitement; a shudder of emotion; thrill

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.

Kate.

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.

*

“Odd.”

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.

“Fuck you!”

#

*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.