The entire population of Dhel Tarihr was about to die. Since Kharakum Larger was unlucky enough to be the newest resident of Dhel Tarihr, he was understandably distressed by this fact.
Ever since the Mayor had called an emergency meeting that morning and delivered the news that a HohkJhet Swarmship was recorded making planet fall on the crooked plains just a few dozen kilometers west of their small agrarian settlement, Kharakum had devoted much of his time and energy to contemplating his own mortality. He was finding that he had some regrets.
He regretted that he had not agreed to sign Khelulir’s mating contract after the recent harvest dance. The slight impropriety of her being a subordinate coworker suddenly seemed insignificant in comparison to the current situation. He also regretted that he had already used up his intoxicant ration for the cycle. Their boss Bharyahr had been hoarding a few bottles for some undetermined special occasion, and was currently working his way toward a grand stinking drunk which Kharakum envied to no end. What Kharakum especially regretted however was not staying with the police force in nearby Murn Darahl, and instead accepting the transfer which had brought him to this bucolic shithole.
Just 42 kilometers Southeast, Murn Darahl, unlike Dhel Tarihr, was a true city, with high walls, a standing military, and a small spaceport that catered to a steady trickle of local and interstellar flights. Having a thick wall and some big guns between him and the HohkJhet swarm would have been nice. Having the hull of a swiftly departing starship would have been better.
Even the smallest Swarmships of the insectoid HohkJhet carried millions of warrior drones, a small fraction of which would be more than enough to overrun the roughly three thousand desperate farmers and three under-equipped police officers huddled behind the hastily erected barricade haphazardly surrounding Dhel Tarihr. Radeacheri like Kharakum were not an especially large or warlike species. Evolved from bipedal reptiles, they only averaged about a meter in height, and were waifishly thin. HohkJhet warrior drones on the other hand were closer to two meters tall and four meters long, with far too many limbs and fangs and eyes and other sharp, pointy, gougy, angry bits to be anything other than evil vicious bastards.
Oh well, Kharakum thought, at least his parents and crèche mates would be safe back on the Radeacher home world. He knew his mother’s feelings regarding his choice to join the force on the sparsely populated colony world of Gengari instead of applying to work somewhere more civilized, and today he figured she’d earned the right to hit him with a solid “I told you so.” Not that there would be much of him left to tell it to after today. The HohkJhet ate their victims.
“Larger, there you are!” the pleasant trill of Khelulir’s voice cut through his reverie as the comely female jogged over to where he slouched against the nondescript wall of the prefabricated police department/ jail/courthouse/post office/ bachelor dormitory which he currently called home.
“Where is Bharyahr?” Khelulir asked when she got closer.
“Inside,” Kharakum gestured with one of his large fan shaped ears, “when the Mayor stole the only hover shuttle in town and blasted away across the crooked plains at high speed, he locked himself in one of the cells with his booze. Said it would give him enough time to finish it all before we’re eaten.”
“Ah,” Khelulir gave a slow blink, nictitating membranes flicking sideways across her lovely amber eyes. “Well, I need your help with something then.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” Kharakum asked ironically, knowing full well there wouldn’t be a tomorrow for them.
“No,” she responded, uninterested in his exceedingly clever jokes, “I need your help now. Something is coming.”
“The HohkJhet? They’re here already?” Kharakum felt his hearts stuttering in his narrow chest as fear paralyzed his body.
“Nope. Somebody else. One of the kids we’ve got acting as a lookout for the HohkJhet noticed them. They’re in a flyer of some kind, whoever they are, and they’re coming right toward the village. They’ll be here soon.”
“Is it ours? Is it the Mayor?”
“Our flyer? No. Definitely not. It looks alien. You should probably come check it out yourself.”
Kharakum mulled it over for a moment. It was something to do at least. Better than sitting here adding to his list of many and varied regrets anyway. Plus, if he got the strangers to stop for a minute, maybe he’d be able to ask them how far away the swarm currently was.
“Alright, I’m in. Let me grab my gear.”
Bustling in to the jailhouse/etc, Kharakum grabbed his sidearm and stun baton, clipping them both to his belt. He also clipped the police chief badge to the front of his uniform vest. Technically it belonged to Bharyahr, but judging from the raucous and off-key singing coming from the cell at the rear of the building, Kharakum didn’t think his boss would notice or care about the theft.
“Okay,” he said, marching back out to Khelulir, “I’m ready to go.”
She didn’t say anything when she saw the badge glinting on his chest, but she did smile slightly and her ears waggled approvingly. Instead of explicitly acknowledging his theft, she just turned around and began jogging back toward the center of the village. Kharakum dutifully followed her, but before the pair had gotten far they were startled by a terrifying roar as the alien vehicle flew low over the village, just barely clearing some of the taller rooftops before it banked back around and hovered over the open ground of the village square. Kharakum had to agree with his subordinate, the machine was definitely an alien design. Most Radeacher vehicles were lightweight and delicate looking, and used nearly silent antigravity technologies to hover and fly. This thing was nothing like that. It was a monstrous tube of crudely riveted metal plates, poorly covered in flaking paint and a fine patina of dirt and grime. Lift was produced by two enormous propeller engines which pivoted on the end of the machine’s stubby wings. The propellers were currently pointing straight up, allowing the ungainly machine to hover unmoving several meters above the ground as their fusion power plants geysered hot exhaust gasses outward. The immense downdraft from the racing propellers were throwing up a stinging cloud of sand and grit from the abused square, and Kharakum had to close his eyes and protect his face with a raised forearm until the huge machine finally settled to the ground with a solid thunk.
Once the machine was down and the dust had dispered slightly, Kharakum could see some unfamiliar writing on its fuselage, with Icarus Industries printed below in commonwealth basic. The only windows visible were at the bluntly pointed front of the machine, where Kharakum assumed the pilot sat, but sunlight glinting off the glassteel panes made it impossible for him to see inside. As Kharakum and Khelulir approached the strange machine cautiously, their hands on their sidearms, a large door cracked open in the rear of the machine, slowly lowering with the groan of hydraulics into a ramp. Waiting balanced on the edge of the ramp was an intimidating giant of an alien.
“Howdy,” the alien said in strangely accented basic, once the ramp clanged to a stop on the ground, “I’m Charlie Daniels.”
Kharakum was surprised.
“You’re a human,” he said.
Judging from Khelulir’s sudden gasp, he guessed that the girl hadn’t recognized the species they were facing. Humans were relatively rare on the galactic stage, having only recently developed primitive FTL which allowed them to reach out from their home solar system and join the greater galactic community. Rare though they were, Kharakum had already heard several bizarre and unbelievable rumors about them, but he attributed those simply to people reacting to the rarity and novelty of first contact with a new species.
“That I am,” the enormous man agreed, brushing his strange five-fingered hands off on his dirty and oft-patched coveralls before sticking one out toward Kharakum. The man, and Kharakum could tell the human was a male by the thick hair covering the lower half of his face in the human maturity display called a beard, had ripped the sleeves off his coveralls, exposing his grotesquely muscled arms, which were also covered in coarse little hairs and a frightening number of scars.
Kharakum Larger was big for a Radeacher male, thus his name, but compared to the giant before them, he felt like a small child. He couldn’t help compare his slender arms in his sleeveless uniform vest against the human’s, and feel inadequate. At least Kharakum’s skin wasn’t that ridiculous pink color and he wasn’t hairy like some sort of primitive beast.
The human was still standing in front of the two Radeacher police officers with his hand extended and his teeth bared in his stupid flat face. Kharakum didn’t know if this was a threat display or a sign of peaceful intent or what, so he ignored it for now, choosing instead to glare up at the big man and state, “I didn’t know there were any humans on this planet.”
“There are less now,” the man scowled, dropping his arm to his side, “after that nest of big fuck-ass bugs dropped on our camp back west.”
“You had a camp in the crooked plains?” Khelulir asked, “Why?”
Kharakum was more concerned about the big fuck-ass bugs. “You saw the HohkJhet? And some of you survived?”
“Oh sure, most of us that were above ground got to the old Albatross here,” Charlie Daniels slapped a strut on his flying machine affectionately, “but some of the crew that were already down below had to drop the upper tunnels and retreat into the deep mine to get away from them nasty fuckers. Don’t worry, enough water seeps through the rock down there that they’ll be fine for a few weeks until we can get back there with some heavier firepower. For now though, we’ve got to haul ass, that alien bug swarm is right the fuck behind us.”
“You’re mining in the crooked plains? I never heard of any mining operations out there.”
Charlie Daniels winced, and admitted, “yeah, you wouldn’t have. Our outfit wasn’t technically one hundred percent legal. We kind of did it secretly.”
Kharakum waggled his ears in confusion. “So you’re admitting to running an illegal mining operation on a Radeacher colony world, to representatives of Radeacher law enforcement.”
“I guess I am,” Charlie Daniels said, “but I figure you’ve got bigger problems coming right now. We just stopped to tell you guys about the swarm so you could all get out of here. Besides,” he grinned a vicious grin full of sharp teeth, “what are you two going to do? Arrest us?”
“…No” Kharakum said with grim certainty, “we couldn’t. So thank you for your warning about the swarm, but we were already aware of it, so you can go on your way now.”
“Hey,” the human said worriedly, “I wasn’t lying about how close those bugs were. You all got to load up your hover shuttles or whatever and get the hell out of here.”
“We can’t,” Kharakum explained resignedly.
“We don’t have any hover shuttles,” Khelulir explained, “This is a poor provincial farming village. The town only had one and the Mayor stole it this morning. We requested help from the nearest city, Murn Darahl, but they basically told us good luck and goodbye. Some of the villagers left this morning to try to make it there on foot, but it’s over forty kilometers away. They’ll never stay ahead of the swarm. So most of us stayed here. These are our homes.”
“Are you dumb?” Charlie Daniels asked rudely, “You’ve just given up and accepted your fate, so you all stayed here to die?”
Yes, thought Kharakum, but he was annoyed by the human’s questions so what he said was “No! we stayed here to fight!”
Charlie Daniels stared at the two defiant Radeacher officers unblinking for several heartbeats, his pale blue eyes squinting out from under bushy grey brows. Sucking his lower lip along with some of his beard into his mouth, he chewed pensively for a moment before seeming to make a decision.
“Brave little bastards, aren’t you? Alright then, wait here,” he said, before turning abruptly and lumbering back into the interior of his ship. Muffled yelling in an unfamiliar language and some clattering and clanging like things were being pushed and thrown violently could be heard spilling out through the still open door. Kharakum and Khelulir shared a glance and a confused wiggle of their ears, but they did as they were asked and waited.
In short order, they heard the clomping of Charlie Daniel’s heavy boots approaching the ramp again, this time accompanied by the tread of many others. Kharakum and Khelulir backed up nervously, as a terrifying line of humans trooped out of the ship. Led by Charlie Daniels, the line seemed to stretch on forever, but once they were all out and gathered in the portion of the square not filled by their cumbersome ship, Kharakum was surprised to see there were only a dozen of the burly aliens huddled together across from the two officers. All of the humans were looking at Kharakum and Khelulir, some with anger, some with curiosity, and some with pity. Kharakum found their collected gazes almost overwhelming.
Based on what he knew of human physiology, Kharakum was fairly certain that the grey haired Charlie Daniels was the oldest, but size and age were evidently not directly related in humans, because he was not nearly the largest of the group. That distinction belonged to another bearded male, this one with a shaved head and an angry scar across his brow. Nearly two and a half meters tall, the man was also thick as a bull gorn, and based on the ropy muscles layering his exposed upper body, probably just as strong. None of the other humans were quite as impressive as this living mountain, but they all dwarfed the slender Kharakum, even the women, who, although also impossibly muscled by Radeacher standards, were more visibly sexually dimorphic than Radeacheri, and were distinguishable from the human males by their breasts and scent.
Not that he had a long history of interacting with humanity to fall back on, but Kharakum was relatively certain the group before him was rougher than the species average. This would make sense for the members of an illicit mining colony, especially ones who had just narrowly escaped a HohkJhet swarm attack. Their clothing all looked heavy duty and well worn, with some sporting unrepaired tears and multihued stains that looked suspiciously like HohkJhet and human blood. The people themselves were dirty, disheveled, and clearly exhausted, but they still moved with a liquid grace that should have been impossible for their size, and they all stood proud and defiant, unbowed by the hardship which had befallen them.
“We all here?” Charlie Daniels asked, scanning his group with a hard glare. “Wait, where’s Grampy? Junior! Go wake Grampy, damn it. Get that old tin can out here right now.”
At his order, a smaller human Kharakum had not previously noticed darted out from the pack and scampered back into the ship. He figured this was either a human youngling, or some sort of stunted dwarf, since it was even smaller and slighter than he was.
“Listen up!” Charlie Daniels bellowed, “we’ve got alien hostiles incoming, and a friendly village to evacuate. We won’t be able to fit them all, but let’s save who we can. I want the interior of the Albatross gaping wider than a whores box on payday. Strip it down to bare metal, every pound we can drop and every inch we can gain might be another saved soul. Get to it!”
“On it boss!” One of the fearsome looking women said, before shoving the others back toward the ship. Given their orders, the human miners set to with an admirable industriousness, with bits and pieces of supplies, luggage, and ship parts soon flowing back out of the open cargo door in a steady stream.
“You two, come here,” Charlie Daniels called to the bemused Kharakum and Khelulir. “Here’s the deal. We’re going to get as many of you out of here as possible, but we can’t fit everybody, so some hard decisions will have to be made.”
“Take the children,” Khelulir interrupted. “Decision made.”
Charlie Daniels nodded approvingly. “Yes ma’am. We’ll get them to safety, you have my word. Time is limited however, so I need you to get everyone organized. We’ll start loading the kiddies up as soon as you get them sent our way. It won’t be a comfortable flight, but they’ll make it to Murn Darahl in one piece.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Kharakum began, but the grizzled human cut him off.
“No thanks needed,” he said gruffly, “it’s the least we can do. Now go attend to your people, Chief…”
“Larger. It’s Kharakum Larger. And this is Khelulir. The woman I should have married.”
The large human dipped his head politely, “Pleasure to know you both.”
Invigorated by the unforeseen opportunity to save at least some of their town from the impending catastrophe, the two Radeacheri officers raced off to notify everybody else about the human’s offer. Kharakum was worried that the temptation of the human ship might prove too strong for the desperate townsfolk, and that he and Khelulir would be stuck with the unenviable task of putting down a riot as people tried to fight for a space onboard, but his hearts were simultaneously filled and broken by how agreeable everyone was. They were almost pathetically grateful to the humans for saving their young ones, and didn’t spare a single thought for their own fates.
Everybody was already working at a fevered pitch, but efforts redoubled when a lookout noticed the dust cloud on the horizon. The HohkJhet were on the move. Khelulir distributed the meager firepower from the police department armory, and rallied the stronger townspeople to the flimsy wall surrounding Dhel Tahrihr.
“Charlie Daniels! Charlie Daniels!” Kharakum ran back to the human ship as quickly as he could, stumbling into the back of a crowd of Radeacheri as he got to the village center. Many children had already been carried into the interior of the ship by harried looking humans, but there were still a large group remaining at the base of the ramp saying their tearful goodbyes to their parents.
“Charlie Daniels!” he yelled ineffectually, his voice getting lost in the crowd, but the big grey-bearded human somehow seemed to hear him all the same, for his piercing gaze found its way unerringly to the uniformed officer.
“Yes, Kharakum Larger?” He yelled across the square, “what is it?”
At Kharakum’s proclamation, the crowd surged forward, right up to the base of the ramp, pushing their little ones into the waiting hands of the humans, who began running them into the ship one under each arm.
“Boss!” a sweaty, long-haired and ebony skinned female ran out to where Charlie Daniels stood, “we’re full up. We’ve got them packed in everywhere but if we’re getting out of here we just can’t fit any more.”
“Shit.” Charlie Daniels swore. There were still a number of screaming Radeacheri children waiting at the base of the ramp. Reaching back into his ship, he opened a narrow compartment on the wall beside the door and pulled out an intimidating looking black tube that he started feeding thumb sized red cartridges into. A long belt studded with more of the red cartridges went over one shoulder and across his body.
“Alright, Pilot Ilsa.” He stepped down off the ramp onto the dusty stone of the town square. “Make sure Junior is on board. Let the crew know it’s time to go.”
“Yes, sir,” the woman answered grimly.
“Kharakum,” The human said, “Let’s go see to your defenses.”
“Charlie Daniels,” Kharakum complained, “you’ll miss your ship.”
“I wouldn’t say I’ll miss it,” the human muttered, “I always hated that fucking ship. Besides, an overcrowded flight full of screaming, crying children? Sounds like a nightmare. I’d rather stay here.”
“Aye lad, I will. But you can fit ten of your little kiddos in the space my fat old ass would need on the ship. That sounds like a good trade to me. Now come on, let’s go kill some bugs.”
Stunned, Kharakum followed the broad-shouldered human out to the wall on the edge of town, where they joined the resigned looking members of the makeshift militia Khelulir had organized.
“Larger,” Khelulir said, grinning nervously, handing him one of the department’s mini-gauss rifles, “Look who decided to join us.”
Leaning against the wall, cradling a rifle in one hand and a steaming cup of stim in the other was a decidedly uncomfortable looking Bharyahr.
“Well would you look at that,” Kharakum said, pulling the chief badge off his vest, “I suppose I should give this back to you, sir.”
“Keep it,” the older officer said, “I don’t want the job anymore. Too much paperwork.”
“Thank you, sir!”
“Hey Kharakum,” Khelulir whispered, “Did you mean what you said?”
“When you introduced us to Charlie Daniels. You said you should have married me. Did you mean that?”
“Oh. Yes. Yes I did.”
Khelulir hiccupped a half laugh, half sob, before wrapping Kharakum in a crushing hug.
“When we get through this,” she whispered, “I’m going to hold you to that.”
Kharakum couldn’t help but laugh, and then cry, and then laugh some more. The two laughing, crying officers were interrupted by the sound of the human ship’s massive engines starting and its propellers cycling up to speed, and they joined the rest of the men and women at the wall in watching the huge ship lumber into the sky and rocket off toward Murn Darahl, its belly full of Radeacheri children.
Extricating himself from Khelulir’s arms, Kharakum clambered up to where Charlie Daniels stood proudly atop the wall, watching his ship disappear into the distance. The HohkJhet swarm had gotten close enough that their strange chittering cries could be heard echoing across the crooked plain, but for now, everyone remaining in Dhel Tarihr ignored them, their attention instead riveted on the escaping human ship.
It was Charlie Daniels who first looked away, but his gaze was drawn back into the center of town, not outward toward the seething horde approaching. Moving shapes had begun to resolve themselves in the dust cloud caused by the Albatross’s take-off, shapes too tall to be Radeacheri.
“Oh, you fools. You fucking gallant, stubborn, glorious fools,” Kharakum overheard Charlie Daniels whisper, a broad smile on his face even as tears streaked unashamedly down his face.
The humans. The humans were coming. In ones and twos, the brave human miners approached the wall, taking up positions shoulder the shoulder with the Radeacheri farmers against the coming storm. Some had primitive combustion firearms like Charlie Daniels’ shotgun. Others held mining equipment converted into makeshift weaponry. From where Kharakum was standing beside Charlie Daniels, he could see John Henry, the biggest man from the ship, gripping a heavy pick axe in each meaty hand as he stood on the wall shouting obscenities at the swarm.
“Boss,” he paused in his tirade to nod respectfully at Charlie Daniels.
“John,” Charlie Daniels said, “surprised to see you here.”
The big man shrugged. “Yeah, the lads and lasses had a bit of a vote after you left. Didn’t seem right leaving you to have all the fun on your own. As a completely coincidental bonus we were able to get all the remaining villagers onto the ship when we gave up our seats. Everyone left in the town is right here on the wall. You’d be surprised how many of these little guys we could fit for each one of us.”
“Especially you, eh John?
“Not really, boss. I’d say especially him.”
Khelulir and Kharakum couldn’t help but gape at the apparition now lumbering out of the center of town toward their position on the wall.
“Hey!” Charlie Daniels cheered, “You got Grampy to wake up!”
“Charlie Daniels, what is a Grampy?” Kharakum asked.
“A person, just like the rest of us. Well, maybe not just like us,” he amended, as the four meter tall bipedal metal monster trudged past, pushing through the wall like it was made of gossamer on its quest to reach the swarm, stumpy arms ending in powerful looking claws raised toward the enemy. “Grampy is a human style labor mech, with a limited AI which we’ve hacked and upgraded a bit over the years. He’s a cranky old coot, but the bugs are about to find out he really doesn’t like getting woken from his naps.”
“He’s wrecked our wall,” Khelulir lamented.
“Eh, it wasn’t going to last a minute anyway kiddo. These bug pricks are tough. I like Grampy’s style though.” Charlie Daniels racked his shotgun, chambering a round, “What do you say guys? Want to go squish some bugs?”
“Attack the HohkJhet?” Khelulir asked.
“Out there?” Kharakum added.
“Sounds good to me, boss!” one of the human women yelled.
“Better to go out in a blaze of glory than die hiding behind this wall!” another miner agreed.
John Henry rolled his massive shoulders before clashing the heads of his two pick axes together. “It will be a good death.”
“We’re with you,” Kharakum said, his conviction surprising even himself, “what you’ve done for us, the sacrifice you’re making for people you don’t even know, people not even of your own species. It means everything, and since our children will survive, it will never be forgotten. You’re all heroes, every one of you, and it will be an honor to fight by your side.”
“Well shit, I can’t follow that speech.” Charlie Daniels said, “so let’s just fucking do this!”
Howling, the grey bearded human leapt off the wall and began sprinting to meet the swarm. The rest of the defenders, human and Radeacheri alike, rose as one and ran after him, roaring their defiance into the wind. Kharakum and Khelulir raced together, their gauss-rifles singing the same song filling their hearts as they met the enemy head on.
The humans were right. It was a good death.
Murn Darahl Breaking News Update
Reports have been confirmed, the HohkJhet Swarmship has departed Gengari Space with Radeacheri casualties far lower than anticipated. As previously reported, the Swarmship made planetfall in the crooked plains just three days ago, but the swarm which was expected to reach Murn Darahl yesterday morning never arrived. Recently launched surveillance satellites show the vast swathe of devastation leading from the Swarmship touchdown point initially pointed directly toward Murn Darahl, but then deviated somewhat East and culminated at a location our database indicates was once the small farming village of Dhel Tarihr. Here, the bodies of thousands upon thousands of dead warrior drones have been found, their cause of death currently unknown. Survivors who arrived in Murn Darahl on foot after fleeing the village the morning the Swarmship landed have been unable to shed any light on the mystery, as they report that only a small population of mostly unarmed citizens had remained behind. Even more miraculous however is that when they arrived in Murn Darahl, they found all of the village children and some of the friends and neighbors they had thought dead already safe behind our walls. These citizens have remained strangely reticent about what they experienced. We go now to our field correspondent Bhageduhr, who is on the scene at the site of the Dhel Tarihr massacre. We must advise that the images you about to see may be disturbing and viewer discretion is advised. Preliminary reports received from Bhageduhr indicate that he has discovered some sort of mechanized robot of obviously alien origin present on the battlefield. The machine appears to be in some sort of standby mode, but Bhageduhr will now attempt to awaken it to perhaps obtain some better idea of what has occurred here. Please stand by for live broadcast in 3…2…1…