The humans were being loud again.
Tartrax wrapped himself tighter in his muddy gorn-hide flak jacket and scraped his beak against the trench wall in misery, wishing for one of the enemy gunners to aim their constant artillery barrage close enough for the trench to collapse and bury him in a ton of silent, soothing dirt. Anything to make that floppy demon bag the blasted humans called a musical instrument shut up.
“Angus, I swear on the names of all the gods,” Tartrax squawked, “if you don’t be quiet, I’m going to shove those damn pipes so far up your ass you’ll be farting out your songs from now on. It’s late, this cursed war never ends, and I’m tired!”
“ Aw, I’d like to see you try Polly!” Angus took his mouth off his antique instrument long enough to give the desperate Kwann soldier a tobacco stained grin, “and even if you succeed, it might not be so bad. You know what my dear grandma used to say…”
“Everything’s a dildo if you’re brave enough!” his nearby squad mates supplied the punch line.
Tartrax rustled his feathers in the Kwannese version of an aggrieved sigh. If he somehow survived long enough to get off this battlefield, he would never deploy on a coalition campaign again, certainly not as a CL. Being a Cultural Liaison for a Kwann protectorate race like the ferocious Torb’n tribesmen was one thing. The bonded pairs that made of their warrior caste were strange, but at least they had sixteen centuries of shared history between the two races, as well as enough physical similarities to be obvious evolutionary cousins, and that went a long way toward smoothing over any possible cultural misunderstandings. The humans however? Well, the humans were just insane. Tartrax would give his left pinion feathers to be assigned almost anywhere else. Even cooped up in a Radeacheri battle barge would be preferable to this. Those little fan-eared freaks were all insufferable nerds, but at least their way of waging war, with massive star fleets in the black void of space, was civilized. Tartrax shuddered as Angus’ bagpipes began moaning again. There were no bagpipes in space, he thought wistfully.
The most aggravating part of the entire situation was that Tartrax’s people had asked for the human’s help. They needed them to win this war. A war that was, embarrassingly, being fought against other Kwann.
Vertika Prime was a garden world that had been a peaceful and contributing member of the Kwann Hegemony right up until a hijacked colony ship full of Kwann cultists and the rampant AI they worshipped as a god had crash-landed there. The AI had rapidly taken control of the planet’s entire datasphere, bringing Vertika Prime’s highly automated and integrated economy to a standstill overnight. The Kwannese military, a high-tech superpower in this section of the galaxy, found themselves with limited options. Sure, they could glass the planet from orbit, which would effectively destroy the cultists, but this would also wipe out a highly valuable garden world along with its innocent loyalist population. To date, this option had not been seriously considered. Unfortunately, a successful Kwannese ground campaign was equally undesirable, since their high-tech weaponry was particularly susceptible to the AI’s corrupting influence. Anything more advanced than a toaster oven was in danger of being subverted and controlled by the cultist’s AI. Basically, they needed to fight this war like cave men.
That’s where the humans came in. Humanity was still somewhat new to the galactic stage, and their relatively low technological advancement made them seem like primitive savages compared to their galactic peers, but they’d already secured a strong reputation for being tough, dirty survivors. Just the type of people Kwann needed to rid this world of its cultist problem. Even if it now gave Tartrax a human problem.
The humans had taken one look at the muddy fields of Vertika Prime, reviewed the technological restrictions in place, assessed their fanatical and well supplied enemy, and collectively giggled like madmen. Then they had introduced the Kwann to the uniquely horrifying human strategy that was a war of attrition.
Tartrax had been cycling into and out of the front line trenches with this squad of soldiers attached to the 1403rd Highland Volunteers, the human battalion which had been sent by the nearest human stellar kingdom in response to the Kwann Hegemony’s request for aid, for months now and in that time he had come to grudgingly admire the brutish aliens tenacity and bravery in battle. Humans and Kwann were similarly sized, although most of a Kwann’s strength and mass was in their legs, while humans had much longer, more powerful arms. Kwann were feathered, humans had hair. Kwann had beaks, humans had toothy mouths than never shut up. At first glance, they were relatively evenly matched physically. Tartrax’s experiences beside them on the battlefield had shown that he had some glaring shortcomings compared to the aliens however, which was a bitter pill for the proud warrior to swallow. Kwann were slightly faster, but humans just had so much endurance. They never seemed to stop. Even hours after he had fallen down exhausted, they were still fighting, or working, or like Angus currently, dicking around for no apparent reason. Truthfully, their efforts on behalf of the loyalist Kwannese people was beyond reproach. Although the ground level troops like Tartrax’s adopted squad complained constantly, as was the prerogative of grunt troops the galaxy over, they did their jobs with a cool competency and professionalism that would rival any of Tartrax’s Kwann special forces brethren. If only they weren’t so damn annoying.
“Lay off it, Angus,” Sergeant Reid’s husky voice preceded her out of the dug-out she had been resting in, her back popping as she stretched out to her full meter and a half height in the middle of the trench. Tartrax had learned quickly not to hold her diminutive size against her, she was a deadly shot and could out wrestle even the largest human soldiers. She, like all of the women in this strange and contradictory army was wearing drab colored fatigue pants, something Tartrax knew to be more of a men’s style for humans, while the men bizarrely all wore colorfully patterned skirts, which he had always believed to be traditionally women’s clothing for humans. He initially thought maybe they did it to better fit in with local aesthetics, since the modern Kwannese had evolved from flightless predatory birds, and males like Tartrax still grew distinctly more colorful plumage than their women. Thus the human’s nickname for Tartrax. Polly didn’t want a cracker, thank you very much. Of course, the humans failed to do even the slightest bit else to fit in with their Kwann hosts, so Tartrax really doubted they were changing their normal wardrobe just to impress their allies.
“It is late,” Sergeant Reid continued, “you should all be sleeping. The sun is about to come up, and those fuckers,” she indicated the Kwann cultists hunkered in their own trenches less than three hundred yards across the blasted and scarred waste that was no-man’s land, punctuating her statement with a lazily delivered potshot over the rim of the trench with her service revolver, “aren’t going to take it easy on you tomorrow just because you’re feeling tired.”
“Hey Sarge,” Private MacDonald asked, the glowing tip of his lit cigarette briefly lighting up the portion of his craggy mustachioed face not covered by the drooping cowl of his rain poncho, “what day is tomorrow anyway?”
“Fuck if I know,” Reid answered, “it’s not like the Kwann calendar makes any fucking sense anyway. Galactic standard is all well and good until it’s got you getting up to go to work in the middle of the night because your planet has a different rotation that they refuse to account for.”
“Yeah, nah, that’s not what I meant though,” MacDonald continued, “what day is tomorrow?”
“Eh? What are you going on about? Oh! Oh. Let me check.” Sergeant Reid ducked back down into the dug-out. She was gone only a moment, and soon returned with a small flat parcel the size of a tablet computer, wrapped in a dirty scrap of blanket. Curious despite himself, Tartrax levered himself up into a sitting position. It couldn’t actually be a tablet computer, even unlinked self-contained units were forbidden on planet while the AI was still a threat. When she finished unfolding the blanket, Tartrax was confused to see the parcel was flat rectangular box whose broad face was covered in little doors, all but one of which had been already opened.
“Ooooh,” all the gathered humans sighed in unison, strange wistful looks flitting across their faces. To Tartrax’s consternation, some of the crass and deadly warriors even had tears leaking from their eyes.
“What does it mean?” Tartrax asked.
“Look!” Angus pointed at the dull glow beginning on the Eastern horizon, “daybreak!” With a thick finger, he poked through the one remaining unopened door, and dug out a small sealed item, which he tossed over to Tartrax. Holding it in his talons, the Kwann soldier saw that it was a small piece of human chocolate wrapped in silver foil.
“It means, old buddy, that today is Christmas!”
“I’m sorry,” Tartrax said, “but I still don’t understand the significance…what is a Christmas?”
“What do you think?” Angus asked his squad mates, “should we show him?”
“Ay.” MacDonald agreed, “Let me get my drum.”
As he slithered down into the dug-out, the rest of the squad followed him one by one, leaving the increasingly confused Tartrax alone in their section of the trench with Angus, who had raised his bagpipes up to his lips again, and was pumping them in preparation to play, and Sergeant Reid who stood staring at the Kwann Liaison officer with her brow furrowed and an intense look on her face.
“When it happens,” she finally said, “you can follow us, but don’t bring your gun. Do you understand? Don’t bring your gun.”
“When what happens!?” Tartrax squawked miserably, “what’s a Christmas!?”
“A time for miracles,” was Reid’s cryptic answer as she went to rejoin her troops, who had all since emerged from the dug-out. None of them held weapons, but none of them were empty handed. A couple, like Angus and MacDonald had musical instruments, the others had various small packages wrapped in bits of colored paper, and some just held fistfuls of human cigars or bottles of booze.
“Ready?” Sergeant Reid asked.
“Pa Rum Pa Pum Pum,” was MacDonald’s answer, before, to Tartrax’s astonishment, he calmly climbed up over the edge of the trench into no-man’s land, carrying nothing but the small drum strapped to his side. The rest of the squad followed en masse, the musicians beginning to play before they even cleared the berm, those without instruments joining in song, voices hoarse from the sounds of war somehow smoothing and blending into something beautiful, a song that although unfamiliar to Tartrax was clearly known by all the humans, because his incredulous ear holes could now hear the faint strains of music rising up from other sections of the trench network as additional squads joined in.
Panting in panic, Tartrax threw himself up onto the shooting step built into the side of the trench, peeking up over the berm, expecting to hear the sounds of slaughter as the enemy Kwann noticed the unarmed humans approaching their position and began firing. As his assigned squad faded into the morning mist still swirling through no-man’s land, with more and more humans up and down the trench abandoning their positions to join them, he wondered what form of betrayal had gripped their human allies to make them take this suicidal journey. Had the AI somehow corrupted them? Or was this something different? Something older, some sort of pre-existing species-wide insanity?
Peering into the mists, Tartrax kept waiting to hear the sounds of machine gun fire and screaming, or see the glowing gouts of chemical flames from the enemy cultists flame throwers. Strangely, all he heard was continued music. Unable to take the mystery any longer, Tartrax somehow found himself up and over the trench wall, cursing the ridiculous humans with every step he took deeper into the blasted wasteland between the trenches. By the time he got about halfway across, the mists had thinned enough to afford some visibility, and he found…well, he wasn’t sure what he had found. The humans were still alive, somehow, and he was fairly certain that, yes, he was sure now, they had been joined by the Kwannese cultists.
Before his disbelieving eyes, some humans had cleared a patch of ground, and were beginning some sort of kicking game with an inflated ball alongside bemused looking Kwann. Others had set up in impromptu bands, and were playing for interested looking soldiers from the enemy army. Still more were simply milling around, offering the packages and treats they had carried with them along with friendly greetings to any enemy soldier who crossed their path.
“Ah, Polly, there you are!” Tartrax had stumbled across Sergeant Reid, who was reclined comfortably against the lip of a bomb crater, sharing a bottle of whisky with a dazed looking female Kwann cultist. Tartrax was sure his face shared the same expression of numb disbelief. “Come! Join me and my new friend, what was your name again? Oh, right, Korlat! Korlat, this is my squad mate Tartrax. Aren’t his feathers lovely? He’s single, you know.”
“Sergeant….” Tartrax said, flopping down heavily beside the pair, “how are you not dead? Why didn’t you kill the humans?” he asked the enemy Kwann.
“I don’t…I don’t know,” she began, “they just started coming out of the mist playing this weird music, it was like a dream. I don’t think we really knew it was real. It didn’t seem real. Nobody even thought to shoot, and then we just started climbing out to join them! I don’t know what’s going on!”
The female started crying and rocking back and forth, and Tartrax found himself in the surreal position of providing a comforting shoulder for the enemy soldier to lean on, and he even went so far as to instinctually begin preening her feathers with his beak. He couldn’t help but notice that beneath the grime and the too-large uniform, she was actually quite pretty.
“So, uh,” he asked Reid, “what happens now?”
“Well, that’s really up to you guys, isn’t it?” she said happily, taking another swig from her bottle. “We received word about a week ago that our hackers successfully hit the AI with a logic bomb and scrambled it ‘til kingdom come. It’s dead. So as far as we care, this war is over. This is your world though, so it’s your choice.”
“I…don’t want to fight anymore,” Korlat keened softly.
“No,” Tartrax was surprised at how sure he was, “neither do I.”
Sergeant Reid grinned enigmatically past the neck of her whisky bottle. “Merry Christmas,” she said.
This story was heavily influenced by the true events of the Christmas Truce of 1914 where, in the beginning months of World War I, many soldiers on both sides of the conflict spontaneously left their trenches on Christmas day and met up in no-man’s land to exchange gifts and well-wishes instead of bullets and bombs. Although sadly, unlike the happy ending in my story about, WWI continued to rage on and even escalate to previously unimagined levels of brutality for years afterwards, I always thought this event was a gratifying speck of humanity and compassion in an otherwise horrible conflict, and I always wanted to put my own Science Fiction spin on it.