Art by Melissa Mead
by Desmond Warzel
Another battle had been decided in humanity's favor; another system reclaimed from the Squids. Another tiny pseudopod now extruded outward from the amorphous boundary that marked where human territory left off and Squid territory began.
Similar victories had been coming with such speed and frequency that, for the first time in living memory, there were hopeful whispers of an end to the generations-long stalemate and a final victory for humanity.
From his quarters, Karns enjoyed an excellent view of the planet whose ownership had just been contested--whose name he did not know and would not trouble himself to learn--as well as the aftermath of the day's conflict. Dropships filled with human troops spiraled upward from the surface and returned to the waiting transport.
They were followed by a procession of bulbous Squid vessels. Preliminary reports indicated a total rout, suggesting that some of them might have carried just a single crewman, or even been operating under computer control.
Most of the Squid ships retreated hastily toward their own space; one remained behind, per the custom.
Karns rose and exited his quarters, headed for the hangar on the far side of the transport. It was time for him to go to work.
He hadn't dropped with the rest of the battalion. By custom, he was exempt from combat. Also by custom, anyone who complained about this exemption had to change places with him.
Barring this unlikely eventuality, he'd stay in his job until he cracked up or was transferred. His tenure was approaching a full year: a unit record.
His job had an official designation, but his fellows just called him the Cleaner.
Karns set the dropship down well behind the point of engagement, preferring to begin his work at the rear of the action. He blew the hatch and braced himself for the usual acrid odor of singed flesh, but it failed to materialize, overpowered by the sweet fragrance of the hot pink flowers that blanketed the otherwise-unremarkable battlefield from one horizon to the other.
That the Squids had made a stand in such wide-open country lent credence to the rumors of their desperation. Squids, being roughly man-shaped but with multiple prehensile limbs, preferred fighting in forested terrain, where their physiology conferred an advantage; they would have drawn the humans toward such a locale if they'd had half a chance. Here, on open ground, victory came through superior numbers. For the Squids, this had been a frantic last stand, a losing effort from the outset.
Karns climbed down from the hatch. He was at the base of a gently-sloping hill which was littered with human and Squid corpses. Here at the bottom, the bodies were few; they grew thicker as they approached the summit. All had been clean kills from beam weapons, instant deaths, mostly painless. Somewhere on the other side, where the two forces had clashed face to face, it would be a different story.
He started up the rise. Behind him, clouds of pink petals, dislodged by his passing, burst upward and settled gently back to the ground.
He set to work.
He made three piles: bodies here, functional weapons there, dogtags over there. The bodies would be burned, the guns inspected and put back into service, and the dogtags sent to the families. Each dogtag contained a miniscule tissue sample, placed inside when the soldier was inducted, to allow his survivors to perform a proper burial rather than a purely symbolic one.
The corpses of those few Squids who had advanced this far, he left alone. Once he had departed, they would be seen to in their own fashion.
It had always been that way. Karns had no idea how, or when, or at what bureaucratic level, this covenant between man and Squid had been made. He only knew that the Squids had great reverence for their dead, and that by some miracle of diplomacy they had secured the right to dispose of them as they saw fit. Win or lose.
By agreement, this privilege extended to their enemies as well. In this way, what had once been a luxury in interplanetary warfare--a dignified end for fallen troops--had now become routine. Win or lose.
As usual, interspersed throughout the sea of still faces were some familiar ones; men who had joined the unit at the same time as Karns. These were becoming fewer with each drop.
Here were Smitty, Cabrera, Mandel; Big Khan and Little Khan, who'd been joking for a year that they'd buy it on the same drop; Zero, named for a string of eight naughts in the middle of his serial number; Bishop, who'd earned his nickname after painting a regulation-sized chessboard on the chestplate of his body armor, for amusement during lulls in combat. (King had seemed too presumptuous; Pawn had struck too close to home.)
Karns could spare only a moment of reflection for each of them. He hoped, as always, that a proper memorial lay in each man's future. In the beginning, he'd written a letter whenever someone he knew bought it, for inclusion in the parcel along with the dogtag and the obligatory note of condolence from the Old Man. He had detailed each man's valiant actions against the enemy and put the most heroic face possible on his death. He'd had to abandon the practice when the campaign against the Squids had accelerated and his leisure time had shrunk accordingly.
When the last remaining body on this side of the rise had been heaved into place, Karns paused, wiped the sweat from his face, twisted violently at the waist in both directions, enjoying the satisfying crack of liberated vertebra. He broke out his canteen, drank, stood quietly. He isolated a single flower and nudged it with the toe of his boot. The petals fairly flew off in all directions, despite the tenderness of his imposition. A ten-legged insect came to rest on his forearm, plunged its proboscis into his skin, and, finding nothing to its taste, promptly departed.
A breeze crested the top of the rise and descended on Karns as he savored his last mouthful of water. This close to the front line, the wind was tinged with the unmistakable scent of battle and the flowers no longer served to mask it. Also borne on the breeze were the first hints of certain all-too-familiar sounds. Karns began whistling as he secured his empty canteen. The improvised melody was inexpertly composed and had no force in such a wide open area, but it filled Karns's ears nicely, and that suited him.
In a very few moments, whistling wouldn't be enough.
On the other side of the rise was where it had come to a head. Karns surveyed the landscape.
At the far end, a sea of dead Squids, some whole, some whose spilled entrails lay deliquescing in the afternoon sun. Beyond them, almost at the horizon, a wide, low wall of desiccated Squid carcasses, a makeshift fortification for their last stand before surrendering the planet. On the near side, a smattering of human bodies, unmarked except for the blackened patches where enemy fire had caught each of them. Further on, many more human bodies in various states of dismemberment and separation, some bisected neatly at the waist, others symmetrically from crotch to cranium, still others in three or more pieces. Scattered throughout, the occasional severed arm or leg, now orphaned from its prior owner.
And almost no blood.