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Art by Melissa Mead

Epinikion

Desmond Warzel is the author of some two dozen short stories in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. They can be found in a variety of periodicals, including Redstone Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, and Shroud. In his spare time, he roots for the Cleveland Indians or engages in other, equally futile, pursuits. He lives in northwestern Pennsylvania.
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.
This was the consequence of the Squids' terrifying natural weaponry. Their upper tentacles, though appearing smooth as a catfish's underbelly, were actually covered in microscopic razor-like structures. Thousands of these, acting in concert, had the cutting power of a chainsaw, allowing a Squid to slice completely through any enemy in its grasp. Furthermore, a Squid, when agitated, secreted a viscous fluid that coated its entire body below the head. Its benefit to the Squids was unknown, but in humans it acted as a combination paralytic, cauterizing agent, and coagulant, meaning that a human cut in two by a Squid did not bleed, and often survived longer than he otherwise would have. Sometimes hours longer.
Neither was the Squids' fault, of course. Their deadly tentacles were simply an evolutionary gift from their beastly forebears, their secretions' effect on humans merely an accident of biology. Nevertheless, they made an already-gruesome species seem even more monstrous, and helped to fuel the perennial human-Squid enmity.
For Karns, there was nothing for it but to wade in and get to work: bodies, weapons, dogtags, again each in its own pile. Here, at the front line, the discontinuous nature of the bodies made handling them a more complicated issue. This, Karns didn't mind; were this the worst part of the job, he might even have found an iota of dark humor in the situation. Instead, the worst part of the job was knowing that the next body, or partial body, he turned over might be staring back at him with wide, beseeching eyes, silently begging him for a quick death.
This Karns was forced to accept as an inevitability, not only because it was the natural result of close combat with Squids, but because of the muffled screams, prayers, and entreaties that emanated from the battlefield. Most were in English, but some of the fallen had reverted in their delirium to the various languages of their youth.
In these close quarters, the lamentations of the dying were too loud to be drowned out by whistling. Karns paused, took a long moment to gather his thoughts, and began, as he always did, to sing. By tradition, their unit was Anglo-American in culture; he sang the songs they had all learned in basic.
"...Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on...."
And here were Perez, the Latin, and Peres, the Semite, who had joked about coming from the same fecund but orthographically imprecise family.
"...It's a long way to Tipperary; it's a long way to go; It's a long way to Tipperary, to the sweetest girl I know...."
And here was Andreescu, whose predilection for reading during his leisure hours had, in the tradition of infantries everywhere, earned him the designation of Professor.
Before he had become Cleaner, Karns had been Professor.
"...So prepare, say a prayer; send the word, send the word to beware; we'll be over, we're coming over, and we won't come back till it's over, over there...."
And here the second shoe finally dropped, as a man whom Karns didn't know well but whose name, he thought, was Cage, or Cahill, or Cayman, still drew shallow, agonized breaths despite being cut nearly in half. His eyes blazed with mad pain, but softened when he saw that it was Karns who disturbed him.
In a single motion, Karns drew his sidearm and dispatched the man with the briefest of beams, just between the eyes. His singing did not falter, nor did his gaze waver from that of the fallen soldier until the deed was done.
Into its assigned pile went the dogtag (not Cage, Cahill, or Cayman, after all, but Weinreb), the weapon, the body.
"...From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country's battles in the air, on land, and sea...."
And so it went, always: the methodical business of sorting, punctuated by the occasional death at Karns's merciful hands. And, always, the singing to drown it all out.
"...Old John Brown's body is moldering in the grave, while weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save, but though he lost his life while struggling for the slave, his soul is marching on...."
His radio had gone off three times when, pausing for breath, he finally heard its shrill chirp.
"Go ahead." His voice cracked, no longer accustomed to ordinary conversational speech.
"Cleaner, this is Meddows in Command. Your counterpart's making an early descent. Cites impending mechanical difficulty as reason for the hurry-up. We were about to open fire, but the Old Man said to check with you."
"Let it come." The Squids' adherence to treaty stipulations bordered on immaculate, and Karns knew his counterpart would sooner die than impede him at his duties. Much worse to unleash an unprovoked attack on a lone Squid after the battle had already been won.
"Roger that. How's it going down there?"
"Nominal." He slipped the radio back into its pouch. Meddows was new. He would take some heat from his fellows in Command. Asking a Cleaner to discuss his work was ill-mannered; so much so that, on some vessels, it was considered plain bad luck.
The descent of the Squid vessel was marked first by a perturbation of the atmosphere that set Karns's hair on end. The disturbance increased in frequency until it became audible to the human ear, and by the time the ship was visible in the sky, it even overpowered his singing.
Its landing was gentle, though its exhaust kicked up uncountable numbers of the endless pink flower petals, which floated back down in their own good time.
The Squid debarked. They regarded one another for a long moment, Karns hip-deep in bodies, his opposite number framed in the oblong hatchway of its vessel. This was Karns's first encounter with a living Squid since he'd been pulled from combat duty.
The Squid had committed a slight breach of protocol in coming down early. If it had been some sort of trick, the attack would come now, though why he should be the target of such a ruse, Karns had no idea.
Eventually the Squid raised an appendage, as if in tentative greeting, Karns returned the gesture, and they went about their respective business.
Karns had never witnessed first-hand the Squid analogue of his own duties, and so could not resist watching from the corner of his eye. The Squid waded right into the thick of things, selected one of its fallen comrades--whether at random or by means of some obscure pattern, Karns couldn't tell--and made a series of intricate gestures with several of its free appendages. After these ministrations, the Squid activated a weapon--or so it seemed to Karns, whose hand drifted toward his sidearm--and discharged it at the body, which vanished in a flash of pale light and left nothing behind but a puff of dust which was carried away on a convenient breeze, mingling with the pink petals.
Now, that was something.
On those prior occasions when the Squids had gotten the best of Karn's unit--when, by treaty, it had been Karns who'd gone down second--the Squid carcasses had always been gone. He'd thought maybe they'd been discreetly buried, or loaded up and carted offworld. He'd been wrong.
The Squids would have to be crazy not to deploy such a weapon in combat, and yet there had been no reports of any such instance.
"...Keep the home fires burning, while your hearts are yearning; though your lads are far away, they dream of home...."
Perhaps the disintegrator--for lack of a proper term--consumed too much energy for combat duty, or was ineffective beyond point blank range, or suffered from some other invisible handicap. Perhaps they were holding the weapon back for a final, desperate, all-out assault and wished to avoid its inadvertently falling into human hands before then.
Or perhaps the Squids' reverence for the body prohibited them from disintegrating an enemy and thus preventing its being properly shriven.
Karns's speculations were interrupted by the screams issuing from the fallen trooper at his feet. He was still a whole man, but several crisscrossing incisions across the midsection from treacherous Squid tentacles had rearranged his organs into an unrecognizable jumble.
It was a testament to the efficacy of Karns's singing that he hadn't heard a sound from the man until he'd been almost on top of him. But there was no mistaking his agony now.
As he discharged his weapon, he chanced to look up and see the Squid, which had momentarily suspended its activities and stood watching him. Karns met its gaze and threw his arms wide, as if to invite comment. The Squid remained still and silent; its face revealed nothing, but then again, a Squid's eyes were flat black pools, its mouth a mechanistic array of mandibles, so that facial expressions, as humans understand them, were beyond it.
Could Squids even talk? To Karns's recollection, he had never heard one utter so much as a syllable, even in combat. Then again, the Squid's gesticulations over its dead had seemed to carry meaning, so perhaps they communicated exclusively by means of their appendages. He would have to research the matter. Somebody would know.
"...When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah, we'll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah, Hurrah; the men will cheer and the boys will shout, the ladies, they will all turn out...."
Mercifully, Karns finished the balance of his sorting without encountering another living soul among the fallen. His singing trailed off, his voice now strained almost beyond use. He would do his best to rest it, but the span between engagements had lately been growing shorter.
The Squid had remained still and observant throughout. As if sensing that the show was over, it resumed its task, first making the gestures, then applying the disintegrator to give over its comrade's constituent particles to the winds.
Karns unpacked his flamethrower and commenced its assembly.
Burning had been the approved disposal method ever since the arrangement with the Squids, and likely before. Burial was too consumptive of man-hours, even on the rare occasions when terrain or climate didn't prohibit it outright. The other option--leaving the fallen where they lay, to fatten the local scavengers--didn't sit well with many. Consignment to the flame, besides being acceptable (or at least tolerable) to most cultures, carried great historical weight as an appropriate end for a warrior. This, then, was the least objectionable method.
Especially for those who didn't have to look at what remained afterward.
Karns had just connected the flamethrower's fuel supply, and was poised to commence the final phase of his duty, when the first notes came.
The quality of the tones suggested a flute. Perhaps not purely so--Karns was not a sophisticate when it came to music--perhaps it was blended with other woodwinds, perhaps with some potential instrument never realized. But definitely a flute. Definitely the precise shaping and moderation of a column of moving air.
Definitely originating from the only other thinking being on the planet.
Karns didn't recognize the notes. Mozart wouldn't have recognized the notes. Yet there was no question of their proper arrangement and deployment; the Squid's song was perfection itself. These were the notes that might have been, and they slipped neatly in between the more familiar pitches comprised by human scales. In much the same way, they filled certain empty places within Karns himself.
Karns listened in awe, the flamethrower dangling forgotten by his side. The song seemed to buoy him upward, cleansing him from within, his private agonies falling away to be absorbed by the ground beneath him--all but the tiny shred of shame he felt at having polluted the battlefield with his crude bellowings. This was the music a dying soul should hear, this wordless, wistful song of life and death, of green oceans and endless gnarled forests, of crystalline deserts beneath skies too wide to comprehend.
An insistent prodding at his left side finally woke Karns, who found himself lying supine in the soft grass, almost completely covered by a shroud of pink petals. He sat up and brushed himself, only gradually noticing the Squid standing next to him.
By the time he'd somersaulted to his feet, his sidearm was out and aimed between the Squid's wide, black eyes.
It just stood there.
Sheepishly, Karns holstered the weapon. The Squid held aloft its disintegrator, and with a free tentacle indicated the piles of human bodies that made a meandering path back to his ship. All the Squid corpses were gone. How long had he been resting?
Karns nodded at the Squid. "Yeah." The word felt strange in his mouth.
The Squids traipsed off, resuming its song, this time subtly, almost inaudibly. It trained its tool on the first pile, and in a few seconds, the fallen were inextricably committed to their planet of final repose.
It was as sensible as anything else, and it wasn't as though he'd been relishing using the flamethrower.
As he bent to gather up the nearest stack of weapons, his radio went off.
"Cleaner? Meddows again. Garrison forces have arrived, and they're champing at the bit." The occupying troops wouldn't land while Karns was still here. Bad luck. "The Old Man wants to know what the holdup is."
"No holdup. On my way."
While Karns gathered together all the weapons and dogtags and stowed them aboard his ship, the Squid made short work of the bodies. By the time it had finished, a latecomer would have been hard-pressed to identify this place as a battlefield.
Their labors discharged, Squid and human regarded one another. Karns was overcome by the need to say something, but what, and to what end?
Finally, the Squid inclined its head in a subtle nod, turned, and strode away. Karns watched it until it disappeared back over the hill, hoping it would resume its song.
And so it did, but only a single tantalizing, excruciating note made its way back to Karns before it was obliterated by the vibrations of the Squid vessel's engines.
The alien craft emerged from behind the hill and receded into the sky, shrinking to a point and vanishing. The sounds of its departure lingered momentarily, though there was a small hiccup in the frequency of the vibrations that hadn't been there before--the Squid's "impending mechanical difficulty," now made manifest.
I hope it makes it.
With Karns's departure, the planet was momentarily pristine, devoid of sentient life. They usually were. No colonist, human or Squid, would settle on a world that might fall into enemy hands at any time.
He reached orbit and made for his transport. Behind him, an uncountable swarm of newly-arrived troopships descended on the planet. Humanity meant to hold on to its newly-won prize.
He searched the crowded sky for the Squid vessel, but it was already beyond his detection.
He piloted his dropship into the hangar with a casual precision born of experience. As he prepared to debark, he paused, whistled a makeshift scale, as if hoping to reproduce by chance one of the Squid's sublime notes. He had no such luck.
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.
Karns performed his duties with exemplary efficiency: dogtags collected, weapons scavenged, agonies ended, bodies stacked and burnt. When all was squared away, he took out his radio.
"Cleaner calling Command."
"This is Bokassa in Command. Go ahead, Cleaner."
"Command, slight delay in my return; minor mechanical difficulties. Contact my counterpart and tell it to proceed."
"You're sure?"
"It's fine."
"Roger that, Cleaner."
Karns stowed the radio. He sought out an inviting spot in the rocky terrain, upwind of the smoldering bodies of his fellows, and seated himself on the ground. He lay back and watched the sky, waiting, and hoping.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 4th, 2011


The word epinikion is translated as "victory song." Even the most lopsided of victories carries with it various unpleasant ancillary tasks--often ignored or glossed over in fiction--and I have no doubt that, in ancient (and perhaps not-so-ancient) times, some poor soul drew the short straw and was tasked with ending the suffering of his fallen countrymen. Our protagonist's method of coping with his job changes the title into a nice little pun. As for the songs themselves, they give this variegated group a common culture (Anglo-American, in this case), which I believe has been instilled in them from their first day of enlistment. I can easily imagine other vessels maintaining, say, Mexican or Japanese traditions; perhaps these distinctions stem from a time before humanity was united against their collective foe, and persist even now, generations later.

- Desmond Warzel

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