Trent Hergenrader is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Black Static, and other fine places. His stories have received honorable mentions in both The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. He is also a graduate of the 2004 Clarion Writers Workshop. He lives in Madison, WI.
Hergenrader was inspired to write the story after reading news about the occupation of Baghdad, when U.S. soldiers were faced with waves of attacks by insurgents. “I found the scenario distressing because it was (and is) an impossible situation for our both our troops and the Iraqi citizens who want an end to the fighting,” Hergenrader said. “As a solider in an occupied territory, you are always a target, so how can you reconcile any desire to show the local civilians that you’re not a monster when you’re constantly under threat of attack?”
I walked the perimeter of the firestorm, watching the pale strands of grass curl and blacken, stamping out flare ups even though this alien grass didn’t burn well. You’d never have known it by looking around. I could clearly see where each of the three firebombs detonated, blackening the sandy earth and obliterating all traces of life. Firebombs are synergistically engineered, so a burst of three in a tight circle created a maelstrom of pure fire. In a matter of seconds, an area a few hundred meters across becomes a solid wall of flame, incinerating anything within the perimeter. The superheated fire burns out after a just a few seconds because it consumes all the available fuel in a snap, leaving nothing but a blackened ring of devastation. Firestorms are scary as hell even when you know they’re coming and, believe me, it makes quite an impression on the locals.
The dozen or so seditionists lay scattered like shells on the beach, their armor too weak to repel the flames. One minute they were crouched in the grass executing an ambush, the next they’re drowning in a sea of fire. They never had a chance, given the technological superiority of our weaponry, but they’d chosen to prolong hostilities, viewing us as enemies rather than visitors. Normally, resisters understand the score quickly and learn to work with the Confederation, no matter how much it may sting their pride. But this was a religious faction according to our local guide, Adriassi, and they were courting annihilation.
As our squad’s Xenologist, I submitted daily activity reports back to Confed Command. If the Confed decided to build a refueling hub here, which seemed more likely with each passing week, they wouldn’t tolerate any uprisings. Instead of a sixteen-soldier exploratory squad, they’d send a battalion of troops to wipe out any perceived threats. Adriassi said he’d passed this message to liaisons for the seditionists, but these pointless ambushes continued during our geologic surveys, and they all ended exactly the same way—with a smoldering black spot in the grass.
“Look sharp, Kiernan,” Rauder said over the com. “There could be more hostiles under cover.” She shouldered her rifle and scanned the field of tall white grass. On the far side of the burned out expanse, Marsten and Finnel squatted near a charred hunk of metal that was all that remained of an armored seditionist. As Marsten rolled the body over, a charred arm broke off in his hand. I looked away.
Regulations require us to inspect fallen combatants for technological components that may have survived the firestorm. Here we weren’t likely to find anything; aggregated Confed data suggested this planet’s tech was a generation-and-a-half behind our own. They were on the verge of some major breakthroughs, like interstellar travel, but they weren’t quite there yet. That put the Confed in a perfect bargaining position, since it meant we could trade technology for some friendly real estate on the planet, which the Confed had designated ES-248QRT4T.
As ES-248QRT4T’s primary Xeno, I’m charged with coming up with a suitable name for the place. Some Xenos simply stick with trite standbys with an alphanumeric code tacked on, but there have to be two or three hundred planets with names like “Poseidon XG34T” or, worse, the ones obviously named after girlfriends, kids, or pets. Unlike many of my colleagues, I wanted to distinguish between planets with proper names, even if finding a unique name proved to be difficult. Our translators usually rendered the local names for home planets with words as unpronounceable as the administrative codes, and with the Confed branching out to hundreds of new planets each year, it took time to find a suitable moniker for each new planet.
I approached the body of one of the dead seditionists who had made a run for it just as the firestorm touched down. His momentum had carried him into the grass, and tendrils of black smoke curled up from the scorched husk of his armor. As a Xeno, I’m not required to do survey work with my fireteam, but I couldn’t abide being that kind of soldier. I had no intention of ducking any military responsibility. Of course, that’s easier said than done when you’re about to inspect corpses that have been burned alive inside suits of armor.
I set my rifle down and gripped the seditionist’s ankles when I heard a panting noise and froze. I looked up to see a wild-eyed, robed figure crouched at the head of the body, his hands inside the helmet’s shattered faceplate. Startled, I stumbled backwards with a shout. In immediate response, there was squawking over the com, a jumble of voices, and a burst of rifle fire. With a small cry, the robed man collapsed back into grass with a rustle.
Rauder sprinted to my side. “Kiernan, what was that? Are you all right?” she said, her voice tinged more with irritation than concern for the hapless Xeno.
“I didn’t see him at first, he was hidden in the grass,” I said catching my breath. “He was standing over the body.”
“Was he armed?” Rauder asked. She still held her rifle at the ready, waiting for the slightest movement in the grass. My viewscreen showed Marsten and Finnel approaching from behind at a run, but no combatants in the field.
“No,” I said regaining my feet. “He wasn’t even wearing any armor.”
Marsten pulled the armored body into the clearing as I lifted the robed man from the grass, whose chest had been caved in by Rauder’s shot, and laid him out beside the seditionist. His dead eyes still had a frantic look to them, and the glossy sheen of his flesh had already begun to fade. I drew his lids shut, then noticed something peculiar. His hair had been shaved into a triangle, one point at his forehead, the other two over his ears. We’d seen plenty of locals on the planet, but none who had fashioned their fine white hair like this.
“What do you make of it?” Finnel said.
“Who cares?” Rauder replied, then asked me, “Who you calling, Kiernan?”
“Adriassi, of course,” I said under my breath, ignoring her exasperated sigh. Invariably, Rauder never liked the cultural contacts I appointed, finding them all to be simpering, fawning twits, and I was sure she felt Adriassi fit that description perfectly. She refused to accept that a Xeno needed someone reliable to help decipher the bewildering maze of local customs for his daily reports. Most contacts, as in Adriassi’s case, turned out to be friendly, intelligent, and helpful. What was more startling than the surface differences between cultures were our basic similarities; it never ceased to amaze me how much humanoid species resembled one another, both in appearance and characteristics. If it hadn’t been for their waxy complexion and long, droopy earlobes, Adriassi’s kind could almost have passed for one of us.
“Kiernan here,” I said as the connection opened. “We encountered something strange. Adriassi, can you help?” I said, remembering the seemingly random rule of local etiquette: during telecommunication conversations one should start each question with a person’s proper name as a sign of respect. I initiated a visual pathway between our armors’ viewscreens, so he could see what I was looking at. He blanched the moment the image of the robed man became clear on his screen, and ran a nervous hand over his bald head.
“Adriassi, who is this?” I continued. “Why does he dress this way, and cut his hair so? I found him near the body of a terminated seditionist.” I turned the corpse’s head down to give Adriassi a good look at the pattern on his skull.
Adriassi stroked his earlobes as he spoke. “He’s a priest,” Adriassi said, “Conducting rituals for the deceased.”
I watched his lips move and there was a lag before his voice came through the com, meaning our translation device was struggling to find cognates between our languages. “Adriassi, what kind of rituals?”
“It’s complicated,” he answered. “As we have discussed, the seditionists have strict beliefs. They think the soul can be trapped in the body after death and left to rot if not properly freed. They believe souls leave through the mouth, so the priest conducts a mouth-opening ceremony freeing the souls to rise to heaven.”
The lag between his moving mouth and the translation was severe enough to be disorienting, so I shut down the visuals as he spoke. I relayed the information to the rest of the team.
Rauder snorted, then patched into the conversation. “Is that so? Check this out,” she said. Adriassi’s face soured, insulted either by her intrusion or her failure to address him properly. She opened her own visual pathway with Adriassi as she lifted the priest’s body and ripped off the wide hood of his robe.
“Rauder,” Marsten said, sounding tired. “Knock it off.”
“Just doing a little soul catching for Fireteam Bravo,” she said as she dragged the corpse of the armored seditionist away from the group a few paces, then thrust the hood inside its helmet and made as if she were capturing the dead seditionist’s soul inside. Then she twisted the hood shut like it was a sack and held it over her head, waving it at the grassland.