The dirt here was soft. Was a time, a human had never set foot on grass outside of a dome. Now I let the shovel do it’s work, turning that perfect green surface into another hole to swallow one of my friends.
He watched, said nothing, just waited.
I dragged Joey to his final rest. He was lighter than the others, the hole ending where legs would begin. I’d collected what I could. He just smiled up at me with those kid eyes and I let the dirt fall until I didn’t have to look at him anymore.
“I love manual labour,” I said, and he watched, said nothing, just waited.
Schaefer was a big man, needed a big hole, and I let the shovel dig deep into the next patch of grass. The suns were hot but the light was better than the fires the darkness showed in the distance.
“My pa always said, an honest days work will tell you more about a man than a piece of paper. Your father ever tell you that?” He watched, I waited. “No, I bet you guys don’t even have dads. Bet you eat them when they hatch you from those eggs.”
He growled, but said nothing.
“Now Schaefer here,” I said, letting the shovel touch the boot of the man I’d served with, “he was a dad. A damn good one too. He’s got two little girls and they’re gonna grow up hating on you because you took their daddy away. But that don’t matter to you.”
I dug harder, letting the spill grow until I could stand up to my thighs in the depression. Deep enough to keep things from digging in the night.
Schaefer lay waiting. His blood had dribbled out where the auto-tourniquets sewn into the battle suit had failed and now it pooled like crimson stripes on his uniform. I reached down, took one of his tags, and plucked a holosnap from his pocket.
“You ever seen a human child? Alive I mean, before you’ve burnt them to a crisp.” He knew better than to say anything. “That’s Mrs Schaefer, and that there is little Monica and her baby sister Emilia.”
He turned away and I picked up the shovel and I smashed at him until he turned his head back to look at the photo. His blood was green, same colour as the bigger of the two suns, and he wiped at it with a hand still bound to his other.
“I want you to say sorry to these girls.”
“Cha nit ooman.”
“Now, I ain’t much of a linguist, but that does not sound like ‘I am sorry Monica and Emilia for letting your daddy die because I was too stupid to surrender’.”
“You know English. I know you know English.”
I let the blade of the shovel rest against the open tops of his sandals, just enough of my weight on it to make the point. He watched, looked at the holo, the thin photo laughing with joy, and hung his head.
“I am sorry to the children of your friend.”
“See, honesty. Feels good.”
I placed Schaefer in his grave and let my muscles unkink themselves as the dirt poured over him. Whole squad, lined up in a neat row, some under, some waiting.
“Dig,” I said, holding out the handle of the shovel.
He looked at me, with as much fear as I could read on that alien face. There was no hope there though. That was long gone.
He took the shovel and he let it bite into the ground.
“The Herc’, that big ship we came in that scared your itty-bitty fleet away, has gyms but they’re nothing to working down a well. Navy pukes’ll tell you it’s all the same. But any man who spends his life living in a tin can, with just an inch of hull between him and oblivion, is not to be trusted.
“They have these bands on the weights in there. You pull and they stretch and the computer says congratulations, you just pulled fifty kilos on a two-gee world. But it’s not real. You know what gives it away?”
He took a break from the digging to shake his head and already I saw the muscles in his arms were tired. They weren’t built for combat like us. Every species his kind had come across was some pissant upstart who’s technology began with the wheel and ended with a club. You rain fire down on a people, they’ll believe you’re a god.
Until one day you kicked over a rock and the bugs looked up and say, you ain’t no god.
“The sweat. You sweat?” I asked.
He shook his head again. I motioned to the hole and he resumed his digging without argument.
“Humans, we sweat. Part of how we lose heat. Made us real good hunters back in the savannah. In space though, the sweat doesn’t drip down your face, it spreads out like some film until it covers every inch of your skin. You have to keep on wiping it away before it covers your eyes or creeps up your nose.
“Nah, that ain’t real work. Dabbing your face with a fucking towel while some computer tells you you’re doing great.”
He finished, the dirt so soft even an old lady could churn through it, and he sat back, against the edge.
“Water, please,” he asked.
A squad of eight. Rations for eight. Enough cells to pull water from the air for a month. And the invaders hadn’t even planned on staying around long enough to need rations of their own. They figured this was just another world to pick clean and move on because what threat could a little colony be.
“Another hole first.”
“No,” he said and there was a note of desperation, audible even beneath the anger and the frustration. “Water, please.”
“Let’s ask Wai,” I said, walking around the neat row of bodies to the next comrade in line. “Say Wai, have you got any water for the alien? What’s that?” I looked at the desperate creature in his hole. “I’m sorry, he can’t answer you on account of his face is missing. But don’t worry, Mercer might have some. I know it’ll be in the ash pile somewhere.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He buried his head against the grass that overhung the lip of the hole. His fists, still bound together, beat at the grass in time to his words. Over and over. Finally, eventually, he exhausted himself and fell back against the opposite wall. The skin had shifted, the heat of anger long since gone, just like the midday heat.
Now he was a dead man in a grave of his own digging.
“You’re sorry.” I said the words. Not a question. Not even a statement. Just a little joke between myself and the dead.
“What have you got to be sorry for?”
He tried to answer. The clicks catching in his throat and so all he could do was point at the mounds of dirt. He let his hands fall to his chest.
“Another hole. Then water.”
He worked. A desperation borne of hope that he could live another few minutes. That was what happened with these gods from the sky. Raise the people up, make them worship you, instil hope. Give them all hope life could be better. And if they got too rowdy, if they resisted or questioned, burn the savages to the ground.
Now he understood what that straw-like hope felt like and I watched him work towards it because it was the only damn thing left on this planet.
When he finished, he set the shovel down with trembling hands and turned to look up at me. A gulf of stars between us and still the emotion was plain to read across his face.
I tossed the small canister of water to him and watched him drink the liquid within with the same force they’d gone to war against the colonists who settled here. Not a drop was spared when he was done. He set the canister down on the grass. His eyes looked to the shovel.
“You ever seen one of these up close?”
The pistol was designed for a battle suit, the metal running along the grip ready to transmit all the data the wearer needed. Arm, hand, weapon, barrel. They were one. Point and shoot and watch something die.
He watched, said nothing, just waited.
“Make a hell of a mess.”
I ejected the clip, pushed the rounds out so they fell in a fountain into the grave. One left. I caught it. The little nubbin, the last chance. Clip back in, I pulled the slide back, let the round find it’s home in the chamber. And he watched the whole time.
“I’m not gonna kill you.”
I tossed him the pistol and he caught it. It was monstrous in his hands, so oversized he fumbled to get a grip on it, holding it in both bound hands. He raised it, thought better and let its sights fall to the dirt between his feet.
“Why?” he asked, still staring at the ground.
“Oh my people are a long way away, but they’ll come. Your folks? After an ass-kicking like this I doubt they’re in any rush to come back. Which means, you’re gonna face a human firing squad for war crimes.”
“Innocent?” I had to stop myself from snatching the shovel and cracking his skull.
“No.” He paused. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry don’t cut it. Sorry doesn’t mean Schaefer gets to go back to his little girls.”
“I was just following orders.”
“Yeah, we had the same defence back on Earth. Before we got wise, before we decided it was better to ship out in all those tin cans to find new air than kill each other for what little we had left. It didn’t cut the mustard back then, and it still don’t now.”
“Cut the mustard?”
“You did what you did, you did it knowing exactly what you were doing. Maybe you can live with that. But if you can’t.”
He looked down at the pistol and realised the final truth. Standing in his grave, he held his own future in his hands, bound to it just as tightly as his wrists were to each other. I watched the realisation dawn across his face.
When he collapsed to his knees, I watched him.
And when he put the barrel of the gun to his temple, I said nothing.
And when he pulled the trigger, I waited.
He had fallen back into a sobbing heap when I dropped to the side of the pit. He’d let the gun fall to the ground, his legs curled as far away as possible from it, and I picked it up. The round was still in the chamber, still in condition zero, but until the grip met a battle suit it would refuse to fire. He could have pulled the trigger all damn day to no effect.
“Make it end,” he said.
“I’ve done what you asked. I have said everything I can. Nothing I can do will change what has happened.”
I grabbed the shovel and began on the next hole and the one after that.
Eventually he rose and silently took over when my arms began to ache and we placed the bodies of my brothers in their graves together.
“When they come, they’ll take you,” I said and he hung his head. “Will you fight them?”
“And when they ask what you have done?”
“I will tell them the truth. All of it.”
“And when they ask what you will do?”
He looked up at me. An alien who fought for a race that didn’t know who they were up against. His whole life, exercising someone else’s will, and now he had to make a choice for himself.
“Anything. To make it right.”
I took his hands and I unbound them because there was nowhere for him to run to now. We sat, drinking water, and thinking over all the actions that had led both us to this moment.
And we watched the suns go down on this world.
And we said nothing because everything had been said.
And we waited to see what tomorrow would bring.