In July of 2169 our silvery saucers made landfall on H'shbri, an impoverished desert planet about the size of Earth. My experience with dispensing medicine in poorer regions back home earned me free passage, which I gladly accepted, as I couldn't otherwise afford to vacation off-world. The overarching purpose of the mission was to defeat the tyrannical government of the grays, a short, sexless people with large black eyes. That government had already been deposed by the time I arrived with the second wave, but pockets of resistance remained, or so I was told. The war for liberation quickly became a mop up operation against hostiles who were able to blend into the general population. I shared a tent at the dispensary compound with a local called N'mene, a name I could hardly pronounce. My companion gray was fluent in English and would translate for me. "My people are grateful for your medical aid," N'mene told me the first day. "It is good you are here." That night the local free market, set up with the help of military specialists from Earth, was ransacked by an angry mob. Incredibly, foodstuffs were burned and dumped onto the sand by chronically underfed grays. Two humans were critically injured and had to be life-flighted off of the planet. "Why did they do that?" I asked N'mene the next day. "It's senseless." "Some of the materials there," said my alien coworker. "Were offensive to the way of H'sh." "Your leader," I said. "The one we exiled to spare you from torture and genocide, was also a believer in H'sh, right?" "It is so." N'mene assented. I wanted to say more, but the asexual parent of a gray child brought its offspring to our tent for treatment just then. The care and tenderness the adult showed for the little one astonished me. I'd been told that the grays had descended into a brutal and barbaric lifestyle. Stories of locals devouring their offspring were passed around Army campfires with bottles of imported whiskey. The grays did not consume or produce alcohol. "Fever," I said , having measured the child's temperature with a digital thermometer. I gave the parent a bottle of children's aspirin and recommended bed rest. The two left with a nodding of heads. "It is good you are here," said N'mene. Two weeks later a couple of grays walked up to a group of our soldiers and blew themselves up with homemade explosives. Five humans were killed in the attack, which occurred in a small town just fifteen kilometers from my camp. That village had been the first to receive a fuel cell generator for electricity. "I don't get it," I said to N'mene. "You used to have engineering, mathematics and even space travel. What happened to you people?" "It is the way of H'sh," said N'mene. "It is forbidden to live deliciously." "But that's a primitive superstition," I said. It was the first time I had seen an emotional expression on the face of a gray. N'mene's small lipless mouth curled in a display of anger. "Your statement offends me. It is not honorable to ridicule the beliefs of another." In August I ventured out to the market place hoping to catch some local flavor. I didn't tell N'mene as I wanted to go alone. Though most of the buildings on H'shbri were made of stone, the market stalls had been constructed from the brittle lumber of oasis trees. I was looking at some dried fruits that resembled dates when a gang of juvenile grays surrounded me. They began to taunt me in their halting tongue, and they shoved me, pushing me toward an alley. Their aggression alarmed me, and I feared for my life. "Stop," someone called out behind me, and I turned to find N'mene standing in the alley. The youths deferred to their elder and dispersed, melting into the idle groups of grays clustered around the stalls. N'mene told me that it had seemed prudent to tail me, just in case. "It is good you are here," I said. N'mene chuckled with the throaty clucking that is the gray equivalent of laughter, and for a moment I thought that everything was changing for the better. But the terrorist attacks against humans continued throughout the summer. Eventually the people back home tired of sending troops and resources to a distant planet with an indecipherable culture. A worldwide web vote was held, and the majority favored ending the occupation, so the ships were called home. I saw N'mene a few hours before I boarded my saucer. We talked about the provisional government the army had set up for H'shbri. The new leader, a gray named A'nin, had a colorful nickname: Butcher of the Dunes, I think it was. "I'm sorry we have to leave you like this," I said. "Do not sorrow for us," said N'mene. "We are not well met with pity." As our star craft lifted away from H'shbri, I watched the planet shrink until it was like a grain of sand in the velvet black of space. Behind me two soldiers exchanged cell calling numbers in low, intimate conversation. In one hard summer they had formed a bond that would never be forgotten, no matter the time or distance that fell between them.
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