They were relieved to see New Delphi still standing, but it was different than what they left a year earlier. Blocks were demolished and fewer people traversed the streets. Some parts remained untouched, havens in the war-scape. The entire planet experienced this devastation, Jayson realized. It will never be the same. But maybe, with our clean and decisive victory, it will get better. The war had torn the city apart, but already the resilient citizens were putting it back together.
The two veterans maneuvered through the city, passing pedestrians with weary looks on their faces and recently returned soldiers. A man wheeled past them in a charge missing both of his legs.
They walked through a rundown district that had been bombed my mortars. No one was untouched by the war, it seemed. The destruction was complete.
Subconsciously Jayson maneuvered down a back alley and across a thoroughfare to West Market. His family lived on Forty-Third Street. Or at least they used to. He didn’t realize that was where his feet were taking him until he reached the junction.
Jayson hesitated. His family might still be there—some of them, at least—and if they were alive they deserved to hear from him. Hear that he was okay. But he didn’t know if he should go on; if he could go on.
They stood in silence. Dirk tried to be patient, but finally spoke up: “What are we waiting for?”
Jayson wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t force his legs to move any further in that direction. “Just waiting.” He turned to Dirk. “Want a drink?”
“Hell yeah,” Dirk replied, perking up. “I was planning to check on my dad, but that can wait.”
They walked the other direction until they came across a pub. The DDHW, though no signage explained the acronym. It was dark and busy inside, but the patrons all ceased talking as they came in. Dozens of eyes faced their way.
Not surprising, since they were still wearing battle armor and carrying rifles. Only in a war torn city can carrying a rifle into a bar during the middle of the day be construed as acceptable behavior, Jayson knew.
They waited in the doorway, accepting the stares and letting the patrons make the first move. “Heroes of war,” the bartender said finally. The tense atmosphere vanished. “Drinks are on the house.”
Dirk blushed as they sat down and ordered. They were patted on the back dozens of times before the room returned to normal. They sat in silence, watching the room and enjoying the ambience. Everyone fell back into their quiet conversations, the soldiers forgotten about.
The journey to New Delphi had taken the pair four lonely weeks. The rest of the army broke camp weeks earlier, but Jayson was an advance scout deep in Irdesh territory. Dirk was a prisoner of war. A kid near starvation. When Jayson broke into an Irdesh base and found him locked in a cage he had decided Dirk was worth saving.
Now everyone back home was in the process of trying to pick up the pieces. Find their loved ones and their homes and move on. But not everyone had somewhere to go back to...
“Want to talk about it?” Dirk asked.
“What?” Jayson asked, distracted.
“Something is bothering you. If you get it off your chest, you’ll feel better.”
“I’m willing to listen,” Dirk offered.
“Drop it,” Jayson replied, harsher than intended. Dirk was hurt. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Dirk said, looking at his watch. “I have to go. I need to see my parents. They probably think I’m dead.”
“That’s fine. Go see them.”
Dirk started walking for the door. “Thanks. For everything. If you need anything don’t hesitate to ask. Ever.”
Jayson nodded and Dirk left. Jayson was torn. He wanted to visit his own family, but he knew he couldn’t. Not yet at least. He had returned to Eldun eight months earlier when they needed him for protection. That was the end of it. He couldn't face them again.
Not after he'd abandoned them.
The bartender slid another drink in front of him.
A group whispered in the corner, occasionally pointing at him.
A woman sat two tables away, her face hidden by cloth and shadows. She swirled a glass of blood red wine, watching the crowd. A single strand of red hair hung in view.
Jayson sipped his beer. Smooth and hoppy.
He'd felt trapped as a kid growing up on Eldun. The planet was a cage he needed to escape. He'd fled and signed on with a mercenary band on Terminus doing protection jobs and petty theft. He’d lied and made up his history, claiming he grew up in Sector Two. The truth was, he’d done everything he could to forget his past. To wipe his own slate clean.
He’d never even told his family he was leaving.
Then the Union began recruiting, amassing soldiers for war. Jayson signed on and was selected for the Silvent Academy. He’d never looked back.
It was seven years since he’d joined the Union. He’d cut all family ties. Or so he’d tought. At that time the war on Eldun was in its seventeenth year with no end in sight.
Then his father died. Jayson found out they needed his protection and came for them out of a misguided sense of duty. He’d given it up, his promising career working for the Union. His one chance to make something better for himself. He’d thrown it away, and for what? There was nothing left for him there at the Academy. They would never forgive him. Never take him back. And if he went home to them he would be opening doors he’d closed and locked years ago. Picking at scabs that had already healed.
It would be better that he not return; better that he remain a ghost.
Plus he had free drinks on the house.
And people to pat him on the back. Congratulations. Welcome home.
It meant nothing.
Is this my home? No, he realized. Not anymore.
He finished drinking several hours later and rented a motel room, pleasantly inhibited. He kept his helmet powered down as he stripped, having no desire to argue with the new AI program. The room had a shower. A real shower, not bucket baths with reservoirs of water. And it was hot.
The first hot water in weeks. He washed the grime away, locating the tattoo under his left armpit and studying it. Three black triangles linked at their tips to create a larger triangle. The inverted triangle in the center was colored red.
It had been a source of pride when they gave it to him at the Academy. Brotherhood was what it symbolized. They were in it together. Now it was disgrace, a reminder of his failure to finish the Academy. Had he finished his training the pigment would have been removed and he would have been put into active duty. The tattoo made me one of them. Now what does it make me?
He would remove it, he decided. In a few days he would find a parlor to laser off the ink. They had lower tech here on Eldun than at the academy, so it would leave a scar. He would always have marks on his skin, but at least he wouldn’t have to keep looking at it.
Cleaned up and with alcohol flowing through his system, the world made more sense. He decided that it wasn’t fair to avoid his family. Since he wasn’t staying, he should at least see them before he left again. They loved him, and he owed them that much. He wouldn’t stay long, but he should explain to them why he had to go in the first.
First thing in the morning.
Damn those drinks were good.
Pleased with his resolve, Jayson climbed into the plush motel bed, at peace for the first time in years.