We’re all going back home one way or another, preferably the same way we’ve all come to be here.
I spend my days walking, have been for a while now. Every day there are more like me. Sometimes it seems there are millions in the fog- a crowd of wounded, stretching horizon-to horizon. Sometimes it seems I’m alone, ploughing ahead.
Perhaps, sometimes, all of us are alone. Maybe more often than not.
We started walking back on a day like many other days. There was only a slight change to the routine.
As I crouched down in a trench, catching my breath, leaning on my rifle- a shell bursts too soon.
The plan was simple, has been effective for millenia. We wait for the shelling to stop, we advance and eliminate the softened-up resistance, we take their position, and wait for the next round of shelling to start. We’ve been taking back the planet one trench at a time, for what had seemed like years.
On that one particular day the shell crack came too soon. I would hear it in the distance so many times before that it had become no more than the ticking of a clock to me.
This time a small, mirror-silver sphere has landed at my feet. Pores quickly opened on the surface, as it had started sublimating into the mid-day air.
I was not afraid of these spheres, as my squad has been. My mother has worked with munitions for as long as I could remember. She was testing the fit of primers on these artillery shells, full of what, to a layman, would look like a handful of a ball bearing. Occasionally one of her fingernails would be pinched by the equipment and she’d come home with a fingertip wrapped in cloth. Only once had the machine taken half of her finger.
She’d felt the worst part of the experience was that it was her ring finger. She’d stopped wearing her wedding band on that day, said it would not feel appropriate wearing it on a stump. The ring has since then rested in a pict-frame on a wall of our hab, along with the wedding portrait of my parents. My father had been a soldier, as I am. He’s never come back, not like I will.
Back in the trench there was no pain at first, no significant seizure. It has simply become impossible to take another breath.
A heartbeat later all the pain of us all has poured into me from the outside. I was the universe and all of me was pain. I’ve slumped forward even further, my helmet sliding over my eyes. In the dark I heard all of our voices, begging for the pain to be taken away. An impossibly old, low and raspy voice has spoken over the echo of it all.
I’ve always liked grandfather’s little garden. He’d been a soldier before my father and me. He would carry me on his back, while I pretend-fired a stick of a gun. He said that together we were an unstoppable beast, like a krootox.
My grandfather has kept some plants of his own and would gather leftovers in a container on our balcony, for compost, he said.
I remembered watching worms wiggle out of an old egg shell filled with recaf grounds once. Grandfather then grabbed a fistful of these and fed some of his flower pots. He’s taught me that life always goes on, even if we don’t see or like the way it works. My grandfather has come back home, unlike my father. And I will come back, too, one way or another.
Back in the trench, the voice in the darkness under my helmet has reminded me of those moments. I was eager to give all of our pain away, we all were.
I prayed for a while, gathering the strength to move. I was ready to take my squad home, so that the medicae could put us back together. My eyes still wouldn’t close and so they would keep running dry, ever since we started walking back. I would feel the wind blow against them sometimes, but it never hurt. Nothing really hurt any more, but somehow I had felt like I was drifting away from myself, ever since. I had felt that this must have been that silver poison. I had wondered if the sphere had come from the shell my mother’s finger had gone to war inside. I never could decide.
On the way back I made a friend. It was a welcome change, as I could no longer speak to my army of old friends. I was sure we all knew where we were going and there was nothing to talk about any more.
My new friend had been a jolly, foot tall pet, very man-like. He’d usually climb on my helmet and hold on to the spike on top as we walked. I only later found that his weight had made my helmet sway to the point that the edges had worn my ears off my head. A scab has since held the helmet in place, but I didn’t mind that much. It didn’t hurt and I appreciated the company.
The spaceport we all came in through had been looming in the distance for days now. We were navigating by the large plume of exhaust trails coming off it. Everybody wanted out of this place and so did we all.
I’ve looked up to see a rain of shards slowly drifting downwards and through the clouds, each producing a fiery ring at the same height, never stopping.
I blink for the first time in weeks and see the rings of flame clearly. I wonder if it is perhaps the good soldiers that never make it back home.
My eyes cloud over once more and I realise none of it matters any more.
Either way I’ll be back in grandfather’s garden soon enough.
About the Author
Paweł Zakrzewski has been a hobbyist for decades. He makes his own paints and work in industrial metrology when he isn’t delving into the grimdark universe of the 41st millennium.