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This Is Your Child, Who You Love

by Eric Del Carlo

The casino chip was thin and metaplastic, and it was worth the coming month’s rent. Jackson tried to place it on the roulette table’s felt. Any of the red or black numbers. Sure to lose. Sure to lose. The chip was imprinted with an image of peacock feathers, to match the casino’s avian theme.

The spasms began deep in his back, down near the tailbone. They were spaced and regular. His skin flushed with malarial unease, and an icy gloss of sweat sprang out on his forehead. His heart sped, and the spasms intensified and spread.

His hand shook, visibly. The hand trying to place the chip.

This was a foolish, extravagant wager. A bet he couldn’t afford to make, certainly couldn’t afford to lose. Next month’s rent, right there, in that one peacock chip.

Jackson so wanted to lay it on the table, to stand back and watch the roulette wheel spin; to see the clacking marble come down on any number but his; then would come the deft flick of the little rake, and his chip would be swept from the tabletop.

It would mean disaster. They would face eviction from the apartment, he and Sabah.

The croupier was lean, polished, watchful. His movements were precise. His gray eyes lay on Jackson, quietly flaying him down to the bone. Be-mods were the bane of casinos–the enemy of any institution which thrived on addictive and correctable behavior, really. Doubtlessly he perceived what was happening to Jackson.

He confirmed it with: “Care to place a bet, sir?” Pausing, delaying the spin a few extra seconds. The casino wanted Jackson’s money, of course. If he could overcome his be-mod and of his own volition lay the wager, all would be legal. He wanted to lose this money. The casino wanted that outcome too.

But now the nausea came, and the sweat coated him like amniotic fluid and the spasms were about to become convulsions. It wasn’t any over-the-counter behavioral modification affecting him, and the perceptive croupier probably saw that as well. But he had his job to do, just like Jackson had his own responsibilities. His duty. His own unbearable burden.

He pulled his shaking hand back from the table. Something sympathetic flickered through the croupier’s steely gray eyes, then he ignored Jackson and spun the wheel.

It would be the same at any other table, any other game. He went to cash out his single chip. He still shook, but now it was from the effort of holding back his tears, which brimmed over anyway and spilled down his scarred cheeks.



“Can I have banana pancakes?”




“Are you okay today?”

“Sure. Sure I am.”


Jackson waited out the pause. Sometimes Sabah took a while to peel away all the words that weren’t quite right. Finally he looked over from their small greasy kitchen stove.

She said, “You seem…cornery.”

He thought on that a moment. “You mean cornered? Like, I’m trapped in a corner?”

She nodded solemnly. She was an intelligent child, perceptive, insightful.

“Papa’s fine, honey. And in a couple minutes you’ll have yummy banana pancakes, okay?”

Sabah grinned. She had a radiant grin. Of course she did. None of this was supposed to be easy for him. The child was four years old.

Jackson wished they would take her away from him. Or him from her.

He unloaded, he sorted, he sent the pallets of metaplastic down to the reclamation machineries which broiled away in the factory’s bowels. A lot of the material was war surplus, and some thought had gone into that when they’d designated him here, he didn’t doubt. Every facet of his existence was meant to be some form of punishment, overt or subtle, straightforward or ironic. It was the only way he’d been allowed to live.

But his clever sentencers had failed in this aspect. Jackson didn’t hate this work. He didn’t mind handling the military grade metaplastic, which was usually in chunks and scraps so disparate as to be unidentifiable. It didn’t make him think constantly of his war service.

Also here in this hot churning plant there was camaraderie. Everyone was doing the same taxing labor, and empathy was unavoidable. This was a dirty noisy place, and no one bothered to take particular notice of his scars. Certainly these women and men weren’t his friends, but they were colleagues. And the work satisfied on some primal level.

Even so, he had tried twice to sabotage his own performance here, which was very dangerous, and which might have cost him his life, as well as the lives of one or more of his valued colleagues. But the be-mod hadn’t let him go through with it. Or maybe it was his own reticence those times. He had a conscience, after all. He’d said so to the war crimes tribunal. Not pleading. Just stating it. One member had laughed aloud, bitterly.

Some days he went for a beer after his shift, while Sabah was still at preschool/workshop. Jackson had tried drinking himself into unfitness. It was one of his first ploys, in fact. He’d gotten a bottle of cheap algawhiskey and had tried to glug it one morning. He had gotten violently ill, never sure if it was be-mod nausea or his body’s sensible aversion to debilitating amounts of alcohol at unconventional hours.

Since then, though, a post-work beer helped settle him; even made the day seem normal if he let it. Work your tough job, drink a brew at a working-person’s bar, go home to your child…

That last was the killing detail, the one that tore through him like a bayonet: the thought that Sabah was his child. So it was best not to think about what came after his one beer at the ramshackle saloon.

There were other factories nearby his in the district. None of these jobs paid particularly well; but, then, nothing seemed to in the postwar economy. Jackson could only just maintain the seedy cramped apartment where he and Sabah lived, and put food on the table and keep her in shoes.

She is your child, and you love her.

He lifted his beer. His hand was lined with pale traceries. There were artificial tendons in the forearm. Part of his jaw was vat-grown. But they had left him his cosmetic damage. The scars. Even though–actually, because–they would have been easiest to repair.

The tribunal had deliberated his punishment in depth, with much consultation. He was special. He was the only survivor of his particular unit he’d been told. So, in a sense he was answering for everyone’s crimes, despite that he had never, to his knowledge, met any of the other operatives.

He had been a ghost soldier. But he had agreed to be a ghost soldier, so his guilt was a lawful reality. And he did remember accepting the assignment.

“We’re out of the customary ways to fight back, Jackson,” a major in a lab coat had said.

He couldn’t ask what the new way would be, the unorthodox counterattack. He could only say he would or would not submit to the ghost soldier program. No one told him how many others were being asked. It couldn’t have been many, what with the pervasive secrecy and his own specific skill set.

He had said yes to that major. He would go along. It had seemed an abstract proposition in that sterile chamber, around all that humming gleaming equipment.

Someone took the adjacent stool. There were enough spaces along the bar that the person didn’t have to sit next to him. Two beers were set down on the old bartop wood, almost as gashed as Jackson’s dermis. The person pushed one of the sweating mugs before him.

“I only drink one of these,” Jackson said, lifting his own nearly empty beer, eyes fixed forward. The bar had no backing mirror.

“So tonight you’ll have another,” said the person, a throaty feminine voice. This wasn’t one of his coworkers.

“I’m not accustomed to two.” Jackson’s trial had been streamed, and he still got recognized in public. Twice he’d been assaulted on the street. He had let it happen, hoping to find himself disabled when it was done. But the postwar police were swift and efficient. Safety was everything these days.

“Your be-mod’ll let you have two.”

Jackson released a tightly held breath. The person knew him, then. And the beer bought for him was its own indicator. There was the flip side of the enmity strangers felt toward him. Not everyone wanted to assault him for what he’d done in the war. Some wished to offer congratulations. Jackson couldn’t say which was worse.

Lately, though, over this last year, he’d gotten neither kind of attention. People were forgetting about him. His celebrity, his notoriety…they had waned. And so his lavish penance was beginning to play to an empty house.

He turned to the woman on the next barstool.

She wore a battered leather car coat, and her hair stood out in fried tufts. Her face wore a wise, weary look. “My name’s Fields. Cheers.” Her raspy voice fit her perfectly.

Jackson raised the new beer glass. No hint of spasms or sweating. She was right about his be-mod.

But what did she want of him?

“Do you think it’s fair, what happened to you?” She lifted her glass again.

“Lots of things have happened to me.”

“Indeed. Just the right things. You were the right person at the right time and place. You helped end the war. Then you helped atone for it. How do you feel about that?”

Jackson couldn’t tell from her tone–wry, playful and cynical, all at once–what her own view was. She might have it in mind to buy him this beer, drink one with him, then stick a knife in his ribs. Would he let her do it if she tried? His military skills and reflexes were still there. His behavioral modification, so deep and tied into so many potential actions and comportments, wouldn’t let him assault her. But he could defend himself.

He drank more of the second beer. Whatever else, at least he was getting a free drink out of this. His minuscule household budget wouldn’t take a hit.

The woman named Fields was still expecting his answer. She had a strangely aggressive way of waiting.

“What I feel,” he finally said, “is at a remove. What I feel…doesn’t much matter in the grand scheme.” He blinked. That had sounded almost poetical. He really wasn’t used to more than one beer anymore. And most certainly he had no practice talking to anyone about these matters. He sensed she knew this and was playing him.

As she tipped back her mug, he looked at her again. She wasn’t unattractive. Turbid sexual instincts stirred in him. His be-mod didn’t impinge on them. Those who had programmed his restrictions had probably figured no one would sleep with him anyway, between his scars and his eternal pariah status.

Then again, pariah or not, here he was having a beer with a reasonably pretty woman. It was like a scene out of some other life.

Fields faced him and said, “Your crimes are one thing. Your punishment is, we believe, another crime.” She pushed away her empty glass and stepped back off the stool, her movements somewhat lumbering. She was a big-framed woman. She took something from her car coat pocket. “If you want your be-mod deactivated, go back to that casino you visited two days ago and spend that chip on any game. Then wait.”

Jackson looked down at the bartop, saw the fanning of peacock feathers on the chip’s surface. She knew where he’d been. They knew, because she was just a representative.

He looked up sharply, but she was halfway to the exit.

After a moment he reached for the chip.

“Papa! Look at me!”

“I’m looking, sweetheart.”

Sabah was four, and Sabah wanted–needed–to play outdoors. Once a week was all their schedules allowed. Taking her to a playground had never gone well. She could socialize in her preschool workshops, where she was already learning computer operator’s skills and where he wouldn’t be present to frighten the other children.

Sabah wasn’t afraid of his scars. She’d only known him this way.

She liked the park, even though it wasn’t a park. It had trails and brush and greenery, but if you went deep enough, you would find the skeletonized hull of a Walmart. This junglized urban tract was a bus ride away. Sabah was showing him how fast she could run in a circle. She wore red rubber boots and a green envirocoat, even though there was no alert today.

They had come to the glade she liked. Jackson sat on a chunk of old crumbling masonry and laid out their picnic. He stayed in sight of her. She didn’t like to be alone.

In his pocket was the casino chip the Underground woman had given him. He’d been carrying it all week. Fields had to be Underground. There was no other explanation. She had called his penal behavioral modification a crime, and she had offered to deactivate it. That was radical ideology. That was postwar dissidence against what some saw as an overreaching government.

Sabah staggered to a halt. “Did you see, Papa?”

“I saw, honey.” As he said it, he let his eyes drift closed. A creek ran through here. He could hear its soft gurgle. If she fell in, even its modest current might pull her under.

She is your child, and you love her. But this time the voice “sounded” different, and an instant of hard primal horror jolted him at the thought of Sabah drowning.

His eyes sprang open, but she was nowhere near the water. He said, “You hungry? I packed us some cheese and crackers, and we can eat the berries you picked.”

Sabah came to him, green coat flapping, and they picnicked.

She was enjoying herself. There was no mistaking.

He smiled at her, made sure she ate enough. When she’d finished her share of the berries, he told her to hold still for the wet wipe he’d brought. She put up her little hands, arms like saplings, the bony fingers denuded branches. But the red juice on her hands stopped him. The two small hands, the stains…they were almost precisely the picture he had constructed for himself of Austin. He had needed the final image, as cruel as it was. He had not been there to see Austin die, and the terror strike had left no part of him intact.

He had deliberately imagined the boy with bloodied hands lifted just so, a look of tireless innocence on his face. It was that image he had said goodbye to, once they had made contact with him in the field and informed him of the tragedy.

Sabah’s own innocent look was just starting to cloud. Jackson hurriedly wiped her hands clean, forcing a smile back onto his face. She was perceptive but she was four years old, and when he told her to go play some more, she went eagerly, forgetting all else.

He fingered the chip in his pocket. His extreme be-mod wouldn’t let him do anything which would endanger the health, safety or comfort of Sabah. But he had been freely contemplating Fields’ offer to undo his conditioning. Whether she and her people–if she really had people–could accomplish this, he had no idea.

But he could think about it without spasms, without nausea or panic.

If he could do that, maybe he could go through with the real thing.

He watched Sabah as she ran up and down a mound of earth in her little red boots. She is your child, and you love her.

Maybe he wouldn’t have to, for much longer.

Jackson actually put a hand to his racing heart. The beats were a fast clean tattoo. This wasn’t a be-mod acceleration of his heart rate. He knew the uneasy feel of that. This, instead, was honest excitement.

Birdsong played over the sound system. The casino was as lively as before, but he was able to enjoy the ambience tonight. He hadn’t come to lose the rent.

He fingered the chip in his pocket. It was only worth a few dollars. He remembered Fields’ instructions. Play any game. He looked around.

He had been trained to study crowds and layouts with expert discernment. Had he been strapped with his old weaponry, there wasn’t a person in this whole cavernous gambling den he couldn’t take out in an instant, with minimal fuss.

During the war he had been very useful, even before the ghost soldier program. At first it had been an eye for an eye exchange. The enemy struck; Jackson’s side hit back. But things had escalated and grown quite messy. The strikes came one on top of the next. Any rhyme or reason was done. It was war.

But his highly valuable skills hadn’t saved Austin, of course. Though it was war, it still wasn’t the kind of war where you could keep your child safe at home by fighting in it.

No one was watching him, other than the routine security of the casino. He approached an old-fashioned slot machine. It didn’t have a handle to pull, just a button to push. His hand shook as he took the chip from his pocket, but again it was the natural trembling of excitement. He felt alive tonight, engaged. Tonight he wasn’t just an organic automaton whose performance was dictated by constraints. Neither was he a ghost soldier, giving his talents over to a mission he would have no memory of afterward.

Tonight he was himself. A man trying to take back his life. Whether he succeeded or not, he would at least have made this effort. That would comfort him in the days to come, whatever those days held.

He put the chip into the slot machine. He touched the button to make the symbols spin.

The machine lit as two of the symbols matched, and a small cascade of coins tumbled into the tray. Jackson gazed, nonplussed. Whatever else, he hadn’t expected to win anything. But it would be perverse not to take the money. He examined each coin furtively, but there was no secret message to find. He’d been told to wait after using the chip. It was possible it had been encoded so to alert the Underground.

It was also possible it was nothing more than a casino chip. At least he had won a few bucks. Maybe he should just be grateful for that.

But the promise Fields had held out to him…an end to this inhuman be-mod existence. He so wanted that.

Someone approached him, someone so nondescript and face-in-the-crowd Jackson almost laughed. Experience had taught him there was such a thing as conspicuous indistinctness. But he registered the eye contact and followed the person out of the casino, into the parking lot. It was sunset. He had to be home in half an hour.

His escort opened the side door of a van, then promptly vanished, becoming one with the gray pavement of the lot for all Jackson knew. He climbed into the vehicle, smelling chemicals, noting the van’s other occupants. There was the driver, slightly less characterless than the escort, who buzzed the van to life and turned it out of the casino’s lot. There was a technician in the back, making a final check of equipment. And there was Fields. She wore the same leather car coat and regarded Jackson wearily, and warily.

“I have to be home in half an hour,” he said, though they probably knew. Sabah would be returning to the apartment, and his be-mod wouldn’t let him be late. He didn’t want that fact to interfere with the deactivation process.

The tech was intent on her gear. As the van picked up speed, she said, “Throat,” in some unidentifiable accent. She was looking at Jackson, an implement in hand.

He pulled down his collar and leaned forward. He felt terribly vulnerable. The mouth of the tool was cool, and the injection stung–badly. He winced and clutched his throat, feeling tissues tightening. In those first seconds he thought he’d been hit with poison and was going to die. That would, nonetheless, fulfill the promise Fields had made.

“You’ll be home in time,” Fields said, finally speaking. She shook her head, gazing at him. Jackson didn’t know if this meant pity or disgust. Or some other world-weary emotion they handed out when you joined the Underground.

He thought the injection would make it difficult to talk, but his words flowed easily. “Do you want anything from me after this?”

The technician was monitoring him with a medical hand-scan. Fields pushed a hand through the bleach-fried strands of her hair. Jackson still thought her attractive.

“Afraid we’re going to ask you to become a spokesman for us?” she asked in her playful/cynical tone.

“Not afraid,” Jackson said. “Just want to know.”

She regarded him a further moment. “We don’t want anything from you. We’re not even going to take credit for this deactivation. If we did, the fucking gov would just drop another be-mod on you. Or shoot you in the head this time. And on a personal note, that’s not something I would object to.”

Jackson was taken aback but didn’t let it show. It forced him to rethink this woman, however. “You’re pretty selective about your revolutionary convictions.”

“A state has the right to kill a killer. It doesn’t have any right to…revise that killer.” Her raspy voice was stone now.

Jackson shrugged inwardly. Well, any farfetched fantasies he’d had about getting this woman into bed had just tipped over into impossibility. He looked away. He still had his hand to his throat. Reaction oozed through him, but he had no way to gauge it. Something sure as hell was happening to him, though.

The van rolled on. The technician continued her monitoring, then abruptly switched off her hand-scan. She said nothing to anyone, so Jackson was left to assume the process had gone off as planned. He sat tensely on the floor of the van, wondering if Fields had a weapon under that car coat. Maybe this was just an elaborately staged execution.

When the brakes squealed, Fields reached past him for the side door handle. Her face was near his. He felt the heavy breath from her nostrils. Her expression remained stony, but her voice now trembled with raw emotion. “If it were up to me, I’d see you were made to remember everything you did. That would be justice.”

Then she wrenched the door handle, and he stepped out onto the scuffed metaplastic sidewalk. He was a block from his apartment.

The van, an appropriately ordinary civilian job, pulled away into the settled dusk.

But Jackson did not head home.

Memory began again for him when he tripped the wicked fragmentation cluster. Gashing pain brought him back to reality, the trauma lifting him out of his ghost soldier spell.

He recalled his own screams in that awakening moment, even as his soldierly training had tried to make him suppress them. He was in an area of bombed-out buildings, everything gray with concrete dust. His weapon had been shredded. His body wasn’t in much better shape. The hot scent of his own blood filled his nostrils.

A vast emptiness separated him from his last memories. The gap was impenetrable, but somehow it possessed dimension, informing him that he had been absent from his own life for quite some time.

The major in the lab coat in the clandestine facility had explained that his consciousness would go off-line. Only his skills and experience would be in play. That briefing with the major was among Jackson’s last memories.

He had understood that the proposed field operations weren’t anything he would agree to take on in his conscious capacity, as a soldier, as a person. He’d perceived that command had wanted him to do something disagreeable, something loathsome. Something against the established rules of warfare. Only, those rules had already been hopelessly transgressed by the enemy.

As he writhed on the ground, with the explosives’ smoke still rising into the foreign sky, images of Austin assaulted him. He saw his son with his little hands lifted and bloodied, that innocent look on his face.

He remembered that the ghost soldier program had seemed a way to fight back, to avenge his dead child. It was a covert op, purely black bag.

Blood continued to ooze out of him. The vicinity remained utterly deserted. He could barely move from where he lay.

That was when he’d heard the mechanized whispers overhead. A phalanx of regular army medical/retrieval drones converged, no doubt drawn by the detonation. As they descended toward him, he’d had no idea if he would survive his terrible injuries. But at least now he had a chance.

Later he would see the footage of his own rescue. By then of course he knew that sixty percent of his bodily surface had been laid open by shrapnel from that stupid chance explosive.

He had woken to a different world.

It was a world where the war was coming to a perceivable end. Terror strikes had fallen off dramatically. The enemy, it seemed, had lost its will to fight.

As Jackson had lain in his medical bed, with trickles of outside news reaching him, he had slowly come to see how the end game would likely play out. And what it meant for him.

Layers of secrecy were being peeled away, revealing evidence of the ghost soldier program. Investigations gained traction. Finally the truth felt the hot sting of sunlight.

It almost didn’t matter that the ghost soldiers had arguably won the war. It almost didn’t matter, in a different sense, that Jackson had no memories of what he had done while in the program.

Postwar reassessment was a cold business. For him it was personalized during his trial.

He was ambulatory. He was of sound mind. That was all that was needed to put him in that courtroom. He remembered sitting stiffly upright. It was the first time he had been exposed to so many people in his new scarred condition. That strange mortification distracted him even from the damning, incontrovertible evidence being levied against him by a squad of military attorneys. The table behind which the tribunal sat was of dark lacquered wood.

It was decided that his war crimes were unprecedented. They were atrocities. And they required a fittingly distinct punishment.

It was just one more item of irony, in the monument to twisted retribution which he became, that the chemical alterations he’d undergone to become a ghost soldier made him uniquely susceptible to behavioral modification. They could make him do whatever they wanted. They were the war crimes tribunal. They were the “fucking gov” that Fields and the Underground now resisted. But they were also the general civilian population–on both sides of the war.

The whole retributive circus had come down to that final moment of free will, when a medical engineer, backed by a pair of armed guards, had said to him, “Hold out your right arm.” He could have refused. He still had that choice. He could have forced them to manhandle him in order to give him the injection.

But he raised the arm and held still. And ten minutes later they took him out of the sterile white room to a room that was blue and warm where there was child-sized furniture and an abundance of toys.

A little girl was in the room as well. He was sent in alone. She looked up at him with wide wondering eyes. He didn’t get the impression she was afraid of him; she was just trying to figure him out.

He smiled. He sat down and started playing with the toys. After a moment she joined him, showing him the “right” way to play with these things. He paid attention. They played together. His manner was gentle. He had no choice in the matter. After a time he introduced himself. She said, “I’m Sabah.” She said it firmly, like the name mattered.

Jackson, lingering on the street corner in his shabby neighborhood, checked the time. He should have been home fifteen minutes ago. He should have been compelled to return to the apartment. But he felt no spasms, no nausea. He touched his brow. He wasn’t perspiring.

A police drone hovered toward his corner. His scarred hands tightened at his sides. But the machine buzzed past on regular patrol, paying him no especial attention. His daily routine wasn’t programmed into the enforcement grid. The authorities relied on his be-mod to keep him in line and on schedule.

He touched his throat again. The gesture was already becoming habitual.

He could go wherever he liked, he realized.

He was free.

Jackson trembled with what he suspected was joy.

His footfalls echoed on the ‘plastic sidewalk. He inventoried everything on his person as he ran, hands swiftly patting pockets. His breath came in shortening gasps, but that was him being somewhat out of shape, not any internal agency telling him to correct his behavior.

He should be home right now. Instead, he was racing for the nearest maglev station. He had enough money to get on board a train and get out of the city.

After that he would have real difficulties. His face would be a problem. He would have to off-grid himself, live on the street or out in a greenbelt wild. But he could manage either with his military survival training.

And he wouldn’t have to see Sabah ever again….

A stitch bit into his side, and his steps slowed. But he wasn’t sure it was the pain that halted him. He put a hand to the cool upright of a streetlight, trying to steady his breathing.


He remembered the blue room full of tiny furnishings. After a time with her he had left the room to bring back a meal for her. She must have food and shelter. She must be cared for and watched over. No harm must ever come to her.

She had been harmed enough already, when her combatant parents had died.

Jackson had lived with the girl for a week. She had responded favorably to him from the start. By week’s end the paternal stimulus/reaction matrices had synchronized in him.

For Sabah it was simple. She had someone who would take care of her, no matter what. For Jackson, it was a different matter. They had replaced his son with this child. Austin was dead, and now he must raise this girl–from the opposite side of the war–as his own.

He more or less had his breath back, but he stayed leaning on the light pole. Sabah would be home by now, wondering where he was.

What if he had abandoned Austin in this manner?

The tribunal he’d faced hadn’t had any footage of his missions, but the aftermaths had been recorded. What was presented at his trail was streamed everywhere. The world watched him watch what he had done to the enemy’s children. If people saw anything on his face, it was only a fraction of the inestimable horror he had experienced within.

Only a ghost soldier, severed from consciousness and conscience, could have done such things. Things that were far beyond mere killing.

He pushed off from the streetlight, stood still and alone on the sidewalk, now two blocks from the maglev station. This was the first time in nearly four years that he could think his own thoughts regarding Sabah, experience his own unadulterated responses…and feelings.

Jackson stood a moment, then a moment more after that; then he was in motion again, not running now but moving with steady purposeful strides.

“Papa? Papa!”

She ran toward the front door. She had on every light in the small apartment. Fear and relief contorted her face. She was almost phobic about being alone.

He let her collide with him, wrapping her arms tightly around his legs. The school shuttle had dropped her off, and the apartment had let her in. But she had found the place empty.

Sabah was crying. Somehow her sobs were as exultant as her radiant grin. She had a vast capacity for livingness, and she shared that energy with him on every occasion. He was the only parent she had ever really known.

She was clutching his legs, and her sobs were beginning to slow. “Papa…Papa…” she snuffled. “Where were you?”

The world was forgetting about him. Most people now wanted to put the war into the past and leave it there. The next generation would have an easier time of it. The groundwork of a better society was already being laid. The children were being trained for more lucrative jobs. The world economies would stabilize and grow more equitable with each passing year. The need for war would lessen. Even the base urge for it would wane, finally.

After nearly four years perhaps the world no longer needed to punish the scarred soldier so relentlessly.

“Why’d you leave me alone, Papa?” Her sobbing was done. She looked up at him now with wet curious eyes.

Jackson reached down and picked her up. She is your child, and you love her. But they were his words now, expressing a genuine thought. He held her against him and kissed her temple. He didn’t think of Austin every time he saw her anymore. In fact, that had stopped some time ago.

“Papa’s sorry, darling. I was delayed. It won’t happen again. How about some dinner? What would you like?”

Eric Del Carlo

Eric Del Carlo’s fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and many other venues. He is the coauthor, with Robert Asprin, of the sword and sorcery series Wartorn. He lives in his native California. Find him on Facebook for comments and questions: