PROPER LITTLE SOLDIER

Solomon heard them coming just before dawn. He shook me awake and then I woke the kid, putting my hand across his mouth, just in case he made a noise.

He didn’t.

He was becoming a proper little soldier.

I sat and listened to the scuttling of rats that seemed to be amplified by the dark and to the drip of water into a puddle from a broken pipe. The sky was lightening, a dim glow pushed faint fingers through the gaps created by missing slates in the roof above where we hid, in an attic perched precariously on top of the slumped ruin of a suburban house.

How long passed before I heard their distant screech? Ten minutes? An hour? I can’t tell, but I didn’t move. Sol had good ears, good enough to pick out the high-pitched sounds the monsters used, his ears had kept us alive for a long time. I kept silent.

The kid had learned too. I felt him shivering next to me, but he jammed his tongue between his teeth to stop them chattering. I pulled him closer and felt him leach some of the little warmth I possessed.

At first I hoped they might slip off to the side of our little village. The resistance sometimes baited places like this, vulnerable little hamlets stuffed full of thermobarics, taking out everything for half a mile. But the things seemed confident today. We heard their thump and squeal and shriek as they came closer and closer.

They used sound. They used it to communicate, like we did, though I never met anyone who claimed to understand what they said to each other, constantly chittering and squealing and mewling. They used sound to see – echo-location, like bats – even though they had things that looked like eyes. I’d heard people say that you could stand still in front of one and they’d slither right past so long as you didn’t make a sound. I never felt the urge to find out if that was true. And they used sound as a weapon.

The first one was almost right below us when it boomed.

We’d known it was coming. It was the only time when a pod of them would go quiet, just before a boom and just after. We’d known it was coming, but still it was like being smashed in the chest by a hammer. We’d known it was coming, but it was still hard not to grunt or moan or gasp.

And that would have been death.

All around us we heard the things pounce. A spear-like tentacle crashed through the floor of our building, impaling a surprised rat through the throat before flashing away again. Across the road we heard a dog yelp and something that, for a horrible instant, sounded like a baby’s squeal but was probably only a cat, or maybe a fox. The things snuffled, unhappy with their pickings.

The second boom came quickly, faster than I’d expected. Too soon. We weren’t ready.

“Unff!”

The kid? I looked down, gripped with a sudden terror that mixed an almost maternal desire to protect the boy with the shocking awareness he has his arms wrapped tightly around my waist, making me a target.

The boy looked up and I looked into his wide, wise eyes. He shook his head.

Not the boy. I felt relief, then a sudden, cold shower of sickening certainty.

Sol.

I turned my head.

The look of surprise on his face slipped into one of disappointment.

“Ah fu-”

Three spears splintered the slates and wood of the roof. One slammed through Sol’s skull, two pinned him in the chest. They whipped back. Sol disappeared, leaving just and after-image of his shredded body and a mist of blood.

The boy and I watched and made not a single noise.

For hours the pod circled our building, warbling their delight at their catch and booming, hoping for more, but the boy and I were still. As morning turned to afternoon they seemed to move away, though every now and then the one would suddenly unleash a boom right below us. The aching desire to move became a lightning pain and then constant agony, but we sat motionless and silent. Evening came and the village went quiet, yet still we didn’t move. Only when night finally came and the moon was high and clear and frost stung the air did I allow myself to shift. They don’t like the cold.

The boy smiled, then gasped, then sobbed and collapsed forward.

His trousers were slashed open across his hip and his leg was soaked with blood. One of the spears that killed Sol must have glanced off him.

“I didn’t cry!” He said.

I gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“A proper little soldier.”

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