PROPER LITTLE SOLDIER

Solomon and I had tried to push too far the previous night and so we spent the daylight hours lying in a ditch at the side of the road. It had seemed a comfortable enough spot to start with, a slightly deeper hollow hidden by the branches of a willow and an ancient, overgrown hedge. It was out of the wind and pleasantly shady in the early morning sunshine. But the rain started falling heavily from about midday and the ditch quickly filled and the hollow became a freezing pool.

Solomon refused to move on – he was certain there was a pod nearby but the rain and the whipping wind were making it difficult for him to pin them down. So he sat and strained to hear and I just got soaked, too afraid to make a sound and getting colder and more miserable as the day went on.

The rain stopped just before nightfall, the clouds cleared and a sparkling frost began to crisp the grass and spread rainbow crystals across the tops of small pools of rainwater. It was too early, the Western sky was still a stripe of burnt orange, but we had to move or we were going to freeze.

We took the chance that the cold would have sent any pod back wherever it had come from and clambered out of the ditch.

We stripped off our clothes there on the road, swapping into some of the relatively dry gear we’d hidden under our tarp. We were both shivering hard.

“Let’s not do that again,” I said.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Solomon spat the words at me.

“I didn’t say-”

“You picked the stupid place,” he said.

“Sol-”

“You know, Maggie, I don’t know why I bother,” he started to stamp off down the road. “You can be such a bitch.”

“Oh for god’s sake Sol!”

And off I plodded after him.

He stayed in a foul mood all evening and we bickered like an old married couple. Not that we were a couple. Not like that. Sol was a handsome man, with high cheekbones and beautiful dark eyes that, when he was in a better mood, he insisted he got from his father, a Somali sultan. But before things got bad I’d always said that all the good men were either married or gay – and Sol was both. His partner, Patrick, had been in London when it was hit and so with any luck he had been dead for almost eighteen months. I know sometimes Solomon had nightmares that Patrick was alive and was being hunted in the ruins of the city.

We were aiming to head north, into the cold, but we were staying off the main roads, keeping to country lanes and tracks where we could. Tonight we seemed to be heading more to the east, but the road was old and sunken between deep banks on either side, offering a feeling of comfortable protection. We walked on through the night our conversation limited a series of long and sullen silences interrupted by bouts of furious half-whispered bickering.

The arguments were good. They kept us warm and kept us moving when it would have been easier to stop and shiver and feel sorry for ourselves.

We were in the middle of a particularly good row about who was carrying the heaviest pack when Solomon stopped, turned and shoved me hard.

“You bast-”

The crossbow bolt ripped the air where I’d been standing and hit a tree in the hedgerow with a crack.

Solomon dropped to the ground and I followed.

“Don’t shoot!” We yelped together.

Another bolt pinged the tarmac between us and tumbled off into the dark.

“Go back!” The voice was a high-pitched squeak. A child.

Solomon and I shared a look.

I stood up, raising my hands.

“Maggie!” Sol made a grab for my ankle but I shook him off. “You silly cow!”

“Go back!” I heard the kid grunt as he snapped the crossbow string back into position.

“We just want to pass through.”

I saw his silhouette against the moonlight, peering out from behind a tree where the road turned sharply ahead. He was small – I’d have guessed nine or ten but the past two years had been tough and food could be hard to come by. He might be older and half-starved. The crossbow was big, but he handled it confidently enough.

I tried an experimental smile then realised that in the shadows of the deep-cut roadway it was probably too dark for him to see my face.

“We just want to follow this road and go on our way.”

“This road doesn’t go anywhere,” the boy shouted out. “This is the end of the road.”

I looked back at Solomon. He had the map. He shrugged.

“Then we’re lost and could use some directions,” I said.

“Go back!” He gestured with the crossbow.

“Oh come on kid,” Solomon stood up and took a step forward. “Just let us past.”

A third crossbow bolt flashed past.

“Sod this!” Suddenly Solomon was running, his long legs eating up the distance to the boy.

The boy was struggling with the crossbow, heaving at the string.

Solomon snatched the crossbow and smashed it against the tree.

The boy cowered back. Solomon raised his fist.

“Sol!” I shouted.

“He tried to kill me!”

“He’s a scared child!”

“He tried to kill you!”

“Let him be.”

I walked up to the pair of them. The boy was crouched at the foot of the tree. Solomon was glaring at him with an impressive impersonation of fury.

I put a hand on Solomon’s shoulder, and reached the other one out to the boy.

“We’re not going to hurt you.”

“I am,” Solomon growled.

The boy cowered back further.

I shoved Sol with my shoulder and he turned away, laughing.

“We’re not going to hurt you.” I knelt down and reached across. “We just want to pass through.”

And then he started crying.

*

Sol’s map reading was hopeless, we were miles from where he thought we were. The road we’d been following took one more sharp left turn and opened into a farmyard. The house had been hit hard. You could see where at least two pods had done their best to clean the place out.

The boy, Alf, had abandoned the house when the first attack had taken his parents but had made himself a surprisingly comfortable shelter high up in one of the barns.

It was well camouflaged, we’d never have found it without his help and even then we had a hard time scrambling up after his tiny frame.

The space was big enough for all three of us to lie down, but though Solomon and I were exhausted, the boy just wanted to chat.

He’d been alone for a long time.

After an hour or so of constant interrogation I tried to shush him with the threat that a pod might hear us talking.

“There’s no monsters around today,” he said, cocking his head, listening. “I can hear them when they come.”

I looked at Solomon, who just raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Sol’s ears were sharp – his ability to hear the creatures before they heard us had kept us alive for the last six months. Perhaps the boy had the same gift.

“Anyway,” the boy said, “we can see from here if they’re coming this way.”

He showed me where he’d cut out little viewing slits in the roof of the barn then disguised them. From up here he had a panoramic view of the surrounding fields.

The boy was right nothing was moving out there except the low grey clouds that swept westward.

The boy had plenty of food too – apples and vegetables from the garden behind the house, and jars of homemade raspberry jam. Solomon sat solemnly dipping his finger into the sugary mush and licking it slowly, rolling his eyes back and moaning softly with each new slurp.

“I used to take this for granted,” he sighed.

The day went by slowly. Alf, exhausted at last, fell asleep with his head in my lap.

I stared down at him, feeling totally helpless.

I looked up, Solomon was staring at me with a wry smile.

“We can’t leave him here,” I said.

“He might be safer here,” Sol said.

“Nowhere is safe.”

Sol nodded.

“I can’t leave him on his own.”

“What if he doesn’t want to come?”

“He will.”

Eventually I slept.

And that night the three of us set off. Heading north, to where it was colder and where, rumours said, there were still safe places.

We rarely managed more than four or five miles a night – we were being cautious, finding places to bed down for the day early on, setting out only when we were sure the creatures had retreated for the night. The going was slow, but the first chill of autumn turned the trees gold and lifted our spirits. Dusk was coming earlier, night lasted longer and it was getting colder. We felt that the planet was on our side.

After a week we came to a small village and found a shop that was almost intact. We helped ourselves to the stock on the shelves and made a little camp.

We hadn’t seen or heard from the creatures for days. We had full bellies and we were feeling good. We were happy.

*

Solomon shook me awake. The sun was shining straight down through the gaps created by missing slates in the roof, so I guessed it was around noon. I turned to Alf, reaching a hand across to cover his mouth in case he made a sound but he was already awake, staring at me.

He raised a single finger to his lips.

I smiled.

Then we sat and waited. I could hear the scuttling of rats and the steady drip of water into a puddle from a broken pipe. It was hot and I was thirsty and that water, no matter how stale, was very tempting.

The sun moved slowly across the sky, pools of light from the holes in the roof shifting across the floor. We were in an attic that was perched precariously on top of the slumped ruin of a suburban house. 

How long passed before I heard the creature’s distant screech? It felt like hours but it might have been fifteen minutes, though I never doubted they were coming. Sol’s ability to pick out the high-pitched sounds the monsters used had saved our lives often enough. I kept silent and very still

Alf had heard them too. I felt him shivering next to me, but he jammed his tongue between his teeth to stop them chattering. The day was too warm for him to be cold. I reached my hand across and placed it on his chest. He gripped it tightly.

I hoped they might slip off to the side of our little village. The resistance sometimes baited places like this, a vulnerable little hamlet stuffed full of thermobarics could take out everything for half a mile and was enough to make even the creatures cautious. But these things seemed confident today. We heard their thump and squeal and shriek as they came closer and closer.

The creatures 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. The only time a pod was silent was 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 hiding place, 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!”

Alf? 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 were wrapped tightly around mine, making us both 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 an after-image of his shredded body and a mist of blood.

The boy and I watched but made not a single sound.

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 one would suddenly unleash a boom nearby. The desire to move became an urgent pain and then a constant agony, but we sat motionless and silent. The sun went down and the village became still, but we did not move. Only when it was fully night and the moon was high and clear and frost stung the air did I allow myself to shift.

Alf smiled at me, 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.

“You’re a proper little soldier.”

*

My first instinct was to flee that village as fast as I could, but Alf couldn’t walk and we had plenty of supplies.

So that night I ferried our stuff across to another attic, I couldn’t stand to look at the dark stain of Sol’s blood on the floor, and then carried the boy across.

In the new attic I washed out the boy’s wound and stitched it up as best I could. Through it all the boy bit his lip but never whimpered or cried. No sound left his lips except, when it was over, he whispered “Thank you” before falling asleep.

The creatures didn’t return but Alf developed a fever and the wound on his hip turned red and swollen.

That night I did something I hadn’t risked in nearly two years – I lit a fire, just a small one in a tin downstairs. The warmth and flickering light were shocking. I boiled some water and used it to wash out the wound. I’d taken antiseptic cream from the little shop, it was out of date but I didn’t see that that could do any harm, and slathered that onto Alf’s hip, then wrapped it in gauze and tape.

Alf’s temperature rose. He slept night and day for a week. I tried to feed him and give him sugary drinks but most of it seemed to end up on the floor.

A lot of the time there was nothing I could do but wait and watch him.

He never moved. He never cried out. He never made any sound, even when the fever was at its worst. He was silent and still.

And, as his fever broke and he started to come round, I began to realise something.

These creatures, whatever they were, wherever they’d come from, they had the power to wipe us all out. They’d destroyed our cities and our armies and shattered our civilisation and left us scrabbling in the dark.

They could wipe us out.

But they hadn’t.

Those of us they left alive survived because they thought we could do them no harm and because they enjoyed having us to hunt.

They believed we were beaten.

But they didn’t realise what they were creating.

After ten days Alf opened his eyes and smiled weakly up at me.

“Was I quiet?” 

I nodded, and wiped a strand of hair out of his eyes.

“You were a proper little soldier,” I said.

They were making us stronger.

They were making the children who would one day defeat them. All over the world children were learning to use silence as a defence and silence as a weapon. One day, it might not be soon, but one day we would become the hunters again and the booming beasts would pay for their mistake.

“Proper Little Soldier” was first published in Conflicts from NewCon Press, edited by Ian Whates (and yes, it was before A Quiet Place came out, thank you for asking).

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