Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This story depicts physical and emotional violence and abuse towards children.
They were told not to smoke anymore. The Colossus could spot a cigar cherry a mile out and he’d fire off one of those back spears fast enough to have you inhaling the smoke through a new hole in the back of your head.
Signal didn’t doubt it was a lie — something to make the beast seem more vicious, less discerning in its violence than it actually was. She waited on the beach with the straight edge of a peppermint candy cane lolling in her mouth, chewy like old Christmas. People were all but gone from the continent, but their trash and the remnants of their traditions remained in smoldering or drowned heaps along the shore, or hoarded in one of the last remaining colonies further inland. The candy canes were scavenged in a dusty bin of some now-dead or fled family’s holiday decorations. She had the beast to thank for their discovery.
Fifty hours into her seventy-two hour shift, she sat perched atop an old car hood she’d placed over some rocks and jagged metal things. Tight, curly tendrils of her hair whipped her face as she gauged the tide against an old gas station sign stuck sideways in the surf. An E was fine. A second X uncovered meant trouble was coming.
The evening sky was cloudy and the brown-gray of the ocean stirred in no unusual way. In fact, it had been unremarkable for weeks. Still, they knew better than to believe the god-beast was dead or done with them. It would return, presumably at its leisure, to finish off what remained of men. Signal and her battered battle mech were one of maybe a dozen sentry pairs stationed on the continent’s borders to fight or die warning the last colonies. They were known as Fireflies.
Not one of them was older than seventeen.
Signal’s watch vibrated on her wrist. She pulled her sleeve up past an old 5-2 domino array of cigar burns in her brown forearm to glance at the tiny display screen. Time to check in.
She huffed and bit down on the candy cane, regretting it immediately for the soft bits now stuck in her teeth. One by one and in order of their number, three other Fireflies tapped out their all-clear. The Colossus might hear them if they spoke it out loud. Echo: all clear. Bright: all clear. River: all clear….
Signal, the fourth Firefly, tapped nothing. Birds in the northern forests were taking to the air with their telltale cries of alarm. She stared at the second X and O of her sign as the surf washed out and exposed them. The Colossus was standing somewhere in the sea and the water was rushing to fill the space it had occupied. The air shook around her, and rising steam blurred the horizon. It would arrive as a massive, milky fogbank thick enough for the monster to couch itself in as it stalked toward land.
There had been a dozen colonies left when she’d started fighting. That number had halved in the last few years as, one by one, the beast found and destroyed them. They were scattered across the continent in clusters like clutches of motherless eggs, all commanded by men so ruthless in their desperation it was hard to see the appeal of human survival in them. The nearest one was commanded by a Chief Beckford — an old white guy with shaggy, graying hair and an ex-military build, who smelled like stale cigars — and lay some fifteen klicks inland to the west. Someone, back when this all started, decided it would be the children who saved them, so children were bred for this work. Smaller soldiers meant smaller mech meant conserved materials; and it took less time and less energy to train the kids to pilot and die in the things than to teach them to engineer them. Somehow their lives hadn’t factored into those worth saving. Sometimes it took a little abuse for the lessons to take.
The seven burns were from the seven encounters Signal’d had with the beast and dared to return alive without slaying it. Beckford was zealous about the lessons of sacrifice, of fulfilling one’s purpose, and burned her for the first time when she returned to the colony alive. The Fireflies knew that the real lesson was to die before they got old and sick enough of his shit to revolt. But she returned to the site after the fray to harvest what she could of the mint she’d found growing there, certain in some nebulous way that it might be useful one day. She discovered its uses in pilfered books: teas and tinctures, an introduction to her candy canes. And ever after she never missed an opportunity to observe the beast, to learn its ways — the language of the little birds that gave it peace or the things that made it violent. And, eventually, to interact with it, to make the burns worth the pain.
She woke her mech with a two-tone whistle. Its eyes glowed beacons through the growing fog, and the whir and clank of its setting metal bones were welcome sounds against the roar of the waters and the blood-tainted sea spray spattering her windbreaker. It was twelve feet tall even sitting amid the rubble, and its military-issued green paint job was mostly faded or scarred away. She’d gone over the spray-painted 4 on its left breastplate with an orange-coral nail polish someone had named “Sunday Funday.”
Her headpiece crackled and Chief Beckford’s oft-agitated voice snapped at her. “Goddammit, Signal, report. Are you clear or not?”
“I’m not,” she muttered, her boots shifting on the quaking sand as she crossed it. “Tide’s washed out.”
“Can’t see it yet.” She climbed inside the metal suit and breathed as it closed itself around her. Beckford was miles away but the sound of his voice made her flinch as if he was beside her, his hand on her throat, slamming the back of her head into any available wall as he reminded her of her bred purpose and her most recent failures in fulfilling it.
“Don’t let us down,” he said.
Signal paused in her weapons check and had the audacity to scoff. “Or else what?”
“What did you s—”
She switched off her headset before he could scold her for her insolence. She was satisfied with herself, but her hands still shook at the controls.
Adrenaline this time, she assured herself. Not fear.
The routine systems check announced itself as a series of beeps and maintenance code scrolling up the translucent display. She checked her grip, flexing her mech’s fingers, bending its knees, turning its torso for a greater view of the area. She knew the suit like she knew herself and it moved with the fluidity of her own body.
01 :: CHIEF IS PISSED YOU HUNG UP ON HIM ▮
It was Echo, the Firefly team leader. Beckford kept her on the inner perimeter with the younger guns who needed more guidance in battle. It was the job of Signal and the other sentries to make sure the Colossus never made it that far.
Echo only had two burns.
“Yeah, well, this is the last day I have to care about pissing him off,” Signal said, and watched the words appear on the screen.
01 :: LOL▮
01 :: YOU SURE ABOUT THIS ▮
“Everybody in place?”
01 :: YES WE GOT THE LITTLES OUT ▮
01 :: WHATEVER WE COULD CARRY ▮
“Then I’m sure,” said Signal. Her hands still shook.
She affixed canisters of peppermint concentrate to the exhaust ports meant for her green distress smoke. She’d learned to make it from a book on chemical warfare. It was the sort of thing the Fireflies were encouraged to read, and so no one had thought anything of seeing her do it.
No one knew the beast as she did. No one knew it could be pacified. No one had even considered it could be controlled. That was the problem with the elders: their rigid thinking and obsession with the old ways of things would doom them all. Them. Not her.
The proximity sensor chirped. Apart from green specks of marine life within range in the hidden ocean, now a gargantuan figure was illuminated and replicated on the display a bit more than a klick north.
Time to roll.
“Wait for my call,” she warned Echo before donning her oxygen mask. She turned her headset back on and switched to a new channel in case Beckford had anything more to say.
Signal stood herself up and moved from the beach into the surf. She engaged her thrusters at a low enough grade to keep her skimming quietly over the water, guided by her display as she could see nothing but the caps of waves in the thick white. She was nervous this time, but not for the usual reasons. If everything went according to plan, they would all be safe.
She was meters away before it came into view and she banked hard to the right to trail behind it. It could have been an alien but the world had collapsed so fast that if anyone had known that for sure, they had likely died before they could say so. It could have been some ancient, dormant god, summoned or otherwise. But those who had worshipped it met no fate distinguishable from those who’d tried to blow it up. The best anyone could do now was keep it away from where people still lived long enough for it to inevitably return to the sea, as twenty years of trial and error had dictated it must.
The beast lumbered on two legs, dragging the sea with it as it moved toward land. It groaned with the effort, the sound a deep and nauseating vibration in Signal’s chest. She knew it would move easier when it reached the shore. It would unhinge its mandible, lined with countless rings of serrated teeth, and roar its arrival, releasing the stench of concentrated hydrogen sulfide gas. The air before it would be prone to catch fire for days after it’d gone.
Its arms were long and the weight of its own giant fists seemed to have forced it into an ape-like hunch. As far as anyone could tell, its gray, stone-like armor was actually its skin — save for a coat of thick, feathered barbs along its back. They’d been silver once. Now they were mottled green with mold and algae, and bedecked with barnacles.
Urgently, she wedged a bobby pin into the response button on her communicator to jam it. The result was one long, high-pitched tone that meant malfunction to everyone but the Fireflies. To them, it meant Go. Now.
She switched off her headset before the beep threatened to destroy her eardrums, then turned on her speaker, wet her lips, and whistled. It was tuneless, more the sound an excitable morning bird might make. It was how she learned to announce herself as a peaceful thing.
The beast paused in its marching a moment and turned to peer with yellow eyes toward the sound of her song. Signal triggered one of the peppermint canisters to release its scent in short bursts as she steered her mech up the length of its back. If it decided she was hostile this time, those barbs would come flying but she’d take her chances with them over the fists. It grunted an acknowledgement, denting the fog with hot air from huge nostrils as she alighted on its shoulder. She disembarked, and lashed her mech to the barbs with paracord so it wouldn’t topple off the way she had a few times before.
The air here was thin and cold. She pulled a keffiyeh up over her mask to keep it from freezing and pressed her hand affectionately to the stony skin just beneath the hole she knew as its left ear. The world beyond the fog was low and vast. Somewhere in it, Echo and the Fireflies were leading the other weaponized children of the colonies to a safe place in the mountains, leaving behind every adult who didn’t value their lives.
Beckford had, after all, taught them the importance of sacrifice.
She whistled a translation the giant could understand, a sequence the birds and books had taught her and which she’d refined over the course of the last six missions they’d accomplished together. She clung to the beast as it angled slightly north.
“Fifteen klicks in,” she said absently as they lurched forward. “We’re almost done.”