The text pings her mech’s computer out of nowhere. Victory is ours.
Holst lowers her railguns, steps back from the blown-apart husks of the birdshells. Can’t wipe the cracked viewscreen clean or the streaks of blood dried onto the rivets. Her lungs burn. For years, she’s felt like she’s suffocating—no oxygen left, just smoke and dust. All around her, on the desert’s edge, there’s nothing but sand and corpses. Mech, human, ghost. Metal and flesh and feathers mangled in ugly shapes like bad graffiti on the planet’s skin.
This can’t be it.
She scans the field, hoping she’s in radio contact with whatever remains of her squad—and remembers that she’s the only one left.
When the birdshells came, they looked like dusty gray ribbons, the outlines of doves. They were hollow: clouds speckled in uneven feathers dried and brittle. Up close, they had razors in their beaks, hooked claws strong enough to rend flesh to bone, and a soul-rending coo that broadcast from empty eye sockets.
And they came in millions. Swarms led by queens shaped like the ghosts of peacocks dipped in acid. Where they came, they devoured. Settlements disappeared, some swallowed in flameless heat from the phoenix-tanks, some torn into confetti, some just…gone.
Gill was in one of the first camps that fell under the birdshells. Holst got a text—I’ll meet you back at Alpha Base tomorrow—moments before the airwaves went dead. She never found her husband’s body.
Holst de-suits at basecamp, tries not to flinch at the screaming. It’s joy, she knows, logically. But it’s still too loud. Not like the insulated thrum of her mech, the grind of hydraulics and the vibration of gunfire. She limps on her cramped bio-leg and the badly-fitted prosthetic.
The bunker smells of old sweat and mold and sour beer. And the birds, always the fucking birds. That dry, cinnamon odor that stains her dreams and wakes her up choking. She drops to her cot, eyes half closed to acclimate to the space. The bunker’s small, like all the camp units along the northern perimeter of Eau Seven, but it feels massive after months in a three-ton cage of weaponry and armor.
Her head snaps up, her hand on her sidearm.
It’s Burbank, another mech-bod. Burbank lost half her face and both arms; her cybernetics are clunky, metal and plastic scrap fused into bio-tissue. The arms are too big, throwing her balance off, and the face-plate has no articulation. Just a slab of blue against dark skin. In a mech, it doesn’t matter.
“Not gonna join the celebration?” Burbank asks.
Holst spent the last five years fighting. Lived inside her mech almost that whole time. Somewhere out there, she’d find Gill. As long as there was war, she had a reason to fight. To find him. The words victory and won are empty slates. She’s forgotten the dictionary definitions. “Dunno.”
Burbank’s half-smile wavers. “With the swarmqueens dead, Earth will send transports now. We get to go home.”
Holst stares back, blank. “What home?”
There’s this quote she remembers, printed in gaudy blue boldface on the inside of her helmet strap: Live to fight another day, motherfucker.
She ran her fingers over the words until they rubbed off on her skin, and she’d refuel and press forward.
Gill used to crash her dreams, fierce smile always fixed, always bright. Hey, babe. You coming to pick me up, yeah?
Yeah, Holst could never say.
But he hasn’t been around in a while. She lost her digital photos when a power-surge ruptured her mem-chip implant and she ripped it free of her scalp before it electrocuted her. Every day she went on the offensive, hunting the birdshells. No retreat. No real plan. Find the nests, torch them. Metal and fire worked on ghosts.
Somewhere out in the ruins of this world, Gill is waiting.
Holst can’t sleep. She lies dry-eyed in her bunk, listening to the other soldiers sing or fuck or laugh. It’s suddenly more alien than the birdshells. All she’s done is fight and lose. Lose and fight.
She and Gill left everything behind when they boarded the transport ship to this new world, this promised land free of pollution and disease, this world where they could have their own land, their own house, their own lives. Gill wanted kids, and was willing to find a surrogate. There were plenty of other women who had wombs.
She can’t picture what an Earth transport looks like. What faces unscarred by the war look like. What tomorrow looks like.
There’s never been a tomorrow since the war began.
A week drags by. Holst is out of her mech for longer than she’s been in years. Orders trickle in from fractured command posts. Stats. Lists of survivors. Delta Camp risks sending up a satellite to map the terrain; no one’s been airborne since the war.
Longer lists follow. Lists of the identified dead.
Burbank gives her the news: Gill’s found.
His body was identified by dental records in the mass grave covered in birdshell feathers ten miles from where he went missing.
“I’m sorry,” Burbank says, but Holst just rolls over on her cot. She can’t dream if she doesn’t sleep.
The bitter ocean laps at Holst’s mech feet. Wet sand sucks down the armor weight. She can walk forward, deeper until the pressure breaks her seals and pops the oxygen tanks like blisters. Just disappear away from air and light and sand.
She switches the rearview cameras on. Burbank’s mech is up the beach, a pillar of metal against the gray horizon.
“Going somewhere?” Burbank’s hatch creaks open and she drops from the mech. Her bare feet sink into sand.
“Dunno.” Where is there to go, when the war is done?
Burbank’s buzzed head is sweat-smeared and Holst remembers Burbank used to be damn proud of her hair. Back when they had time for hygiene and Burbank had articulation in her hands. She has a sudden urge to use her sleeve and wipe the grime from Burbank’s skin.
“What are you doing here?” Holst asks.
Burbank sways, her version of a shrug. “Thought you might want some company.”
The chapped leather of her headrest scratches her scalp. “Not now.”
“‘Kay.” Burbank plops down in the sand halfway between her mech and Holst’s. “It’s gonna be at least a year before we see those transport ships anyway.”
Holst licks salt off her lip. It’s stifling in her mech since the AC unit shorted before she left base. She used to be an engineer; she can fix it. Not sure why she should, when the sea is cold.
When she first suited up, it was in the initial panic after the original swarm came. She didn’t run tests, just plugged her neural implants into the mech and grabbed the controls. She needed to find Gill.
“I wonder if my old job’s still open back on Earth,” Burbank says. “I was in accounting. Hell of a transfer from a desk to mech.” She leans on her elbows. “I had this CO who used to tell us, ‘if you can’t go forward, go sideways.’ Back’s never really an option.”
“Your CO make it?” Holst asks.
“She saved my ass when the second swarm hit.”
That wave cost Holst her company. She chugged along the desert for a solid month on her own, hunting nests, so furious she couldn’t see straight. The burn in her lungs started then–that inability to suck in breath, to shunt the pain aside. She’s been suffocating since.
“I lost most of my squad just before the ping caught me that we…won. I–” Burbank slams a heavy hand into the sand. Grit sprays like a bullet impacting a hollow bird. “Fuck. I really want a drink, but I got no one left.”
Holst kills the camera.
She still hears Burbank’s voice.
“Share a drink before you go, Holst?”
The canteen’s filled with alcohol distilled from tubers, one of the few plants left after the birdshells chewed up the world. It’s awful, but it gets a body drunk.
“To the ones we lost,” Burbank says. “I’ll say their names every day long as I remember.”
Holst takes another swig. “To Gill,” she says. First time she’s spoken his name aloud since the news. She imagines him toasting her back. I’m fine, he’ll say. Keep on keeping on, babe.
Okay, she’ll say. For a while longer, she’ll try.
Holst’s mech, left in thigh-deep water, topples in slow motion, sucked down with the rising tide. She watches it and doesn’t flinch. Holst’s fingertips brush Burbank’s metal digits as she passes the canteen back.
Burbank nods to the water. “You want me to fish it out?”
Burbank lifts the canteen in salute.
Holst’s mech disappears under the foam-licked waves.
© 2017 by A. Merc Rustad
Author’s Note: This was inspired by a prompt for a Codex contest (I can’t recall the exact seed for it, alas!) and was further developed by my love for mechs and interest in exploring the aftermath of massive events. I’ve read so many stories that are centered on the conflict (the war, or Plot Event, or whatever) and I always wondered what happens when that plot is over. Who gets to go home and who can’t?
A. Merc Rustad is a non-binary writer who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside Fiction, Apex, Escape Pod, Shimmer, Cicada, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, and Wilde Stories 2016. Merc likes to play video games, watch movies, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad or their website: http://amercrustad.com.