Anton waved to his grandmother from the freight elevator. She waved back, standing at the edge of the sea of humanity that filled the military warehouse from wall to wall. They were bent, shaking from the rain and fear, desperately trying to shuffle into the correct line for evacuation. His grandmother, Mrs. Anna Louise Christina Pauley, was holding a small, green suitcase with everything she owned. In her arms, she cradled one of the horrible kittens she kept on shelves around the living room. They looked nothing like real kittens, more like a squashed kitten that had been hastily reconstructed through vague description. His grandmother told him, proudly, that they are made from real fur. Anton always wondered where the fur came from.
On the far wall were the ships, though all he could see were the massive, brushed-silver doors where men in uniforms let people through a few at a time. No one was left behind, no matter how sick or old – not today. Everyone was humanity today. Beside them, the last of the Gen 2s, the 100-foot tall battle mechs, waited for their last orders. From the elevator, Anton could barely make out their pilots from where they stood on tall scaffolding next to their sleeping giants. They were hunched slightly, probably from the implant in their spine that let them connect with the half-biological, half-robotic fighting machines. Most of them looked down, somberly, at the mass of humanity underneath them. Everyone had probably lost a friend by now. Quickly, Anton looked back at his grandmother just in time to see her smile. The fake kitten’s glass eyes watched the elevator rise into the ceiling and disappear. Anton wished he could have thought of a better way to say goodbye – something sweet or heroic. Maybe it was best if she thought she would see him again.
Then Anton was alone with the four other people and Diana, the perfectly coiffed and stern-looking woman who pulled them out of the crowd. She had a tablet in her hand and was poking at the screen with increasing concern. Her hair was impeccable, tied tight behind her head. Her suit was simple, expensive. Her makeup was perfect, except for the grey shadow of eyeliner under her eyes, probably from a short cry earlier in the day. Everyone had one.
Anton was taller than her by almost a foot. He was always an awkward height, thin with a black beard he enjoyed growing to a point so he could tug at it when he was thinking. The other people, who all handed their luggage to their families and followed the woman into the freight elevator when their names were called, stood uncomfortably in a ring around Diana. There was a middle-aged man, rotund and balding with a White Lake Football jersey and his hands in the pockets of his jeans. There was a young, redheaded woman in a wheelchair. She stared at the ground with a fury that was almost unsettling. Pamela was the name Diana called her. There was a girl who looked about 16 and a young man who might have been in college. They were holding hands in the back of the elevator, though Anton didn’t think they knew each other a few moments before. There was also a uniformed officer with an automatic weapon in his hands.
The building shook and the freight elevator jumped. The five of them stumbled, except Pamela, who rolled a little. Below them, Anton heard people cry out.
“Did they break through?” the man in the jersey asked nervously.
“No, Mr. Henderson. This is the most secure location on the planet. It will take quite awhile longer to break through,” Diana answered dryly.
“But they will?” Anton asked.
“That’s why we’re evacuating?” the young man asked. “Where are we going?”
“To a secondary location,” Diana answered.
“Why weren’t we ready?” Mr. Henderson said.
“It was a multi-pronged attack,” she said. “Most major cities were lost in three hours.”
Mr. Henderson scoffed. “Ridiculous. Unacceptable.” He turned his anger unexpectedly toward Anton. “Didn’t join up, huh? I suppose you’re happy now. It’s because of shits like you that this happened.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Anton saw the young man shift uncomfortably. The girl leaned against him. Anton had actually checked the ‘caretaker’ box on the form, because Mrs. Anna Louise Christina Pauley could not always be trusted to find her way down the stairs, or take her pills. He knew the neighbors whispered to her that she ought to make him go, and the Widows and Orphans Organization stuffed red ribbons in his hands and tied them around his bag at the bus stop, to remind him that he wasn’t bleeding for his species. He failed his classes spectacularly that year, out of spite really. The truth was, maybe he didn’t want something drilled in his spine. Maybe he didn’t want to fight monsters to the death.
“If it weren’t for my bad leg I’d be out there. Fighting! I got tested, in any case. You know my score? 75! I would have been a pilot!”
“Mine was 89,” Anton said, and the man’s face fell, then curled in anger.
“78,” said the girl behind them.
“82,” said the boy.
“96,” Pamela said from her wheelchair, and she grinned at no one in particular. No one seemed to know what to say about that. Anton hadn’t heard of a score that high. Now that was something.
Anton thought about that morning, after his own secret cry on the roof outside his bedroom window. That had always been his sanctuary, and it was impossible to imagine that he would never return to it. His grandmother was putzing around the house as he leaned over the radio in the sickly green, 70s era kitchen. She hadn’t packed her mother’s spoons, and Anton wondered if they should take them, maybe to sell.
“Reports are coming in that authorities have abandoned Chicago and San Francisco. Citizens should move immediately to their evacuation center. Take only what you can carry.”
“We need to go, Grandma,” he shouted and walked into her bedroom.
On her bed was an open suitcase and neat, folded rows. There was another row of glass eyed, real fur cats. His grandmother slowly tottered to the shelves, reached up, selected another cat, and set it carefully on the pastel quilt. She smoothed an errant tuft of hair on its head. Anton stomped to the bed and started shoving things in the bag. His grandmother gave a little cry of protest. Anton didn’t stop. He kept shoving things in, ugly sweaters, long, cotton skirts, white tennis shoes. His grandmother tugged on his arm.
“It’s okay, Anton. It’s okay. I’ll do it. I’ll do it better.”
But he packed the whole thing, and then shut it and carried it to the car. His grandmother followed him, holding a single kitten, with the wild tuft on his ear. She cradled it as they drove to their assigned evacuation area. Now he wished he’d taken the time and been gentle. He thought he’d have so much more time.
There was a final click and the elevator rose into the rain. The small group looked out into the rain at the airstrip that ran along the plateau. Anton could hear the waves crashing against the cliff, breaking the stone down one wave at a time. At the end of the runway, bobbing on its line like a toy, was a gondola. The impossibly thin, black chords flowed away from the cliffs, and disappeared into the gray, indistinct distance.
“You’re kidding!” the boy said.
Diana tucked her tablet inside her jacket as she stepped into the storm. The wind and rain began undoing her careful bun. Anton hurried after her. Behind him he heard Pamela yell “Let go!” He glanced back as the boy recoiled from her chair, her fury turned toward him. She started rolling across the asphalt with purpose. The ground shook underneath them. After a few steps, it shook again.
“They’re breaking through,” Mr. Henderson yelled over the noise of the surf and the rain.
“No,” Diana said, raising her voice and holding her hair out of her face. “That’s ignition. The first ships are taking off.”
Sure enough the ground shuddered again the mountain roared, as if it was erupting. Anton pressed his hands to his ears and turned to watch the launch. The ship rose from the side of the cliff, as if a piece of it had simply risen into the sky, followed by a long plume of flame and cloud of smoke. It rose into the sky, through the rain, swirling the clouds like a rock thrown into a pond. They ran on. At the edge of the cliff Mr. Henderson pulled open the door to the Gondola and practically shoved the rest of them inside. The man with the gun closed the door behind them.
“You will be able to see them if you look out the windows.” Diana said, going back to her tablet.
Anton looked out the window as the car shuttered to life. Below them, hidden in the mist and gloom, massive creatures moved in the water. Three of them, no, four, five! They looked like ten-story-tall gorillas, massive and bulky, towering over the wreckage of the aircraft carriers they had already dismantled. Metal, meat, and fur were twisted together to form their bodies – like a bruise-colored, violent freight train. Jagged things, like black bone, jutted from their shoulders, elbows, and skulls. They moved through the mist and water like they belonged, creatures without predator, and only one, very small enemy. One of the things looked up and watched the tiny car, roughly the size of its paw. Its body tensed, like a cat watching a toy.
“Where did they come from?” Mr. Henderson whispered.
“You mean those specifically, or the Peers themselves?” Anton asked with some relish. Mr. Henderson glared at him and he shrugged. “We made them. They were invented by James Peerich, a solution to the loss of human life inherent in any combat and adopted by the army with enthusiasm. Simply boot up a Peer and aim it at a city. Normal problems with robotics – balance, perception, problem solving – were solved through a fusion of biological elements with technology. Problems of control were solved with shoving computers into the things’ brains. That worked fine until they started reproducing. We’re still not sure how they managed that.”
Henderson looked pale and sat down. Anton looked down at the monsters as they bashed the cliff face with their arms, chewed with their mouths, even threw themselves against it. Why did they want to destroy us so badly?
He remembered standing with a bat in his grandmother’s front yard over the crushed remains of her mailbox. Mrs. Anna Louise Christina Pauley, his dead mother’s mother, held her hand out for the bat. He knew he should feel guilty for acting out, but instead he was angry. He felt that he was supposed to mourn his parents, to understand their loss and become better for it. But that heroic peace never came and he hated himself. He wanted to break his grandmother’s head open. She took the bat away and dragged him into the house by the arm. I can’t do this, Anton thought. He sat next to Diana with a sigh and pulled at his beard.
“My grandmother will be allowed to go?” Anton asked.
“They’ll take everyone. Everyone is important now. Everyone is Earth,” Diana said.
“Even the weak?” Anton asked.
“Yes. It was a possibility from the beginning. It was called Operation Grata. Theoretically we would reach a point where we no longer believed we could retake the earth. Contrition was designed to buy the human race one more year, or one more hour, or five more minutes.”
Anton nodded. “You have a family, Mr. Henderson?”
“Yeah,” Mr. Henderson said. “I—“
“Jesus Christ!” the boy yelled, his face pressed against the window. “It jumped.”
Anton and Diana both leaped to their feet and ran to the window. Below them, the Peer that had been watching them crashed into the sea. The wave caused by its body rolled over the broken ships, sending them against the rocks again. It rose up on its feet again and roared, a noise like a freight train leaping off the tracks, screeching metal and thunder. The other monsters turned to look at it, like a litter of kittens watching their brother play. The thing leapt again, claws opening like semi-truck-sized scythes. The girl screamed. The lift rocked form the displaced air, but the Peer tumbled back to the water again.
“It’s okay,” Anton said, breathlessly. “It’s okay.”
The other monsters turned from the cliff face, moving ponderously toward their comrade. They all looked up the tiny toy, their orange eyes reflecting the lights of the air strip, the moon, the stars, or something inside of them, burning away. They tensed to jump. Then they turned their heads, quickly, as if they all heard the same noise at once. Two more leviathans appeared around the corner of the cliffs. They were also mostly metal, shining in the dim light.
“There’s our team,” Anton said, excitedly pointing at them. He’d never actually seen one fighting before. He remembered seeing them once, from a great distance. They were walking toward Chicago, when the Peers first attacked. He climbed on the roof to watch them, squat metal humans the size of mountains, lumbering across the field beyond his little town. His grandmother yelled at him to come down, that instant, but he pretended he couldn’t hear her. At the time, the creatures still represented hope: a chance to cleanse the world of human mistakes.
“Those are the piloted Peers. Second Gens,” Anton went on. “The Peers were built to absorb impact from missiles and convert it into useful energy, like plants absorb sunlight and grow. It’s very clever, until it’s used against you, and it’s probably how they managed to reproduce. We made them too adaptable. The Gen 2s have the same set up, but completely controlled with human pilots, physically strapped into the thing. They implant a tap into the pilots’ spines. The circuits run through their –“
“Please stop!” the girl cried out.
She turned away from the window as the two groups met, their bodies swinging against each other. The Gen 2s were stronger, but slower, more awkward. Anton pressed his nose against the glass and watched a Peer dig his massive, building-sized teeth into the Gen 2s’ arm. Then a wall of stone leapt up in front of him and he couldn’t see. The gondola entered a cave, slowed, and stopped near a thin platform. The door popped open and the group descended slowly, the weight of what they’d just seen was heavy on all of them. Anton couldn’t tell if the low rumbling was the thunder, the monsters below, or the ships trying to get away. The thin platform ended in stairs, circling upward into the mountain. Anton looked down at Pamela.
“I’m sorry,” Diana said. “It’s the only way.”
Anton lifted the girl onto his back. She didn’t weight as much as he thought. They started up the stairs. Anton tried not to think about how much stone was above him, below him around him, waiting to fall if the Peers hit it hard enough. It would be all right if it happened fast enough, but if he was only partially crushed he might bleed for days before he died. He shuddered.
“You alright?” Pamela asked. “I’m not heavy, am I?”
“No. You’re fine,” Anton said.
There was another crash against the side of the cave. When he was younger he sat on the roof and watched the Gen 2s stomp off toward Chicago. They seemed like super heroes then, and he thought that, when he was old enough, he’d run away from his disapproving grandmother and become a pilot. He imagined himself as a hero of the world. When did he stop believing in that? Maybe it was when his neighbor’s children stopped coming back – when they started losing. Though, honestly, it was probably when he found his grandmother crying because the neighbor called her grandson a coward.
“Don’t go,” she begged him, tears running down her face. “Don’t let them convince you.”
There were so many things he could say. He knew they were only looking for bodies to lay on top of their sons – to make a wall between themselves and danger, and maybe hide the faces of their beloved dead with strangers. They wanted to distance themselves from so many things. They wanted to save themselves, and he couldn’t blame them. But he had long outgrown doing his grandmother harm for no reason.
“I promise,” he said. “Now stop crying.”
“What were you thinking about?” Pamela asked.
“Fake cats.” “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah. My grandmother has all these fake cats that are made from real fur. She loves them though. I think they’re real to her. I think she likes being so close to creating a little life.”
“That’s a stupid thing to think about at a time like this,” Pamela said.
Anton started to shrug and then remembered he was carrying her. He was such a selfish prick and he knew that now, after all this. Pamela probably had earned her bitterness the honest way.
“Do you know where we’re going?” he asked.
“Yes. I figured it out.”
The cliff shook underneath them and the lights flickered. “How long with the electricity hold out?” Mr. Henderson asked.
“The generators will shut down automatically at 2:00 tomorrow. The world will mostly be dark by then,” Diana answered.
They reached the top of the stairs and the group came to a halt. What they were looking at was surreal and it took them all a minute to process it. They were in a second bunker, exactly like the one they left. The brushed silver doors of ships stood at the end. Beside them, a line of Gen 2s hunched silently. The only difference was that the massive bunker was empty. No one waited for the shuttles. No pilots waited at the mechs.
“What is this?” Mr. Henderson said.
“Evacuation Bay 2,” Diana said, striding past the group to a small control panel. She set the tablet into its place on the wall. “There weren’t enough people to fill both. Diana Smith reporting at A113. I am preparing the team now.” Then she turned to them. “We don’t have time for implants. The connections will drill directly into your spine. It won’t hurt. When you reach the battlefield, do not hold back. Whatever you can give us in the next twenty minutes is everything you have left to give.”
“What?” the girl said.
“We’re the team.” Pamela said impatiently. “We’re getting in those things and fighting. We’re going to buy them time to escape. Another hour. Another five minutes.”
“Hell no!” Mr. Hernandez yelled.
His voice echoed through the empty room and the teenagers flinched. Diane turned to him, fury showing just a little under her damp hair, her ruined makeup.
“We are safe for now, Mr. Hernandez, but they will break through. There are teams across the world, buying time,” Diane said. “They will break through and kill your children! Go!”
Still he didn’t move and she gave a tiny nod. The soldier stepped forward and struck him across the shoulder with the gun. The girl squeaked as the soldier pushed him forward. He stumbled toward the huge machines. The boy and girl stepped up beside Pamela and Anton.
“What do you think?” Anton said, because he was really curious.
“I’ll help you,” the boy said to Pamela. She shot him a look of fury. “Don’t. There’s no choice.”
“Fine,” she said.
They were going to die. They were all going to die. All past and future versions of them were going to die. The little boy on the roof, holding his action figures, may as well have been crushed to pulp under the monster’s feet. No, Anton thought, then he wouldn’t be here. He watched Pamela and the teenagers approach the machines.
“What happens if we survive this? What happens if we win?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Diana said.
He nodded. “What about you?”
“I have to stay here. Someone has to monitor you,” Diane said. “I’ll stay here until the end. I won’t leave.”
“Thank you,” Anton said and held out his hand. She looked at it for a long moment and shook it.
“It will hurt,” she said, the only favor she could give him.
And it did, though the sound was worse as the cable drilled through his bone. He could feel his blood drip over his shoulder and wondered how he would clean that, before remembering it didn’t matter. He screamed. Somewhere past that he heard voices crackle to life in his head, Mr. Henderson crying and someone, maybe Pamela, screaming in defiance, fierce and full of pain, in a place at the edge of joy and horror. His mech rocked forward and he fell into the ocean. He could feel, vaguely, the tide pulling at him, like snow on his boots. Then he stood and turned to see if he could spot the ships leave the atmosphere, to say good-bye and good luck.