Joe ran as hard as he could for their burrow. He flew into the section of woods where their home was, darting and zig-zagging through the trees. As his heart felt like it was going to explode in his chest, his only thought was to get to his children. He skidded to a halt in front of the burrow door. His heart sank when he saw the words, “Ezekiel hurt” and “Duluth” scratched into the dirt at the entrance.
“Oh no, Willa, no!” he cried, putting his hands on his knees, huffing. He had no idea if Franklin was still alive, but no good could come of his two children meeting his former best friend.
Joe took a minute to head down into the burrow to refill his water skin. Hidden deep in the back of the burrow behind all the provisions, Joe pulled out a small piece of canvas and unrolled it. Inside was a steel tomahawk, enough metal to buy his way out of this mess.
He slipped the tomahawk into his belt and ran, propelled by his love for his children. He ran as a man with nothing to lose.
Marna had hated that tomahawk. One morning in the earliest days of Duluth, Joe was getting ready for work in his apartment and having a briefing with Franklin. Marna came into the bedroom as he was slipping the hatchet-like weapon onto his belt. “It’s a weapon for killing people,” she’d said.
“Sometimes, people need to be killed,” was his response back then. To Joe’s left, Franklin stood, nodding, looking back and forth between Marna and Joe.
Joe had always loved to run. He let his mind roam and put his body on autopilot, ticking the miles off towards his children. His pace was fast. He needed to catch Willa before she got within the perimeter of Duluth. She was quicker than he but was heavily burdened. He was confident he could catch her in time if he could sustain the pace he’d set.
His mind wandered back to when he and Marna had just arrived in Minnesota, after months of walking north, desperate for cooler temperatures. Joe grew up in South Carolina. In high school, he’d been a cross-country track star, winning a scholarship to Clemson University, where he’d met Marna. The two of them fell in love in college. They were both majoring in agricultural studies; Marna’s specialty was horticulture, while Joe was majoring in farm management, with a focus on the cattle business.
When the Colcoa came, they’d been in their final year of study. The world changed so much in that year; people rioted in the streets, the stock market crashed, and money became virtually useless. The stores emptied out. The Colcoa were handing out food rations. The rations were a useless, tasteless gel that kept people alive but did nothing to satisfy their hunger or their spirit. With free food and free energy, people stopped going to work, and infrastructure broke down. People barricaded themselves in their homes. There was chaos and anarchy.
Joe and Marna went to Montana in the middle of their final year of college. It had the lowest population of any state other than Alaska and was the farthest away from any trouble. They sold everything they owned and bought a little cabin and a thousand acres of land.
When the Colcoa turned on mankind, neither of them was surprised. They wiped out the highest population centers in one morning. Both coasts went dark. The last news Joe ever saw said the same thing happened all over the world.
Joe and Marna lived quietly, working their land and hoping the Colcoa would leave them alone. They hadn’t had much; Joe scrounged junk yards and odd jobs for their tools. They bought a pair of horses, and Joe traded their truck for an old plow and a wooden cart. They ate well, lived in solitude, just the two of them, and were more in love than any two people had ever been.
When the Colcoa rolled through the town outside their house, Joe was there trading his rifle for their winter provisions. After the aliens arrived, the price of firearms skyrocketed. Ammunition was in short supply; the manufacturers were unable to keep up with demand. His rifle and one hundred bullets would buy him years’ worth of provisions. There just wasn’t a year’s worth of food to be had. He was currently negotiating for the last fifty-pound bag of flour and all the salt Wayne, the store owner, had.
Wayne and Joe watched in horror as the gigantic Colcoa machines rolled over the houses and buildings of the small town, spitting out a row of splintered wood and concrete in their wake.
The pair realized the machine would crush them in a second. Joe grabbed Wayne’s hand in an attempt to drag him out. Wayne snatched his hand free and darted into the back room. “I gotta get Baxter!” he yelled.
“No time, Wayne! Come on!” Joe called, planting one hand on the counter as he vaulted over it heading for the side door. The machine was just feet from the back of the building when Joe leaped out the door, over the five steps, and rolled onto the ground. He heard Wayne scream in pain as Joe barrel-rolled to his feet and sprinted across the dirt road.
He hid in a ditch as the hundred foot tall machine rolled past. Armored Colcoa walked on either side of the machine, a hundred yards in front of him. Their battle suits made a low, rumbling hum. That sound invaded Joe’s nightmares. Just the faded memory was enough to bring him near to panic; at the time, it was all he could do to sit still. There was something primal about the fear it instilled, like the sound of a rattlesnake. He was certain the sound was specifically designed to invoke a panic response in humans, and it worked.
From the opposite edge of the small settlement, several men stood from where they were hiding and opened fire. The retorts of their rifles had barely faded when the armored units decimated them. Streaks of blue light erupted from the cannons on the robotic arms, engulfing the entire group of men. Joe kept his head down and focused on surviving long enough to get back to Marna.
The next time he looked up, the giant steel wheel had crushed everything in its path. Inside the machine, something happened to the debris before it was ejected in long rows from the back. Once everything was over, Joe ran to the pile and kicked through it. He was sifting through the tailings when he realized there was no metal in it. No pipes, not even a single nail.
It dawned on him then, as it had to thousands of others around the world, that the Colcoa were mining. They were stripping the land of every piece of metal.
He ran to his horse and galloped home to Marna.
“Marna! Marna! he yelled, approaching the house. She came out the door of their tiny ramshackle dwelling to see what he was screaming about.
“The Colcoa are in town. They decimated it. They’re harvesting the metal. We have to go, and we have to go primitive. They killed Wayne, Marna! They rolled right over the store with him inside. We have to go, and we have to take as little metal as possible.”
They packed light, cutting everything metal from their saddle bags. Joe used twine to tie the bags together. They threw their pack blankets over their horses’ backs and climbed on bareback. They decided to take one piece of metal each. Joe chose his tomahawk while Marna picked a knife.
The couple headed out into the bush, where they lived for the next two years. They never stayed in one place, running north every time the Colcoa got close.
Coming out of his reverie, Joe shook his head as he ran after his son and daughter. He was struck by how naive he’d been, thinking they were just after the metal on the surface.
He thought about a frigid morning years before. The pair of survivors was near the Canadian border and hadn’t seen another living person for months. “Do you think we could get through their line? If we could head south and get through, we could set up where they’ve already been, and we wouldn’t have to run.”
“Do you think they’ll leave when they have all the metal?” Marna asked.
“That’s what they came here for,” Joe said firmly. “Once they have it all, there’s no reason or them not to head to the next planet. We can’t keep heading north. It’s almost winter time, and it’s only going to get worse the farther we go.”
“I think we have to try,” Marna said, and the two of them planned their escape. The next day, they rode south towards the Colcoa. From miles away, they watched the lines of the huge alien mining machines, sucking up everything in their path and spitting it out in straight rows behind them. These were much larger than the one Joe had seen in town the day they’d left their home. Each machine covered several acres. Dozens of them were staggered in a series of V shapes, one overlapping path of the next. Occasionally, the machines would veer around a group of trees or a small hill, leaving tiny spots of green.
“If we can figure out why they leave certain spots, maybe we can hide out in one of those,” Joe said thoughtfully.
Marna replied, “I think we need to go higher up into the mountains. We need to go where their machines can’t go and wait for them to pass, then we come down.”
As he ran towards Duluth, Joe said aloud, “Marna always was the smart one,” grinning to himself.
Marna’s plan worked, and the pair crossed the country. Once they were below the Colcoa machines, they headed east, across the Great Plains. Day after day they walked, across South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, until they came to what had been Chicago. Massive mountains of concrete, asphalt, and glass rubble were all that was left of one of the biggest cities on earth. From Chicago, they turned and headed south, scrounging food and supplies as they went. The two of them began to think they were the only people on earth. Despite that, they both felt an intense drive to find their family, knowing, but never admitting to themselves, that they would never see anyone they loved ever again.
Willa was born in the first summer spent in South Carolina and did much to bring Marna and Joe closer. They’d both been so hopeful that they would find some evidence of their family, or at least some humans, but there was nothing left.
For the first two years of Willa’s life, the three of them lived pretty well. They had a small garden of a few vegetable plants Marna found and brought back. Joe often remembered those years when he was lonely or missed his wife. Many nights when one of the kids was sick, he’d sit up all night holding them close, thinking about those happy days.
In order to feed their small family, one or the other of them would often leave for a few days, Joe to hunt, fish, trap, and gather things and Marna to look for plants they could use. When one was gone, the other stayed home with Willa.
Joe learned to eat tomatoes, something he couldn’t stomach as a child. Marna constantly teased him about that. Every time Joe ate a tomato, he said, “Desperate times call for desperate actions,” and the two of them would laugh, which would set Willa off, her sweet peals of laughter lighting up their small shack and chasing away their fear.
Marna taught Joe how to identify plants and their uses. She taught him medicinal plants as well as edibles. Joe taught her how to track, kill, skin, and clean an animal and how to preserve the meat.
Willa was two when the Colcoa changed the weather. A huge earthquake woke the little family in the middle of the night. Marna grabbed Willa, and the three of them escaped to the garden as their shack crashed down.
Over the next week, the temperature rose drastically. Although it was early fall, it was hotter than Joe ever remembered, and every day the sun baked the earth even more.
On the fifth day of well over one hundred degrees, Marna begged Joe to go north. “Who knows what they’ve done this time, but I think that earthquake was the Colcoa screwing with the planet. I think they’re raising the temperature. We have to go. I think it’s only going to get hotter and hotter. We need to travel at night, and we need to go now.”
Once again, Joe recognized the wisdom of his wife’s words. They picked their garden, packed up whatever supplies they could, and headed north. Joe strapped his tomahawk to his waist, and Marna hung her worn knife from her belt.
The Colcoa were headed south this time. The machines were different, much bigger this second time. They were bigger than any machine Joe had ever seen made by man, bigger than most buildings. Each covered ten or more acres, and they were hundreds of feet tall. They were like high rises flattening the landscape. That was when Joe realized the line they’d seen years before was just preliminary work, taking the easy metal. These left nothing behind, taking virtually everything, including the soil. Once again, a few trees were left standing here or there.
Joe later decided that in the first wave, the Colcoa pilots drove the machines, and subsequent machines followed the lines the first ones made automatically. He was never sure if that was the case, but it was the only explanation anyone had ever come up with for why a few trees were left.
Between each machine, two armored Colcoa walked, several hundred yards apart. This time, there were no mountains to hide in.
“We’re going to have to try to hide right at the edge of the lead machine. When it passes, we pop up and try to get into its wake to let the next pass,” Joe suggested. “Unless you have a better option.”
“I don’t, Joe. And I’m afraid,” Marna replied. “Maybe we shouldn’t try this.”
“We’ll burn up. It’s already getting too hot to be out in the sun. It’s gotten hotter every single day. We have to try.”
They dug a hole, about fifty yards to the west of the first machine, and waited for it to pass.
Tears fell down his cheeks as he ran towards Duluth, thinking back on that day. “I promised, Willa. I promised, and I’m coming, baby,” he said, running even faster towards his son and daughter.
In their fox-hole, fifteen years before, Joe held Willa to his chest. When the machine passed, the earth shook. “Whatever happens, Joe,” said Marna, “I love you. I wouldn’t trade our time together for anything in the world. I am the luckiest woman on the planet, besides maybe Willa there. Always take care of her, Joe. Promise me that,” said Marna.
Joe promised and kissed his wife. “I love you too, Marna. We’re going to be fine. We’ll head north until it’s cool. We’ve survived this long; we’re not giving up yet.”
Joe stuck his head out of the hole, handed Willa to Marna, and said, “Go now. I’m right behind you.” Marna and Willa took off, staying low to the ground. A forty-foot drop down to massive bedrock boulders was behind the machine. A huge field of car-sized boulders stretched out to the south. Marna sat on the edge and slid down, a small avalanche of gravel and dirt following her.
Joe looked to his right as he ran for the drop off. The armored Colcoa turned, heading straight for the three of them.
“Run and hide!” Joe yelled down, turning towards the alien. He drew his tomahawk and charged the creature. It raised its arm and fired blue bolts of energy at Joe, but the man was too fast. He closed the distance and leapt at the steel-encased Colcoa. He could see the creature’s terrible face through the glass, some thick gooey liquid running down channels in its cheeks. Joe brought his tomahawk up and down while the thing battered him with its robotic arms, trying to dislodge the human from its metallic shell.
Joe reversed the tomahawk, driving the spike into the glass over and over again, prying and chipping his way into the armor. The second Colcoa headed for Joe as he pried the glass away from his target. Inside the cockpit of the armored carrier, the Colcoa operated a number of levers. Joe reached in and pushed its hand, trying to get his tomahawk into the tiny cockpit. As Joe pushed, the suit spun, slowly revolving as the second armored unit closed on them.
In one final heave, Joe leaned in, grabbed the Colcoa inside, and pulled, ripping the Colcoa from the cockpit. The armor fell over sideways, and the man rolled over and over, tangled with the alien. Joe was pinned down. He felt around in the dirt beside him as the green monster pushed down his throat. Joe’s hand closed on a rock, and with the last of his strength he smashed the rock into the Colcoa’s head. It went limp, collapsing to the side. Joe wearily climbed to his feet, gathered his tomahawk, and ran towards the second armored Colcoa.
There wasn’t much time before more Colcoa would be there. He sprinted to close the distance, hoping Willa and Marna were far away. He didn’t hold much hope of surviving; he just wanted to buy them time.
He heard the armored suit behind him stand up, and then he heard Marna’s voice. “Joe! Get down!” she yelled as the armored unit fired. Joe dove to the dirt and watched the Colcoa he was heading for crash over onto its side, engulfed in blue light.
Marna hopped down out of the cockpit and grabbed her dumbfounded husband.
“How did you do that?” he asked as they ran. “And where’s Willa?”
“She’s in the rocks below. I couldn’t let them kill you, Joe.”
They scooped Willa up as the giant machines came to a halt. The two tiny humans ran as hard as they could, but it appeared the Colcoa didn’t chase them. They ran all night long, Marna struggling to keep up with Joe. They slept in cave that night, far underground. They went back into the cave until they found a crevice Joe could barely squeeze through and slept safely in the cavern behind it.
That was the start of becoming nocturnal and living underground, Joe thought as he neared the outskirts of Duluth. He stopped in some brush to gather his thoughts and catch his breath. He couldn’t be that far behind Willa.
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