Everybody wants to be part of something bigger than their own life. It's a fact; at some point in time, every person will have thought of how they wished their existence was more exciting, or that they could find some greater meaning other than the daily grind and toil. Everybody wonders what it would be like to have something tremendous and remarkable happen to them. How would life change? How would they change? How would they handle it? It's the common fantasy—imagining yourself at the crux of something incredible, and imagining how you'd evolve through the experience into something greater than what you once were. Call it daydreaming if you will, but everyone has done it and will do it. It makes our lives bearable, thinking of what could be, even though we know that it won't happen.
There are times, however, that the unthinkable does happen, and that climactic and/or amazing things befall everyday people. And when it comes around, that event that they've been waiting for, hoping for, they are forced to realize that nothing is like what they'd imagined. They are forced to come to terms with their own mortality, with their own shortcomings, with their own futility in the face of the unfathomable. And that's when it all begins—that's when we begin to grow, to adapt, to evolve; from the bottom up we build ourselves, rediscovering inner strength and courage, realizing we can be more than what we were before.
Maybe I'm just trying too hard to put into words what is in truth inexpressible. But I'll tell you this, before I regale you with my story, that I am not the person I once was. I'll tell you that I used to daydream about coming into my own through trial and tribulation. I'll tell you that I'm just as ordinary and undeserving as the next person. But what I'll also tell you is that I've lived through something inconceivable, and that everything I thought I was during that time was revealed to be nothing but my own lies to my self. You're never really brave until you've been a coward, and you're never really strong until you've been unsubstantial and helpless. You won't know yourself until you've been stripped down to the most essential bits and laid bare to the harshest scrutiny. All this I tell you with the utmost certainty, and I'd like to impart to you something more in the words I have yet to share. I hope you'll glean something from what I'm about to tell you. Or, if nothing else, I hope you find intrigue and entertainment in some little part that you'll remember for a long time to come.
And so begins my story.
As far as days went, it hadn't been my worst. Not my best, but definitely not one of my worst. As per usual, my only drive was to get through work; as far as I was concerned, my day started at 3:00 PM, when I walked out of the office doors and into freedom, such as it was. My job was far from home, a forty-five minute drive each way. It was when I was in my car headed for home that I was the most content during the days, because for that span of time it was just me, my music and nobody around to hear me sing. Driving was therapeutic. It still is, sometimes.
Like I said, that day hadn't been memorable. I'd gone to work, spent the morning mired in paperwork, and spent the afternoon in my company truck, inspecting private farmland for the little things the government didn't like and talking with whoever flagged me down on the road. Most of the time they weren't happy to see me—such is the life of a civil servant. I understand that shooting the messenger is easier than taking the time to complain to the actual source of your woes, so I tried not to let it get to me, which is a task easier said than done. And so it was I was quite happy that afternoon to be in my own car headed home.
It was hot, hotter than that part of the world was accustomed to; Alberta is the land of weather that changes every hour; more often than not those changes were for the worse. We had for those few days been besieged by a heat wave made brutal by our temperate standards, and the population was largely divided between either reveling in the heat or loathing it with an absolute passion (as I did). My car that I'd owned for three years had only recently had the air conditioning fixed, and I was grateful beyond words for that small mercy. With the icy air at the highest setting, the interior of my car was almost to the point of being uncomfortably frigid. I was in my element—it was Friday afternoon and the long weekend was looming so invitingly before me, and here I was homeward bound in my cold car, my music cranked as I sang along with an obvious lack of anything even remotely resembling vocal talent. Life was good.
I switched songs as I began the climb up the slope dubbed the River Hill by locals. The land around the town of Cynthia, where I worked, was mostly gentle slopes with thick forest. The North Saskatchewan River wound its way throughout those hills, carving a deep valley that was almost canyon-like in certain areas. Because of heavy growth in the oil and gas industries in the area, forest was being lost and many places were growing less and less picturesque as time went on. The River Hill, however, and all the land surrounding it still maintained its appeal, and so as I forced my car up the steep slope, I let my eyes wander over the thick stands of aspen forest on either side of the road and fantasize about building a house somewhere in the region, someday in the future.
The first thing I noticed as I crested the hill was a large jumble of vehicles in the road ahead at the bottom of the slope. The traffic flow was close to being heavy; though I got off work earlier than most, it was still nearing the universal quitting time. I fiddled with my volume for a bit, trying to find the right level between ear-splitting and car-shaking. It was then that I realized that the vehicle ahead of me was slowing, and the vehicle before it was slowing, and the one before it in turn; confused, I applied the brakes and wondered if there had been some sort of accident up ahead. My car rolled to a gentle stop; I couldn't go any further then because every vehicle in front of me had come to a halt as well. I strained to see past the line of traffic stretching out before me to see if I could spot the telltale flashing lights of the police or perhaps an ambulance. As far as I could tell with my limited line of sight, there was nothing of the sort. And so I settled back into my seat with an irritated sigh, reaching over to tweak again the volume of my music.
I was singing along loudly with the current song when the man in the truck ahead of me opened his door and hopped out. Odd. I watched him, thinking perhaps he had to relieve himself; it wouldn't be the first time on this highway—notorious unto itself for all manners of bizarre and rude misdemeanors—that I'd encountered something of that sort. But the man, however, turned in my direction and walked quickly over to my car. I hit the button to roll down the window with one hand and turned down my music with the other, thinking he was about to impart to me his knowledge of what was happening at the bottom of the hill below. Instead, he bent down so that he could see me, stuck his hand through my window, and pointed in the direction of the passenger seat.
"Look at it," he said to me, his voice sounding to me thin and anxious. Confused, I turned my head in the direction he indicated, my eyes searching the landscape beyond the passenger side window.
What I saw was something that for a long span of seconds rendered me immobile out of sheer incredulousness. It wasn't possible that I was seeing what I was seeing, but it was there nonetheless. It was possible, I amended with awe an instant later, because only a few weeks ago, there'd been grainy footage of the same type of thing all over the news. The Hoover Dam had been under some kind of attack, and the assailants shown had been something of this ilk. The public had been told little to nothing of what had actually transpired, and left to its own devices the media had been more than happy to wildly speculate: terrorists attack with new technology stolen from the US itself; North Korea and Japan together had developed the robotic weapons that were seen in poor footage that was replayed over and over again. The speculations had been laughable; many people thought that the whole thing was just a hoax. But sitting where I was at that moment, staring at something that shouldn't exist, I knew that what I'd seen on the news had been real.
Less than a kilometer south of the highway, protruding up out of a small hayfield, was a drilling rig. It was centered in a large patch of bare, exposed earth which was the rig site proper; scattered buildings and vehicles were strewn haphazardly across the site. Such a sight wasn't uncommon; this was oil country, and such things were almost everywhere. The rig was at least, by my rough estimation, 70 feet tall, which was small for a drilling rig. The thing that stood beside it was easily half that height. It was massive and man-like in shape, and even from this distance I could see that some of its features resembled parts of earthmoving equipment that was quite commonly used in oil and gas development. As I watched, the machine lifted one of its lower limbs and brought it down with deliberate slowness upon one of the small trailers sitting on the rig site. Even from where I was, I could hear the sound the trailer made as it collapsed under the weight of the robot-thing. I imagined the chaos at the site, of all the people that would be working there and of how easily the machine could end their lives, and a deep chill ran over me.
For a moment, all was still. The robot didn't move, standing with one foot upon the destroyed building. I dared not breathe, dreading and wondering what it would do next. The man standing outside my car made an indiscernible noise and pushed himself away from my car. "I'm getting the hell out of here," he told me, his eyes as wide as I imagined my own to be. I nodded numbly. It was a damn good idea. He ran back to his truck, hopped inside, and within moments had turned his vehicle in a tight circle to head back up the River Hill, back towards Cynthia. He didn't have to worry about oncoming traffic; the vehicles that had conglomerated at the bottom of the hill to watch the machine had effectively blocked both lanes. The two vehicles in front of the man apparently shared his sentiment, for they too turned to head back up the River Hill, one of them accelerating so fast that the tires screeched against the asphalt.
As soon as they'd passed, I glanced in my rearview mirror. There was no traffic behind me; I was fairly certain that by this time the RCMP had been notified of what was happening and that they had closed the bridge that lead to the River Hill, effectively stopping any traffic from leaving Cynthia to the east. I'd just eased my foot onto the gas pedal in preparation to turn completely around when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. The machine … it was moving again, taking one enormous step towards the drilling rig, and then another. The impact of its weight upon the ground was something even I could feel from where I was, as my car shuddered slightly with each step it took. It reached out with two of its massive arms and gripped the edges of the drilling derrick before wrenching it from the ground; the shriek of rending metal was painful even from this distance. With considerable ease the machine had ripped the derrick from its foundations; the ground around the rig heaved and ridged violently as the latticework of pipe below ground was bent and ripped apart in the process. When all was done, the machine held the 70 foot metal structure in both of its claw-like hands as easily as I would have held a piece of paper.
From the drilling platform where the derrick had been, a dark fluid was bubbling up and flowing over from the large boring hole—gasoline in its most natural state. The rig site was swiftly being soaked with extremely flammable liquid, but I had no time to dwell on that little fact, because the machine had hefted the broken derrick high over its head before bringing its arm up and letting it fly towards the highway.
And towards me.
The derrick sailed end over end through the air, and with a choked sob of terror I stomped down hard on the accelerator, unable even as I did so to tear my eyes away. As the derrick—so massive, so horrifying now that it was closer—hurtled up and out of my line of vision, as my car shot forward and the engine screamed in sudden protest, I fully expected in that moment for time to slow as my car was crushed from above, obliterated by the broken rig. But time moved as it always had—the derrick hit the pavement behind me hard enough to shake the ground ; the piercing shriek of metal grating against asphalt was skull splitting as the derrick skidded across both lanes before rolling into the ditch.
My first reaction in light of this miracle—I wasn't dead!—was to slam on the brakes and stop my car. My foot came down immediately on the pedal. Nothing happened. The car began to pick up speed as it reached the steepest part of the hill. Below me, steadily growing closer, was the cluster of vehicles that had stopped, their drivers and passengers spilling out to gather on the edge of the highway to watch the giant machine as it further destroyed the rig site. There was no way through them; both lanes were still blocked.
And my car wasn't going to stop.
I had all of two seconds to react before I reached the bottom of the hill—before I reached the blockade—and I chose, unwisely and hysterically, to reflect on the fact that all things considered, this wasn't all that surprising. This car was constantly breaking down and falling apart in ways that even the mechanics found unusual. Of course, on the day that my life would depend upon it, I wouldn't have brakes—and oh god, I was going to die—
I'd reached the bottom. And, screaming, my foot still slamming on the brake, I screwed my eyes shut tight against the carnage I was certain was about to happen and cranked the steering wheel hard to the right. If I could swerve into the ditch and crash, at least I wouldn't be taking anyone else with me. My body, tensed for an abrupt right turn, was thrown the other way as my car instead lurched hard to the left. I opened my eyes as I sailed into the ditch, and shut them again as a line of huge trees swam into my vision. My hands still clamped on the wheel, I screamed once more as my vehicle turned again, this time so sharply that it shuddered. Its speed had not once decreased, and as it rocketed through the ditch I prayed frantically that I'd live.
There was a sudden bump that threw me forwards in the seat. And then, with a final great heave, my trajectory straightened. My eyes flew open. I was on the highway again. Better yet, I was in the right lane. So thankful was I for this that it took me several seconds to realize that my car was slowing, albeit roughly in jerks and starts that matched the spasmodic pumping of my foot on the brake pedal. I slowed the car to a complete halt, numbly shifted it into park, and laid my head upon the steering wheel. My hands, still wrapped tight around the wheel, shook so badly it rattled the dashboard. Foremost amongst my thoughts were wonder and a certain amount of awe at the fact that I was not lying dead in a crushed and burning wreck. And after a moment, another thought surfaced, bringing with it a suspicion I knew to be truth with absolute certainty.
My car wasn't a car.
I was out of the vehicle and onto the pavement so fast I startled myself. My escape was hindered by the seatbelt, which I'd ripped loose and had caught my leg as I jumped out and dropped me to my knees. I flipped over and scooted backwards, my eyes flicking from my car to the road on either side of me. No traffic; the haphazard blockade I'd narrowly avoided plowing into was steadily growing, people congregating to watch the rampaging machine. Alone, relatively safe, I stared at my car. It was perfectly still, engine still running, door open as it beeped insistently at me to come back and close said door. It was just as ugly and normal as I remembered it being for the past three years.
But it wasn't a car.
I knew what it was. It was like the ones that had been all over the news only a few weeks ago. It was like the one just up the hill that had ripped apart the drilling rig as though it had only been made of tissue. I was completely overwhelmed in that moment, my mind a hysterical mess struggling to string together all that had happened into something that made sense. Why were military robots from Japan here? Why were they in Canada at all? And why, for that matter, had my car done what it did?
A sudden tremor had me scrambling up off the pavement. My gaze flew up the road to the jumble of vehicles and the people all around them. And the machine—it was moving. Towards them. I could see the people making frantically for their vehicles, could see the panic the approaching machine was wreaking. A burst of light so intense it seared my eyes lit the air, followed by a hollow, thunderous noise. Squinting, blinking furiously, I tried to focus past the ringing in my ears and looked ahead to find that one of the tanker trucks that had been parked on the outskirts of the vehicular blockade was now just so much blackened wreckage, the flames enveloping it twisting and licking at the sky. The immediate area around the destroyed truck was cratered and scorched as though by some great impact, and I could see the dark, prone shapes littering the ground, knowing them to be bodies.
My eyes sought the machine. It was holding out one arm, which looked nothing so much as some kind of giant cannon and I knew it was taking careful aim at its next target.
"Jesus," I whispered, experiencing a feeling of dread so strong all I wanted to do was curl up in the fetal position and cover my head. I registered, dimly, the fact that my heart was pounding so hard it hurt, that my lungs couldn't seem to take in enough air, that every part of my body was trembling. I couldn't be seeing this—this wasn't reality, it couldn't be. But then, as if to belie that thought, there was more commotion … not from ahead but from beside me …
I'd been right. My car was not a car, oh no. Stunned into utter immobility, I watched as my car—my beat up 98 Pontiac Grand-Am—began to shift and transform. It came apart fluidly, pieces sliding away to expose metal parts I'd never seen before, becoming some how larger and taller than it had been. And there—it was almost like it was unfolding, standing and reaching. Mere instants later, the seamless transformation was complete. Standing before me was a creature comprised of metal and material I'd never seen before, well over 20 feet in height, vaguely manlike in proportion but so obviously anything but. Gone was the ugly dark green that my car had been—this machine was different shades of green and silver, all of them lacking the rust spots and dirt that had encrusted the shape it had taken before.
Absurdly, all I could think about in that moment, staring up at my car that wasn't a car, was that I'd left my wallet inside.
I watched dumbly as the new machine began to move; a device mounted on its shoulder that also looked akin to a cannon carried fired some manner of artillery with a deafening whump. With a whistling scream, the missile-like device corkscrewed through the air, leaving behind it a billowing trail of white smoke. The other machine, its attention on the cluster of vehicles and the people surrounding them, was caught completely unawares. The missile struck it in the side, and in a burst of flame and a tremor that dropped me again to my knees, it was knocked back and to the ground. On all fours, gasping in the throes of panic, I peered ahead, trying to discern through the smoke whether the antagonistic machine had been destroyed. But no—I could see its huge silhouette through the haze rising slowly from the ground, turning in the direction of the attack that had taken it by surprise.
The machine at my side turned its head towards me. Its eyes were a brilliant luminescent blue, set in a face so very alien and mechanical. Its lower features began to move, and as they did so a voice spilled forth, deep, sonorous and authoritative.
"Take cover." It said.