The whales surrendered first, though none of us understood the significance at the time.
The whales were wise. They had given up the sea once already, long ago, and then gladly ceded their claim on the land to the primates of the Paleocene. They saw the way of things early, when their many cousins in the web of life still sought to deny it. Their representatives flung themselves up on beaches, tails shattering the sea-spray, to sing their dedition. The sun baked seafoam into funeral lace on their skin as they offered us our choice of terms, their unequivocal capitulation. A few of us heard, but no one knew what they were trying to say. In some places, beachgoers strained their shoulders against the whales’ impossible bulk, misinterpreting pleas for clemency as appeals for rescue. Here and there, laughing boys spray-painted their names onto shuddering flesh and climbed atop for a rare photo opportunity. Elsewhere, scientists entered lines of data into spreadsheets and shook their heads sadly.
The whales did not stop coming. They, unlike us, had little choice.
The cranes were next to cede their claims. Flocks touched down in Irkutsk, Shenyang, Busan. With their white wings spread low, they shadowed the city squares; their red crowns grazed the pavement, and their long graceful legs turned elegant curtsies. When people put brass bowls of water before them, they drank, then returned to their deferential posture. The flowers, the sweet-burning joss sticks, the spattering of milk vodka cast before them — these they ignored, and when no human stood forth to accept their surrender, they finally returned to the sky. Around the world, people wept and wondered at such a miracle. Ecologists in Hefei and Lanzhou exchanged population counts and worried messages.
Perhaps the Joshua Trees should have joined the others sooner, but trees have always been a proud lot. And perhaps we would have had a better understanding, if there had been more of them remaining. When their eager skyward grasp bent downward into an abject bow, we cut them down, sent the tissue out for analysis. No microbial agent was ever isolated, and so the remainder of the trees were harvested anyway, to allow for the necessary expansion of the Salton Sea Basin Sanitary Landfill.
After that, the surrenders came closer together. Sad-eyed elephants kneeling on the ragged stubble of their forests, refusing to be moved. Oil-smothered pelicans struggling out of wash tubs on soap-sheened beaches, their rattling gasps unheard as well-meaning volunteers forced them back under the rainbowed foam. Gorillas approaching cities on two feet, with their arms spread, their humanlike hands empty and open wide in supplication. Stalwart stag beetles carpeting village roads and waving their mandibles, demanding to be heard.
A few understood by then, but none with the power to do anything.
There were holdouts, of course. Butterflies have never begged. And where we crowded into the ragged edges of land still verdant enough to feed and house us, others were waiting: the patient coyotes, the grinning caimans. The last Bengal tiger died in her sleep in a private preserve in the Malvinas, never once rolling over to show the surrender-white flag of her belly.
The last to surrender were the most loyal. They were the ones who waited until their masters had lost all the ground left to lose. The dogs and the cats, who curled up beside their people, who lay down with them on the roads and the streets and in the dark, hot, low basements. They pressed their heads into familiar hands one last time and panted dry shallow breaths in counter rhythm to the humans’.
We never truly surrendered, of course: to our own better nature, to the slow horror of what we had made and could no longer stop. We brought the only weapons to this war, and we were loath to lay them down, to the last of us.
Only in the quiet of our absence did the scavengers and survivors crawl out to survey the clean-wiped face of the world. There was no sweet victory for them to relish; just a stalemate that had finally passed beyond stale.
But in small ways, in simple ways, they began to build anew: weta and carrion-bird and a thousand skittering beetles.
The world continued, still continued, to turn. But in the end, it belonged to all those who never surrendered, those who only survived.