We heard the shrieks before anything else. The screaming sound of metal on metal sliced through the air and embedded itself in our hearts. I saw Yuan and the other men wince at the noise. A few pressed their hands to their ears to relieve the pain. I stifled a laugh at the expense of the men who had ignored my advice to collect beeswax before battle. It was not right to mock those who would be dying by my side.
The tremors came next, the arrhythmic pounding of a thousand tons of iron knuckling across the forest floor. The pines quivered in time, dropping needles like a rain of tiny swords. The wails of the women and children rose as one behind us as they evacuated, a grand battle chorus. Many of the men were sweating, tasting the fear of death for the first time. I too was shaking, but this was the product of anticipation, not fear. Yuan was beside me, trying to look brave as he stared unblinking into the shadows among the trees. A quick cuff to the ear reminded him just how many men dry eyes have killed.
I turned my attention back to the field just in time to see the first of apes emerge from the wood on my right, howling and clanking as they charged into the waiting pikes of the militia. They were larger than any mechanized ape I had previously seen; almost three times the size of a fully outfitted soldier and fearsomely armored. They were however, relatively low in numbers, a mere 20 against the right flank's 400. A skirmishing force to test our strength, I decided. The sickening snap of cracking bone made it's way to me from somewhere within the melee, accompanied by the first whiffs of blood and oil.
The gorillas fought crudely, reliant almost entirely on brute force. The impact of the long pikes slowed and harassed them, giving the dismantlers a chance to get up close with their crowbars and cutting torches. They charged in among the shafts and went to work. I watched as one, then two, and then a third of the enemies number was overwhelmed. Others were more resilient. One of the dismantlers, a boy really, perhaps 14 years of age, fell to a skull crushing blow before ever reaching his target. Others were tossed backwards into the lines of their compatriots and some accidentally impaled on friendly spearheads. A man exploded in a spray of blood, crushed beneath a massive steel fist. Acceptable casualties.
A few moments later the enemy withdrew, dragging its' wounded back into the trees. Medics and shamans rushed forward to administer to our own dead and dying and the men closed the new gaps in their ranks. Somewhere behind me someone was shouting something I couldn't quite make out, some strange word I didn't recognize. Then I heard it shouted again. My name. I turned abruptly and was bought face-to-face with a panting messenger boy who handed me a scroll, wordlessly. I accepted it and gave him the sign to stay for a moment. Only then did I examine the contents of the scroll, although I had already guessed at what might be inside.
The women and children of the village had been evacuated to the shore and successfully loaded onto the boats. All that was left for us to do was retreat back to the beach ourselves and board the last two barges off the continent. Once we did that, we would finally be able to leave these goddamn apes behind because there was just one thing the bastards couldn't do that we could. And that was swim.
I quickly turned over the scroll and scrawled a note back to the captains of the barges to wait just a little bit longer. Then I handed it to the messenger boy and sent him scurrying back off. No sooner had I done so than the enemy burst back out through the brush once more, this time in larger numbers. There weren't so many large ones this time, not as much heavy muscle as they had sent before. But that was small consolation.
They had decided to send the chimps. Smaller machines, built mostly from the rusty discarded scrap of their larger compatriots, they had the potential to be just as deadly and twice as agile. You couldn't get around them the way you could with the gorillas. Instead you had to try and use their momentum against them and impale them on first contact. Otherwise you would have to try your best to bash the thing to death in single combat, and that was generally a losing proposition.
But there was always the third option. Watching the metallic horde advance, I calculated their pace and counted down the seconds. Then, when they were about fifty meters or so away, I gave the signal. The front line of the enemy erupted in a flash of heat and light. The blast was strong enough for some of our own men to feel it, and they staggered at the force. Hundreds of beasts were reduced to shards of steel shrapnel that flew through the air to embed itself in the hides of their comrades. A perfectly executed trap. The remaining enemy continued to charge, unfazed, but with their formations broken and many already damaged, they became considerably less formidable. After just a few moments of combat, we had wiped out the wave entirely and I optimistically gave the order to retreat. My exhausted troops broke formation and immediately began to run for the beach where the barges were waiting about one kilometer away, discarding their heavy weapons and armor as they went.
A great howling arose from within the forest, like none I had ever heard before. I screamed at some of the departing men to stay, to help cover the escape of their friends and allies, but they either chose not to hear me or could not above the rising din. Soon, with the exception of about 20 of my elite guard, I was alone on the battlefield. Alone but not helpless. I communicated with my guards via hand signal, ordering them to fall back to the village with me and take up a defensive position. There, with the advantage of the high ground, we might have a chance at stunting whatever final onslaught ours foes might be readying themselves to throw at us. And we would have just one trick left up our sleeves.
We moved in the swift, high-efficiency fashion of veteran soldiers. These were the men who had followed me through every battle and no longer quavered at the thought of death. That fear had long since been bled out of them.
Arriving at the village, I ordered them into the one truly permanent structure that had been erected during our short stay here; an enormous mudbrick dwelling that had functioned as both the head of government and the primary armory for our troops. Leading the men past the vast array of flimsy, cobbled together weapons that had made up the majority of our army's arsenal, I guided them to a small back room where I had spent the last three months putting our best remaining engineers and chemists to work on advanced weapons I had hoped to one day arm all of us with. Unfortunately, they had only had the time and materials to arm ten of us; that would have to be enough.
Taking one of the new weapons for myself, I armed the most courageous of my allies with the other nine. The other eleven I encouraged to gather up the best clubs and maces they could find. Then we hurried back outside en masse and formed a line overlooking our earlier field of battle to wait for the grand assault.
In the forest below us, the howling had not stopped. Rather, it had only grown louder and continued to do so with every passing moment, stabbing at our ears with its' volume and intensity. I could not help but feel sorry for those who might still be dying on the field, forced to listen to such a hideous sound in their final moments. And as I finished that thought, I saw the forest fall. There were so many of them approaching that they were no longer moving around the trees, but trampling them instead. Seventy meter high trees, toppled under a tide of vicious steel monsters. This time I did smile, knowing that the death I had always dreamed of as a soldier was near at hand. My comrades laughed openly at the sight of the swarming enemy, making rude jibes in the face of the inevitable. It was almost like we weren't at war at all for a moment, just a bunch of old friends enjoying each others company in the way only old friends can. Only when our foes grew closer did we become silent and grim again. I gave the order not to fire the new weapons until the enemy came within twenty-five meters. The engineers had told me they supposed the effective range to be more like thirty or thirty-five, but there had never been a chance to test this and I did not wish to waste ammunition.
The ground was shaking violently beneath us now as the enemy began their ascent of the slope below us. Looking into their ranks I could see not only full-size gorillas and chimps, but also the their smaller cousins, the iron monkeys that were typically reserved for scouting duties and were famous for being able to drop out of a tree and onto a man's head to rip his eyes out in under five seconds. Now they rode on the individually on the backs of the chimps and by the dozens on the gorillas. It was to be an all-out assault to wipe us out once and for all. Carefully, I took aim at the gorilla advancing most directly towards me. My comrades did the same, respectively.
Then, with our hearts collectively in our throats, we pulled the triggers on our untested, experimental weapons. Bright streams of liquid fire erupted from our nozzles, engulfing the already oil-stained apes in flames. We watched with unrestrained glee as they threw themselves into our inferno, only to have their bodies rupture and burst, fatally. A huge pile of charred slag began to form and I gave one last signal to begin moving backwards. The fuel for our flamethrowers would only last so long, especially with our heavy use, but they might last just long enough to give us the time we needed to get to the shore and safety, assuming the barges hadn't yet left without us.
For a little while, things went seamlessly. We backed up all the way to the far end of the village while holding off an endless torrent of enemies without a single casualty. But the apes were slowly becoming more and more leery and cautious about giving themselves over to our weapons. They started to hang back, out of our range, slowly circling around in an attempt to flank us. One of the gorillas got close enough to lob a few handfuls of monkeys at us. One of the men was foolish enough to attempt to fire on them in the air; a chimp took advantage of the opening and ran in to put a fist through his ribs before the others managed to beat it to death. His weapon was quickly stripped from him by another and we continued our slow move towards the beach.
At that point we could see that at least one of the barges had stayed behind to wait for us and that the captain was beckoning to us from the shore. I gave the order for those without flamethrowers to retreat at that point and tell the captain to set sail; the rest of us would swim to the ship, assuming we made it that far. They left with no small reluctance, and those of us that remained turned our attention towards ensuring nothing got past to heckle them on their way. The chimps, in particular, tried to knuckle their way around us in their direction but with little success. There was one who managed to break through despite having been set alight and charged down onto the sand only to be met by one of my guard who had had the good sense to hold onto his weapon; a metallic crunch assured me that things were in good hands.
Still, it wasn't much longer before the once steady streams of flame from our weapons began to die down a bit. I ordered a full retreat for the five of us with the least ammunition remaining and the rest of us would run after them, sporadically firing behind us to keep some distance between us and the enemy. It was as good a plan as any, but despite our practiced professionalism it nonetheless became a frantic and desperate dash towards the water. In the short distance between the ocean and ourselves, I lost four of my best and closest friends, all of whom were either ripped to shreds or crushed alive. Of the rear guard, I was now the only one left and as I reached the very edge of the water, I turned and fired my flamethrower into the oncoming mass one last time. I kept my finger on the trigger as I back into the sea until I had to hold the weapon above my head to keep it above water. Only when the flames sputtered and died for the last time did I wriggle free of the tanks and swim out towards the barge. One of the gorillas, in a last ditch attempt to destroy me, rumbled out into the water, screeching frantically. He reached out with one of his huge arms and nearly caught me, in fact, I would swear I felt him brush my foot. But then it was too late for him; the corrosive seawater flooded into his chassis and extinguished his systems. I looked back just in time to enjoy watching the electronic light in his eyes die and sink beneath the waves.
It took me about twenty minutes of strong swimming to make my way all the way out to the barge. This, on top of my already enormous sense of general fatigue, left me entirely exhausted by the time they managed to fish me out of the water and haul my sopping wet carcass onto the deck. After coughing up a fair portion of the ocean, I finally regained enough of my senses to look pleased. We had done it. We had escaped the iron menace forever. All around me were the happy faces of people who could sleep without fear for the first time in years. Send up the flare, I declared, let the rest of our fledgling navy know that their last ship has launched and the commander is aboard. A cheer went up at the proposition, and one of the more energetic crew members scurried to set off the flare.
A hundred eyes watched in unison as shining orb of hope shot up into the fading twilight, and then turned their eyes hopefully towards the horizon for a reply.
Send up another, I said, frowning. Another was flare was lit and sent off. Again, no reply.
What could be wrong? We could still see the rest of the ships carrying our loved ones in the distance and we knew they were just as desperate to receive word from us as we were from them. Confused, I stumbled to edge of the deck to get a better view of the fleet. They were still out there all right, but they seemed to have come to a halt and clustered together in the distance for some reason. What the hell was going on?, I thought, and looked down into the water.
An scaly, distorted mockery of a human face sneered back at me, and snorted a watery mist out of its' nostrils before disappearing beneath the waves again.