The Battle for Zion
"Attention all personnel: Dock wall breach in 21 minutes! All personnel, man your positions." The disembodied voice had screamed and shouted the same warning, nine times now. It was getting old. Moreover, it was annoying. We knew what was coming. How could we not? Death in the form of a quarter million Sentinels.
I started down the ranks of proud powerful machines. Each Armoured Personnel Unit or APU stands about four meters high, weighs in at about three tons when fully loaded for the 30mm cannon in each arm, currently riding in their "safe" positions. Technicians and loaders run between us, loading the last few APUs with their 10,000 round ammo magazines. Five thousand bullets for each cannon, over half a million rounds between the entire APU Corps, ready to defend Zion to the last.
I step up to my machine, the machine that had been mine since I graduated the simulation program. I had over ten thousand virtual kills, and half as many real ones. I couldn't help myself as I ran my hand against the cold steel and silent hydraulics of this titan. I patted her arm affectionately and grabbed a hold of the handhold on her forearm to pull myself in to the open, almost armour less cockpit. There is little protection for us, but there is no fear sitting in the cockpit of these machines. There is no fear.
I stomp both of the pedals, testing the column and she rears to life underneath me, rising to her full height with a mechanical purr. Around me, I hear the mechanical whines and rumblings as other APUs rise, ready to do battle, to destroy the enemy that threatens our home. Morpheus had said it best, in the temple: "This is Zion! And we are not afraid!" I note one of the loaders, "The Kid" or Karl, who self-substantiated out of The Matrix. A feat in its own right, his trolley is empty and he rushes to Gate 3.
Standing in the seven rank of war machines, five abreast with another twenty ranks behind me, I was close enough to see Captain Mifune. He could make his APU dance like nothing I had ever seen, swinging it around on one leg, a multi-ton ballerina. He faced us, hands resting light and easy on the column. I could see his feet relaxed on the pedals. Our leader, our commander, and in many ways our pride: The pride of the APU Corps, stood ready to address us.
The safety straps cut their trademark "X" across his chest and we all knew, and could feel them. They were hidden beneath his shirt, but the bruises were there. From the tops of the shoulders down across the chest, the upper half of an "X" bruised in to our flesh from the recoil of our cannons. I was close enough. I could see him, the calm, set determination. He knew, just as we did what awaited us: War, with a quarter million Sentinels. There was a Sentinel for every man, woman and child of Zion, in just the first wave of how many waves. From the 250,000 people of Zion, we could not even muster 25000 APUs. We could not even muster that many infantry.
The captain raised himself, despite the restraints, almost standing atop his machine, an avatar of an angry god staring down at us, his finest warriors, ""All right!" he bellowed, and he had our undivided attention, "This is IT! Now you all know me, so I'll say this as simple as I can," he paused, drawing in a deep breath. It was then, at that moment, that split second, that I saw the fear in him. It was the same fear in all of us; it was a fear of death. It was a fear that he acknowledge and swallowed down, and drove from his mind, "If it's our time to die, its our time. All I ask is," he paused for a moment, and we hung on, waiting for his next words, "If we have to give these bastards our lives: We give them Hell before we do!"
Both arms on his APU folded out, the snub-nosed barrels of both cannons pointed to the floor. His machine was still but every other APU had raised its right arm in salute. Our shouts unified us, gave us a purpose, a reason to exist. A roar, our rally, our battle cry was the mix of high-pitched mechanical whine and the roar of human voices: The ultimate mix of man and machine.
We marched, across the dock, in perfect synchrony. We would have impressed the machines with our precision, the exactness of every stride. The whine of servos and the thump of actuators, vibrating the steel and titanium walkways of the Dock as every APU moved to its assigned position upon the perimeter, creating a series of overlapping circles. We had little left to do but wait for the telltale sign in the roof, of the coming tide of metallic death that had been drilling its way towards us, for days.
I was assigned to assist Gate 4; my Captain was perhaps a hundred meters away, at the base of Gate 3. Setting the steering column in its neutral as I let the armature strapped to my shoulders, running down my arms take command, I could not run only walk and with sufficient practice jump when the guns were armed and ready to fire. We were all in position, and we waited, for a sign or a signal to make our final preparation for war. We were grouped in units of three, to ensure we could cover each other's back, without compromising or extensively overlapping our arcs of fire.
Our Captain, watched the roof, and we did the same, scanning for any sign of the Machines. Watching and waiting, predators awaiting our prey. The same voice that had counted down the minutes crackled through the speaker, tiny and distant, almost as if he was detached from the battle about to take place, "One Minute to breach!"
The platform, the heart of operations in the dock, began to move, rotating to bring its massive sixteen cannons to bear upon a single point in the roof. It seemed like it was moving, taking aim to early, but then APU's do not have fancy holographic sensors. We have only one good gave us when we born free in Zion: Our Eyes. There are no men with hand eye coordination, with reflexes as good as the pilots of the APU Corps. We aim, and track, and shoot, and kill all of targets with nothing more than two eyes.
It was a fine mist of dust, accompanied by small fragments of rock, pebbles at the leading edge of an avalanche. They did not fall, more like float down like the first snowflakes of winters I would only see once we reclaimed the surface, almost a decade after the war ended.
Then the spider web of cracks grew until they were scars upon the roof of our world. The same detached voice, was louder, screaming, "Breach! The Dock is Breached!" Damn holographic: they need to see it on a screen before they tell us what we can see and feel with our eyes.
The pebbles became boulders as the machine vanguard, the Digger and its three massive circular blades, having chewed through over four kilometres of protection ate its way through the last few feet and opened the roof of our sanctuary to the surface. It plunged through the gap and began a near one hundred meter vertical fall. The sirens blared, klaxons wailed, and red lights flashed everywhere, again stating the glaring obvious. The Digger struck and the world shook as it crushed fuel lines and storage tanks emptied hours if not days ago. The blast was tiny in comparison to the carnage to come.
It fell over, crushing even more pipes, a number of catwalks and passages ways before it lay still. Destroying the Digger was the Infantry's problem. The small explosion that punctuate the Digger's arrival was nothing more than the first volley in a battle of a hundred thousand salvos. Our problem was the horde of sixteen legged flying squids, programmed to do one thing: Search and destroy. And we could hear them, coming.
The whine was like a zipper being closed, only it was a zipper that spanned four plus kilometres from the surface blasted by a war a century ago. Like mythical monsters, the creatures of nightmare, we could hear them coming to wreck havoc and destruction. My Captain's voice rang out, audible to all, without the need for a radio, "Knuckle up!"
The cannons of an APU lock back in safe mode when not moving to prevent accidents. At his roar, every gun rose, the whine of servo motors, the clattering as ammo feeds connecting, the hiss of hydraulics as I felt my machine's arms rise, mimicking my own as I aimed at a small hole in the sky. Every other APU, every cannon we had, aimed at the breach, awaiting the call to battle.
The whine grew louder, as I watched the smoking hole in the sky, the grooves in the tunnel from hell above us still the smoking red of molten stone. There was a craving to pull the trigger, an itch that to this day, I fight against whenever I think of that day. I can still feel the shoulder straps biting in to my shoulders, the negligent pain in my shoulders and chest from the "V" shaped bruising across my chest and shoulders. It was that split second before the call, that moment before we, the dogs of war could slip the leash.
"For Zion!" his voice roared across the vastness of the Dock. It was a cry, a challenge, a cry of defiance. It was the longest second of my life, that last moment of peace before a hundred years of hacking and fighting The Matrix and everything it stood for. Every weapon roared to life, bullets leaping on tongues of flame towards the gaping hole, almost as if we, the warriors of Zion were attempting to plug the hole by belched bullets at it. The roar of a thousand guns did not drown that mechanical whiny roar of approach death, as the Sentinels began to fall from the sky.
One, three, four, six, nine, and then they began to fall like rain from the heavens, the first drops before the storm breaks in full. Hundreds of the mechanical monstrosities fell in those opening few moments, and it seemed like we could hold them in the breach forever. Hope blossomed for a moment before it was snatched away as several then dozens began to slip through the maelstrom.
I remembered at that moment, two crucial piece of advice from the Captain himself, to me when I was but "a pod born pencil neck," about bracing your arms to keep your balance and your bullets on the target. The second was about not over squeezing the trigger, less the guns jam.
The first of the sixteen-legged mechanical monstrosities to survive their trial by fire began to dart from side to side, hugging the roof as they began to circle. Others moved to protect the Digger, struggling to rise, to begin its task anew and cut its way to the Temple at the heart of Zion. That was the second stage of the assault. A number of us turned our guns upon the survivors and cut their mechanical lifespan, but it was fast becoming clear that there were too many, and an insufficient number of weapons to oppose them.
I cannot tell you how many Sentinels fell to our guns that day. We decimated much of the first and second. I recall choking on the smoke, and screaming for a reload before their third wave poured down through the gaping wound. The strays the survived the firestorm of our bullets numbered in the few hundreds. However, they were determined to protect the Digger, and had succeeded. The massive burrowing machine had righted itself and begun to grind through steel, rock and earth, cutting down towards Zion. Sheets of munitions still lanced skywards, causing destruction and ruin amongst the still descending tide of machines.
My few bullets amongst those screaming tides of bullets when I heard the thud and roar of infantry rocket fire, then the horrendous sound of metal shriek and the screaming whine of overtaxed hydraulics as the Digger spun out of control. Two of its supporting limbs devastated by rocket fire caused in to spin out of control as it collapsed and carved a shallow crater through the ground, destroying infrastructure and support systems for the hovercraft we sent out to hack in to the Matrix once upon a time. We roared, a sound, a wordless cry at our victory as we proved that we would not fall without a fight, that we would never surrender, and that it would take more than 250,000 Sentinels to wipe out the last of humanity.
The collapse of that machine gave them pause as they swarmed away, back to the breach. The machines swarmed away and we slaughter them. We still had a single defensive advantage over them, one of their own design: The size of the breach they had carved forced them to attack us through a narrow ten meter gap. This we could defend, and defend until every round of ammunition in our arsenal had been expended.
The infantry, often forgotten or underrated when compared to the APU Corps, are heroes of the battle in their own right. Each APU carries ten thousand rounds, a box of five thousand for each gun. Those infantry protecting the loaders, and the loaders themselves were the only reason that the APU Corps was able to hold back the initial assault by the machines. I remember screaming again for a reload as one of my cannon ran dry. I could hear them coming across the ruined ground, the screech of handheld EMP Cannons as they closed the gap. Those infantry, their weapons screaming blue and white coils of writhing lightning, cooked the circuits of countless Sentinels as a reassuring thump against my kidneys told me that the reload was complete. In seconds, they were racing across the broken ground to the Control Centre of Gate 4.
We had barely a moment's respite as the second Digger dropped through the breach. To this day, when I look back, ask others who were there, others who fought and bled alongside me, why the stopped shooting the enemy at that moment. I always get the same answer: I don't know. I have reflected upon that moment for years now, and come to the same conclusion, every time. It was fear. Fear enough to make us stop, fear that we all realized, at exactly that moment that there were more than 250,000 Sentinels waiting to kill us.
The second Digger did not fall, straight and true like its predecessor. It twisted as if fell, and slammed in to the perimeter wall. Three APU's leapt clear, and a fourth was crushed, machine and pilot in to the hardened wall as the falling Digger cut power lines and energy feeds before slamming in to the floor of the Dock. It cut nothing critical. Those systems were only useful when we had ships to recharge or repair. Our botched counterattack had ensured we had no ships left.
Close behind the falling machine was a wave of Sentinels, and our moments of inattention had left several thousand of the multi-legged beasts in to our midst. His first order had been to give the machines hell before we died. His second had been to slaughter them all as they entered our home. His third was a thundering roar that rose above the bark of cannon and roaring bellow of rocket fire, "Knuckle up!"
As all the APUs form up in twos or threes, back to back, covering each other, shredding Sentinels left and right. They were pouring thorough the breach in ever increasing numbers and we were now fighting for our own individual survival. The Control Centre and its sixteen turrets was the only thing attempting to thin the rampaging cloud of Sentinels. Around the feet of our war machines, silver grey casings had piled, darkening the floor with their presence as we balanced out multi-ton five-meter tall machines on a rolling ground of spent shell casings. Bullet ridden machine wreckage littered the floor. Hand eye coordination, honed from countless hours of practice and simulation let us pick off stragglers and the already damaged units with ease but the machines were far from defeated, even as we continued to rain destruction upon them.
The constant whine that announced the unending arrival of the Sentinel reached a new pitch, a new intensity, as if the machines knew that something was coming. It was something that caused even the most stalwart of us to know fear and despair. Where there had once been a single stream of sentinels, they now boiled out. There were five distinctive streams, each like the finger from the fist of the devil. The glowing red of their eyes and segmented limbs giving the entire fist the appearance of being fully alive as it reaches out in every direction, snapping up lone infantry, even APUs and tearing them to shreds. In that instant, I felt fear and terror take hold of me and doubt settled in the pit of my stomach. But I knew enough, had been trained enough to know what fear is, and what to do with it as I quashed it, in to a little ball, and then let it embrace me, take over me, and fire my nerves alive and send my sense in to overdrive. I recall that fire slackened for a few moments, and I doubt anyone heard me, but what mattered was that I did not give in to the fear. I fought on, screaming in anger and rage that such mere things would try to take my home, our home from us!
The machine fist contracts upon itself, forming in to a single giant rolling fist that lances across the twenty kilometres intent upon a solitary target. Each Sentinel was suddenly apart of a giant weapon and those operating the gun turrets of the platform could have retreated, saved themselves but they stood fast, as death rolled towards them. The platform had been the heart of our operations against the machines for a century. The men and women held their position, held true to their beliefs, their purpose, to what we were fighting for, our freedom. They maintained their fire even as the sentinels swarmed over them, firing as clawed tentacles ripped at the structure tearing chunks from it without care for the cost in Sentinels.
There were no Machines. There was only a MACHINE, the entity, composed of thousands upon thousands of individual Sentinels, striking the platform, the clang of metal on metal, louder than the slamming of the gates of hell. Explosions rocked the platform but the guns kept firing, cutting the length of the Machine but it continued to grow as more and more Sentinels poured through, hundreds upon thousands of them, until finally they overwhelmed the strucutre and it began to fall. The voice was different, but it screamed in defiance, as the severed platform began to fall, "For Zion!"
One pass, and the largest guns that defended the Dock were silenced and we robbed of fully a third of our defensive firepower. The war continued, regardless of the losses on either side. Butchered corpses and wrecked machines littered the walkways, the floor some hundred feet below, a final mix of man and machine. I continued to fire, picking my targets like the snipers of old wars, every three shots destroying the ovoid body core of yet another accursed machine. There is a warning ping, that my left cannon is almost empty, "Reload!" I screamed in to my radio. To my right, another APU falls, swarmed by a pair of Sentinels, his screams as they tear at his flesh are bone chilling. The machines take his life and his APU falls, slamming in to the ground with a ringing of metal that echoes in my ears. The sentinels rejoin another few pairs of damaged machines and turn towards me, eager to deliver my death.
I felt, what they used to call the cold hand of death upon my shoulder at that moment. My shoulders are sore and ache from the unending recoil. The bruising on my chest hurts more than usual. There is pain, there is fear and I hear them before I see them. The Sentinel pack drop to ground level, running towards me on their tentacles like a pack of hunting wolves as I spin round to face them, and strafe the pack of mechanical hounds, left to right, back again and none survive my wrath.
My hands ache from maintaining a white knuckle death grip on the controls of my APU and it's almost a relief to jerk my left arm upright. The change of position, after so long, causes the muscles to scream in protest but the pain is good. The pain tells me I am still alive. The thump against my kidney's tells me that infantry still fight, slamming home fresh boxes of bullets, the shrill banshee like shriek of the EMP guns almost a comfort, a balm to the horrors I have witnessed this day.
The Machine, breaks apart, scattering packs of sentinels across the Dock, almost as if seeding the ground for them to complete their search and destroy mission, to terminate all carbon based life with extreme prejudice. I take stock for a moment, and realize that the dock is burning. Everything is burning. The only light comes from the fires of destruction, the smoke from the ruined machines. I turn to Gate 3, and charge forward, keeping my balance across uneven ground as I close upon the Captain, struggling to fend off a Sentinel pack with a single cannon, a loader guarded by two infantry hurrying towards him, blasting sentinels aside.
The distance is great, and I fear, for the captain, for those infantry. Too many have died already. More sentinels flock towards the gate, overshooting the Captain and I breathe a sigh of relief as a target those I can, sending more and more tumbling to the ground. It's as if somebody suddenly turned up the volume, the ringing in my ears is still there, but I can hear the screams, the wordless cries of rage and anger and hatred as he makes his war machine dance amongst the Sentinels, slapping them to the ground, and crushing them beneath his armoured feet. I am too far away.
It's as if the Sentinels realize that he is too great a threat, that as long as he lives, the APU Corps will not falter, will not stop until every last one of us has been ripped apart and our valiant machines reduced to broken scrap and cinder. The Sentinels swarm in the distance, and I realize it, as surely as the Captain does that they reform the Machine. The Machine that destroyed the platform hours, or minutes or just mere seconds ago? I cannot be sure. Time passes differently in combat.
A sight would inspire the weakest of men. A scene, remembered by those who saw it, and remember and honour a single man, born of Zion, born free, fighting for his home with courage and honour, who laid his life upon the altar of our Freedom, without hesitation. The Machine rolled towards him, and he stood his ground. Undeterred and unafraid, he poured hundreds, if not thousands of rounds in to the oncoming machine the spread apart. A monstrous pincer closed upon him, and became a cloud of strike metal blades and pincer as he, the Lion of the Corps, soaked his APU in his life's blood before the Machine disintegrated and the machines floated away.
The final Sentinel streaks away from my Captain, and somehow, across the barricade of death, destruction and decay I see his eyes are still focused, the spark of life still within them, before he falls with his machine, his companion in life and death. I see the waves, the shockwave as his machine strikes the ground. Around him, the entire Dock, the battle seems to pause as sides, man and machine, reach a moment, a moment of silence, almost as if both sides are paying respect to a true warrior.
Perhaps the Machines thought that taking away our champion, our leader upon the field of battle would break our spirit, would break our will and end the war. The machines had miscalculated.
The killing began again.
Where there had been fear, there was now only rage. They had taken the best of us, and slain him, and we knew that it was more than survival, more than freedom now. For those of us still fighting it was about dying, and dying a death that the machines would remember for as long as they ruled the ruined wastes of this planet that we are unconquerable so long as we are free, and would chose to die free rather than be ignorant slaves in The Matrix.
Round after round leaps from my cannons on tongues of flaming, slaying Sentinels in complete disorder. I remember stomping them in to the ground, and obliterating them. Twice more that I remember ammunition boxes were fed to my war mount. Broken machines littered my feet, threatening to trip me up as I multi task between maintaining my balance, destroying the machines an search for even more Sentinels to kill.
I fought for my home, from my friends, for the dead, for the living, for any reason and every reason. Pain radiated out from me, a continuous wave that seemed to intensify with every step and every shot. Sweat stung my eyes, I bled from both legs where either Sentinels had clawed me or shrapnel had found me. Somewhere along the way, in the insanity of this war I had damaged more of the non-essential systems aboard my war machine. I had deemed anything that did not allow me to move or kill to be non-essential. I killed another Sentinel, snapping around and pivoting to witness a sight that would become the legend: My Caption had risen from death for a final task
I had heard it, as had everyone else with a functioning radio. I heard, less than most, "...fune...hammer is on its way... two minu...ate open." I knew enough. His APU Staggered drunkenly from side to side, lacking the grace and poise and balance of the Captain, but then, he was doing his best, especially with broken feeds for his cannons. He paused and brought them to bear upon the Sentinels closing upon him.
The distance was great, perhaps too great and the angle was poor, the line of fire obstructed by wreckage. I still do not know. I broke one of the cardinal rules of being a pilot in the APU Corps of Zion: I over squeezed the triggers, holding them to send as many rounds as possible streaking towards the same Sentinels he was engaging. Weapon jam, death, by ammo feed failure, or Sentinel, it did not matter so long as he got that gate open in the minute and a half he had remaining.
The Sentinels fell and sure enough, my right cannon bleeped a warning: Ammo feed failure. I locked the arm and its weapon to safe mode and fired with the left, cutting down another pair of Sentinels as he moved beyond the effective range of my weapons, leaving me to stay alive, and to watch.
Despair slammed in to me as I watched a lone Sentinel slam his machine to the ground, I knew terror in those moments until a single figure emerged, and blue white lightning spat from their hands. An EMP gun, I smiled, as the prone APU unleashed the last of munitions, destroying the heavy chain that held the massive counterweights in place. If I had died in those moments, I would have died, at peace with who I was, with what I had become: Zion would live, and Zion would fight on without me.
I could only watch, firing at the few straggling, damaged Sentinels as the rest fled back the way they had come, determined to escape the incoming ship. I knew what they feared - they are machines. The Hammer's EMP blast would burn out all of their circuitry. I watched, as the ship crashed through the half open Gate 3, skimming across the dock on ruined hover pads, as she rolled on to her side and came to a halt.
When they fired the EMP, I could only watch as the expanding ring of energy consumed every electrical circuit it touched, including the servos and actuators of my APU, blistered, battered and crippled. It was nothing but multiple tons of dead weight now.
I presumed we had won, and we had. Not only won this war against the machines, but also won the greater war. Neo, would fight for us and win. Neo would bring us peace. However, I had no place in the near battle at the gates to our Temple. I was unconscious from blood loss, and pain. No APU pilot left standing after the Battle of the Dock. The thirteen of us that survived are the supposed heroes.
We are not. My brothers in arms, were trained like me, we were baptised as warriors in the fires of war. And even now, I think, we were not ready for what we faced. The fear is still there, of death at the hands of The Machine, or a machine. In the darkness, we sit and stare, in our sleep we relive the chaos and brutality that machine and man visited upon one another.
Some would say we are the lucky ones. We are not. We taste the cordite and sharp bite of propellant, hear the screams of the wounded, smell the dead as they burned. We see the dying when we close our eyes and we feel the hand of death upon our shoulder, every day we awaken from our sleep. He tells us, "Now is not yet your time to die."
We lucky ones, we survivors, live on borrowed time. Time bought for us by our brothers in arms. We are not the lucky ones. The lucky ones, are the warriors that died and are honoured for their sacrifice. Hail the victorious dead.
However, we won, for Zion, for humanity, we won, and then Neo won us peace with the machines: A peace that has lasted these past five years.
I can only pray that it lasts a thousand more.