Stranded
by Michael Priv
Pyrenees Mountains, Spain, 1640

          The majestic tranquility of the Pyrenees felt obscene that morning or, at the very least, incongruous with what was about to wallop this place shortly. How many of them were going to die today? Each hoped it would not be him.
          The young officer finished braiding his hair and threw the braid behind his back with a well-practiced move, watching a red hawk gliding overhead in harmony with the universe. The bird glanced his way disapprovingly. Were they ruining his breakfast? Or was there more to that look?
          Adjusting the worn lather webbing on his narrow chest, he surveyed the vicinities. Arranged along a low grassy ridge, the artillery encampments were studded with rock protrusions and sage brush. The individual gun emplacements stood out like spots of mange on a very dirty dog. The artillery regiment, flying the standards of the praying mantis, the old Confederate Wait and Pounce symbol, was facing a valley with a fortress dug into a hill, the objective of their mission.  
          “1st Battery, shell shots ready! Look alive, lads, it’s about to start!”
          At the 1st Battery 3rd Gun emplacement, the battery commander’s voice set the rag-tag crew of men into frantic action.           The 3rd Gun commander, the young officer with braided pony tail, was dressed inappropriately into an old, mangy tunic of a British Navy officer. He knew what was coming. Show time.
          “Weapon crew, munitions, get the gun ready!” He yelled to his two crew chiefs. The weapon he referred to was the fifteen-hundred-pound gun in their charge and the munitions were the cannonball shots it fired.
          “Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!”
          The crew was good. The officer knew them well.
          “Powder runner, go!” the munitions chief, an older Spaniard named Juan, yelled to Timothy, the powder runner.
          Timothy, a small skinny boy, too small for his thirteen, dashed off like a rabbit, beating the dirt with his bare feet, the cut-up burlap long shirt, tied mid-section with a rope, flapping in the wake.  
          “Shot runner, fetch me a shell shot!” Juan ordered.
          “Yes, Chief!” immensely strong Adnan, the swarthy Lebanese shot runner, was the only man present who could probably run all day with a thirty-pound cannon ball under each arm. Fittingly, his job here was to keep the cannon balls coming. His red salvar trousers with a sash and a short potur robe set him apart from the rest of the crew—and probably pretty much everybody else on this side of Ottoman Empire.   
          Both runners dashed to the back of the gun position, where the gun’s supplies were kept behind a wide roundish basalt protrusion.
          The shell shots were hollow iron balls, filled with explosives and equipped with impact fuses that were supposed to detonate on impact. Usually they did but sometimes the explosion would come with a delay, making them even more dangerous.
          “Weapon in position! Heave-ho!”
          “Heave-ho!”
          Wylin, the weapon crew chief, the old Brit, was missing an eye. A terrible scar ran across his face, making him look like a pirate. Wylin was, in fact, an old pirate, roaming the southern seas for over thirty years. He knew his way around the gun. Young officer liked that very much about his weapon chief.
          Men heaved the gun in position.
          The young officer roughly sighted the target about five hundred yards downrange along the barrel of the massive gun. The weapon team pushed and shoved the gun just so to achieve the rough aim per the officer’s orders. The gun was still relatively easy to move now on dry ground. They were going to use a lot of water here in the next hour or so, turning the position into a swamp, that would swallow the gun wheels half way to the axels.
          “Hold!” the officer raised his arm. “Shim tight!”
          The wheels were shimmed to hold the gun in position.
          “Munitions crew, front-n’center!” yelled the munitions chief Juan and then added with a thick Spanish accent, “Suneet, stop daydreaming about your fat girlfriend! Move your culo!”
          “Yes, Chief!” The dark complexion of the skinny wadder, a young Asian man by the name Suneet, unexpectedly turned scarlet.  The only Russian on the team, Feodor, laughed, slapping young Suneet on the back, “Fat means good, no?”
          Muttering in Spanish, Juan shook his head and rolled his eyes in mock bewilderment. Soldiers laughed, except the stone-faced Wylin. The officer smiled at Suneet reassuringly. 
          At the gun, the weapon’s gang had now been replaced by the munitions team: the swabber, the wrapper, the wadder, the piercer, the rammer, the loader and the lighter. The four supernumerary members of the munitions team, the helpers, busied themselves with their barrels of water, wads of old cut-up hemp rope and canvass strips, a stack of neat sheets of parchment and a couple of heavy linen sheets.  
          Timothy returned with a keg of gun powder, boy’s face ablaze with excitement at the approaching battle. He would now serve as a supernumerary ready to lend a hand where needed until the next keg of powder was called for by his superiors.
          The agile, dark-skinned swabber mopped out the interior of the barrel with a wet mop—the action intended to extinguish any embers from a previous firing which might set off the explosion of the next charge right in the barrel. Since the gun had not been fired yet, the action was completely unnecessary, but had to be done nonetheless—such was the old tradition. When hot iron started flying and given the ambiguous attitude God habitually took in regards to saving their butts, every little bit helped.
          “Measure six livre,” the munitions chief instructed the wrapper.
The wrapper packaged a measured portion of the gun powder equivalent to about eight pounds in a sheet of parchment, folding it just so, creating a cartridge. Into the barrel the cartridge went, jammed in by the rammer. The piercer stubbed the cartridge a few times through the touch hole with a pointed pricker to expose the powder. Next, the wadder stuffed a small wad of old canvas and rope, prepared by the supernumeraries, into the barrel, which was also rammed home by the rammer. Next, the heavy shot was loaded and rammed in, followed by another wad, also rammed in. Meanwhile, the lighter primed the touch hole with a bit of gunpowder.
          “Excellent job, you black-hearted sons of bitches!” The officer yelled in a voice alight with affection. His guys grinned. He sighted the target down the barrel again, fine-tuning the aim. The weapon crew re-adjusted the shims to achieve the aim.
The gang, except for the lighter, stepped away from the gun.
          The 3rd Gun was now ready to fire.
          The entire procedure took less than a minute. Outstanding.
          The officer stole a glance to his right and left, noting with deep satisfaction that the crews of both 2nd and 4th Guns at his flanks were still getting their guns ready. He really liked his crew. 
          The lighter held his linstock, a wooden staff holding a length of a smoldering match, over the touch hole in the rear of the gun, the breech, now primed with gunpowder, ready to ignite.
          The young officer studied the target through his spy glass. The embattlement looked formidable. Cut into a sandstone knoll with massive basalt protrusions, the hill stood well over a hundred feet tall. Numerous artillery gun nests and ramparts at different levels suggested that the cliff had been hollowed out inside, and in fact it was. This fortress would not be easily breached. The young officer, however, had no doubt it would fall. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as an impenetrable fortress. He knew what kind of damage their thirty-two large guns could inflict in a sustained one-hour barrage. He was planning to lounge on one of those ramparts within two hours at the most, long before the place heated up in earnest. It could easily get up to a hundred degrees here in the Pyrenees today, with the humidity numbers to match. He was looking forward to leaving behind him what was now in store ahead of him.  
          In his mind, the officer went over the mission briefing of the night before. In the flickering torch light, the commanding officer explained the plan of attack, pointing at a display, roughly modeled after the actual scenery. The artillery played a major part in the upcoming offensive. The hour-long barrage of all eight four-gun batteries, thirty-two guns in total, was supposed to not only soften the enemy defenses but also distract them sufficiently from a group of commandos scaling the east slope, a sheer basalt wall, where they were least expected. The commandos’ mission was to get inside the fortress and destroy the Big Gun up on top, making a full frontal attack possible. Was it a good plan? A sophisticated plan with all the proper contingencies and safety redundancies? He sighed. None of that made any difference. They had to attack. They had no choice.
          The bugle bleated “Attention!” followed a long minute later by the shrill note, signifying the command to fire. All thirty-two guns went off as one, covering the fortress with explosions, dislodging rock and dust.
          When the gun discharged, the recoil sent it backwards until it was stopped by the embankment, created for that very purpose. 
          The attacking infantry regiments, positioned below, closer to the fortress, under the banners of the praying mantic, opened musket fire, only marginally effective at that range.
          “Reload!”
          The 3rd Gun crew sprung into the reload action. Over a dozen men plastered the gun, pulling and shoving and shimming it back into position. Men knew what to do. Adnan ran off to fetch the next shot, the wrapper was already busy packaging the next cartridge with Timothy helping him and the rammer on the ready. The officer nodded approvingly, ready to aim the weapon again.
          The defenders returned cannon and musket fire.
Shortly, men took their shirts off, their bare bodies glistering with sweat. The morning was still young but it was getting hot already, particularly next to the gun, which was now too hot to touch.
“Cool the gun!” the weapon chief yelled. A couple of men of the weapon crew soaked one of their heavy tarps in water and threw it over the barrel to cool down the gun.
          The ebb and flow of the gunnery action had settled into a hysterical rhythm, punctured by the frequent whining of approaching death followed by the warning hollers, “Incoming!” which would send the crew scattering for cover. Explosions, mostly harmless, were at times followed by body parts, iron fragments and chunks of rock flying in all direction.
          The dead and seriously wounded presented a tripping hazard, so they were laid out in the back. Somebody would attend to the wounded later, or at least that was the plan.
          “Back to it! Hey-ho!” the officer would bellow after every casualty. “Hey-ho!” the crew would echo, resuming the flurry of action.
          With several men lost and the remaining crew exhausted, the pauses between shots had lengthened considerably. Cooling the gun was no longer necessary.
          The musket fire from the fortress intensified.
          “Switch to canister shots!” a wild-eye battery commander’s messenger yelled to the officer, stopping briefly next to the 3rd Gun position.
          Adnan was already off for a canister shot, an anti-personnel round, consisting of many small iron shot in a heavy metal can, which would explode on impact, scattering fragments and the shot.
          There was a big explosion to their right at the 4th Gun position, signifying a direct hit at the gun powder cache. The 4th The gun position was obliterated. Nothing moved over that way.
          “Incoming!”
          Diving for cover, the officer caught a glimpse of Adnan grabbing the hot and spinning cannon ball from the ground in an attempt to throw it away from their position.
          “Adnan, no!”
          The cannon ball exploded, distributing chunks of Adnan’s body all around the 3rd Gun position.
          “Martin, run shots! Get us another canister right now!” the munitions crew chief yelled to one of his men, wiping Adnan’s blood off his bare chest. The man took off immediately to fetch the next shot but stumbled and fell, struck in the back by a musket ball.
          "I’ll do it!” Timothy yelled but the officer knew that lack of physical strength would make the boy ineffective.
          “No, you stay here, I got this!” the officer yelled.
          “I’ll go!” the munitions crew chief, Juan the Spaniard, shouted to the officer.
          “Good! Go, Juan!”
          Juan ran to the back for the next shot.
          Thankfully, the enemy musket and cannon fire subsided markedly, suppressed by the artillery.
          The respite offered the officer a chance to re-inspect the target through his spy glass. He liked what he saw: destroyed ramparts, blown up gun nests, several holes in the sheer wall, dead bodies visible here and there and the blown up front gate. Most importantly, he saw that the commandoes scaling the east wall had now crested the top. Amazed, he suddenly noticed his old friend, the hawk, gliding high.
          “Look alive, men! We’re almost done!” The officer yelled to his exhausted and very dirty troops, ankle deep in mud now. He helped the crew wrestle the gun into position.
          Two strong explosions at the top of the fortress spelled success of the commando mission. The explosions also destroyed a portion of the wall up on top, exposing something huge nestled inside the hollow hill. That something inside the hill seemed as unlikely to be there as anything could possibly ever get--or even more unlikely than that.
          “Spaceship!” somebody yelled.
          “Spasibo tebe, Bozhe!” yelled Feodor in Russian. “Thank you, God! We’re getting the hell out of this cursed place!” The crew cheered, grinning and slapping each other on the backs.  
          Artillery fire immediately stopped for the fear of killing the commandos and damaging the ship. After all, that space transport was the object of their offensive.
          The bugle sounded infantry attack which meant the gun crews were supposed to abandon the guns and join the infantry.
          “Join the attack!” confirmed the messenger, on the run as usual. His head was bandaged with a bloodied rag. The messenger then stopped and added, “Battery commander’s dead. Beaudoin, the Frenchman, is in charge now.”
          The young officer nodded and waved his thanks, watching the messenger making his way to the 2nd Gun position to their left at a healthy gate. The whistling sound of the incoming round scattered his crew. The messenger kept on running.
“Incoming!” the officer yelled at the messenger’s back. “Hey, take cover!”
          The messenger’s body was thrown backward toward their position by the explosion. The limp and battered body hit the dirt about fifty feet to their left and remained motionless.
          Having collected their pistols and swords, the decimated 3rd Gun crew, dirty, sweaty and exhausted but some still grinning, joined the thin throng of the artillery regiment catching up on the double to bring up the rear of the two infantry regiments, about a thousand strong, already mid-attack on the fortress, the praying mantis banners flying proudly over their ranks.
          With their cover blown, the defenders unleashed hell on the attackers in earnest. The Big Gun, the Phaser, was destroyed by the commandoes, but they still had their hand-held energy blasters. From this distance the officer saw at least two dozen of the defenders taking position in front of the gate, wearing the ray guns on their arms, some already firing in his direction. The funnel-shaped deflectors, protecting the shooters from the radiation kickback, were worn over the arm like a long glove. That made ray blasters difficult to stack and nearly impossible to aim but kept the personnel from glowing in the dark. The blasters were close quarters weapons, rarely used long-range.
          The attackers had no weapons better than those of 1640. Musket, gunpowder and steel were their tools that day. Yet it was not muscle and metal that would seize the fortress. Speed was of the essence now. Thus, the mad charge. Some of the attacker still managed to reload and fire their muskets, some shot their cross bows when they got closer, but, for the most part, the attackers simply ran like hell toward the fortress.
With lightning bolts striking and his comrades falling all around him, the young officer made it unscathed almost to the gaping hole, where the heavy gate used to be. A make-shift defense line, set up by the defenders, was presently being overrun by the attackers. Amid the dead bodies of the defenders, a big, muscular soldier fought for his life, scorching anything in sight with his ray blaster only about thirty feet in front of the young officer. The officer pointed one of his pistols at the enemy and squeezed the trigger. With a loud shudder, his old Blunderbuss burst into flames. The officer dropped the faulty weapon and reached for his second pistol. Too late. The defender’s blaster was already lined up for the officer’s torso shot. An attacker on the officer’s right let fly a cross-bow bolt. The ray struck the officer the very instant a crossbow bolt embedded itself deeply into the defender’s forehead. The eyes of the two dead men momentarily met. 
Writhing in agony and clutching that heat-fused cavity on his body where his belly used to be, the officer willed death to come and take him right that moment. He could not take the pain even an instant longer. Timothy’s face hovering over him came into focus. Timothy was crying.
With a roar the spaceship departed its secret berth. The half destroyed top of the hill opened like a lid and was now standing at its end—sage brush and rocks and all.  The officer looked up at the sky. The last thing he saw before death thankfully came for him was the huge spaceship climbing majestically to the required lift-off altitude and then silently darting up and away. Gone.
The hope was gone.
The hawk eyed the carnage below with mild amusement.

                                                                                                                                                                                    © 2016 Michael Priv. All Rights Reserved.