“Three… two… one…”
Counting under my breath, I ticked down the fingers, bracing myself against the crumbling stones. Just after I hit “one,” the ground shook beneath us, and a mighty roar filled my ears, leaving them ringing despite the earplugs I’d inserted. They said that we wouldn’t have much sustained hearing loss, but who believed them these days?
“You were early, I think,” Harry said next to me, after the ringing and echoes had died away.
Across from me, Donson nodded. “Yep. Half a second or so.”
“I’ll get it next time,” I replied, as we hauled ourselves back to our feet on the still-quivering earth.
We scrambled up over the chunks of cracked stone and ruined masonry, up to where Charlie sat. The huge machine rose up over us, its long barrel pointed up into the night, the angle precisely calculated to send thousands of pounds of explosive raining down on hapless opponents many miles away. Charlie was a work of artful destruction, a bringer of death. No one would ever call him beautiful, but his purpose was undeniable.
Donson scurried around the base of the big weapon, checking on where the four pylons had deployed deep into the earth for stability. “Looks good around here,” he called out. “No shifting. Load ‘im up again.”
That was the cue for Harry and I to move forward. I settled down at the controls, partially sheltered by massive iron plates that shielded the operator. Harry, meanwhile, moved over towards the breech, where he stood with his huge muscles bulging, massive arms crossed across his broad chest.
We were a good crew, the three of us. There had been more of us, once, but three souls was all that Charlie demanded. The others went away, or died, but we three remained, the servants of the big gun.
“Ready?” I called over to Harry.
He nodded, the movement tight, like he wished that I’d stop wasting time and get on with it already.
I keyed in the appropriate sequences, and Charlie hissed into action. The breech opened, sliding back to reveal the spent shell laying in the chamber. That was Harry’s cue.
Muscles bulging, the man stepped forward and hoisted out the empty shell casing, steam rising up from his leather gloves where he gripped the thing. He grunted, tossing the shell aside, letting it roll down the little hill to lay with its hundreds of identical fellows.
“Reloading!” he called out, maneuvering the next shell into the breech chamber.
As soon as I heard the clink of the heavy round hitting the chamber, my hands were on the controls. I waited, my whole body almost quivering, a string pulled so tight that it vibrated in the air.
“Loaded!” Harry shouted, and I worked the controls to pull the new shell back into Charlie’s firing chamber.
The gun was an ER-SAP – an Extended-Range, Stationary Artillery Platform. All the manuals I’d read on the thing referred to it as an ER-SAP, and those were the letters sprayed in green paint on its side.
But as soon as we’d arrived at the thing, a fresh new crew, all of us green behind the ears, Donson spat into the dry soil at his feet and commented in his thick accent, “the thing looks like it oughtta be called Chawlie.”
And the name stuck.
I looked over the radar display on the screen. All our hits were pretty much on target; we’d been fighting over the same little stretch of shell-shocked, annihilated land for weeks, now. No need to adjust any of the firing patterns. Just keep hammering away, waiting to see which side runs out of ammunition first.
“Locked and loaded!” I called out to Donson and Harry, slipping out of my seat.
According to the manuals, we were supposed to stay near the ER-SAP each time it fired, ready to correct if something went wrong. We, however, were more interested in preserving our hearing, so we ducked back away, behind the little hill that might have once been a destroyed house. After all, if something went wrong on Charlie, what would we actually be able to do?
As we scrambled down, as I muttered numbers under my breath, we heard a whistling noise. Glancing up, we saw a streak of wavering red come shooting in, detonating against a hill behind us. I glanced over at Harry, who just looked back at me.
Donson spat. “Idiots still ain’t got their range dialed in properly.”
I kept on counting. We saw return fire more often, these days. Sometimes, we argued if it meant something, if the dispatches from Command were totally falsified, if we were about to be overrun.
But even if that were the case, what could we do? Charlie wasn’t portable, not without a specially equipped truck. Our orders were to sit, and wait, and reload, and fire. Over and over, until something changed.
Hopefully, someday, something would change.
I slipped my earplugs into my ears, wincing at the squeaking sounds as the soft rubber worked its way in. “Here we go,” I muttered to my two companions as we huddled against the destroyed, cracked stone.
“Three… two… one…”