Chapter 3: ‘The Trebuchet’

“Gentleman,” a chief of T section said sharply, cutting into a misty morning.
The chief, a lean, cardigan-wearing man named Bulick, assumed a college professor’s learned disaffection. He was speaking softly, but authoritatively — as if he could not conceive of being interrupted.

“I give you,” he continued with a short pause intended for minor dramatic effect, “the trebuchet.”

Indeed, Bulick would not be interrupted; he was addressing a peculiar assembly. About a dozen human forms dotted the wet grass at his feet. These were uniformly nude, lathered in a kind of clear oil and bound tightly with plastic straps into the standard, summer-fun-time, diving-board cannonball position: legs bent, knees beneath chins, arms wrapped around the whole.

Most were upright, but a few were tipped on their sides. Only a few were actually awake, though Bulick’s curt announcement had the effect of rousing the rest. As their eyes blinked open, and adjusted to the gauzy light, they seemed to display equal measures of confusion and fright.

Above them loomed a trebuchet, a piece of medieval military equipment — a siege engine, the wonks would call it. Imagine a magnificent, mechanical brontosaurus, wrought in reinforced steel, with great rubber tires instead of feet and a huge sling of black nylon drooping from its polished head.

The trebuchet was, in its time, used to hurl heavy projectiles at an enemy, typically when the enemy was hunkered down in a fortified place. But there are few practical limitations on its use, as would soon be obvious.

The trebuchet, Bulick was fond of saying and, in fact, would be saying had things not already gotten way behind, was a significant technological advance over the catapult, which launches projectiles by converting the potential energy of, say, a bent wooden beam. Trebuchets use gravity, relentless, inexhaustible gravity. When a counterweight is applied to one end of a trebuchet’s pivoting arm, the opposite end moves rapidly upward, sending “whatever” rapidly on its way.

The interesting thing, Bulick would have said, about this particular trebuchet is that it was probably the only one of its kind in the world, that being an example made with modern materials and technology. There were plenty of other trebuchets in the world, of course. Bulick recalled seeing one at a medieval fair when he was boy. But most of these were built using so-called authentic techniques, as if anyone really knew what those were, and materials, namely wooden beams and leather straps.

Around Bulick were arrayed two other just as unusual groups. One was obviously the trebuchet’s crew, clad in identical green and red striped uniforms with matching yellow watch caps on their heads. The other was a knot of three well-dressed, brooding men. These were supervisors from S section.

As he was speaking, Bulick had glanced at one of these men, a bald-headed grump who stood in front of the other two. But now Bulick was addressing his bound forms directly.

“Some of you may know how it works,” Bulick said aloud, waving a hand casually at the gleaming machine and mentally excising the balance of his trebuchet lecture. “The rest of you will find out in short order.”

This last remark had a faintly sinister sound to it, though Bulick did not mean for it to sound that way. In any event, he had said those two sentences so often that they passed out of his mouth almost robotically.

“Please remember that this is all part of procedure,” he added, and he turned to the crew and made a vague gesture with both hands, as though he was using a rod and reel.

At that, the crew began to move, seemingly as one, as a part of the trebuchet itself. In short order, as Bulick walked casually back to the group in overcoats, the crew divided like microscopic organisms into discrete units: while two or three would approach one of the bound, naked figures, and with great care lift it up, others prepared the trebuchet to fire. The sling was untangled and opened by one man, and two others primed the hydraulic apparatus that manipulated the counterweight.

Then the men gingerly placed one of the nude figures into the sling.

“This is all very interesting, Mr. Bulick,” the man in front, the chief of S section, said to Bulick as he approached.

Bulick made a short humming sound, in the affirmative.

“How long does it take you to get through a batch like this?”

Bulick knew the answer immediately, but he paused to make his job seem more complicated than it was.

“We can safely do about one per minute,” he said. He added, exposing his wrist and pointing at a nonexistent watch, “But we are not accustomed to working with a clock.”

At that instant, there was a burst of hissing and a cartoonish “wuhr-ahng” springing sound. The trebuchet’s arm swung rapidly upward with a great rush of air that seemed to startle the men in overcoats, and with a muffled squeak of alarm from the bound figure the arm pivoted downward, away from everyone, the sling unraveling and the glistening projectile hurtling outward in pure Newtonian perfection.

The day was overcast, and the mist on the ground made the horizon indistinct. It was not obvious when or where the figure had landed. But as soon as the trebuchet had stopped moving, had stopped making hissing noises, the crew snapped back into action, gathering up the loose ends of the sling and preparing for another shot.

One of the men in overcoats who was standing in back leaned in toward Bulick and said, “Fascinating.”

Bulick turned to face him, but said nothing. A look of pride leaked into his face.

The other man in back scratched his nose and asked with a hint of nervousness, “Why do you oil them ahead of time?”

Bulick’s prideful look drained away, and he furrowed his brow in mild confusion. The man in back pointed at the bound figures sparkling in the grass.

“Is it an aerodynamic thing?”

Bulick’s brow relaxed, and he grunted.

“Oh,” Bulick said, before breathing a short, barely audible sigh. “Heinrich does that.”

There was a brief silence as the trebuchet, with hissing and springing, sent another bound victim downrange.

“I don’t know,” Bulick said. “He just does that.”

There was silence again. The trebuchet crew scurried into action again.

The chief of S section took it upon himself to change the subject. He was not accustomed to such a fair-minded gesture, but he felt a pang of regret about his colleague’s unfortunate observation.

The chief gestured with his hand toward the misty hillsides in the distance.

“Tell us, Mr. Bulick,” he said politely. “Where do they end up?”

“End up?” Bulick said, adding, “We, ah,” before stopping himself. “I mean to say, I don’t know.”

After a moment, Bulick pointed a finger at the ground and drew a quick circle in the air. Then he said, “We are just the trebuchet guys.”