Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 7

The Submersible

A few days later the expedition dropped anchor at quite a different lagoon. The enclosing atoll was low-lying all right with a maximum elevation of nine feet, but the ring of land was almost entirely continuous. Atolls were almost always a discontinuous string of islands, islets, reefs, and shoals.

The rim of the as-yet-unnamed atoll stretched unbroken for 40 miles. The rim of dry land varied in width from a few hundred yards to one and one-half miles totaling ten square miles.

The lagoon measured thirteen miles North to South and up to eleven East to West, for an area of forty-six square miles. The single passage opened to the North through a gap of less than four miles and even that was partially obstructed by three small islands. Soundings later showed depths in the lagoon ranging down to two hundred feet though mostly much less. Numerous coral heads present hazards to navigation, but otherwise it was an outstanding anchorage especially in comparison to the shallow reef on the ocean side of the atoll which was no anchorage at all.

The atoll offered nothing new to the natural philosophers, just more of the same. For the Navy though it was quite a different story. Liam in particular could hardly contain his excitement at finally getting the chance to show off and field test his new toy, a submersible vehicle hitherto kept secret from nearly everyone else. It was transported aboard the aircraft carrier in a cradle down in a launch bay a little above the water line.

With the Arctic Tern safely at anchor, Nathan Lathrop left his ship in the hands of his executive officer and accompanied Liam and the others via a longboat over to the carrier. Reaching the submersible's launch bay they saluted the superior officers who were standing by for the demonstration, Commodore Dekker and Dahlgren, his flag captain plus the captain of The Sovereign of the Seas Commander Wright King.

Dekker did not wait for introductions, he did the honors himself.

"Here we have the famous twins Jemsen and Karel." he said holding out his hand and greeting them warmly.

"In the flesh!" Karel confirmed.

"And this auburn-haired twink is the award winning journalist Sir Drew Altair while the cute kitten next to him can be none other than the shape shifter Sir Aodh of Llangollen."

"Correct, sir." Nathan told him.

With the introductions done, Liam addressed the group, gesturing grandly and declaiming:

"Behold the CNSS Albacore."

Outwardly the submersible was shaped like a fat spindle, but inside the hydrodynamic outer hull was the crew space, a steel sphere entered through a hatch at the top. The volume inside the outer hull but outside the pressure hull was filled with buoyancy tanks, cargo space, and the control rods for directing the rudder and diving planes. Small portholes all around allowed for visual navigation in shallow water.

"The submersible is propelled by telekinesis, so in that respect it's a lot like an autogyro only for flying underwater," Liam enthused. "No rotors of course, but it can do something an autogyro cannot -- hover in place -- once it achieves neutral buoyancy either by letting sea water into ballast tanks or by expelling by forcing it out of the tanks with a piston."

"The helmsman or operator virtually flies the vehicle to the desired depth using control surfaces called lift planes. Now since the control surfaces push against water which is so much denser than air, it takes much more effort to steer than an autogyro. A control stick suffices for an aerocraft but to turn the diving planes of a submersible you need the mechanical advantage of a wheel. That was a big surprise for me when I started training on the prototype submersible and later on the Albacore."

"Near the surface you guide it visually by looking through the ports. At depth or at night, you rely on magical sounding, so the submersible takes two magical gifts to operate."

"How do you keep the air fresh?" Karel asked.

Liam nodded.

"That is a perfectly understandable question from an air wizard. The answer is that fans constantly draw air through scrubbers where chemicals combine with the dead air and return only oxygen and nitrogen. That give us a dive time of about three hours. Then you have to surface, flush the cabin with fresh air, and recharge the scrubbers with fresh chemicals. The best part is that you can recycle the compounds which the scrubbers use. Exposure to the heat of a solar stove breaks the chemical bond formed with dead air and makes the batch ready for another cycle."

"All right, what powers the fans?"

"The forward motion of the submersible spins a small turbine mounted outside the hull. Through mechanical linkages it turns the fans."

"Ingenious"

"So who thought this up," Drew asked. "It wouldn't be our friend Eike again, would it?"

"Actually it would be, or rather him and his collaborators. A lot of other clever people worked on submersibles, like the guys who figured out the air scrubbers or the pistons."

"Now the Albacore is a research submersible, rather different from the submersible warships which will be going into service shortly. Although more than twice the size of the Albacore, given their short radius of action the warships will not operate independently. Instead they are transported in the bay of a tender till they are launched for a mission."

"While submerged just under the surface they draw fresh air in through a long pipe called a snorkel. Once they dive deep the warship version uses the same alchemical scrubbers as the Albacore."

"This warship version, how is it armed?" Commodore Dekker prompted Liam, though he himself already knew the answer.

"Sir, the submersible warship carries eight torpedoes in niches in the outer hull which can be launched either from the surface or while lurking concealed just below. The captain acquires targets and observes his surroundings through a fully rotating periscope."

"These would be the incendiary torpedoes that have been in service for a few years now, deployed on frigates in the anti-shipping role, right?"

"Actually the submersibles carry a pair of Long Lance torpedoes which rely on telekinetic energy alone to hole a target vessel. Their warheads are giant four flanged spear heads made of tough steel whose pyramidal shape allows them be extracted more easily than a blunt ram and slammed back again into the target."

"Actually" Nathan noted, "the Arctic Tern and her sisters also carry a few Long Lance torpedoes. An incendiary torpedo destroys the target. The Long Lance can help you capture it."

Liam nodded then continued.

"Also, for surface attack, a gun crew can raise a magnetic cannon from beneath a hatch in the outer hull to bombard an adversary with incendiary shells or to rake her deck with canister shot. Shell and shot are a lot cheaper than torpedoes and the submersible can carry a lot more of them."

"Another mission for a submersible would be to surreptitiously scout harbor entrances and defenses like barrier chains or to attack the anchorages of swarms of fast attack boats."

"What is the role of the submersible in the Navy's grand strategy?" Scolari asked. "Surely it is not a commerce raider."

Dekker shook his head.

"No, even though that is the obvious role for such a vessel. Surface raiders have the space to take the crews of their prizes captive and later parole them in a neutral port. That is impossible for a submersible which can only sink the vessels leaving their crews adrift in their lifeboats. Anyway, commerce raiding is the strategy of the lesser naval power, not the preeminent power which the Commonwealth is. No, our submersibles would target enemy combatants."

"What enemy?" Aodh asked. "Where would the threat come from?"

"That is just it; we do not know," Dekker told him, "but that was just what we all thought before the trolls invaded Valentia. It's the very reason for this expedition, to find out what is out there in the Southern Ocean. If we do encounter a powerful navy, we will try diplomacy and stress that our expedition is for the peaceful purposes of geographic exploration and scientific investigation."

"What if they won't buy it?"

"Our flotilla must avoid an engagement at all costs, never no mind our pride. The hostiles might be looking for a fight, but we are not. Our orders are to refuse battle no matter how craven that might make us look and to slip away. Our weather wizards can always conjure up a convenient fog bank for us to disappear into. Our fixed-wing long range scouts would then follow them back to their naval base. We would then surreptitiously insert a reconnaissance team to get the lay of the land."

"OK, but the Albacore is just a research submersible, so it is unarmed. So what happens if a Kraken wraps its tentacles around the Albacore and tries to drag her down into the depths?" Aodh asked, only half facetiously.

"Aodh, you have a vivid imagination. As far as anyone knows, the Kraken is a monster out of legend, a giant octopus or maybe a colossal squid as big as a naval vessel. I mean what could it feed on? Whales?"

"Just to put your mind at rest Aodh, the Albacore does have a defense system designed to discourage overcurious sea creatures. We wouldn't want an amorous sperm whale trying to mate with the Albacore, now would we? See there, what look like a pair of lightning rods on prow and stern? They poke out through insulating sleeves which allow a lightning caster like Tutor Blok to throw a levin bolt through the hull to scare off your Kraken or to electrocute it if need be. That is just temporary until replaced by a system which mechanically generates a charge of static electricity."

"How deep can she go?" Dahlgren asked. Unlike Dekker he did not already know the answer.

"She can dive safely to four hundred feet, with a margin for emergencies. The pressure hull was welded not riveted, so it has no weak spots except the hatch. I am told that a weld is actually stronger than the metal it joins. You must know something about that, Tutor Blok."

"I do indeed, Liam. A brother and a cousin are welders since our gift runs in the family. Arc welding, to give the technique its full name, is fairly new. Its first use was in building steel bridges, but now it is being used to erect steel-framed buildings. It employs my own gift of throwing lightning bolts only stepped down to a much smaller current, one which a welder can sustain continually for hours."

"Arc welding is just another example of how the Commonwealth's industrial economy potentiates magical gifts. After all, aside from its military application, throwing levin bolts has no real use in civilian life, except rarely for self-defense. Now that might have been a welcome lifesaver in humanity's difficult early days on our planet of refuge but no longer. Arc welding provides a well paid livelihood for those with the gift and will result in stronger ships, bridges, and buildings. It's a win-win situation."

"Much the same could be said of my own gift of sounding," Nathan ventured. "At first it was of use mainly to prospectors and miners. It was only when our big cities developed that delving came into its own as a profession. Underlying the bricks or paving stones of our city streets is a network of water mains, sewers, storm drains, waste water drains, and even chilled water mains. City ordinances prohibit excavation work until a delver inspects the area and approves the dig."

"Sailors now have three uses for the gift. First, a navigator can sound the depths to detect hazards to navigation like rocks and reefs. Second, for an officer of the watch delving serves as a kind off night vision to see in utter darkness. Third, we can now use sounding aboard submersibles to navigate the depths and to direct torpedoes at enemy vessels."

"Well said," Dekker concurred.

The trio of natural philosophers went up in an autogyro for an aerial survey of the lagoon and only then went aboard the Albacore. The submersible could not accommodate all of them at once, only two passengers at a time plus the standard two man crew, in this case Liam who propelled the submersible and Nathan whose gift of delving would guide in deep waters where little light penetrated though that was not a problem in the shallow waters of the lagoon.

The zoologist Evander Blok was in seventh heaven as the Albacore navigated the waters of the lagoon. Here was a way to swim with the fishes and not even get wet. Being inside the submersible let him make sketches of what he found including notes about the colors for the water color paintings that would later document his finds.

"Wait till we try her out in the open sea." Liam assured him. "You will really get an eyeful then."

"I can hardly wait."

Ironically it was geology not zoology which benefited most from their first series of operational dives in the open ocean. The flotilla had sailed southward heading toward a pillar of smoke rising above the horizon, likely from an erupting volcano.

Long before the volcano came into view chunks of rock floating on the surface repeatedly clunked into their hulls. Sailors hauled some of it aboard the Arctic Tern for Klutz to examine.

"Friends, what you see here floating on the surface is pumice which is a lightweight sort of volcanic glass. It is formed when super-heated rock hitherto under pressure is violently ejected from a volcano followed by rapid cooling and depressurization. Gases dissolved in the rock expand creating a frothy bubbly texture. Pumice is actually lighter than water and will float for a long time. It is said that large volumes of pumice can form rafts many miles long which persist for months and can be a real hazard to shipping, though I have never seen that myself."

"Don't sound so negative, Johan. There is a lot to be said in favor of pumice," Professor Scolari noted. "As a botanist with a Green Thumb, I can tell you that pumice is often mixed with potting soil to provide better aeration which promotes growth."

"Isn't pumice also used in construction?" Jemsen asked. Klutz nodded.

"So speaks the earth wizard. Yes, as an additive to cement pumice combines with lime and aggregate, a matrix of sand, gravel, and stones, to form a concrete which sets under water. That makes it perfect for building sea walls, jetties, and docks. Even in ordinary construction on land builders will often use lightweight cinder blocks made with pumice instead of ashes."

Sailing on the flotilla soon found the source of the pumice, the undersea eruption of a seamount striving to turn itself into an island. Explosions of steam and hot gasses blasted rock and ash high into the air, fortunately without lobbing any of the heavy lava bombs which could very well damage their ships.

A Navy flyer took Klutz and his comrades up for an aerial view of the eruptions then returned to the carrier. With some trepidation, Liam and Nathan took the Albacore in as close as they dared, giving Klutz a good look at the underwater eruption. The submersible rocked with the turbulence of the pressure waves generated by the explosions. The noise of the eruptive blasts made the steel pressure hull ring like a bell, while the heat from the lava was something awful.

"With the temperature as high as it is, we dare not take her any closer."

"That is fine by me, Liam. Fascinating as this all is, I am in no way inclined to martyr myself for science."

"Is this really an island in the making," Nathan asked.

"Yes, but it is not necessarily a permanent one. Many of these newly thrust up islands don't last long once the eruption subsides and the waves and storms go to work on the poorly consolidated cone of rock and ash. A few years, and it is all washed away."

"Anyway let's return to the ship before we get cooked."

The flotilla sailed onward and reached the erupting volcano but did not stay long since there was no sheltered anchorage. The shore of the island was all sheer cliffs and knife-edge ridges left by landslides. Klutz and his colleagues flew over the volcano in an autogyro but managed to set down only twice, on a couple of comparatively level spots.

Klutz did make one significant find: lumps of a very strange rare mineral called reticulite which was a volcanic glass formed much like pumice by gas bubbles when lava was cooled so abruptly that the gasses dissolved in the lava could not escape. Now whereas the bubbles in pumice were of microscopic size, the interlocked and fuzed bubbles in reticulite were the size of an insect. They formed a lattice or a foam so delicate that it could be crushed between the fingers.

What made Klutz's finds particularly satisfactory was that hitherto the Institute of Life and Geological Sciences had possessed only two samples of reticulite. The four Klutz had collected would triple that, which was quite a feather in his cap.

In his best professorial tone, Klutz informed the others:

"With a porosity of 98 percent reticulite is the least dense rock known to science, but it cannot float on water due to its open structure. It polishes up nicely to a lattice of rings with a golden sheen. Reticulite is just one more example of how very beautiful geological samples can be. Amethyst geodes for instance. I really don't know what people see in tiny gemstones especially those clear diamonds used in jewelry which are just flashy bits of glass as far as the layman's untutored eye can tell. Industrial diamonds at least have a practical use."

The sole point of interest for the other members of the expedition was watching a stream of red-hot molten rock shoot out of a lava tube from atop a cliff and pour into the sea while water flashed into billowing and hissing clouds of steam.

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