Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 20

Dreadnought

Months later a follow-up naval expedition called at the Benign Coast.

"So this is the port of Argyll. I see few signs of the battle that raged here just months ago." Admiral Van Zant commented to his flag captain Nathan Lathrop aboard the Arctic Tern.

Nathan's heavy frigate and her escort the sloop Sandpiper were on approach to the port on the Benign Coast having passed through a rift opened by Nathan's shipmate and lover the war wizard Liam. Also aboard was another boyfriend of theirs the naval architect Karl-Eike Thyssen plus a passenger, a dwarf, a representative of the wily business agent Lennart.

This was no voyage of discovery like the first time the two ships had visited the Benign Coast. On this mission the Admiral and his favorite naval architect represented the Navy and its Bureau of Ships of which the Admiral was the chief. The purpose of the mission was to secure berthing rights for the Commonwealth Navy so that the port would provide a friendly haven for naval patrols and civilian shipping.

Unlike a naval base which was owned and controlled by the military, with berthing rights the navy's ships would tie up at civilian docks and would obtain goods and services on commercial terms from local suppliers. It was a win-win situation which provided security along the coast to protect trade and fisheries and also created businesses and jobs in shipyards, chandleries, warehouses for naval stores and comestibles, dock workers, etc.

The admiral would handle the negotiations. Meanwhile the naval architect would assess the ability of the locals to supply the Navy's needs. He would also start a transfer of technology to local shipbuilders. They would soon have a chance to learn how to build the style of sturdy ocean going vessels which the Commonwealth itself had learned from the people of Nordstrand on the northern coast of the continent.

"I am so glad you picked me for this duty, sir," Eike enthused. "I so seldom get to travel or to set aside my duties at the Bureau of Ships."

"For very good reasons, though the Navy has let you travel to far off lands when we could be sure you had proper protection as you had in Nordstrand and later during your lightning visit to the Western Dividing Range. Otherwise the navy is loth put at risk someone who is not only its most promising naval architect but also the Commonwealth's most important inventor."

"Not to mention sir, that he is one of our richest citizens as well." Nathan pointed out.

"Rich beyond the dreams of avarice, is what Lennart promised with my very first invention, the wire wheel, and he has made it come true."

"That is my cue to thank the navy for granting me passage to Argyll," said the dwarf. "Lennart expects that this new flavoring called vanilla will be lucrative for all involved in the trade. My job is to see how soon the locals can ramp up production and what quantity of extract they can export to the Commonwealth. So I will be staying on for a while in town."

"Look sir, tied up at the dock serving the fish market you can see a couple of deep water boats hailing from the Commonwealth. I understand that such vessels fish the waters of the Great Gyre, then salt or freeze their catch of tuna, cod, and hake and bring it both to Valentia and here to Sarmantia."

"Oh, I always thought fishermen put their catch on ice to keep it fresh?" Eike asked.

"That is true for those who fish offshore who are only hours or at most a day or two from market, but fish would spoil over a voyage of many days. Instead these fishermen land their catch on the small islands we discovered, gut them and either salt them down or have firecasters freeze them solid. During the voyage the firecasters monitor the temperature of the catch and keep it cold. Fresh frozen fish is a whole new industry with natural markets on both sides of the ocean."

Over the next three weeks Van Zant made the arrangements with the local authorities including their military, the harbor master, trade factors and others. He also installed a small naval purchasing staff in offices near the harbor. In the fullness of time a Commonwealth war wizard opened a rift though which the rest of the flotilla sailed. The plan was for the flotilla to operate out of Argyll on a six month rotation with other flotillas from Southport.

The flagship of this flotilla was not an aerocraft carrier but a dreadnought, an entirely new kind of ship, the first of her class. She was designed for both naval combat and shore bombardment.

The Sea Dragon, as she was called, bristled with guns. She carried no less than twenty-four magnetic cannon with bronze barrels twenty feet long for extended range. They were set in pairs on twelve rotating barbettes. Eight of these were set amidships abeam, fore and aft of the main mast. Four more barbettes were set on the centerline of the ship, one pair toward the bow and another the stern with the rear barbette of each pair standing higher than the barbette in front of it, allowing it to shoot right over its twin.

All guns could traverse through a full one-hundred eighty degrees. That gave the ship a broadside of sixteen guns while eight guns could be trained on any target fore or aft. And they could shoot not only incendiaries and canister shot but also the new exploding shells packed with guncotton. Each barbette was equipped with an optical range finder, a tube with prisms at both ends and an eyepiece in the middle which relied on triangulation to calculate range to target. Maximum range was two and a half miles though hits at extreme range were as much a matter of luck as good aim what with the wind and all.

She had the same hull as an aerocraft carriers which made the dreadnought five hundred feet long, flush decked, and junk-rigged, her battened sails raised on three short solid unstayed masts, which meant there was no standing rigging which might have interfered with the traverse of the guns. Another advantage of a junk rig was that it was simple and required few hands to sail the ship. Indeed her sails could be reefed from the deck by pulling on hawsers.

She did embark modest aviation assets: three flying wings for scouting and a pair of autogyros stored in a hanger below decks. The autogyros were utility aerocraft not bombers.

For extra punch as well as defense she had a contingent of wizards and mages including a war wizard, fetchers, weather and water wizards, and a firecaster. The weather and water wizards helped sail the ship whereas the others had little to do except during combat. The fetchers did help load stores, and the firecaster kept the beer cold. Sailors were rationed two pints a day, one with the midday meal and the other with supper.

The dreadnought's captain was the Dekker's old chief of staff Commander Grayson, recently promoted to Captain. For this peace-time deployment the Navy had not put the flotilla under the command of an officer of higher rank. Instead Grayson wore a second hat, that of flotilla commander, which came with a brevet promotion to Commodore which might become permanent depending on Admiral Van Zant's report on how well he handled command of a flotilla.

In contrast with Commodore Dekker's mission of exploration and discovery Grayson's mission was coastal patrolling, protection of the sea lanes, and showing the flag. One of its tasks was keeping a weather eye on the lands of the Communalists in the far south. Another was patrolling the new shipping route around the Northwest Cape to Severna as the lands along the northern coast of the continent were called.

Since the naval architects and shipyard workers with Eike would be spending some weeks in Argyll they took rooms at the same inn on the outskirts of town where Liam and others had stayed on the first voyage. Lennart's representative Taggart stayed there too. The food was tasty and the service unobtrusive and supportive.

Eike's wants were simple though he did like his creature comforts. One thing he emphatically disliked was household chores. During five years as a castaway he had had to do everything for himself. These days, as a man of means, he saw no reason why others should not be paid to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, hewing of wood, and hauling of water. He had better uses for his energies whether at the shipyard, tinkering in his workshop, or for quality time with his lovers.

Liam shared his room while Nathan was a frequent overnight guest whenever he could get away from his ship. Whether as a pair or as a threesome, the boys made love with abandon, a glorious, acrobatic, athletic, and loud expression of their passionate love for one another.

The boys and the other guests liked to sit of an evening on the terrace facing the snow capped mountains. The boys were comfortably dressed in the square-cut low-rise short shorts the twins had made popular. The boys favored that fashion because the shorts displayed to advantage so much of their trim, taut, and tanned bodies. And with fine clean limbed bodies like theirs would it not be selfish if they did not share such youthful male beauty with the world at large?

Lounging on the terrace was the perfect way to close out a busy day. The chairs were comfortable, the service attentive but unobtrusive, and the company congenial. As they relaxed over a desert wine the dwarf Taggart asked how the boys had met.

"Ah, thereby hangs a tale, or rather two of them," Eike replied. "I'll go first."

"For reasons I won't bother with I became a solitary castaway on an uninhabited island starting when I was ten years old, after my folks died and left me alone. It was Nathan who rescued me after five lonely years and reintroduced me to the wider world."

"I was utterly naive, a sexually innocent fifteen year old with no idea about love and sex. Nathan cautioned me and protected me from the unwanted attentions a cute blonde boy like me would draw. Lest I be inveigled into pleasuring sweet talking sailors he warned them to keep their hands off."

"Once settled on the mainland I blossomed and come into my own. In time I discovered my sexuality and made my own choices. I realized that I preferred boys to girls and that I fancied one particular boy: my rescuer and mentor and best friend Nathan Lathrop."

"That is such a sweet story of romance blossoming slowly from friendship to love. Was it that way with you Liam, you and Nathan?"

"It wasn't anything like that at all." Liam said shaking his head. "With us it was love at first sight or maybe lust while love came later. When we met aboard the Petrel we both were thunderstruck with an instant and overwhelming physical attraction. We stood there staring, our faces marked with longing. I clenched my fists in an effort to keep himself from making a complete fool of himself over the beautiful boy standing in front of me. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out but an inarticulate squawk."

"Ha! I wasn't any better off myself," Nathan allowed. "Liam had been on lookout on the crow's perch, relishing the wind in his hair and the kiss of the sun on his bare skin. So there he stood stark naked, all slender ad muscular and bronzed and glabrous. I bit my lower lip and blushed furiously. In Liam I saw the kind of boy I had always hoped to meet, a boy I could give my heart to. Captain Dekker could not help but notice. He looked over to sailing master Crawley and rolled his eyes, but he indulged our love affair as long as we were discreet, not that we fooled anyone. Our first voyage on the Petrel was our honeymoon cruise."

Eventually the ships of the flotilla deployed to their initial patrol zones. Grayson sent the Gull and a sloop south and ordered the Cormorant and a sloop to operate out of Argyll. That left the Arctic Tern and the sloop Sandpiper to escort the Sea Dragon to which Van Zant shifted his flag for a voyage around the Northwest Cape to the northern coast of Sarmantia. That made for crowded cabins and a crowded wardroom, which had to accommodate the admiral, the commodore, and their staffs plus the dreadnought's own captain and officers.

Unfortunately what was intended as a show-the-flag operation turned into a full-fledged naval battle.

The three ships sailed out to sea so as to round the Northwest Cape well away from its reef, tricky currents, whirlpools, and islets made of iron ore which played havoc with their magnetic compasses. They dropped anchor at the most westerly of the coastal forts, the one the Corps of Discovery had visited which was commanded by Captain Darrow. His news was grim.

The mainlanders' defense of their shores had succeeded only too well. Scouting with flying wings had cost the raiders the vital element of surprise. Reports the scouts provided were immediately relayed along the new infrasound messaging network which the Commonwealth Navy had helped the locals establish. By the time the raiders reached the shore, the forts were on high alert and militias fully formed to repel them.

Unable to raid the mainland, the raiders on their overpopulated islands were on short rations. Scouts reported that the sea going war canoes of the Sea Wolves were massing not for a raid but for an all-out invasion. They meant to make a landing and establish themselves permanently on the mainland, killing or expelling the current inhabitants of the target district and seizing their homes, fields, livestock, and goods.

It looked like the invasion would kick off any day now. The mainlanders' defenses against raids would never withstand an all out assault by hundreds of war canoes concentrating on one stretch of coast. About all that they could do would be to make the invasion as costly as possible and resettle refugees from the lands the invaders would occupy.

"That is not going to happen." Admiral Van Zant declared. "Our Governing Council anticipated this contingency and addressed it in our orders. If there is one thing the Commonwealth of the Long River does not abide it is invaders whether they be trolls, barbarians, centaurs, Communalists, or Sea Wolves. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but the Commonwealth would like human society on Haven behave otherwise. So we will intervene with the full might of our Navy to protect our friends and trading partners."

"I am sorry I have to invoke the combat contingency clause of our orders, Grayson, but pursuant to those orders I am assuming command of the flotilla. Until I relinquish command, you will concentrate on fighting your ship as my flag captain."

"We both understood that your role as commodore of the flotilla was provisional and predicated on a show-the-flag mission, not a full-fledged naval engagement. In the coming battle we both must play to our strengths. Mine is experience in command of a flotilla and of a squadron in more battles that I care to remember. Your is your ship handling and ship fighting ability. Indeed you are far better qualified to command this dreadnought than I. The Sea Dragon is a type of ship I myself have never sailed on before much less captained. You know your ship and your men, and they know you."

Grayson nodded.

"Much as it pains me to give up my role of commodore, if only temporarily, I accept the logic of the situation, and will not let my personal feelings affect my performance in the role you have assigned me."

"I knew I could count on you, Grayson."

Van Zant had Liam contact the Cormorant and Gull via infrasound messaging, directing them to designated positions on their charts. Liam then opened rifts for the frigates and accompanying sloops, letting them join up with the Sea Dragon and her escorts bringing the flotilla up to its full strength of three frigates, three sloops, and one dreadnought. All together the force mounted no less than fifty-four rapid fire magnetic cannon plus the small swivel guns, more than enough firepower to blow the Sea Wolves invasion force out of the water.

Van Zant briefly considered asking for reinforcements from Southport, say an aerocraft carrier plus escorting frigates and sloops, but decided they would not be necessary. Besides he very much wanted to test the combat power of the new class of dreadnoughts. He planned on a running battle with the invaders where the Navy would have all the advantages of surprise, speed, maneuver, firepower, and combat magic.

Thanks to his weather and air wizards his ships would always have the wind in their sails and the weather gage. That would let them sail faster and more nimbly than canoes whose paddlers would have to work in relays lest they all tire at once.

The admiral's plan took advantage of the key weakness of war canoes which was that they were not really naval combatants at all. Oh some of them mounted a small ballista at their bow but even that was intended against militia formed up on land to resist a landing. Basically war canoes lacked anti-ship armaments. The war canoes were really intended for ferrying raiders across the narrow sea between the islands and the mainland. The Sea Wolves had never fought a naval battle. They had no training or experience in boarding tactics which was their only real option against the flotilla -- other than turning tail and running away.

The three sloops were sent out as bait to attack the vanguard of the enemy force. Now three sloops did not look like much of a threat to a force of over four hundred war canoes with crews of thirty warriors each so at first they were ignored. That changed when the sloops harried the war canoes in an effort to enrage the raiders and get them to follow them westward into the trap Van Zant had set for them.

At first the sloops used only with the six torpedoes each carried, sinking fifteen canoes. The invaders tried to close the distance, but the crews of the sloops taunted the invaders with rude gestures then turned away as if to flee. The raiders paddled furiously finally getting close enough to engage with the ballistas mounted in their bows which shot large arrows, none of which hit anything vital. Most missed entirely, as the fetchers who had propelled the torpedoes had raised a missile shield which redirected the flight of most arrows and made them plunge into the sea. The same tactic worked against the bolts fired from the raiders' crossbows.

To provoke them further, mages on the sloops attacked war canoes with levin bolts and ball lightning sinking a dozen more. The only weather wizard on the sloops directed a waterspout at a group of war canoes and swamped or capsized a couple of dozen of them.

Though the battle went largely as the admiral had hoped, it was not entirely one-sided. The raiders had mages too, though they were ill-trained and dispersed throughout their force so they could not concert their powers. Some war canoes actually got close enough to lob fireballs at the sloops. Only one sloop had a firecaster who could snuff out the fireballs flung at his ship. The crews of the other sloops manned the hand pumps and their water wizards their fire towers to suppress the flames while their gunners dealt with the threat.

The raiders also scored hits with levin bolts on the two sloops that did not have a war mage able to block them with ball lightning. As damage control parties put out the fires and patched the holes in their hulls the sloops trained their guns and countered with canister shot, raking the enemy vessels with a storm of lead bullets, turning them into a bloody shambles.

One sloop had to repel boarders when fetchers on two war canoes telekinetically lifted teams of raiders onto her deck. The ensuing close action was fast and furious, pitting the raiders' swords against the airguns, bayonets and cutlasses of the crew. In addition, the high pressure stream from the sloop's fire tower flushed those who had boarded amidships back into the sea.

The war canoes abruptly veered off, heading south toward the mainland, abandoning a fruitless fight that had already significantly diminished their invasion force. The leaders of the Sea Wolves reckoned that they could thwart the naval attack by breaking contact and making for the mainland, there to carry out their true mission which was to effect a landing, then head inland to seize territory.

Warned of the change of course by his aerial scouts Van Zant changed his plan. If he could not lure the enemy into a trap he would use his speed advantage to place his flotilla athwart the enemy's axis of advance then lie in wait for them behind what looked like a light haze but was really a concealment raised by Liam. Hidden by the magical screen Van Zant's warships were arrayed in a shallow arc with the dreadnought in the center and the frigates on its flanks.

With the coast in sight the raiders thought they were home free, but just then the flotilla's war wizards dropped the Concealment, and the ships opened fire. The frigates concentrated on the enemy's van while the dreadnought took advantage of its longer range to attack the rear of the invasion force. As the sloops caught up, they too attacked the rear of the formation. The raiders were trapped between two fires as explosive shells and incendiaries rained down on them.

This was an attack for which they had no counter except to close with, swarm, and board their enemy. Thirty canoes on either flank targeted the sloops which had only two guns each. Taking them out would open an escape route.

Though armed with only two magnetic cannon, the crews of the sloops also had shoulder fired airguns which they discharged at canoes which came within small arms range, taking a frightening toll of their crews.

Grayson came to their aid directing the Sea Dragon to lob her shells high enough to arc over the intervening ships and rain down on the enemy trying to close with the three sloops. This was where the optical range finders really came into their own.

As the formation of war canoes thinned and broke up, Grayson urged a change in plan.

"Let's get right in among them, sir. My forward guns can blast a path into the center of their formation. Once we have them on all sides we can bring all our guns to bear on the enemy at once, shooting in all directions except aft. The frigates would follow and shoot in every direction except forwards."

"Talk about thinking outside the box! Grayson, this must be the first time in naval warfare when deliberately letting yourself get surrounded was used as an offensive tactic. Still, it would make our guns that much more effective if we were able to train all of them on the enemy at the same time. Make it so."

The Sea Dragon took the lead and charged at full speed into the ragged formation of war canoes, blasting a path with the eight guns which could be trained forward. Her mass and momentum let her crush canoes which did not get out her way fast enough.

As she moved deeper the dreadnought began firing to port and starboard as well with incendiaries, explosive shells, and canister. Missile shields held by a fetcher and air wizard largely protected the dreadnought's crew from ballista bolts and crossbow quarrels so they could work her guns and her sails with near impunity. Her twenty-four guns tore the heart out of the enemy force.

War canoes that got close enough to the dreadnought so as to be under her main guns fared no better. The Sea Dragon's water wizard used Dekker's old standing wave technique to keep the war canoes at arm's length, momentarily held stationary with respect to the ship. That made them sitting ducks for grape shot from the warship's swivel guns which were emplaced in sponsons along her sides. The swivel guns also swept away teams of raiders lifted telekinetically for an attempted boarding.

Following Sea Dragon's example the three frigates advanced into the melee adding their broadsides to the furious sea battle while the two dozen naval infantry aboard each frigate shot their airguns at war canoes that approached to board.

Nathan's Arctic Tern did sterling service protecting their rear. The raiders soon learned to their sorrow that a frigate could bring six of her eight guns to bear in any direction including directly aft. She did not have any blind spots or weak points. Besides, the two dozen naval infantry embarked and her crew with both armed with airguns. Arctic Tern's actions that day won Nathan a fourth Mention in Dispatches.

To add to the enemy's woes Liam took to the air in a flying yoke and directed streams of white fire no less eight times at a concentrated wedge of war canoes trying to break out of the entrapment. Spent, the war wizard sank wearily to his station on the quarterdeck of the Arctic Tern.

It was all too much for the raiders who by then had lost two-thirds of their fleet of war canoes. Casting their weapons down at their feet though not overboard, the raiders raised empty hands, pleading for quarter, which Van Zant granted, ordering an immediate ceasefire. He was satisfied that the destruction of their invasion fleet had broken the power of the sea raiders once and for all. The admiral had never wanted a battle of annihilation, as he would have against trolls. Besides, Van Zant needed the survivors to report the fate which befell the invasion. After plucking their shipwrecked comrades out of the sea, the remnants of the once mighty force of war canoes limped home.

"Hell's Bells!" the admiral exclaimed jubilantly as the extent of their victory became apparent. "That's the last we'll see of the damned Sea Wolves -- Sea Curs is more like it."

"Congratulations on your victory sir!"

"It's our victory, Grayson, yours and mine, as the record will show. I'll make sure of that."

"The Lords of the Admiralty will be pleased with this proof of the dreadnought concept, that a ship with lots of guns can hit as hard as an aerocraft carrier can with its bombers. The dreadnought can deliver more sustained fires whether in naval combat or for shore bombardment. Bombing quickly tires pilots whether they are using flying yokes or autogyros to move themselves and their payloads. The gunners have a much easier task. They just push shells down a long tube to impart the momentum which carries them to the target. That's something they can keep up all day."

Grayson nodded then added:

"It is also easier to recruit gunners than flyers. Masters of magnetism have limited employment options in the civilian world whereas fetchers can find lucrative employment in aviation, iron roads, and long distance trucking. More than a few of our pilots join up for aviator training but leave once they have fulfilled their service obligation."

"What is really great about a dreadnought is that unlike a carrier the Sea Dragon looks highly dangerous, bristling as she is with two dozen magnetic cannon in twin barbettes and swivel guns in sponsons. At a glance you know she is a warship capable of raining death and destruction on her foes. Aerocraft carriers lack that intimidation factor. Without guns or even old fashioned ballistas and catapults they don't look much like naval combatants at all, nor is it any wonder. Carriers are really just ferries for their aviation assets, aren't they?"

"Ha! Be careful you don't voice that opinion where a carrier officer might hear it and take umbrage."

"I won't start it, but the next time I hear some insufferable carrier type brag that there are only two kinds of naval vessels, namely carriers and targets, I will lay it on him."

"In our enthusiasm for the dreadnought, let's not lose sight of the fact that carriers are damn powerful warships able to exert control over a huge area of sea out to their radius of action which is much greater than the range of naval gunfire. A carrier can sink a dreadnought long before she gets within gun range. Besides, carriers don't need to be heavily armed. Their escorts defend them from attack leaving them to conduct flight operations unhindered by the enemy."

"Hmm, sir, someday we will run into an enemy capable of aerial bombardment, whether from shore or from a carrier. What then? Has the Admiralty even thought about defense against aerial attack?"

"Yes, my friend, but without a real threat work at the Bureau of Ships is still at the conceptual level. I expect we will eventually design anti-air guns which might be twice as long our magnetic cannon but with a bore only half the size. A longer tube and a lighter shell makes for greater range and ceiling, enough to reach out and up to any threat."

"They would likely shoot a shell packed with gun cotton and steel ball bearings paired with a dual action contact and clockwork fuze. If the shell didn't hit something, it would go off anyway, hopefully at the right altitude and near enough to do damage. The ideal fuze would be somehow triggered by mere proximity to a target, but no one has any idea how to make that work."

"Anti-air guns would also need a robust traversing and elevation mechanism to move not only the gun but also its gunner, letting him keep his target in his sights. Time will tell."

"What do you think will happen to the islanders now?" Grayson then asked.

Van Zant shrugged. "It's out of our hands now, and not a proper military concern at all."

Van Zant did not care all that much about what might happen to the islanders. Having seen what the extermination of the islanders of the Great Inland Freshwater Sea at the hands of the trolls and their genocide in Amazonia the admiral was heartily sick of bloodthirsty invaders, and raiders, and pirates, and barbarians of any stripe. Were it in his power he would gladly send them all to the bottom of the sea.

In the long term the admiral thought that with no alternative but slow starvation, the inhabitants of the Seaward Isles would accept an offer of help from the druids. Their plan would reorient the economy of the Seaward Isles away from their familiar crops which were unsuited to the islands' soils. The alternative the druids would offer was to exploit the rich resources of the estuarine environment along their shores.

The aftermath was anti-climactic. The flotilla paid a visit to the Severnan military command headquarters down the coast where they accepted the grateful thanks of the locals for saving them from invasion. The locals granted the Commonwealth Navy local berthing rights.

Before returning to Argyll the admiral restored full command of the flotilla to Commodore Grayson and put him in for a major decoration. Van Zant also urged the Admiralty to make Grayson's brevet rank permanent and assign him a proper flag captain. His boldness and flawless execution of the battle plan had contributed mightily to their victory.

As for Grayson's innovative immersion tactic, that was well worth an article in the Naval Journal under the rubric: Lessons Learned. Authorship in that most prestigious of professional publications would make Grayson's name known to the naval community.

At Argyll Liam opened a rift directly to the Bureau of Ships in the capital for the admiral and his staff, Eike and his fellow naval architects and shipwrights, plus Lennart's representative the dwarf Taggart. Liam himself stayed deployed aboard the Arctic Tern with Nathan Lathrop.

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