Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 5

Discovery Island

The flotilla carrying the Commonwealth's latest Corps of Discovery hove to just off the lee shore of a sizable island in the Southern Ocean. This discovery looked to be the first important find of the voyage.

The flotilla consisted of five ships: three frigates, a sloop, and an aerocraft carrier with a reduced complement of pilots, autogyros, flying wings, and incendiary bombs. The space thus freed up was devoted to extra supplies. The commander of the flotilla, Commodore Jan Dekker flew his broad pennant aboard the frigate Cormorant.

The natural philosophers aboard the frigate Arctic Tern were practically salivating at the opportunity for scientific discovery in their respective disciplines of geology, botany, and zoology.

Not for the first time the geologist Johan Klutz envied those with the magical ability to delve, that is to perceive what lay below the surface. It happened that both the captain of the frigate, Lieutenant Sir Nathan Lathrop and the earth wizard Jemsen shared that gift.

On solid ground a delver perceived what lay beneath the surface of the earth: the strata and types of rocks and minerals, aquifers, caves and caverns, and artificial structures like cellars, mines, tunnels, aqueducts, and even water mains. He could also tell what lay on the other side of a wall.

The navy called it sounding, but it was the same ability only directed at determining the depth of water under the keel and hazards like hidden reefs, rocks, or shoals. A sounder could also determine the nature of the bottom, whether sandy, rocky, muddy, broken shells, whatever.

Both delvers and sounders could perceive in pitch dark, an ability with obvious military value. Indeed Nathan Lathrop's gift had once thwarted an attempt by trolls to set fire to the Commonwealth's invasion fleet while anchored in harbor.

Still, even if he could not delve himself, Klutz had a trained eye for terrain, landforms, and geological structures. A geologist's hammer and a spade would unearth clues to what lay below. He was aching to set foot on the island and see just what it was made of. It was not a continental fragment, that was clear from the lagoon in the center. Yet it was not a low lying coral atoll either which were rings of islands and islets which rarely rose higher than a yard or two above sea level. From what he could see of the leeward coast the island looked to have an average uplift of more than twenty feet with a prominent sand dune over twice as high.

First though they had to find safe passage through both the fringing reef which encircled the island and then into the lagoon itself, much of which, as they had already determined from an aerial survey, was dry at low tide. Around the lagoon lay the larger islands of the archipelago, if that indeed it could be called that.

About twenty-one miles long by eight wide, the archipelago consisted of forty-three islands, one much larger than all the others combined. Later named Grand Isle, it enclosed the lagoon on the South, East, and most of the West. In places it was three miles wide from ocean to lagoon. Later surveys put the total land area at sixty square miles.

Strong tidal currents had scoured three channels up to eight fathoms deep through the western side of the ring of islands into the lagoon. The flotilla anchored in the Southwest corner, in the crook of Grand Isle, where the water was five fathoms deep, enough to keep their ships afloat at low tide. Later surveys showed two small shallow passages at either end of the large northern island.

Since the aerial survey had shown no signs of habitation, Dekker decided the islands were a no-man's land and could properly be claimed. For this purpose he made a ceremonial landing and planted the flag of the Commonwealth, declaiming the standard formula:

"By right of discovery we take possession of this uninhabited and newly found land which we name Discovery Island. From this day forward, these islands and surrounding waters are and ever shall be the sovereign territory of the Commonwealth of the Long River. Long may the Commonwealth prosper."

While the Navy surveyed the lagoon in small boats, naval infantry from the frigates and the carrier took the opportunity to stretch their legs and to march if only to retain their conditioning. They also practiced assault landings and fired their airguns at paper targets. Each frigate carried two dozen naval infantry, a mix of humans and elves, with another six dozen on the carrier, all of them frost giants.

Dwarves avoided naval service and the sea in general. Their bodies were much too dense to float, given their thick bones and powerful musculature. More than any other race dwarves were denizens of the land.

The Arctic Tern's longboat carried a party of explorers to a beach on Grand Isle. Aboard were the three natural philosophers, the twins, the journalist, the shapeshifter, and the druid. There was no military style chain of command among what was essentially a party of civilians, so everyone agreed to take their cue from the druid who was both the most magically gifted and the most knowledgeable about the natural world in all its aspects: geology, botany, zoology, meteorology, etc. As a weather and water wizard, Liam's gifts were ill-suited to exploring terra firma so he stayed aboard the Arctic Tern with Nathan.

Aodh was in his forest ranger uniform, the twins in the scouting silks, Drew in his expeditionary outfit, while the Druid wore a simple tunic. All wore sandals against the rough ground.

All of the landing party except the druid went armed with airguns, just in case. Dahl bore just his quarterstaff plus a brace of throwing knives. They had little of worry about. The archipelago was too small to support large terrestrial predators.

In any event, their powerful magical gifts were up to any challenge. Klutz was a strong fetcher even if not nearly so powerful as Drew Altair. Both bore a pair of steel spheres and an edged disk. Aodh's sonic weapon worked in either of his bodily forms and when he morphed he turned into a black panther with tripled strength and poison claws, besides which, as a wir, he was virtually invulnerable in that he could recover from almost any injury.

The twins could shield the whole party. As an earth wizard Jemsen could throw up a berm to protect them from attack or to form a trench while Karel could interpose a shield of hardened air. As he told the others:

"As a matter of routine, in iffy situations I create a small air blade which hovers out of the way above and off to one side but handy if I need it. You see, I can throw up a shield instantly, but that also blocks the bullets from our own airguns. An air blade takes almost a minute to hone to a monomolecular edge so I like to prepare it ahead of time and keep it at the ready. So stick close if we have to fight an enemy rather than just protect ourselves."

Indeed, the air blade was a fearsome weapon which could cut through just about anything or anyone, with grisly results.

Klutz went to work with spade and hammer, examining the sandy beach and the rocks and soils inland. After conferring with Jemsen he announced in full professorial mode:

"Now I see things as they really are. The first clue was a coastline undercut by limestone cliffs above a perched beach. The next clue was that the ground is riddled with pot holes and pits. The final clue was those irregular coral formations sticking up here and there which are called mushrooms for their shape. Friends, what we have here is a raised coral atoll."

A raised or uplifted coral atoll was an atoll made of reef limestone which had been lifted by tectonic forces high enough above sea level which protected it from scouring by storms. The uplift of more than twenty feet had formed a rim line of low cliffs with deep notches, and jagged pinnacles in the shallow central lagoon. Sand dunes dominated the windward south coast.

Its elevation allowed the island to develop real soils, the foundation for a full-fledged flora and fauna while its isolation meant that many of its diverse species were endemic to the atoll. In other words, it was a geological, botanical, and zoological treasure house.

"So those are my first thoughts on the geology. Scolari, what are your first impressions about the botany?"

"Well, we haven't gone but two or three miles, so this is very preliminary. I could spend weeks in this place and barely scratch the surface."

The twins shared an indulgent smile at Scolari's enthusiasm. They themselves were life-long students of the natural world. Witness their popular series of field guides which included three titles so far on botanical subjects: tree identification, edible wild plants, and the identification and care of ferns, cycads, and bromeliads, decorative plants near and dear to their hearts.

"Much of the terrain is covered by jungle and meadow and dissected by creeks flowing through mangrove forests as well as coral reefs and sand flats."

"As you know mangroves are integral to the coastal ecosystem. They grow in coastal saline or brackish water and are admirably adapted to life in harsh coastal conditions with a complex filtration system to deal with salt. Their roots can cope with immersion in salt water and wave action and the low oxygen conditions of waterlogged mud."

"The higher areas are thickly covered with a shrub which varies considerably in form. Some specimens are densely branched and form low and spreading bushes or short trees with furcated main stems which lie nearly prone. Others develop into a single erect trunk. Leaves range from small, fleshy and succulent to large, flat and not fleshy at all, but it is all the same species."

"At lower elevations there is a mixture of trees, shrubs, herbs, and grasses. Just from what I have seen I would guess that might be a couple of hundred species of flowering plants, shrubs, and ferns on the atoll."

"That's it for plants, so far. Your turn, Evander; what can you tell us about the fauna?"

The zoologist Evander Blok was a specialist in herpetology, the branch of zoology concerned with reptiles and amphibians. He was thrilled to find that the atoll was the home of giant tortoises.

"Reptiles are the dominant terrestrial fauna. Just the tortoises alone must number in the tens of thousands. The adults are big. Their carapaces measure over a yard long, and I estimate their maximum weight at 750 pounds. Their preferred habitat is a mixture of that brush Scolari mentioned mixed in with grasses and herbs which I am going to call 'tortoise turf'".

"The numbers of tortoises are good evidence that these islands have never been populated or even visited regularly. A resource like that, so much meat on the hoof, so to speak, would never have gone unexploited."

"Now let's not have any horseplay with these animals. They are not steeds for high spirited lads to ride like racing ponies. And yes that means you twins especially."

"We would never think of doing such a thing!" Jemsen and Karel assured him with an air of injured innocence.

"Uh, huh."

Blok concluded by saying:

"The island is also a breeding ground for the hawksbill sea turtle plus many species of seabirds, including terns, boobies, frigate birds, flamingos, herons. And we haven't even begun to assess the aquatic fauna."

"On that score I have made some interesting observations with my psychic senses," the druid told them. "In the surrounding waters I found a half dozen species of cetaceans including dolphins, orcas, humpback whales, plus dugongs which aren't whales at all. Oh, and if you go swimming in the ocean, watch out for barracuda, manta rays, and sharks."

"I hope there aren't any mosasaurs in these seas." Karel told Dahl.

"There aren't. They could not compete with the local orcas. You see, as solitary predators single mosasaurs would be no match for a pod of orcas who would not tolerate the competition. Fortunately since they are mammals orcas respond more readily to druidical magic than reptiles so I can keep them at bay."

"I hope these islands are never settled." Scolari opined. "They would be just the tiniest addition to the arable lands of the Commonwealth. Such as shame it would be to destroy a natural laboratory like this for the sake of a few farms."

"I am confident that won't happen." Dahl told them. "The druidic order will likely petition the government to put these islands in our care as a nature reserve open to all investigators."

"What a splendid idea!"

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