Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 9

Dragon's Blood

On the quarterdeck of the frigate Arctic Tern the young war wizard Liam turned to his captain cum boyfriend Sir Nathan Lathrop and commented:

"The sea we've just crossed is so empty. There's hardly a speck of land anywhere in it. It's no real use to anyone except maybe to fishermen."

"Only no one is fishing those waters," Nathan pointed out, "even though huge schools of tuna, cod, and hake are there for the taking."

"That resource could be the basis for a deep sea fishing industry. Fish could be smoked or salted to preserve them or else packed in ice then shipped to market. Those small islands we found might not be suitable for settlement, but they would do just fine as bases for fishing fleets."

"Which was why Commodore Dekker took possession for the Commonwealth. Besides the obvious economic benefits, annexation serves a strategic interest as well. Fishing fleets increase the number of mariners, the prime recruiting ground for an all-volunteer Navy like ours. And most of our mariners have no experience on the ocean, having only sailed the waters of the Great Inland Freshwater Sea."

The empty sea the young men were discussing was a great ocean gyre twelve hundred miles across and eight hundred north to south over which they had sailed in diagonal zig zags. Pilots of flying wings based aboard the aerocraft carrier scouted the seascape from aloft, their altitude letting them see for more than a hundred miles to either side. That was how they could be sure that their flotilla had not missed any significant land masses.

The gyre was characterized by calm seas and blue water of extraordinary clarity. Floating seaweed stretched in lines for miles across the surface providing the base for an ecosystem which ranged from the plankton and krill to ocean giants like oarfish, sperm whales, and a colossal species of squid called the Kraken.

The Arctic Tern was one ship in a flotilla sent out by the Commonwealth as the latest Corps of Discovery. It consisted of five ships, three heavy frigates, a sloop, and an aerocraft carrier.

The flotilla commander, Commodore Jan Dekker, flew his broad pennant on the frigate Cormorant, sister ship to the Arctic Tern and her consort the Gull. His mission was one of exploration, geographical and scientific discovery, diplomacy, and the promotion of trade.

His orders stressed that the flotilla was to eschew provocative acts and to avoid hostilities if at all possible. The Commonwealth did not need new enemies. There had been plenty of those in the past, and everyone wanted the current era of peace and prosperity to continue.

Nevertheless, the flotilla was a powerful naval force. The frigates were armed with magnetic cannon mounted in pairs atop four rotating barbettes, one fore and aft and one on each beam, which gave them wide fields of fire and the ability to bring six guns to bear in all directions. Their twin barrels were sixteen feet long and extended over a stationary circular ring of armor made of steel plate backed by oak.

The gunners were masters of magnetism who propelled steel jacketed incendiary shells and canister shot down the long tube which was made of non-magnetic bronze, a metal which fortuitously did not corrode in the salt water of the southern ocean.

The sloop had just two single cannon in small barbettes fore and aft, while the aerocraft carrier relied on its air wing and its escorts for defense, having only ranks of swivel guns in sponsons along the sides.

The next day was target practice for the magnetic cannon. The frigates and the sloop took turns firing on a raft made from driftwood picked up at their last stop. The results were better than good. The commodore had every confidence in the ability of the flotilla to defend itself.

The day after target practice they chanced upon a good sized island about eighty miles long and thirty wide. There was only one decent anchorage, a sheltered bay on the northern shore. Aerial surveys showed it to be uninhabited. The climate was semi-arid with greater landfall at higher elevations. Beyond narrow coastal plains lay a limestone plateau, and in the center mountains rose to five thousand feet.

When the scientific party was finally allowed to land, all three natural philosophers were struck by the almost alien appearance of the plants and animals. One species of tree had an upturned and densely packed crown in the shape of an umbrella. Its leaves grew only at the ends of the youngest branches. They were lucky to find it in bloom with small clusters of fragrant, white or green flowers. It was quickly named the dragon's blood tree for its dark red resin. The older trees had many branches while the saplings looked like a bristly thatch atop a very thick undivided stem.

Professor Scolari collected specimens of the leaves and fruits of many new species for his herbarium back at the Institute. He made detailed notes about their environs, and drew numerous sketches.

Johan Klutz found the geology intriguing, spending days taking rock samples and drawing terrain sketches. Knowing that the limestone plateau must be riddled with caves he asked Jemsen to delve the locations of some caves worth exploring.

Klutz and the others spent several days exploring several large caves. Some were a thousand feet long with arched openings sixty feet across. The entrances to other caves were mere clefts in the rock face. Calling Light to see by, the explorers marveled at the huge stalactites and stalagmites and curtain walls all of which were created over centuries by something as simple as acidic water percolating through limestone.

The zoologist Evander Blok made a survey of the terrestrial animal species, of which, sadly, there were only a few, finally reporting:

"I'm afraid it's mostly reptiles again but no amphibians at all, not a single frog, toad, newt, or salamander. I found six new species of birds but only one mammal, a bat, which is not terribly surprising for an isolated oceanic island. How else would mammals get here but to fly?"

"This island is more than just isolated, my friend." Klutz told him. "Unlike all those islands we found earlier which were volcanos and coral atolls built atop extinct volcanoes, this island is not at all volcanic in origin. It is actually a chunk of a continent left behind when its parent body broke up millions of years ago. The rest drifted away, possibly to merge with some other continent."

"The plants too are unique and almost certainly endemic to this one island and specifically adapted to its ecology." Scolari marveled. "It is a veritable jewel of biodiversity."

Dahl nodded. "We druids will ask for this island too to be turned over to our order as a nature preserve."

The next day a terrific cyclonic storm blew up which would have endangered the anchored ships and pushed them onto a lee shore except that the weather wizards took the sting out of the storm and directed its eye on a track which skirted the island.

The rains left by the storm brought what Scolari called a super bloom of flowering plants where dormant seeds in the soil sprang to life to produce the blossoms of millions of ephemeral wildflowers. They covered the normally bare lower slopes of the plateau. The entire landscape was a kaleidoscope of blue and red and yellow, and purple, and white as the winds carried the swell perfume of the blooms everywhere.

The boys decided to make an occasion of it, a spring festival. They threw off their clothes and pranced around sky-clad gathering stems which they wove into floral garlands and crowns.

The twins were careful to keep their floral accessories color coded, as always green (with white) for Jemsen and blue with yellow accents for Karel. Aodh's choker of red and white blossoms went so well with his pale coloration that he wove a similar garland around his tiny waist. The auburn-haired journalist elected to go with a red and white combo.

"Let's have some music!" Drew enthused.

"Why not?" the druid replied then reached out and seemingly plucked a flute out of thin air.

"Was that a space portal?" Liam asked.

"Yes, it was, but only a tiny one -- just big enough for me to reach through to my cabin on the Arctic Tern. I focussed it on the corner where I store my gear."

"It's a neat trick. I'd like to try it myself."

"I'd better show you how. It's tricky, because unlike with a portal you step through your body is in two places at once. So you must never reach for something very much north of south of your own position because the rotational speed of the planet will be much faster or slower than at your latitude."

With that Dahl put the flute to his lips and played a lively tune, one you could tap your feet to, and so everyone did. Soon they all joined in singing the lyrics of the well-known song and dancing in pairs.

Dahl was in his element. No one relates to plant life better than a druid, so soon floral vines were growing up around him, twisting around him from ankles to shoulders, turning him into a living floral statue, a veritable flower child.

All this attention to beauty in both flowers and comely youths had the predictable effect of inspiring romance. As Karel quoted to Scolari:

"In spring a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love!"

"As if you boys ever needed to come into season. You boys are pretty much turned on all year round, as far as I can tell," he replied with a grin.

The three scientists turned away politely as the boys indulged themselves, paired off, and made delirious love among the wildflowers. It was the highlight of the voyage so far.

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