Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 17

The Armed Coast

Over the next two days the flotilla remained at anchor while flying wings from the aerocraft carrier, the Sovereign of the Seas, conducted long-range reconnaissance of the coastline to the East out to a distance of three hundred miles. The maps made from their observations would allow the Commodore and his staff and captains to plan the next phase of the expedition.

The coast ran fairly straight a little south of east. Running parallel with it was a string of islands about eighty miles out. The mainland was all low cliffs and rocky headlands with occasional inlets, bays, and coves, at the mouths of small rivers, some of which looked like good harbors. Inland were prosperous looking farms and fields and villages with the occasional town connected by unpaved roads. The most striking feature of the landscape was a series of small and squat bastioned towers sited on headlands and islands to command the harbors, beaches, and landing grounds.

The commodore convened a conference of his commanders plus the Corps of Discovery. It was held ashore under a sunshade erected on poles. The conferrees sat on folding camp stools around four planks pressed into service as a table which held maps and terrain sketches prepared by the scouts.

"Clearly this is a country at war or at least under the threat of raids from the sea, hence the bastioned towers intended to deter raiders and to disrupt their landings. The weapons in the towers would make a shambles of any amphibious landing, thus protecting the inhabitants inland from seaborne predators."

"Sir, how are these towers armed?" Nathan asked. "It is hard to believe that catapults and ballistas could command whole stretches of coastline. With their relatively short ranges, they would be useful to defend the towers but not to threaten landings. It would take something with the range of our magnetic cannon to do that."

"And thereby hangs the tale, Captain Lathrop. We got lucky that a scout overflew one harbor while a tower was taking target practice. No doubt this was something they were well trained in given the accuracy of their shooting."

"From the reports the scouts made it looks like these folk are equipped with heavy cannon from which solid shot or shells are propelled by combustion gasses, something we ourselves have experimented with but ultimately rejected in favor of magnetic cannon."

"How do they work, sir?"

"These cannon are thick tubes of bronze or iron or steel which are open only at one end. Bags of guncotton are loaded into the muzzle then pushed to the back of the tube. The shot or shell is then rammed home. A flame is applied to a touchhole near the back which ignites the gun cotton. Its rapid combustion generates a huge volume of gas under high pressure which pushes the shot or shell down the short bore and propels it down range."

"What exactly is guncotton?" Nathan asked for all of them.

"It is a recent invention of industrial alchemists which is also used for blasting rock loose in mining. Guncotton is made from strips or scraps of cotton fabric treated with acids to make it super-combustible and then with other chemicals to stabilize it so it does not ignite spontaneously. Its combustion is so fierce and fast that it acts like an explosive. The range of these combustion cannon is considerable. Also their gunners do not need to be mages with the magical gift of control of magnetism."

"So why did we not adopted them ourselves?"

"You are asking all the right questions, my friend. Combustion cannon must be thick to resist the great pressure of the gasses they must contain during repeated firings which can induce metal fatigue. By comparison the barrels of our magnetic cannon are thin lightweight bronze tubes which merely guide the shells."

"With cannon that heavy, gun decks must be stronger to support their weight. Even worse, these cannon are not emplaced on rotating barbettes and have no true elevating and traversing mechanisms but are supported on heavy wheeled carriages which must be manhandled to aim left or right. Wedges at the back control elevation, so aiming is clumsy and slow."

"Another major problem is recoil. As you must realize the force which pushes a shot down range shoves the cannon back just as hard. Now its backward speed is much smaller, proportionate to the difference in mass, but the momentum is the same except for frictional losses as it rumbles across the deck. After recoil pushes the cannon back, the crew uses ropes and pulleys to get it back into place, reload, and then aim all over again."

"It's a laborious process. Guncotton cannons are muzzle loaders rather than breechloaders like ours so their rate of fire is much slower. After each shot, they have to be swabbed out with a wet sponge on the end of a stick to douse any tiny scraps of burning silk left over from the propellant bags. Then comes the loading of charge and shot."

"Another problem with combustion guns is that their bags of propellant take up more room in a ship's magazine than the shells themselves do, thus limiting its combat load. Then there is the problem of accidental ignition of the highly inflammable and touchy guncotton whether as propellant or as the explosive in the shells."

"Our own shells are filled with binary incendiaries which are inert until fired whereas guncotton is a perpetual threat to any ship, especially since the stuff might be touched off by an enemy firecaster. Then again a firecaster might use his gift to prevent ignition of an enemy's guncotton propellant, effectively disarming an enemy fortress or ship at the most critical point in a battle."

"Those were the reasons why we ourselves have not equipped our navy with such problematic cannon though some consideration has been given to using guncotton in explosive shells, which would give us three kinds of projectiles: explosive, incendiary, and the antipersonnel canister shell. Now none of what I just told you is a military secret so you can write about it in your journalism or in your next book, young Altair."

"What is our next move, sir?"

"Caution must be our watchword. Before we make open contact with the locals we need to know the lay of the land. So we shall wait till both moons are down then slip a small recon team ashore via autogyro. Liam, you will do triple duty as team chief, pilot, and heavy hitter if the team has to fight its way into the clear. Your abilities with Concealment will keep the recon party hidden. And Aodh, if there is anyone stealthier than you are, well I haven't met him, so you are on the team."

"Lord Dahlderon, I'd like you to use your Mind Speech to surreptitiously eavesdrop on conversations and gain intelligence that way. Moreover your ensorcelled amulet makes you immune against hostile magic while your druidical powers should be able to handle almost any threat except a cannonball."

The young druid shrugged.

"I can neutralize their cannon easily enough by denaturing their guncotton propellant, making alchemical changes that render it noninflammable."

"You druids are just full of tricks, aren't you?"

"We should go too." Jemsen volunteered. "My gift of delving can penetrate the walls of the bastioned fort to reveal the layout, cannon emplacements, magazines, barracks, and so forth. And even in pitch darkness, I'll be able to draw plans of what I sense."

"Aside from being an experienced military scout, I don't know exactly how I could help," Karel added, "but where Jemsen goes, I go."

No one argued with that. They all know how inseparable the twins were.

"I'd like to volunteer too, sir, for a supplemental mission." Nathan ventured. "Drew Altair and I could take the submersible close in to shore to chart the harbor and its approaches. We wouldn't want to be surprised by hidden reefs or shoals if we decide to sail in openly."

"This is a job any sounder could do; it does not require a ship's captain. For that matter, any fetcher could propel the submersible. Uh why are you shaking your head, Drew?"

"On that point sir, I have to disagree with you. Maybe any fetcher could be trained to propel the submersible, but your naval fetchers have had no such training and experience. They either fly aerocraft or propel torpedoes. With Liam committed to the night mission that makes me the best fetcher for this job ."

"All right, Drew, the assignment is yours. And I suppose I must let you go along too, Nathan. I know you wouldn't want to sit idly by while your boyfriends went in harm's way."

"Thank you, sir. We'd better wait till the recon party gets back then go in about dawn. With the morning sun in their eyes, the sentries on the tower won't spot our underwater approach despite the clarity of the water."

Commodore Dekker turned to Commander Grayson, his chief of staff and said:

"Make it so."

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