Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIV

by George Gauthier

Chapter 6

The Machine Gun

It was past sundown when Jemsen and Karel put down their blue pencils and set aside the galleys for the latest of their successful line of field guides. Adjusting the magically powered desk lamps from task lighting to general illumination, they sat back in their chairs, well satisfied with their painstaking labors.

"This could easily turn out to be our best selling field guide ever," Jemsen ventured. "The natural history of the new found lands in the Southern Ocean is a fascinating subject in it own right, but one which is timely right now following fairly closely, as it does, on the success of Drew's best-selling account of our naval expedition to the South Seas. The two books are complementary; it's not either-or but both so we can expect readers to want both, Drew's for the story and ours as a much needed introduction to and reference about those far-off regions."

"You are so right, Jemsen," Karel enthused. "And whereas readers might borrow a copy of Drew's book at a subscription library instead of purchasing one in a bookstore, field guides like ours are keepers, books you need to own to get full value from them."

"Indeed, Drew's book is already a best-seller thanks to its vivid portrayal of the dramatic episodes of our expedition: our encounter with a Giant Kraken, the brief but bloody war against the Communalists, and the explosive naval clash between hundreds of war canoes manned by predatory raiders from offshore islands against a naval flotilla lead by the mighty dreadnaught, the CNS Sea Dragon, to mention just three of many."

"So, our field guide will capitalize on the curiosity Drew has aroused about these new lands. Our is a different take on the subject, not an adventure story or reportage but a solid field guide and reference work. We describe not only the geography of the lands across the South Seas but also their unique flora and fauna including elephants twice as tall as a Frost Giant and odd trees which grow slantwise toward the sun instead of vertically. We also offer detailed ethnographic notes on the exotic peoples of those regions, their customs, ways of life, and so forth. So this latest volume will be a fine addition to our catalog of field guides, which are distinctive and instantly recognizable by the stylized Gemini emblem on their spines."

And as always, Jemsen added, "Our imprint also offers a companion volume for travelers and merchants full of practical aids including fold-out maps and charts, a gazetteer of place names, capsule descriptions of towns and cities, trade routes, the chief products and exports of the various regions and ports, and even guidance on finding suitable lodging. It will appeal to travelers of every stripe including those whose vehicle of choice is a comfortable armchair."

"Well put. The initial print run will be followed by a Commonwealth-wide publicity campaign which includes reviews in leading newspapers, a book tour of major cities, public readings, book signings, and bargain priced promotional tie-ins for the two volume set."

"Exactly, Jem. Two more best-sellers can only add luster to our well-deserved reputation as, ahem, the famous twins Jemsen and Karel."

"Now there's a phrase with a ring to it. Don't you agree Drew?" Karel asked mischievously.

Looking up from the chess board between himself and his opponent, fellow journalist Corwin Klarendes, Drew frowned, shook his head once, then remarked:

"You guys don't need my endorsement or anyone else's for that matter. The pair of you do quite well as your very own two-man mutual admiration society, sufficient unto yourselves" Drew noted dryly.

Karel winked at his twin, then, affecting a supercilious air, gave back:

"You should talk, my fine friend, with that military style shadow box on the wall in your office at the Capital Intelligencer. Pretty fancy it is too, that shadow box, made of costly mahogany isn't it, and lined with plush velour, the better to display your military and civilian decorations, to include the Military Cross for Valor, Stalwart of the Commonwealth, Peacemaker, and Pioneer of Flight, and the Life Saving Medal. Even when you're out and about and dressed professionally in those smart white silk suits of yours, you make sure to wear the corresponding miniature medals on the collar or lapel."

Drew shook his head. As the twins knew very well, none of that was due to vanity on his part. For starters, his office was utterly unprepossessing, a cubbyhole converted from an alcove really, which hardly had room for a desk and a couple of chairs much less a formal credenza upon which to display his awards. Anyway that fancy shadow box was a birthday surprise from his older brother, surely the last person on the planet to suggest his kid brother needed a boost to his ego, whose considerable reputation he himself would concede was well-deserved.

Those miniature medals gave Drew, diminutive pretty boy and walking wet dream that he was, needed credibility and gravitas as a journalist and war correspondent to counter a misleading first impression so many formed of him, pegging him for a lightweight idler and boy toy, likely a rich man's kept boy or an upscale rent boy.

Of course the twins already knew all that, but with their exuberant personalities Jemsen and Karel were given to light-hearted teasing and banter even more than the rest of their menage. Declining to be baited, at least that particular day, Drew patiently pointed out:

"The reason you two don't wear your military decorations on collar or lapel is that those sarongs of yours leave you with no place to pin them on. You guys just express your vanity or really pride differently. Your left shoulders sport no less than four blue friendship tattoos in a display as public as my miniature medals, so there."

A short while late, the naval trio among the roommates showed, up almost too late for supper: Lieutenant Nathan "Sparky" Lathrop and war wizard Liam in navy blues and naval architect cum inventive genius Karl-Eike Thyssen. They made a fine looking threesome, one a red-head, the other raven haired, and the last a cute blond. Looking somewhat the worst for wear, pretty little Eike sank wearily onto a divan, his young face a study in fatigue.

"Hard day, eh?" Jemsen asked. "You've have been putting in some long hours on your latest project, Eike. Is it a new kind of ship, a new weapon, or a revolutionary form of conveyance with both civil and military applications like the chain driven bicycle or the autogyro?"

"Or," Karel began, " is your closely held company Thyssen Toys about to release another must-have toy like those skimmers that are still all the rage and not just with kids looking for fun. Lots of older guys use them for local transport on city streets."

"And why all the mystery, Eike? You haven't said a word about it to anyone, not even us, your roommates, friends, and lovers. And don't forget, we represent the national press, don't we, Corwin," Drew added as an aside to his fellow reporter Corwin Klarendes.

"Let's hope it isn't yet another means of mass destruction like Steel Rain, the Dust-Air Bomb, White Fire, Sun Mirrors." Axel urged. "Nothing against the military, but war mage or no I am sick of war and all its destruction, maiming and killing."

The others nodded their understanding. For all his effectiveness in close combat, Axel still had the gentlest soul of all the friends who had served in the forces. In this respect he was much like the twins who also were heartily sick of war and killing and destruction and halfway ashamed they were so terribly good at it. The difference was that, as a sniper or assassin, Axel got close enough to touch and even smell his foes, as he killed the enemy one at a time whereas the twins, as elemental wizards, had slain enemies by their thousands.

"Your point is well-taken," Nathan conceded, but this is more of a tactical weapon on the scale of magnetic cannon, and nothing like those you mentioned. We can only hope that, in the long run, military innovation will make wars less likely by raising the costs of aggression so high and reducing the likelihood of success so low, that no one will dare start a war. You can be sure we won't be the ones to start a war. As the hegemonic power on this continent, the Commonwealth very much favors the status quo. Our country has no aggressive designs nor any territorial ambitions, so our side is not likely to be the aggressor."

"As recent history shows." Liam pointed out. "It was the barbarians, centaurs, and trolls who attacked us. The orcs too, though theirs was a blessedly short war."

"Amen to that!," Axel declared fervently, orc-friend as he was.

"So, Eike, when can we expect the big reveal?," Drew asked

"It depends on how successful the next set of tests will be. Assuming a successful outcome, we can expect the Navy to go public soon afterwards.

"Couldn't you fill Corwin and me in now, on deep background, so we can take notes and draft our articles, with the understanding that everything will be under embargo till the Navy says otherwise."

"Besides, who better to write the story than the star reporters and award winning war correspondents for the Capital Intelligencer, our very own Drew Altair and Corwin Klarendes?" Liam pointed out.

"Sounds good", Eike allowed, "but what about you guys over there? he asked looking at the twins who chorused:

"Don't worry about us. Our lips are sealed!"

"Yes, but for how long, one has to wonder?" Drew observed facetiously.

Drew's teasing was in reference to the twins' well-established reputation as a pair of incessant chatterboxes.

Jemsen and Karel affected an air of injured innocence which soon dissolved into a grin.

Eike nodded then said:

"OK. Listen up. What we have been working, me and our naval artificers and production specialists, is a revolutionary kind of field gun. Like our magnetic cannon, this is a crew-served weapon for use both aboard ship and on the battlefield. " Eike offered, pausing as he gathered his thoughts.

"It employs the same barrel and ammo as the large air rifle sized for frost giants, but it's not fired from the shoulder by a single solider but mounted on a pintle for the naval version while the army model is mounted on a horse drawn gun carriage like the ones used with our magnetic cannon. What makes this weapon truly revolutionary is that this gun is fully automatic. You don't pull a trigger and get just a single shot — you turn a crank steadily and the gun spit bullets out a sustained rate of three hundred rounds per minute. Think about what that volume of fire means."

Eike's listeners sat in stunned silence, visualizing the storm of destruction such weapons could put out.

"Taken together, the new auto-fire gun and our magnetic cannon make traditional battlefield tactics like massed musketry and the shield wall obsolete — suicidal in fact. No body of troops could advance into that hail of bullets and grape shot. Their attack would be cut to pieces before their force get near enough for close combat. Our weapons would simply shred shield walls and the soldiers sheltering behind them. At sea, magnetic cannon firing canister shot and supported by the new auto-fire guns would sweep the decks of enemy vessels, turning them into charnel houses."

"Over the last couple of months we gradually improved successive prototypes but those were all built by hand using artisanal techniques with help from my gift for Shaping. We refined and simplified the design to make it practical for mass production in a manufactory. With the more recent prototypes we ran off a few score copies at a production line at the arsenal to gauge its ease of manufacture as well as consistency of tolerances, resistance to corrosion, etc."

"The weapon must be reliable under any and all field conditions and operate without jamming despite any grit or sand that the wind might throw up. In a later phase our project team will develop standard kits of tools and inventories of spare parts for servicing and for maintaining the guns in the field."

With that Eike asked his friends to hold further questions for a show-and-tell in two days' time.

On the appointed day the friends rode a street car over to the workshops at the naval shipyard, passing through security easily with their military ID credentials and special passes endorsed by Admiral Van Zant. Key leaders of the army and navy were seated up front with the admiral having been introduced to the key members of the development team.

Eike started the briefing off with a flourish. At his signal aides swept light tarps off both versions of the new weapon, those for navy and army.

"Gentlemen, I give you the latest in advanced weaponry, a crew served and fully automatic version of the air rifle. We call it the "machine gun".

"Its six barrels rotate sixty degrees after each shot, the rotation synchronized with the loading mechanism which is fed by gravity from a top loaded magazine. The most radical innovation was to remove the pressure vessel from the stock of the weapon. Instead compressed air is stored in a large high pressure tank lodged under the carriage. During firing, lead balls drop one at a time from a vertical magazine into the breach. Turning the crank triggers the release of a blast of high pressure air from the reservoir to propel the bullet down and out the barrel, which repeats as long as you turn the crank."

"It takes a crew of three to operate, a gunner who aims the gun and controls the rate of fire with the crank plus two assistants who change the magazines and refill them during lulls in firing; each holds sixty rounds. They also switch out air tanks when the pressure drops too low. If necessary a single crew member could operate the gun by himself though the rate of fire drops off considerably."

"The main technical limitations are how fast bullets can drop into place without fouling each other, how fast the magazines can be switched out as they run dry, and the heat generated by the friction of hundreds of balls driven at high speed down the tight barrel. We dealt with the heat by automatically rotating a fresh barrel into alignment with each shot, but sometimes you just have to pause a moment to let the whole thing cool off. And no, you can't just douse it with water since it has to cool off uniformly."

The air tanks for the auto-fire gun were cylinders about five feet long with rounded rather than flat caps at the ends. Each gun came with a set of six reservoirs. The crew slid a reservoir from a caddy into a cradle below the barrel assembly and locked its pneumatic connector in place, replacing reservoirs as needed.

"So how do you charge these big tanks with compressed air?" Drew wondered.

"Exactly the right question, Drew. As you realized a charging handle could never do the job. Instead fetchers or masters of magnetism charge the air reservoirs, telekinetically driving a piston back and forth to power a hydro-pneumatic air pump. On a ship several tanks are emplaced in strategic spots along the gunwales. In the Army, a separate limber would carry the pump into the field, one pump for every so many machine guns."

"We had given some thought to eliminating the crank and relying on compressed air alone to power loading and firing but soon realized that the mechanical linkages would be too complex and prone to jamming. So we settled for the simplicity and reliability of what you see before you."

"That is all I have, Admiral Van Zant. I and my colleagues will now take questions."

That was the admiral's cue to pose the question which Eike had planted. It let the young inventor explain to everyone, that this new weapon, though based in part on his own air rifle, was the result of a collaborative effort of team of gunsmiths, metallurgists, tool and die makers, and production specialists. Each would answer questions or deal with concerns in their own specialty.

Afterwards the group traveled to the army proving grounds on the outskirts of the capital to witness the new weapon in action. On the field straw figures of soldiers were drawn up in battle order. Flanking them was a half squadron of straw horses poised as if making a charge. During the exercise the machine guns made surprisingly little noise as they rattled away at their simulated foes. Perforations peppered the white paper which covered the front of the straw men and horses. It was clear that if the attackers has been made of flesh and blood instead of straw, few would have survived.

After a flurry of meetings and studies and staff papers, the high command authorized the use of the machine gun in both services. Since the country was at peace, it would be introduced to the regular formations gradually. There was no need to rush it into production as with air rifles at the height of the war against the trolls. Taxes would be better spent on retiring the successive issues of war bonds which had financed the war without having to raise tax rates.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead