Marine Training Ground,


Helen Island,


 Kingdom of Charis


            Golden-tongued bugles         sounded, and the five hundred men in the dark blue tunics and light blue breeches of the Royal Charisian Marines responded almost instantly. The compact battalion column split smoothly into its five component companies, each of which marched rapidly outward from the original column, then wheeled and formed neatly into a three-deep line.


            Orders rang out from bull-throated sergeants, rifle slings came off shoulders, cartridge boxes opened, and ramrods flashed in the sunlight. Barely five minutes after the first bugle call, the early afternoon came apart in flame and smoke as the battalion fired its first volley at the targets set up a hundred and fifty yards from its position. A second volley roared fifteen seconds later, and a third fifteen seconds after that. No non-Charisian musketeers in the world could have come remotely close to matching that rate of fire. A matchlock musket did extraordinarily well to fire one shot in a minute, far less the four rounds a minute the Marines were managing.


            And they weren't firing as rapidly as they could have. This was controlled, aimed volley fire, not maximum-rate.


            A total of six volleys cracked like thunder in just over seventy-five seconds, and the row of targets literally blew apart under the impact of three thousand half-inch rifle bullets. Very few of those bullets missed, and that, too, was something no other musketeers in the world could have matched.


            While the battalion was forming up and delivering its volleys, the four pieces of artillery which had been rolling along behind it on the newly designed two-wheel carriages and limbers had come up behind the firing line, Earl Lock Island noticed from where he stood on his hilltop observation post with Brigadier Clareyk. The six-legged hill dragons harnessed to the limbers clearly didn't care much for the sounds of massed rifle fire, but equally clearly, they'd grown more or less accustomed to it. However much they might dislike it, the big beasts — they were smaller than their jungle dragon counterparts, or even the carnivorous great dragons, but they were still the size of an Old Earth elephant — were remarkably steady as their drovers turned them to face back the way they'd come while the gun crews unlimbered.


            The guns were the new twelve-pounder field guns, not the much heavier siege artillery the earl had seen demonstrated several five-days ago. He hadn't yet seen the twelve-pounders in action, and as he reached down to rub the soft ears of the massive black-and-tan Rottweiler sitting alertly upright beside him, he watched with intense interest while the company forming the center of the Marine firing line marched briskly aside. The line opened smoothly, and the guns were wheeled up into position.


            The gunners weren't loading with round shot; they were loading with canister, and Lock Island winced at what he knew was coming. He hadn't actually seen "canister" used yet, but he'd had it described to him. Instead of the nine to twelve small projectiles customary for a stand of grapeshot in naval service, the canister rounds were thin-walled cylinders, each packed with twenty-seven inch-and-a-half shot. The tubes were designed to burst apart on firing, releasing their burdens of shot and turning the cannon into the world's largest shotguns. Not only that, but these were what Sir Ahlfryd Hyndryk, Baron Seamount, called "fixed rounds." The powder charge was already attached to the tube of canister, and the entire round could be rammed home with a single thrust.


            With the new ammunition Baron Seamount had designed (with, of course, a little help from Seijin Merlin, Lock Island reminded himself), the artillerists could load and fire with preposterous speed. Indeed, using the fixed rounds, they could load as quickly as the Marine riflemen who'd already shredded the waiting targets. Lock Island knew no one down there was moving as quickly as they possibly could. This was a training exercise — and demonstration — not actual combat. Which meant the officers and noncoms in charge of it weren't about to push their men hard enough to produce unnecessary casualties and injuries.


            And which also meant that the rate of fire being demonstrated was "only" four or five times the rate of fire anyone else could have managed.


            The guns were loaded now, he saw. Gun captains crouched behind them, peering over the simple but effective sights Seamount had devised and waving hand signals to their gun crews while the tubes were carefully aligned. Then they were waving the other gunners back, safely away from the weapons, while they took tension on the firing lanyards. One last look around to be sure everyone was clear, left hands raised in indication of readiness, and then the battery commander barked his order and the artillery bellowed with a flat, hard, concussive voice that dwarfed the sounds of rifle fire.


            Each of the guns spewed its lethal canister downrange in a spreading cloud. Lock Island could see splashes of dirt kicking up where the dispersing patterns "wasted" some of their shot short of the targets. It didn't matter, though. Where the rifle bullets had ripped the wood and canvas targets into tatters, the canister simply flattened them. Well, that wasn't quite fair, Lock Island decided, raising his spyglass and peering through it. The targets hadn't been flattened; they'd simply disintegrated.


            More bugles sounded, and the gunners stepped back from their weapons. The riflemen grounded the butts of their rifles, and whistles blew to signal the end of the fire exercise.


            "That," Lock Island said, turning to the Marine officer standing beside him, "was . . . impressive. Very impressive, Brigadier."


            "Thank you, My Lord," Brigadier Kynt Clareyk replied. "The men have worked hard. And not just because we've made them, either. They're impatient to show someone else what they can do, as well."


            Lock Island nodded. He had no doubt at all who "else" Clareyk's men wanted to demonstrate their prowess to. Or, rather, upon.


            "Soon, Brigadier. Soon," the high admiral promised. "You know better than most what the schedule looks like."


            "Yes, My Lord." Clareyk might have looked just a teeny bit embarrassed, but Lock Island wasn't prepared to bet any money on it. And if truth be told, no one had a better right to be impatient than Brigadier Clareyk. After all, he was the one who'd written the training manual for the Royal Charisian Marines' new infantry tactics. And he'd also been Seamount's primary assistant in devising the world's first true field artillery tactics and integrating them with the infantry. He'd been a mere major then, not a brigadier; there hadn't been any Charisian brigadiers at the time. In fact, there hadn't been any brigadiers anywhere. The rank was less than six months old, suggested by Seijin Merlin as the Marines' buildup began to hit its stride.


            Lieutenant Layn, Clareyk's second-in-command while he worked out the basic tactics for the new, longer-ranged, and far more accurate rifles, was now a major himself and in charge of the ongoing training program here on Helen Island.


            And, Lock Island thought, looking back at the men of Clareyk's second battalion as they formed smoothly back into column formation, Layn was doing just as good a job as Clareyk had.


            "Actually, High Admiral," another voice said, "I think we're probably going to need to consider moving our training operations. Or, perhaps, simply expanding them into other locations."