You saw right! Alpha! Not even beta! xD
So I've decided to break tradition and open a scene to the audience prior to sending it through my lengthy editing and peer review process. The reason? It is one of the most heavily discussed objective topics in Daybreak. I mean, agreeing on subjective topics like gender issues is overrated; no one will know the correct answer until we truly break open the human skull* and understand exactly what each and every neural pathway does. But on objective topics? It's important that we at least attempt to stay on the same page.
(*Proverbially! no Japanese or Nazi human experimentation! I'm annoyed every time "SCIENCE!" is given as the reason for anything; not funny at all when you've studied history. In fact one of the first things engineering school had forced me to read and discuss was whether Technological Determinism was good or even right. Oppenheimer did quote right after inventing the atomic bomb: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.")
The topic? Gunpowder, and the development of guns in a high magic setting.
...And by 'high magic' I don't mean silly places like Middle Earth where Gandalf casts like... all of three spells. I mean a setting where magic is infused into the society, altering industry, warfare, and everyday life.
There has been many who questioned my decision NOT to spread the development of firearms in Hyperion. I've touched upon the topic near the end of volume 1, but not surprisingly, a few simple lines were not enough for most people. Now that the latest chapter has introduced another firearm -- the mortar -- I figured this was a good opportunity to clear up the topic once and for all.
Thus, the following scene is meant to crack the discussion of "firearm or not" with clarity, at least pertaining to the Hyperion setting. I would like to get the readers' input, especially the naysayers, so I can address as many issues at once and not have to come back to this discussion again and again. Please keep in mind that this is still a narrative, and therefore I cannot go into exhaustive details; I'm not writing a schoolbook that reads like sleeping pills here.
If you're a Daybreak reader but would rather not read the alpha so you can better enjoy the final product: don't feel pressured since I perfectly understand; it's why I don't usually share alpha stage writing.
Oh, and also anyone who claims Kaede should be able to make a percussion cap better be able to tell me how they're going to make fulminate of mercury -- which can blow you up when done wrong -- using only high school chemistry knowledge. Because unlike some other light novels or webnovels out there, I'm not writing the omnipotent son-of-god.
Now, without further ado, the scene itself (remember that underline = telepathy):
"Hey Cecylia, I thought you had told me that Hyperion armies didn't use firearms-- I mean black powder armaments? What about those mortars then?"
"I believe I mentioned that elite and specialist troops used some black powder weapons," Cecylia's mental voice returned in her soft soprano. "The mortars are considered 'specialist weapons', just like the Knights Phantom's grenades."
Kaede hadn't even noticed until now, thanks to the auto-translation magic Pascal worked into the familiar bond. But the Imperial language word for 'mortar' literally meant 'arcing grenade launcher', three words slammed together in true Germanic fashion.
"But unlike the grenades, these aren't hidden inside some warded extra-dimensional space most of the time," Kaede countered. "So what makes them acceptable as effective weapons when other black powder technologies aren't?"
This time, it was Pascal who answered:
"It is not their effectiveness that is questioned; it is their reliability. Mortars make only a fraction of the Weichsel artillery forces, most of which are still equipped with traditional torsion siege engines. Their destructive capabilities are a blessing for battles, especially against troops in heavy armor. But as a specialist, support weapon, their limited deployment also means their loss could not decide a battle by itself."
"It's probably harder to grasp since you're from a world without magic," Cecylia patiently added. "But black powder's vulnerability to the elements means it's extremely susceptible. The smallest ember causes it to combust; the slightest spark ignites it; a mere splash of water renders it useless -- these are all effects that even the most basic of spells could conjure."
Kaede knew that there were many modern explosive compounds that mitigated or even avoided these pitfalls. But of course, since Hyperion never embraced the earliest form of gunpowder, they also lacked the incentive to research more stable chemical formulas. It had taken centuries on Earth before Alfred Nobel invented the first plastic explosive; on Hyperion, this process could take millenniums.
"But you also have defensive spells and wards to counteract that..."
"Sure, except most of those spells -- like the often used Legion Resistance -- only reduced the damage dealt by elemental magic; they don't negate it outright," Cecylia went on. "I mean there are spells that can, but those spells are also one, harder to cast and two, drains more of our precious ether reserves -- which is a fairly big deal when the Legion spellword duplicates the same effect across an entire squad or platoon."
It was one of those arguments that reminded Kaede: in war, or perhaps society in general, everything had to be considered in scale. It wasn't enough that a requirement could be met; the solution must also satisfy the objective in quantity to be truly effective.
"Soldiers also have body armor and padded clothes to help absorb the lingering damage that passes through, not to mention people could endure minor burns. But what do you think happens to the infantrymen who are trying to load a black powder projectile?"
Kaede shivered as that horrific explosion during the Air Battle of Nordkreuz replayed in her mind's eye: the sight of a fireball engulfing dozens of comrades, of mangled bodies, severed limbs, and burning carcasses. Scenarios like that didn't just kill the unfortunate troopers caught by the blast either; it also demoralized entire armies and made soldiers distrust the very weapons held within their hands.
The Knights Phantom were elites with exceptional gear, discipline, and morale. They could be entrusted to use the most dangerous and destructive armaments for equivalently high returns. But the average soldier or conscript farmer? Individuals who quaked in their boots from 'just' the looming death of a massed cavalry charge?
...They would desert their weapons and run.
"Combine this with the fact that black powder couldn't even be stored in large quantities," Cecylia continued. "I mean: destroying ten thousand arrows? That takes work, or at least powerful spells that few mages could cast. But ten thousand stones of black powder? Even a child could light a match. Then what do you do with those 'firearms'? Use them as clubs?"
"It'd be worse than a Lotharin army without arrows," Sylviane commented dryly.
The Rhin-Lotharingie military was heavily dependent on its massed archery, courtesy of a national sport that taught every self-respecting man how to shoot and hunt. The common recruit also came with axes, mostly of the treefelling variety. But without ammunition and forced to engage as light infantry, even a victory would leave the army in ruins.
An army that emphasized firearms only made this worse, as the Swedish Carolean Army of the 17th century learned that even muskets with bayonets were a poor replacement for proper melee weapons like the sword.
On Earth, early firearms like the arquebus were unreliable, inaccurate, and had a dismal effective range. Their greatest benefit over archery was that a conscripted farmer could be expected to become proficient within weeks of training rather than years. But on Hyperion, where massed deployment of gunpowder troops posed both unique logistical challenges and significant tactical vulnerabilities, it was unsurprising that the military establishment kept to their traditional ways.
"If that's the case, then what makes mortars so special that they could at least make a limited deployment?"
"There are two main benefits to mortars," Pascal began. "The first is that, like all other grenades, mortar shells are encapsulated. The casing wouldn't stop proper assault spells from detonating the powder, but it at least offers some protection from fire, and more importantly -- the weather."
Pascal had actually shown Kaede a Weichsel 'tandem-charge mortar round' yesterday. Within the thin iron casing were two cylinders of black powder separated by an air gap, held apart by light springs and secured with safety pins. When a shell was dropped into the mortar tube, its momentum would force the upper container to fall onto the lower one. This drove a flint ignition rod into the lower powder chamber where it scraped against a sharply angled steel file. The sparks would then detonate the lower charge, hurling the shell's remnants into the air while igniting the timed fuse to its upper powder chamber. Mortar gunners could even adjust this fuse through a screw on the side, with veterans aiming for the ideal 'airborne burst' where shrapnel rounds exploded just overhead the target to inflict maximum casualties.
It was an impressive design, despite its crude triggering mechanism. On Earth, it would take until the 19th Century -- half a millennium after the first arquebus saw mass deployment -- before the percussion cap was developed to allow for sealed cartridges that could fire reliably in any weather. Yet on Hyperion, the advancement of grenades had already bypassed that and went straight onto the modern 'tube mortars' first invented in World War I.
"The other benefit is that it is an indirect artillery weapon," Pascal highlighted the high trajectory firing arc that defined mortars. "This means we could fire it from within trenches and deep pits, where they would not only be hidden but also protected from most attack spells. A Resistance Screen could even be applied on top of the pit to protect the weapon and its crew from overhead spell bursts."
Kaede nodded in acknowledgment, her curiosity finally satisfied enough to move onto the next question:
"So apart from grenades, launchers, and flamethrowers, are there any other combustible weapons that Hyperion actually uses?"
"Satchel charges? I guess they're just oversized pillow grenades, hehe," Cecylia mused openly.
"Same with the bangalore torpedo javelins that Garona Hippo-Cuirassiers use," Sylv added, making the auto-translation magic adapt yet more foreign terms to Kaede's dictionary.
It was Pascal who finally found the answer:
Without proper firing pin technology, Kaede doubted Hyperion mines could self-detonate. But that never stopped the partisans of World War II from rigging manually-triggered minefields to devastating effect.
"Oh, and the Imperials have rocket carts that could launch salvos up to four dozen."
Pascal appended it as though it were an afterthought, but Kaede's eyes bulged upon hearing it:
"They have Katyusha Rocket Launchers!?"
"They took that idea from the eastern Dawn Imperium, actually," Cecylia clarified.
"It was impressive for about two battles," Pascal commented in a voice that was anything but impressed. "Before... I cannot remember the name, but she created a counterspell by adapting the self-guided Ether Seeker, which simply destroyed the visible rockets in mid-flight."
Once again, human ingenuity proved that magic and technology mixed in ways that would alter the development of both sides.