By the twenty-first century, missile-firing small arms appeared to have reached the pinnacle of their development, and there was nothing on hand to replace them. The mass and velocity of projectiles could be juggled but they could not be increased in sum without a corresponding increase in recoil or backblast. Explosive bullets were very destructive on impact, but they had no penetration beyond the immediate blast radius. An explosive bullet might vaporize a leaf it hit near the muzzle as easily as the intended target downrange, and using explosives in heavy brush was worse than useless because it endangered the shooter.
Lasers, though they had air-defense applications, were not the infantryman’s answer either. The problem with lasers was the power source. Guns store energy in the powder charge. A machine gun with one cartridge is just as effective—once—as it is with a thousand-round belt, so the ammunition load can be tailored to circumstances. Man-killing lasers required a four-hundred-kilo fusion unit to drive them. Hooking a laser on line with any less bulky energy source was of zero military effectiveness rather than lesser effectiveness.
Science lent Death a hand in this impasse—as Science has always done, since the day the first wedge became the first knife. Thirty thousand residents of Saint-Pierre, Martinique, had been killed on May 8, 1902. The agent of their destruction was a “burning cloud” released during an eruption of Mount Pel??e. Popular myth had attributed the deaths to normal volcanic phenomena, hot gases or ash like that which buried Pompeii; but even the most cursory examination of the evidence indicated that direct energy release had done the lethal damage. In 2073, Dr. Marie Weygand, heading a team under contract to Olin-Amerika, managed to duplicate the phenomenon.
The key had come from spectroscopic examination of pre-1902 lavas from Pel??e’s crater. The older rocks had shown inexplicable gaps among the metallic elements expected there. A year and a half of empirical research followed, guided more by Dr. Weygand’s intuition than by the battery of scientific instrumentation her employers had rushed out at the first signs of success. The principle ultimately discovered was of little utility as a general power source—but then, Olin-Amerika had not been looking for a way to heat homes.
Weygand determined that metallic atoms of a fixed magnetic orientation could be converted directly into energy by the proper combination of heat, pressure, and intersecting magnetic fields. Old lava locks its rich metallic burden in a pattern dictated by the magnetic ambiance at the time the flow cools. At Pel??e in 1902, the heavy Gauss loads of the new eruption made a chance alignment with the restressed lava of the crater’s rim. Matter flashed into energy in a line dictated by the intersection, ripping other atoms free of the basalt matrix and converting them in turn. Below in Saint-Pierre, humans burned.
When the principle had been discovered, it remained only to refine its destructiveness. Experiments were held with different fuel elements and matrix materials. A copper-cobalt charge in a wafer of microporous polyurethane became the standard, since it appeared to give maximum energy release with the least tendency to scatter. Because the discharge was linear, there was no need of a tube to channel the force as a rifle’s barrel does; but some immediate protection from air-induced scatter was necessary for a hand-held weapon. The best barrel material was iridium. Tungsten and osmium were even more refractory, but those elements absorbed a large component of the discharge instead of reflecting it as the iridium did.
To function in service, the new weapons needed to be cooled. Even if a white-hot barrel did not melt, the next charge certainly would vaporize before it could be fired. Liquified gas, generally nitrogen or one of the noble gases which would not themselves erode the metal, was therefore released into the bore after every shot. Multiple barrels, either rotating like those of a Gatling gun or fixed like those of the mitrailleuse, the Gatling’s French contemporary, were used to achieve high rates of fire or to fire very high-intensity charges. Personal weapons were generally semiautomatic to keep weight and bulk within manageable limits. Submachine guns with large gas reservoirs to fire pistol charges had their uses and advocates, as their bullet-firing predecessors had.
Powerguns—the first usage of the term is as uncertain as that of “gun” itself, though the derivation is obvious—greatly increased the range and destructiveness of the individual soldier. The weapons were so destructive, in fact, that even on most frontier planets their use was limited to homicide. Despite that limited usefulness, factories for the manufacture of powerguns and their ammunition would probably have been early priority items on most worlds—had not that manufacture been utterly beyond the capacity of all but the most highly industrialized planets.
Precision forming of metal as hard as iridium is an incredible task. Gas reservoirs required a null-conductive sheath if they were not to bleed empty before they even reached the field. If ammunition wafers were rolled out in a fluctuating electronic field, they were as likely to blow out the breech of a weapon or gang-fire in the loading tube as they were to injure a foe. All the planetary pride in the cosmos would not change laws of physics.
Of course, some human cultures preferred alternate weaponry. The seven worlds of the Gorgon Cluster equipped their armies—and a number of mercenary units—with fl??chette guns for instance. Their hypervelocity osmium projectiles had better short-range penetration than 2 cm powerguns, and they cycled at a very high rate. But the barrels of fl??chette guns were of synthetic diamond, making them at least as difficult to manufacture as the more common energy weapons.
Because of the expense of modern weapons, would-be combatants on rural worlds often delayed purchasing guns until fighting was inevitable. Then it became natural to consider buying not only the guns but men who were used to them—for powerguns were no luxury to the mercenaries whose lives and pay depended on their skill with the best possible equipment. The gap between a citizen-soldier holding a powergun he had been issued a week before, and the professional who had trained daily for years with the weapon, was a wide one.
Thus if only one side on a poor world hired mercenaries, its victory was assured—numbers and ideology be damned. That meant, of course, that both sides had to make the investment even if it meant mortgaging the planetary income for a decade. Poverty was preferable to what came with defeat.
All over the galaxy, men with the best gifts of Science and no skills but those of murder looked for patrons who would hire them to bring down civilization. Business was good.