Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 35

Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 35

“I know.” Mahklyn closed his eyes briefly. “I knew Father Zhon’s health was deteriorating, but I hadn’t realized how sick he actually was.”

“Not so much sick as simply old.” Merlin’s blue eyes darkened. “But there’s no use pretending his final illness didn’t distract the Brethren badly. And there were a lot of nominations in the pipeline in front of her, as well. Which doesn’t mean you and I can’t push them — gently, of course — where Doctor Lywys is concerned. For that matter, I’d like to add Zhansyn Wyllys, as well.”

“Ah?” Mahklyn crooked an eyebrow. “Oh! You want him because of his distillation work?”

“Especially since he’s started experimenting with coal tar,” Merlin agreed.

Distillation had been a part of Safehold’s allowed technology since the Creation, but like all the rest of that technology, it had been applied on a rote basis, following the directions laid down in the Holy Writ, with no more theoretical understanding of the principles involved than the “archangels” had been able to avoid. Zhansyn Wyllys intended to change that. He was far younger (and more junior) than Mahklyn or Lywys — in fact, he’d joined the College only a year or so earlier — and unlike some of his fellow faculty, he made no bones about the fact that he fully intended to find out why the archangels’ instructions produced the effects they did. He hadn’t quite said so in so many words, but Mahklyn was pretty sure he meant to figure that out even if his inquiries brought him into direct conflict with the Proscriptions.

He hadn’t joined the College without strenuous opposition from his father — a devout man who also happened to be one of Old Charis’ wealthier lamp oil producers. Unfortunately for Styvyn Wyllys, his son was an obstinate, determined young man, and it was his family’s trade which had first gotten him interested in reinventing the heretical scientific method as he worked on ways to improve the distillation and purification of the oil they produced.

For the most part, in Charis, that oil was now harvested from sea dragons, the Safeholdian equivalent of terrestrial whales, although it was still graded in terms of the older kraken oil. Sea dragon oil had begun to replace kraken oil only in the last forty years or so, as the dragoning industry — for food, as well as a source of oil — grew with the steady increase in the seaworthiness of galleons, but by now sea dragon oil represented over two thirds of the total Charisian oil industry. The green sea dragon was the most prized of all, not simply because it was the largest and provided the greatest yield per dragon, up to four hundred gallons from a fully mature creature, but because it produced what had been called spermaceti back on Old Earth.

The oil tree, a native Safeholdian species Pei Shan-wei’s teams had genetically modified as part of their terraforming efforts, was a much commoner source of oils for the mainland realms. The trees grew to around thirty feet in height and produced large, hairy pods whose dozens of smaller seeds contained over sixty percent oil by weight, and Shan-wei’s geneticists had modified the oil tree to make its oil safe for humans and other terrestrial animal species to consume. Unlike the imported olive tree, neither the seeds nor the fruit of the oil tree was particularly edible, although the seeds were sometimes ground into a form of flour and used in cooking.

The fire vine was another major source of plant oils, but it was also possessed of major drawbacks. It was a fast growing, large vine — runners could measure as much as two inches in diameter — whose stems, leaves, and seeds were all extremely rich in a highly flammable oil. The oil was actually easier to extract than oil tree oil, but unlike the oil tree, fire vine hadn’t been genetically modified, and its oil was extremely poisonous to humans and terrestrial animals. Worse, it was highly flammable, as its name implied, which posed a significant threat, especially in regions which experienced hot or especially arid summers. It wasn’t very satisfactory as a lamp oil, either, since it burned with an extremely smoky flame and an unpleasant odor, but it was commercially cultivated in some regions — especially in the Harchong Empire — as a source of lubricating and heating oil.

Neither oil tree oil nor fire vine oil was very popular in Charis or Emerald — or in Corisande, for that matter — because kraken oil and sea dragon oil burned with a brighter, cleaner flame. The fact that sea dragons were also a major source of meat protein gave further impetus to sea dragoning, but the steady increase in the productivity of Charisian manufactories had been an even bigger factor in the industry’s growth. Sea dragon oil was simply more flexible than oil tree oil, and unlike fire vine oil, it didn’t tend to poison people, pets, and food animals. Even with the steady growth of the dragoning fleet, supply never managed to keep up with demand, however, and it was a far riskier trade on Safehold than whaling had ever been on Old Earth. Sea dragon oil might be less toxic and less dangerous to human beings in general than fire vine oil, but Captain Ahab’s quest for vengeance would have ended much sooner (and just as badly) on Safehold, given the existence of doomwhales. The top of the oceanic food chain, the doomwhale had been known on occasion to attack — and sink — small galleons, and the dragoning ships sometimes attracted one or more of them, at which point things got decidedly lively. It wasn’t unheard of for doomwhales to sink a half-dozen or more dragoning ships in a single season, although that was usually an accidental byproduct of the huge creatures’ feeding on the sea dragons the ships in question had taken.

Personally, although Merlin understood the economics involved, he found it a little difficult not to side with the doomwhales. Sea dragons reproduced more rapidly than most species of whale, and commercial dragoning was new enough that it would be decades yet, even at the current rate of growth, before it started significantly reducing sea dragon stocks. None of which prevented Merlin from seeing the inevitable parallels between dragoning and commercial whaling, and he intended to do everything he could to encourage the move from sea dragon oil to other sources of fuel and lubricant.

At the moment, he had more pressing things on his mind, but that was one reason he’d been keeping an eye on Zhansyn Wyllys. Wyllys’ family had grown wealthy harvesting and distributing sea dragon oil, and the dragoning industry had applied distillation to the process with quite a degree of sophistication. All of it was purely empirical, however, and the drive to understand and improve the existing methods was what had sparked young Zhahnsyn’s initial interest in his own branch of proto-chemistry. As his interest and experiments had progressed, however, he’d moved from an interest in simply improving the existing processes to a desire to find alternative — and hopefully more abundant — oil sources, as well.

Conservatives (like his father) nursed significant reservations about his quest, and not all of them because of religious concerns. Styvyn Wyllys’ wealth and his family’s fortune depended on sea dragoning; he was none too pleased by his rebellious offspring’s effort to find other sources of oil, despite Zhansyn’s argument that if he could find them, Wyllys’ Sea Dragon Oil could simply drop the “Sea Dragon” part of its name and get in on the ground floor in the new oil industry.

Whatever Styvyn Wyllys might think, Charisians in general, always more enthusiastic about innovation than mainlanders, had become even more enthusiastic over the past several years, and the College, prompted by the members of the inner circle, had supported Zhansyn’s efforts strongly. He’d started out looking at conventional plant oil sources — oil wood, fire vine, nearpalm, and imported terrestrial soybeans, peanuts, and jojoba — and he’d already made some significant contributions to production and refining. Even better in many ways, unless Merlin was sadly mistaken one of his projects, was going to lead to the production of kerosene from coal tar in the not too distant future. And that, given the extensive oilfields in southern Charis and Emerald Island — and the fact that Safeholdian techniques for drilling and pumping from water wells were well developed and, with Howsmyn’s new steam engines, about to get even better developed — was likely to lead to an entirely new industry. One that opened all sorts of interesting possibilities, given that the caloric energy of oil was fifty percent greater than that of coal.

But what Merlin was particularly interested in at the moment was the possibility of producing petroleum jelly in useful quantities. Quantities, for example, sufficient to use as a stabilizer in nitrocellulose-based propellants and explosives. With just a little nudging . . . .

“I don’t know if anyone’s even considered Wyllys,” Mahklyn said after several thoughtful moments. “I see a lot of potential in the work he’s doing, but I don’t know anything about his attitude towards the Group of Four and the Reformists. Do you?”

“Not as much as I’d like. What I do know looks hopeful, though, including the fact that he and his father clearly don’t see eye-to-eye. The fact that he’s as much of a knowledge seeker as any of the rest of you ‘eggheads’ doesn’t necessarily make him a Reformist, and even if it did, Reformism isn’t necessarily the same thing as being prepared to completely jettison the Writ and the Archangels. But we could put a couple of Owl’s remotes on him, take a good look at him, before we ever actually suggested him to anyone. You’re right that we need to get Sahndrah vetted and admitted to the circle first — that should’ve been a higher priority all along, and now that she’s stumbled across guncotton, we really need her working with Owl to get chemistry properly launched as a science. Especially given what I have to tell Ahlfryd and Captain Rahzwail about my latest ‘visions’ tomorrow.”

“It would be nice to be able to give them some good news with the bad, wouldn’t it?” Mahklyn said almost wistfully, and Merlin shrugged philosophically.

“They’re going to give me and Domynyk some good news to go with the bad, first, and it’s not the end of the world. What bothers me more is where and how Clyntahn and Maigwair got their hands on the information, and without remotes in Zion, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell we’ll ever be able to answer that question definitively. From examining the drawings they’ve actually sent out to the foundries and the formulas they’re sending out to their powder mills, it looks to me like it had to come out of the Hairatha Mill — probably from the same son-of-a-bitch who diverted the gunpowder for Clyntahn’s ‘Rakurai.’ Unfortunately, that suggests whoever it was had complete access, at least at the time, and at this point we can’t know what else he may have passed along.”

“Not a good situation,” Mahklyn acknowledged. “On the other hand, their powder mills’ quality control is still way behind ours. For that matter, their foundries are in the same boat. The quality of their iron’s a lot more problematical than ours, even from lot to lot in the same blast furnace, much less from foundry to foundry. That’s a major handicap over and beyond the piss-poor — you should pardon the expression; I’ve been talking to Cayleb again — per-man-hour productivity of their manufactories. And without Ahlfryd and Ehdwyrd — among others — to push the support structure that’s not going to change anytime soon, which means they’re still going to be producing the new hardware in tenth-mark packets.”

“And if you add ten tenth-marks together, you get a whole mark,” Merlin pointed out acidly. Then he pushed back from the battlements and gave himself a shake. “Still, you’re right. We’ve got a running start and our industrial plant is one hell of a lot more productive. Besides,” he produced a crooked smile, “I’m the one who told Cayleb we needed the mainlanders and the Group of Four to adopt the new technology if we really wanted to topple the Church. It’s still true, too. I think I’ve just become too much of a Charisian myself to be comfortable with the idea.”

“Speaking as a native Charisian, I’m not really broken hearted to hear that, you know,” Mahklyn said dryly, and Merlin chuckled.

“Neither am I, Rahzhyr,” he said, gazing out across the forest of masts in the harbor so far below. “Neither am I.”


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43 Responses to Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 35

  1. Nimitz13 says:

    One question answered – the Brethren have been distracted by Father Zhon’s imminent and eventual death.

    So, on to the good news/bad news… Since Captain Sahlavahn who was the TL spy in charge of the Hairatha Mill blew himself up, he didn’t have a chance to steal Mahndrayn’s briefcase with whatever notes were in it – I hope!. I’m guessing the “bad news” is that the CoGA has explosive shells, since Mahklyn and Merlin discussed both foundries and powder mills in context with it.

    I find it strange that Mahklyn refers to what I hope are ONLY explosive shells as “hardware,” since I’d call them ammunition. Unless that’s a quirk of the MWW word choice, the CoGA may have gotten something else important from Captain Sahlavahn. Let’s pray the plans for the breech loading rifle weren’t in Mahndrayn’s briefcase, and that Sahlavahn didn’t manage to hand it off to someone else before his suicide.

    What cool new stuff are we going to see from Baron Seamount? Bleek!

    • KenJ says:

      Just a thought:

      We are all assuming that Sahlavahn scragged himself. HOWEVER all we have is circumstantial (strong) evidence in the text. It is within the realms of remote possibility that he actually “went to ground” with his cousins notes and has striving to make his way back to Zion incognito.

      Wouldn’t THAT be a major monkeywrench…..

      • Richard H says:

        Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but I thought it was the visiting cousin who was carrying important documents as well as being the spy. … which would mean that they got everything that was in that briefcase, and possibly a very gifted worker, too.

        I’m going to have to go back and check who ran a sword through whom, and I can’t do that at work, because it always struck me as interesting that someone would show up, say, “I found this discrepancy in your logs. Let me show you,” and promptly kill him when he came over to look.

        That would be a really disastrous intelligence coup, from the perspective of the Charisians, but I have been operating under the assumption that it had happened ever since.

        • Drak Bibliophile says:

          The visiting cousin was the one who “got it in the neck” and was carrying the important papers.

          Oh, the text evidence is that the spy, Captain Sahlavahn, died in the explosion. See below.


          The supervisor was just settling into his chair once again when he, his clerks, Captain Sahlavahn, and the one hundred and three other men currently working in Powder Mill #3 all died in a monstrous blast of fire and fury. A chain of explosions rolled through the powder mill like Langhorne’s own Rakurai, rattling every window in Hairatha. Debris vomited into the sky, much of it on fire, trailing smoke in obscenely graceful arcs as it soared outward, then came crashing down in fresh fire and ruin. It shattered barracks and administrative buildings like an artillery bombardment, setting more fires, maiming and killing. Voices screamed and stunned men wheeled towards the disaster in disbelief. Then alarm bells began a frenzied clangor and the men who’d frozen in shock ran frantically into the fire and chaos and the devastation looking for lives to save.

          End Quote

      • JeffM says:

        Well, yeah. Maybe Sahlavahn had just enough time to crawl into the lead lined refr–er, *icebox* before the entire island exploded. [G]

        • Nimitz13 says:

          Let’s hope not, or the outlook for the war in Siddarmark could be considerably more bleek…

          A lead-lined box would likely collapse from the shockwave and melt in the heat. What he needed in the way of a hidey-hole “icebox” was a steel frame bolted to the floor, with insulation that wouldn’t melt or catch fire, and enough air inside to breathe until he could make his escape in the confusion.

          Getting off the island would be quite another matter, but I presume he had that planned in case it ever became necessary.

          I was astonished that he killed himself – although I’m really surprised the intel types haven’t fingered him as a VERY likely suspect for the explosions by now. I mean really, what are the odds of his cousin Mahndrayn visiting the powder mill just when it blew up? Cause and effect – who would be most likely to blow up the mill because a little-known officer showed up to visit the captain in charge? Who had the access to blow up multiple powder magazines and the mill itself? (Hint: There’s just ONE guy!)

          Merlin, you’re better than this! At the very least, Nahrmahn should have figured it out before he died… Once Operation Rakurai started and they realized it used powder from the exploded mill, figuring out the culprit should have been a slam dunk!

          • Drak Bibliophile says:

            Well they had a lot on their minds. Of course, even if they “figured it out”, proving it would be hard to do. I doubt that there’s a “paper trail” to find after the explosions.

          • Doubting Thomas says:

            The commanding officer was probably NOT the only person with access to everything. Just off the top of my head there would be at least the XO and chief of security.

          • Nimitz13 says:

            If they catch his cousin – the secretary/spy in the EoC embassy to Siddarmark, they’ll FINALLY connect the dots. She might be having a serious conflict of conscience right now…

            Still, the list of possible perps has GOT to be really short. Toss in that it happened while Mahndrayn was visiting and the list gets shorter, since only his cousin had any clue that he worked for military R&D. That little tidbit alone ought to put our (hopefully) deceased captain at the top of the list – especially since HE had access to the information on building explosive shells that was passed on to the CoGA, including the formulas for the fuses (that the CoGA now has as referred to in this snippet,) which nobody else had. Everyone else just filled the shells, they didn’t have the official specifications.

            This really shouldn’t be so difficult for the good guys to figure out, as much as they don’t WANT to point the finger at the perp, since he was so trusted.

            IF he somehow smuggled Mahndrayn’s briefcase out, the EoC is in serious trouble, because it contained notes on the latest fuses for explosive shells and sketches of the angled guns. Not stuff you want falling into your enemy’s hands, since it probably included the exact chemicals used to make the latest fuses.

            But if THAT info (especially about angled guns) is now in church possession, it makes fingering the perp even easier! Bleek!

  2. Nimitz13 says:

    Oh – and Charis and Emerald have extensive oil fields, and the Royal College has a geek looking into finding more efficient oil products, and he hasn’t even looked at petroleum yet. We could see oil-powered steam ships with ranges of thousands of miles within a few years! Obviously coaling stations are easier to set up worldwide, since nobody but the EoC is going to set up an oil refinery any time soon. Time to invent the oiler ship as well…

    Zion could use a bit of global warming if you believe in that stuff. Bleek!

  3. Allan G says:

    The fire vine could be interesting to explore too – toxic = interesting chemicals – possible precursors & process feedstocks?
    Thinking about taking down the temple – I wonder if the air conditioning is closed circuit and what effect dumping some interesting chemicals into the buildings air would have.
    There was a recent study suggesting synthesising nerve gases from chemicals available in a supermarket was relatively easy (but not particularly safe).

  4. Robert H. Woodman says:

    Zhansyn Wyllys could be a problem if he’s nominated to the Inner Circle. If he has an in-your-face attitude about Shan-Wei and Langhorne once he knows the truth, he may be difficult to manage.

    • Zak says:

      I keep waiting for one of the nominated to turn on them

      • jgnfld says:

        Exactly. We need one sooner or later.

        …a cabal might be even better.

        • JeffM says:

          You do realize that the moment they tell someone, they stick a remote on them, don’t you? I mean, if they haven’t already? And they make sure the person is in company of others, in case they have a meltdown?

    • Robert Krawitz says:

      His father could be a problem.

      If Zhansyn’s behavior suddenly changes (even if he doesn’t accidentally let something slip), Styvyn might just wonder why. His father is both devout and deeply invested in the status quo. That combination might lead him to do some investigating; even if he doesn’t stumble across the real secret, he might learn enough and be motivated enough to be a useful CoGA agent.

      • JeffM says:

        I was trying to figure out is the father was the red herring–or if RFC is just trying to furnish a spare “chemist”, in case the OTHER one melts down. Damn misdirectional writers. ;)

  5. Paul says:

    What ever happened to the lost earplug communicator? When does that so up?

    • Zak says:

      ?? when did that happen?

    • TenofSwords says:

      You mean Nahman of Emerald’s? I would presume given the general destruction caused by the cart bomb that killed him and dozens of others (and no doubt scattered debris like a small cyclone) that it was lost and reamined that way.

      • Drak Bibliophile says:

        I suspect that the “missing” ear-plug is like the battle wreckage in the Honorverse.

        IE just as David Weber’s characters clean up the battle wreckage “off-screen”, Owl found the ear-plug “off-screen”.

      • 4th Dimension says:

        Besides, since it’s a transmitter reciever it should be easy to track.

        • Drak Bibliophile says:

          Yep, and even if it’s damaged enough that it can’t transmit likely its make up is such that Owl could search for elements/compounds not likely found on Safehold.

      • Zak says:

        I seem to remember him telling his wife to take it and if she did not Merlin would have when he showed up. Or are we talking about a different one?

        • Drak Bibliophile says:

          No, he wondered where it was and if anybody had found it.

          She did promise to find out if it had been found.

          IMO there was plenty of time to find it later *and* if it had already been found, she had other things to worry about than it.

          Of course, even if Merlin/Owl had found it, they would see no need to tell her that it had been found.

        • Drak Bibliophile says:

          Zak, here’s the passage in _How Firm A Foundation_


          “Ear … plug?” he got out, and Ohlyvya astonished herself with a soft, weeping laugh.

          “Oh, Nahrmahn!” She cupped the uninjured side of his face with her free hand. “Oh, my love, who but you would worry about that at a time like this?!”

          He said nothing, but there was a flicker of something almost like amusement under the pain and the drug clouds in his eye, and she shook her head.

          “I don’t know what happened to your earplug,” she told him. “No one found anything when the healers examined you, anyway. Maybe they just had other things on their mind than looking in your ears. I don’t know.”

          “Make … sure, later,” he whispered.

          “I will,” she promised. “I will. Now hush, my love. Don’t worry about anything, not now.”

          End Quote

          Personally, I think it was already found and nobody saw a reason to tell Ohlyvya.

          She’s been injured and Nahrmahn is near death.

          So why is anybody going to tell her about it being found?

          • JeffM says:

            Not prior to Nahrmann asking, anyway. After, I’m sure someone would have mentioned it–off page.

            The point wasn’t that there was a missing communicator, but how detail oriented Nahrmann was–after seeing that his wife was well.

      • Nimitz13 says:

        It wouldn’t matter – Since Nahrmahn is no more, OWL would have cut that earplug out of the net. Any native who picked it up would simply find it a curiosity, and either toss it with the rest of the debris or keep it, but “something strange” is all it would ever be.

        So no need to stress out that the CoGA could suddenly be listening in on the conversations of the inner circle… Bleek!

        • Brutal Frank says:

          I am not entirely convinced the Nahrman is completely … ummm … ‘dead’.

          The appearance of Merlin with headset seems very odd (to me). Especially as the only mention of headset was earlier when he was talking about build his ‘VR Set’ and headset for hosting personalities.

          Perhaps OWL will be getting an upgrade?

  6. stephen y says:

    One of the things Merlin worried about was people using OWL as the answers in the back of the text book. With Zhansyn Wyllys we have someone investigating in a pure Safehold manner. It might be a good idea to let him develope independently for a while.

    It might be interesting to give OWL a sample of fire vine to see if there is a way to stablize it. It would seem to have possibilities as an explosive or napalm substitute.

    • TenofSwords says:

      I’m with you on this one. Much better for Merlin’s original plans that people like Lewis and Willis (sorry the screwed up names do my head in) get let go with subtle stears rather than get turned into disemminators of OWL’s stored wisdom.

      Also gien the sorts of numbers of people we are now talking about the chance of a leak has to have become significant.

      • Nimitz13 says:

        Amen! It’s contrary to Merlin’s goal to get Safeholdians to think for themselves to turn his best researchers into glorified librarians! Bleek!

  7. Peter S says:

    A highly-toxic plant oil implies a toxin dissolved in that oil; if so, there ought to be a way to extract that toxin, and it may well prove to be a specific _neurotoxin_ ather than a general chemical poison. That could have interesting developments as a poison or even for medical use in small doses. I wonder if any Safeholdian assassin has already explored this? If so, Clyntahn will not hesitate to use such a thing – unless it gets used on him first.

    • Robert H. Woodman says:

      Actually, the oil itself could be toxic, or the numerous substances dissolved in the oil could work synergistically to produce a highly toxic effect in the body. I realize that biology and chemistry are not DW’s forte, but a little bit more information about the plant and its compound could lead to some interesting discoveries (and some amusing speculation by us snippet-aholics [g]).

  8. Robert H. Woodman says:

    If Zhansyn Wyllys is successful in distilling coal tar, he will potentially, radically transform Charis. Coal tar distillation products are numerous and impact almost every area of science (especially chemistry), technology, and industry. Many of them are potentially dangerous also, but almost all of them are useful in some way.

    • hank says:

      As my daughter said after watching a history of technology program from the Seventies, “Everything comes from Coal Tar!” :)

  9. Bruce says:

    I saw petroleum products, and fire vines with toxic properties, and wondered if Merlyn would be comfortable introducing napalm into this already vicious fight.

  10. arrrgh says:

    Or the earplug was taken by one of the medics who examined him….

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