How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 03

          “My head hurts trying to follow that,” Sharleyan complained. He gave her a look, and she shrugged. “Oh, I understood what you were saying, it’s just a bit . . . twisty for this early in the morning.”

          “I understand what you’re saying, too, Cayleb,” Merlin said. “For myself, though, I’m just as glad it didn’t happen that way. Sure, it’d be a relief in some ways, but it wouldn’t actually prove anything one way or the other about the decision-making processes we’re up against. And, to be honest, I’m just delighted we didn’t wake up anything under the Temple with our little test. The last thing we need is to throw anything else into the equation — especially anything that might decide to take the Group of Four’s side!”

          “There’s something to that,” Cayleb agreed, and Sharleyan nodded feelingly.

None of them felt the least bit happy about the energy signatures Merlin had detected under the Temple. The nativeborn Safeholdians’ familiarity with technology remained largely theoretical and vastly incomplete, but they were more than willing to take Merlin’s and Owl’s word that the signatures they were seeing seemed to indicate something more than just the heating and cooling plant and maintenance equipment necessary to keep the “mystic” Temple environment up and running. As Cayleb had said, it would be nice to know that whatever those additional signatures represented wasn’t going to instruct the orbital kinetic platforms which had transformed the Alexandria Enclave into Armageddon Reef nine hundred years before to start killing the first steam engines they saw even after it had been told about them. On the other hand, if whatever was under the Temple (assuming there really was something and they weren’t all just being constructively paranoid) was “asleep,” keeping it that way as long as possible seemed like a very good idea.

          “I agree with you, Merlin,” Howsmyn said. “Still, as the person most likely to catch a kinetic bombardment if it turns out we’re wrong about this, I have to admit I’m a little worried about how persistence might play into this from the platforms’ side.”

          “That’s why I said it looks good so far,” Merlin replied with a nod none of the others could see. “It’s entirely possible there’s some kind of signal-over-time filter built into the platforms’ sensors. I know it’s tempting to think of all the ‘Archangels’ as megalomaniac lunatics, but they weren’t all totally insane, after all. So I’d like to think that whoever took over after Commodore Pei killed Langhorne at least had sense enough to not order the ‘Rakurai’ to shoot on sight the instant it detected something which might be a violation of the Proscriptions. I can think of several natural phenomena that could be mistaken at first glance for the kind of industrial or technological processes the Proscriptions are supposed to prevent. So I think — or hope, at least — that it’s likely Langhorne’s successors would have considered the same possibility.

          “For now, at least, what we’re showing them is a complex of obviously artificial temperature sources moving around on several islands spread over a total area of roughly a hundred thousand square miles. If they look a little more closely, they’ll get confirmation that they’re ‘steam engines,’ and Owl will be turning them on and off, just as he’ll be stopping the ‘trains’ at ‘stations’ at intervals.” He shrugged. “We’ve got enough power to keep the emitters going literally for months, and Owl’s remotes can handle anything that might come up in the way of glitches. My vote is that we do just that. Let them run for at least a month or two. If we don’t get any reaction out of the platforms or those energy sources under the Temple in that long, I think we’ll be reasonably safe operating on the assumption that we can get away with at least introducing steam. We’re a long way from my even wanting to experiment with how they’ll react to electricity, but just steam will be a huge advantage, even if we’re limited to direct drive applications.”

          “That’s for certain,” Howsmyn agreed feelingly. “The hydro accumulators are an enormous help, and thank God Father Paityr signed off on them! But they’re big, clunky, and expensive. I can’t build the things up at the mine sites, either, and if I can get away with using steam engines instead of dragons for traction on the railways here at the foundry, it’ll only be a matter of time — and not a lot of that — before some clever soul sees the possibilities where genuine railroads are concerned.” He snorted in amusement. “For that matter, if someone else doesn’t see the possibilities, after a couple of months of running them around the foundries it’ll be reasonable enough for me to experience another ‘moment of inspiration.’ I’m developing quite a reputation for intuitive genius, you know.”

          His last sentence managed to sound insufferably smug, and Merlin chuckled as he visualized the ironmaster’s elevated nose and broad grin.

          “Better you than me, for oh so many reasons,” he said feelingly.

          “That’s all well and good,” Sharleyan put in, “and I agree with everything you’ve just said, Ehdwyrd. But that does rather bring up the next sticking point, too, I’m afraid.”

          “You mean how we get Father Paityr to sign off on the concept of steam power,” Howsmyn said in a considerably glummer tone.

          “Exactly.” Sharleyan grimaced. “I really like him, and I admire and respect him, too. But this one’s so far beyond anything the Proscriptions envision that getting his approval isn’t going to be easy, to say the least.”

          “That’s unfortunately true,” Merlin acknowledged. “And pushing him so far his principles and beliefs finally come up against his faith in Maikel’s judgment would come under the heading of a Really Bad Idea. Having him in the Church of Charis’ corner is an enormous plus — and not just in Charis, either, given his family’s prestige and reputation. But the flipside of that is that turning him against the Church of Charis would probably be disastrous. To be perfectly honest, that’s another reason I’ve always figured keeping the emitters running for a fairly lengthy period doesn’t have any downside. Now that we know — or if we decide we know — the bombardment platforms aren’t going to kill us, we can start giving some thought about how we convince Father Paityr not to blow the whistle on us, as well.”

          “And if it turns out the bombardment platforms are going to kill the ‘steam engines’ after all,” Cayleb agreed, “nothing but a bunch of thoroughly useless, uninhabited islands gets hurt.”

          “Useless, uninhabited islands so far away from anyone that no one’s even going to realize ‘Langhorne’s Rakurai’ has struck again if it happens,” Sharleyan said with a nod.

          “That’s the idea, anyway,” Merlin said. “That’s the idea.”