Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 28

“All right!” Huntyr exclaimed, then clamped his mouth shut, blushing, but no one seemed to care, really. They were all too busy listening to the sound coming from the blast furnace — a sound of rushing air, growing louder and louder, challenging even the noise of the steam engine so close at hand. The steam-powered blowers of the forced draft system were bigger and more powerful than anything the Delthak Works had built yet, even for the furnaces driven by the hydro-accumulators, and Howsmyn beamed as Tairham slapped Huntyr on the back while they blew steadily harder and harder in time with the engine’s gathering speed.

“Well,” Wylsynn said loudly over the sound of the engine and the blowers, “it hasn’t blown up yet, at any rate.”

“I suppose there’s still time,” Howsmyn replied, still beaming. “But what say you and I retreat to the comfort of my office while we wait for the inevitable disaster?”

“I think that’s an excellent idea, Master Howsmyn. Especially since I understand you’ve recently received a shipment from Her Majesty’ favorite distillery back in Chisholm.”

“Why, I believe I have,” Howsmyn agreed. He looked at his employees. “Zosh, I want you and Kahlvyn to keep an eye on it for another — oh, half an hour. Then I want you, Nahrmahn, and Brahd to join me and the Father in my office. I think we’ll all have quite a few things to discuss at that point.” He flashed another smile. “After all, now that he’s let us get this toy up and running, it’s time to tell him about all of our other ideas, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Sir,” Huntyr agreed with just a shade less enthusiasm than his employer, and Howsmyn bowed to Wylsynn.

“After you, Father.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“I must confess I really did feel a moment or two of . . . anxiety,” Paityr Wylsynn admitted ten minutes later, standing at Howsmyn’s office windows and gazing out across the incredible, frenetic activity. “I know the design was approved by Owl, and I know his remotes were actually monitoring quality control all the way through, but all joking aside, it would’ve been a disaster if that thing had blown up! Too many people would’ve seen it as proof of Jwo-jeng’s judgment, no matter who’d attested it. I hate to think how far back that would’ve set the entire project, not to mention undermining my own authority as Intendant.”

“I know.” Howsmyn stepped up beside him and handed him a glass half-filled with amber liquid. “And, to be honest, I’d’ve felt better myself if I’d simply been able to hand Zosh a set of plans and tell him to build the damned thing. But we really needed him to work it out for himself based on the ‘hints’ Rahzhyr and I were able to give him.” He shrugged. “And he did. In fact, he and Nahrmahn did us proud. That single-cylinder initial design of theirs worked almost perfectly, and the two-cylinder is actually a lot more powerful than I expected — or, rather, it’s turned out to be a lot more efficient at moving a canal boat. Propeller design’s more complicated than I’d anticipated, but with Owl to help me slip in the occasional suggestion, they’ve managed to overcome each problem as it made itself known.

“But the really important thing — the critical thing — is that I’ve got a whole layer of management now, here and at the other foundries, who’re actually coming up with suggestions I haven’t even so much as whispered about yet. And best of all, we’ve documented every step of the process in which Zosh and Nahrmahn — oh, and let’s not forget Master Praigyr — came up with this design. We’ve got sketches, diagrams, office memos, everything. Nobody’s going to be able to claim one of Shan-wei’s demons just appeared in a cloud of smoke and brimstone and left the thing behind him!”

“Oh, don’t be silly, Ehdwyrd! Of course they are.” Wylsynn shook his head. “Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s never let the truth get in his way before — what makes you think he’s going let it happen now? Besides, when you come down to it, that’s almost exactly what did happen. I mean, wouldn’t you call Merlin one of Shan-wei’s ‘demons’? I use the term in the most approving possible fashion, you understand. And while I’d never want to sound as if I’m complaining, just breathing out there does put one firmly in mind of ‘smoke and brimstone,’ you know.”

“Yes, I do know,” Howsmyn sighed, his expression suddenly less cheerful as he gazed out at the pall of coal smoke which hung perpetually over the Delthak Works. It was visible for miles, he knew, just as he knew about the pollution working its way into Ithmyn’s Lake despite all he could do to contain it. “In fact, I hate it. We’re doing everything we can to minimize the consequences, and I’m making damned sure my people’s drinking water is piped down from upriver from the works, but all this smoke isn’t doing a thing for their lungs. Or for their kids’ lungs, either.” He grimaced and took a quick, angry sip from his glass. “God, I wish we could go to electricity!”

“At least you’ve given them decent housing, as far from the foundry as you can put it,” Wylsynn said after a moment, resting his left hand on the other man’s shoulder. He didn’t mention the schools, or the hospitals, that went with that housing, but he didn’t need to. “And I wish we could go to electricity, too, but even assuming the bombardment system didn’t decide to wipe us all out, daring to profane the Rakurai would be the proof of our apostasy.”

“I know. I know!”

Howsmyn took another, less hasty sip, savoring the Chisholmian whiskey as it deserved to be savored . . . or closer to it, at any rate. Then he half-turned from the window to face Wylsynn fully.

“But I’m not thinking just about health reasons, either. I’ve done a lot to increase productivity per man hour, which is why we’re so far in front of anything the Temple Loyalists have, but I haven’t been able to set up a true assembly-line, and you know it.”

Wylsynn nodded, although the truth was that his own admission to the inner circle was recent enough he was still only starting to really explore the data stored in Owl’s memory. The AI was an incredibly patient librarian, but he wasn’t very intuitive, which hampered his ability to help guide Wylsynn’s research, and there was a limit to the number of hours Wylsynn could spend reading through several thousand years of history and information, no matter how addictive it might be. Or perhaps especially because of how addictive it was.

“I know you and Merlin’ve been talking about that — about ‘assembly-lines,’ I mean — for a while,” he said, “but I confess I’m still more than a little hazy on what you’re getting at. It seems to me you’re already doing a lot more efficient job of assembling things than I can imagine anyone else doing!”