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.”