The Depths of Neptune - Cover

The Depths of Neptune

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 15


“We can’t get to the gunpowder,” one of the men said.

Decius frowned. Caesius’s messages had been getting more and more frantic, demanding they get him samples of the explosive powder they’d been hearing about and instructions on how to make it. They had yet to get a man inside Hortensius’s factories, but they’d gotten into the social circles of the workers, at least enough to hear the men gossip and talk about their day.

The problem was, most of the workers didn’t know the details of how things were made, and those that did tended to get nervous when his people started asking more specific questions. This wasn’t about troops marching out of town or what a specific mine was producing. The information they were looking for was very technical and not something that came up in basic conversations, especially with people they only knew from the tavern.

They knew the gunpowder contained sulfur, burned wood, and something derived from rotting urine. The last part was still confusing. It wasn’t hard to know that they were collecting it, since for months Hortensius’s men had been digging up barns and latrines, taking away the soil and putting in new soil. Questions about that, at least, made sense, but the only answer they were getting was there was something in the soil after urine soaked into it that was extracted and used in the production of gunpowder.

That wasn’t enough detail for them to send to Caesius, who would almost certainly ask what, and more importantly how, they were taking whatever substance out of the soil. For that, Decius still didn’t have an answer. He also didn’t know what amounts of those three things were needed in the mixture to make gunpowder.

He’d been hoping it was in the scrolls they’d managed to steal, but none of the ones they took had anything to do with gunpowder, or cannon, or any of the new things Hortensius was now working on. Mostly they were about metalworking, new farming techniques, and the arcuballista, which they’d already managed to send back to Carthage. The metalworking might end up being useful, but it was clear they were pushing for something militarily useful that could be exploited quickly.

“Why not?”

“It’s too well guarded. Anything not currently in use is constantly guarded by Praetorians, not just paid men like some of the factory buildings. Anything that’s not in one of the storage areas is either taken straight to the ships or the legions, where we can’t get to it. Worse, all of their storage locations are well outside of the Devnum and Factorium, apart from any other buildings, making it incredibly difficult to sneak up to them. To get in one, we’d have to kill the guards, which would require most of the men we have left.”

“I thought you were looking to get someone inside the praetorians, who could get us access to those buildings.”

“We’ve tried. I don’t know how, but the praetorians seemed to figure them out every time. Two more tried and were just rejected, but three others were held for questioning and broke under torture. We’ve lost two cells because of it, which is a problem since we’re running so short on men.”

“If we used enough force, could we take one of the warehouses?”

“I don’t know. They are better armed and armored than our people, and I know they have a signal fire set up away from the building that they will set off in the event of an emergency. They had some kind of issue at one of the buildings a few weeks ago and we saw the guards light it. Men on horseback showed up about ten minutes later.”

“Ten minutes would be enough time to roll a couple of barrels out though, right?”

“Yes. We’d lose men though. Our recruiting is still very slow. I’m not sure we can afford those kinds of losses.”

“We also can’t afford to not get Caesius what he asked for. Unless you see another opportunity, this is all we have.”

“There is that new document storage building not far from the Imperial Palace. It’s a lot less guarded than the document storage building in Factorium or the one we heard about inside the palace complex. That might mean it has less important documents, but those could still be valuable. He was happy with the last set we sent him, right?”

“Yes, but I don’t trust this information,” Decius said. “Word of that new storage building came out only a few days after we took the scrolls from Hortensius’s office, and the building itself doesn’t make sense. You said it was in a fairly congested area with a lot of buildings nearby that would give cover to anyone trying to break it. That’s almost exactly the opposite of what they did for the building they put up in Factorium. Our people have watched Hortensius and a few others making long trips from their factories to the document building. I can’t imagine that’s very convenient, but they put this one in a crowded area. Also, what’s over here that would need its own storage building? The new building for the physicians, hospital I think they called it, is halfway across the city. It’s so close to the palace complex, why not just store them there?”

“Maybe their storage areas in the palace were full?” the other man offered weakly.

Decius snorted in derision, “I can’t imagine they’re short on room. You saw it yourself when they were repairing it after the Battle of Liberation. That doesn’t seem likely. Plus, they would have the palace guards and the praetorians to guard them. No, this feels like a trap.”

“So you want us to throw nearly all of our manpower into raiding one of the gunpowder storage buildings? That’s a big risk, Decius.”

“I know, but Caesius’s last message said his benefactors are thinking of sending their own people here to handle our network. I think that might be why his messages are getting more urgent. We’re trying to put Caesius back in his rightful place. According to Eborius, at least before he was murdered by our new Consul, Caesius was forced to work with the Carthaginians because he had no other choice, but he always planned to double-cross them the moment he was in power, and take back what Rome lost. Yes, this was made harder when Londinium fell and he was forced to flee to Africa, but not impossible. However, if he is forced to let the Carthaginians come here and direct our people, instead of us, it will be harder to take things back when it is time. That is why we have to show some kind of progress. We need the Carthaginian’s networks to pass messages, we need their money, and we need their muscle. We don’t, however, need them. Especially not here.”

He looked around at the handful of men, the very last of his inner circle still alive, to make sure he had their attention.

“So yes. We use what we have to take some of their gunpowder from them. With that, Caesius can reestablish himself with the Carthaginians, defeat the Consul, and take back our home. For the glory of Rome!”

“For the glory of Rome!” the men repeated.


“Right, release the pressure value,” Ky said, his simple tunic covered in dirt, soot, and rendered whale fat that was the closest thing to oil that the Britannians were able to make.

The furnace had been burning most of the morning and the pressure was up in the furnace, but so far they hadn’t really let it go. They’d spent the better part of the last two days bringing the pressure up slowly, making sure the boiler itself would hold together without bursting. Ky was already pretty certain it would, with his enhanced vision and Sophus’s ability to analyze the material strength, rivet points, and any other place where the large cylinder might rupture.

His ability, however, was one that no one on the planet would be able to match for several thousand years and he wanted to get Hortensius and the handful of other workers who were training along with him used to doing things the smart way. People had a bad habit of taking shortcuts if they thought they could, and this was one place where that would be a fatal mistake. Along with his plans, Sophus had several first-hand reports of early steam engines rupturing, going off like a bomb, one that added boiling hot liquid to the metal shrapnel.

They needed the time, anyway. Workmen had been clambering all over the factory, putting the finishing touches on all the parts needed to work the machine and getting the metal lathe hooked up to one of the branches, allowing it to apply the much larger force to cutting metal, which in turn meant the ability to work with some of the newest steel Hortensius was producing and much thicker metal. While that would all be useful, he’d mostly picked it because it was the most readily available piece of equipment he could prepare for real mechanization. Once this was ready and working, Hortensius would have a chance to see the steam engine in actual use and not just test runs.

“I will never get over how loud this is,” Hortensius shouted from next to Ky.

Ky hadn’t actually considered the noise level. To him, the engine wasn’t particularly noisy, at least not compared to a booster lighting off on the back of his fighter rocket. Of course, before now the loudest things in this time were the clanging of hammers and slamming of wood. He’d never really thought about the difference in sounds between post and pre-industrialization, and people’s reaction to them, until they turned the engine on the first time.

Half the factory had crowded by the door, trying to figure out what all the racket was about.

“You’ll get used to it soon enough,” Ky said, getting an odd look from Hortensius, who clearly didn’t believe him.

Ky gave the machine a final once over, to make sure it was working, and left the ‘engine room’, as Hortensius had started calling it, much to Ky’s amusement, and went back into the factory proper. There were still going to be boiler men in there, keeping the fire going so the pressure would stay up, and Ky made a mental note to come up with some kind of ear protection for them. He didn’t want to be the reason certain classes of men started going deaf.

The noise level dropped notably once they were out in the factory proper. He could still hear the engine through the open doorway, but the walls mostly blocked the noise and the factory was larger, giving the sound waves less area to bounce off.

Ky’s eyes followed along the ceiling and catwalks as they walked towards the section of the factory that held the lathe, and the two additional lathes currently under construction. The crankshaft was spinning at a decent speed and all of the belts and parts seemed to be working well, from his vantage point, which was very good, again using his enhanced vision.

“It looks like we’re good. Turn it on,” Ky said to the worker, as he stepped up next to the machine.

The man reached out and threw a mechanical lever on the lathe, which started the headstock spinning at speeds far greater than it had been able to do using water power alone. Ky had spent some time modifying this device, especially its dial for locking in measurements. It would need correction over time, but one lathe with good precision could create another, and this time without his supervision. With this, they could make the milling machine, borer, and metal stamp, and then things would really start moving.

To read this story you need a Registration + Premier Membership
If you have an account, then please Log In or Register (Why register?)