The Fires of Vulcan - Cover

The Fires of Vulcan

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 14


Sorantius stepped off the carriage into the busy streets of Devnum, gazing around at the transformed city. Every time he came back to the city, he was amazed. A year and a half ago, Devnum had been a modest settlement, struggling under constant Carthaginian threat. Now it was the capital of a growing Empire and the center of technological innovation. The change was so much that a year ago Sorantius would never consider his particular interest in natural philosophy ‘chemistry’ and wouldn’t have dreamed of a chemical industry, let alone heading one.

The city was a flurry of activity, with merchants hawking their wares, while labor crews worked diligently on expanding the infrastructure. What amazed Sorantius more than the city was its people with its blending of Romans, Britons, Gauls, and Germans. Such unity would have been unimaginable not long ago.

Reaching the imposing iron gates of the palace, he was waved through by the guards into the meticulously maintained palace grounds. While not as regular a visitor as Hortensius, the chemist had spent a fair amount of time here, either consulting with the Empress and the Consul or haggling with the tight-fisted Lurio. Today, however, he was here to see the Empress. Having been assigned the bulk of the responsibility for getting the telegraph project she’d described to them up and running, he’d run into some problems that he hadn’t been able to sort out. Normally, he brought those troubles to Hortensius, since he’d had a longer track record working with the Consul and Empress to sort out issues such as this, but the manufacturer was running into issues with his own projects at the moment.

Instead of a normal audience chamber, he was ushered, by a servant, into a room that he hadn’t been in before, passing Ramirus as he entered. Aside from the large table, his eyes were immediately drawn to a large map of the Empire tacked to the far wall. The Empress stood next to it, studying the marked positions of legions and settlements, ignoring him for a moment as he imagined she worked through whatever her previous meeting had involved. He waited patiently and was rewarded with a warm smile when she finally did turn away from the map to acknowledge him.

“Empress,” he said with a respectful bow of his head.

Lucilla gestured to the chairs around the central table. “Please, have a seat Sorantius. I wasn’t aware you were in town. What brings you to see me, today?”

He settled into a chair, hands fidgeting with a scrap of parchment.

“I hadn’t planned on being here, but every time I tried to put my message into words I couldn’t quite seem to explain the issue thoroughly, so I thought it best if I just come as the messenger myself.”

“A reasonable solution,” she said.

“It’s the prototype for the battery for the telegraph you described to us. I built it as your instructions specified, but I can’t seem to get them to maintain a consistent output as noted in your instructions. You described what happens when they provide too much ... I think the word you used was power, and that is what sometimes happens, although sometimes we get the opposite of that effect, where the containers might as well be filled with simple water for all of the reaction that happens.”

“Do you have thoughts on why that is?” she asked.

Sometimes Sorantius couldn’t tell if she was actually asking for more information or if she was simply employing the Greek method of teaching, where they asked questions rather than simply giving the answers being sought.

“I’ve done a fair amount of testing, and as far as I can tell the problem lies with the salt-soaked fabric connecting the two cells, although that’s just a guess. I have tried both lowering and raising the levels of salt saturation in the fabric, but neither produced the desired consistent output. Too little salt, and the cells barely react at all, as if they are disconnected. Too much, and the reaction becomes volatile and uncontrolled. While I know this is outside your instructions, it did give me some insight into how this process you described works and is what led me to believe the salt bridge, as you called it, is the problem.”

Lucilla tapped her chin thoughtfully, “What materials have you tried for the salt bridge aside from fabric?”

“Just the fabric, as per your original instructions. I thought any deviations might lead me astray.”

“Of course, of course,” Lucilla nodded. “I’m just trying to understand what you have tried so far to determine where the trouble might lie. And the salt, what type are you using?”

“Both mined and evaporated and both applied directly as well as putting it in water and then soaking the cloth in the water.”

“I see,” she said, and then fell silent.

He waited while she considered everything he’d said. As with the other times he’s talked over matters like this with her, Sorantius was impressed with how quickly the Empress seemed to grasp the concepts, since this was all at the edge of his scientific understanding. He had been training as a natural philosopher since childhood, which at least gave him a basis to begin to understand these matters. She, on the other hand, had grown up learning how to lead, with a focus on politics and diplomacy. He doubted any other politicians he might meet would be nearly as adept at understanding these types of subjects.

“It does sound like the salt bridge is deteriorating too rapidly as the salt evaporates, which would lead to fluctuations in transmission power,” she said when she finally spoke.

Lucilla fell silent again, her eyes going unfocused in that familiar way that signaled she was having one of her long pauses where it seemed like she was listening to some unheard voice. Although Hortensius had dismissed the thought when Sorantius privately brought it up, he couldn’t help but wonder if she was actually listening to guidance from the gods. It would explain how she was able to come up with such wild leaps in logic and ingenious solutions that he would have never conceived of on his own. She always had some excuse ready, claiming she had seen a mention of something in the Consul’s notes, but Sorantius had never found evidence to back up her claims. He suspected Hortensius knew more than he let on as well, based on the way the man denied Sorantius’ suspicions a little too forcefully.

Sorantius shifted in his seat. He was always unsure of what to do when she got like this. He didn’t want to stare or draw attention to it, but he also didn’t want to interrupt her, either to break her concentration before she thought of a solution ... or on the off chance that she really was communing with the gods.

“I believe adding ammonium nitrate to the salt solution may help sustain the salt saturation within the fabric,” Lucilla suggested suddenly, as her eyes refocused on him.

Sorantius furrowed his brow skeptically. Ammonium nitrate was not a compound he had considered for this application. While intriguing, he was unsure of the merits in this situation.

“Why would that help?” he asked, as usual, forgetting the pleasantries as he became more focused on an issue.

“Ammonium nitrate has unique properties that allow it to readily absorb water while also retaining soluble salts. When added to the salt solution, it should act as a sort of sponge within the fabric, holding the salt in place longer before it evaporates. This should allow for more sustained conductivity between the battery cells.”

“I see. I’ve only ever seen nitrate used in the gunpowder process or making the new fertilizer the Consul described, and have been hesitant to experiment further with it, considering what it does when combined with the other components of gunpowder. If what you say about it slowing evaporation is true, I can think of a few other uses I’d like to test. However, that brings us to a new issue. We are currently struggling to get enough nitrate to produce gunpowder, let alone anything else. I’ve had to put producing fertilizer on hold until the military needs decline. How am I going to get enough to support making the batteries if we can’t get enough for anything else?”

“I’ll take care of that end. We should have more coming in by the end of summer when the first Ulaid pits begin producing, which will reduce our shortages. Until then, we’ll figure it out. It’ll be a small shipment, at first, for you to test out the quantities you need, and once you have a ... uhh, benchmark, I’ll get you the rest.”

“A what?” Sorantius asked, unsure if she used a word he didn’t know, or if he misunderstood what she had said, since she had half-mumbled over the word.

“Benchmark,” she said, almost distantly. “It means a standard point of reference.”

“Ohh. I will let you know as soon as I have the ... benchmark, your Majesty,” he said, bowing.

Ramirus exited the planning room, wondering for the hundredth time how exactly the Empress and the Consul’s ability to communicate worked. The two had never addressed it to him directly, but he’d figured out a long time ago they had some kind of ability to pass information regardless of distance, since any report he gave her ended up with the Consul.

Right now, with the legions so far away, that ability was probably their greatest weapon, since he could instantly get reports from his sources scattered across Carthaginian territory directly to the armies, faster than maybe even Mercury himself. He’d heard about this telegraph Hortensius and Sorantius were working on, which would apparently be able to provide approximating that same power to the rest of them, but for now, it was just theory. An idea that had yet to be realized.

In one of those moments of coincidence, he almost ran into the chemist, who was being led by a servant to the room he just exited, as he cleared the large door. The man’s attention was, as usual, not on the world around him, as he barely acknowledged Ramirus’s nod in greeting as they passed. In a way, he envied Sorantius his straightforward work, distant from the web of secrets Ramirus was enmeshed in, although he knew the chemist had his own difficulties he had to deal with that Ramirus could blissfully ignore. So maybe switching places wouldn’t be that easy after all.

Making his way across the plaza, Ramirus hurried up the steps to the Imperial Forum where he’d been told Llassar and Cormac were spending the day. Sure enough, the old warrior stood in the back, leaning on a column with his arms crossed as a senator droned on below, in the well of the Forum. Ramirus knew Llassar found politics as tedious as he did, though few would be able to tell from the stoic mask the man always maintained.

Less impassive was young Cormac, who lounged on the steps nearby, not even trying to stifle a yawn. The headstrong prince had regularly made his dislike of the endless legal minutiae known, and almost went out of his way to ensure everyone around him knew how unhappy he was to be here.

Catching Llassar’s eye briefly, he jerked his head to the side, indicating his desire to speak privately. Llassar raised a bushy eyebrow but peeled himself from the pillar, following Ramirus to an empty alcove some distance away from Cormac’s lounging form.

“I’ve heard concerning rumors swirling around the barracks and training yards. It seems our young princeling has been making the rounds, subtly inquiring about the troops’ thoughts on our current military leadership,” Ramirus said, dropping his voice to almost a whisper.

Llassar’s expression remained neutral, though Ramirus noted the way his jaw tightened almost imperceptibly.

“Apparently, he’s been engaging the men in hypothetical discussions about changes he would make, were he in charge,” Ramirus continued. “Specifically questioning the decisions the Consul, Empress, and legates have made.”

Llassar said, after a moment’s thought, “He’s made no secret of how much he chafes at what he sees as a ceremonial posting in the capital while real warriors fight elsewhere. Since that isn’t possible, he likes to at least discuss military matters.”

“I think it goes beyond that, however. He isn’t just talking about the strategies and having hypothetical conversations about them. He’s suggesting our military is being poorly led and that men’s lives are being wasted, and asking not-so-subtle questions about support for a ‘change of leadership.’”

A rare frown appeared on Llassar’s face as he said, “If the prince has truly been making such inquiries among the men, it is concerning. Whispers that our leaders are incompetent or might be mismanaging the war effort is not good for these men who are soon to be fighting. This kind of thing can spread through the ranks quickly.”

“My thoughts exactly, especially with some of the recent losses in Germania.”

“Do you believe Cormac intends treason?” Llassar asked bluntly. “Or is he simply frustrated at his lack of authority and seeking to prove himself through hypothetical boasting?”

“I don’t know,” Ramirus said, considering his words carefully. “It’s possible he’s simply venting and doesn’t mean to undermine the Empress’s authority. I’m just concerned about the effect his words could have, especially if they reach soldiers whose morale is already shaken. They could see him as sympathetic to their hardships, a prince who understands their plight, even if that’s not his intent.”

“Soldiers gossip worse than fishwives,” Llassar grunted in agreement. “They’ll embellish a tale to make it more dramatic with each retelling. Before long, Cormac’s hypothetical musings could morph into promises to relieve incompetent generals when he takes power.”

“Exactly,” Ramirus said.

The two men fell silent for a long moment, the distant chatter of the Forum drifting faintly to them.

The source of this story is Finestories

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