From a post to DAVIDWEBER.NET forums on 10/14/2011

Sahlavahn's access to the latest fuse data

FriarBob wrote:
runsforcelery wrote:

    The production of shells depends on several factors... including how much information certain unnamed agents in charge of certain powder mills where certain shells were being filled in very large numbers may have sent to certain sisters in Siddar City who may have sent it on to certain Grand Inquisitors in Zion who may have handed it over (with assurances that it doesn't violate certain Proscriptions) to certain captains general who might then have passed the drawings and specifications on to certain foundries in Dohlar which might be able to supply them to certain earls in Gorath.

    Just saying it couldhave happened that way, you understand.

    Oh it "could" have happened... except for the fact that you'd be contradicting yourself in the books.


How Firm A Foundation, Hardback, pg 122 wrote:

    "I'm afraid you're hardly alone in that," Rock Point said wryly. "It was all very closely held before we were forced to commit the new weapons to action. Even Captain Sahlavahn [the traitor] and the Ordnance Board were left in the dark, as a matter of fact.Baron Seamount, the Experimental Board, and Master Howsmyn and a handful of his artisans did all the real work on them."

    You also implied in A Mighty Fortress that the shells were being produced By Howsmyn at his foundries. You talked in AMF about how frustrated Howsmyn had been because of rain storms and mudslides that had prevented him from getting his foundations in for his expansion to produce the shells. So at least the outer metal shells themselves are produced there, and that was where Rock Point went to pick up his initial supplies before the battle that occurred in November of 894. This means that at least the initial filling work was done there, and thus at LEAST until October of 894, Sahlavahn couldn't have known anything (hard, at least) about it. Now we know he was a traitor and he was passing on info from internal correspondence, but even then, he couldn't have known MUCH (if anything) about it until February of 895, and by that point he was in probably charge of the powder mill (he had to have had time to make the efficiency improvements that they were congratulating him over, after all), which means that unless they moved the location in which they were filling the shells, he still had no reason to get the info.

    Now I'll buy that they might have moved the filling station later on, but even that wouldn't give him the most critical piece of information, which was the fuse notes. The only way I can see him getting the fuse notes is if he captured them from Mahndrayn when he murdered him in July. I looked back, and I note that you were very careful not to say what happened to those notes. Clever of you. ;) But the last time the notes are mentioned was in the traitor's office, and you said nothing about whether the traitor was carrying them later on. You also specifically stated that the traitor died in the explosion of the #3 powder mill, though that could have been a red herring. Given that he was going INTO the mill, however, it seems rather likely that he did in fact die. Which thus means that the notes couldn't have been transmitted unless he, all in the course of a very limited time, A) killed his cousin, B) stole the notes, C) sneaked out of the base and got them to some other agent or portion of his communication chain who could get them out to the Church, D) got BACK on the base to set fuses in the magazine, and then E) set off the #3 mill explosion. Doable? Maaaaaybe. Likely? Hell no! It would take too long, there would be too much risk of somebody discovering his cousin's body before he could complete all those steps.

    Furthermore, we know from AMF that in May (which means, given message travel times, as of March or maybe even February sometime, given that he had no information to provide them on the battle that had occurred in November), that the Church did NOT have the fuse formulas, because "Harysyn" hadn't been able to provide that information. We know that by the point in time he dispatched his notes they were discussing he had already been promoted and no longer had access to their internal correspondence as well, which thus means that he must have been promoted in November or February (or earlier). And we know that he did NOT (yet, at least) have the first-generation fuse formula because otherwise he wouldn't have sent "guesses" about how they were getting them to explode. He would have sent the plans. This means that the ONLY way he could have gotten the fuse information (even the first generation, much less the more stable second-generation ones) is sometime in the March to July timeframe... AND he had to have passed it on to his sister BEFORE he died (or before he faked his death with extreme verisimilitude).

    Or it means they don't have the fuse formula. Now figuring out the right strength of shell wall is important, having the corned gunpowder is important, even knowing which direction to load the shell in the cannon is important. ALL of that is important. But all of that can also be figured out by any reasonably intelligent person with a few weeks or months of thought and work. And what is truly critical is the fuse formula. If they don't have a good one, they're at least going to have SOME misfires. Probably a lot until they spend time — a LOT of time, most likely — figuring it out.

    Still, even if all the statement of his death was a red herring, even if he DID survive and the Church DID get from him full information on exactly what to do, it will still take TIME to set those plans into motion. Even if they got every thing handed to them on a silver platter by the traitor, he's not going to be able to reach Church-held territory until August or September at the earliest. Maybe even October, given that he has to take the time to alter his appearance and sneak out quietly. Plus his sister was sad about not having heard from him and thinking he was dead, which means his NORMAL communication channels had been cut. So best case (for them) the Church got this information in September, but far more likely October, November, or February. Then it will take at least a few more months to set up the lines. Then it will take time to produce the shells and train people in their use. And I just can't believe they'll have useful enough quantities by the spring. Next fall, maybe. The spring, no.

    Unless you want to tell me that DESPITE being promoted OUT of access to where he could legitimately get access to those fuse notes without drawing attention to himself, he somehow got them anyway and passed them on before his supposed (or real, since we're not 100% sure on that) death. That's a bit of a deus ex machina, though, isn't it?


    You're making a bunch of erroneous assumptions.

    In the very next paragraph from the one you quote, he says:

    "I'm afraid it's going to be mostly background expertise, Tym," Sahlavahn said dryly. "As the High Admiral says, I actually know relatively little about the exploding shells even now. I understand" — his tone got even dryer — "that I'm going to be learning more shortly, though. Baron Seamount tells me we're going to be filling quite a few shells, and the Hairatha Mill's going to be called upon to provide the powder for most of them."

    The problem with the availability of shells in AMF wasn't that they were filling them at Howsymn's foundry; it was that they were making them there. They were actually filled aboard ship by the gunners on the galleons equipped with them, which is the same way the cartridges are made up. (This was originally standard practice in our own historical experience, BTW.) There is, however, a teeny problem with shells filled with loose powder; the grains can shift when the shells are fired, causing friction, which causes prematures. One solution to this which was adopted by the time of the American Civil War was to fill the cavity behind the charge with tar or some other substance which would stabilize the filling and prevent the charge from shifting/prematuring. (This was considered a Very Good Thing from the perspective of gunners who Really Didn't Like shells exploding a couple of feet in front of the muzzle and, oh, killing the entire guncrew, for example.)

    Shells filled in this fashion have a longer "shelf life" and are far safer to handle, as well as being safer to fire and more likely to reach their target before exploding. Once the shells were off the Cut Your Own Throat After Reading secrets list (and the emergency war situation had eased enough to allow time to deal with the issue of potential premature explosions), the filling of the shells was shifted (logically) to a powder mill where people were used to dealing with lots and lots of explosive stuff on a daily basis. The Hairatha mill was not only very large but also the one closest to Howsmyn's operation; hence the shell-filling operation was moved there. And that also made Hairatha the logical place to be manufacturing Seamount's new, more stable, more consistent fuse powders in ton lots. Now, children, who was the CO of that powder mill from at least April until late July? Hmmmmmmmmm?

    It would appear to me (but I dunno, I could be wrong, I guess [G]) that the guy in charge of quality control and output, who is known as an efficiency troubleshooter and detail kind of guy, and who was on the Ordnance Board before he got assigned to the powder mill (and hence would be the logical go-to guy at the powder mill for any questions related to the actual shot and shells of the Navy — which, in fact, is one reason he was chosen for the slot), might just be in a position to get his hands on things like the forumalae of the powders he's supposed to be manufacturing and the dimensions and specifications of the shells he's supposed to be filling (since, after all, it would be sort of a good idea to have the folks actually filling the shell doing at least spot quality checks on the shells passing through their hands).

    I think the basic problem lies in your assumption that the shells are being manufactured and filled by Howsmyn and your failure to realize that the fuse powders are being produced in the same powder mills that produce the rest of the Empire's explosive materials. He's perfectly placed to get his hands on the information once the operation is fully moved and he's placed in command of it. Now, he's only been in command for a month or so when we see him in April talking to Rock Point and the captain of the galleon they're aboard. The message which Rayno reports to Clyntahn in Zion in May has been in transit for some time. In fact, it was sent in the window between his departure from the Ordnance Board and his arrival at Hairatha, and he knew he was going to be promoted for some time before he actually was. Informing him of that was part of letting him wrap up details where he was and get set for his new assignment. (Of course, it also let him start thinking about how he might divert a substantial quantity of gunpowder once he got there, but they didn't know they were giving him that.) At the same time, he knew about his promotion, knew it was going to change his duties, but had not been briefed in on the classified aspect of what his new duties were going to be. That is, at the time he sent the message you're referencing, he didn't know how they were fused and was able to provide only partial information and his own best guess as to how it worked because he had not yet taken up his new assignment. Because he didn't know they were about to hand him access to that info on a plate when they transferred them, he (quite reasonably) informed Zion that he was going to lose the access he might have been able to gain through the Ordnance Board, which he was then assuming would have given him a better chance to get that information because the Navy was initially filling the shells at sea, which meant he probably wasn't going to be seeing them at Hairatha. Obviously, he discovered otherwise once he was actually transferred, and by the time the powder mill blew up, he'd been there plenty long enough to get his hands on that information (and quite possibly some other information Charis would really, really not like the Go4 to have) and send it on to Zion. One thing you have to bear in mind — and which I thought I made adequately clear in the books — is that he was trusted just as completely as Mahndrayn himself. There is no way he would have been denied the information I've described above when he was in command of the facility manufacturing most of it!

    Now, I'm not saying that he did, but the time window was definitely there and he definitely did have access to the critical information before the explosion.