Ephraim Gas

5 Nov

“Water vapor enjoys complete domination of our power system,” moaned Abishai Gaal with unconcealed sorrow in his voice. “But it still has serious defects and inefficiencies.”

The engine maker paused for a moment to marshall his thoughts.

“I sometimes doubt that my attempts to build a new kind of turbine will result in anything beyond failure. Our Ephraim is a land whose whole life runs upon steam from water, and that is what we have long become accustomed to.”

The old man’s newly hired assistant sat back in a cedar wood chair, taking in the short, crippled master artisan and his coffee brown eyes.

“My research interest lies in the experiments I have learned that you engage in, sir” said Obed Hanan, a tall, thin young man. His milky eyes had a silvery gleam in them.

“There must exist practical alternatives to the type of engines that have dominated our lives the past hundred years,” continued the new apprentice. “But once a certain method becomes prevalent, replacing it with something different is very difficult. I wish to enter your workshop as a common assistant to learn all that I can. My ambition is to assist your research on the outer frontier of knowledge and contribute whatever I can.”

Gaal gazed at him with a look of sharp curiosity.

“I noticed that you studied spagyrics and chemistry at the School of Nature in Shechem. That means that you are familiar with the substantive qualities of many gases that are found in our world. That gives you considerable background for work here in Samaria with me.”

The young man smiled with pleasure. “The idea that some other gas besides water vapor might drive our engines often occurred to me, sir. I heard that you have for years attempted to build mechanisms for such a specific purpose.”

“Yes, I am looking for a safe, usable fuel to replace steam from water. It is an arduous search, though. Would you like to move here and help me in the work?”

“Indeed, sir. The hunt for that gas intrigues me,” answered the excited youth with enthusiasm.

“Good,” grinned Gaal. “Consider yourself hired, then.”

He rose to his feet and led his new employee out of the cubicle to the inner workshop of the residence.

Ephraim, the birthplace of steam power, was a land quite different from its neighbors. Moab, Edom, Ammon, and Judah were traditional monarchies. But the Hebrew tribes of the unique northern hill country of the land of Ephraim had long ago separated themselves from the kingdoms of the south. Ruled by a council of elected judges, this was an egalitarian, democratic society. Commerce and industry prevailed here. The Ephraimites maintained their superior position through primacy in technological learning. They possessed advanced forms of steam energy, the basis of many productive industries in this hilly territory. Their capital city, Samaria, dominated much of the Middle East.

To the south, the kingdom of Judea and the tribes of Dan and Benjamin could not compete against the steam power of Ephraim. Canaanite peoples such as the Archites and Japhletites were absorbed and assimilated by the Jewish majority. Related tribes such as those of Zebulon, Asher, Issachar, and Naphtali were happy to be part of this advanced, progressing country.

But Abishai Gaal discovered it was not easy to bring major change to a thriving industrial system.

Doeg Tahan, the Overseer of Steam Mechanisms, supervised the production of every vapor apparatus constructed in Samaria and all of Ephraim. It was his task to regulate all the firms and all the artisans involved in this industry. He governed all aspects of steam with a very heavy hand, making the major decisions for all those under his jurisdiction.

What was going on in the workshop of Abishai Gaal was causing him worry and consternation. Tahan sensed that he had to intervene before the potential troublemaker went too far. The idea of a surprise inspection arose and one early morning it occurred.

Obed opened the front door to a huge, fleshy giant with hazel eyes and curly black hair.

“You must be the new assistant that was hired,” grumbled the Overseer. He took it for granted that everyone knew who he was and the authority he held in the steam industry.

“Come in, sir,” meekly said the apprentice. “I will fetch the master for you from our workshop.”

The young man led the official into the front cubicle where Tahan took a large gopherwood settle. Before Obed could leave, though, the visitor asked him a question.

“How do you like your work here in this house?”

“Fine, sir. I am learning many interesting aspects of vapor engineering.”

“Ephraim has been first in our craft for close to a century,” boasted the Overseer. “That was the result of our unity in preserving secrecy among ourselves. All our members must stay in step to preserve this advantage of ours. We are like an army on the march. Do you understand what I am telling you?”

Obed nodded that he did, then excused himself and slipped away.

Abishai grimaced when informed who was there to see him.

“I know what he is here for. Rumors have reached him about our work.”

A frown crossed his brow as he stepped away and moved to the front of the house.

Before entering the front parlor, the master turned to his new assistant. “Bring in a dish of iced sherbet for the Overseer,” he told him.

Doeg Tahan remained seated as the head of the house entered.

“What is the purpose of your unexpected visitation?” asked Gaal in an icy tone of voice. He sat down opposite the regulator of steam devices.

“I am here to see your records, the most recent ones. It has come to my attention that unusual purchases have been made by you. These involve shipments of vitric equipment and other glass objects, as well as chemicals. Are you becoming some kind of spagyric who creates new substances? We are forbidden by religious law from engaging in occult practices of any kind. You know that as well as I do. So, my task today is to obtain answers about suspicious activities under your roof.”

Gaal bit his lower lip. “There are no strange secrets in my workshop, nothing mysterious. I am embarrassed that you came here for a useless inspection based on idle rumor.”

The big man coughed. “It is my duty to make my own conclusions, no one else’s. Now, if you are ready, I will take a look at all your records. Shall we begin?”

It was clear to the old experimenter that he had to submit.

“My receipts and correspondence are in that gumwood chest in the far corner.” Gaal pointed behind the visitor. “I will get them for you.”

At that moment, Obed entered carrying a copper tray, placing it on a small table next to the Overseer. The assistant poured cold sherbet into a cup, then handed it to Tahan.

Gaal approached with several scrolls of parchment paper, placing them on the table beside the tray lying on it.

“I will need to see more than just these,” muttered the official. “Bring me your workshop notes as well. Those may contain something revealing.”

Gaal stared bitterly at the giant.

“You are seeking to see the notations made while I work?”

“That is precisely what I want. Surely you keep these.”

The two glared at each other. Obed watched them, fearing that a quarrel might break out.

“I do not believe there is much that remains of that,” grunted the engine maker.

“Go and see,” stiffly ordered the Overseer.

As Gaal left, Tahan took a sip of sherbet, then spoke to the assistant in a low voice.

“You must know everything that goes on. What does your chief do with the substances he buys? What do they have to do with steam engineering?”

“I have no idea, sir,” said the young man, realizing he was telling a lie.

The other’s face reddened with frustration.

“Are you planning to make a career in this industry? I must warn you that nothing is more important than the favor and good will of those already in the industry. No one rises who antagonizes me. Do you understand? I am like the sun. If my rays shine upon someone with grace, that person prospers and progresses in his craft. I can also throw those who oppose or obstruct me into shadowy failure. I pray that Abishai Gaal does not prove to be one of the latter.”

His blazing hazel eyes fixed on the apprentice with an unmoving, unchanging focus.

“It would be helpful to me to have a trustworthy friend here upon whom I can depend for timely information. Could you tell me what is done with all these chemicals? What new sort of vapor machinery is being put together in this workshop?”

Obed felt shivers down his back. He was being asked to be an informer, a spying agent.

The cubicle grew ominously quiet for a time.

“Think about it,” murmured Tahan. “Keep your eyes and ears open. If there is anything to tell, come directly to my home, preferably in the evening.”

At that moment, Gaal opened the door and hurried in. He held a pile of notes in each hand. “Here, see what you think of these,” he challenged the Overseer.

Tahan took the large load, then raised himself slowly from the settle.

“I shall take these with me and look through them with care. Send your assistant to my residence tonight and I shall return them to you.” He glanced at Obed, then made his way out without another word.

Gaal and the young man stared blankly at each other.

“There is something important I must tell you, sir,” said Obed.

He proceeded to describe the offer made to him moments before. When that was finished, his employer scratched his chin.

“Do as he orders, but I will tell you what to say to him,” he whispered.

The engine maker outlined what he wished conveyed that evening.

Samaria, capital of Ephraim, was surrounded by olive groves and grape orchards. Rail lines and asphalt highways went off in all directions. Steamtrains, vaporcars, and camion traffic connected the capital to the hilly farm country surrounding it.

Obed, dressed in his best tunic and mantle, started out at twilight for the house of Doeg Tahan. The Valley of Steam Enginery was a long, narrow street rising at a steep angle. Brick buildings like cubes lined both sides, the homes of licensed masters. At the summit stood the large, impressive structure where the Overseer lived during his term of office. It was provided him by the guild of steam engineers.

One by one, the night lanterns came on, illuminating the darkness outside.

A servant opened the front door and took Obed to a small cubicle where Tahan sat on a low chair of beechwood. A small oil lamp lit the room.

“Please be seated,” said the official, indicating a desert stool. “What can you tell me tonight?” asked the giant in a commanding, supercilious voice.

Obed recalled all that he had been instructed to say.

“Engine safety, that is the primary purpose of the experiments.”

Trying to lie convincingly, the apprentice looked into the other’s eyes. But Tahan frowned darkly. “I do not understand,” he muttered.

“For decades, there have been accidents and explosions. Steam power remains dangerous. Temperatures rise to excessive heights. Pressures become too great to control. These hazards are very expensive ones. Over the years, the number of casualties has soared. It is a hazardous industry. Everyone who works with vapor engines takes extraordinary risks. That is very costly for Ephraim.”

Obed paused, studying the face of his host. Were his words having any effect? he wondered. Then he continued as Gaal had prepared him.

“My master hopes to reduce explosions with new cooling jackets.”

“Cooling jackets?”

“Gas held in tubing surrounding the steam engine,” explained Obed. “Their function will be to disperse the heat and the pressure.”

The Overseer drew a deep breath. “That sounds strange, very strange.”

“It is the truth, sir. Safer machines will prevent death and injury. The improvement is a most necessary one. That is the heart of my master’s program.”

“And this is to be accomplished with chemical gases?”

Obed nodded yes. “We test various gases kept in tanks. They are expensive to buy, but necessary for our work.”

“What has been learned up to now?” vehemently demanded Tahan.

“Nothing definite. Much work remains to be done.”

“Yes, I can see that from these notes. It will be necessary for you to continue observing what goes on. I plan to make a surprise inspection of the workshop one day. You must inform me when some important event is about to happen there. Can you do that?”

“Of course,” said Obed. “I shall be happy to cooperate, sir.”

With the advice of my boss, he added in his thought.

Tahan motioned for him to leave, which the young man did willingly.

It was late when the assistant returned home. He met with his master in the latter’s office, describing for him what had happened.

“You succeeded in convincing him of the story I gave you,” smiled the engine-builder. “Good. That gives me more time to work. We have much to do tonight.”

“Tonight? You intend to try fuels in the new engine?”

“We have to experiment in secret, with no workers about. There is high risk with such inflammable gases. My next test will involve terebinthine. Are you familiar with its properties?”

“I know it is distilled from the terebinth tree in the form of oil and resin. The fluid and the gas are both volatile. They hold much risk.”

“That is what gives it promise as a fuel within the cylinder of a modified steam turbine. It has the potential to provide enormous energy.”

“But is terebinthine safe enough for use in machinery?” inquired Obed.

The older man pursed his thin lips.”I have made the terete walls extra thick. All my calculations show that the strength of the copper walls will be adequate.”

Obed looked away a moment. “Spagyric tests have not been completed on terebinthine to any great extent, have they?”

“We are the first explorers,” stated the master with an optimistic grin.

The assistant poured a colorless, oily liquid into the cylinder of the copper mechanism. Gaal told him when the level was high enough.

“Let us see what happens now,” sighed the old man. “Seal the lid tightly.”

Obed did that quickly. When he was finished, he looked across the engine at his master.

“I shall now light the fire,” said Gaal reaching for a metal box that held fusee matches. He lit one against a lump of carborundum, then transferred the flame to juniper twigs under the copper apparatus.

His eyes bulged like those of a mad demoniac as the fire blazed forth brightly.

The pair watched to see what the results would be.

All at once, the power spindle of the motor began to rotate.

The strong odor of the fuel flowed forth through side vents. It grew offensive and suffocating.

Abishai Gaal made a sudden decision. “We must shut it down, for now,” he told his helper. “Our work will continue tomorrow night.”

Exhilarated, Obed gasped for breath. “It worked! The spindle turned! ”

The veteran engineer grinned with joy. “We must find out how much power the gas can produce. There is not a moment to lose.”

Each time that Obed went up the hill in the evening to report to the Overseer, the two conversed  a longer time. The apprentice repeated fictions about cooling jackets for steam engines. It appeared that Tahan reluctantly accepted these stories.

“I am not an enemy of invention,” insisted the regulator. “But there can be nothing that threatens the unity of our craft or our society. We are a community of unbreakable solidarity. Any change must be acceptable to everyone. Since we already have a satisfactory system of steam power in Ephraim, no one should threaten it with wild, untested innovations. Only when something new is proven to the judgment of all should it be introduced in practice.

“Do you understand what I am telling you?”

Obed gave him an agreeable smile. “I believe, sir, you are the main gatekeeper in this industry. Nothing can happen without your approval. Am I correct?”

The giant nodded. “The idea of a surprise inspection appeals to me. I am considering the right time to make it.”

“Would I receive any prior notification, sir?”

“I do not trust your master as much as you do. If I told you and he was able to squeeze it out of you, who can say what might happen?”

“Haven’t I done as you ordered, sir?” pleaded Obed.

Tahan abruptly changed the subject. “You cannot imagine how conservative the judges who rule Ephraim are. They will never accept cooling jackets for steam engines.”

The rest of their conversation had to do with coolants. In a short while, Obed left for his new home.

Gaal was not at all troubled by the warnings brought by his assistant. “The work must go on,” he insisted. “We cannot afford to waste time.”

Half the night, the two of them labored over the new turbine. A few hours of sleep and they were back in the workshop engaged in ordinary steam engine construction along with the rest of the crew of workers. In the late afternoon, a neighbor entered with an important message.

“A sector assembly has been summoned for tonight at Valley Hall.” he told Abishai. “The judges of Samaria are all attending. Every house is obligated to send its master to hear what the officials have to say.”

When the man was gone, the master turned to Obed. “We will rest from testing tonight because I must be away. Why don’t you take a rest? Our work has been hard and tiring.”

Late that afternoon, the day crew left to go home. The master and his assistant ate supper together. “I want you to relax a bit,” said Gaal. “You can use my large lantern in the first cubicle should you wish to read.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Soon, Obed was alone in the front room, reading a scroll book entitled “The Bionomic Synecology of the Ephraim Highland.” It proved to be an absorbing topic for him, so that the evening passed rapidly by. He did not sense how late it was becoming when a grating noise attracted his attention. Obed looked up. Was there someone in the workshop? Perhaps the master was returning through the rear door. He put down the scroll book and rose to his feet. What if Abishai had changed his mind and wished to carry out more turbine work that night?

He walked to the back of the house. A feeling of alarm grew in the unconscious section of his mind, as if he already had a hint of what might be happening in the construction area back there.

A strong foul smell was coming out of the workshop.

Obed flung the door wide open with a forceful movement. He came to a sudden halt, looking out at a scene hard to make out at first.

A large figure stood beside the experimental turbine in the far corner. The room’s periphery was still in darkness but the moving shape was itself on fire. Bright flames surrounded the mechanism that Abishai Gaal had built there. But the person whirling about, his body burning, was not the master of the house. No, it was Doeg Than himself who was on fire.

Obed stood petrified as the Overseer flailed and struggled. It took him a short while to realize that the fire was spreading in all directions. The entire workshop would soon be destroyed.

Flames rose and subsided, leaving nothing on the floor untouched.

Obed felt a trembling sensation. Should he try to flee the burning giant, who was approaching? The official’s face was distorted horribly as Tahan pleaded for help. He moved his lips, trying to say something in his agony. Nothing proved audible. All his attempts to speak were futile.

Then he collapsed to the hard floor as the fire engulfed his entire body. The head hit with a hollow thud. The body ceased all movement.

Voices suddenly came from the front of the house. Neighbors rushed in, but it was too late to do anything for the man who had entered here for a secret inspection.

Abishai, his house and workshop gutted, moved into a cottage on the edge of Samaria. The city judges ordered his expulsion from the guild of steam engineers. He was held responsible for the death of the Overseer, having been careless of workshop safety. The hazardous condition was his fault alone, claimed the officials.

Obed visited his former employer as often as possible.

“I am studying stratigraphy at the School of Nature. My plan is to find prospecting work in the countryside. I will be hunting for usable gases as well as minerals and chemicals.”

Gaal looked away. “I should not have left the terebinthine in the turbine. I had no idea of the potential explosive force. Or that Tahan might open the lid with a lantern in his other hand.”

“The fire was really his responsibility, not yours, sir.”

Abishai’s coffee eyes darkened. “I have lost all hope of ever achieving my dream. It will be up to others like you to carry on with it.”

Obed reached out and clutched the other’s forearm, holding it tightly.

“Sooner or later, there will be a revolution of gas. Ephraim badly needs it.”

The pair looked at each other, sharing the same confident hope.

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