Charles Stross

The Revolution Business

(The Merchant Princes – 05)


empty quiver

The inspectors arrived before dawn. A convoy of six gray government cars pulling up at the east gate to the complex was the first warning anyone on site was permitted-and the two security police officers in the gate booth took it. 'Call Ops,' the older cop grunted, narrowing his eyes as the cars dimmed their headlights and queued up between the concrete barriers for inspection. 'Tell them we've got visitors.'

'Protesters?' The younger officer straightened up as he reached for the secure handset that tied the booth to the Operations Center. They'd had a problem with the peacenik protesters earlier in the year, some new folks from outside who'd tried to block traffic outside the perimeter, but mostly the protesters stuck to the Peace Farm round the far side of the site.

'Not likely.' He opened the door and stepped out into the twilight. After dark it cooled off-the open-oven-door temperatures of summer in Carson County had subsided to an arid stillness. Five hundred hours was dead time; the other eight officers who worked the entrance during the morning rush would still be signing in and getting their kit. His hand went to his two-way radio. 'Sergeant Brady on east gate two, requesting backup. Over.' He walked towards the first car. A silver-gray Continental with a minivan behind it. As he approached, the driver's door opened. Some instinct tipped him off. He straightened his back: 'Let me see your badge, sir!'

The driver stepped out and held up a badge. Blue, for Q-level access, Brady saw. 'I need to touch that, sir.'

'Of course.'

The driver was in his early thirties, with a certain look to him that gave Brady unpleasant flashbacks. The passenger seats were occupied, too. 'Everyone out.' Brady peered at the badge, and at the other federal ID the driver was holding. His handheld scanner said the badge was the real deal, so… 'There y'are, Agent Cruz.' He handed the badge back. There, let someone in Ops deal with this. 'I need to check everyone in person.'

That meant checking three cars and three minivans, and by the end of it Brady was in a cold sweat-not because of the work, but because of what it implied. Six FBI agents and four federal agents from the NNSA's Office of Secure Transportation was one thing, but there were another five close-faced men and women who didn't have any ID for him other than their Q-level site badges, and they seemed to be running this circus. Not my job to ask, Brady reminded himself dubiously, but someone's about to get a nasty shock. 'Welcome to Pantex, sir,' he said, walking back to Agent Cruz's car. 'Do you know who your assigned escort is? You're not on my roster.'

Cruz smiled humorlessly. 'I think it'll be whoever that is, over there.' Brady glanced round. The car was coming from the direction of Ops, clearly in a hurry. 'Meanwhile, our business is in Area Twelve and we will be wanting security to secure a particular building. You and Officer Nelson are due to be relieved in half an hour-sooner, now.'

Brady's two-way crackled: 'Brady to secure line, over.' 'You're coming with us.'

Rich Wall hung as far back as he could behind the NNSA muscle and the local Agency staffers, doing his best to people-watch without attracting the attention of the local officers, who were clearly not happy about their shift being extended without warning. Fascinating, he decided. They're all acting out. Nothing surprising there, of course-everyone from the NNSA agents to the site security commander would be on tenterhooks and trying to look as professional as possible-but if the colonel's tip-off panned out, it would make his job somewhat harder. He fingered his Q-level badge again, and waited for the RWI staffer to work her way along the line outside Access Control, pinning dosimeters to the visitors' jackets.

'Y'all been cleared for this visit already,' the staffer announced, her voice flat. 'Ah'm therefore assuming y'all have read and signed the radiological training test books. Ah just want to remind y'all to keep your hands to yourselves. Ah mean that. The things we store in this building are not toys. Sergeant.' She nodded at the older, grumpier security cop-who in his forage cap and desert camo looked a lot more like a soldier than a police officer. Wall noted the M16 on his shoulder. Definitely a soldier.

Maybe the colonel's wrong. Maybe it's just a bookkeeping error.

Having been thus admonished, it came as a minor anticlimax to be told to climb back in the car. 'Where now?' Rich asked as Lisa Chavez pulled on her seat belt.

'Now we play follow the leader.' She stared at the people-mover full of serious-minded FBI agents from Utah. 'Hope someone in this clusterfuck knows what they're doing. Hope somebody's wrong.'

'Why isn't Rand on this case?'

Chavez glanced at him sharply. 'You ask too many questions.'

Rich leaned back as she started the car's engine. 'Asking questions is my job.'

The convoy moved off slowly, hugging the shoulder of the narrow road in the thin dawn light. They drove for some minutes before stopping for another checkpoint in a chain-link fence. Sixteen thousand acres, thought Rich. More cops dressed as soldiers, armed like soldiers, checking badges and waving vehicles through, one at a time. Looks like Fort Meade, without the office blocks.

A big barn of a building loomed up on one side. Chavez followed the convoy into a wide doorway, then into an enclosed ramp-a corridor about five meters wide, lined with pipes and branch routes leading off to other buildings. Walls rolled past at walking pace. Air monitoring units at head height glowed steady green, like traffic lights: no tritium release, no alpha radiation. The Pantex plant sprawled across the Texas landscape north of Amarillo, almost the size of a city in its own right. But the inhabitants weren't anything you'd want for a neighbor.

After a half-hour-long eternity they rolled back out onto a strip of blacktop road, past a clump of low earth berms, and halted again outside another chain-link fence. This, too, was guarded: 'Everyone out,' crackled the radio on the dash.

'You heard the man.' Chavez opened her door. 'Come on.'

They were queuing up at a gate in the fence, being individually checked by officers with metal detectors. For a moment, Rich's spirits rose. Real security? But no. The colonel's right. They'd be totally unprepared.

There was a brief argument over some of the monitoring equipment, but in the end the NNSA specialists said something-Rich was too far away to hear-and one of the guards headed for a windowless but at the double, and when he came back they were allowed to proceed after opening the heavy cases for inspection. It's not as if we're taking anything out of here, after all.

'Welcome to Area Twelve,' said one of the NNRT staffers.

He gestured at the low earth berms around them. 'Doesn't look like much, does it?'

'Cut it out,' Cruz grunted. 'Which is Building Sixteen?'

'You're standing on its roof.' Cruz looked down as the staffer gestured at a windowless bunker. 'This way.'

Rich glanced back beyond the fence. 'Are we expecting visitors?' he murmured to Chavez.

'I don't think so.' She followed his gaze. 'Huh. Someone in Operations has finally woken up.'

Rich shook his head. 'Let's catch the floor show. This should be good.'

The secure storage vault was a concrete-lined tomb with two rows of six coffin-sized trapdoors in the floor separated by aisles a meter wide. A small forklift truck waited patiently under the ceiling, ready to lift the lids and raise their contents. Yellow guidelines painted on the concrete promised dire consequences for anyone who crossed them without due caution; more air filters and warning lamps hung from the walls, quiet sentinels keeping a graveyard watch.

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