Chapter Nine
An Entirely Alien Approach

The Invisible Pipeline

(General Adminstration Archives - Case 1695 [Ref. No. D1174-498])

...... Red brick buildings with a patina of years-old grime, a snow-packed cobbled road which may have known shod hoofs and iron-tired wheels -- along the horizon stood white storage tanks, painted with mercury lights and patterned with red warning beacons. Somewhere in the distance, the diesels of a switch engine rumbled through the darkness. Dirt-blackened snowbanks lined the road and reflected splashes of bright blue light from several of the official cars parked ahead.
...... Jolting my way over frozen ruts, I finally stopped behind the police vehicles. An officer was beside my window before I had the parking brake set.
...... "I'm sorry sir. This street's closed to the public at this time. Police work in progress here."
...... "I'm Driver from Special Investigations." I checked my notebook for the name. "Called in by Lieutenant Browinski of the County Police."
...... The man pressed his uniform cap tighter against the breeze. "I don't think he's here now. Leave your Jeep parked here. I'll have you escorted to Captain Blund, in charge here now." He motioned with his flashlight, and a second officer seemed to materialize out of the snow flurries.
...... Running the window back up, I killed the ignition and stepped out, leaving the parking lights flashing to add amber and red highlights to the pulsing blue scene.
...... Packed snow along the sidewalks, melted here and there by exhaust pipes. Uneven stone steps cupping slushy pools. An old door which creaked its complaint, its varnish blotched and damp from the snow. Dim incandescent lights high above, providing only minimal illumination for the loose group of grim men, gathered midway along a grating-floored walkway which ran across the center of the big room.
...... "Browinski's not available," the older, gray-haired man answered. He glanced at his colleagues. "Special Investigations, you said? What does that do? I'm not familiar with it. Why did Browinski call you?"
...... "I don't know. All I had was a phone call message while on the road. No details." I waved a hand outward. "What's the problem here?"
...... "Very strange." He looked around once again and shifted his weight. "I'm not sure there's been a crime committed. Not sure at all. What's Special Investigations attached to? State?"
...... "It's a tiny special branch of the Feds," a voice answered from behind me. "It's okay. I know him."
...... A dapper, deceptively young-looking man was hold out his hand.
...... "Smith." The name came to me, along with an image of early morning on a back road through a swamp. "Agent John Smith." I shook his hand. "Long way from the Gulf, isn't it?"
...... "I was going to say the same thing," he offered, obviously pleased at being remembered after several months. "I've heard a little gossip about your outfit, and I think I know why you were called in." He moved slightly to look at the older man. "Excuse me, Captain. With your permission, I'll take him on a tour of this building. Most likely, he knows more about what's going on here than anyone else. Whether he'll admit it and explain anything is a different matter. We'll get our orders from above later."
...... Agreement was a nod and a gesture. Smith led the way across the grating floor, around a corner, and up a flight of metal stairs to a balcony fabricated from the same painted metal gridwork. Spread out in cramped confusion below us was a mass of vessels, conduits, pipes, hoses, columns, condensers, retorts, and ancillary equipment.
...... "So what do you think?" He sat on the top pipe of the railing, one foot securely locked around the next lower pipe.
...... "So they jumped to conclusions, decided it was illegal narcotics, and yelled for you."
...... He grinned and waved a finger. "Exactly right. And I really can't say I blame them for the mistake."
...... "If this place had a bow and a stern, they would have taken one look and called for a marine engineer. Since its on a concrete foundation, they looked for a specialist in designer drugs." I leaned on the railing and studied the gleaming equipment in silence.
...... He climbed down from his perch and turned to do the same. "In fact, I happened to be visiting my alma mater down the road for a short course. So they called me over. Partly the need for a specialist, but mostly convenience. But seeing this is worth missing the last part of a toxic materials seminar."
...... "The A.C.S. meeting." I looked carefully at him. "A colleague, and a Princeton grad too. I'm moving in high class company."
...... "Really? Surprising where one finds a chemist these days. Where from?"
...... "Aggie. But I did hear Doctor Cotton."
...... He cleared his throat and grinned. "Just a little outback Ag and Mech school you say." He gestured outward over the equipment. "What's your guess about what they're making here?"
...... "I suspect you already know." Before answering, I paused for another minute's look -- big batch reactors with stirring motors on top, programmed temperature controllers and headgas analysis instruments, slow-screw pumps and filter housings, automated control valves by the hundreds. "Biochemicals, most likely. Specialty items. Top line equipment, too. All this set someone back a bundle of cash. So what are they synthesizing?"
...... "Amino acids, polysaccharides, glycerides, miscellaneous esters, a few oddities, general organics of all types. Overall, not an inappreciable section of the Merck Index. All standard biochemicals. No narcotic precursors. And certainly no pattern anyone can recognize." He straightened and tugged on the bottom of his coat. "Next stop is four flights up. I hope you can use the exercise."
...... We both were breathing a trifle hard, when we reached the top landing. He turned the knob on an old wood door, not unlike those downstairs, and pushed into a small, brightly lit room.
...... I stopped in the doorway for a long look. "Does N.A.S.A. know about this?"
...... "Absolute state-of-the-art process control instrumentation." He settled into one of the four heavily upholstered operator's chairs and crossed his legs. "The main computer is triply redundant. Complete hands-off operation of the entire plant downstairs."
...... Leisurely touring the room, I studied the equipment lining the walls, before sitting down in the chair next over, in front of the the main C.R.T. display. The data displays were single-key operated from the large matrix of pushbuttons within easy reach of where I sat. All of the display switches were in standard engineering notation, and I pushed a few, cycling the display through a couple dozen control loop representations.
...... He idly swiveled his chair, rocking slightly and swinging one foot. "My guess is that they gutted the entire building and put in the process equipment, wiring, and plumbing on a single free-standing superstructure. It's complete with a noninterruptable emergency power supply."
...... I nodded and ran the C.R.T. display back to the master batch list, which was marked for both work-in-progress and batches waiting for equipment available. The emergency alarm display was blank, and a historical check showed no failure messages for the duration of the display file. I cleared the C.R.T. to the beginning of the primary loops display and leaned back in the very comfortable seat to stare at the acoustic ceiling panels and organize my thoughts.
...... "The raw materials are trucked in in bulk and loaded into tankage," he continued. "Empty fifty-five gallon drums and tops are trucked in and loaded by the truckers into a gravity-feed barrel rack. The rest of the job is untouched by human hands."
...... "Waste products removal?" I turned the seat to look again at the wall covered with muliplexor modules.
...... "Self-contained operation. The water is treated and dumped down the drain. The residuals from the treatment and any other alleged waste materials are themselves packed in drums and shipped out. The design of this place is amazing." He stopped swiveling in his chair. "You haven't asked me who owns this operation."
...... "I presume, if you knew that, I wouldn't have been called." I glanced over at him. "Total hands-off automation. If there isn't a breakdown, no one need enter the door downstairs. And with equipment this new, that isn't too likely."
...... "The owners of the company across the street thought this building belonged to the outfit next door. They, in turn, thought this place was operated by the company across the street. I'm opting for the Russians. Or maybe whatever you're dealing with. Probably the latter. We never would have known about it, if it weren't for a change in the fire districts. The new fire crew inspected each building in the area for familiarization and ran across this."
...... "Who trucks out the filled drums, and where do they go?" I hesitated a moment. "And my department had best be left unmentioned in any official context."
...... "You can say that again!" he laughed, standing and tugging once more at his coat. "I asked a couple of direct questions about your outfit and nearly was handed my head. As far as I'm concerned, you don't exist. Officially, I'm standing here talking to myself." He paused to run his hand down the back of his head. "So far, we haven't found anyone who trucked material out of here. And believe me, we've looked! So there's something else you need to see. Unluckily, it's in the basement, and whoever built this plant didn't install an elevator."
...... We hurried down the metal stairs, footsteps ringing on the structure. A heavy coating of dust came off on my hands, whenever I touched the handrail. Obviously, janitorial service wasn't included. "The air temperature in here is rather nice," I idly remarked.
...... "There's a furnace in the basement, and the thermostat is set for seventy-two." He stopped on the main floor to wave a hand at the guard before continuing on down. "Neither the plant equipment nor the instrumentation requires it. Likewise, the lights were on when this place was discovered by the fire crew. I can't think of any reason why." He chuckled. "And I know better than to ask you."
...... Scuffed stone flooring and brick walls, poorly lit by caged fixtures bolted to the gridwork overhead. A skid-mounted reverse-osmosis rig sat to one side, and a self-contained boiler installation was fitted into a convenient corner. Drums were stacked in orderly rows, waiting for their final disposition. He halted in front of a double pallet, which sat alone against the brickwork wall of the building's foundation.
...... "Open up," Smith ordered the two men present. "Another showing."
...... One man climbed onto the forklift, the only nonautomatic piece of equipment I'd seen so far, and moved the pallet. Behind it was a wide timber door with a large old-fashioned lock. Smith turned a key in the slot and pulled the door open with a magician's elaborate gesture.
...... The area behind the door was velvet-like blackness, as though a flat-black stage curtain was hanging there. No light was reflected back from it. The effect was unworldly.
...... Picking up a ten foot long section of light electrical conduit, he jabbed it into the velvety darkness. The pole seemed to be cut off flush at the strange curtain-like plane, but he still was braced against the conduit's full weight. "My second best theater trick," he remarked. I merely shook my head.
...... He pulled the conduit back and dropped it clattering onto the floor. "Can't feel anything by waving it around, either. Seen anything like it? Don't answer that."
...... "But I can. I've never seen anything even remotely approaching this."
...... "My first best trick." He picked up a flare from a box, flipped off the two caps, and struck the ignition surface. The red brilliance was blinding but only for a few seconds. He tossed it into the center of the blackness -- and it was gone. A fading odor of hot pitch was all which remained.
...... He gestured for the forklift driver to move the pallets back and for the other man to close and lock the door, before we retraced our way between the stacked drums.
...... "The foundation is fifty-four inches thick at that point." He started up the stairs and sighed. "I suppose we should've looked at the roof while we were up there. Anyway, give four inches for the casement and another four or so inches for at least one layer of brick on the outside. That leaves a maximum depth of forty-six inches for the niche, the one I just shoved over eight feet of pipe into. This building is constructed on a hillside, and the foundation at that point is above ground level on the outside. Tomorrow, make that later today, a team will drill in from outside, and then we'll see what the drill core shows." He waved again to the group on the main floor, as we continued up the staircase. "Downstairs probably is why Browinski called you in."
...... I slowed for a moment on the next landing. "Just where is Browinski?"
...... "Now that is the key question." He shrugged and started upward again. "When this place was investigated, he and two other men went down to the basement. He came racing back, ordering one man to guard the head of the stairs and the other to make an emergency call to your outfit, before hurrying downstairs again. After that? Care to make a guess?"
...... "No calls?"
...... He shook his head and paused to catch his breath outside of the control room. "No calls, no messages, no one's seen him, his car's still outside. That's why we decided to pile a good ton of weight against that door." He drew back the slide bolt on the metal-faced door opposite the control room, opened it, and motioned me through.
...... "A copy of your report to my office, if you would," I requested, before stopping after one pace.
...... He slipped outside from behind me. "Familiar, is it? This is one piece of hardware I can't make any sense out of. The pipe configuration goes nowhere." He shivered slightly in the damp, chill wind.
...... Glittering with reflections of the two mercury-vapor lamps, covering three-quarter of the available roof area, it perched on three-foot standoffs -- a miniature, exactly proportioned, pipeline antenna, configured as a closed rectangle with two crossbars. The right side was built of smaller diameter pipe, which entered the larger through white ceramic bushings. At each corner -- in bizarre parody of the refinery structures which dotted the horizon -- was a small, blinking, red warning light.

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