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Merchant Princes #06: The Trade of Queensby Charles Stross
Morning, July sixteenth.
In a locked store room on the eighth—top—floor of a department store off Pennsylvania Avenue, a timer counted down towards zero.
Another timer matched its progress—in a janitors store on the top floor of a museum building near the Mall, behind a door jammed by cyanoacrylate glue in the lock and hinges.
And unfathomably far away, on a scaffold by the swampy banks of a slow-moving river, two men labored over a third timer, readying it for delivery to a target in the looking-glass world of the United States of America.
Nobody understood yet, but the worlds were about to change.
Four hundred miles from D.C., in a quiet residential street in Boston, the first bomb of the day detonated.
It wasnt a very large bomb—just a repurposed concussion grenade—but it was right under the drivers seat of the parked Saturn it was attached to. There was a bright flash; every window shattered as the car heaved on its suspension. Mike Fleming, standing in his doorway with keyfob remote raised, had no time to blink; the pressure wave shoved him backward and he stumbled, falling against the doorframe. In the ringing moment of silence after the blast, car alarms went off up and down the street and panicking dogs added their voices to the chorus. The hot yellow light of burning plastic and seat cushions filtered through the empty windows of the car, warmth beating on Mikes face as he struggled to work out why he was sitting down with his legs askew, why the back of his head hurt—
They want me dead, he realized, coldly. Then: Dr. James screwed up. It was an easy mistake to make. The technician whod planted the bomb had meant to wire it to the ignition circuit, but theyd got the central locking instead. The fine art of car bombing had gotten positively esoteric in the past few years, with the proliferation of in-car electronics, remote-control engine starters, and other bells and whistles; and US government agents were more used to defusing the things than planting them. Then: But that means theyre complicit for sure. The thought was shocking. Its Operation Northwoods, only this time theyre doing it for real.
Mike reached up gingerly and felt the back of his head. There was going to be a nasty lump in a few hours, but his fingers came away dry. No bleeding. Taking stock, limb by limb, he took deep breaths, pushing down the wave of impending panic. Im alive, he told himself. Shaken but intact. Hed been lucky; if he hadnt changed the batteries in his keyfob remote three months ago he might have been closer to the car, or even reduced to using the door key, with fatal results. As he stood up, something crunched underfoot. Fragments from the rear window, pea-sized pellets of safety glass. Bending down stiffly, he picked up his go-bag. His leg twinged hard inside its cast. What now? Clear the killing zone, the instructors had insisted, years before. But theyd been talking about a different kind of ambush—a car bomb was a passive trap. Probably they were relying on it. Probably . . . Mike pulled his pistol from the bag and duck-walked towards the street, edging around the burning car as he scanned for threats. In the distance, a siren began to scream.
Less than twenty seconds had elapsed.
"Duty Chief? This is the major. I have some orders for you. The day code is: Echo, Golf, Zulu, Xray, five, nine, Bravo. Did you get that?"
"Yes, my lord. One moment… yes, that is correct. What do you have for me?"
"Flash priority message to all Internal Security posts. Message begins: Traitors to the Clan have activated Plan Blue without authorization. Any security officers in possession of special weapons are to secure and disarm them immediately. Anyone not in possession but with knowledge of the disposition of special weapons must report to me immediately. Use of lethal force to secure and disarm special weapons in the possession of unauthorized parties is approved." Riordan swallowed and shifted his grip on the cell phone. "Anyone who is unaware of Plan Blue or the nature of the special weapons—you should execute Plan Black immediately. I repeat, Plan Black, immediate effect. Order ends. Please copy."
The stunned silence at the other end of the connection lasted almost a second. "My lord. Plan Blue? Plan Black?"
"Copy, damn your eyes!"
"Sir." The duty officer pulled himself together: "I copy . . ." He repeated Riordans orders. "Ill put that out immediately, by your leave?"
"Do it. Riordan out."
He closed the phone with a snap and glanced sidelong at Lady Olga. She was staring across her seat back at Miriam, who was talking intently into her own phone, her face a study in strain. He opened his mouth, but she raised a finger. Half a minute passed as their driver, Alasdair, carried them ever closer to the turnpike; then Miriam held the phone away from her face and shook her head. "Trash," she said, holding it out to Brill, who popped the battery before sliding it into a waste bag. "We are so fucked," she said tonelessly.
"Plan Black?" Olga raised an eyebrow.
"What did Mr. Fleming say?" asked Riordan, ignoring her to focus on Miriam.
"Its—" Miriam shook her head, punch-drunk. "Crazy talk. He says Dr. James works for the vice president! And hes been in collusion with someone in the Clan for years! Its insane! He said something about tapes, and about them wanting an excuse, a Pearl Harbor."
"Can Fleming do anything for us?" Riordan stared at Miriam as she shook her head again. "Why not?"
"He says hes disposable. Hes going to try and find someone to talk to, but theres no point going through the chain of command. Were trying to negotiate with people who want us dead—tell me its not true?"
"Figures," Olga said tartly. Everyone stared at her—even Sir Alasdair, by way of the rearview mirror.
"What do you mean, my lady?" Riordans return to exaggerated courtesy was a sign of stress, screamingly clear to Miriam even in her punch-drunk state.
"Weve been looking for a second mole, ever since Matthias went over the wall, nearly a year ago. But we havent been looking very hard, if you follow. And I heard rumors about there being a former politician, now retired, chief executive of a major logistics corporation, who was cooperating with us to provide doppelgangered locations and distribution hubs, back in the good years, in the late eighties and early nineties. The West Coast operation—back when WARBUCKS was out of politics. Before his comeback as VP. The crown fits, does it not?"
"But why—" This from Brilliana, unable to contain her curiosity.
"We dont work with politicians," Riordan said tiredly. "Its too hard to tell good from bad—the ones who stay bought from the ones who dont. Theres too much potential for blowback, as the CIA can attest. But WARBUCKS was out of politics, wasnt he?"
Miriam nodded, brooding. "He was in the wilderness until . . ." Her eyes widened. "Oof. So, he got a second start in politics, and the duke would have pulled the plug. Am I right? But then Matthias went over the wall, and his report would have ended up where WARBUCKS—or one of his people—could read it, and hed have to take out Matthias and then try to—oh no—"
"Hed have to try to kill us all," Olga finished the sentence, nodding, "or not even BOY WONDER could keep him from impeachment, yes? Our mole, for whom we have not been looking with sufficient vigor, isnt a low-level functionary; hes the vice president of the United States. And now he fears exposu
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