THE FRONT-END loader let out a throaty blat as it struggled up the hill, a charcoal geyser streaming from its exhaust pipe. When it reached the top, a load of dirt avalanched out of its toothy bucket, and Donald saw that the loader wasn’t climbing the hill so much as creating it.
Hills of fresh dirt were taking shape like this all over the site. Between them — through temporary gaps left open like an ordered maze — burdened dump trucks carried away soil and rock from the cavernous pits being hollowed from the earth. These gaps, Donald knew from the topographical plans, would one day be pushed closed, leaving little more than a shallow crease where each hill met its neighbour.
Standing on one of these growing mounds, Donald watched the ballet of heavy machinery while Mick Webb spoke with a contractor about the delays. In their white shirts and flapping ties, the two congressmen seemed out of place. The men in hard hats with the leather faces, calloused hands and busted knuckles belonged there. He and Mick, blazers tucked under their arms, sweat stains spreading in the humid Georgia heat, were somehow — nominally, at least — supposed to be in charge of that ungodly commotion.
Another loader released a mound of soil as Donald shifted his gaze towards downtown Atlanta. Past the massive clearing of rising hills and over the treetops still stripped bare from fading winter rose the glass-and-steel spires of the old Southern city. An entire corner of sparsely populated Fulton County had been cleared. Remnants of a golf course were still visible at one end where the machines had yet to disturb the land.
Down by the main parking lot, a staging zone the size of several football fields held thousands of shipping containers packed with building supplies, more than Donald thought necessary. But he was learning by the hour that this was the way of government projects, where public expectations were as high as the spending limits. Everything was done in excess or not at all. The plans he had been ordered to draw up practically begged for proportions of insanity, and his building wasn’t even a necessary component of the facility. It was only there for the worst-case scenario.
Between Donald and the field of shipping containers stood a sprawling city of trailers; a few functioned as offices, but most of them served as housing. This was where the thousands of men and women working on the construction could ditch their hard hats, clock off and take their well-earned rest.
Flags flew over many of the trailers, the workforce as multinational as an Olympic village. Spent nuclear fuel rods from the world over would one day be buried beneath the pristine soil of Fulton County. It meant that the world had a stake in the project’s success. The logistical nightmare this ensured didn’t seem to concern the back-room dealers. He and Mick were finding that many of the early construction delays could be traced to language barriers, as neighbouring work crews couldn’t communicate with one another and had evidently given up trying. Everyone simply worked on their set of plans, heads down, ignoring the rest.
Beside this temporary city of tin cans sat the vast parking lot he and Mick had trudged up from. He could see their rental car down there, the only quiet and electric thing in sight. Small and silver, it seemed to cower among the belching dump trucks and loaders on all sides. The overmatched car looked precisely how Donald felt, both on that little hill at the construction site and back at the Hill in Washington.
‘Two months behind.’
Mick smacked him on the arm with his clipboard. ‘Hey, did you hear me? Two months behind already, and they just broke ground six months ago. How is that even possible?’
Donald shrugged as they left the frowning foremen and trudged down the hill to the parking lot. ‘Maybe it’s because they have elected officials pretending to do jobs that belong to the private sector,’ he offered.
Mick laughed and squeezed his shoulder. ‘Jesus, Donny, you sound like a goddamned Republican!’
‘Yeah? Well, I feel like we’re in over our heads here.’ He waved his arm at the depression in the hills they were skirting, a deep bowl scooped out of the earth. Several mixer trucks were pouring concrete into the wide hole at its centre. More trucks waited in line behind them, their butts spinning impatiently.
‘You do realise,’ Donald said, ‘that one of these holes is going to hold the building they let
Mick’s fingers dug painfully into Donald’s neck. ‘Take it easy. Don’t go getting all philosophical on me.’
‘I’m being serious,’ Donald said. ‘Billions of taxpayer dollars are gonna nestle in the dirt out there in the shape that
‘Christ, this isn’t about you or your plans.’ He popped Donald with the clipboard and used it to point towards the container field. Through a fog of dust, a large man in a cowboy hat waved them over. ‘Besides,’ Mick said, as they angled away from the parking lot, ‘what’re the chances anyone even uses your little bunker? This is about energy independence. It’s about the death of coal. You know, it feels like the rest of us are building a nice big house over here, and you’re over in a corner stressing about where you’re gonna hang the fire extinguisher—’
Mick laughed. ‘Not for long it wouldn’t. Not if you designed it.’
The man in the cowboy hat drew closer. He smiled widely as he kicked through the packed dirt to meet them, and Donald finally recognised him from TV: Charles Rhodes, the governor of Oklahoma.
‘You Senator Thawman’s boys?’
Governor Rhodes had the authentic drawl to go with the authentic hat, the authentic boots and the authentic buckle. He rested his hands on his wide hips, a clipboard in one of them.
Mick nodded. ‘Yessir. I’m Congressman Webb. This is Congressman Keene.’
The two men shook hands. Donald was next. ‘Governor,’ he said.
‘Got your delivery.’ He pointed the clipboard at the staging area. ‘Just shy of a hundred containers. Should have somethin’ rollin’ in about every week. Need one of you to sign right here.’
Mick reached out and took the clipboard. Donald saw an opportunity to ask something about Senator Thurman, something he figured an old war buddy would know.
‘Why do some people call him Thawman?’ he asked.
Mick flipped through the delivery report, a breeze pinning back the pages for him.
‘I’ve heard others call him that when he wasn’t around,’ Donald explained, ‘but I’ve been too scared to ask.’
Mick looked up from the report with a grin. ‘It’s because he was an ice-cold killer in the war, right?’
Donald cringed. Governor Rhodes laughed.
‘Unrelated,’ he said. ‘True, but unrelated.’
The governor glanced back and forth between them. Mick passed the clipboard to Donald, tapped a page that dealt with the emergency housing facility. Donald looked over the materials list.
‘You boys familiar with his anti-cryo bill?’ Governor Rhodes asked. He handed Donald a pen, seemed to expect him to just sign the thing and not look over it too closely.
Mick shook his head and shielded his eyes against the Georgia sun. ‘Anti-cryo?’ he asked.
‘Yeah. Aw, hell, this probably dates back before you squirts were even born. Senator Thawman penned the bill that put down that cryo fad. Made it illegal to take advantage of rich folk and turn them into ice cubes. It went to the big court, where they voted five–four, and suddenly tens of thousands of popsicles with more money than sense were thawed out and buried proper. These were people who’d frozen themselves in the hopes that doctors from the future would discover some medical procedure for extracting their rich heads from their own rich asses!’
The governor laughed at his own joke and Mick joined him. A line on the delivery report caught Donald’s eye. He turned the clipboard around and showed the governor. ‘Uh, this shows two thousand spools of fibre optic. I’m pretty sure my plans call for forty spools.’
‘Lemme see.’ Governor Rhodes took the clipboard and procured another pen from his pocket. He clicked the top of it three times, then scratched out the quantity. He wrote in a new number to the side.
‘Wait, will the price reflect that?’
‘Price is the same,’ he said. ‘Just sign the bottom.’
‘Son, this is why hammers cost the Pentagon their weight in gold. It’s government accounting. Just a signature, please.’
‘Oh, that’s all right.’ Rhodes took the clipboard and pinched the brim of his hat. ‘I’m sure they’ll find a use for it somewhere.’
‘Hey, you know,’ Mick said, ‘I remember that cryo bill. From law school. There were lawsuits, weren’t there? Didn’t a group of families bring murder charges against the Feds?’
The governor smiled. ‘Yeah, but it didn’t get far. Hard to prove you killed people who’d already been pronounced dead. And then there were Thawman’s bad business investments. Those turned out to be a lifesaver.’
Rhodes tucked his thumb in his belt and stuck out his chest.
‘Turned out he’d sunk a fortune into one of these cryo companies before digging deeper and reconsidering the…
Mick and the governor laughed. Donald didn’t see what was so funny.
‘All right, now, you boys take care. The good state of Oklahoma’ll have another load for ya in a few weeks.’
‘Sounds good,’ Mick said, grasping and pumping that huge Midwestern paw.
Donald shook the governor’s hand as well, and he and Mick trudged off towards their rental. Overhead, against the bright blue Southern sky, vapour trails like stretched ropes of white yarn revealed the flight lines of the numerous jets departing the busy hub of Atlanta International. And as the throaty noise of the construction site faded, the chants from the anti-nuke protestors could be heard outside the tall mesh of security fences beyond. They passed through the security gate and into the parking lot, the guard waving them along.
‘Hey, you mind if I drop you off at the airport a little early?’ Donald asked. ‘It’d be nice to get a jump on traffic and get down to Savannah with some daylight.’
‘That’s right,’ Mick said with a grin. ‘You’ve got a hot date tonight.’
‘Sure, man. Abandon me and go have a good time with your wife.’
Mick fished out the keys to the rental. ‘But you know, I was really hoping you’d invite me to come along. I could join you two for dinner, crash at your place, hit some bars like old times.’
‘Not a chance,’ Donald said.
Mick slapped the back of Donald’s neck and squeezed. ‘Yeah, well, happy anniversary anyway.’
Donald winced as his friend pinched his neck. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I’ll be sure to give Helen your regards.’