Karl Fredrick Muller looked out from the control room out onto the factory floor; his factory floor. The breakthrough of his molecular assembler had netted him this position. Funding to see his idea refined and put into use was always a wonderful thing for a graduate student. Seeing his invention used to produce Sarin in the other hand, not so much.
One of the advantages of making it this way instead of more classic chemical reactors was the purity. Classical production always left you with chemical byproducts, half reacted products and contaminants. This lead to instability, spontaneous degradation, and decreased lethality. But assembled here, atom by atom, the output was pure, stable, and as efficient as was possible under the laws of physics and chemistry. Even with a slew of refinements and innovations, the molecular assembler could only produce so fast, and so hundreds of assemblers were operating in parallel, meeting demands via sheer brute force.
In between supply visits and supervising repairs, the position he had once welcomed as another stepping stone had proven to be a plateau. There was little notice or recognition when things were running smoothly, just an occasional "good work!" message that felt like it was an automated script. He chuckled harshly as he remembered last month's big scare. SPM Rollen and PM (ex Marshal) Yakir were going to be visiting! Full inspection tour! No shelf left undusted, no doorknob unpolished! It had been a week of sheer unbridled terror as the entire facility was scoured, cleaned, organized... and then to hear privately, on need to know basis (of course!) that neither would be visiting at all. And to tell anyone who asked who didn't have VERY specific clearance that they indeed had been there. Karl had signed off on a ream of paperwork; inspection reports, conversations and findings that all stated they HAD been there. He chuckled in a frustratedly amused sound as he recalled his own inspection. One saving grace of faking your inspection was you could make sure you passed! With just a few small improvement opportunities to make it look legitimate.
Leni Romott was here because of one of those opportunities. There was just enough extra work to warrant having another warm body here, a fresh grad student to help manage the production and give a little bit of work experience. Classified work experience always did look good on the graduation paperwork; it showed you hold a security clearance instead of just working. And if Leni was very lucky, she might find a new place to work once her practicum was over.
But that meant it was still deathly boring, and Leni had spent most of her spare time drawing sketches in her workbook and pondering possible research projects for when she was free.
"So... I was thinking..."
Karl looked over at Leni. "Yes?"
"So we have these assemblers that can build just about any chemical structure we choose, yes?"
"And we have a pretty good understanding of quantum engineering thanks to that computer we salvaged, and those clocks we built for the navy."
"Yeah. Its crude, but yeah we know a bit."
"So why haven't we tried to build a universal constructor?"
Karl paused a moment at that thought. "You mean like a nanoassembler? Grey goo, that kind of thing?"
"Exactly! Why not?"
"Because that kind of thing requires insane precision, a lot of complex components, and a... sterile, controlled environment..." His eyes looked over at the arrays of nanoassemblers quietly churning away.
"Exactly my thoughts! Look, we're building something a few magnitudes larger than we know these assemblers can do. We have the ability to mass produce some of the internal components, but we could never assemble them correctly."
"But now-" Karl continued, sounding and feeling like the bright eyed and bushy tailed undergraduate he once had been "we can use the nanoassemblers to put those parts together. Say we use an array of them to build the framework-" he began to sketch out a production diagram "and then hand off the frames to another assembler. We inject prefabbed cpu chips in-"
Leni cut him off excitedly "yeah, on a gel carrier to make it easier to pump and pad against damage. Power them via a short range rectenna?"
"Definitely. Forget about an internal power supply. Too complicated. Range only has to be a few feet, and that also keeps the grey goo thing to a minimum. Things go wrong, cut the power and it becomes useless powder."
"And if they become truly dangerous, overload them and melt out the circuitry."
"And once we've built the first few dozen, we could use them to assemble more. Under strict external control of course."
"Yeah, this would work. This can work!"
Karl smiled. He had found a way out of the factory and back to civilization.
Already the first rock began to tumble downhill.