Crude – Excerpt

Blood in the Water

THE SHARK HIT so hard he thought it was a ship keel out of the deep, its gritty hide rasping his thigh and its huge tail ripping a dive fin off his foot. He yanked a repellant tube from his divepack, fumbled and lost it, couldn’t see it in his headlamp, faced the shark but it wasn’t there, was above him, to the left, below, grinning jaws.

He dove, grabbing for the repellant, watching the shark. It attacked, feinted and dodged, the biggest tiger shark he’d ever seen. His hand bumped the repellant, knocking it away. He grasped for it, trying to circle to face the shark, to stay upright despite the missing fin. Don’t panic.

The shark dove, then rose toward him, teeth glinting in his headlamp. His wrist grazed the repellant, driving it lower. He snapped on his Orca torch, looked around frantically for Two, but the other diver wasn’t there.

Don’t panic.

He sank deeper. His face touched the tube. He grabbed and squeezed it, repellant blinding his mask. The shark circled once, slid into the depths.

The repellant faded. He coughed, realized he had spit out his mouthpiece. He shoved it in, gurgled water, coughed and spit it out.

His legs and feet were still there. The shark had just nicked him, tested him. Maybe it had smelled blood from when he’d torn his knee climbing out of the sub.

Or blood from someone else?

Where was Two?

The shark darted beneath him. He wanted to shine his torch at it, but that might attract it, anger it. He pulled in his legs and yanked out a second tube. Black repellant spurted out.

Don’t panic.

One tube left. The rebreather thundered with his panting. Larger and larger, the shark nosed toward him through clouds of repellant, crunching its jaws.

He ripped off his divepack, the rebreather hissing, and smashed the shark’s snout. It dove, tail slamming him sideways, swung round and began to circle him, closer and closer.

Don’t panic.

Faster the shark circled. With only one fin he couldn’t keep up; it would get him. He fired the last repellant.

It clouded the water and he couldn’t see the shark, only felt the crush of water as it smashed past, couldn’t hear over his own frantic gasps. Choking and crying, he shoved his arms back through the divepack straps, tugged up his legs against his body.

Beyond his torch light the watery darkness expanded forever. Without Two, how could he finish? Should he return to the sub? Maybe Two was already there, had abandoned the mission because of the shark? There’d been no message from the sub.

The water grew colder, darker; he was sinking too deep. The repellant was gone. With tiger sharks, he remembered, when there’s one, there’s many.

His watch showed 38 feet. He couldn’t see the shark. Fish schooled past, fusiliers or jacks.

01:52, the watch said. One hour left. If one diver didn’t reach the platform, the other had to do it alone. He turned to 347 degrees and began to swim, slowly kicking the one fin.

Above him the black waves glinted with light. He ached to go up, but the shark would attack if he rose to the top like a dying fish. He swam toward the light till it brightened the wavetops, then surfaced quickly to check his approach.

Before him, a wide platform of brilliant lights towered ten stories into the night, a glittering city on pylons over the waves, its gas flare blazing across the black sky.

A school of barracuda shot like missiles beneath him. He checked his watch: 02:03. He sank back into the gloom and swam northeast toward a huge metal strut descending into the sea. His first position – the southeast corner pylon.

In the oily rushing darkness there was no sign of Two. For an instant, he wondered who Two was – on missions like this you never knew the others’ names, you just had numbers.

Waves roiled round the pylon, greasy and oil-turbid, slamming him against the barnacles and clams on the steel. Bounced back and forth, he tried to set his course northwest at 320 degrees and almost swam into another strut of the pylon, so big it took him half a minute to go around it.

Fish struck his face – butterflies and angels and little trash feeders drawn to his headlamp.

The platform’s light dissolved down through the oily water. 02:19. He sank below it, watching for the shark, for sea snakes and scorpion fish.

At the platform’s center, a huge cluster of four pipes descended straight down. They roared with the gas rushing up them toward the platform above.

Easy part now. He touched a pipe, then yanked back his hand. That gas comes out of the earth at boiling point. And a burn attracts sharks just like blood.

He was losing it, too worried about the shark, about Two.

Don’t panic.

Above him, waves lashed the pylons, fell back on themselves and raveled on. Oil streaked the surface, distorting the light from the platform’s flare. How strange, he thought, to bore into the earth. Suck life from the past. And burn it in the sky.

He dove down the pipes to fifty feet, where a great steel ring clamped the four pipes together. The bolts on each flange were big as his head. He unslung the divepack and took out a heavy package. It was solid, malleable, crescent-shaped, as long as his forearm. He pinned it into place under the lower flange, near one of the four hot pipes.

He placed a second charge against the upper flange. Unrolling the coil of wire that linked them to two other charges from his pack, he swam a third of the way around the pipes till the wire grew taut, and fitted the two other charges above and below the flange.

On the unrolled wire midway between the two pairs of charges was a water-sealed box like a soap dish that he tucked under the flange. He ran his finger and thumb along each wire; there were no kinks, no cuts.

02:47 – ahead of schedule, despite the shark. Even without Two.

When his watch hit 02:55, he pushed a two-inch button on the right side of the water-sealed box, then swam up to twenty feet below surface and southward from the platform, rechecking his watch often for depth and direction. He craved to shine down his torch to check for the shark, but that would only attract it.

Don’t panic.

You can do this in your sleep. In seven minutes you’ll be back in the sub. Fuck Two.

Far below, a huge shape crossed the deep. No, he begged. Please no. He lit the torch. The shape undulated onward, trailing phosphorescence. A giant squid.

But now he’d turned on his torch.

Southern Cross

ON THE CATWALK of the Makassar gas platform’s third deck, Liz Chaplin leaned her elbows on the damp rail, watching the Southern Cross sink toward the western horizon.

How distant the planets were, yet so close. How far more distant were the stars. Space so endlessly deep, inconceivably far. And what you see now had happened millions of years ago, had taken all that time for their light to get here. And all that time like space, unending.

Below the catwalk, the moonlit waves rolled steadily southward, breaking whitely around the platform pylons. The warm wind out of the Celebes fifty miles to the east tasted of jungle, fruit, and flowers. It eddied round her ankles and rose under her loose dress up the insides of her thighs.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, the song goes, you’ll understand why you came this way. She’d always loved the pure beauty of the song but now felt she understood its meaning as the songwriter had said: using the power of the universe to heal your wounds.

Out here in the middle of the ocean, you felt the power of the universe. But what was this power? What wounds was she trying to heal?

03:14. At 04:30 on the mainland the mosques would turn on the first tape of the day: Wake up and pray. You could almost hear them, way out here.

She distracted herself thinking what time it was in Anchorage. How funny that back there it was still yesterday, barely noon.

Anchorage in October, sidewalks slippery with icy slush, a white fog roiling off the water. Fourteen hours of darkness a day.

She hugged her arms, chafing them with cold palms, and ran a finger along the rail, raking off dew that splattered at her feet. She glanced along the fluorescent gangway to the crew quarters. The blue aura of a television flickered against a wall, the men from the late shift watching baseball playoffs. Those who had replaced them in the control room overhead sat at computer banks studying the constant stream of data on gas volumes, pipe pressures, temperatures, CO2 and water content, glycol supply, and the thousands of other fluctuating parameters of this towering industrial city, along with the great Gencom printers that spit every fact and figure out in black and white. A wall of transmitters pulsed it up to the stars, the satellites sending it instantly to Jakarta and to the world headquarters of Rawhide Energy in New York.

The gas platform was one life, off-platform another. You could feel so close to people on the platform, but know so little of their other lives. The men seemed more solitary; the women were more confiding in each other. But there were only four other women: two engineers, the assistant chef in the kitchen, and a tattooed computer techie so introverted she could go for days without speaking.

After a few weeks here, you no longer even heard the howl of gas rushing up the pipes from far below the sea, the rumbling thunder of the huge separators sucking oil and water from the gas and forcing the gas into the monstrous intestines of pipe that snaked, humming with power, up to the jet compressor trains that scrubbed, recompressed, chilled, dehydrated, and punched it into another pipeline down across the seabed to Borneo.

Nor did she even notice anymore the constant roar of flames far overhead – the gas flare atop the stack – bright enough to be seen from orbit – burning methane but creating millions of tons of CO2, and used as a potential escape valve for the gas if something went wrong on the platform.

But nothing ever went wrong on the platform. It made her feel pride for the human genius that had built this three-billion-dollar, ten-thousand-ton colossus like a skyscraper on the sea floor, its eight gas wells driving down two miles through the earth, able to find a reservoir of gas or oil in a space as small as a suitcase up to a depth of three miles.

That was her job. As a Rawhide senior geologist, she analyzed the seismic data and well logs and told her bosses where to find oil and gas. They spent millions of dollars to drill exactly where she told them. Nearly always she was right.

Three-fifteen in the morning here meant eight-fifteen p.m. yesterday in London, the cold wind biting down the Thames. In four hours, she’d be on the 07:05 chopper across the Makassar Strait to Kalimantan, the 09:30 Garuda Airlines flight to Jakarta, noon out of Jakarta on Singapore Airlines, London by nine p.m. tomorrow. A few weeks in the cold mists of London to remind her why she lived in Indonesia. Or if she’d wanted, a few weeks in the Caribbean, Réunion, anywhere.

She could go anywhere but was damned if she cared.

“WE’RE ABOUT TO HAVE A NUCLEAR WAR.” Ross Bullock looked out at the journalists crowded into Rawhide Energy’s Wall Street press auditorium.

There was a shocked silence, then a rustling of chairs as the journalists faced him. This wasn’t just another Wall Street dog-and-pony show worth five paras in tomorrow’s business news. Ross, the CEO of Rawhide Energy and the son of its founder, had invited members of every prominent news organization in the country to hear him make the most important announcement he had ever, would ever, make as both an international business leader and an American.

“The US-Russian war in Ukraine will soon go nuclear. Ukraine has clearly lost, but the White House refuses to admit it or to agree to peace talks. And now with war escalating in the Middle East, the likelihood of it all becoming nuclear is so obvious that at Rawhide Energy we feel it essential for human survival to raise this issue as publicly as we can.

“As you probably know, we have refused to comply with sanctions against Russia. Among all the people we’ve ever worked with, all over the world, the Russians are probably the most like us Americans. They’re friendly, hard-working, cooperative, and kind. They very much love their families and their country. They are world leaders in science, engineering, medicine, space research, music, literature, art, and many other fields. They’ve been honorable partners in a number of our international projects. And about this war and its horrendous dangers for the world, our government bears much of the responsibility.”

The journalists shuffled papers, glanced at one another, looked back to him.

“And now that this Third World War has expanded to the Middle East, if we don’t stop now, it will soon kill us all. We can stop it; we can avoid destroying nearly all of life on Earth.” He paused for a sip of water to let the words sink in.

“Again, as most of you know, the real cause of the US-Russian war in Ukraine goes back to the 1990s, when we promised Russia there would be no NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. Instead we have expanded NATO to Russia’s boundaries, surrounded Russia with nuclear missiles, built bioweapons labs and CIA training camps on its borders, and have turned the Ukrainians into mercenaries against their own kin. Every attempt by Russia to resolve this problem, at the UN and other forums, has been ignored. Every Russian request for friendship or closer alliances with the West has been rejected by the U.S. In the spring of 2014, Russia invaded Crimea because we had instructed Ukraine to cut off Russia’s access to Sebastopol, Russia’s most essential historic port. We spent five billion dollars in our 2014 coup that overthrew Ukraine’s popularly elected, pro-Russian government. This warlike, illegal coup was ordered by president Obama and engineered by Victoria Nuland, who way back in 2003 engineered with Bush and Cheney the tragic invasion of Iraq. At that point she should have been arrested for war crimes, but instead was appointed by president Biden as Undersecretary of State, and only recently fired. She is responsible, worldwide, for over two million civilian deaths, plus a hundred thousand U.S. military deaths. You can look it up. In the entire history of the United States, no woman has killed more people than Victoria Nuland.”

The journalists watched him, silent and disinterested.

“These are but a few of our U.S. provocations against Russia since we promised them peace at the end of the Cold War – provocations contrary to every agreement we ever signed with them. Most of you know this, so why not speak about it? Isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do?”

He stared at them, hoping for a response. There was nothing. “If we had kept our promises, kept our side of the bargain, we wouldn’t be facing nuclear annihilation today.

“Our lives, our families, our civilization, and all life on earth may soon be destroyed. The U.S. and Russia have more than 11,000 nuclear weapons, which will kill all life on this planet many times over. In a nuclear war, every city and town in the U.S., Europe and Asia will be vaporized in a fire five times hotter than the center of the sun, exploding at warp speed incinerating everything. Billions of people atomized, billions more dying in agony from burns and radiation . . . Countless trillions of tons of fiery radioactive debris – tiny bits of people, cities, highways, forests, farms – choking the skies for decades and turning most of the earth into a darkened frozen ball. With no survivors.”

THREE STORIES BENEATH the metal grid at Liz’s feet, the dark sea rippled, supple and restless. She imagined it down to the bottom, then down through two more miles of sand, boulders, mud, and dead vegetation to a coastal river she had discovered that had been buried for over a hundred million years. And then the ancient sea floors below it, that had been built over eons from infinite skeletons of diatoms and other microorganisms. And that made crude, which ran the world.

I can read the depths of the earth, she thought. Why can’t I see inside myself?

Who is there?

The deck snapped sideways, knocked her head into the rail, and smashed her up into the catwalk above. A horrible explosion crushed her ears, flashed the night red, and blew struts of blazing steel into the sky. Flames and boiling steam howled through the crew quarters. Someone dashed out the door toward her. His body exploded off the catwalk.

Rivers of oil blazed over the sea; streams of fire pirouetted into the sky. People dove out windows and tumbled in flames off the catwalks into the ocean far below.

Her hair afire, she ran toward the crew quarters. Its walls convulsed then blew outward and spun into the sea. She stumbled across the compressor deck, metal chunks crashing down, globs of molten condensate. Someone lay under a hot steel wall; she pulled his hand but his arm fell off and she could not drag him out.

Metal beams screeched, wrenched apart and collapsed, seething, into the sea. A cast iron compressor wall came crunching down.

From this deck it was two decks down to the wellheads, where the gas coming up from the sea might possibly be shut off. She ran to the stairwell but the stairs were gone, and the catwalks below. A siren was howling Abandon Platform. Gas-filled pipes were blowing like bombs, the air humming with flying metal. If the main gas lines go, she realized, it all explodes.

She slid down a hot girder to the deck below. The wellhead deck was gone, columns of flame roaring out of the sea. There were no wellheads left to shut off. She leaped down a hundred feet into the red, roaring sea.