Western Kansas High Plains
March 21, 2003
The drill site was bright under low, freezing clouds--even brighter than full daylight would be in such weather. The glow of gravlumes made it an island of brilliance, even in the middle of wind-flurry night. Bright light, Spangler thought, but colder than a well-digger's ass. Right now his own--and everything else about him--was cold to the bone.
Throughout the day a strong, ice-fanged north wind had whined across the wide plains. The sullen, dry snowfall that came with darkness only made it worse. Hard little flakes rattled against his parka hood like birdshot as he made the rounds of his meter route for the third time this shift. The only windbreak between Deep Hole and the North Pole, some of the crew had decided, was the chain-link fence by the motor pool.
Usually, the field meters were read once per shift, but something was going on in the hole. Whatever their sensors were telling them upstairs, they wanted data confirmation. Pressures, temperatures, mudflow, and soundings--it was getting hot and heavy in the hole, and the drillers were excited. The drill stem was doing strange things, and all the shifts were on alert. Just in the past hour, three copters had landed at the HQ pad.
On the platform high above him, horns blared again and signals flashed, like myriad little lightnings in the bright snow mist overhead. He thought of blowout warnings he had seen in other times, on ordinary bores. But this was no ordinary bore. This was geodetic-tectonic exploration on a grand scale. This was Deep Hole, and it was the fifth time tonight that the alarms had gone off. Through the fitful, gusting snowfall, he saw people hurrying here and there--off-shift floormen and derrickmen mingling with geologists, tectonists, theoretic physicists, and others whose functions he had heard but never understood.
As he approached the bank of thump recorders near the main lift someone jostled him and he stepped aside. For a moment, big blue eyes flashed at him from the fleece-lined hood of an oversize parka. "Excuse me," she said, and hurried on. Delilah, Spangler thought. Dr. Delilah Creighton. Another hustling figure in a nylon parka, one of the day people. He had seen her often in the past few months, coming on shift as he went off, but she didn't always wear the parka. More often, she wore faded sweats or a T-shirt and jeans.
He read the seismometers mechanically, feeding their data into his electronic clipboard while he logged in his readings by compact phone. Then he headed for the next bank. Passing a rank of field floods he glanced sourly at the brilliant globes on their little mushroom-shaped pedestals. How many times, during these past three winters, had he paused instinctively before one of these ubiquitous gravlume globes as though to warm himself in its rays?
But the damn things didn't make enough heat to thaw a snowflake. Just light. "The wonders of modern science," Spangler muttered. "Whatever became of incandescence and vapor arcs and radiant heat?" Still, the little lamps were the perfect light. They were everywhere, and they could be anywhere, without cords or circuit plugs, without the sky web of power lines that so many electric lights would have required.
In just the past few years, Frank gravlumes had virtually replaced both electrical and fuel-fed illumination devices across large portions of the world. Simple, efficient, and self-activating, the Frank Inertial Reaction Energy light was a technological paradigm, as revolutionary in its way as the wheel, the internal combustion engine, and the microchip. The device had been compared to both safety pins and sliced bread in the simplicity of its function. It utilized inertia to generate compaction-illumination, literally converting the force of gravity into light. And it maintained itself by simultaneously reversing the process.
Not perpetual energy, but perpetual regeneration--just like the universe itself.
A decade earlier, nobody had ever heard of gravlumes. Now they were everywhere. And here, on the open plains where Project Deep Hole was under way, the globes shone like thousands of bright stars lighting a square mile of short-grass prairie and everything upon it.
Now in its third year of exploratory drilling, Deep Hole had spawned a sprawling, self-contained community of nearly a thousand people. Around the periphery, barracks buildings huddled along paved streets separated by jogging paths, exercise areas, and fences from the libraries, office buildings, maintenance barns, electronic display centers, and auditoriums of USGS Seward base.
Scattered among these were the laboratories, shops, and stages of a dozen scientific disciplines. There were cafeterias, base stores, a school, even a dispensary hospital. Inward of these amenities were clusters of warehouses, supply depots, a motor pool, and finally, the 160-acre inner compound that was Deep Hole's drill site.
Ranks and rows of giant steel tanks formed the two-hundred-thousand-barrel reserve and working pits for the drilling fluid system, each diminishing string of long, free-flow tanks flanked by the earthen pits where little mountains of drill cuttings grew higher each day. Huge stacks of drill pipe sat on pads nearby, the thirty-foot lengths numbered and placed to be lowered in triple strings as Deep Hole penetrated further and further into the bowels of the earth.
At the center stood the drilling rig itself, a rearing colossus dwarfing everything around it, its base platform seventy feet above the surface to allow for the maze of sensors, miles of intertwined pipe, and blowout preventers beneath it. The control "doghouse," a solid, three-level structure the size of a county courthouse, appeared tiny in comparison with the massive structural-steel assemblies around and towering above it.
For nearly three years now, the drilling had gone on nonstop around the clock as progressively smaller and harder drill bits bored further into depths never before drilled--in search of something no one could identify but everyone knew was down there, somewhere.
The drill's target was extensively but vaguely documented as a gravitational anomaly. Somewhere beneath the earth's surface, something was moving contrary to every accepted theory of gravitation. It was why they were all here. The mission of Deep Hole was to find it and identify it.
To date, the huge drill had sunk a shaft more than seventy thousand feet straight down--nearly fourteen miles! Three times the depth of the deepest wells on this continent, and half again the depth achieved by those Siberian drillers in the Tunguska uplands before the breakup of the USSR.
Nobody was really sure what the Russians had been looking for. Some thought they were out to prove Kropek's theory of terrestrial electromagnetism, but what they had encountered was something else again. That, along with the gravitational anomalies of 1998 and some old theories about Tunguska, had led to the Deep Hole project.
Three years of tedious drilling, and now--just in the past two days--there was an almost palpable excitement among the tight-lipped scientists who monitored every foot of depth. Something was happening in the hole. Something more was about to happen.
Spangler was approaching the flow meters when a flicker occurred--an abrupt, general shifting of the scene around him. It was instantaneous, like a flash of bright light too quick for the eye to register. Spangler blinked, momentarily confused. He recalled having a sense of brightness about this place, as though thousands of brilliant lights had been here, making night into day. But there was no such thing. It was the same old drill site, all dark shadows and dim glows from snow-muffled lamps. He shrugged, wondering how long he had been this tired. He felt heavy, dragged down, as though he were carrying a great weight on his shoulders. At a row of steaming arc lights he stopped, letting the heat of the big lamps seep through his parka, relieving the chill. Almost at his feet, the pavement groaned and cracked, opening a jagged rift that ran for several yards. He felt so tired, he barely noticed it.
Up on the platform the drill engines also sounded sluggish, and Spangler noticed vaguely that the people moving here and there around him were plodding about like old people, almost in slow motion.
He moved on, to the meters, and raised his clipboard, squinting in the murk. The spitting snow obscured the little incandescent bulbs strung around the platform like Christmas tree strings, and there was barely enough light to see the graphs. He pulled out his flashlight. Odd, he thought vaguely--that fading impression he'd had, as though the lights should somehow be much brighter. But of course, they weren't. They were just like always.
As he approached the rank of seismograph recorders near the main platform, someone bumped him. He staggered, wondering vaguely why he felt so damned heavy and awkward. Blue eyes in the shadow of a parka hood glanced at him. "Excuse me," she said. She turned away and paused as the sound of the engines above ground down to a struggling rasp.
"There's something wrong--" she began, then pitched back against Spangler as the earth beneath them shrugged violently, seeming to rise up and up like flotsam on a tidal wave. A cacophony of sound erupted around them. Up on the platform people were shouting and things were falling. Spangler tried for balance, but his legs felt like rubber. The person clinging to him screamed and sagged. They fell, rolled, and a sheared-off brace from somewhere high overhead thudded into the cracking pavement just inches from them. The light strands swung and danced crazily under the weight of their lamps, then parted like sparking shots, their echoes drowned in a burgeoning roar that seemed to fill the world, driving awareness ahead of it.
Spangler was pinned to the heaving ground by the sheer force of the rising earth as miles ...