1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 20

Ulrich had reached the rig, seemed to dart around looking for something. Or someone, Ann corrected. He was clearly trying to find who was in charge, who had overridden today’s suspension of operations.

From far behind her private cabin, Ann heard another engine kick into life with a roar. That was an up-time sound, the engine on Dave Willcock’s pick-up truck. Good, so that meant he was on his way. Ann didn’t like that he was up and about, but right now, her strongest sensation was relief. No one back-talked Willcocks. His word was law on site, and that was what was needed to shut down the rig without a moment’s delay. Without Dave or Ulrich or her there to oversee the commencement of operations, there was no telling what errors might be made.

Ulrich sprinted up onto the platform upon which the derrick was built. Now only a hundred yards off — but with a wind-stitch suddenly clutching at her left side — Ann could see him engaged in a shouting match with someone up there. Someone very tall and very lean and very blonde, almost white blonde —

Oh shit, Ann thought, he’s arguing with Otto Bauernfeld. Bauernfeld was the senior overseer for Gerhard Graves, who was the nosiest and most intrusive of all the investors. Imperious and contemptuous both, the Graves family had tried double-crossing David Willcocks and his associates when they undertook their first joint drilling project, a simple cable rig. So this time, Willcocks, his team, and now the University, had unanimously wanted to reject Graves’ money — but they simply couldn’t afford to. The project would not have been possible without Gerhard Graves carrying twenty percent of the upfront costs. And Otto Bauernfeld, as Graves’ visiting factotum, had adopted an attitude to match his master’s: presumptuous, dictatorial, and arrogantly dismissively of the rank-and-file workers. “Shit,” Ann repeated. Aloud, this time.

She sprinted the last thirty yards to the gravel-ringed drill site, earning stares as she went. Pebbles churned underfoot, slowing her down, but she was able to catch the shouted exchange between Ulrich and Otto Bauernfeld as she traversed the last few yards of loose stone.

“You must shut the rig down, Herr Bauernfeld. Mr. Willcocks has ordered us not to drill today, not even to –“

Bauernfeld looked far down his very long nose at the medium-sized but very powerful Ulrich. “Who are you, and why should I care?”

“I am Ulrich Rohrbach, the site foreman and design consultant. I must ask you to –“

“I do not take orders from you, workman. Now, do not obstruct me any further.”

“Herr Bauernfeld, I must insist: on whose authority do you ignore and violate Project Director David Willcocks’ strict prohibition against drilling today?”

“I ignore it based on the only authority that truly matters on this site: that stemming from my patron’s heavy investment in this project. Which you should understand. I am here for one day — one day, and no more — and must see the progress you have made in developing this drill. My superior expects an impartial report, and he shall have it.”

“Herr Bauernfeld, with a little warning, I could have –“

“You are a worker. And an employee of Herr Willcocks. Who will be pleased to tell me whatever he thinks will please my employer. But Herr Graves wants the truth and I know how to get it for him.” Bauernfeld stuck this thumbs into his belt and leaned back, quite pleased with himself. “It was simply a matter of getting the crew to run the drill without your interference. Which they did readily enough, when I told them who my superior was, and the personal consequences they would face if they displeased him. So, now I shall see the operation as it truly is, and with my own eyes.”

“You are not seeing the operation,” Ann panted.

Bauernfeld halted as she gasped for breath, and then doubled over to ease the cramp in her gut. Still looking up, she could see the uncertainty in his eyes, the waver in his demeanor as he tried to decide where she fit into his complex constellation of class and professional relationships. A woman of no particular birth, but an up-timer: a person who actually worked alongside laborers, but also a person of considerable achievement and education. There were no ready social equations that defined her place in his social scheme of things.

But then his eyes strayed to her clothes: grimy, practical coveralls, grey like Ulrich’s. Something like a satisfied smile settled about Bauernfeld’s eyes. “Frau Koudsi, the rig’s motors are running and the drill-string has been lowered. And now — see? It is turning: the drilling has begun. So I am most certainly seeing the operations of your drill.”

“Proper operations involve more than turning on the machines.” Ulrich’s voice was so guttural that he sounded more animal than human.

Bauernfeld speared him with eyes that suggested he would have preferred to respond with the back of his hand instead of his tongue. “Your workers know the steps well enough, I perceive.”

“You perceive wrong, then, you ass.” Ann felt herself rising on her toes to make her rebuttal emphatic. “These aren’t our first crew. Almost all of them are second crew. Replacements who usually carry gear, clean the facility. They’re like apprentices at this stage.”

Bauernfeld became a bit pale. “And the — the journeymen, or ‘first crew,’ as you say?”

Ulrich waved an arm angrily back at the workers’ sheds. “Back there. In bed. Sick with the same flu that has Herr Willcocks in bed, and why we shut down operations today.”

Bauernfeld was now truly pale. “But…all seems to be in order. These men know their tasks.”

“Do they?” shrieked Ann over the motor and the drill, wondering how long they had to convince Bauernfeld to tell the class-cowed workers shut the rig down — or how long it would take for Dave Willcocks to drive down here, if he wouldn’t listen to reason. “Did you flush the mud hose? Did you check its flexibility? Did you check where it connects to the kelly for signs of wear or fraying? Did you turn the drill in the hole long enough to warm the mud already there before putting weight on the bit? And did you warm the new mud in the tanks before pumping it in?”

Bauernfeld scowled at the last. “And how could the temperature of mud possibly matter?”

Ann pointed behind her at the mud-tank. “That mud is being pumped down in that hole, Herr Bauernfeld. At extremely high pressure. Among other things, it scoops up the dross — the debris made by the drilling — and dumps it there, in the shaker tray, where the debris is removed and the mud is returned to the system.”

With uncertain eyes, Bauernfeld followed the progress of her pointing: from mud pit, to mud tube, to where it connected to the swivel atop the drill string, to where the return tube dumped the fouled mud into the shaker tray. “And to do this,” he said slowly, “the mud must be warm?”

Ulrich leaned in, face red, voice loud with both urgency and anger. “No, but it cannot be cold.”

“But why?”

Ann rolled her eyes. Can Bauernfeld really be so stupid? Well, he might be. “Look, you sit down to breakfast and get thin, hot porridge. How easy can you pour it into your bowl?”

Bauernfeld shrugged. “Easily enough.”

“Right. Now let it get cold. Try pouring it.”

Bauernfeld’s eyebrows lowered, but then rose quickly. “It is thicker. It will be harder to –“

“Exactly, and that’s why the mud can’t be too cold. But last night we had a hard frost, and the men running the drill haven’t dealt with this. They don’t know how the resistance builds, particularly with the shavings collecting because the thicker mud can’t clear them quickly enough. They have no idea what that could do to –“

Ann heard a faint groan in the mud-carrying standpipe where it ascended the nearest leg of the derrick. “Uh oh,” she breathed and looked up at the swivel.

Ulrich was already staring at it but with a surprised expression. “Looks like the swivel coupling is holding,” he breathed. Carefully.