1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 22

The time that followed was without a doubt the most gruesome experience in Ann’s life. The scale of the blunt force trauma inflicted on fragile human bodies by the disintegrating oil rig was genuinely incredible. It was as if the gods of the earth, awakened and risen in fury, had just torn people apart.

She couldn’t even find any flicker of vengeful satisfaction in Bauernfeld’s fate, although he’d been directly responsible for the disaster. The wound that had killed him was… horrible, a perfect illustration of the old saw I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Eventually — thankfully — the immediate rescue work was over. Those who’d survived had been stabilized and had been taken away to receive real medical care. Repairing the property damage would take a lot longer, but there was no immediate urgency involved. So, tired and blood-spackled themselves, Ann and Ulrich and Dave Willcocks came back together to discuss the situation.

“I heard about Bauernfeld coming here,” said Willcocks. “Got the message from your runner, Ulrich, the same moment I heard the rig start. His doing, I take it?”

Ann looked out of the corner of her eye. Ulrich frowned at David’s Willcock’s question, looked away, clearly trying to fabricate a face-saving story for a man who was now dead. An incompetent, arrogant man whom Ulrich would probably now risk his own good reputation to protect.

Ann turned and looked Willcocks in the eye. “Yes, this was Bauernfeld’s doing. All so he could make a report to Gerhard Graves without any input or ‘interference’ from us.” She turned her eyes back to the smoking ruins. “I’d say his methods were ill-considered.”

Another car door opened and closed behind them. Footsteps rasped on the gravel, and then Dennis Grady, head of contractors for the State of Thuringia-Franconia’s Department of Economic Resources, their project’s other fiscal godfather, came to stand beside Ulrich.

Ann started. “Mr. Grady, what are you doing up here?”

He looked away from the devastation with a baleful expression. “Why, to check on your progress.”

Ann — broken-hearted but also quite suddenly aware that not only was she in love with Ulrich, but had been for almost three months now — felt conflicting emotions of joy and loss roil and bash into each other. They came out of her as a burst of laughter. “Our progress! Wow, did you pick the wrong day for a visit, or what?”

Grady shrugged. “Machines can be rebuilt, if they’re worth rebuilding.”

Grady’s serious, level tone was like a bucket of cold water in Ann’s face. So this isn’t the end of all our work, maybe? “And what determines if they’re worth rebuilding?”

“Well, how was the rig doing before this happened?”

“That is the irony of this disaster, Herr Grady,” Ulrich sighed. “Tomorrow, we were scheduled to get to four hundred feet. And the equipment had been working quite well. We had to be careful not to push the system too much. The mud flow cannot keep up with our top operating speeds.”

“Why?”

Ann thought Dave Willcocks might explain, but instead he nodded at her to continue, smiling like a proud uncle. She shrugged, answered, “The rate that we get fresh mud in the hole determines how much we can cool the system. It bathes the hot drill bit, removes extra friction by carrying away the cuttings. But the mud hose is the bottleneck. We can’t push the pressure in the hose over two hundred fifty psi without risking a rupture. That reduces how much we can cool the system, and how fast we can clear cuttings out of the hole. And that determines our upper operating limit.”

“But if you stay beneath that limit­ — ?”

“We were making good progress, and this design was holding up pretty well.”

“We still have challenges,” Willcocks put in. “We’ve got to have better weld joints between the separate sections of drill pipe. And I’m not sure that we’ve got enough horsepower from the current steam engine do really do the job when we get under six hundred feet.”

“But in principle, this design is functional?”

“Functional, yes. Ready to drill, no.”

Grady shook his head. “But I didn’t ask you about readiness.”

David frowned. “Two months ago you did.”

Grady shrugged. “That was two months ago. Things change.”

“Like what?”

“Like never you mind. Look, it was always a long-shot that you’d have a rotary drill ready for the New World survey expedition, anyhow. And as things are developing, we won’t need it until next year, probably. By which time, I expect it will be ready.” Grady glanced at the smoldering ruin, through which rescuers were picking their careful ways. “Well, this one won’t be ready, but you get what I mean.”

Ann almost smiled, but it felt wrong, somehow. “Thanks, Dennis. I wish I could be happier. But we’ve lost so much: so many people, so much hard work, and a chance to set foot in North America again.”

“Oh, now hold on,” said Grady. “Just because you won’t have a rotary drill, doesn’t mean you’re not still going along for the ride to the New World. We need your scientific and technical skills on site, and there are drills beside your rotary wonder, you know.”

Ann shrugged. “I ought to know. We were working cable rigs at Wietze for the better part of two years.”

“And you’ll be working them again, half a world away.”

Ulrich looked flustered, possibly heart-broken. “So then, if Ms. Koudsi is — is gone, who shall resume building the rotary drill?”

David kicked at the gravel. “I guess that would be me and the technical assistants that have been helping you out here. And I could bring up Glen Sterling from Grantville. And actually, we did learn something important about the drill design today: that the weak point is no longer at the juncture of the swivel and the mud hose, but at the juncture of the mud-hose and the standpipe.”

“So how much time do I have to help David with the improved model before I leave?” Ann asked Dennis, while looking at Ulrich.

“None, I’m afraid,” answered Grady. “We’ve got to get you up north for special training and equipment familiarization. Besides, there’s not going to be much breakthrough engineering going on for a few months. I figure it will take that long just to get all the drill pipe and casing out of the ground.” He looked at David for confirmation.

Willcocks nodded. “Gonna be a bitch of a job. But it will be our golden opportunity to own the next rig outright, without worrying about financiers.”

Grady frowned. “Oh? How’s that?”

“Herr Graves’ representative caused this failure. Every surviving witness will testify to that. And from what Herr Bauernfeld told me on the way down here, he had papers in his bags indicating that he has a ‘clear mandate from his employer’ to ensure that he saw the rig in operation without me or any of my supervisors around to meddle with it. I told him that wasn’t permissible. Sent a letter to his boss on the topic, too.

“But he disregarded multiple direct orders from the lawful site operators and majority owners, and went ahead with his ‘private test.’ So he and his employer are directly culpable for all this — the loss of life, the loss of the rig, and the expense of recovering all that pipe and casing, since it’s too rare and costly to leave sitting in the ground.” David’s grin was one of savage revenge, not mirth. “It’s going to cost that bastard Graves his stake in this whole operation to be able to walk away from this disaster without getting roasted alive by the courts.”

Grady nodded. “Yep. Sounds about right.” He turned to Ann. “Now, are you ready to pack your bags and head north to the Baltic?”

“I am,” answered Ann, “But on one condition.”

Grady raised an eyebrow. “And what’s that?”

“That I get to choose my crew chief.” She turned to Ulrich and smiled. “That would be Ulrich Rohrbach. If he doesn’t go, it’s no deal.”

Ulrich stared at Ann, smiling back, his mouth open a little, jaw working futilely to find words — but not very hard. He was too busy looking at her, Ann was delighted to see, like an infatuated puppy.

Grady cleared his throat. “Well, Mr. Rohrbach, how about it? Are you also willing to go to the New World and drill for oil without a rotary rig?”

Ulrich did not look away from Ann or even blink. “Where do I sign up?” he said.