This can't be happening. Ken Avery stuck his fists deep into the oilskin's pockets and stared at the yellow-clad figures swarming around the drill-head. Streams of water dripped from the brim of his sou'wester, blurring his vision.
The men glared at the spinning rod. Someone had painted a depth marker on the tube as a reference, but the white blur didn't show more than negligible progress: a paltry four inches in forty-eight hours. Ken could have sworn they were willing it to advance, but the steel pipe revolved doggedly without sinking any deeper.
A large man separated from the group and approached Ken with a sour expression fixed on his puffy face.
“Now what, boss? Another bit?” Mark asked with the lilt of an Irish accent.
“I've run out of ideas.”
The eyes of the crew pivoted in his direction. After all, he was the geologist, the corporation's wonder boy with all the answers. Now, he had none. One of the roustabouts swore, kicking at the revolving tube.
Mark tilted his head toward the tents. “Any news from the brass?"
“Nope, same as before. Keep drilling.”
Ken’s orders were to extract a core sample from the soil at a precise point, less than three feet across. It was a simple procedure: a hollow tube fronted by a drill bit pierces the earth with the help of lubricant slurry. The tube fills with sludge and debris. The product is a mud column, an extruded rod of pliable earth with information from the subterranean layers. The depth? That was the clincher; 18,000 feet was the previous world record. They had passed that mark over a week ago.
The head office never gave Ken many details. He didn’t know what they were looking for, but whatever it was they hadn’t found it. Yet. Every day at 16:00 local time, 08:00 in Texas, IMC mandarins could read his report on the contents of the core bit, or so far, the lack of it, as they sipped hot cups of Java in cool, plush offices while the damn hole ate $20,000 diamond cutters like they were cotton candy.
Ken moved closer to the derrick, sinking into the red clay. Slimy mud oozed up the sides of his boots. The heat-humidity-sweat combination was unbearable. Every pocket and pore were packed full of Congo mud.
He looked up as a bolt of lighting ripped the sky, followed almost at once by a clap of thunder that vibrated through his chest.
The whole project had been a bitch from the beginning and the odd tightness in his gut told him it was far from over. Kendrew back his upper lip and blew off the drop of rain dangling from the tip of his nose. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve this cursed assignment;he was no friend of God, but neither His declared enemy.
Ken peered past the sheets of rain and the powerful arc lights. The jungle seemed almost solid, a jumble of lianas and shrubs beneath stands of umbrella trees and hardwoods.
He reached under his hat. His scalp still felt strange without hair. After the headshakes and smiles at his ponytail when he arrived, he had presumed the driller’s crew cuts were a macho thing, a clannish livery. Now he knew better. After the first week, Ken’s hair had matted into an uncomfortable tangle of red clay and drilling slurry, a mess no amount of soap and rainwater could clear. There had been only one solution. Ken joined the clan and shaved his head.
“We've two bits left,” Mark added. “When those two are gone, we'll have to drill with our dicks.”
Ken didn't know what to say. The cutting head’s sophisticated micro-turbines, powered by the slurry’s awesome pressure, had secured the record depth but each bit had been worn down, smooth and shiny, burnished like a new coin.
“You must have some idea about what's down there,” Mark insisted. “What am I supposed to tell the men?”
After the first drilling-head failure, someone suggested a tenacious basalt layer lay beneath. However, that wouldn't account for the condition of the bit. Ken ruled out Diorite and Nephritic Jade, both prevalent in the area. Each bit was of a special alloy encrusted with a new generation of industrial grade diamond, much harder than either of the other minerals. They should have gone through anything underground like a hot knife through butter. But they didn’t.
Now Ken worried because the roughnecks, men familiar with harrowing working conditions, were spooked by the cutter’s inexplicable behavior. In normal circumstances, the men stayed under cover after their grueling shifts——sleeping, having a beer, playing cards, watching a DVD. But not now. Now, they huddled around the spinning tube and stared at the depth gauge.
In the solid jungle, the roughly circular clearing produced a well of soaring green walls blazing under the harsh light of mercury projectors. But the glossy walls of exuberant greenery changed to impenetrable darkness scant inches beyond the light where, on the forked branch of a towering bubinga tree, a naked pygmy huddled. The tiny man, clutching a drab satchel to his chest, squatted immobile but for his bright eyes, which darted between the roughnecks and the drilling rig. His skin, gleaming like burnished ebony, blended into the wet bark so well that even in plain view an untrained eye would have missed him.
When he took to the trees after the men cleared the jungle to set up their machine, his four-foot six frame had been better padded and clothed: a simple loincloth tied with a supple thong around his waist. But rain and a meager diet had taken its toll. His once thick lips had shrunk on a gaunt face and his loincloth was long gone; prolonged exposure to the persistent rain had rotted it away. Not that it worried him; his attention was riveted on the drama slowly simmering twenty feet below. He pursed his lips, tried to blow a bubble and repressed an urge to laugh about his predicament. His pack was depleted and he hadn’t napped in forty-eight long hours, but he wouldn’t dream of closing his eyes now that the fun was about to start.
Jereh stirred and gripped the stout branch tighter. He checked the white smudge on the pipe, then glanced past the engineer. Jereh eyed the group of roughnecks and the rig’s cabin where the operator controlled torsion and drilling speed.
He had been in the trees for weeks, moving between spots to mark and record the different phases of the core-drilling. The skin on his shoulders, legs, and back was peeling. He would resemble a molting hyena when he returned to his village at Mongwange and gave his report to Leon Kibassa.
At the beginning of his vigil, thirty-five long days ago, Jereh had fashioned a cone-shaped cape with long bracken that he tied around his head. Twice, when he had ventured to the ground, Jereh had passed for foliage when the roughnecks were within a couple of yards-- an advantage of being small--although at almost five-foot he towered over most of his tribesmen. But the constant wetness at the dome of his head had softened his skin and exfoliated his scalp, exposing the bone despite frequent applications of okapi grease. A cap from an elephant's ear leaf helped for a while, but it amplified every droplet, and Jereh needed his hearing unimpaired.
He dug into his shoulder bag for a piece of duiker jerky and froze when he detected movement. Without altering his position, he picked up a slug and popped it in his mouth. No sense in wasting protein, he reasoned. At least water was no problem. He could drown by sticking out his tongue.
On the other side of the clearing, a narrow tunnel entrance opened between stands of Albizia and Celtis. Jereh stared into the blackness, straining his eyes to see the contour of a gray mass. “Hunwa.” He rolled his tongue around the Masaba word. “Hunwa, my friend, the greed of men stands in the way of your final rest.” The old elephant had arrived four days ago. The drilling crew hadn’t noticed.
The path to the elephant’s graveyard bisected the clearing, smack through the middle of the rig. Jereh could sense the animal’s bewilderment. The elephant was old and had sunk in the mud. He would die there.
He fingered a panga’s handle. “I’ll help you, my friend. I’ll end your suffering soon.”
Jereh tensed. A subtle vibration. A minute change of pitch in the whine of the turbines. He dropped six feet to another branch and leaped sideways to a nearby tree, an observation point closer to the tent with the assay table.
He gazed at the white line. The shaft had dropped a quarter inch. The crew hadn’t noticed. Too subtle for them. He appraised the fastest route to a branch over the samples tent and the spot where he'd cut a tiny slit in the waxed canvas.
From a pouch around his neck, Jereh picked the last of the khat, made a small wad, and pushed it into his mouth. Feeling the rush, Jereh pressed with his tongue and placed the mush inside his lower lip. Then he reached back in the bag, retrieved a high-speed camera and snapped off several frames.
Ken mopped his face with a soggy rag. He blinked. The white mark had disappeared. Alarm bells blared as the pipe plummeted and the brakes slammed into the gear head.
With feverish urgency, the men attacked the tube with tongs and oversized power wrenches, unscrewing sections as the steel tube returned from the depths. When the end surfaced at last, Ken heaved the yard-long front coring section and sprinted toward the samples tent, the crew right behind.
Under the glare of the inspection lights, the men stared in silence at the mud-streaked cylinder, as pirates before a chest. The rain stopped and the sudden quiet sounded exaggerated.
“Your shift, Pedro,” Ken said, handing a blunted chisel to the man. “You open it.”
Pedro inserted the blade in the side groove of the canister, twisting and levering it as he worked along the seam. With a wet slurping sound, the container split in two, displaying the contents of the core.
The chisel dropped from Pedro's hand. “Santa Madre de Dios!” He stepped back and made the sign of the cross.