Lydia jerked hard on the lever, putting all her weight on it to drag the damn thing down and yank the bit out of whatever it was stuck in. Her faceplate fogged, as it always did, while she panted and struggled.
“Every freaking time!”
With a high pitched squeal, the bit gave and wrenched free, spilling her forward onto the console and into the lever. Her breath hissed out in a pained grunt and, not for the first time, she wished that she’d been able to convince Charlie to go into farming instead.
The drill bit itself was a dull gleam in the semi-dark, scarred and filthy from too much use past its normal lifetime. She leaned forward and squinted, trying to see what it had caught itself on. Reaching up to her helmet, she angled the headlamp downward and was just barely able to see the torn edges of…metal?…poking up from within the pilot hole.
A sluggish, black ooze was seeping out of the hole and spreading over the excavated trench around the drill site. She stepped around the control panel and knelt on the lip of the trench, angling over the edge to see what she’d hit. The ooze continued to bubble slowly upward, saturating the dusty ground until a decent sized puddle had formed. Stretching, she turned off the machinery and yanked her misty faceplate up to get a better look. Still squinting, she shined her light back into the pit. The puddle had stopped spreading in a rough three foot circle, glistening slightly with a rainbow sheen over the surface. She frowned and got to her feet, looking around for the flashing red indicators of the other drill. Her partner in crime stood, outlined by the dying sun, about twenty yards to her left. In his own protective gear, he hadn’t heard the motor stop or the sounds of the dying drill. Slamming her faceplate back down, she clicked her comms receiver.
“Hey Charlie, I got something weird over here.”
There was a crackle of static, then an amused chuckle. “So what else is new, Lids? What’s up?”
“I’m not sure, but I hit something and it’s…oozing.” She couldn’t help but make a disgusted face, even knowing he couldn’t see her.
“Come again?” his surprise filtered through the tinny speaker in her ear.
“Just get your ass over here and take a look. I better not have hit any scrap because that damn surveyor screwed up.”
“Alright, alright. Be there in a sec.”
She watched him cut off the engine for his equipment and start picking his way across the space between them, careful to avoid loose scrabble or rocks. A rough feedback whine through her comms made her wince, and she twisted her headgear off to cut free of the sound. Immediately, a small gust of wind kicked up enough grime to set her eyes to watering and her face stinging. A few creative curses later, and the liberal use of her canteen, she managed to get the majority of the crap off her face.
“Hey now, language.”
Charles skidded down the last few feet of a small rise, sending pebbles tumbling over the rim and into the goo.
“Language, my ass.” Her tone was sharp, but she felt herself smile anyway. A lot of people found it hard to stay angry around Charlie, he had that annoying effect on people. Sometimes you just want to be pissy.
“So. What do we have here?” He peered down into the trench for a moment, then hoisted himself over to drop the six feet into the pit. Landing easily, he crouched on the very edge of the pool and started fumbling for the flashlight tucked into his tool belt. The thin beam of light shone on the puddle, then traced over the walls of the trench and up to the drill itself. Lydia could see that the tip of the long drill bit was splashed with shiny black, and that the walls around Charles were also spattered here and there from the burst of decompression when she struck…whatever it was.
She craned her neck, calling down to him, “What is it? Doesn’t look like the chem spring we found last week. Maybe an old contaminated well?”
“Hm,” he rumbled thoughtfully. “I don’t think its water, it’s too viscous, no matter how contaminated it is.” Crab walking a little closer, he checked the digital display on his wrist, waving his arm around for a bit. “There’s zero rad count coming from it too, all I’m picking up is background noise.”
Before she could protest, he lifted his faceplate, stuck the end of the flashlight between his teeth, and dipped two gloved fingers into the puddle.
“Charlie! What the hell are you doing?!”
He ignored her, smearing the goop between thumb and forefinger and watching it drip back onto the ground. Bringing his hand closer to his face, he inhaled deeply and recoiled, nearly tumbling back to land flat on his ass.
Spitting out the flashlight, he yelled, “Oh fuck, that’s nasty! Smells like it’s rotten!”
“Serves you right for being an idiot. What if it was acid, it would eat through your suit and probably your hand,” she admonished, shaking her head.
Replacing his faceplate, he picked up the flashlight and wiped his hand on his leg. “Well, it’s not acidic. At least not a strong acid anyway. Grab me the kit so I can take a sample back to camp, see if we can take a closer look and figure out what we’ve got.”
“Yes, Master. Right away, Master, whatever you say,” she grumped, trudging off to the pile of supplies kept safely away from the drill site.
Full dark had fallen and it was starting to get cold. With both machines silenced, the only sounds to be heard were her footsteps and the soft drone of the wind picking up. The generators at base camp wouldn’t start up for another half hour or so, which was fortunate since they were running on low juice and had been for a while. Lydia sorted through the clutter of equipment, setting aside her sample case, making sure to secure a tarp over the rest so that dust wouldn’t damage the more delicate pieces.
Glass tinkled softly as she made her way over the uneven ground to the site. Back at the edge of the hole, she opened up the case and removed two stoppered bottles with a large caution sticker plastered on their sides. Gingerly, she tossed the containers down to her husband.
Charles squatted, filling both bottles about three quarters full of the black liquid and stoppering them up extra tight prior to rising. Lying flat on the ground, she eased her upper body over the pit and retrieved the samples, holding them carefully before placing them back into the case. That done, she had the joy of watching Charles try to scramble unsuccessfully up the wall of the trench, yanking clods of dirt down onto his upturned face.
“Need a hand, big guy?”
He grunted, “That would be nice.”
“Well, too bad I’ve never been nice,” she grinned down at him.
“Ha. Ha. Very funny, now could you please get me out of here?”
“Oh alright, fine, be that way.”
Bracing herself against the ground, she reached for his outstretched hand. Their gloves met with a loud thump and she tensed, slithering back on her belly to hoist him up. Finally managing to dig his feet in, he lurched up and over to lay flat with her. He lay there for a second while she rose, picking up the sample case.
“You coming, or not?”
He groaned and pushed himself up, falling into step beside her as they headed to the modified ATV which would take them to their temporary home.
They bounced down the hard packed trail to base camp, passing between boulders and carefully skirting steep dry washes. It had been a long time since this region had seen any rain. Reddish clouds dotted the sky during the day, but the only thing you could expect from them were duststorms. A bright flash of light illuminated the landscape briefly and Lydia glanced upward, holding her breath until the next came. After the third flare in as many minutes, she pressed harder on the accelerator, nudging the stubborn ATV to go a bit faster. Static discharge wasn’t uncommon, but this amount of activity wasn’t a good sign. Tonight they’d have to button down extra tight to keep from getting sandblasted.
For them, base camp consisted of two retro-fitted civilian transports, aging hulks that were phased out of use more than twenty years ago. The beauty of their design was in their ability to hitch together and form one long corridor between cabins, effectively making a double length trailer that could comfortably house up to 30 people with a little extra elbow room. Over the years, most of the bunks had been ripped out and replaced with conveniences like a kitchen and onboard lavatory. When they’d purchased the rigs, she and Charlie had continued gutting until they were able to add a lab as well as cargo storage large enough for long haul caravans. They were cumbersome, expensive to fuel, and required frequent repair, but they’d been home for more than five years of constant travel. For all their issues, Lydia had grown fond of their ugly bulk and christened them Thing 1 and Thing 2.
Luckily, this time they’d managed to hitch up in the relative protection of a partially collapsed warehouse. One wall had fallen in, bringing the metal roof down at a sharp angle to create a triangular tube that served as a useful windbreak. The original design of the building left all of the windows on the leeward side, shielded by the remaining upright walls.
She drove into the dark tunnel as far as she could before killing the engine. Sliding down from the driver’s seat, she loaded herself up with gear from the back of the ATV and started towards the foremost transport, Thing 1. Without having to glance over her shoulder, she knew that Charlie had already made his way to the entry and was pulling a large piece of scrap over the opening to give them extra insurance against creeping sand. Digging out the wheels would be a bitch otherwise.
What little remaining light was snuffed out by the makeshift door, causing a brief flutter of panic in her chest. Trusting muscle memory, she placed one foot in front of the other in the direction of Thing 1’s outer door. It was a long four or five paces before a phlegmy cough from the generators brought a stuttering illumination that eventually steadied into the orangey glow of sodium lamps. She set the bundle of instruments and various tools at the base of a short flight of steps leading up to the door, awkwardly typing in a code into the shallowly recessed keypad. With a hiss, the hatch slid sideways and she stepped inside. Charles followed through behind her and began hoisting in the gear and setting it just inside the entryway. After sealing the door, another hiss sounded as a decontaminant shower filtered into the small antechamber, neutralizing any excess rads or nasty crap they’d picked up wandering around outside. Hopefully, anyway.
Precautions taken, the inner door unsealed itself and rolled soundlessly aside to reveal a more than slightly cluttered workroom. They both shucked their gloves and started hanging garments on the walls as they removed them, helmets placed last on specially stabilized racks. The atmosphere inside the cabin was sweet compared to the taste of her own exhalation puffing back into her face, and she just stood for a moment feeling relief after a long day. Charles echoed her movements, rolling his shoulders to unkink his upper back as well. He turned his head from side to side, ending the move with a coquettish look at her over his right shoulder.
She nodded, “Tea sounds lovely.”
With long practiced ease, he squeezed past her and further down the hall towards the living quarters in the rear. Stopping in the small kitchenette, he put the kettle on to boil and started humming to himself as he prepped mugs, teabags, and erythritol. They’d run out of real sugar ages ago and with the closest outpost nearly three hundred klicks east, they were learning to make do with the synthetic crap from their last trade. You get used to it really. You could get used to a lot of things if necessary.
Over the sound of the burbling kettle, Lydia could just make out the growing whine of the wind and was exceedingly thankful that they had extra shelter. On nights like this she would usually wake herself up with nightmares of the trailers tipping while they were down for the count. It had happened only once, before they’d added ballast bags to the undercarriages of both vehicles. The stout boron carbide fibers could carry an extra ton or two of weight if need be to lower their center of gravity and reduce the risk of a rollover. They’d had to sacrifice six of the remaining eight slipsuits in order to get everything done, but in her opinion it was worth it so she could sleep a little better.
Slipsuits were extremely difficult to come by, but thankfully were just as durable as they were expensive. The lightweight material was stretchy and moved with you more easily than the previous suits, but the fibers were fused with carbon to make them tough against wear and tear. She and Charlie had made due with layers of salvaged haz mat and fire retardant uniforms until they’d scraped enough together to buy the rigs, complete with a crew of ten slipsuits. It had cost them three years’ worth of rationing, scavenging, and some pretty illegal shit, but damn if it hadn’t saved their lives more than once. They still made you sweat like hell though.
After dumping her boots back in the de-con room, Lydia plopped down in one of the chairs at the small dining table, propping her feet up on the chair opposite her. Charlie plunked a steaming mug on the table and motioned for her to move her feet. Rolling her eyes, she complied and waited until he sat down before placing them on his lap instead.
Taking a sip of his tea, he cleared his throat before saying, “From the looks of things on the way over, this storm is going to last a while. We won’t be able to get the solar panels up for recharge until it clears, probably not until late morning tomorrow. We’ll have to go dark tonight if we want to have enough juice to check the cores, or at the very least make breakfast.” He patted her left foot, trying to be reassuring because he knew she hated turning off the generators completely.
She sighed heavily, “Yeah, I figured as much. There’s not much we can do about it though, so no point in complaining I guess. When did you want to go lights out?”
“Well…probably after we get something to eat. We’ve got enough residual heat in the rear cabin and plenty of blankets, so that shouldn’t be a problem. I’d like to get an early start in the morning so we can be ready to go as soon as the storm’s over. We’re going to have a hell of a time digging out, I bet. The excavation sites will be filled in, but the drills are stable enough that we can use them as markers for where to start.”
Nodding, she wrapped her hands around the warmth of the mug and leaned her elbows on the table.
“Do you…do you think we might actually find something this time? I mean, aside from me drilling into someone’s old septic tank?”
He sat back, shooting her a mollifying smile. “I really think this is the big one, Lids. The cap rock looks right and we already know there’s a deposit here somewhere. Mikey brought us that ore sample, remember?”
She snorted. “Mikey couldn’t find his ass with both hands and a map.”
Ignoring her, he continued, “And as far as your septic tank theory, until I get a better idea as to what that stuff is, we should probably relocate the drill. If there is some sort of wellspring or old dump under there, we don’t want to waste time going through it if we can go around.” His brow suddenly furrowed.
“What’s the–?” Her feet tumbled to the floor as he shot up out of his seat and practically ran back to the workroom. She watched in astonishment as he started ripping books off a shelf, mumbling to himself as he located one particular volume. He seized it, practically ran back to the door to grab the sample case and proceeded to remove both bottles of the mystery goo. “Charles, what the hell are you doing?”
“Shale,” he repeated, setting the book and samples down on the worktable.
“You said that already. What about it?”
He rifled through the book, an old copy of Geology and Geochemistry, and flipped open to a specific section. His lips moved soundlessly as he read, finger running down the page. After a short silence, he finally cried, “HA!”
“Charles. Charlie. You’re being weirder than normal, talk to me.”
“Sandstone and shale.” He turned to look at her, a wild gleam in his eye. “We’ve been digging up chunks of the stuff for days now and I never even realized what that meant.”
She stared at him with a cocked eyebrow. “And?”
Exasperated, he finally came back to the dining table and waved the book in her face. “Bauxite ore is found predominantly in igneous rock, like granite, but is sometimes found around sedimentary rock too. That’s why we’re here, we’re looking for bauxite ore to make into aluminum. When Mikey ran his survey, he took samples of the local stone and found that they were mostly sedimentary, running high to shale. What he didn’t realize is that shale is also found around something much more valuable.”
“And that would be?”
His face twisted into a manic smile. “Oil.”
“Oil?” She couldn’t keep the puzzlement out of her voice.
He nodded, “Oil.”
“Charlie, there haven’t been oil wells sunk in…years!” she exclaimed. Shaking his head, he sat back down and pointed at the book. On the open pages were two pictures, one showing a grainy image of an oil derrick and the other an amorphous black blob.
“Don’t you see, it all fits! The location, the rocks, the smell, everything! This area used to be on the edge of an inland sea, right? All the sea life that died would’ve eventually sunk to the floor and been compressed by layer after layer of silt and other shit settling. Over time, the pressure created heat and turned all that bio matter into oil, natural gas, or petroleum.”
“Cut to the chase, Mr. Earth Science, I know how oil is made.”
“Anyway, in order to keep from bubbling up to the surface, these deposits have to be covered by harder, non-porous rock and lots of it. Normally this would keep us from finding anything, but after the climate changed and everything dried out, no new stone was being formed and erosion started up. It must have taken millions and millions of years for the non-porous layer to have been eroded away enough for us to drill to the deposit.” He paused, thinking. “The increasing frequency of duststorms probably accelerated the process, especially in the last few years.”
She frowned, staring into his excited face. “So let me get this straight. We came out here looking for bauxite based on a tip from the most birdbrained surveyor ever produced, have been wandering around for days trying to find the exact location he gave us, and somehow managed to bypass all of it and instead found the first new oil deposit in the last millennium.” Her deadpan remark did nothing to dim his enthusiasm and she could tell that he’d only barely heard her, he was so enthralled with his discovery.
“Lydia, don’t you understand how amazing this is? I’m an idiot for not realizing it sooner, the smell!”
“So it stinks, what of it?”
“It doesn’t just stink,” he chided her off-handedly. He retrieved one of the samples and unstoppered it, thrusting the mouth of bottle towards her face. She instinctively recoiled, but not before getting a good whiff of the stuff.
“Jesus, it smells like rotten eggs fucking a skunk,” she said, muffled by the hand she placed over her mouth and nose.
“Exactly! High sulfur content smells like rotten eggs. Unfortunately that will eat into our profits when it comes time to purify it, but still.” He replaced the stopper and carefully set the bottle down, handling it almost reverently.
Lowering her hand, she gazed at her husband, bewildered. They’d struck oil. Somehow, in this barren desert hellscape, they had managed to actually find something valuable. The unlikeliness of the situation struck her as ludicrous, but she couldn’t deny the logic behind Charlie’s conclusion or help herself from pondering the implications.
The commonly understood doctrine was that the world had exhausted its supply of fossil fuels sometime in the middle of the twenty-first century. Global industry ground to a halt, forcing companies to search for alternative sources of power. Whole forests were decimated for wood, hydroelectric dams erected on every major river, and salt water harvested for desalinization and burning. The world collectively stripped as much as they could from their natural habitat, irrevocably damaging it beyond repair. With the destruction of the environment, weather patterns had reduced most of the once valuable land into what she and Charlie traveled through every day; empty, infertile ground. Humanity had nearly driven itself into extinction, whole countries lost to famine or war for continually diminishing resources.
The turnaround came in the early twenty second century, when harvesting geothermal energy and nuclear power were finally developed enough to be practical. What governments remained built cities around energy centers and mankind finally started to recover. Those who could afford to live in the cities were kept warm, fed, and free of disease. Those who couldn’t, died unless they were able provide something worth selling to the rich bastards in their shining towers. Scavenging became the only real means to scrape by in the Outside, and illegal scavenging was even more lucrative if you could manage to not to get caught doing it.
The two of them had survived by traveling from place to place, digging up artifacts of the old world, mining what minerals remained, and sometimes outright stealing. There was brisk business in selling antiques, relics of the societies that existed before everything went to shit, but if you wanted to make real money, aluminum was the way to go. Everything these days was made of aluminum, from monumental buildings to everyday electronics, and demand was always high. Mining bauxite, the main source of aluminum ore, was difficult and not without risk. The majority of the supply was provided by mega-corporations, huge enterprises that employed thousands of people and made it almost impossible for smaller outfits to exist. Why not just work for the mega-corps? Because it was basically legalized slavery. Once you were “employed” you were rarely allowed to leave the company, and if you did you left with nothing. Neither she nor Charlie wanted that life, preferring instead to squeak by with scraps. Until recently.
They had been trying for years to find something, anything that could be fruitful enough to buy them entry into a city. As much as they loved their freedom, even Charlie had admitted that he was growing tired of the constant struggle to keep themselves alive. If they could scratch enough money out of the land they would finally be able to settle down, find real jobs, and maybe even have a family someday. Over the past couple of months, however, there had been increasingly fewer opportunities that led to anything worthwhile. Until now.
If they were truly sitting on an oil deposit of any size, the price could finally make them solvent. Hell, they could sell it all to Outsiders like them and still make a tidy profit, not to mention what it might fetch from the government. Although the world had moved beyond the need for fossil fuels, there was always someone who needed more energy, more power.
All of this ran through her head in a dizzying rush. She closed her eyes as she thought, considering the situation and all its heady possibilities. Money. Home. Family. Security. At last she opened her eyes and looked up at Charlie, saying the only thing she could think of.
“What do we do now?”