In our quest to drill for more and more oil, I think we finally went too deep. Part 1.


I’ve worked in petroleum engineering for 35 years. Most of it has been in the Gulf of Mexico, though I’d done a bit of contract work in the Middle East and Canada. After the BP disaster, there’d been quite a bit of pressure on the major petroleum companies to use extra caution and increase their R&D budgets to design safer technologies to prevent another environmental catastrophe. For most of the people in my position, that meant more work and less pay. Of course.

My most recent employer has been one of the big American oil companies. I’ve been stationed on an experimental, semi-secret offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico. I say “semi-secret” because we’re using a lot of new, highly-proprietary technologies. If our competitors were to learn about them, we’d be set back a few years and countless billions of dollars. All outward appearances would suggest we’re a normal platform that’s outfitted for extreme-depth drilling. If only the competition knew how deep we were going.

The platform is right near the edge of the drop off leading to the Sigsbee Abyssal Plain. One of the new technologies we’ve employed involve our remotely-operated submersibles. They’re basically just submarine drones with lots of cameras and equipment on them that can go super deep. All the ones we’d used in the past needed to be tethered to the surface using a fiber optic connection.

The physical connection had its pros and cons. Fiber optic connections are speedy as all hell, which means commands and data can be sent back and forth to the drone with no meaningful lag. A major downside, though, is that a physical cable limits the maneuvering capabilities of the drone. At the depths we were hoping to reach, the topography was unknown. Previous attempts to send tethered drones ended in failure when the cables were severed by the terrain.

Even with our best satellite, sonar, and early-drone imagery, our knowledge of the area we wanted to drill was terrible. The resolution was too low for any meaningful data to be gleaned. We knew there was oil down there – lots and lots and lots of it – but until we could develop new ways to map the bottom, we were screwed.

A guy named Masaharu Ajibana changed everything for us. He’d been a materials scientist we’d brought on to work on some of the ceramics composites in our drill heads. When he saw the new, undisclosed materials we’d been wanting to employ in the future drills, he must’ve spent four straight days poring over their properties with an enthusiasm I’d never seen in a person over the age of five.

At the end of those four days, Masaharu not only understood the materials better than the team who invented them, but he’d gotten an idea about how to transmit data through miles and miles of murky saltwater using some bizarre form of piezoelectric resonance unique to the properties of the new ceramics. Essentially, a transceiver on the drone would resonate at the same frequency as one on the platform. Once the transceivers were locked in an oscillatory pattern, smaller, tighter waveforms from a second set of transceivers would traverse the oscillation “cable” linking the drone and the platform.

Nearly every scientist in every department in the company said this was entirely impossible. Still, there was enough support from a few key players in R&D that Masaharu’s claims were investigated. Investigation led to cursory confirmations. Cursory confirmations led to experiments. Experiments led to shocking successes. And shocking successes led to the fastest development and deployment of a new technology in the history of the company.

It’s that technology our company employed three weeks ago. We’d been using a fleet of nine drones to map the abyssal plain of Sigsbee Deep. There’s one “hub” drone and eight “mappers.” The hub has one main resonator which communicates with the platform, and eight smaller ones which communicate with the mappers. We were dumbfounded not only by the simplicity and ease of the data transmissions, but by the richness of the data we were seeing.

Another technology we’d deployed for this project was a small, cable-form drill mounted on the mappers. Its drill head was equipped with our new ceramics and could cut through the bottom of the plain with ease. The cables were 3000 feet long – not anything major – but they allowed the mappers to confirm the massive salt sheet we’d assumed was covering the oil deposits.

Once the drill cable maxes out, a tiny device gets deposited in the cavity. It’s mostly multilevel sonar with some seismographs and embedded communicators. Nothing too advanced. It measures minute seismic activity and sends it back to the hub. The data gets processed by our CPU cluster and is incorporated into our future drilling plans.

As I said, we’ve been mapping for three weeks. A week ago, the seismographs started picking up some bizarre activity. And something else happened. It’s something neither I nor the onboard medics can adequately explain.

Last Tuesday, Gervaso Zaragoza, a member of my team, went to the infirmary complaining of severe headaches. He had no history of migraines and until the headaches started, seemed to be in perfect health. The severity of the pain grew as the day went on. After a couple hours, he was screaming. When I stepped out of the infirmary, another team member came to me and casually mentioned the seismic activity of the plain had been rising all day. On a whim, I asked him to send a sleep command to the seismographs. A minute later, Gervaso was fine.

We resumed the operation of the seismographs later in the afternoon. Gervaso, who was resting but otherwise alert, was unaffected. I knew it had to be a coincidence and did my best to put the event out of my mind.

On Wednesday, the mappers were spread in a wide circle out from the hub. They were pinging the interior of the circle with extremely high-resolution sonar, as well as multi-laser topography measurements as the circle widened. The goal was to see if there had been any appreciable surface shifts since the last measurement three days earlier. With the seismic activity we’d experienced, I’d expected some shifts to be detected.

There were no shifts. Instead, there were a series of long, unbroken convexities lining the sea floor. The scan resolution was extremely sharp, and we could clearly see the digitized images of straight lines pushing nearly a meter above the plain. Even with the scans, I wanted to see a camera feed, so I directed the camera to send a raw feed to the platform. The light on the drone went on, and the screen displayed a long, perfectly-straight mound in the silt that stretched for miles. The other mappers displayed the same thing.

The onboard geologist wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a seismic event being the cause of the convexities. He said we knew very little about the seismological properties of the salt plate beneath the plain. The pressures of the silt and water above it and the oil and gas below made for an intensely complicated interaction model, and even though he’d never heard of the type of thing we were seeing, instances of symmetry in natural geology were well-known. He mentioned the basalt formations at Giant’s Causeway. And that’s how he left it.

I wasn’t convinced. Even though I’m not a geologist, it seemed odd that such obvious and large changes could occur with the comparatively-little seismic activity we’d seen. Even though the activity had increased as we’d observed it, it still hadn’t come close to reaching an intensity that would have moved such a large amount of rock and water.

Two days later, on another mapping mission, I took manual control of one of the drones. I’d had the guys from robotics outfit another couple cameras and lights to the outside. I guided the sub along the tallest of the convexities and positioned it about a foot above its surface. All the cameras and lights traced along the convex surface. No visible change from the other day.

I extended the drill. The drill head sank into the convexity and stopped. It was stuck. The transceivers on the hub reported error transmissions from the mapper. I reversed the drill, backed it out, and tried again. Throughout the platform, I heard a number of sharp reports that sounded like gunshots. In the other room, shouts of surprise and screams of fear rang out. I ran from the control panel to see what was going on.

John Edmundson was lying on the floor. A hole had appeared in his belly. A sucking sound filled the room coupled with John screaming with an intensity I’ve never known to be possible. He moved his hands to the wound in an attempt to plug it, but with a series of horrible, wet cracks, his hands and arms were pulled into his belly. Above him, a hole exploded in the steel ceiling, its ragged edges pointing downward. I realized John was being pulled down to the deck below.

I ran down the steps and watched with profound horror as the man was pulled through a series of holes the size of dimes, all the way through every floor in the platform, down to the water. I ran down each floor, watching the column of gore disappear ever downward. Two minutes later, a foam of pulp and entrails floated in heap on the choppy surface of the water.

I slowly plodded back up the steps, unsure if what I’d just seen could possibly have been real. I was jolted out of my contemplation when I realized, behind the shrill voices of my coworkers, an alarm was screaming from the drone control room. I ran back upstairs, past my traumatized colleagues, and made it to the control room. The camera feed was gone.

I rewound to the moment I’d left from the room and started at the screen with disbelief. The convexity below the drone shook like an electric shock had coursed through its bulk. Then, the silt covering it began to fall away. It wasn’t a rock formation. Ripples of peristaltic convulsions seethed along a gray, scarred surface. A hole opened in the surface of it and the drill cable began to get sucked inside. As the 3000 feet were being consumed, the camera showed a vacant column the width of a dime pointing straight up. I realized that must’ve been what had killed John.

Once the drill cable disappeared, the screen went black. The drone, presumably, was gone. The other drones were still mapping away with mechanical obliviousness. I called up the real time sonar data. The convexities had disappeared from the sea floor. I pulled back on the sonar map and tried to figure out what I was seeing. The sonar feed was slow; around 2 frames per second. Still, there was no mistaking what was coming on screen.

The convexities had all lifted from the abyssal plain and were waving back and forth through the water. They were massive; easily 7000 feet long. I couldn’t figure out what was causing them to move. Then, as the reality of John’s death started to sink in and the strangeness of what the camera showed before it went out began to take hold in my mind, I came to a realization that was impossible to ignore. What I was seeing wasn’t an effect of bizarre, deep-sea geology. They were colossal, writhing tentacles.

Will be continued.

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