Maythem Grant shaded his eyes from the afternoon sun as he looked up to the drilling deck. He put a hand to his temple and adjusted his lens carefully. After a few seconds, the image of the rig foreman appeared. Grant read his lips as he heard the latest torque reading in his earpiece.
Grant muttered to himself, then responded, “Okay, keep going. Get the tungsten silicate additive ready and add to the slurry. Let’s see if we can reduce some of the friction at the cutting face.” And pray we don’t have to change the bit before the final casing point. The foreman nodded and cut contact, his image fading from the lens. Focusing again on ground level, Grant regarded the man in front of him. The new arrival looked young, mid-thirties maybe, with short, neatly trimmed dark hair and a grey suit of excellent cut. His face was lightly tanned, and almond eyes hinted at some distant Asian ancestry. Chinese? Indian? It didn’t matter. Grant had no time today.
“What do you want?” Grant said. “I’m busy. We’ve got a 4.3 planned in two days, and a full three kilometers left to go. Time is tight.” The news about the planned bleed had gone out to the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland super well in advance so that people could prepare themselves. A delay anywhere in the process would mean retraction and rescheduling. It had happened to other bleeders, but never to Grant. “How’d you get past security, anyways?”
The man in the suit said in perfect English, “I convinced your head of security that it was in everyone’s best interests if we spoke.”
“Mmmm.” Clive MacDougall, a big, ruddy Scot who worked as the site security chief, was not a man easily intimidated. For a second, Grant was tempted to call him up and find out more, but he decided against it. Best to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
The man continued, “I am aware of your time constraints. I would not have bothered you today, except that talking to you here, on site, is the only way that I can assure that our conversation goes unmonitored.” He waved his hand at the noisy machinery of the drill rig. “I have come to offer you an employment opportunity.”
Grant snorted. “Not interested. My schedule is full for the next six months. We have a full series of bleeds planned for the Fuca plate, and I have no free time. Sorry.” Grant turned impatiently away from the visitor and criss-crossed the surrounding area with his eyes. There were plenty of workers moving about their business amongst the jagged rocky outcroppings of the drill site, but not the one that Grant was looking for. He tapped over and sent a prompt, but Reed wasn’t answering. He can’t be out of range. Maybe his lens is down.
“Forgive me, Mr. Grant.” Despite the noise from the drilling rig, Grant could easily hear the guarded tone in the other’s voice. He turned again to face him. “Allow me to properly introduce myself. My name is Soon Il Lee. I represent a small nation in the East who would like to contract your services. Our need is urgent, and we can be very generous in our compensation.”
Grant gave him a longer second look. Lee seemed to be sincere. “What’s so urgent? Unless you’re from the Nazca plate subduction zone, you’re not facing more than a 10% chance of a 7.0 or greater for the next year.” Lee’s eyebrows raised slightly, and Grant shrugged. “My field. I keep myself informed.”
“I am impressed by your knowledge, but your conclusions are incorrect. My employers are not in need of seismic mitigation. In fact, they want just the opposite.”
The opposite? That would be a… “No,” Grant said, narrowing his eyes coldly. It hadn’t happened yet, but he didn’t kid himself. A larger than optimal trigger, or even a sub-optimal detonated in exactly the right spot, could over-displace a plate and cause a major quake instead of a minor one. Turning a deep pressure bleed into a weapon was about the worst thing Grant could imagine. “You’ve got the wrong idea. I work to prevent the big ones, not cause them. Not for any amount of compensation.” Behind Lee, Grant’s eyes finally caught Reed, just starting down the ridge from the seismoshack. He was wearing the large transparent goggles that were the main form of communication on site. Grant tapped his own lens in a prompt, and the glass blurred then coalesced into the geoengineer’s face. “Reed, torque is higher than we thought. Might be a shift in the basalt composition. Take another rebound seismogram to see if you can clarify the layers. Also, send me the tables for the expected thermal regime below fifteen kilometers, please.” Reed nodded, his image dissolving. Lens clear once more, Grant was about to turn back to the rig, but Lee spoke first.
“Permit me to explain. The city-state I represent has been subservient to a greater power for over a century now. We exist currently as a protectorate. Many in my nation would like to become fully independent, but not everyone is united. There are many traditionals.”
“And?” Grant gave a brief, angry shake of his head. “Killing a couple of thousand people won’t win independence for you.”
“Terrorism is not our intention,” Lee said. “We want something totally different.” There was a brief pause as their gaze locked, Grant’s angry blue eyes meeting the icy grey eyes of the foreigner. Breaking the impasse by turning aside to examine the site, Lee continued. “Our nation lies on a pensinsula, on the edge of a major continental plate. It is exposed to seismic shear stresses and occasional earthquakes. One such that created a new fault line, a separation fault that lay along the border with our neighbor, could be turned into a considerable unifying factor amongst my people.” Lee turned sharply back to Grant. “Quite simply, we would become an island.”
Grant stared at him. “You want to literally split from your parent country?”
“Crudely phrased, but essentially correct.”
Is that even possible? “How much border are we talking about?” Grant asked.
“Approximately one hundred kilometers.”
“Estimated crust depth?”
“I am told that the Mohorovičić discontinuity is about sixty-five kilometers down.”
Grant considered for a moment, then spoke. “No. No way. You’d need at least half a dozen drill sites, each one reaching to at least the middle of the second fault plane. With the Moho at sixty-five kilometers, you’d probably need to drill to a depth of twenty-five k each, minimum. And the yield requirements…we use minis here for triggers, more than 5 or 10 kilotons, but for what you need? Getting close to a megaton for each site, with exact coordination of the blasts. Even still, it’d be chancy.” Shaking his head, Grant wiped his brow with the back of his hand and paused, looking up at the blue sky. High above, a hawk was slowly circling. As he watched, the bird folded its wings and dove, streaking out of sight behind the line of the ridge above.
Grant returned his gaze to ground level. “This isn’t a game, you know. It’s an exact science. You need precise measurements of the shear forces, probability analysis to determine the location and depth of the hypocenter, accurate yield envelope calculations for the nuclear triggers. You can’t just wing it!”
“I would not be here if what I propose was not possible.” Bending to the ground, Lee picked up a piece of shale. He toyed with it, breaking it into smaller pieces and examining the layers. “A complete analysis has already been done. My employers count on the necessary scientific and engineering support. What we don’t have, what we need, is drilling and blasting expertise.” Lee looked up, locking his gaze on Grant’s face.
Abstractedly fascinated by the precise way that Lee’s fingers moved over the rock, Grant shook his head to clear it. “What you’re talking about is illegal. I’d be thrown in jail just for trying.”
Lee stood. “What is legal depends on the jurisdiction. I assure you, in the nation I represent you would not suffer any legal consequences.”
Grant dug his heel into the gravelly shale, breaking up the thin rock. Squatting, it was his turn to stall as he examined the rock. He said, “There might be an international investigation. Big quakes don’t happen anymore. To create a separation fault, you’d need a big one. The nukes alone would result in a 7.5 or higher, the biggest quake in twenty years. My involvement would be uncovered sooner or later.”
“The current political climate in my country makes an investigation unlikely. In any case, accomplishment of such a feat may actually improve your employability. And if not,” Lee shrugged slightly. “Our compensation will be more than enough to ensure your permanent comfort.”
Grant stood up as a boom came from up the slope. That’ll be Reed, setting off the explosives for the rebound seismogram. Startled, Lee turned to look, but Grant kept his attention on the man from the East. There’s something he’s not telling me.
“Why me? There are half a dozen other top bleeders you could go to.” Despite the intense sun, beaming down in the middle of a hot summer day, Lee’s brow was dry and cool. His manner reminded Grant a little of the rock found in this part of the world. The local geocomposition was mostly sedimentary rock, an ancient ocean bottom thrust upward in the orogenesis that created the Western Cordillera. Like the rock, the man from the East had layers. But the Cascades also contained a large igneous component, molten lava that had burst violently free, then cooled to a dark immovable exterior, hiding the pressure and heat beneath. Lee had a similar unknowable quality, immense force hidden under an unremarkable exterior. Behind his lens, Grant began to feel afraid.
Lee turned back, a dark glint in his eyes. “You have the most experience. Thirty years of deep pressure bleeds in every inhabited continent. Your graduate work helped pioneer the field. Before that, five years in demolitions with the American Alliance Armed Forces. You are obviously the top candidate for our particular job.” He smiled toothily. “Are you not?”
Grant shrugged uncomfortably, tearing his eyes away from Lee’s gaze with an effort. “That’s why I have a full plate.” I have to end this. “Listen, your plan is intriguing, but it’s not worth the risks. Your parent country won’t be pleased at an artificially created fault. Neither will your own citizens if they find out you sprung a major quake on them. Afterwards, I might never work again. My answer is no.” He turned away.
“You might never work again in any case.” Grant froze, then slowly turned back to face the other. Lee’s voice had changed; it held a new note that was as ominous as his eyes. He said, “Shall we continue the biography? You finished secondary in the Mid-west, but where did you start it? There is no record. And there are other incongruities. You were one year older than your classmates. It seems you must have missed a year somewhere, which was surprising given your excellent grades. It couldn’t have been for academic reasons.”
Sweat beading on his forehead, Grant swallowed. “Where did you find this? What gives you the right–“ Fists clenched at his sides, Grant cut off, quickly looking about him for nearby workers within hearing range. There were none, but he kept silent. Lee went on, harshness replacing his earlier even manner.
“Digging deeper, it appears you changed your name right before rejoining secondary. Of course, you opted to have that information restricted, but we are not without resources, are we?” Lee pulled gently at an earlobe in affectation, but his eyes remained glued to Grant.
Sweating freely now, Grant struggled to speak. “Hey now, wait. You can’t just–”
“We know everything, Mr. Grant. How you were born in San Sacramento. How you were afflicted with a hormonal problem called androgen insensitivity syndrome. How you took a year off during secondary to undergo treatment. Where you lived before, during, and after. And of course the central fact that you were born female.”
Grant closed his eyes dizzily. This was a past he had left behind forty years ago. “No, I was not born female. Genetically, I’ve always been male, it was just that–“
“Just that you looked female, I know. An effect of androgen insensitivity syndrome. I am told that some with the condition never find out about it. They live out their entire lives as females, they way they were born. But you weren’t like that, and your mother was very disappointed in your…leanings, shall we say? Your home life must have been very difficult near the end.” Lee’s face was inscrutable, but Grant understood. He knows everything. Grant massaged his temples, his mother’s voice echoing in his ears. Oh honey, you’re my beautiful baby girl. Remembering, Grant’s stomach bunched in helpless dread. If it hadn’t have been for his younger sister… That was a long time ago, he told himself.
Lee continued, “You would have escaped into the Army, but the age regulations prevented it. However, when your condition was discovered, you took a year off secondary for medical treatment, then changed your name to hide your past. You finished secondary, then joined the Forces and fell in love with demolition. How am I doing?”
Reed would be finishing with the rebound seismogram soon, but Grant had forgotten all about him. He began to feel a new emotion: anger. “You bastard, this is why you picked me. Not for my training and experience, but because you could blackmail me.”
Lee regarded him dispassionately. “You can hardly expect us not to use what leverage we have. What we plan is unprecedented, and the margins for error are very small. But my previous offer stands. Significant compensation and as much protection as we can offer you, which,” he added, “is considerable, especially taking into account the small size of our nation.”
Grant calmed his breathing. “Even if my past did come out, it wouldn’t matter. My crew would follow me anywhere, and as for clients, well, nobody cares about a past forty years gone.” Grant raised his gaze to the top of the four storey superstructure of the drilling rig. The sun was just passing noon, and the day’s heat was building towards its peak. Sweat now pouring from his face, he waited, a hollow pit growing in his stomach.
Lee said, “I have no doubt that your crew would follow you. The loyalty you inspire is part of your attraction to us. But as for your clients? The world of seismic mitigation is in general a man’s one. Old prejudices die hard, and no one likes to be lied to. Your past would come out as a scandal. Clients who wouldn’t object to a female bleeder might be repelled by your duplicity in covering it up. Why take such a chance?” A cruel pause developed. Lee stretched it out, then said, “And when the news reaches your family, your parents will be humiliated. The shame of it all…”
Grant looked up sharply, meeting Lee’s black eyes. Turning away in disgust, he looked over the dusty site. From the old, traditional chain link fence at the bottom where the access road was, to the brown boards of the seismoshack on the ridgetop, his thirty-two employees went methodically about their duties, oblivious to the struggle between Grant and the visitor. Setting his jaw, Grant decided.
Turning to meet Lee’s eyes, Grant said, “I will not be forced into what you intend. My answer is no, you can do as you will. You have exactly 30 seconds to get out of my sight before you are evicted. How comfortable that eviction is will be up to you.” Grant spun around, and angrily tapped over to MacDougall’s line. He waited for the scrape of heel on shale that meant that Lee was leaving. But Lee spoke once more.
“My apologies, Mr. Grant, for having taken up so much of your valuable time. It is of course your right to decide which contracts to take and which not to. It is a shame that you will not be able to help us, as we will be forced to use a bleeder of lesser skill and experience. There are several cities very close to the planned detonation zone. Mistakes will no doubt be made.”
Grant cancelled the alert, turning his head just enough to see Lee in the corner of his eye. “That’s on you,” he said over his shoulder. “Just leave me out of it.”
“Of course.” Lee half-turned as if to go, then paused. “Incidentally, have you heard from your sister lately?”
Cold terror pulled Grant around, the space between him and Lee disappearing in an instant. His strong hands gripped the Lee roughly by the shoulders, shaking him with each word. “What have you done to Annette? Speak, you bastard!”
Lee stared calmly into Grant’s face. “Please, Mr. Grant. You are drawing attention to yourself. Quite unwise.” Grant forced his hands to open, and took a small step back. “Much better. No, nothing has happened to your dear sister and her son. I just wanted to know if you wanted me to pass them a message from you. You see, your nephew has accepted a position at a firm in the city of Qing Don in my country, and his mother is with him there.” Lee’s expression was neutral, but his eyes glittered evilly.
He continued, “Qing Don is quite a nice city, but so close to the border, and with everything that will be happening soon…well, I just thought you’d like to know.”
Grant frantically considered his options. Could he get rid of Lee? Accidents had been known to happen on site. If he could maneuver Lee close to the spinning drill stack, a quick shove could take care of him. Grant’s eyes fell on the military transport vehicle, its armored dark exterior vouchsafing the small nuclear payload that would be used to trigger the bleed. Once the bit came up, the bomb would go down, capped by a thousand tons of leaded concrete and hundreds of thousands more of drill rock. His crew was dead loyal; the body would never be found.
But no, Lee wasn’t acting alone. He came as an envoy, and wouldn’t be the only one with this information. His disappearance would only anger his employers, and probably trigger repercussions. Grant knew all about repercussions, they were his stock-in-trade.
Shading his eyes, he again turned to look over the site. Thirty years of drilling and blasting for deep pressure bleeds passed before his eyes like a dream. But it all came back to this: he had no choice, and they both knew it.
Maythem Grant turned towards the man from the East and nodded once slowly. He was beaten.
Neatly folding his last piece of clothing, Grant placed it in his open suitcase and closed the clasp. All was in readiness. His eyes fell on his lens, sitting on the bed next to his luggage, and a slow smile spread across his broad face. There was still one job left to do. He lifted the lens over his head and fixed it in place, then made the connection. After a few seconds, the outline of his hotel room blurred and coalesced into Lee’s stony face, set before the now familiar outlines of the primary blast site. The man from the East was angry, his eyebrows knitted tightly above his narrowed eyes. The growing wind picked at his suit and pushed his neatly cut hair to and fro. When he spoke, his voice was a controlled hiss.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? You should be here, we only have a few hours before detonation!”
Grant let a languid smile spread across his face. He said, “Oh, I’m well aware of the timeline. I designed it, after all. Everything is quite on schedule.”
It didn’t seem possible for Lee’s face to get any angrier, but he managed it somehow. Visibly taking hold of himself, he said icily, “You have exactly 20 minutes to present yourself. If not, your sister and nephew will pay.”
Grant chuckled easily and tsked gently. “Now, now Lee, you weren’t like this at all the first time we spoke. Could it be things have changed between us? That would be a shame now, wouldn’t it?” White with rage, Lee opened his mouth to speak. Grant forestalled him, voice gone suddenly hard.
“You’re a powerful man in your way, Lee, but like many before you, you let your own sense of invincibility become your downfall. You had me at your mercy when we first met, but since then, you’ve given me the one thing I needed to make things right: time. Did you think I would so meekly acquiesce to your demands? I’ve been working on the detonation, yes, but I’ve been busy in other ways. For example, when was the last time you heard from the crew in charge of keeping an eye on my family?”
Lee’s eyes had widened in surprise at the unexpected tirade, but he quickly recovered. He said, “Their situation is in hand. The upcoming storm–“
“–is not the problem. Your men have been neutralised. My family is on their way back to the Americas, and you…“ (here Grant jabbed his finger at Lee, uncaring that the lens projection wouldn’t display the gesture)”…have lost your leverage.”
For a split second, his acting skills deserting him under the stress, Lee blanched. Quickly recovering, he spoke in clipped tones, the only sign of his worry the urgency with which he spoke. “What are you going to do?”
“Oh, don’t worry. You’ll still get your detonation. Some of my old buddies are now powerful men in the Alliance, but I’m not so well protected that I want your assassins tracking me for the rest of my life. However, certain…decisions have been made without your input. Regarding the Qin-yang platinum deposits, for example?” The widening of Lee’s eyes was all the confirmation that Grant needed. He chuckled.
“Yes, the ones you didn’t think I knew about. You were counting on them to help jump start your fledgling new economy, but they will unfortunately end up on the mainland side of the fault. I’m sorry if it causes your country some unnecessary hardships. Adversity is something we must all overcome at times.” In a carefully considered act, Grant tilted his head to one side and pulled at an earlobe in false affectation. Turning back, he again let his voice grow hard.
“I must be going now. I advise you to get yourself to safety. The typhoon will cover many of the mass-effects of the blast, but you never can be too sure. And, Lee?” The man from the East had recovered his poise, the only indication of his attention being a slight arch of his eyebrows. “Don’t come after me. You won’t survive to learn from your mistake.” Grant cut contact, and the image of the primary site faded from view.
With a deep satisfied sigh, Grant tossed the lens to the floor and ground it to bits under his heel. Picking up his luggage, he headed for the door. The winds were picking up, and it was time to go. Pausing and turning back to regard the view from the wide picture windows, Grant let a smile touch his lips as a familiar eager light filled his eyes.
It was going to be one hell of a blast.