Chapter 1: Harder than diamonds

Getting up from his warm and comfortable bed, Alexander plugged the sinkhole and ran some water.  Looking at himself in his small rounded mirror, he caressed his beard and felt rather happy with his look.  He didn’t look a day over forty, but in reality, he was a great deal older than that.  He took a bird bath in the sink, warmed up some coffee and, before exiting his quarters, he made an “X” on the calendar reminding him of how long he had before getting reunited with his wife and daughters—April 18, 1997—two more weeks, he thought.  He then exited his room onto his small private balcony.  The air outside was very cool, the water around him was all of a crystal clear blue and, beside the occasional birds making ripples on the surface, the water was perfectly still, reflecting the mountains standing all around the fjord like a mirror.  Alexander took a deep breath, enjoying the majestic view of silver grey mountains covered with pure white snow, which contrasted with the clear blue sky.

He took a moment to look at his watch indicating 0700 hours and, with the precision of an atomic clock, his satellite phone rang.

“Is everything in place?” a man asked on the phone.

“Now it is.” Alexander replied.

“Yeah, it was touch and go for a while, two years of planning almost wasted in a single action.”

“I know, if I had not been there, they would have continued further downstream and we would have missed our chance,” commented Alexander.

“It would have been a shame for you to have seen those years gone in smoke for nothing.”

“True... The fact is, I can afford these years and then some more, the rest of the world cannot.”

“What about that new recruit of yours?” the man continued.

“Low, but that doesn’t matter; the system will fix that and my friend is the highest we found in Norway.  We should be fine.”

“It’s your show.”

“We still have a plan B, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that though,” finished Alexander as he said good-bye and replaced the phone on his hip.

He absorbed the view for a few more moments, took another deep breath and filled his lungs with fresh air.  Then, listening to the sound of his growling stomach, he started making his way down to the eating area.  The room was spacious and, although it was only a cafeteria, the company had made great efforts in making it feel like a decent family diner.  The cooks were already busy making breakfast for everyone on board.  Feeding forty-five people on a daily basis was not an easy task; especially that the crew was composed of those coming from many different countries.

Even though Alexander was the highest-ranking man on board, he had always made a point not to influence the chef to make dishes to suit his North American taste.  His only particularity when it came to food, compare to the rest of the crew, was the fact that he was a vegetarian.

He generally preferred eating alone while reading progress reports and marine charts, not having to care about the daily routines of the crew.  But this morning, the crew seemed restless and Alexander had to answer a myriad of questions all cumulating to the same thing, when the drilling would resume.  Everyone had just returned from three days of shore leave after a piece of equipment had failed and replacement parts had to be flown in and driven to the site.  As it was often the case on oil rigs that the crew earned bonuses for each barrel extracted, downtimes were costly for everybody on board.  The briefing this morning was rather short; they had not changed drilling location since the malfunction occurred and everybody was professional enough to know what had to be done.  Before long, a very loud buzzer sounded announcing the beginning of the day's work.

The roughnecks were already busy setting the Kelly table, adding the drill shaft one Sby one like kids stacking Lego blocks and setting them solidly into position as they disappeared underneath the platform.  At the end of the shaft was an annular diamond-impregnated drill bit attached to the end of hollow drill rods to cut a cylindrical core of solid rocks at the bottom of the fjord. It was a dangerous job that needed constant vigilance and complete trust among coworkers.  As soon as the setup was completed they started rotating the table and the shaft started spinning.

Minutes went by and, as the drill slowly descended, new rows were added to extend its reach all the way to the bottom and beyond.  As soon as it reached the hard surface, the rotation decreased slightly due to the pressure exerted as the diamonds were eating away at the rocky bottom, or so they imagined.  It took only moments for the roughnecks to realize that something was wrong, the table was turning at a normal speed, but the shaft remained at the same depth, which clearly indicated that the bit was not boring through the rocks at all.  Instead of the astonishment and puzzlement one would expect, a man burst out in laughter.

“Asker, forgot to wear your glasses this morning?” laughed Didrik, one of the roughnecks.

“Shit, if you're about to suggest that I forgot to put the diamond drill bit on before we lowered the shaft in the water, well the answer is obviously ‘No,’ it takes two guys to fix the damn thing and you were all around me when I did it with Claudio over there,” replied Asker, clearly annoyed at the implication. “It might have something to do with the downward pressure, we had the same problem three days ago, but when we decided to rev it up, the engine seized.”

“We'd better call the engineers on this, although I really enjoyed the long week-end and that little village where I promised one of the local girls I’d go back at my next shore leave, I would rather grab a big fat paycheck,” said Didrik as he moved out of the way.

“Rather than her big fat ass,” added Asker grinning.  “But speaking of ass, I'd like to protect my own and raise the drill to see if indeed we were not all hallucinating and check if we actually secured the diamond bit at the end of this thing.”  He knew that the statement and the worries were unnecessary.  In fifteen years on the job, it had never happened.  Diamonds made holes through anything and that was it.

Twenty minutes later, the diamond drill bit finally emerged from the water below; water was dripping on the equipment as it rose on to the platform.  Baffling but not unexpected, the drill bit was indeed attached at the end of the shaft.  Asker, with the help of another roughneck, unfastened the drill’s two attachments and turned the large drill bit upside down, sitting it on the deck for everyone to see.  They all looked at Asker who was as white as the snow covering the mountains behind him.  The surface had been totally obliterated; all that remained was a perfectly smooth surface.

An oh-shit look seemed to be the common theme on all their faces.

“These are microfine industrial grade diamonds… as far as I know, this is the hardest thing known to man.  What could have possibly dulled them so quickly?” asked another roughneck knowing the answer as much as the next guy.

“In theory, nothing… on top of that, the water is extremely cold, especially at the bottom, and the cooling system was engaged and running properly, so we can rule out overheating.  But that’s all I have as an explanation,” said Didrik.

“Well, actually I don't want to split hairs, but the depth has nothing to do with it.  The fjord has no thermocline, but the water is indeed at 2° C and the cooling system was turned on, for little it can do at these cold temperatures anyway.  Besides, when we reached the bottom, the drill could not have been turning for more than one to two minutes, which is definitely not enough to dull a diamond drill bit. I know for a fact that these bits are designed to take severe punishment, boring holes more than 150 metres in solid rock before slowing down,” said Asker matter-of-factly.

“Thank you Asker for being thorough,” observed Didrik forcing a smile to hide his nervousness.  “I’m not afraid to say it:  In my long career doing this job, I have seen a lot of bizarre problems, but nothing like this.”

“Same here,” agreed the rest in unison.

“Okay, let's bring this to the briefing room and have a chat with the eggheads and see what they have to say about it,” finished Didrik, looking definitely puzzled by the morning’s event.  As he walked away leaving the crew to secure the drill, he pondered the meaning of the riddle.  Nothing was more solid than a diamond—that was a fact.  It was also a fact that the Earth was once believed to be flat, he thought.