Hal Reynolds swore under his breath as he watched the drill shaft rotate in place on the video monitor. It was the same damn thing as the last time. He keyed his headset mike on.
"Its not going anywhere," he told the team. The news was greeted by groans over the intercom.
The core bit had stopped at 437 feet, hitting something too hard to penetrate.
The current bit was designed to take ice core samples, not rock samples. While it could go through dirt and soft rocks, it couldnt deal with harder material like granite, which was probably what they had hit.
"Im going out," he said.
"Wear a sweater," Sinclair advised over the intercom. Reynolds allowed himself a grin. "Yeah, right," he thought to himself.
Reynolds unplugged his headset, zipped up his parka, pulled on his goggles, raised the hood and stepped out of the survey shack. The wind hit him like a piece of drywall.
"This is summer?" he thought as he bent into the wind and worked his way towards the rig. "I hate goddamn cold," he whined to himself, for at least the thousandth time since hed been here.
Summer in Antarctica actually could be almost pleasant at times, with the temperature running up near or even above zero Fahrenheit, but such was the exception, not the rule. Today was more typical; despite the sunshine, it was minus 15 degrees and the wind chill factor, he decided, was approaching absolute zero.
As Reynolds approached the drilling rig, Bob Sinclair came at an angle from the communications trailer and joined him. Leaning into Reynolds shoulder, he shouted over the wind.
"Were only 40 feet from the last hole. Theres gotta be something down there."
Reynolds nodded. "Its a granite shelf or something," he yelled.
"But it wasnt clear on the echoes," Sinclair replied.
"We saw shapes of something," said Reynolds. "We just didnt know how dense they were. The depth is right; we just gotta figure out what weve hit."
As part of their survey, long before they started drilling, the team had set off a series of small explosive charges, conducting echo soundings to try to determine what lay under the ice. The area they were working had proven interesting because of a large number of somewhat regularly spaced and shaped echoes, all at roughly the same depth. And while their funding was from Arcon, and they were in part looking for possible oil deposits, they were officially conducting surveys for the University of California at Berkeley. That gave them the luxury of investigating soundings that werent necessarily related to potential oil deposits.
Reynolds and Sinclair fought their way through the wind to the rig, where Rank Matthews waited for them. Reynolds leaned close to Matthews and cupped his hands around his mouth.
"Shut it down," he ordered. "Lets switch to a hard diamond bit and find out what were hitting."
Matthews gave an exaggerated nod. "Gimme about an hour to yank the drill. I might be able to get the new bit down today."
Reynolds smiled. "Youre a good man, Charles Brown," he shouted.
Matthews flipped him the bird. "Same to you, egghead!"
Reynolds chuckled, and turned back toward the office shack. Matthews was one of those hardasses you could always count on.
Matthews watched Reynolds and Sinclair struggle away through the wind, shaking his head.
Hal Reynolds had never left school. After receiving his B. S. in geology at Georgia Tech, hed gone on to get his Masters and Ph. D. at U. C. Berkeley Cal, to its alumni and stayed on to teach. At 42 he was tenured, and spending most of his time doing field research. Despite his credentials, he was the kind of professor who not only didnt mind getting his hands dirty, he liked to. At a couple of inches over six feet and 210 pounds, he had no problem stepping in to help wrangle core pipes if the need arose.
He returned to the shack, got a sandwich and a bottle of juice out of the refrigerator, and sat down to study the echo readings for the hundredth or so time. Hed never seen anything like them anywhere in Antarctica. There was a regularity to them that almost looked like whatever was down there was man-made.
Which was, of course, impossible. This part of the Antarctic continent had been covered with ice for tens of millions of years, and the last time the sun had shone on the dirt and rock surface below, Antarctica hadnt been at the bottom of the world, but rather, further north, in a more temperate latitude. Continental drift over the eons had changed the positions of all of earths land masses, and Antarctica, its luck running out, ended up at the bottom of the planet.
Whatever had created the structural patterns in the rocks below would have to have been some process new to geology, and finding new geological things was Reynolds favorite activity.
Reynolds was chewing the last bite of sandwich when Bob Sinclair came through the door, letting in a blast of wind. Reynolds looked up at his assistant, one of three graduate students at the site, and grinned. "Rank thinks this is a complete waste of time, doesnt he?"
"Well, yeah, pretty much," Sinclair replied. "Hes an oil guy. He thinks collecting rocks is something that kids do."
"I never claimed I wasnt still a kid. And these days Ive got the neatest toys to play with."
"Yeah, well the way Rank sees it, youre playing with his toys." Sinclair opened the cupboard and peered in, trying to decide what he wanted for a snack. "We keep bouncing his bits off rocks, hes liable to start making unpleasant noises about how much were spending on our hobby."
Reynolds leaned back in his chair and considered what Sinclair had said.
The partnership of academia and industry had been generally beneficial to both, but there were times when the relationship could begin to chafe. Arcon wanted to know what lay under the Antarctic surface every bit as much as Reynolds did, but for their own obvious reasons. By combining pure research with oil exploration, they took the shared raw data and extrapolated their own information.
But when the current type of situation presented itself, where time and money were being spent on work that clearly wasnt going to help locate dead dinosaurs that could end up sloshing around in someones gas tank, the folks back at headquarters who got paid to count beans started tugging at their collars.
Reynolds knew this, and reckoned that he had a fairly good idea of how often and how much to push, but he sometimes wondered if his zealousness took him a bit close to the edge. He knew that if the next attempt to get meaningful samples failed, itd be time to stop pushing and let the crew move on to another site.
"Were dropping the bit into the hole we already drilled, so it wont take long," he said. "If we come up empty, well move on."
Sinclair had selected a large chocolate-chip cookie. He nodded.
Reynolds looked back at the echo plots.
"Still, Id sure like to know whats down there."
Sinclair nodded again, his mouth full. "Me schew," he replied.
At first glance, Rank Matthews was an old-fashioned oil man. Big, stocky and ox-strong, he put up a good front as a gruff rigger. What he almost never revealed to co-workers was that he held a degree in English literature with minors in physics and math, completed on a football scholarship at Florida State. Drafted as a defensive tackle by the Seattle Seahawks, his NFL plans were derailed when he blew out his right knee in the third game of his rookie season.
With an education that qualified him to sit in an office pushing papers around, he opted instead to work outdoors, and following a buddys suggestion, found himself on an oil rig. In less than ten years he had worked his way up to chief rigger.
Hed worked in Texas, Alaska, California, Kuwait, Nigeria and Chechnya before signing on with Arcon and being assigned to head the drill team in Antarctica. The project had interested him for several reasons, the primary one being the chance to spend some time on a continent that few people would ever see. The hardship pay didnt hurt either.
But despite his caustic comment to Reynolds, he was actually quite pleased to be working on a project that counted for more than just oil company profits. To get along with the rest of the crew he of course had to disparage the university guys, but that was for show. He was curious about what was down there as much as Reynolds and Sinclair, and the fact was that he wasnt about to give up without finding out if he could help it.
When the last section of pipe came out of the hole, he and Dave Howard, his chief assistant, disconnected the steel bit and attached a diamond core bit. They then started to lower the pipe, one section at a time, adding new sections as they progressed.
An hour and a half later, the drill was down to its original level at the bottom of the ice pack, and once again pressed on the hard surface. With Reynolds, Sinclair, both of the other grad students and the drill hands watching, Matthews engaged the engine and started applying pressure. Despite the fact that there were gauges that would show how far the bit was cutting, all eyes were on the section of pipe that protruded from the hole. By watching a mark or scratch as the pipe turned, it was easy to tell if the drill was making any progress.
After a few long minutes it became obvious that the bit was indeed cutting into whatever was down there. "Its biting," Matthews shouted over the wind, not taking his eyes off the pipe, "but whatever its biting into is mighty tough." He increased the pressure on the bit, but if the progress increased it wasnt noticeable to the eye.
Reynolds nodded. Even with granite, the bit should be making more progress than it was. An hour later, the progress began to slow, and by the end of an hour and a half, the bit would cut no further. Theyd bored just under 10 inches into the material. Matthews released the pressure on the pipe and shut down the engine.
"The bits shot," he yelled. "Im gonna have to pull it and replace it."
Reynolds stomped back and forth in an attempt to warm up. "Its late enough. Lets leave it down and pull it in the morning."
Matthews grunted. "Fine by me."
With the sun approaching its lowest point over the horizon, the group retired to their quarters.
By early the next afternoon the crew had pulled the drill, replaced the bit and resumed the drilling. Reynolds was in the survey shack when the intercom crackled to life. It was Matthews. "Hal, you probably wanna haul your butt out here."
Reynolds keyed the mike. "Whats up?"
"We just broke through. The drills into something a lot softer. Im guessing its dirt."
"Be right there," Reynolds replied.
The wind was nowhere near as fierce as it had been the day before, and Reynolds didnt bother to pull his parkas hood over his head as he made his way to the rig. Hed alerted Sinclair, who arrived from the communications trailer simultaneously.
Matthews was already pulling the pipe. As the pair approached, he pulled off his goggles. "We went through just about 22 inches of the hard stuff before the going got easy," he said. "Another eight inches of the softer stuff to pack the end of the pipe, and weve got a sample coming up."
"Alright," said Sinclair, "I wanna see what that stuff is."
"You aint the only one," said Reynolds. Matthews shot Reynolds a quick grin.
When the final section of pipe had cleared the hole, the crew wrestled it to the sample tray, and inserted a plunger into the top end to push out the core sample. As expected from Matthews observation, the lowest section of the core appeared to be compacted common dirt.
What came next made Reynolds brows knit. Above the dirt, the core sample was a uniform dark gray. It looked less like granite than marble, and even at a glance appeared extremely dense.
But the real surprise came when the end of the sample emerged. The last core samples theyd brought up before hitting the hard material and switching to the diamond bit had been what theyd expected: hundreds of feet of ice over several feet of dirt and organic material, so there was nothing but a small amount of debris in the core sample above the hard material. As the top of the sample came free from the pipe, it was immediately apparent that, aside from the scratches resulting from the drilling process, the top of the hard material was completely flat.
Moving to the bottom of the dark section of the sample, Reynolds inspected the boundary with the dirt section. It was irregular.
"Damn," he half muttered. Sinclair was on the other side of the sample tray. "Second that," he said.
Matthews had been watching the two of them from over Reynolds shoulder. "So whats the deal?" he asked.
Reynolds and Sinclair looked up from the sample at each other, and then back down at the sample. Finally, Reynolds spoke. "If I didnt know better, Id say this was concrete poured over dirt."
"But it cant be concrete," Reynolds continued, "and even if it were, its like no concrete Ive ever seen."
Matthews scratched his nose. "How long ago did you say the surface heres been buried under ice?" he asked.
"Somewhere between 50 and 80 million years," Reynolds answered.
"It has to be volcanic," said Sinclair. "That could explain the rough bottom surface."
"But it wouldnt explain the top surface," said Reynolds. "When was the last time you saw lava harden into a smooth surface?"
"Ive seen smooth lava fields."
"Not this smooth."
Sinclair nodded. He had to agree, the top surface was like nothing hed ever seen in a hardened lava flow. It had a surface grain like fine sandpaper.
"OK," said Reynolds, "lets preserve this lower dirt section along with the previous one that was under the ice, but what Im really concerned with is this dark stuff. I want to do some analysis. Lets get pictures of everything, and then move this to the lab."
"You got it," Sinclair replied.
Jill Hodge, the grad student who served as the teams photographer, fetched her camera from the photo lab in the main shack and took photos of the sample as a whole and in sections, rotated 90 degrees for each series. When she finished, Reynolds gently tugged at the dark material until it broke free from the dirt. The process took more effort than he expected, because the dark material was heavier than he thought it would be.
With matching grunts, he and Sinclair lifted the dark section of the core off the tray, and moved it onto a sling that Sinclair had laid down. Together they grabbed the handles on each end of the sling and lifted it.
"At least 130 pounds," said Sinclair.
"More like 150," countered Reynolds.
In the main shack, they rolled the sample off the sling and onto the scale. The scales strain gauges zeroed in on the samples weight: 163 pounds, seven ounces.
"This aint no granite. Or marble," said Sinclair.
"This is definitely weird," said Reynolds, "Its way too dense."
Reynolds picked up a small pick and hit the sample with the side face. The sample responded with a "tink" that sounded like marble, but a notch or two lower in pitch.
"I want to analyze a slice," said Reynolds. "The sample looks to be homogeneous from top to bottom. Im going to cut it in half, and take a slice from the middle."
"Sounds like a plan," Sinclair replied.
A half hour later, using a diamond rotary saw, Reynolds had a millimeter slice of the core sample, a section of which he pulverized and fed into the spectrometer. The sample was vaporized and the spectrometer went to work.
Within a few minutes the results were displayed on the spectrometers screen.
Reynolds studied the data for several minutes before retrieving a reference volume from the bookshelf and opening it, then studied the data for a few minutes more before rendering his initial verdict: