St. Martin's Press
A hundred miles above the equator, a day's trip by boat from the nearest land, in a place where ocean currents collide beneath a vast horizon of black water and starry sky, a 1,500-foot double flame helix smoldered furiously from the cap end of an alloy gas fountain.
It was midnight. The flames could be seen for miles in all directions, interrupting the desolate waters in spectacular orange and black clouds. Though the billowing smoke and fire had the appearance of chaos, they were in fact controlled blazes created by the western hemisphere's largest offshore oil platform, burning off the lighter layer of natural gas that floated like helium above the denser, more valuable petroleum that the $8 billion rig had been built to extract.
This was Capitana Territory, the largest oil strike ever outside of the Arabian Peninsula, a 68 billion barrel reservoir--a "megagiant" in oilman's terms--beneath a section of seabed off the western coast of South America. It was discovered less than a decade before by a medium-sized Texas oil company called Anson Energy, now a juggernaut even among the largest energy companies in America.
A tall bearded man with the name ANDREAS stitched to his denim shirt observed the flame stacks from the steel deck below. His brown hair was long, tousled, and hadn't seen shampoo for days. Startling blue eyes and a sharp, tanned nose pierced out from behind a mess of mustache and overgrown beard. This was a handsome man who didn't care what he looked like, or what his crew thought. He finished a cigarette and flicked it down into the dark ocean below the platform.
If this had been a paper mill in the forests of Maine, Dewey Andreas would have been called plant manager. At a steel mill in Pennsylvania, he'd have been called gang boss. But this was an offshore oil rig, and the four hundred and twenty roughnecks who lived and worked here around the clock, faces and clothing layered in grease, salt, sweat, and oil, called Dewey gang chief. Or simply "Chief."
Most of the roughnecks on Capitana didn't like Dewey Andreas, but they all respected him. On the rig his word was law. Dewey had gotten his oil-drilling education in northern Europe, on the rickety, death-defying derricks off the bitter cold North Sea shelf. He ran Capitana like a U.S. Marine colonel runs a battalion during wartime, with uncompromising discipline, rapid-fire decisiveness, and absolute autonomy. Dewey's eyes told his men that he wasn't about to put up with shit from anyone. He backed up that look with a pair of massive arms, muscled from years of hard platform work, buoyed by a pair of fists that were ready and willing to be put to use in the constant challenge every gang chief on every offshore oil rig in the world faces: keeping the animals at bay.
Dewey didn't tolerate weakness, imperfection, laziness, or insubordination. If you crossed him, you could expect to pay for it with your job, or worse. Rumors circulated among the men about Dewey's capacity for brutality and violence. Still, the pay was extraordinary for the uneducated collection of ruffians who worked Capitana Territory.
The platform Dewey stood on was the central superstructure for all of the territory. The facility itself was a massive industrial city of pipes, metal, ladders, and controlled flame stacks that rose on thick steel stilts out of the dark waters of the Pacific Ocean like a centaur.
In the distance, a series of more than thirty smaller, unmanned tension leg platforms dotted the landscape. These "mini-TLPs" fed into the central Capitana facility and helped create a steady gusher of oil ready for transport to refineries throughout North America. Capitana was the central juncture in a spiderlike network of pipes that lay across more than a hundred and forty square miles of seabed some six hundred feet below the ocean's surface. More than two thousand insertion pipes spread out across the dark and cold seabed below. It was through these pipes that a crude, dense, and immensely valuable mixture of natural gas and oil bubbled up and coursed into the central pumping station beneath Capitana, where it was separated, then pushed upward to the surface.
Capitana's interweaving pipes, flare booms, and steel decking looked like a monstrous erector set. The flames never ceased. Yet Dewey found something peaceful in the dense orange inferno. The flames told Dewey that his rig was performing.
He walked to the marine deck and stared at the flame stacks one last time before heading inside to his office. He was tired but wanted to look at throughput reports before they were sent off to corporate headquarters in Dallas. These monthly reports tracked the volume of oil pulsing out of the Capitana reservoir.
The November throughput report for Capitana Territory showed why the field was so critical. In the thirty-day November cycle, Capitana had produced 54.6 million barrels of oil. This meant annual throughput of approximately 650 million barrels. The average per barrel extraction-to-market expense was $19 for other oil companies. Dewey's men could do it for $11--an $8-per-barrel cost savings. That $8 along with oil prices averaging $55 per barrel meant net profits of more than $7 billion from Capitana Territory this year. That $8 bought Dewey a lot of leeway in the way he was allowed to run his rig.
It was past midnight. Dewey watched as the confirmation ticker from the fax came through, indicating that his reports had made it to Anson headquarters in Dallas, landing on the desk of a man he'd never met named McCormick.
He reached behind him and took a book off the shelf, a thick, hardcover edition of Moby-Dick that he kept with him. He'd never actually read it, but he kept it with him because behind it he could hide a bottle of Jack Daniel's. He unscrewed the cap and took a large gulp. In a minute or two, he thought, he would head to his adjoining cabin for the night.
On the shelf below, a small wooden frame held a grainy black-and-white photograph. He hadn't looked at the photo in a long time. He glanced at it, looked away, then took another large swig from the bottle. Slowly and against his better judgment, he picked up the photograph and put the whiskey down.
Holding the frame in his left hand, he wiped the dust away from the glass with his right elbow. The photo showed a much younger Dewey with a pretty blond-haired woman and a young boy. Behind them, a large, ornate sign read DISNEYLAND. A statue of Mickey Mouse stood to the side. The boy sat on Dewey's lap, a big smile on his freckled face. The edges of his mouth were decorated with the remnants of a chocolate ice-cream cone.
Dewey had a military uniform on, his Ranger tab visible on his shoulder, white thread around its edges, before he'd been asked to try out for Delta. His hair was cut short, his large arm wrapped around his young wife. She looked tiny against him; protected, beautiful, and happy.
Dewey didn't like to think about his past. Most of the time he didn't have to. He went about his work and when thoughts of his old life crept in he simply worked himself and his men harder. More than a decade had passed since it all ended, and he'd spent those years working as hard as he could physically to escape what haunted him mentally. The sight of his old uniform always jolted him, a combination of intense pride and deep hatred, hatred for what they'd done to him, the crimes he'd been falsely accused of, and for the small-minded people who'd driven him from Delta, from the armed forces, from the country he loved. He'd learned to blot it out, to erase the memories, the history, everything, from his mind.
Oil had been his savior; oil and the anonymous, brutal Darwinism that was the life of a platform man.
He took his big, callused right index finger and rubbed it across the small black-and-white face of the boy in the photograph. He held the frame close to his face, a couple of inches from his nose. Robbie was so young then. He was so perfect. He loved Robbie like he'd never loved anything in his life. He thought of how he used to hold his young son, with the boy's head on his arm and his legs in his hands. Dewey closed his eyes. He could almost feel Robbie there with him.
With his other hand, he picked up the bottle and took another swig, then put it down. He walked to the other side of the small office. He placed the bottle on the desk and sat down in the metal chair. In front of him, he held the photo, staring. A gentle smile, the first in a long time, creased the edges of his mouth as he looked at the grainy photo of what was once his family. He closed his eyes one more time and tried to remember. It had been so long; the memories were harder and harder to find.
A sudden noise came from the deck. Shouting. He stood up, walked down the corridor to the deck, and opened the large steel door that led to the outdoors.
On the deck, men were gathering quickly. In the middle of the crowd, two roughnecks were squared off against each other. The fight had already begun. The crowd around the edge of the fight numbered more than twenty and was growing, the yelling getting louder as the roughnecks egged the fighters on. One of the men in the fight was Jim Mackie, a drill team manager who'd worked Capitana for years. Dewey had hired Mackie after working alongside him on a British Petroleum platform in the North Sea. The other man was a young tanker guide from Egypt named Serine.
Mackie and Serine were squared off, Serine's nose and chin flowing blood. Serine was shirtless. His muscles, like most of the workers aboard Capitana, were ripped. A silver knife appeared in Serine's hand and flicked forward, leaving a large gash in Mackie's thigh. Blood coursed down Mackie's leg to the crimson-splattered deck. Around the two combatants, the crowd continued to grow quickly. By the time Dewey reached the outer edge of the scrum, at least fifty men had gathered.
Dewey pushed his way through to the center of the human ring. As he came to the front, he encountered resistance as men fought to hold their prime place at the edge of the fight.
The crowd was excited and tense, hyped by the fight's rising stakes. As Dewey pushed through, a big man on his left turned quickly in anger. Seeing that it was Dewey, he recoiled and moved aside. The man next to him, an even stockier roughneck, didn't bother to look; he felt Dewey nudge his arm and swung on him. Dewey caught the dirty fist with his right hand. With his left he hammered a fast, crushing blow into the man's rib cage. The man doubled over in pain, but managed to return a blow to Dewey's stomach. Dewey did not even flinch. He delivered another shot with his left as he held the roughneck's fist in his right. This swing landed dead-center on the man's nose, collapsing it and sending him down for good.
The cheering grew louder. Serine had drawn blood again, laying Mackie's cheek open with his blade.
Serine had been hurt as well. His nose looked badly damaged and his left arm was clearly broken, hanging awkwardly at his side. Blood trickled from his left ear, an injury to the head that made him stumble dizzily as he moved.
Dewey had learned long ago to let fights go. It was better to let tensions on the rig settle once and for all than to let them fester, only to explode later on. It was the promise of physical harm, after all, that kept an oil platform stable, not meddling from a supervisor. But this fight would end soon. Mackie was covered in his own blood, the wound on his cheek gaping and wide. Dewey could see the edge of his cheekbone. Serine looked desperate, circling like a maimed animal bent on survival. Dewey stepped forward, toward the two fighters, to break it up. But as he did, Serine's arm flew up wildly at Mackie. Before Mackie could dodge, the knife entered his throat at the larynx. The bigger man stumbled back and away, his chest already soaked in scarlet gushing from the opening in the throat. Mackie attempted in vain to stop the flow and fell to the deck.
As Dewey reached him, Mackie's legs kicked the ground in violent spasms and he began to lose consciousness. Dewey quickly applied pressure to the neck wound, but it was futile, blood gurgled from Mackie's mouth as he struggled to speak.
"A rag, Chief," said one of the men from behind Dewey, handing him a dirty blue cloth.
Dewey stuffed it into the wound and maintained the pressure, but it was no use.
"It's okay," Dewey lied to Mackie. "You're gonna be okay."
Mackie's eyes fluttered and found him. He tried to say something. Dewey leaned closer, his ear inches from the dying man's lips.
"Sally." Mackie coughed. "I love her."
"I know." Dewey's mind flashed on Mackie's wife, back in Cork. "I'll tell her."
Mackie shut his eyes for a moment. He was fading quickly. Then his eyes opened and he moved his lips again.
"Serine," he gurgled. "I found something."
Dewey cradled Mackie's head and stared into the fading gray pools of his eyes. "It's all right, Jim."
Mackie jerked his head back and forth, using the last of his energy. "I found . . ."
"What?" Dewey asked.
"It's them. On the rig . . . they're here." Mackie's voice trailed off and his eyes shut for the last time.
POWER DOWN Copyright© 2010 by Ben Coes
BEN COES is a former speechwriter for the White House, was a fellow at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, a campaign manager for Mitt Romney’s 2002 Gubernatorial Campaign. Power Down is his first novel. He lives with his family in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Visit him on the Web at www.bencoes.com.