The shaft is unforgiving. Grinding into the night, the machine sounds slice into the skull. Hardened steel drill bits on the head pulverizing the bedrock vibrate the platform. The sounds are shock waves battering your bones. Burnt rock dust smells like the devil's pitchfork. Powdered bits of stone clog the mask, making breathing difficult. When asked about work the reply is always, 'I'm not in hell yet but I'm trying to get there as fast as I can.'
Vertical drilling has many unique challenges. Removing the rock dust produced from drilling vertical and horizontal shafts that could eventually be miles in length was just one. Reducing the heat from the friction produced drilling rock without the use of precious water resources was another. Keeping a worker alive much less comfortable thousands of feet below the surface of the planet proved impossible.
The engineers developed a rig that could be operated by a lone worker, standing on a built-in platform over the drilling assembly. The convex head was twenty feet across and lined with hundreds of tungsten carbide bits. Armatures with wheels pressed against the walls of the shaft and provided the pressure to push the rig into the rock. A massive electric motor powered the drill head. The worm was a tube the operator used to suck the dust from the top of the drill assembly as it spun into the rock.
The operation was hailed a success. The plan to move cities underground to escape the dust from the wasteland brought praise from all citizens in Terradorn. The drilling of pilot holes would later be followed by perpendicular shafts that would create a matrix of large tunnels deep below the surface. With temperatures that never exceeded 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the relief from the heat would be welcome, yet no one realized how imperiled the operation would soon be.
* * *
“Copy that. I noticed you shut down the rig. What's the issue?” The dispatcher pulled his boots from the top of the desk and placed a freshly poured steaming mug of synthetic java on the tired steel frame of a desk littered with notes and invoices.
“I've turned on the camera in my mask. If I send you a screen shot can you forward it to Johnson.” Johnson was the site engineer. He had a meticulously groomed face; an attention to detail made him the most respected boss on the site. It was his job to keep the mission on course.
“No problem. Let me make sure my third hand is in networking mode.” Bailey checked his device with a quick thumb swipe and waited for the image.
“What is that?” Bailey was squinting at the grainy image. “Is that liquid?”
“Yes. There are several spots in the shaft that started seeping in the last ten feet. Just send the pic over to Johnson. See what he thinks. I'll wait to power up the rig until I hear back.” The operator had walked over and investigated wet spots forming on the shaft wall. He was near the end of a short four hour shift; the drilling rig wore down the workers like the rock it was tearing through.
“Johnson, It's Bailey did you get that picture from the shaft?” He wasn't worried until he heard an alarm and people yelling at the other end of the call.
“Holy hell Bailey! Summon the search and rescue team. The surveyors assured me we were over a thousand feet from that aquifer. We gotta get him outta there!” Johnson's voice was panicky. Two thousand feet from the surface, he knew if the shaft wall ruptured it would fill up in minutes.
* * *
“Gear up!” The rescue team was always on call. They had bunker bags full of rope, carabiners and other rigging gear ready to go. Alpha, the lead man radioed his team.
“Bravo, Charlie, do you copy? We have a deep well breech. I'm in my buggy heading to the drilling site, make sure Bailey has notified the hoist operator. We only have a few minutes to get him out.” Alpha earned his name. An iron jaw was riveted to a muscular frame; he took the initiative when others wilted. Death was always a heartbeat away.
The rescue team of three first responders raced to the drill site in their buggies, gunning them through the sparse traffic. A strobe light and siren warned pedestrians and trams to get out of the way.
“How many feet of cable are on the emergency hoist?” Alpha launched out of his seat toward the massive pit. The hoist operator flinched as the rest of the team spun their buggies sideways into the drilling site.
“I don't know, we haven't used it.” The operator had a stunned look on his face.
“Great. Charlie rig up a five point harness. I'll make a lead line to connect to the hoist. Bravo, help the hoist man." Alpha's veins were popping as he jabbed a finger in the hoist operator's chest. "You better feed enough line on that hoist to reach our man down there or I'll have your license.”
“Yes sir, I'll get the other spool. We will put on another thousand feet, just in case.” The hoist operator's face had drained to ash.
* * *
“Bailey. Do you copy? What's the next procedure?” The drilling rig operator was starting to worry, he removed his protective mask to wipe away beads of perspiration stinging his eyes. The cooling fans on the rig were not spinning, allowing the heat from the drill bits to seep into the air.
“Listen to me. Leave the rig off. We have the rescue team called in. We are going to send the lead man down there.” Bailey's voice quivered.
The drips from the wall of the shaft turned into a trickles of water. The solid rock dribbled water into the shaft from tiny cracks. The operator noticed the leaks getting worse and mashed the call button on his third hand.
“Pull the fuse block and cut the electricity to the drill assembly.” Bailey had located the emergency procedures on his device. His hands were shaking as he scrolled through the safety protocol.
“Why don't you just lower the bucket and get me out of here?” The nervous tension in the operator's voice caused Bailey's heart to race.
“It's too slow! We don't have time!” Bailey clenched his fists together and prayed.
The dribbles became torrents. Water poured into the shaft at an alarming rate. Large chunks of rock fell out of the shaft wall and clattered down on the platform, water gushing from the holes. In a matter of seconds the water level was above his waist.
“Bailey. If I don't make it out of here, there's a letter in my locker. Make sure my mom gets it.” He shielded himself from the water spraying from the shaft wall.
The dispatcher had regained his focus and stared across his cluttered desk at a picture of his wife and kids. “We are going to get you out of there.”
* * *
“Position the emergency hoist's boom over the center of the shaft.” The team was moving with precision, moves they practiced, a moment they had trained for.
“I'm harnessed up. Hook me up to the hoist line.” The lead man turned as Bravo latched the carabiner onto his riggers belt. Without hesitation, Alpha dove helmet first into the dark ink of the shaft, swinging back and forth as the hoist operator threw the lever on the emergency hoist to engage the spool. The lamp light from his helmet danced across the wall of the shaft as he dangled and swayed in the pit.
“Not too fast at first. Let him stabilize before you hit full speed.” Charlie had looped a rope around the hoist line to keep it in the center of the shaft.
“Now!” The spool let loose as a couple thousand feet of cable coiled into the darkness. The lead man disappeared into the chasm.
“Wait for his call to hit the brake.” Bravo knew braking too fast could snap the lead line. Braking too late would crash the lead man into the drilling rig, killing him and the drill operator. There were colored depth markers on the vacuum tube allowing the rescuer to estimate the distance to the rig. As Alpha sped to the bottom of the shaft the water had surged up to the operator's neck. In a move of desperation he attempted to climb the tube, it's thin skin collapsing under his grip. Vicious eddies were swirling and tugging at him as the rushing groundwater filled the shaft.
“Hit the brake!” Alpha's voice erupted over their headsets.
The hoist operator pulled the brake lever, allowing hydraulic clutches to slow the emergency hoist's spool as it spun violently.
Alpha slammed into the water curled in a cannonball. The operator was waving his arms, yelling. "I'm over here! Over here!"
The worker was frantically treading water in full gear, when the lead man swam over and grasped his wrist. With a strength from training and dedication he pulled the operator up and latched a safety belt around his waist. The water surged up the shaft. Alpha pressed the com link on his headset and the operator heard the best words ever.
“I've got him, bring me up.” The emergency hoist reversed gears and quickly pulled the men to the safety of the surface.
* * *
“Do you need a week off?” Johnson approached with a gentle smile. “If I don't put in for hazard time, the company will schedule you on another rig tomorrow.”
“I don't know.” He had pulled the sealed letter out and was staring at it before Johnson opened the door. A nervous shudder made him catch his breath.
“At least take the rest of the week off. I'll make sure it's paid time.” The engineer grabbed his shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze.
“O.K. Just make sure it doesn't count against me.” Putting the letter back in the locker, the young man could hear his mother's protests from months ago, when he told her he took the job.
“You have my word.” The engineer turned and stopped. "I'm here early if you ever need someone to talk to."
"Thanks." He slapped his locker shut scrolled to 'Mom' on his third hand and hit the call button.