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Slow Apocalypse

John Varley - Author

Hardcover | $25.95 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780441017577 | 448 pages | 04 Sep 2012 | Ace | 9.25 x 6.25in | 18 - AND UP
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Despite wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as 9/11, the United States’ dependence on foreign oil has kept the nation tied to the Middle East. A scientist has developed a cure for America’s addiction—a slow-acting virus that feeds on petroleum, turning it solid. But he didn’t consider that his contagion of an Iraqi oil field could spread to infect the fuel supply of the entire world…
 
In Los Angeles, screenwriter Dave Marshall heard this scenario from a retired US marine and government insider who acted as a consultant on Dave’s last film. It sounded as implausible as many of his scripts, but the reality is much more frightening than anything he could have envisioned.
 
An ordinary guy armed with extraordinary information, Dave hopes his survivor’s instinct will kick in so he can protect his wife and daughter from the coming apocalypse that will alter the future of Earth—and humanity…


The Prometheus Strain

A motion picture treatment by Dave Marshall

The people who worked there called it Area 52, when they called it anything at all. Officially, it didn’t exist. It was an inside joke, Area 51 being the airbase in the Nevada desert where the aliens from the Roswell UFO crash were allegedly taken. The people who worked there didn’t even know where they were. They were flown in and out on jets with no windows. They worked on projects funded from the unaccountable Black Budget, and the money supply was almost endless. Ask for a new piece of scientific equipment, and it would show up within a week.

Eddie Parker didn’t care where the place was, never even thought of it as Area 52. He simply thought of it as the Lab.

Eddie did not work well with others, never had, and he knew that he would never rise very high in the rat&150;maze bureaucracy and backstabbing atmosphere of most research establishments. Luckily for him, interacting with his fellow humans was not high on his list of priorities. At least that’s what he told himself, until he met Jenny.

The security people would have preferred keeping the scientists at the Lab all the time. But they had tried long&150;term sequestration and found that it tended to drive the researchers a little crazy. Since many of them were borderline crazy already, it didn’t take much of a nudge to push them over the edge into uselessness. A certain amount of R&R was needed. Two weeks decompression every three months was deemed about right.

Eddie did not want R&R very much, as it took him away from his toys. But rules were rules. They asked him where he wanted to go and, picking a name out of the air, he said New York City. He’d never been there.

They put him up in a suite in a fine hotel and he spent most of the first week at his highly secure laptop, communing with the supercomputers back at the Lab. But eventually he did venture out. He took in a movie, ate a hot dog at Nathan’s, but mostly he just walked.

She was good. He would think he had lost her, then spot her wearing a different hat, with her coat reversed. She was there as both bodyguard and watchdog, and it seemed silly to him. He wasn’t going to talk about his work and he wasn’t going to run away. So he approached her and told her he knew what she was doing. She admitted it, and they had coffee together. After that, she stayed by his side. Her name was Jenny.

She was no raving beauty, but she was pretty enough, and smart. He found it easy to talk to her.

Then one evening as she was putting him to bed for the night, she kissed him, and though he was never sure just how it happened, he found himself in bed with her. It was his first time, and she seemed to know it&151;later, he realized it was probably in his dossier, which she would have memorized&151;and she was gentle and supportive of his awkwardness. That night, as sleep eluded him, he knew he was in love.

The next day he had to return to the Lab. They parted at the airport with kisses and made plans for their next meeting in three months.

His work suffered for a while, but it was all he really knew, and soon he was back into the project he had left behind. But for the first time he began to entertain notions of a life after the Lab. Perhaps even of quitting the Lab entirely, going to work in the private sector. He tossed ideas around, ideas he planned to share with Jenny when he returned to New York and met her for breakfast at Windows on the World, at the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.


They never found enough of her to identify. He stood all day just outside the police lines, inhaling dust and grit, until his new handler gently led him back to the hotel, where he informed them he was ready to return to the Lab. For a few days he hoped for a phone call&151;missed my train, the taxi broke down, oh my God, Eddie, when I think of how close I came to being there . . . but it never came.

He felt the same frustration all Americans felt in the aftermath of the atrocity. How do we get our revenge on nineteen dead men?Killing Osama bin Laden would not be enough. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gave him no satisfaction. Gradually he came to focus on the nineteen. Two things about them immediately stood out. All of them were Muslim. And fifteen of them came from Saudi Arabia.

Why are we bombing Iraq? Why aren’t we bombing Saudi Arabia?

He was not the only one who harbored such thoughts about America’s erstwhile ally in the newly declared “War on Terror,” but Eddie happened to be the only person who was equipped, personally, to do something about it.


Someone once said “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Eddie was in no hurry. His field was bacteria, those tiny bits of living material that descended from the very first life to appear on Earth, around 4 billion years ago. It was quite likely that he knew more about bacteria than anyone else alive. It was certain that he knew more about methods of manipulating, cloning, and even creating them than anyone, because no one else in the world had the facilities available to him.

Bacteria are the ultimate survivors, mutating quickly in response to antibiotics, able to thrive at high levels of radioactivity, acidity, and at temperatures up to 270 degrees Fahrenheit.

Eddie had worked on the development of bacteria targeted on oil spills. But in recent years he had been concentrating on ways to use bacteria to recover more oil from proven reserves. The problem was that though there was still oil underground, the easy oil had been pumped already. The days when you could poke a hole in the ground and stand back as the black gold gushed out were long gone. The oil reserves remaining on the planet were increasingly hard to get at. Most of the oil in fields currently producing, including those in Saudi Arabia, could only be recovered by increasingly exotic means.

Eddie had been working on a bacterium that would enable the crude in existing wells to flow more easily, or to naturally increase the underground pressure. It was called the Prometheus Project.

He focused on the largest oil field in the world, the Ghawar, a strip 175 miles long by 20 miles wide, 100 miles due east of Riyadh, in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia.

The most common technology for getting the remaining oil out of a field was to inject water into the ground. But when you pump water in, you get some water back, and the percentage of oil to water is called the “water cut.” Fresh wells produce almost one hundred percent oil. With older fields, you got back more and more water until it was not worth the cost of injecting it. For some years now, the water cut at the Ghawar fields was on the order of 60 percent, and it would only continue to rise.

The Saudis wanted someone to do something about it. They wanted a magic bug that would turn the more sluggish fractions down in those wells into something that would flow like springwater, if not quite so sparkling.

Eddie told them he was their man. Everyone was hoping for results in a matter of months, but it took years. It was a real challenge, because he had to produce something that showed promise as a crude&150;oil liquefier while at the same time hiding his work on the real bacterium he had in mind.

This bug would freeze Ghawar solid as a coal seam.

Try pumping that, you murderous bastards.

He finally perfected an organism he officially called the Prometheus Strain. It performed to perfection, stripping away enough hydrogen from the crude&150;oil fractions to produce pressure, and leaving the residue liquid enough to pump.

But he didn’t tell anyone about the culture for a while. He had more work to do. He produced a second culture, Prometheus Two, a variant of the first. It was amazing what a difference a few little genes here and there could make.

When the second culture was ready, he announced that he had found the solution to the depleted&150;oilfield problem.

He demonstrated Prometheus in the lab, and it performed perfectly. Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi prince sent to witness the demonstration, was impressed. He wanted to try it in the field.

Eddie boarded the windowless plane with Prince bin Sultan and they flew to Washington, where they boarded the prince’s private A&150;380, a two&150;story airborne palace with a staff of twenty and only himself and the prince as passengers. Eddie ate a fine meal, and then slept soundly in a large bedroom.

He woke when the plane was descending into Dubai. He saw the gleaming spire of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man&150;made structure in the world, and almost empty. He could make out the outlines of the gigantic Palm Jumeirah and the even larger Palm Jebel Ali housing developments, gigantic artificial islands, huge landfills in the shape of palm trees dotted with resort hotels and mansions.

All built not on sand, but on oil. Take away the oil, and those people down below would still be fishing from dhows and traveling on camels. They wouldn’t have much time to raise fanatic young terrorists willing to fly airplanes into buildings. They wouldn’t even have the airfare to get aboard.

The next day, Eddie was taken to the Ghawar field and, with little ceremony, added Jenny Two to the slurry being pumped into the ground.

Two weeks later, the Ghawar field exploded.


Dave thought it was his own snoring that woke him up. He was leaning back in his ergonomic chair, and when he slept in that position he could wake the dead.

The sun was turning the sky pink in the east. Most of the lights were still on in the towers of Century City, below him. A marine layer of low clouds had moved in over Santa Monica, as it usually did that time of year. Much of yesterday’s smog had dispersed to wherever yesterday’s smog goes, and today’s batch wasn’t brewing yet. The streets he could see were almost deserted.

He was stiff and sore all over. Not as easy to pull an all&150;nighter when you’re almost forty as it was in college. He started a pot of coffee and sat back down to read what he had written.

Six pages, seventeen hundred words. It sounded good to him.

It was partly extrapolation. The truth was, at that point he was far from sure “Eddie Parker” even existed. The colonel had not given him a name, Dave made that up. He was just “one of the big brains at a very secret lab.” But that didn’t matter, as the whole story was highly unlikely, but good enough for a movie.

His cell phone rang. It was the colonel.

“Get your ass over here, right now,” he growled.


The colonel let him in, and then looked up and down the hallway before shutting the door behind him. He threw the lock and set the chain, then gestured Dave toward a glass&150;topped table near the front window, looking out over Hollywood Boulevard to the Pantages Theater. On the table was a laptop, a partially disassembled semiautomatic handgun, and a cleaning kit. He gestured him toward a chair at the table.

“Something to drink?”

“A little early for me,” he said.

“Me, too. I got coffee, tea . . .”

“Nothing, thanks.”

It was the first time he’d been in Warner’s apartment. It was minimalist, almost Spartan, with very little to give it that lived&150;in feeling. There was no artwork on the walls, no military mementos, no personal touches at all. A few beige leather couches and chairs in the living room, a gas fireplace, a wall&150;sized flat&150;screen television. No DVDs, only a few books in a small bookcase. It was the room of a man who had lived in barracks all his life and kept all his possessions in a duffel bag, ready to move in five minutes.

There was a pair of large gun safes. The doors of one of them were standing open, and he saw rifles, shotguns, and handguns, all looking well cared for. He didn’t know a lot about guns, but he knew some of them were military weapons that he wasn’t sure were actually legal. But that was none of his business.

“I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t remember a lot about yesterday, beyond a certain point,” the colonel said. “I do have the distinct impression that I ended up saying a lot more than I should have.” He grimaced. “I’ve spent my whole life keeping my lip zipped. I’m pretty good at it. But you’ve had me talking on this project of yours . . . about things that I’m authorized to talk about, mind you.” He stopped, and shrugged. “I guess I got in the habit of talking to you. Things got out of hand.”

“I got the impression that you were pretty shaken up,” Dave said.

“You can say that again. Before yesterday, I was just getting rumors. You’ve noticed the stock market lately?”

“It would be hard not to. Up, down, up again. Mostly down.”

“Driven by oil prices, and futures,” Warner said. “Oil’s over two&150;fifty a barrel, and still rising with no end in sight. The big investors are getting worried. Especially now that they’re getting wind of some of the rumors I’ve been hearing for the last couple of weeks.”

“Frankly, Colonel, that’s what makes that story you told me yesterday kind of hard to swallow. How could all this be happening and nobody knows anything about it?”

Colonel Warner picked up part of the disassembled pistol lying on the table. He began running a cleaning rag through the barrel. He sighed, and looked at Dave.

“Obviously people know about it. But as soon as the shit started to come down in Saudi, they clamped a national security lid on it as tight as any I’ve ever seen. In the first week the secretary of state paid a visit to Riyadh, and so did the leaders of the oil&150;producing countries in the region. I don’t have any idea what they decided to do about it. But the top people at Saudi Aramco were sworn to secrecy, and told they could be arrested and have a major extraordinary rendition put on their ass, flown off to some shit&150;hole country where they could be shot without a trial. Saudi Aramco, if you didn’t know, is the state&150;owned oil company. It’s the most profitable company in the world. They own Ghawar, the biggest oil field in the world, and Safaniyah, the biggest offshore field, in the northern Persian Gulf. Plus dozens of smaller fields. They produce 15 million barrels of crude every day.

“Or, let’s say they used to.”

He moved his chair to sit behind his computer installation and gestured Dave over to sit beside him.

“Here’s Google Earth looking down at the Ghawar field,” the colonel said. Dave leaned forward, trying to figure it out. Warner moved the cursor around quickly.

“Lots of sand. Not much to see unless you know what you’re looking for. You can pick out roads here, and here. The big black squares are towns for oil workers. These black dots are wellheads. Thousands of them. Here’s a pipeline.

“But look at the date. Google is great, but it’s not current. Now, let me show you what that same area looked like yesterday.”

He moved to another keyboard, another twenty&150;four&150;inch flat screen. He typed quickly. A password window popped up.

“I’ll have to ask you to look away for a minute,” Warner said. “This is classified satellite data from the National Reconnaissance Office. I’m still authorized. Technically, I shouldn’t let you see these images, but I don’t know any other way to prove to you that you have to leave this stuff alone. You don’t want to play with these boys, believe me.”

The password box turned red, and they saw the message:

YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO DOWNLOAD THIS DATA

NRO DIRECTIVE 98

“Damn it,” the colonel fumed. “I got on yesterday. Let me try another . . .”

He entered another URL, got a password request, and typed something in as Dave looked away. Warner leaned back with his arms folded.

“God knows what they’re doing in the White House, the Pentagon, all the intelligence offices. They’ve kept a lid on this thing for a few weeks, but you can’t keep it a secret from people on the ground in Saudi. It’s too big. They can see it. There have been leaks&151;hell, that’s how I got it, somebody told somebody, who told somebody else, who told me.”

“Somebody at Area 52,” Dave said, without thinking.

“Area what?” He scowled at Dave, and then the light dawned. “You’ve already been writing about it, you silly son of a bitch. Area 52, that’s rich.”

“I had to call it something.”

Warner ran his hand over his bald head, glanced at his computer screen, which was still displaying the hourglass icon, and leaned intently toward Dave.

“There will be more leaks. This whole thing is going to come out in the next ten to twenty days. God knows what they’ll do then. But you have to deep&150;six whatever you’ve written about it, because right now, they’re scared, and when these people get scared, they play rough. They’re going to be dead serious about keeping it all top secret until they figure out which way to jump. They willshoot you if they think you know stuff you’re not supposed to know. They’re still thinking of this as a problem to solve, instead of the all&150;out disaster it’s going to be. Do you understand what I’m saying? ”

Dave said he did, though he still wasn’t sure the man wasn’t exaggerating, or even if he had the right information. Warner saw his doubt, and sighed.

“Already some wise guys, the billionaires, the banks, the stock brokerages, have begun to get wind that something’s wrong out in the Saudi desert. The cover story is terrorist sabotage at a few dozen wells, they’ll have it all under control in a few weeks, a month. All those big financial institutions and investors are running scared. They can’t figure out what to buy and what to sell. You noticed, gold is shooting up, oil&150;company stocks are tanking&151;”

The computer screen had caught his eye, and he broke off and turned toward it.

A THUMBPRINT IS REQUIRED TO ACCESS THIS SITE

The colonel grinned at him from one side of his face, as if to say, see, I’m still connected. He pressed his thumb to a small scanner. After a second, the dialog box went away and a new screen came up.

NRO SATELLITE IMAGING

AUTHORIZED USERS ONLY

ENTER DATE, ASSET, AND LOCATION

He typed in yesterday’s date, the satellite designation&151;Keyhole 13/8&151;and latitude and longitude numbers. He’d mentioned the Keyhole program in their previous talks when Dave asked him if it was really true that U.S. spy satellites could read a license&150;plate number or a newspaper from space. He said plates yes, newspapers no, that the Keyhole satellites had optics that could see objects down to ten centimeters.

“Here we go,” he said. “Ghawar, yesterday.”

Dave leaned in close and immediately saw that things were different. White streaks now pointed to each of the wellheads.

“What am I seeing here, Colonel?”

“The wellheads are on fire. That’s steam you see blowing off to the northeast. Smoke and steam, actually. A lot of them are burning.”

“I thought crude oil made black smoke when it burned.” Dave was remembering the awful pictures of the burning oil fields of Kuwait when the Iraqi Army set them afire during their retreat at the end of the Gulf War.

“It does. It’s not the oil that’s burning. That’s still deep underground. But that bug that was supposed to make the crude more liquid, it turned it into thick sludge instead, like I told you. What you see burning is the hydrogen that was liberated when the bug ate the crude. When hydrogen burns, it combines with oxygen to make water.”

“Okay, you’ve made me a believer.”

“There’s more. This would be a catastrophe, but I’ve known about this for almost a week. What I saw yesterday, that’s what made me want a drink.” He manipulated the mouse. They zoomed out into space, and began traveling to the north. When they reached the northern Persian Gulf Warner zoomed in again, but not quite as close.

“Offshore rigs in the Gulf. Most of them are burning. These are over the Safaniyah field.”

Dave was starting to sweat. It was one thing to hear this ridiculous story over drinks in the Frolic Room, and something else again to see it illustrated before his eyes.

“Could it . . . I mean, could it have traveled underground? Could it all be one big field over there? Not one big pool of oil, but moving along a seam in the rocks, or something like that?” He shook his head. “I don’t know enough geology to even ask the right question here, I guess.”

“And I don’t know enough to give you the right answer. But I don’t think so. I thought of that, and at first I was hoping that might be what’s going on. I mean, if we lost all the Persian Gulf oil, it would wreck the world economy, it would be a disaster bigger than anything the world has seen since the Second World War, but we could adapt, I guess. Conserve fuel, drill in Alaska, offshore in Florida and California. I think even the environmentalists would shut up when they saw just how bad a world without petroleum energy would be. And there’s oil in Russia, Indonesia, Venezuela, Nigeria. But like I said, there’s more.”

He moved the map again.

“That’s Iraq. Iran. More fires. See? There, there, and there? ”

Dave saw. Still, it was all in the Middle East. But now the colonel pulled way back, so that they saw all of Asia, and once more they traveled to the northwest.

“We’re in Russia now. The Khantia&150;Mansia Autonomous Okrug, east of the Urals, in the Western Siberian Lowlands.” Dave saw a land with a lot of green, laced by a meandering river and pocked with a lot of lakes. The colonel moved the cursor around. “That’s the northern fork of the Ob River. This town is Nizhnevartovsk, here at one of the bends. Sixty below in the winter, ninety&150;five in the summer. Fifty years ago there wasn’t much there but mosquitoes and reindeer. Then they struck oil, and now it’s the richest town in Russia. North of it is the Samotlor oil field, one of the biggest outside of the Middle East. Take a look.”

He zoomed in, and it didn’t take long for Dave to see it. The area was laced with white dots and white lines that he assumed were wells and pipelines. Some of them crisscrossed the lakes. It was pretty, actually, and the white streaks blowing southwest from some of the wells would have made it even prettier if he didn’t know what they were.

“There’s no way those fields are connected. This is twenty&150;five hundred miles from Saudi Arabia. The damn bug is airborne.”

“But that doesn’t make sense, according to what you told me. You said the guy wanted to get back at the Saudis for 9/11. Why would he want to have it spread to Iran and Russia?”

“I don’t think he did want that. I did a little research on bacteria the night before last, and I learned they can mutate pretty fast. God knows how fast a tailored strain like this one can change, but it looks like it doesn’t take long.”

They were both silent as they looked at the disaster unfolding in central Russia.

“Do you know anything more?” Dave asked. “Like what became of the guy who did all this?”

The colonel snorted. “May he rot in hell. No, I don’t, and I’m not going to try to find out. I can guarantee you he’s buried deep, and dead or alive, will never see the light of day again. What I hope is they have him at work on something to stop this bug.”

“You think he can?”

“I have no idea.”

There was a soft ping from the computer that was showing the satellite pictures, and a window popped up.

YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO ACCESS THIS SITE

YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF FEDERAL LAW

DO NOT TERMINATE THIS SESSION

Dave was alarmed, but the colonel didn’t seem too concerned. Ignoring the command, he logged off the site by the simple expedient of turning his computer off. He looked at Dave a bit sheepishly.

“That wasn’t actually my password I used,” he said. “Borrowed it from a friend. Looks like they’re narrowing access, which means they’re even more scared than they were a few days ago.” He paused, and looked thoughtful. “Look, Dave, this might get a little sticky if they can trace this all back to this computer. I don’t think they can, it was routed through two cutoffs, but you never know what new capabilities they’ve got. It might be best if you went on home now. I wouldn’t want to get you involved. In fact, it’s probably best if we don’t meet again. I don’t give a damn about your movie with this going on. I don’t think anybody’s going to give a damn about any movie for a long time. We’re all going to be too busy. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do, a lot of plans to make. You should do the same.”

“What do you suggest we do?”

“Take care of your family. That’s all that counts now.”

Those were the last words he heard from Colonel Warner.





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