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.
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.
“Something to drink?”
“A little early for me,” he said.
“Me, too. I got coffee, tea . . .”
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
“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 will shoot 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
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
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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