The Covenant of Genesis


Copyright © 2009 Andy McDermott

For my family and friends



For all that the Arabian desert was traditionally supposed to be devoid of life, there was far too much of it for Mark Hyung’s liking. A cloud of flies had been hovering in wait as he left his tent just after dawn, and now, three hours later, they had seemingly called in every other bug within a ten-mile radius.

He muttered an obscenity and stopped, removing his Oakleys and swatting at his face. The flies briefly retreated, but they would resume their dive-bombing soon enough. Not for the first time, he cursed himself for volunteering to come to this awful place.

‘Got a problem there, Mr Hyung?’ said Muldoon with barely concealed contempt, pausing in his ascent of the steepening slope. The bear-like Nevadan was a thirty-year veteran of the oil exploration business, tanned and leathery and swaggering. Mark knew Muldoon saw him as just some skinny fresh-from-college Korean kid from California, and rated him little higher than the desert flies.

‘No problem at all, Mr Muldoon,’ Mark replied, replacing his sunglasses and taking out a water bottle. He took several deep swigs, then splashed some on his hand and tilted his head forward to wipe the back of his neck.

Something on the ground caught his attention, and he crouched for a better look. The object was familiar, yet so out of place it took him a moment to identify: a seashell, a fractal spiral chipped and scuffed by weather and time. ‘Have you seen this?’

‘Yeah,’ said Muldoon dismissively. ‘Find ’em all over. This used to be a beach, once. Sea was higher than it is now.’

‘Really?’ Mark was familiar with the concept of sea level changes due to climatic shift, but until now it had only been on an abstract level. ‘How long ago?’

‘I dunno; hundred thousand years ago, hundred and fifty.’ Muldoon gestured at the low bluff ahead, their destination. ‘This woulda been a nice resort spot. Cavegirls in the raw.’ He chuckled lecherously.

Mark held in a sigh. No point making his relations with the old-guard oilman any worse. Instead, he returned the bottle to his backpack. ‘Shall we go?’

Sweating in the hundred-degree heat, they trudged across the sands for another half-mile, finally stopping near the base of the bluff. Muldoon used a GPS handset to check their position, then spent a further minute confirming it with a map and compass as Mark watched impatiently. ‘The satellites are accurate to within a hundred feet, you know,’ he finally said.

‘I’ll trust my eyes and a map over any computer,’ Muldoon growled.

‘Well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To prove that computers can do a better job than anybody’s eyes.’

‘Cheaper-ass job, you mean,’ Muldoon muttered, just loud enough for Mark to hear. He folded up the map. ‘This is it. We’re two thousand metres from the spike camp, just like you wanted.’

Mark looked back. Barely visible through the rippling heat haze were the tents and transmitter mast of their encampment. Two other teams had set out at the same time, also heading for points two kilometres away, to form an equilateral triangle with the camp at the centre. ‘In that case,’ he said, taking a quiet relish in his moment of authority, ‘you’d better get started, hadn’t you?’

It took Muldoon an hour to prepare the explosive charge.

‘No way this’ll be powerful enough,’ he said as he lowered the metal cylinder containing fifteen pounds of dynamite into the hole he’d dug. ‘You need a couple hundred pounds, at least. Shit, you’ll be lucky if any of the other stations even hear it.’

‘Which is the whole point of the experiment,’ Mark reminded him. He had set up his own equipment a safe distance away: a battery-powered radio transmitter/receiver, connected to a metal tube containing a microphone. ‘Proving that you don’t need a ton of explosives or a drilling rig or hundreds of geophones. All the simulations say this will be more than enough to make a detailed reflection map.’

‘Simulations?’ Muldoon almost hissed the word. ‘Ain’t no match for experience. And I’m telling you, the only results you’ll get will be fuzz.’

Mark tapped his laptop. ‘You would - without my software. But with it, four geophones’ll be enough to map the whole area. Scale it up, Braxoil’ll be able to cover the entire Arabian peninsula with just a couple of dozen men in under a year.’

That was hyperbole, and both men knew it, but Muldoon’s disgusted expression still said it all. Traditional oil surveys were massive affairs involving hundreds, even thousands, of men, laboriously traversing vast areas to set up huge grids of microphones that would pick up the faint sonar echoes of explosive soundwaves bouncing off geological features deep underground. Mark’s software, on the other hand, let the computer do the work: from just four geophones, three at the points of the triangle and the fourth in the centre, it could analyse the results to produce a 3-D subterranean map within minutes. Hence Muldoon’s displeasure: long, labour-intensive - and very well-paid - surveys would be replaced by much smaller, faster and cheaper operations. Not so good for the men who would have to find a new line of work, but great for Braxoil’s bottom line.

If it worked. As Muldoon had said, everything was based on simulations - this would be the first proper field test. There were hundreds of variables that could screw things up . . .

Muldoon carefully inserted the detonator into the cylinder, then moved back. ‘Okay, set.’

‘How far back should we stand?’ Mark asked. ‘Behind the radio?’

Muldoon let out a mocking laugh. ‘You stand there if you want, Mr Hyung - I won’t stop you. Me, I’m gonna go all the way up there!’ He indicated the top of the bluff.

Mark’s own laugh was more nervous. ‘I’ll, ah . . . defer to your experience.’

The two men climbed the hillside. The bluff wasn’t tall, but on the plain at the southern edge of the vast desert wasteland called the Rub’ al Khali - in English, the Empty Quarter - it stood out like a beacon. As they climbed, Muldoon’s walkie-talkie squawked with two messages. The other teams had also reached their destinations and planted their explosives.

Everything was ready.

After reaching the top, Mark gulped down more water, then opened his laptop. His computer was linked wirelessly to the unit at the foot of the bluff, which in turn was communicating with the main base station at the camp, and through it the other two teams. The experiment depended on all three explosive charges detonating at precisely the same moment: any lack of synchronisation would throw off the timing of the arrival of the reflected sonar waves at the four geophones, distorting the geological data or, worse, rendering it too vague for the computer to analyse. ‘Okay, then,’ he said, mouth dryer than ever. ‘We’re ready. Countdown from ten seconds begins . . . now.’

He pressed a key. A timer on the screen began to tick down.

Muldoon relayed this through his radio, then dropped to a crouch. ‘Mr Hyung,’ he said, ‘you might want to put down the computer.’


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