Ill Wind, page 1
Kevin J. Anderson
It is the largest oil spill in history: a supertanker crashes into the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay. Desperate to avert environmental damage (as well as the PR disaster), the multinational oil company releases an untested designer oil-eating microbe to break up the spill.
What the company didn’t realize is that their microbe propagates through the air… and it mutates to consume anything made of petrocarbons: oil, gasoline, synthetic fabrics, plastics of all kinds. And when every piece of plastic begins to dissolve, it’s too late….
Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason
Crashing through 20-foot waves, the supertanker Zoroaster drove through the Pacific night like a great steel behemoth.
Longer than three football fields and 170 feet wide, the Oilstar supertanker was one of the largest objects ever constructed. Weather and salt water had left a patina of blisters and rust on a deck that had once been painted silver. Behind the ship, the wake looked like a bubbling cauldron of green foam, lit by a wash of moonlight.
Four days earlier, the supertanker had left the Alaskan port of Valdez after filling its twelve massive tanks with crude oil piped from Prudhoe Bay. Fully loaded, the Zoroaster had churned out of the Gulf of Alaska, bound for the Oilstar refineries in the San Francisco Bay.
Oilstar representatives claimed the massive ship could function with a minimal crew of 28 because of highly efficient computer warning and navigation systems. Internal corporate memos included terms like “increased profit margin” and “downsizing.” Only the long, exhausting shifts broke the tedium for the crew.
No one wanted to think about what could go wrong with so large a ship… and so few people to respond to it.
* * *
The lower corridor of the Zoroaster’s deckhouse was empty. Good. The only sounds were the continuous groans of the tanker, the whisper of the Pacific, and the distant throb of the engines. Everyone asleep. Along the corridor, the gunmetal-gray cabin doors had been sealed against the deep night. This ship always stank of fumes.
Connor Brooks did not hesitate. Sweating with excitement, he yanked down the fire alarm. It would create one hell of a diversion, and he would be glad to destroy the papers and get his sorry ass out of sight. Let the Oilstar pricks do all the explaining.
Electronic whoops clamored through the intercom, making the whole ship echo. Christ, it was loud enough! Connor grabbed his metal food tray and raced up the narrow corrugated stairs to the bridge. Keep everything moving. His entire plan depended on timing. Come on, come on!
Connor’s heart hammered as he bounded up the stairs. His shaggy blond hair flew backward; his scalp prickled with sweat. That butthead, Captain Miles Uma, would take a few seconds to respond to the emergency, and Connor would get his chance. About time, too.
He had to get everyone off the bridge so he could break into his personnel file, trash the evidence that was going to get him in trouble with the authorities. As the Zoroaster approached the end of her four-day journey to San Francisco, Connor’s time was running out. The supertanker would pass through the Golden Gate in less than an hour.
He wanted to kick someone in the kneecaps with his heavy workboot. So he had been caught with a few credit cards he had lifted from the wallets of other crew members—big fucking deal! Nobody was liable for more than fifty bucks or so from purchases made on a stolen card anyway. Besides, Connor had never imagined anybody would notice until long after he jumped ship in San Francisco. What would someone use a credit card for on an oil tanker, for crying out loud?
Connor deserved a decent break in his life. Just one. He had run to Alaska in the first place to hide from a lot of things he did not want to remember, things that other people refused to forget. The port of Valdez in Prince William Sound was full of dirty jobs, working the slime line in fisheries or scrubbing out tankers before they refilled from the Trans-Alaska pipeline. He had hired onto the Zoroaster as a bottom-rank seaman, which meant serving meals and cleaning toilets. Connor hadn’t counted on the captain being such a stuffed-shirt butthead! Why was the world so full of pricks?
Uma wasn’t going to give him a break, so Connor had to take matters in his own hands.
Still running from the deafening fire alarms below, Connor reached the top deck with the tray of food. He wore a stained cook’s apron over his muscular frame.
He paused a second to catch his breath before stepping onto the bridge. He was tempted to whistle a bit, just to show how casual he felt, but that would be too obvious. Old Butthead had the night watch—didn’t the man ever leave his station? Damned Eskimo/Negro mixup. Short and bearlike, Butthead’s swarthy skin, frizzy black hair, huge beard, and heavy eyebrows, made him look like a gorilla trying to pass himself off as human. He kept his Oilstar uniform neat, and he didn’t drink booze. At all.
Butthead Uma whirled upon hearing Connor. “Brooks! What the hell are you doing here?”
Amid the confusion of panicked sounds, Connor put on a big ‘Yes sir!’ smile. “Brought your late-night snack, Captain.”
Butthead ignored him and turned instead to the second mate. “Where is that damned alarm coming from, Dailey?”
The second mate looked up from a display panel, shoving his glasses back up on the bridge of his nose. “Two decks down, sir!”
“Right here in the deckhouse?” Butthead said. “At least it’s not out by the cargo holds.”
Connor spoke up. “Yeah, I just came from down there. It looked pretty bad, and the others were calling for you. The intercom is busted or something.” He shrugged. The alarm kept yammering.
“Fire control activated, Captain,” said the second mate.
Uma seemed suspicious. “Dailey, take the conn. Brooks, put that food down and come with me. Why didn’t you let me know?”
Connor cursed under his breath. Now he had to go with Butthead! How the hell was he going to get at the records?
The second mate looked out the wide, salt-spattered windows of the bridge, squinting through thick glasses toward the glimmering lights that stood out on the coast. “Captain, we’re approaching the Point Bonitas lighthouse. Only two miles out of the Golden Gate. The Bay pilot is on his way to come aboard and take us through.”
“I can’t sit around if there’s a fire on my ship.” Uma dashed to the bridge doorway. “Brooks, get a move on!”
Connor refrained from “assisting” Butthead down the stairwell with a hard kick in the ass. He had to delay, get the second mate out of the picture. The captain’s heavy boots clomped down the corrugated stairs like bricks falling on a brass gong.
Connor set the food down on the chart table, keeping the heavy metal tray. The moment the captain disappeared from view, Connor whirled, smashing the metal tray against the second mate’s head. The second mate held up an arm to fend off Connor, then fell to one knee; his glasses broke as they clattered to the floor. Two more blows to the head knocked the man unconscious.
“Sorry, shipmate,” Connor said as he ground the broken eyeglasses under the heel of his stained boot. “You should have gone with Butthead.”
He tossed the tray to the side, and the clatter vanished in the throbbing noise of the alarm. He rushed over to the personnel records bureau next to the captain’s station. Secure locks had never been a high priority, considering the supertanker’s limited crew and long voyages. Connor diddled with the lock, using the screwdriver in his pocket. He slapped his palm against the handle of the screwdriver, and the drawer popped open.
Connor dug through the manila folders, finding his own file: Connor’s hiring record, Uma’s inciden
Connor yanked out more of the files, shuffling them, anything to gain a little more time when they started hunting him down. Maybe he could slip off the ship without anyone seeing. Glancing out the bridge window, he saw the fog-dimmed lights of the approaching city. It seemed very far away. He had to hurry.
Connor turned to get out of there. The captain would know by now that the fire alarm was a hoax, and he would have no doubt who had done it. Dailey remained stone cold on the floor next to his broken glasses.
Time to haul ass.
He pulled the metal fire door shut behind him as he left the bridge and twisted tight the wheel-lock. During the entire four-day trip down the west coast, Connor had never seen the bridge door closed. Bracing himself against the wall, he kicked viciously at the wheel-lock with his heavy work boot. The wheel bent, jammed.
The grin returned. “Try explaining that one, Captain Butthead!” They would need a blowtorch to get the door open again. Connor sprinted to the long cargo deck. This just might work out after all.
* * *
Fire alarms screeched. Cabin doors slammed open as groggy, offduty crewmembers scrambled into the corridors. Seamen shouted to each other, wanting to know what was going on. Instinctively three crewmen stumbled into the brisk night to man the water cannons, but they saw none of the crude-oil cargo burning.
On deck two, Captain Miles Uma found no sign of fire. Cramming his cap down on his frizzy hair, he stood by the alarm on the wall, saw that it had been pulled intentionally. Realization fell into place as a wave of cold anger coursed through him. His skin prickled. “I’m going to kill Brooks!”
Uma’s stomach soured with dread as he suddenly realized his mistake. Brooks had not followed him down the stairs. The slimeball must still be up on the bridge with Dailey. Even with such a small crew, Uma knew he should have locked the bastard up.
They were close to the narrow and treacherous Golden Gate. Too close. And Brooks was pulling some stupid stunt. Uma bounded back up to the bridge deck.
The door to his own bridge stood shut against him, the wheel-lock bent. Uma strained against the wheel, but it remained jammed. He hammered with a fist. “Open this door right now!”
He received no answer. Listening, he could hear the automatic collision-avoidance radar beeping a warning. His mind whirled, and his stomach tangled in impossible knots. Of their four-day, 2000 mile journey, this was the most crucial point, “threading the needle” through the deep channel under the Golden Gate Bridge to Oilstar’s North Bay refineries. Dead Man’s Curve.
Uma was appalled at his own stupidity, his overconfidence. Captain Joseph Hazelwood had done the same thing on the Exxon Valdez—left the command post at a critical moment. Uma angrily slapped the bulkhead; his hand stung. Stupid!
Uma stepped back and kicked as hard as he could. The thick metal door did not give.
A crewman panted up the stairs, followed by two others. Uma briefly wished they had given him a few more moments to get through the door; now everyone could see his helplessness.
“What is it, Captain?” asked the crewman. Uma did not turn to look at him.
“The door’s jammed.” He kicked again, hard enough to send a sharp pain through his shin. Uma threw his shoulder against it. His voice suddenly turned hoarse. “Help me get in there now!” He shoved the crewman forward. Another man joined him, but the three of them slammed against the door in vain.
Uma turned and pointed at the crewmen on the stairwell. “Get me a battering ram—anything. Move it!”
Muffled through the door, the collision-avoidance alarms kept beeping.
* * *
Out on the vast, cluttered deck, alarms bleated into the night. Connor wondered if Captain Butthead had made it back to the bridge yet. He wished he could be there to watch Uma’s expression as he tried to cope with the jammed door.
Connor hurried out to the storage shacks, pump control banks, and water-cannon valves. Everything was wet with spray, slimy with oil residue. He crumpled the incriminating papers as he faced the stiff ocean breeze and tossed the wad overboard. The white ball glimmered in the moonlight, then vanished forever. If he could just hide until the ship docked at the terminal, then slip off….
He looked across the ship, the twelve tank hatches, the catwalk down the center of the deck, the pressure and vacuum relief valves. The Zoroaster was so long the crew had to take bicycles from one end to the other. He would have little trouble finding a place to lie low for a few hours.
He couldn’t jump and swim to shore; years ago, maybe with a wetsuit and surfboard, he would have tried. The cold, fast-moving waters of the Bay were notorious—and even fully loaded, the tanker rode six stories above the water. He should have thought of that part before setting all this in motion, but Connor hated to waste time over-planning. He did what he needed to do, then tried to be flexible if the details didn’t work out right.
The alarms suddenly ceased, plunging the ship into an echoing silence. Off in the distance, he heard the asynchronous hoots and chimes of foghorns around the Golden Gate. Through sparse fog, the coastal cities lit up the shoreline like Christmas lights. Connor was glad to be approaching civilization again.
The twinkling outline of the Golden Gate Bridge seemed very, very close.
* * *
Using a pipe as a battering ram, the crew finally broke through the bridge door, letting it hang on one twisted hinge. Uma kicked the door aside, allowing access. He spotted second mate Dailey on his knees, groaning and trying to pull himself up.
The Golden Gate Bridge was much too close.
Uma ran three steps toward the controls, then stopped to stare across the Zoroaster’s sprawling deck at what lay ahead. The Golden Gate loomed, a narrow opening into the calm waters of the Bay. The Bridge cut across their path with a flickering necklace of automobile headlights. Rocky headlands crouched in the surf, where lighthouses sent their beacons out to sea.
Uma knew the north tower of the Bridge stood on rocks extending from the Marin shore; but the south tower rose straight out of the sea on the San Francisco side, built on a shelf of rock fifty feet deep and a quarter mile from land.
For a fraction of a second, Uma froze. His career was over. He could never save the ship in time. His mind numbed, unable to grasp the disaster about to happen in front of his eyes, all because of his stupidity.
The supertanker took about a mile to turn, and she’d had four days to build up speed. But he couldn’t just stand there.
He slapped at the intercom. “Full reverse!”
The grinding hum from the engine room sounded strained and uncooperative. The Zoroaster shuddered with the sudden change as the engine responded.
Collision-avoidance radar bleeped, a sound that frightened him much more than the fire alarms. He scanned the screens at the navigator’s station. Red danger circles overlapped the tanker’s silhouette and the south pier of the Bridge. Over the radio, the voice of a Coast Guard operator kept calling for a response.
At the radio station, he switched channels to the Coast Guard frequency. “Mayday, mayday! This is Oilstar Zoroaster. We are headed for the Golden Gate. Declaring an emergency and prepared to abandon ship!”
Uma squinted at the radar, watching the tanker’s projected path. The ship headed straight for one of the two great towers that supported the Golden Gate Bridge. He grunted, moving the rudder as far to port as the electronic control would allow.
He might be able to make the great ship swing just enough. Just by a fraction. Uma sounded the whooping general quarters alarm. He wondered how many of the Zoroaster’s crew would assume it to be another false emergency and go back to their bunks.
He held the rudder hard to port. His body felt drained, exhausted. Behind him, one of the seamen muttered, “Come on, we’ll make it… we’ll make it.”
Uma stared out the windows. The Bridge came at
* * *
The Zoroaster almost missed her doom.
But with a 200,000 ton ship as big as the Empire State Building, “almost” is not good enough. The tanker struck the concrete fender surrounding the south tower and crushed it.
Slowed, but not stopped by the impact, the Zoroaster scraped her starboard side against the jagged concrete and steel. The double hulls offered protection against minor grounding and maritime accidents, but not a monstrous impact such as this. The inertia ripped open both hulls like so much paper. The Zoroaster hung up on the wreckage of the concrete fender, settling downward to the deep shelf of rock.
Five of the supertanker’s twelve holds immediately split; within minutes, metal fatigue breached three additional holds.
The Zoroaster held more than a million barrels of oil—42 million gallons. Most of which began to pour into the San Francisco Bay.
Crude oil gushed like black blood.
The phone rang again.
Alone in his stables, Alex Kramer tended the two horses. He insisted on ignoring the ache, no matter how much the leukemia tortured him. He had plenty of experience with pain.
The telephone extension he had wired out to the barn sounded tinny, invasive. He hated it.
Alex looked up, but didn’t move. The ringing phone seemed to cut through him. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. In happier days, Jay or Erin would have rushed to grab the call—Jay expecting his college buddies, Erin a high-school boyfriend. If his wife Maureen didn’t get the phone first. Alex never had to worry about answering it before.
But in one disastrous year, he had lost his entire family—Maureen and Erin killed when a gasoline truck slammed into them on a winding road, Jay a casualty of the latest Middle East conflict. Cocking his head to look behind him at the large, empty ranch house, Alex wondered why he bothered to stay behind in such a hollow place.