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The Scorpion

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You watch the TV news every night and think you know what’s going on… think again.

Thriller / Mystery
Age Rating:

The Indian Ocean

[The Floor of the Indian Ocean – The Enggano Excavation Site and Refinery - Exact Location Not Disclosed]

“I told you stupid sons of bitches that this was going to happen!”

Jerry slammed the receiver of the phone back into its place. Then he leaned forward in his desk chair, put his elbows on his knees and covered his face with his hands.

When the operations manager had told him they wanted to increase production above one hundred percent, Jerry was concerned and rightly so. Mechanical equipment typically has some amount of extra capacity built into it, but no one knew the amount of overload that the refinery turbines could safely handle. Refinery turbines that processed Rhodophyta (roe-do’-fa-ta) were still considered experimental and the seven turbines installed in the Enggano refinery were the only ones in existence.

Jerry had been assigned the task to work with the turbine manufacturer in Sacramento, California to figure out how far past one hundred percent they could safely be pushed. After a few months of testing and number crunching, Jerry and the team of engineers had determined the turbines could withstand continuous operation at one hundred and eight percent. Most importantly, they could safely handle the overload of eight percent without any short term or long term degradation to the device. Tests run above one hundred and eight percent provided inconclusive data as to the period of time the device could be safely operated.

As the senior representative of refinery engineering, Jerry had provided his approval for the increase in production to one hundred and eight percent. He wasn’t completely happy with the idea because he was not one to design or even run equipment at one hundred percent, not to mention one hundred and eight percent. But Jerry had run through the numbers at least fifty times during testing and felt the eight percent overload was safe but left no cushion for additional overload.

Most engineers are conservative by nature and Jerry was no different. Engineers are always cautious when they calculate equipment ratings and normally provide ratings that are conservative. They do this to cover any miscalculated design aspect that could lead to failure. Jerry had always been one to agree with this line of thinking.

But when Jerry found out that operations had continued to increase the overload of the refining process past one hundred and eight percent he had protested vehemently. Operations had increased the refinery’s output a few percent each day until they had reached one hundred and eighteen percent.

Jerry immediately notified the engineering division manager in Washington of the situation. He begged him to tell the suits up top what was happening and what the implications would be if the amount of overload was not reduced. But when his division manager told him that the directive to overload the refinery had come through the Department of Homeland Security, Jerry turned in his resignation letter and began to make preparations to leave the underwater refinery.

Jerry Taylor was a smart guy. He had received his under graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and then both his Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering and PhD in Petroleum Engineering from M.I.T. He single handedly ran the refinery engineering department and asked for little help from his co-workers at the surface.

He understood that once the chemical refining process of Rhodophyta was started, it could not be quickly shut off. It would take at least two weeks for a refinery of this size to safely spin down the chemical process. He also knew that if the load was not reduced at some point at least one of the turbines would fail. The failure of any of the seven turbines would cause an explosion that would destroy the entire refinery. Rhodophyta was a very volatile fuel and had an energy balance of ten point two, so when the place went up, there was going to be a very big bang. And Jerry wanted to be far away from ground zero when that happened.

The process for him to travel from the ocean floor to the surface would take about five days. He had not been to the surface since he had traveled to Sacramento to perform tests on the turbines, about two months ago and his body had to slowly adjust to the pressure difference that existed between the Earth's surface and the ocean floor. He would be placed into a decompression pod that would slowly bring him from the refinery depth of more than eighteen thousand feet, back to the surface over a five day period. The decompression pod was like a long, slow moving underwater elevator that shuttled workers between the rig on the surface and the refinery and excavation site below. If this decompression process was not followed correctly or was performed too quickly, the pressure difference would cause his body to burst like an over cooked sausage.

But just as Jerry was packing to leave, the operations control room contacted him with a concern they had with one of the turbines. Their data acquisition screen displayed an abnormal vibration coming from turbine number five and wanted his take on it.

After a short discussion about the situation with the operations team, Jerry was concerned. If the vibration was due to the system overload, the failure had begun much sooner than any of the tests that he and the engineering team had performed in the lab. Jerry wasn't in the habit of making mistakes and this turn of events had taken him completely by surprise.

Jerry ran equipment diagnostics on turbine number five to try and understand what exactly was going on. After six hours of investigation he had come to a conclusion. The extra overload that had been placed onto the system had caused the needle bearing located in the front end-bell of turbine number five to overheat. From the data he had collected, he had no idea how long the bearing would hold together. His prediction that one of the turbines would fail due to the overload was correct, but he was very surprised that the failure was happening so quickly.

Jerry headed out of the control room and down the long hallway toward his office with the plan to contact his boss to arrange an emergency meeting with all of the department heads. He felt it was his duty to notify the department heads of the situation and explain that the fifty four people working at the Enggano excavation site and refinery were sitting on a ticking time-bomb and no one knew when it would explode.

As he quickly walked down the well lit corridor of the refinery’s main building he felt a very slightly vibration below him. He froze in his tracks and stood silently as a bolt of fear shot through his body. He placed his hand on the wall to see if he could detect the vibration again, but he felt nothing. He held his breath and listened intently but only heard the same constant hum of the refinery that he normally heard every second of every day. Brushing the moment from his mind, he let his fear subside and he began to walk down the hallway again. But a few seconds later he felt the vibration again. This time it was more severe and had a longer duration. Jerry knew something was wrong and bolted down the hallway toward his office.

When he arrived at his office he pushed the door open and slid into the chair in front of his desk. His fingers were a blur above the key board as he brought up operational statistics and diagnostic data for the turbines on a computer screen in front of him. He tilted his head back slightly to adjust his bifocal lenses and get a clear view of what was on the screen. The vibration in turbine number five had increased. Jerry exhaled and rubbed his eyebrow in thought. It showed nearly twice the amount of vibration that had been recorded only eight hours earlier.

Jerry tucked his elbows into the armrests of his chair and steepled his hands in front of his face. On the end of his desk was a small plastic Christmas tree that had a set of blinking colored lights wrapped around it. As he watched the colored Christmas lights blink on and off, he remembered that yesterday was Christmas day. The thought that it just might be the last Christmas day he would ever celebrate passed through his mind.

As he sat there in thought, he felt the vibration again and immediately glanced toward the screen in front of him to see the reading on number five. The vibration reading peaked at one point five G. A vibration reading that was definitely out of spec and definitely not good. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself.

Jerry understood very well what would be the outcome if number five went down and he was going to do everything in his power to try and prevent that from happening. He had always been a great problem solver, a trait that most engineers possess. Theories on how to fix the situation flew through his mind with each one of them failing to provide a workable solution for the damaged turbine and the life-threatening situation he and the rest of the refinery workers were in.

The desk phone next to him began to ring. Jerry picked up the receiver and listened. “Jerry... this is Tom, what do you make of it?” It was the operations manager, Tom Cavanaugh calling to ask his advice on the situation. Tom was an ex-Marine, a large hulking man with a red moustache and flat top hair cut to match. Tom was an excellent operations manager since he knew every part of the refinery like the back of his hand.

Sweat began to bead on Jerry’s forehead. “It’s number five. The front bearing has gotten worse. I don’t think it’s gonna last much longer.”

Tom’s voice came through the phone. “So even if we started cramming people into the decompression pod right now, odds are this thing would let loose before anybody could get to the surface… right?"

Jerry exhaled and said. "Exactly... there is no way to run from this mess. The only way to save ourselves is to figure out some way to repair number five or spin down the production process before it lets loose."

Tom answered. "I'll start to make preparations for a shutdown but you know it will take at least forty eight hours just to process all of the paperwork. Just getting us back to one hundred percent would take us nine days."

Jerry shook his head in disgust. "I hope you realize that by running the turbines above a hundred and eight percent... you may have killed us all."

There was a pause on the other side of the line and then Tom's strained voice could be heard. "The orders came from up top. The guys at Homeland Security said it was a matter of national security. What else was I supposed to do?"

Jerry focused on the words that Tom had just said. National security?... no one had mentioned that before... is it true? is it B.S.? who cares now… just figure out a way to remedy this screwed up situation.

If there was anything a Marine could do, it was follow orders, and that was exactly what Tom had done. The chain of command told him to slowly increase production passed one hundred and eight percent and he followed the order.

Jerry shook his head and sneered into the receiver. “I don’t know what you guys expect. You buy equipment from the lowest bidder and then abuse it and expect it to last forever. I warned everybody that something like this would happen if we ran above one hundred and eight percent.”

Tom’s voice cracked as he replied. “Any thoughts on how to remedy the situation?”

Jerry shook his head with disbelieve as to what Tom had just said. “Yeah, here’s a thought for you, kiss your ass good bye because when that bearing seizes and number five locks up... this place is gonna crater.” Jerry repositioned the phone on his ear, closed his eyes and took a deep breath to try and bring himself under control.

Tom exhaled and shot out the words. “Jerry... is that the best you got? Kiss your ass good bye? We need to come up with some constructive ideas pal…now get yourself under control.”

“I told you stupid sons of bitches that this was going to happen!” Jerry slammed the receiver of the phone back into its place.

He leaned forward in his desk chair, put his elbows on his knees and covered his face with his hands. He sat there for a few seconds in thought. How could I have been so stupid to get myself into this situation? Is there any possible way to reverse the damage to the turbine bearing? Is there some way to spin the refinery down quicker? Is there some way to save the fifty four people in the facility? Is there any possible way out of this situation? Think… think!

The desk chair creaked a bit as Jerry sat back in his chair and looked at the monitor. All seven of the turbines showed some degree of bearing vibration on the accelerometer screen, but number five was definitely the worst. Every few minutes the accelerometer on number five would read one point five four G and move the needle into the red as a vibration shook the facility.

He thought about the turbine testing and calculations he had performed in the lab in Sacramento. Jerry had always prided himself on providing work that was extremely accurate and statistically reliable. He sat there and tried to understand why the bearing in number five was failing so quickly.

While in thought, a spark of an idea crossed his mind. It smoldered for a second and then grew into a small flame. In no time the small idea that ran through Jerry's mind grew into an inferno. I ran numerous breakdown tests on the turbines at the manufacturer's testing facility that were far above one hundred and eighteen percent. Maybe number five is just an anomaly.., maybe that bearing was marginal to begin with. We had run as high as one hundred and forty percent during testing and the turbine had lasted four… maybe five days before it failed. Is there some way we can slowly unload number five and have the other six turbines compensate? We could take some load off the system by decreasing the flow density as well... this just might work.

Jerry grabbed his calculator and did some math. He tossed the calculator onto his desk and sat back in his chair. Jerry had determined that if they could push another nineteen point six percent through the other six turbines and reduce the combined flow density a bit, they might be able to take number five off line. The other six turbines already showed some abnormal vibration but nothing like number five was experiencing. If the other six turbines could withstand the overload and hold together for at least five days, the facility could be safely evacuated and the refinery process brought to a safe level.

Jerry grabbed his phone and tapped the numbers to call Tom, the operations manager. Jerry explained his idea to Tom and waited for his response. Tom wasn't filled with enthusiasm for a plan that would put more overload onto other parts of the refinery system, but what other choice did he have?

With any situation in your life you normally have two choices, a choice to do something or a choice to do nothing. In this situation, doing nothing would most definitely end in death and destruction. Doing something could end in death and destruction, but there was also a chance it wouldn't.

Tom belched out an order in Marine fashion. "Get your ass down to the control room and show us what to do!"

It only took Jerry a few minutes to run from his office to the operations control room. When he arrived, Tom and two other operators were staring at the turbine vibration monitor on the control room’s main screen.

Jerry barked out an order as he tried to catch his breath from the long run. "Set an acceleration rate of six thousand minutes for all of the turbines except number five." One of the operators began to make adjustments to the operations control panel to carry out Jerry's instruction. "Then set a deceleration rate of six thousand minutes for number five and adjust the combined flow density to eighty eight percent." The second operator nodded and followed the instruction.

Jerry ran his hands through his sweat soaked hair and looked at Tom. "If we can keep the wheels on this thing for one hundred hours, I think we can make it. The question is gonna be how long the other six turbines can handle the overload."

Tom glanced at Jerry and then the turbine vibration monitor. "It's dicey but what other choice do we have." Tom picked up the phone next to him. "I'm going to contact the surface and arrange the facility evacuation."

As the adjustments took effect, alarms began to populate the control room screens to notify the operators of the increased overload on the six good turbines. They silenced the alarms and continued to watch the vibration monitor screen.

Jerry plopped himself into an open control room chair and tried to relax for a second. During college he had figured out that he performed much better on final exams when he kept his stress under control. He closed his eyes for a second and tried to relax because he knew he would need every ounce of mental ability to remedy this situation and prevent an explosion at the Enggano refinery.

Jerry opened his eyes and saw a white ceramic coffee mug resting on the control console in front of him. The mug belonged to one of the operators and the name Roger had been written on the side of it with a fat black marker. Not remembering the last time he had taken a drink of anything, he lifted the cup to his lips and took a drink. Hmmm... cold.

At that moment the vibration returned but this time it was much worse. Jerry glanced at the screen and watched the vibration monitor on number five register two point one G and stay there. The humming sound of the refinery he had heard each and every second of each and every day changed tone. The sound of metal piping and couplings groaning as they reached their maximum tensile rating reverberated through the facility.

Alarms sounded and warning messages appeared on the monitors as Tom hung his head and exhaled. "Well that doesn't sound good... I think we're loosin' her Jerry."

The operators feverously worked to clear the alarms and maintain control of the refinery. Then one of them blurted. "Number two has problems. The vibration monitor has peaked at one point five G, and is now reading a constant one point two G."

Another group of alarms rang out as the other operator yelled. "Number six is showing one point three, no... one point four G on the vibration monitor." The operator turned and looked at Tom. "I don't think she's gonna hold together sir... the wheels are just about completely off this wagon."

Jerry placed the coffee mug onto the console and hung his head in exasperation. He had thrown the hail-mary pass on fourth down and it looked like it was going to fall incomplete. At that moment the vibration of the facility became even more severe. Jerry glanced at the mug in front of him and noticed it was vibrating on the surface of the console. Small particles of dust loosened themselves from the false ceiling panels above and floated toward the floor.

One operator blurted. "Two has gone to one point eight and is steady."

The other operator announced. "Both four and seven are experiencing problems."

Tom slid into the vacant chair next to Jerry and covered his face with his hands. "We're done..."

Jerry glanced at Tom for a second and thought that even as all hell was breaking loose around them, Tom was taking a moment to pray.

A stronger vibration rocked the facility as Jerry gasped and held onto the console in front of him to try and steady himself. But while a sense of fear flooded into Jerry's system, it was met by a feeling of confusion and disbelief. Failures never happened this quickly in the lab. My idea should have worked, heck at least bought us some time. I don't understand...

Then the reason for the premature failure of the turbine bearings became one hundred percent clear to Jerry. While the turbine technology was invented in the United States, the construction of the seven turbines in the refinery had been farmer out to a third party contractor in China. It all made sense now. The turbines he had tested with the engineering team had been built in-house at the Sacramento facility years later and must not be part-for-part identical to the turbines in the refinery. They couldn't be.

The operators sat back in their chairs and ignored the alarms and messages that popped onto the screens in front of them. All four men were now resigned to the fact that an explosion was about to occur that would destroy the five hundred acre Enggano refinery and excavation site and kill all of the fifty four people stationed there.

Oddly enough a flush of calm rushed through Jerry's body. He had not made a miscalculation. He did not overlook anything. Nothing had slipped by him. He had not made a mistake. The turbines in the Enggano refinery were most likely constructed from substandard components and built using non-compliant construction processes. He felt relieved that what was about to happen was not his fault. With his conscience at peace, he closed his eyes and exhaled with a faint smile on his face. Thank you God for revealing this to me before my death...

The overheads lights in the control room blinked a few times and then went dark as Jerry spoke his last words. “Oh, shit.”

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