Hell Holes: What Lurks Beneath by Donald Firesmith
It’s August in Alaska, and geology professor Jack Oswald prepares for the new school year. But when hundreds of huge holes mysteriously appear overnight in the frozen tundra north of the Arctic Circle, Jack receives an unexpected phone call. An oil company exec hires Jack to investigate, and he picks his climatologist wife and two of their graduate students as his team. Uncharacteristically, Jack also lets Aileen O’Shannon, a bewitchingly beautiful young photojournalist, talk him into coming along as their photographer. When they arrive in the remote oil town of Deadhorse, the exec and a biologist to protect them from wild animals join the team. Their task: to assess the risk of more holes opening under the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the wells and pipelines that feed it. But they discover a far worse danger lurks below. When it emerges, it threatens to shatter Jack’s unshakable faith in science. And destroy us all…
Though the sun had finally dipped behind the rounded mountains of the Brooks Range, the temperature remained well above freezing, leaving the ground moist from the morning’s rains. It was quiet except for the soft sound of the breeze blowing through the short shrubs and sedges that covered the tundra of the North Slope.
An arctic fox silently patrolled his territory. He sniffed the ground, following the scent of a female that had passed by earlier that evening. She had brushed against a bearberry bush, and he stopped to breathe in her enticing smell. She was in heat, and he hoped to father her second litter of the season.
Though the fox occasionally heard the distant rumble of big rigs driving north along the Dalton, carrying supplies to Deadhorse and the oil fields around Prudhoe Bay, he paid them no mind. The humans were several miles away, and unlike wolves and wolverines, they posed no threat.
The fox abruptly stopped, turning his head to the side in puzzlement. He heard a faint hum that seemed to come from the ground below him. It was a new sound, one that he had not heard before. It rapidly increased in volume until it became a piercing, high-pitched whine, far beyond the dull hearing of the humans in their trucks. In agony, the fox rolled on the ground, desperately pawing at his ears in a vain attempt to stop the pain. He yipped and whined, adding his voice to the faraway howling of wolves.
The sound suddenly stopped, replaced by a deep rumble as the ground beneath the fox began to shake. Slowly, foot by foot, a huge circle of tundra the size of a large pond began to push itself above the surrounding tundra. Carrying the fox upward, it rose until it reached the height of a caribou’s antlers. Along its circular boundary, loose wet dirt and ragged patches of plants fell off, forming a ring-shaped pile that surrounded the rising ground.
With a sharp jerk, the massive cylindrical plug of earth underneath the fox stopped rising and began sliding downward. No longer incapacitated by pain, the terrified fox sped across the quivering ground, running for his life as it continued its unrelenting collapse. He ran toward the edge, arriving just as the ground beneath him slipped below the short ring of loose and muddy soil that marked its circumference. With a desperate leap, the fox jumped up, landing on the ring’s slippery slope as the ground continued its collapse into the rapidly deepening crater. He slipped, sliding perilously backwards before desperately pawing his way back up and over the top. Once down on the solid ground surrounding the huge hole, he ran away as if he were chased by a pack of starving wolves.
The frightened fox was several hundred yards from the hole when the rumbling stopped. Still running for his life, he did not see the brilliant blue burst of light that shot skyward out of the huge crater. But he did see dozens of similar blue beams briefly light up the northern horizon. As suddenly as they appeared, the lights winked out. The fox did not stop until he had placed several miles between himself and the pit. Silence returned to the North Slope, while the scent of sulfur and decay filled the air above the newly formed hell holes.