Nathan’s head swiveled left and right as Doctor Hogue led him through the city. The houses were small shacks, made of the same concrete and zinc sheets that had been used for the perimeter wall. There was a large, central area that held a community of mixed livestock: chickens, sheep, and goats. One trail ran through the whole city, passing by every home and the farm, then slowly declining towards a large, open pit where a group of workers were washing pans of salt. This salt was what kept the citizens of New Denver living in this bleak place right on the border of a giant sand striker worm’s domain.
In the salt was power. Electrical power, to be specific. Every citizen of the city dedicated themselves to the harvesting and processing of that salt, and then they fashioned it into portable salt batteries. Were these even remotely as efficient as old lithium or alkaline batteries? Of course not. But they were able to be produced without a factory so large that it would summon the sand striker worms. Every other faction in the western states knew this was the place to come for power, and they would pay whatever it cost to get it. Only the nomads at the base of the Glacier Wind Farm in Montana were rumored to have an equal source of energy, but of course getting to Montana meant surviving the radiation zone in between.
Nathan also noted the old Teslas parked at one corner of the battery pit, lending credence to the stories that New Denver was close to making a converter to power electric vehicles. If the people here could actually pull that off it would revolutionize everything!
“We’re in here,” Doctor Hogue motioned to a small, concrete building with a corrugated zinc sheet covering the entry way. “The council meets in the bunker.”
Doctor Hogue swung the zinc sheet on large hinges, and together the two men scrambled into the dark enclosure.
“I’m here,” Doctor Hogue said to the inhabitants of the place. “I’ve brought him.”
“Take a seat, stranger,” a voice commanded.
Nathan blinked a few times, adjusting his eyes to the dim light cast by a solitary lightbulb in the corner. He was in a small, crude space, with three card tables standing next to one another in the center of the room. Around those tables were folding chairs, and a group of elders eyeing him curiously. Nathan located the nearest empty chair and took a seat.
“Now, what was your name?” the man opposite of Nathan asked. He had gray hair, a bushy mustache, and a large puff of chest hair poking out of his thin, button-up shirt.
“Nathan. Nathan Prewitt. And yours?”
“And you’re some sort of chemist?”
“Biochemist,” Doctor Hogue corrected as he took his seat beside the man who was addressing Nathan.
“Well what does a biochemist have to offer us then?”
Nathan smiled uncomfortably. He had a hard time believing Samuel Iverson was the sort of man to take him seriously. In any case, he wasn’t going to answer the man’s question straightaway. What he had to say was too important to not put it in its proper context.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what your name was…”
“Well, Mister Iverson, I want you to know that I’ve traveled all the way from Virginia by foot, just to sit here in front of you this day.”
“It isn’t if one is very careful…and very slow. I genuinely do not believe there is another wanderer on the roads that has taken the precautions or faced the dangers that I have.”
He paused for dramatic effect, but everyone just stared at him, waiting for him to continue. So he obliged.
“Before the Onslaught I was primarily involved with pathogen and virus research. Any time there was an epidemic my team would study the cell structure of what we were dealing with and make reports to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Of course all of that changed once the sand striker worms were detected. Mine was one of the first teams that transitioned to studying the worms’ tissue after some samples had been obtained. For two years we put whatever fragments they could get under our microscopes and identified every unique feature in their cell structure–“
“For two years?” Iverson interrupted. “But the government collapsed eight months after the Onslaught began.”
“Right…” Nathan said awkwardly, as if unsure whether he should elaborate further. But the government didn’t exist anymore, so neither did clearance levels or confidential information. “Most people are not familiar with this fact, but the government was aware of some new, gigantic species moving beneath the surface some eighteen months before the first outbreak in Chicago. Seismic sensors used for detecting earthquakes were already picking up on them.”
“Are you serious?!” an elderly, rail-thin woman further down the table gasped. “And they did nothing?!”
“Well, to be honest they didn’t properly know what it was they were dealing with. That was the point of my team, as well as several others, to assess the situation and give them insight.”
“The worms were just roaming about, minding their business underground?” Doctor Hogue asked skeptically. “And then–what–decided out of the blue that they ought to plow through our cities? Just like that?”
“To be honest, we never were able to determine what it was that drove them to the surface,” Nathan shook his head sadly. “A prevailing theory was that it had to do with their life cycle. Just like how a salmon will start swimming upstream once it’s the season to reproduce. The worms might have just matured into some phase that signaled them to move towards the surface.”
“Up here with us is their spawning grounds?”
“It could be. They do lay their eggs on the surface, don’t they?”
Jonathan had told the same lies so many times over that they came out sounding perfectly sincere. Even before he left Washington he had known he would need to tell his story repeatedly. He would need it to give people a reason to help him, to open doors that would normally be closed. But if he were to give people the whole truth, they would have killed him right from the beginning.
So he had come up with an altered set of events to tell people instead, and he had recited it so many times for so many years that he had to remind himself from time-to-time what the actual situation had been.