“Black Cypher you are now at the appropriate depth,” Major Hawlings had said into the microphone. There was a moment of silence, but no reply, so Hawlings repeated himself. “Black Cypher you can level out now, do you copy?”
“Two thousand feet, confirmed,” the voice of Sergeant Bradley crackled in from the wall-mounted speakers. He said something else, too, but it was lost in the static.
“Corporal Donahue, is there nothing we can do about the audio quality?” Hawlings turned in his seat.
“It isn’t interference, sir,” Donahue replied. “It’s just the signal becomes impure when it has to travel along such a long cable.”
Nathan Prewitt, seated against the back wall of the room, tried to imagine it. A massive hole somewhere in the plains of Iowa, nearly twenty feet across, with a massive black cable nearly a mile long snaking down into the earth, winding through tunnels until it joined at the back of a massive earth-moving vehicle.
“Black Cypher, please repeat,” Major Hawlings instructed. “We didn’t get your last message.”
“Our instruments show two thousand feet as well. All clear so far as we can tell and we’ve leveled out.”
“Excellent work, Sergeant. Now turn to mark two-four-zero and proceed eight hundred feet.”
Everyone in the operations room looked to the wall-mounted computer screen. It was a live feed from their seismic instruments, which gave a rough approximation of all the entities moving beneath the surface of the earth.
And there were many of them.
No less than seventy separate signals, each represented by an expanding and retracting circle on the screen, swarmed about the screen. Sergeant Bradley and his team were very near now to the sand striker worms’ nursery, and it was tended to by dozens of workers. At this particular moment, one of those gigantic worms was drawing very near to the blip that represented the earth-mover.
“Alright now, we’re seeing some movement in your area,” Major Hawlings said into the mic. “Are you detecting anything on your end?”
“Not yet, sir. Though the rig’s shaking so much it would be hard to know. Should we stop?”
“No, I don’t think so…” Major Hawlings looked to the lead zoologist, Doctor Persaud, who was seated against the back wall a few spots down from Nathan. Doctor Persaud shook his head in agreement. “Don’t slow down Sergeant. Your rig has been designed to imitate the tremor patterns of the other worms. So long as you keep moving like they do, they should think you’re one of them.”
Everyone’s eyes snapped back to the monitor, watching as the approaching worm grew closer and closer, then smoothly glided past the earth-mover, about forty feet above.
“Well done, Sergeant, you’re in the clear!”
“We should be getting close now, shouldn’t we?”
“About one-hundred-and-fifty feet to go. Make sure you don’t stop to drop the package. When I say so just make a wide, one-hundred-and-eight degree turn and drop it behind you.”
The indicator for Bradley’s team updated its coordinates every few seconds. Those numbers grew closer and closer to the known location for the nursery. Somewhere, half a mile beneath the surface of the earth, there was an underground cavern filled with thousand of striker worm eggs.
“Turn now and drop the package!” Hawlings ordered.
“Message received…turn initiated…” there was a long pause, and then… “package deployed. Countdown sequence underway.”
The room erupted in applause.
Thus far the giant sand striker worms hadn’t posed any threat to humanity, but Washington had ordered their team to come up with a weapon which could be used against the worms if ever needed. While they worked on a more elegant solution, they decided to at least try an underground nuclear explosion. This mission was a pre-emptive strike, just to let them know what they could expect if they ever went to war.
And it had worked. The entire nest, and nearly all the attending nursery workers had been destroyed that afternoon.
And almost immediately after that, all the other worms in the colony began surging for the surface!
At first the specialists were all baffled as to why. These were just dumb creatures, weren’t they? It’s not like they could have understood that humanity was responsible for the attack and were retaliating against them!
One theory Nathan heard, just before the collapse of the government, was that the worms had seen the attack on their nest as a sign of some more powerful predator churning in the deep. As a result they had moved up, hoping to find a domain where they would be the apex predators once again. That would explain why they now built their nests at the surface, too.
“In any case,” Nathan continued his account to the council at New Denver, “it doesn’t matter what drove the giant sand striker worms to the surface. All that matters is that they came and they ravaged everything faster than we could have anticipated.”
“And were you involved in the decision to drop nukes on your own people?!” the man two seats down from Nathan demanded.
“No,” Nathan sighed. “That was as much of a shock to me as it was to the rest of the world.”
That much was true. The decision to drop nuclear bombs across the northern states had been made in a state of frenzy, causing far more destruction to humanity than to the worm population. Perhaps the giant worms had moved towards the surface, but they still spent a significant portion of their time at depths where the radiation wouldn’t reach down to them.
“So what happened to your department?” Samuel Iverson asked.
“Things became more and more difficult as the cities grew uninhabitable. A lot of our work just couldn’t be done remotely, though. We had to gather somewhere with machines and technology and staff. We were working on a prototype, a weapon that we thought had a real chance to kill the worms, but we had to relocate time and time again. First Arlington, then Raleigh, then Lynchburg. We were slow to realize that the worms could feel our communities through the soil, that they would pop up sooner or later wherever the population was more than a few thousand.
“With every strike we lost people, lost equipment, and lost resources. We were close to a working prototype, but finishing it seemed more and more improbable. And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the entire government collapsed.”