Nathan had known that day was coming long before it occurred. Everyone did. Every other week some general or senator would show up, claiming to be the voice of the White House, and delivering a totally different set of orders than the last “representative.” Gradually everyone came to understand there was no central authority anymore. Somewhere along the way it had dissolved until every national power was an island of its own.
Nathan’s team stopped accepting oversight. They worked night and day to complete their prototype. For what purpose they didn’t know. No purpose if they didn’t get it finished, though.
Against all odds, they managed to scrap something together that they thought might work. But they couldn’t turn the tide with just one prototype, and they didn’t have resources to make any more. It wasn’t fully tested, either. It might not even work.
No. It had to work. When his colleagues’ faith waned Nathan held constant. Fate had chosen to let them complete this for a reason. This prototype had a purpose, a great calling to fulfill. He didn’t know how, but it was going to turn the tide of things. All that was required of him was to keep seeking until he found out how.
And so he stole it.
Any moment a sand striker worm might smash through their facility, or a mob might come marching into the building, or one of the other researchers might hand it over to one of those useless senators. He had to act before any of that happened.
It wasn’t hard to steal it. He waited for one of those rare times when all the other researchers took a break for a few hours of sleep. He left with them, but then doubled back, got his handgun out of his locker, and marched up to the guard.
This was no trained soldier, just some local former sheriff turned mercenary, and he gladly kicked away his weapon and laid down on the floor rather than get a bullet in the head. Nathan took the prototype, stole the sheriff’s truck, and sped off into the night.
“It was decided we should take the prototype weapon and bring it out west,” Nathan looked Samuel Iverson squarely in the eye. “I was entrusted to bring it here.”
“Why here?” the elderly woman further down the table asked.
“Well, as you know, the giant sand striker worm population is much denser in the eastern states than it is out here.”
“Because of the higher human populations,” Doctor Hogue added.
“That’s right. You don’t have anything nearly so populous out here until you get right on the western coast. So L.A. and Seattle and Portland were hammered, but here in the central west we were detecting less than one worm for every twenty thousand square miles.”
“So wasn’t the need for your weapon greater out east?” the elderly woman suggested.
Nathan shrugged. “I mean what difference would it make? This prototype should be able to clear out one adult and its nest, but then it’s used up. It would be like firing a single bullet into a horde of ants. But out here…it could actually make a difference.”
“It could?” Samuel Iverson still looked skeptical.
“Yes, at least that’s what I’ve always trusted in. I didn’t know what I would find out here when I first set out. I didn’t know anything about your outfit here at the edge of humanity. Basically I had no idea what it was I was looking for…but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it. Some opportunity, some special situation, some perfect place that this weapon had been made for.”
“I’m still unclear as to the nature of this weapon,” a large, black man seated next to Nathan spoke up.
“Ah, yes,” Nathan removed the shoulder straps of his backpack and put it on his lap. “Nothing too extravagant. Tried and true methods of killing were the best option.” He unzipped the bag and reached inside, pulling out a plastic tray that was divided into ten equal sections, each covered by its own lid. He popped open the first section and pulled out a compacted pill powder, about the size and shape of an egg. “Promethyia,” he pronounced, “a poison specifically engineered to disrupt the giant sand striker worm’s digestive system.”
“How, specifically?” Doctor Hogue leaned close and squinted at the pellet.
“There are three layers. The first is eroded by the highly potent acids in a sand striker worm’s gut. It’s a tough layer to get through, and any other creature that swallowed this pellet would pass it without ever unsheathing the second and third layers.”
“The second layer is a carefully engineered acid, one that is specially designed to perforate the intestine wall of the sand striker worm, creating openings to the rest of the body. Then the third layer is a bacteria that naturally occurs in the sand striker worm. Usually it is dormant and does no harm to them, but we found some worms that died from a mutated strain. We were able to preserve and hybridize that bacteria variation, and through the intestine perforations we release them into the creature’s bloodstream.”
“How quickly does it work?”
“The worm will die within a month.”
“And you have enough here to poison ten of them?”
“No. One worm needs to consume all ten pellets.”
“Can the bacteria spread from one worm to another?”
“Theoretically, perhaps. But it only lives in the blood, and sand striker worms do not generally encounter one another’s blood. They don’t even eat one another’s corpses.”
“A month?” Iverson said.
“You said a month for the worm to die?”
“Yes, it should be about that long, give or take a week.”
“But this was your first prototype?”
“So it’s never been tested.”
“Yes, but the science is solid. It will work.”
Samuel Iverson folded his arms and shook his head in disappointment.
“It will work!”
“But what effect will it have on the worm during that month?”
“Gradual deterioration of its functions. Increased temperatures, swelling of the glands–“
“It’s behavior!” Iverson pressed, “What will it’s behavior be like during that month?”
“I–don’t know. Like you said, we haven’t tested it yet, so–“
“So it might go into a rampage! It might thrash about in agony and destroy anything in its vicinity!”
“Ah, I see,” Nathan said quietly.
“Now you do. But you’re not used to looking after a community, are you? You don’t have their lives weighing on you like we do! You’re not used to thinking through all the possible side effects, picking out the ways a plan might backfire and spill the blood of others.”
Nathan took that in for a moment, then replied in a low and steady voice. “I have not had to care for a community like you have, sir, but absolutely I have had to endure the weight of my creation. I have faced consequence and side-effect every step of the way from Virginia to this room. I have made difficult choices, and I have had to endure the spilling of blood.”