“Hey, come back here,” Manny had said.
“What?” Nathan asked.
“We need to talk.”
“Can it wait.”
A long pause.
Samuel Iverson shifted in his chair, interrupting Nathan’s memory.
“So…” Samuel stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Anything else?”
“Not really,” Nathan shrugged. “There were more dangers and challenges, of course, but by that point I knew I had a system that worked. It brought me all the way to you on the fringe of civilization, and it will bring me through my next steps as well.”
“Which are what exactly? What is your plan to deal with the worm here?”
“It’s very simple…and it requires nothing from you. I will go out onto the salt flats on my own. I will find the sand striker worm’s nest and light it on fire. When the sand striker worm comes I will already have the poison pellets ready in hand.”
“What? And just throw them in?!”
“No,” Nathan shook his head. “That would leave too much to chance. What if I missed? What if it didn’t ingest them?”
Nathan simply stared back intensely.
“You don’t mean…”
“You’ll let it eat you?!”
“At that point, face-to-face with a worm, there’d already be no way of getting out alive. You know that. And I am prepared to do what I must.”
Many of the people in the room shook their heads in disbelief.
“The rest of you will simply have to wait for the worm to die. Take whatever precautions you need to stay safe during its final days.”
“You won’t even survive long enough to find its nest!” the older lady down the table exclaimed.
“This won’t be the first worm field that I’ve had to cross! But in the event that the worm did find me prematurely, so what? I’ll still be prepared to meet it, and when it’s gone it’ll be a small thing for you to take care of the eggs.”
Samuel Iverson shifted around in his seat, trying to find the words to express his discomfort with the idea.
“It’s–it’s just too much,” he finally concluded. “This whole plan, coming out of the blue like this, with so much that could go wrong. You asking us to go along with it is just too much.”
“As I said, all the burden is on me. If I fail then I die and life continues the same as ever for you. Of course I do understand that this is a lot to digest, anyway. I’m sure you’ll need a day or two to think about it–“
“He doesn’t even know if those pellets work,” the elderly woman sided with Samuel. “They’ve never actually been tested.”
“What if the worm realizes its been attacked and decides to take us out?” another member of the council added.
“Besides,” Doctor Hogue chimed in, “even if it did succeed, what would we really gain? I mean of course I’d love to remove the threat of that monster breathing down our necks every day, but I don’t see how doing that is worth all of the associated risk.”
“You don’t see how it’s worth the risk?!” Nathan couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Don’t you see, the reason why I’m doing this isn’t just so you can live here more comfortably, it’s so you can finally get away from here!”
Everyone in the room gave him a curious look, as if they hadn’t even considered that possibility.
“You mean you didn’t get that was the reason I came here specifically?! With the radiation zones pressing in from the north and the spawning grounds to the south, everyone in the nation is bottlenecked by this one Bonneville worm’s nest. If that one cork could be popped every surviving American might have a chance to make it to the coast!”
“Oh,” Samuel said softly. “So that’s the plan.”
“Well of course that’s the plan! You’re the remnants of the Coast-Seekers company, aren’t you?”
“And your objective was to reach the California coast and set sail for New Zealand, correct?”
“Well, New Zealand or Hawai’i, but one of the two, anyway.”
“But you gave up on that dream when you got bottled in by this worm, so now I’m giving you a way out! A way to finish what you started.”
“Yes,” Iverson said after a pause. “That was the idea all those years ago, you are correct. Reach the coast and sail away…but, well, that was a long time ago. Back then we couldn’t even fathom scratching out our lives here…but now that’s become our reality.”
“You can’t be telling me that you actually like it here!”
“It’s life, isn’t it?!” Iverson shot back. “And let’s be realistic, that’s more than you could guarantee us if we made for the coast. Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, San Francisco…these were massive cities! They must have drawn in hundreds of worms, which broke them to the ground and are now sprawled everywhere along that border!”
“Not everywhere. There’s sure to be holes. I admit I don’t know where, but once you’re past this bottleneck you’ll have room to maneuver, to test for weak spots, to find a way through!”
“And how many surveying teams will have to be sacrificed to find out where they are?”
“Does it matter?! If all of us die except for one soul who gets through to freedom then that’s worth it, isn’t it?!”
Nathan looked demandingly around the room, but no one said a word. No one met his gaze. And in that moment Nathan knew. He had seen the same look of defeat in the eyes of countless wanderers during his journeys, but those had been the faces of people who truly had no hope left. He had always assumed that things would be different here. How could a community be trapped less than six hundred miles from total freedom, and be offered a second chance at life, and still turn it down cold?
“We’ve got to be thinking bigger than just ourselves,” Nathan tried one last time. “It wouldn’t just be you getting a shot at freedom, it would be everyone else trapped in this whole country. You can’t deny them their shot just because the cost might be high for you.”
“I’m sure that was the same sentiment they held when they dropped the nukes on us,” Iverson said bitterly.
“I’m sorry, Mister Prewitt,” Doctor Hogue said gently. “When we heard you had something to offer, we didn’t know what to expect. But this plan of yours…we’re just not interested. Better to preserve what little we have than to risk losing it all.”