As Nathan stumped across the salt, weary and delirious, his mind went back to that last conversation with Manuel.
“Hey, come back here,” Manny had said.
“What?” Nathan asked.
“We need to talk.”
“Can it wait.”
A long pause.
“Fine,” Nathan put down the old almanac and pen. “What is it?”
“Let me see those poison pellets…there’s something I have to show you about them.”
Nathan frowned, but reached into his backpack and took out the pellets, extending them to Manuel. Manuel took them, but set them on the ground at his feet.
“Also I need your backpack,” he held out his hand expectantly.
“I’ll show you. Can I just see it please?”
“Manny, I think you’d better tell me what this is all about.”
“Will you just hand me the backpack, Nathan?”
Manuel folded his arms and furrowed his brow.
“Manny, you’re behaving strangely. I think you’d better just say whatever’s on your mind.”
“These aren’t real, are they?” Manuel gestured to the poison pellets.
“What? Of course they are–“
“No, they’re just the same as the Wave Emitter. A fake prototype. Another red herring!”
“What? You’re just being paranoid!”
“No. You hand me the pellets with hardly any hesitation, but you don’t hand me the backpack? And as I’ve thought about it I realized that you have never left me alone with your backpack. It’s because what really matters is still hidden away in there! You had to know I would figure it out eventually, Nathan.”
Nathan opened his mouth, hoping that a convincing lie would find its way out. But a moment passed in silence and then another. And then Nathan knew that the game was up.
“I’m right,” Manuel sighed. “All this time. You’ve told me lies on top of lies, and I’m your only friend! I get why you had to lie to everyone else, but even to me, Nathan? All these years and I still don’t deserve your trust?”
“Manny, it’s not about trust. Come on, I’ve trusted you with my life countless times, haven’t I? And by extension the entire mission. What it’s about is you not having to bear an unnecessary burden. It’s just common sense that the fewer people who know the truth, the less likely that it gets out.”
“It’s common sense that having one other person who knows the truth means that there is someone to keep the mission alive even if you die.”
“Well I don’t need a backup plan.”
“Oh, you’re immortal.”
“You think I would have made it this far if fate hadn’t chosen me to succeed? I’m still alive for a purpose!”
“Oh wow. So you’re some sort of special chosen savior, is that right?”
“I’m alive, that’s what I am. And I’ve stayed alive longer than anyone would have reasonably expected me to, and I’ll continue to live for as long as I have to.”
“You know, now that I think about it, I don’t think you keeping your secrets is either a matter of trust or common sense. I think it’s guilt.”
Manny cocked his head and a gradually-increasing anger grew in his eyes. “Its because I wouldn’t like it, would I? There’s something about the prototype–the real one–yeah, there’s something about it that does something awful…. Isn’t there?!”
“Manuel, be reasonable…”
But Manuel was convinced now. “Are my brothers and sisters in New Denver going to die?!” spittle flew from Manuel’s mouth and he clenched his hands into fists.
Another damning silent pause. Nathan had lived off his lies for years now, they usually came naturally and quickly…so why was he struggling to come up with one now?
“Wow,” Manuel whispered in a silent rage. “You’re–you’re a monster!”
“No, they won’t die!” Nathan finally spoke up. “I–I admit that there were–concerns with the prototype, but I’ve never agreed with them. The device will work as intended–“
“And just how does it work? Do you–do you use the city for bait and–and then hope that your device kills the creature in time?”
“What? No! Nothing like that.”
“Tell me what the prototype is, Nathan!”
Nathan scowled back at Manuel…but then dropped his eyes and sighed. He had revealed this much…he might as well go the rest of the way. With heavy hands he pulled the backpack onto his lap, unzipped it, and pulled on the tab that revealed the secret compartment in the bottom. From that compartment he withdrew the first of two items.
“This is a sonic beacon. It sends deep pulsations into the ground, which summon the worm to it. Just in case we can’t attract it naturally. And no, the beacon doesn’t go in the city. It goes in the worm nest.”
He pulled out the second item. The black, rectangular prism.
“And when the worm comes, we activate this…This is a portable nuclear bomb.”
“But it’s not your typical nuclear bomb!” Nathan added in a hurry. “It has almost no explosion, it’s an all-new technology that emphasizes rapid bursts of radiation. Radiation that has been specially attuned to the size and physical structure of the worms. The wavelengths are large enough that they shouldn’t even be able to interact with the human body. They’ll be absorbed into the worm and its young without harming anyone in the city.”
“Shouldn’t be able to interact with the human body?”
“Believe me, I would have liked nothing more than to conduct a full barrage of tests to prove that point, but I’ve told you how things fell out from under us. We were lucky just to get the first prototype! So, we have to move past the trials and go straight to execution.”
“Skip the trial…go straight to the execution…how poetic.”
“You know what I meant!”
“I know the government decided they may as well drop nukes on Montana, too. They killed everyone who lived there without any trial either!”
“This isn’t like that.”
“Why? Because you just know it’s going to work somehow?”
“I did the science! I ran the figures!”
“But your colleagues weren’t so sure. You said there will still concerns with it.”
“As I said, obviously carrying out a full barrage of trials would have been everyone’s first choice. But no one gets their first choice anymore.”
“So its a new, untested technology…I know you’re a lot smarter than me, Nathan, but you don’t really know what’ll happen when you set off that bomb, do you? You might have a hunch…but you don’t really know.”
“I know. It will work.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it has to.”
Manuel shook his head. “That’s not good enough!”
“It will kill the worm. I know it.”
“And my friends?!”
“Hopefully not…but even if it does…it’s worth it.”