New Denver was the largest city Nathan had seen in a long time. It wasn’t just another occasionally-inhabited outpost, it was an actual, persistent community of seven hundred souls! New Denver citizens lived in actual houses, grew actual farms, and ran actual shops!
Most of that population was comprised of original members of the Coast-Seekers company. The expedition had paused at this location when its leader, Liam Blakes, recognized that the Bonneville Salt Flats (which lay just beyond) were a likely nesting ground for giant sand striker worms. Liam’s hunch proved true, as he and the rest of his surveying team were devoured only ten minutes after venturing onto the powder.
A few more surveying teams were sent out, each in a different direction, each hoping to find a path of safety through the dry ocean. Not a single one of them made it, though, and at last the company gave up their dream of reaching the California coast and sailing to New Zealand. What with the radiation to the north and the spawning grounds to the South, there didn’t seem to be any safe passages left.
And so they had settled, scratching out their lives in the very heart of chaos.
It was almost dusk when Nathan arrived at the city gates. The perimeter fence was nothing more than razor wire, corrugated zinc sheets, and concrete barriers. The gate was nothing more than a retractable garage door. At first Nathan was surprised that their defenses were so weak, but then he realized that when you lived on the fringe of sand striker worm territory, it didn’t matter whether your walls were made of paper or steel.
“Do you have a token?” one of the armed guards asked Nathan as he approached the gate.
Nathan had heard about this “token system” that the western states employed. A major city like New Denver was sure to draw all manner of criminal opportunists, so they had to be selective about who they actually let in. So all of the main factions in this area distributed unique tokens to their members, an emblem which proved that the bearer was vouched for by a trusted community. On each token was written a serial number, and there were ledgers which tied each number to a secret password. Those ledgers were regularly updated by each faction, and whenever someone presented a token they also had to provide the password that was associated with it. This was to discourage anyone from just murdering a token-bearer and using the item for themselves.
Nathan did not have a token.
“I’m not from here,” he said. “I’ve come from far to the east.”
“New Denver does not admit new recruits. You’ll have to join one of the smaller organizations instead. Once they decide you’re credible, they’ll give you a token.”
“But I have other credentials,” Nathan unbuttoned his shirt pocket and drew out an old and stained ID card. The picture was still recognizable as being of him, and all of the essential words were still legible.
“Nathan Prewitt,” the guard read. “You were a biochemist? For the government?”
The guard handed the ID back and exchanged a confused glance with his cohort. “I don’t see how that’s relevant. Just because you worked for the government doesn’t mean we trust you.”
“Before everything collapsed my department was paired with a Weapons Research team. We were looking for an effective means of killing the sand striker worms.”
“Please inform your superiors that I wish to speak with them. I have come to help.”
The two guards looked sideways at one another. This situation was outside of their standard procedure.
“It’s alright, I’ll wait out here,” Nathan took a step back and sat down on a rock protrusion.
After another moment’s pause the guards shrugged, and the one who had been speaking with Nathan retreated into the city, leaving the other at the post. That guard stared at Nathan for a full minute before he finally ventured to speak.
“But you didn’t find anything.”
“In your research, you didn’t find anything. If the government had found a way to stop the Onslaught they would have done it. So what’s the point of your being here?”
“You’re right, the government wasn’t able to stop the Onslaught. But I didn’t say that I was here to solve all of your problems…just that I could help.”
Five minutes later the first guard returned, accompanied by a man with copper-peach hair, which was so similar to his skin tone that it seemed to disappear into it.
“Doctor Hogue,” the man introduced himself, extending a hand to Nathan.
The two shook hands.
“Thompson tells me you’re some sort of government specialist, Mister Prewitt? That you were making weapons for them?”
“Biochemist, actually. We were studying the tissue of the sand striker worms, and then collaborating with Weapons Research on what tactics we could use against them.”
“I see. Well if you’re willing to leave your weapons here with the guards, I’ll take you in to talk with the council.”
Nathan removed his rifle, handgun, and knife, surrendering them to Thompson.
“Search his backpack?” Thompson asked. “And come along with?”
“No, no, I’m not worried about him,” Doctor Hogue waved his hand, then motioned Nathan to follow him through the raised gate.
Nathan breathed an inward sigh of relief and followed. His backpack was the one thing he didn’t dare entrust to another soul. What it held had been his sole responsibility all the way from Virginia to Nevada. He would die and he would kill before he would surrender its contents to anyone else.
Which was why Nathan kept one hand permanently affixed to his shoulder strap as he followed Doctor Hogue into the city. He didn’t expect to run across any thieves here, but he had a set of rules for how to conduct himself in a community, and those rules had managed to get him through this far. They would get him through the last leg of his journey, too.
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.
“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.”
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.”
A silence fell over the room, but it was finally broken as the man next to Nathan spoke up.
“Yes, there are some definite concerns,” he said to Samuel Iverson, “but it would be something for the entire council to decide on.”
“Yes, of course,” Iverson softened his posture and leaned back in his seat. “Well said, Harris.”
“Thank you,” Harris turned back towards Nathan. “But what I want to understand, is how you even found us out here. I’m sure our fame doesn’t extend all the way to Virginia!”
“No, you’re right” Nathan shook off the tension from the previous moment and settled back into his story. “As I said, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for when I left with the prototype, I just wanted to get out west and see what opportunity I could find along the way. I drove my vehicle until it ran out of gas, then continued on foot. I advanced very slowly, only progressing when I was sure of the next leg of my journey. I won’t go into unnecessary details about the adversity I faced, I’ll only say that I have struggled against any form of opposition imaginable. Mobs, natural disasters, striker worm nests, injury and illness…I’ve dealt with them all.
“Inch-by-inch I made my way to Missouri, though, and it was there that I met the man who told me about your city. He was a former citizen of New Denver.”
“What man?” Hogue piped up. “Did you get his name?”
“Of course. His name was Manuel Carrillo.”
“Manny!” several people in the room exclaimed at once.
“Manuel was sent to find Washington D.C. early on,” Iverson affirmed. “He was supposed to find out if there was any semblance of a government left to support us. We all assumed that he had died.”
“Well…he did–” Nathan said awkwardly, “but not until later. Not until a year ago.”
“You spent some time with him?”
“Oh yes. Once I told him there wasn’t any vestige of the government remaining he wanted to find somewhere to settle out East, but I convinced him to accompany me back here. As soon as I heard about your situation I knew this was the place for me to come. I wanted a guide, and when I explained my purpose to him he knew that my cause was worth the risk.”
“Manny wouldn’t have stayed out East,” Samuel huffed. “He would have come back here to finish his mission.”
“Manny barely survived the trip out to Missouri. He lost an arm for his trouble and he wasn’t too keen on losing the other while coming back. And certainly not to deliver a message that you shouldn’t expect any help from the government! You’d figure that out on your own soon enough. As I said, though, once he knew the importance of my own mission, and that he would have my help to survive, Manny agreed to accompany me back here.”
“Except you didn’t keep him alive!”
“Oh I did. I saved his life many, many times over. And he saved mine. I can honestly say that Manuel Carrillo is the only friend I’ve had since the world fell apart. As dangerous as the road from one coast to the other is for the typical traveler, it was even more so for us. As much as possible we tried to keep the nature of our mission a secret, but at times there was simply no way forward unless we disclosed the truth. And while that opened many doors for us, it always invited trouble as well.”
The door to the bunker suddenly squealed loudly as it opened on its rusty hinges, startling Nathan. A youth came in, blinking furiously until his eyes were adjusted to the dark, then he made his way to Samuel Iverson’s side and whispered a message to him. Evidently there was some issue out at the pit. Nathan heard something about “saltwater backwash,” which set him at ease. It was just typical salt battery concerns, nothing to do with him.
For a moment, the way that youth had opened the door had taken Nathan’s memories back to a similar room with a similar door on one particularly dangerous night. He and Manny had been the only two people in that room at that time, and they were listening to the din outside of a clan murdering itself!
“It’ll be alright,” Manny had said encouragingly. “Red Stella is a mad upstart. There’s no way she could have planned a coup that actually had a chance of success.”
“No,” Nathan shook his head. “She might be crazy, but she isn’t stupid. She wouldn’t have shown her hand tonight unless she had the force to back it up.”
There came a particularly loud explosion from out in the camp and both men flinched lower to the ground.
“Well then we got to get out of here!” Manny hissed.
“That’d work for me! You got any idea how?”
“We just gotta take our chances and run for it!”
“I don’t know–maybe you’re right–“
But just then the conversation was cut off as the corrugated door swung open, flooding the two men with the light of fire burning out in the field. Silhouetted in the door was the figure of a tall woman. She was large and powerfully built, nearly sixty, with deep stress lines etched along the sides of her face, and streaks of gray through her red, waist-length hair.
“Hello, Stella,” Nathan murmured.
The woman and her two bodyguards entered the room. Behind them Nathan and Manny could see that the struggle in the camp was winding down. The old management had been successfully deposed of.
“Now we will return to our prior conversation,” Stella said with her deep, husky voice, “and Mister Tanning won’t be around to interrupt with his opinions any more!”
“I always knew you were crazy,” Manny snarled, “but I didn’t figure you for the mercenary type!”
“Mercenary?! Please, I have no intention to profit from your weapon. As I said before, I’m trying to prevent exactly that. I only mean to safeguard what you two clearly cannot protect on your own.”
“Oh, so you’re robbing us to keep us safe from being robbed. How thoughtful!”
“I’m not going to try to make you see reason. I don’t have to anymore. Either hand the device over of your own volition, or we will kill you and take it from your corpses!”
Nathan’s eyes darted down to the backpack he was clutching to his chest.
“Don’t do it!” Manny said hotly. “We always said we’d protect it, no matter the cost!”
“But what difference does it make?” Nathan shot back. “She gets it either way, better that we’re still alive after she does.”
“Would you just trust me, Manny?” Nathan gave his compatriot a meaningful look.
“Glad to see you can be sensible,” Stella smiled. “Now hand it over.”
With a deep sigh Nathan loosened his grip on the backpack and slowly undid the zipper over the top. He reached in and pulled out a large mechanical device. The body of it was flat and rectangular, with three buttons, a dial, and a switch along one side. On top of the box a small satellite dish was mounted, about the size of a hand.
“Explain to us how it works,” Stella commanded.
“It’s really quite simple. Hook the cord up to a power source, though it does need to be 220 volts, so you’ll probably need a converter. These three buttons toggle between sawtooth, sine, and square waveforms. The worms will eventually adapt to one type of signal, so once you see them coming out of their frenzy just change the waveform and they should go back to attacking themselves. The dial is to raise and lower the amplitude. Each worm will respond best to a slightly different signal strength, so you just have to experiment to see which level gets the most consistent reaction out of them. That’s it.”
“Alright,” Stella held out excited, trembling hands. “Give it to me!”
Nathan paused before handing it over, though. “Stella…” he said slowly, “you tell us that you’re no mercenary, that you’re not going to use this for profit, that we can trust you. But the problem is, can you say the same about your own men?”
And with that Nathan casually tossed the device through the air to the guard that was standing to Stella’s left. The man raised his arms in surprise and caught it, eyes flicking left and right as if unsure what he should do.
Stella’s own eyes went wide and without a word she reached her left hand up to right elbow, pulling out the blade sheathed on her upper arm.
“Hey!” the other guard shouted as he wrapped his hands around her arm, holding her back from stabbing out with the blade. “He hasn’t even done anything!”
But Stella reached her free hand and took the blade into it, then plunged it into the guard restraining her. The other guard cried out in rage and leaped at her, fumbling with the firearm on his side.
“COME ON!” Nathan roared, grabbing Manny under the arm and hauling him to his feet. Stella and the two men were two busy struggling to stop the two prisoners as they plowed their way out of the tent.
“Nathan, wait–” Manny tried to turn back but Nathan forcibly dragged him towards the trees, ducking low to avoid being seen by anyone else in the camp. “But Nathan!”
“Will you shut up?!”
There came the sounds of shots and shouting from the tent as Nathan finally wrested Manny into the tall, thin trees at the edge of camp.
“But the Wave Emitter!” Manny hissed. “You can’t just give that up! If we go back now we might be able to get it off of whoever’s left.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nathan replied as he continued to lead Manny deeper into the trees. “It was a red herring all along.”
“It was just something I threw together from the scraps left at an old Best Buy. It doesn’t actually do anything.”
“Look, you’re absolutely right that we’ve got to protect the prototype at any cost. So of course I haven’t been showing anybody the actual thing!”
“But you always told me–“
“I’m sorry, Manny. When I first met you I couldn’t trust you with the truth either. I suppose I could have later, but it always seemed safer to keep the truth to as few people as possible. To myself.”
“What truth? Is there an actual prototype or isn’t there?”
Nathan looked over his shoulder and determined that they were far enough from the camp to pause and explain things.
“Shine this on me,” he handed Manny his flashlight and lowered the backpack from his shoulders. “We did make a prototype and it can kill the sand striker worms. I just lied about it being a wave frequency device that puts them into a frenzy.”
“But we’ve risked our lives for that device! Numerous times!”
“No. We risked our lives for the backpack. And the back still has everything that matters.” Nathan pulled sharply on a tab that hung from the inside of the backpack’s main compartment. A false bottom rolled to the side, revealing a rectangular package divided into ten compartments. “This is the actual prototype we made.”
“What is it?”
“It’s poison pellets. Ten poison pellets. This is the real hope of the future. This is what we have to get to your people in New Denver.”
Nathan’s senses were pulled back to the present moment as Samuel Iverson finished his hushed powwow with the messenger boy.
“…and if that doesn’t work, have Janice restart the generator entirely and hope for the best.”
The youth nodded to everyone in the dimly lit room and shuffled out the way he had come.
“Now then,” Iverson rubbed the bridge of his nose, “where were we?”
“Manny agreed to accompany me out west,” Nathan reminded him. “He believed in my cause enough to risk everything.”
“And when exactly did you say Manny died?” Doctor Hogue asked.
“About a year ago, when we reached Old Denver.”
Samuel Iverson and Doctor Hogue frowned at that. Evidently it wasn’t important enough of a death for their friend.
“I’m sorry,” Nathan said. “I did everything I could for him before the end. Fortunately he did not die in vain. By that point I was near enough to Utah that the locals could point me from one landmark to another until I found you. And now here I am.”
Whatever Nathan expected at the end of his tale, it wasn’t total silence. A heavy weight pervaded in the room and Nathan didn’t like it. Perhaps he was being paranoid, but he couldn’t help but wonder if the leaders were thinking it suspicious for Manny to have died before he could confirm or deny the story that Nathan was telling. For all they knew, Nathan had forced their friend to assist him at gunpoint, then killed him as soon as he no longer of any use.
Of course, if they were thinking that, none of it was true. Except for that one part about Nathan having killed Manny.
“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.”
Nathan made one more look up and down the table, but absolutely no one was willing to meet his gaze.
“Well…” he said softly. “Alright then. I guess there’s no further discussion to be had.”
He lifted the poison pellets off of the table and started to put them into his backpack.
“Uhh…” Samuel Iverson raised a finger. “What do you intend to do with those?”
“Find somewhere else that their purpose will be appreciated,” Nathan replied.
Samuel looked sideways to Doctor Hogue. Nathan, of course, knew exactly what was going through their minds. He had been in this exact situation several times already. On the surface he maintained a calm and nonchalant demeanor, but inside every muscle was tensing.
“We’ll put you up for the night,” Doctor Hogue offered. “I’m sure it’s been an age since you had a nice dinner and a bed.”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Nathan said, fingers fumbling slightly as he closed the zipper, “but I won’t impose any further on you. Really, the sooner I get going the better.”
He stood up, and at the same time so did everyone else. Nathan, unfortunately, wasn’t the closest to the door. There were three people between him and the exit.
“Nathan–” Samuel Iverson said softly.
“No!” Nathan shot back. “You’re supposed to be a civilization! You’re supposed to be better than this! What’s the point of your fancy homes and walls if you’re no better than the nomads?!”
“Nathan, we are not trying to steal from you,” Doctor Hogue said forcefully. “Like we said, we have no use for your pellets and we wouldn’t try to profit from them, either.”
“What do you want, then?” Nathan demanded.
“Well…” Samuel took a step back from the table and came to a tool chest by the wall. He withdrew an everyday hammer and laid it on the table. “If you will kindly destroy those pellets, Nathan, then we’d be happy to let you along your way.”
“I’m sorry, Mister Prewitt,” Doctor Hogue added, “but we just can’t trust you. We think it far more likely that you’ll persist with your original plan just as soon as you leave.”
“Like I said, I’ll head somewhere else with them. I think this is the best place for it, but that’s alright. There’s plenty of other good that can be done elsewhere.”
Doctor Hogue and Samuel Iverson shook their heads. They didn’t believe him…which meant they weren’t fools.
“I’m sorry,” Doctor Hogue repeated, “but you didn’t come this far just to give up because we asked you to. So we’re going to need some assurance.” He tapped the hammer.
Nathan weighed things carefully. He could always just hand over the pellets, pretend to give up like he had with Red Stella…but no, he was sure they wouldn’t fall for that. Stella had been unhinged and ego-centric, but these people were more rational. They wouldn’t buy his façade unless they had to take the pellets away by force. They were going to have to see him hurt.
“And what if I refuse?” Nathan darted his eyes around the room. He unzipped the backpack and took the poison pellets back out, clenching them tightly in his fist.
“We simply can’t take the risk of you endangering us,” Samuel Iverson slowly started moving around the table. Everyone else in the room took a step nearer as well.
“So what if I refuse?” Nathan repeated, taking a step back.
“You said it yourself earlier,” Doctor Hogue picked up a chair and turned its legs towards Nathan like he was taming a wild animal, “we all have to make difficult choices in our line of duty. Leading a people means doing whatever it takes to protect them…no matter how unpleasant it may be.”
“That’s easy to say,” Nathan grinned darkly, “but have you actually had to kill someone who didn’t deserve it?” He retreated another step and his back hit a wall. He pressed his hand along it, feeling for something that he could use. His fingers closed around a stake being used to anchor the zinc walls to the ground.
“There’s no need for it to come to that,” Samuel said as he and the other elders advanced until they were just outside of Nathan’s reach.
“But have you ever done it?” Nathan made the quickest of glances upward, measuring the distance to the roof. He had to be careful to not actually kill anyone, or else there was no telling what they might do to him out of vengeance!
“All of us have had to do things we’d rather not.”
“And that includes me!” Nathan gave a sharp twist with his wrist and the rusted stake snapped off in the dirt. He lunged forward, swinging the weapon high over his head, angling it straight for Samuel Iverson! However he intentionally made his jump too high, thus carrying the weapon into the roof of the building, puncturing a hole in the corrugated metal and wedging itself inside of it.
“NO!” Nathan pretended to be surprised. Then he was swarmed by all of the elders rushing at once!
“HOLD HIM DOWN!” Samuel shouted. “HOLD HIM DOWN!”
Nathan took a sharp, bracing breath. He wasn’t sure what would happen next. Crowds of angry people were unpredictable. But if he had played his cards right, and if he continued to do so, then he might just get out of here with his life…and with the one item that actually mattered…his backpack.
“GET OFF OF ME!” Nathan roared. “GET OFF!”
“Let go of the pellets!” one of the Elders shouted, gripping Nathan’s wrist and slamming his clenched fist against the ground.
Nathan continued to grip onto that packet of poison pellets like his life depended on it, though. They would have to take it from him by force, it was the only way.
“Hold his hand still,” Doctor Hogue ordered, trying to pry Nathan’s fingers off one at a time.
Nathan focused all his strength to rotate his fingertips inward, making it impossible for anyone to get a good grip on them.
“Mister Prewitt, please! This will only be worse for you and the outcome will still be the same.”
“You’re nothing but animals!” Nathan spat back.
“Bring him over to the table” Samuel Iverson ordered.
Nathan contorted his body every way that he could, but there were simply too many hands gripping him to shake them all off. He tried to throw a few more punches and kicks, but each limb was pinned down by at least three people. Powerless to resist, he was borne upward and carried over to the table where Samuel Iverson was waiting with the hammer.
“Hold his arm steady…” Samuel raised and lowered the hammer to sync his hand-eye coordination. “I don’t want to hit any of you…. Last chance, Nathan.”
“You can all just–“
Samuel slammed the hammer down and Nathan’s curse was overridden by a shout of pain instead.
The hammer came crashing down again and Nathan clenched his teeth, wheezing forcefully through them.
“That’s it, that’s it!” One of the Elders exclaimed, finally prying the packet from Nathan’s broken fingers.
“Run them under water,” Samuel instructed, and the woman who had spoken emptied the contents of the packet into a metal tray in the corner, poured the water from her bottle onto the pellets, and started stirring them with a stick.
All the hands relaxed their hold on Nathan. Some of the Elders stood nearby to make sure he wouldn’t try anything stupid, others went to watch the pellets being dissolved, and still others went to calm some concerned citizens who had heard the shouting and come to check if everything was alright. Nathan, meanwhile, rolled onto his side and cradled his brutalized hand, hot tears running down the sides of his face.
“Here, hand me my bag,” Doctor Hogue sighed heavily. He pulled a seat over to Nathan’s table and put his glasses on. “Let me see those fingers, boy, I’ll get you bandaged up.”
A growl of pain settled deep in the back of Nathan’s throat as the Doctor flexed his palm, finding what bones were out of alignment and setting them back in place.
“Ellen, pull out a length of bandage, would you?” Doctor Hogue said to another of the Elders.
“No, don’t cut it yet, just feed it to me as I wrap it around.” The Doctor glanced briefly Nathan’s eyes, then dropped his gaze back to the broken hand. “I’m sorry, Nathan, I really am. I recognize that–in your own way–you were only trying to do what you felt was best.”
“Who gives you the right?–” Nathan’s voice was barely audible as his body trembled with rage and pain. “Who gives you the right to stop a man trying to save this miserable world?”
Doctor Hogue shook his head. “No one. I’m not your priest or your president. There’s no ‘right’ here. It’s not about that.”
“It’s not about who’s right or wrong anymore. Hasn’t been for years. It’s just about survival. There,” he turned to Ellen, “that’s enough bandage. Cut it.”
As Doctor Hogue finished his work the last of the pellets disintegrated into the tray of water. Three of the Elders left out the corrugated door to pour the tray’s muddied contents somewhere safe. Everyone who remained turned to Samuel Iverson to see what he would say.
“Well, Mister Prewitt,” Samuel laid the hammer back in the tool chest, “the least we can do is offer you shelter until your hand recovers. Perhaps we could even find you a home here–“
But Nathan slid off the table and marched straight for the door. Two of the elders moved to block him.
“Nathan please, be sensible–” Doctor Hogue began but Samuel raised a hand for silence.
“Nathan doesn’t have to take anything from us if he doesn’t want it. I’m sure we can all understand that. Step aside, fellows.”
The way was cleared and Nathan pushed the door open with his one good hand. He didn’t look over his shoulder once, he didn’t call anything back behind him, he didn’t even hesitate for a single moment. He just stomped up the path, making a beeline for the front gates.
“Hey now!” Thompson the gate guard raised a hand as Nathan approached the fence.
But Samuel Iverson had come up behind Nathan, and he assured the guards that everything was alright. So the gate was opened, Nathan took his weapons with his good hand, and then he continued his march out of the city and down the winding path that ran to the east. Samuel remained just inside of the city gates, watching Nathan’s retreating back, and after a moment Doctor Hogue and Ellen came to join him.
“It’s just as well that he leaves,” Samuel sighed. “I wouldn’t have slept easy so long as he stayed in the city.”
“Seven years!” the old woman shook her head. “Seven years he’s been making his way out here, just to have it all end like that?!”
“Everybody’s story ends like that,” Samuel replied. “Everybody’s story is tragic and disappointing these days.”
“But think how much worse of scrapes he must have already gotten out of. You’d think this wouldn’t be the first time he’s run into a situation like this.”
“It wasn’t,” Doctor Hogue said.
“I noticed it when bandaging him up…his hand has been broken before. You’re right, Ellen, you’d think he would have learned.”
Down the trail, Nathan tugged on his backpack strap with his good hand, pulling it closer to his body. In between his winces of pain a small smile played across his lips.
“You fools,” he laughed. “All of you. You’re all fools. None of you understand what true commitment is. None of you understand resolve. And that’s why none of you will ever understand the lengths I’ll go to to finish my mission. That’s why none of you will ever stop me!”
Everett looked through his binoculars, steady and patient, watching Nathan sleep against the backdrop of his flickering campfire. Everett had been in this position for a few hours, but he had hardly moved a muscle. Like the other New Denver Rangers, he had learned the great art of patience. Now, though, it was time to report in, so he slid down the rocky outcropping, kneeled beside his military radio, turned the crank, and lifted the receiver to his ear.
“Hello, hello? This is Everett…is anyone there?”
Several moments of static and then–
“New Denver Operations here. Did you say this was Everett?”
“That’s right. Ready to make my evening report.”
“Alright, hang on a moment, I’ll get him.”
A few more moments of static and then–
“Hello, sir, this is Everett. I’ve tailed that guy all day and he’s settled down for the night.”
“Do you think he might have seen you?”
“Not a chance.”
“Alright, well, where did he go?”
“After he left the city he wandered down the path for a good while, as if he was making for the other outposts. He did look over his shoulder several times, like he expected one of us to be following him.”
“And did he ever see you?”
“Sir we rangers have that whole way mapped out. We know how to get to our lookout points without anyone seeing us coming or going. It’s simply not possible that he would have seen me.”
“Alright. Well did he make it to one of the outposts?”
“No. Once he got to that grove of trees at Long Bend he left the trail. Crept over to where it exits into the gorge and used that to double back towards the salt flats.”
Samuel sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of. What then?”
“Well, he stayed in the rocky crags until nearly sundown. He went about it real cautious, too, keeping in the shadows and triple-checking for anyone tailing him at every turn.”
” And do you think–“
“And I’m sure he didn’t see me. Anyway, come evening he set up camp in a bowl and has stayed there ever since. He laid down to sleep a little after dark and hasn’t made a single movement in the last two hours. He’s sleeping, sir.”
“Now if I know that gorge as well as I think I do…he’s headed straight for the ridge and back past our city.
“Yes, sir, that appears right.”
“And then over the ridge into the salt flats themselves!”
“That’s how I figure it, too. My guess is that tomorrow he sneaks out to the flats for as far as he can stay concealed. Maybe he even lays on his stomach and crawls when climbing over the ridge. At some point he’ll know he’s bound to be seen, and then he’ll just have to up and book it, hoping to get far enough into the nesting grounds that we won’t dare chase him.”
“Is that how you would do it?”
“Hmm…well no. I suppose I would have kept moving through the night so I could get over the ridge while it was still dark. Of course, I’m more familiar with this area than he is.”
“I think he’s plenty familiar. Smart, too. He knew enough to steal into the crags when he reached the trees, didn’t he?”
“Fair enough. Might be he’s resting up now, but then sets off a few hours before sunrise. Do you want me to apprehend him now?”
“Yes,” Samuel sighed heavily. “I think it’s evident enough that he’s still sticking to his plan. Get him now before he sets out any farther.”
“Bring him in alive?”
“Well…what’s most important is that he is stopped.”
Everett closed the antenna on his radio and blew on his fingers to warm them back up. He undid the straps around his waist and chest, lowering his gear down to the ground. For this next part he would want to be as quiet as possible. So he continued to unburden himself until all he had left was his first layer of clothes and his handgun. He even took off his boots and put on a pair of thick moccasins instead. Then he stretched and ran-in-place, getting his stiff muscles limbered up after sitting still for so long.
Only when he was fully warmed up and loosed out did he set out, moving through the rocky crags, making for the campfire in the distance. He kept his eyes locked on the camp, watching for any shadows that might pass in front of the small, open flame. When he got within thirty yards he was able to make out the shape of Nathan’s body laid out in his bedroll.
Everett paused and waited for his beating heart to slow back down again. That surge of adrenalin that came before a kill was trying to flood his senses, but he just let it pass him by, until he was back in a cool and collected state. Then he snapped his gun up, watching down its sights as he crept forward again.
Closer and closer he came. He wanted to get close enough to be certain of making his mark, but if Nathan so much as rolled over Everett would take the shot here and now. Now he was fifteen yards away. Now ten. As he advanced forward his eyes repeatedly darted to the ground, ensuring that he never put his foot on a twig or loose stone. Everett pulled back the hammer smoothly and silently, watching to see if Nathan would stir at the soft click of metal.
Everett was near enough now to make out the difference between Nathan’s sleeping form and the long shadow that his body cast from the flickering flame that lay behind him. Everett centered his gun on Nathan’s head and took three more steps forward, careful to lift his foot over the tripwire he had watched Nathan set up before settling down for the night.
Everett exhaled slowly, tightened his forefinger, and fired!
The bullet streaked through the night. Its aim was true, but somehow it impacted on stone, not flesh, then ricocheted harmlessly into the night. Everett couldn’t understand it. How had he missed? That should have been impossible!
No time to dwell on that now, though, Nathan had sat bolt upright and was raising his own handgun to return fire! Everett flung himself backwards and Nathan’s shot zipped overheard. Then Nathan kicked dirt into the small fire, throwing them into the black. Everett didn’t try using his firearm while blinded, instead he lifted onto all fours and charged forward like a bull. By the time Nathan heard him coming and understood what he was doing Everett had closed the distance and slammed into Nathan at full force! The two men fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
Everett tried to punch Nathan in the gut, but his hand struck something hard in Nathan’s backpack. Nathan curled his arm around the back of Everett’s head, gripped the man’s chin, and gave a sharp tug. Everett rolled with the motion, spinning his whole body across the ground. As he went his head struck a large rock that had been hidden in the dark.
“Rrrrrrrgh,” Everett growled, trying to push past the fuzziness that came swimming in at the corners of his eyes. He couldn’t let himself fall unconscious. He forced his arm to swing his gun through the air, firing off two quick shots. They weren’t even close to hitting Nathan, but they spooked him enough that he turned and ran off into the dark.
Everett tried to stand and run, but he quickly stumbled back to the ground. Whether he wanted to or not, he was going to have to pause for a moment before he continued the chase. His back pressed against the rock he had hit his head on and suddenly he understood. This rock had been right in front of Nathan’s head when he was sleeping, and in the dark Everett hadn’t been able to make it out. That was what his first bullet had ricocheted off of. Yet another precaution Nathan had known to take, no doubt due to some prior night-time attack during his long, seven-year journey.
While Everett regained his wits, Nathan bolted full speed over the rocky terrain. There wasn’t a lot of moonlight, and more than once he tripped and fell. Fortunately he had the presence of mind to catch himself on his good hand, and not damage his broken one further.
He didn’t know who this attacker was that had come for him. Normally he would assume a common raider, but it would be strange for a thief to happen upon him in such a removed place as this. Unless there was a bandit hideout nearby.
There came a sound of clattering stones, and Nathan glanced over his shoulder to see his Everett sprinting down a hillside, two hundred yards distant. Definitely not a common thief, then. Only someone with a mission to fulfill would be this persistent.
So be it. Nathan had made it through a grueling, seven-year journey, what was one more night of life-and-death struggle? He already intended to be dead before next nightfall anyway, so a little lost slumber bore very little weight?
For a moment Nathan considered waiting to ambush the man. He rounded a particularly large boulder, knelt down, and pulled out his gun. He had to hold in his left hand, though, since the right hand was broken, and he saw the gun’s muzzle shaking erratically in front of him. No good.
With a snarl Nathan stood up and kept running. He bounded over a small rise in the rock next, and came upon a wide, open bowl. Running through it would make him an excellent target for his pursuer, but there was no alternative, sheer cliff faces or sudden drop-offs lay on either side. So Nathan continued forward, making for a rocky outcropping halfway through the bowl.
As he went, he strained his ears for the sound of footsteps halting, of sleeved arms being raised, or of a gun cocking. But, of course, he couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his own clattering feet. Thus he had no warning before the shot suddenly rang through the night. It made a deep graze across his arm, just above the elbow, and he winced in pain as juked left and right, spun and snapped back around the other way. Then he dove behind the rocky outcropping, waited for a moment, and popped back up to fire two shots towards the entrance to the bowl. He ducked back down as another shot was returned. Nathan popped off another volley, but this time no other shots came his way.
Nathan fired once more. Still no return.
Then Nathan understood. His foe was armed…but had little or no ammo remaining. He had left it all behind to be as quiet as possible when stealing towards Nathan’s camp! So Nathan weighed his options. Did he turn aggressive? Try and get the other man to burn his last shots and then finish him off with his own gun? Or did he just sprint out of there and focus on his final objective?
Up at the top of the bowl Everett understood the silence perfectly. He knew it meant Nathan had figured the situation out and was concocting the best way to finish him off. Now Everett could try to run through the exact same scenarios in his own mind, figure out the same conclusion Nathan would come to, and then try to think of a way to counter it. But that would mean continuing this game at a disadvantage. Rather than wait for Nathan to make his move, Everett would rather tip the board over and knock all the pieces to the floor!
So without any further thought Everett bounded out from behind his juniper tree and sprinted across the bowl. Nathan heard him coming and stood up, firing off a few rounds. Everett raised his own weapon and fired wildly in return, pouring out his last two bullets.
Both men missed, Everett due to shooting while running, Nathan due to having to shoot with his weak hand. Both gun clips clicked empty, and before Nathan could reload Everett bounded over the rocky outcropping and body-slammed him to the ground for the second time that night!
Nathan squared his shoulders against the rock and kicked out with his feet, sending his assailant flying back.
“Who are you?!” he demanded, groping on the ground for a rock to use as a weapon.
Everett didn’t respond. He just fought to regain his footing, then charged back into the fray.
“Listen,” Nathan panted as he dodged one fist, then got Everett’s other arm locked up at the elbow, “I could kill you now if I wanted, and I will if you don’t stop fighting!”
“I doubt that!” Everett grunted, using his free hand to pummel Nathan’s broken one.
“ARRRRGH!” Nathan collapsed to his knees and Everett wriggled free.
Everett delivered a heavy uppercut and Nathan was sent sprawling to the ground. Everett whipped out his pistol. It was empty of bullets, but he flipped it around to wield it like a club. He gave a powerful, overhead swing that Nathan barely got his arm up in time to block! Everett raised the gun back overhead, but Nathan suddenly pelted the rock hidden in his hand at Everett’s face. Everett fell backwards, and in a moment Nathan was upon him, knife clicked open, and blade pressed against his throat.
“Listen to me, you idiot!” he snarled. “This is my last night on earth and I had wanted it to be a peaceful one. For one night, just one night, I wanted to not have to run, and fight, and kill…. But I absolutely will again if I have to.”
Everett gurgled meaninglessly.
“Give me an answer!” Nathan pulled Everett’s head up and slammed it back against the rock. “What’s it going to be?!”
“What does it matter?” Everett finally gasped out. “You’re planning to get us all killed anyway!”
Nathan gave a shout, drew back his hand, and buried his fist in Everett’s stomach. Just before contact, though, he flicked the blade closed so that Everett was doubled up in pain, but not mortally wounded. With a grunt of exasperation Nathan stood up, picked his and Everett’s handguns off the ground, and slung his backpack over his shoulder.
“That isn’t going to happen. Not after I’ve fought and bled this much. My plan will work.
Everett tried to respond, but it just came out as painful wheezing.
“And even if there were–unintended side effects, and everyone in New Denver had to be sacrificed to clear the way forward for the rest of the nation…it would still be a worthy cause. Now I’m going to go on my way, and make no mistake, the next time we cross paths I will kill you.”
Nathan slid a fresh magazine into his pistol, then turned and stomped over to the end of the bowl, disappearing over its lip.
Everett lay there on the ground, panting and wheezing and crying, urging the throbbing in his gut to quiet down enough to move. He ground his teeth together and clenched his fists, distracting himself from the pain enough to roll back onto his knees. Slowly, laboriously, he pushed his way up to a stooping stand.
Perhaps Everett had underestimated Nathan, but the man was a fool if he thought that Everett would give up the chase. Everett turned so that he faced the end of the bowl that Nathan had disappeared behind and took a halting step forward. As he did so his body seemed to knit itself back together and he was able to take his next step with greater confidence. Another and another, and now he moved into a heavy stride, reached the lip of the bowl and deftly swung over it.
Everett never felt the bullet that rang out from directly behind. He just collapsed dead on the ground. From underneath the bowl’s overhang Nathan emerged with the gun, ready to shoot again…but he saw that it wouldn’t be necessary to finish the job.
“Now was that necessary?” he sighed, then continued on his way.
“This is New Denver Operations. I repeat, this is New Denver Operations. Everett are you there?“
It was early the next morning as the radio operator tried to raise the ranger. He looked up to Samuel Iverson and shrugged. “No response.”
The door to the room flew open and Thompson rushed in, sweat shining on his face.
“Sir,” he gasped. “He’s there! He’s out on the salt flats right now!”
“What?!” Samuel roared as he dashed out of the room and made for the western-facing wall. Samuel mounted the five stone steps onto the parapet, coming upon a crowd of Elders and guards who were all looking through their binoculars at something in the distance.
“Someone hand me their binoculars!” Samuel ordered, snapping one from the three that were offered. “Where?” He pointed them in the direction indicated.
There was Nathan, about a third of a mile past the edge of the city, having just emerged from the canyon and now walking across the ocean of salt that stretched nearly as far as the eye could see.
“He’s not running,” a guard up front observed.
“Doesn’t want to pull the worm to him,” another concluded. “But he must know that we can see him.”
“Sir, what do we do?” Thompson asked.
“Put a battery into the truck.”
“Sir, you mean to send some of us out there?!”
“I’ll drive it myself if no one else will! And where is Maxine?”
“Here, sir,” a tall, chubby guard with a round face and blond ponytail rushed up the steps.
“It’s a third of a mile,” Samuel said, handing her the binoculars and pointing in the direction of Nathan. “Can you do it?”
“Third of a mile?” she peered through the lenses. “It would be a new record for me…” she spun the knob on top, adjusting the focus. “Someone grab my rifle. Let’s do it!”
Sixty seconds later Maxine had her rifle out and propped on the top of the perimeter wall. She turned the knob on the side of the scope, bringing Nathan’s retreating form into focus.
Down below Samuel Iverson turned the key in the pickup truck’s ignition. There came the rattle of the engine trying to start, but nothing more.
“Jackie!” he called out the window furiously.
“It’ll work, it’ll work,” the greasy mechanic said, fumbling under the hood. “Sometimes it just needs a little extra teasing.”
“We don’t have time for–“
“Try it now!”
Samuel turned the ignition and this time the engine sputtered to life. Two of the New Denver guards hopped into the back and Samuel drove out the gate of the city, and up to the city’s western wall. He idled there at the edge of the salt flats, waiting to see if Maxine would be able to make her shot.
“Alright,” Maxine squinted through the scope, “everybody be quiet now…”
The view she saw was anything but clear. At this range and with this heat there was a wide haze that smeared Nathan’s figure across the glass, making it appear as if his feet connected with the ground thirty feet to the left of his head.
Maxine held her breath, settling the crosshairs at the center of Nathan’s streaked figure, then slowly pulled the trigger.
Nathan jumped in surprise as the bullet whizzed through the air and impacted on the ground, just ahead of him and a bit to the left. Against all of his instincts, Nathan froze on the spot, hands extended for balance as he felt the earth through his feet, checking for the rumbling of a worm coming to investigate the gunshot. It took every ounce of self-control to hold steady when he was sure a second bullet was soon to follow, but the unseen adversary was more dangerous than the known one.
Back at the New Denver perimeter Maxine grunted in frustration.
“Anyone happen to see where that bullet went?”
No one spoke, but a few shrugged or shook their heads.
“I know the haze makes it hard, but anyone with binoculars, try to help me pick it out.”
She loaded locked the next bullet into the chamber, settled her cheek against the gun, and fired once more.
“There it is,” Maxine watched the haze-smeared plume of powder unfurling in her sights. “Correct for the haze…fifteen feet to the right and slightly down.”
Nathan kept his feet stationary, but furiously fumbled in his backpack, opening one of the secret compartments at its bottom.
“You idiots!” he whisper-hissed.
If they summoned the beast here, he would have no choice but to use his weapon immediately, and at this range he could not guarantee that the city would survive the fallout of doing so! Nathan’s shaking hands found what they were looking for and withdrew a circular, metallic device from the backpack. This was not the actual weapon, though, it was only a sonic beacon.
“We’ll try it,” he said as he placed it on the ground, “but if this doesn’t work, then you brought whatever else follows on your own heads!”
He flipped a switch, starting the device charging, then he turned and started to run.
The third bullet ricocheted right between his feet. The shooter was finally finding her mark!
“That one was low,” Maxine huffed as she locked the next bullet in the chamber. “Just barely, though.”
“He’s running again,” one of the nearby guards announced.
“Hmph, it’s too late for that now.”
Nathan juked to the left at just the right time and the next bullet pierced through the air where he had been a fraction of a second before.
“Ha!” Maxine scoffed. “He’s been timing me. Alright…” she let a few seconds slide by before readying her next shot. “Now when do you think I’m going to shoot?”
Down below, Samuel Iverson had had enough.
“Four shots…she’s not going to get him,” he decided. “Hold on tight!” And with that he slammed the gas pedal down and the vehicle roared out onto the salt.
Up above Maxine cried out in frustration. “I’LL GET HIM! I’LL GET HIM!” But the guards in the back of the truck just shrugged at her.
Out on the arid plains Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the engine roaring to life and saw the truck entering the field.
Full acceleration…third of a mile out…it’ll be here in thirty seconds… he thought to himself as he continued juking and spinning at random. In his hand he held the remote to activate the sonic beacon, but he needed to time it correctly.
“Come on, come on,” Maxine muttered, twitching the scope left and right with Nathan as he continued to move erratically forward. “Wait for it, wait for it…” She settled into a cadence where she was sure the scope was never pointing more than a foot or two from Nathan’s center of mass. Then she watched, waiting for the next juke. Once he did another one of those, his motion would be consistent for a second or two, and that would be all the time she needed.
Fourteen… Nathan counted in his head. Fifteen… He punched the button on the remote the sonic beacon he had left behind gave a tremendous soundwave that reverberated into the ground. Then Nathan half-spun to the left, but pulled out of it early, and sprinted striaght forward.
The bullet thudded dully into his shoulder and he slammed into the ground, sending up a cloud of salt. His arm was throbbing terribly…but…so was the ground.
“He’s down sir,” a guard in the back of the truck shouted up to the cab.
“He might not be dead!” Samuel called back.
“Maxine can finish him,” the other guard replied, pointing back to city. As he did so his face fell. From here he could barely make out the sight of the people standing on the Western wall, but they were just clear enough that he could tell they were all waving their arms, crossing and un-crossing them…like they were giving a warning. Only then did he notice that there was a rumbling under his feet aside from the humming of the truck’s engine.
“WORM!” he shrieked as the truck passed over the sonic beacon.
The entire ground exploded upwards fifty feet away. At first all one could see was the cloud of salt, but then, bursting out of its midst, a huge and terrible worm streaked through the air! Its exoskeleton was broad, segmented, and shiny, wrapping a long body that ended in a head that was fifteen feet wide, with huge, serrated mandibles. Long antenna extended from the top of the head and reached out through the air, feeling every tremor…even every heartbeat.
The worm gave an ear-splitting screech as it blasted through the space that divided it from the truck. Its huge mandibles snapped shut faster than could be seen, cleaving the truck in two like it was made of butter. Then the rest of its body followed, scraping across the truck’s frame, breaking it into a hundred different pieces.
Finally, the worm came to rest on the flat field and scuttled about on those innumerable little legs, jerking across the surface in a strange, erratic manner. Antenna whipping through the air, feeling for more vibrations.
Two hundred feet away, Nathan lay face-down in the salt, silently sobbing, still bleeding from his shoulder, wishing his heart would stop beating so loudly! His hands twitched over the opening of his backpack. He didn’t dare make any movement, but he had to be ready to grab the weapon if the worm started to make its way over here.
He was almost able to see the worm out of the corner of his right eye, but not quite, and he didn’t dare to rotate his head to look at it properly. Instead he felt out with his other senses, feeling the rumbling of the ground and hearing the sliding of scales across the salt.
Every now and then the worm rotated in his general direction, but never seemed to advance on him purposefully. Right now his saving grace was that his beating heart was not the only thing making vibrations on the salt fields. The severed truck still had its engine humming, and one or two of the former occupants of the vehicle were wheezing amidst the debris.
The worm did not put those wounded souls out of their misery, though. One of the strange phenomena of Sand Striker Worms was that they always knew which broken and battered bodies were mortally wounded and which would recover, and they only ever bothered to silence the latter.
After another minute Nathan finally heard the sound of the worm slithering back into its hole, and then felt the vibrations under his chest as it moved through its underground tunnel. It had left.
Now he only had to decide what to do about that sniper on the city wall. He had been lying so motionless that any spectator might very well think the bullet had killed him. Unfortunately he couldn’t continue laying here motionless until nightfall, because his shoulder was bleeding badly, and he was sure he would faint from loss of blood within the next fifteen minutes if he didn’t do something to address it. He only had one option.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Nathan rolled over to his side, and drew a length of bandage from his pocket. He used his knife to cut arm the sleeve off of his shirt, then placed one end of the bandage under his head, pinning it down as he wrapped the rest of it around his bleeding wound. He didn’t give any thought to how good of a patch-up job this was. He only needed to staunch the blood flow enough to last a few more hours.
At this point there still hadn’t been any other gunshot. They must have seen him moving, but taking another shot would almost certainly mean summoning back the worm. Nathan glanced towards the wreckage of the truck. There was no more movement or sound beyond the still-clanking engine. Whoever had survived the worm’s collision had expired already.
Far beyond the truck lay the wall of New Denver. Nathan could just barely make out the silhouettes of the city guards standing there, watching him. Despising him. Probably debating whether it was worth that risk to take another shot at him or not. Well, he might as well play his last card, then.
Nathan raised himself back to a seated position and reached into his backpack, pulling out the last item that remained inside: the actual prototype weapon. It was a fat, rectangular prism, made of matte, black metal, with two buttons and a LED light at the center.
With trembling fingers Nathan pulled an old paperclip from his pocket. He twisted it between his fingers and inserted its end into a hole on the end of the device. One of the lights at the center turned red. Nathan wrapped his hand around the device and pressed in one of its buttons with his thumb, causing the red light to start blinking. Nathan did not release his thumb. If he did, the bomb would go off.
Nathan looked back to the New Denver wall and raised the device high into the air. Could they see it? Would they even be able appreciate how dangerous such a small package could be to them, even at this range?
“Maybe it doesn’t make sense to you,” Nathan said as he pushed himself to his feet, “but why would I show it to you unless it mattered? Unless it was more powerful than it appears?” He turned his back to the city and began stumping forward, leaving a trail of red blood droplets across the clean, white salt. “So, for your own sakes, don’t risk it. Don’t shoot. Just accept that I can’t be stopped anymore…and pray that my plan will work.”
“Why do you get to decide everyone else’s fate?” Manuel Carrillo had said to him a year ago.
“Because I have fought and bled and killed too much for anyone to take this choice from me!” Nathan responded in the present day. “I’ve earned the right to decide. I’ve paid the price. So now I get to do what I determine necessary and no one will stop me!”
That was what he should have said to Manny back then. Manny wouldn’t have liked that answer any better, but at least then he would have had the truth before he died.
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.”
“Why do you get to decide everyone else’s fate?” Manuel Carrillo’s hands shook with rage. “What gives you the right?”
“It…doesn’t matter,” Nathan let his hand wander towards his holster. “I just get to.”
“No…you DON’T!” Manuel bellowed and leapt through the air towards Nathan!
Faster than he could even think, Nathan gripped his gun and whipped his hand forward. He never pulled the trigger, but somewhere in their scuffle something put pressure on the gun in just the right way.
The shot was deep and heavy. Manuel’s hands, entangled around the bomb, loosened their grip and the man slumped backward.
“What did–what did you–” Nathan’s eyes went wide in shock. “Why did you go for the bomb, Manuel?!” He shrieked in anguish. “You should have gone straight for me! You knew I was going for my gun, didn’t you? So why didn’t you go straight for me?!”
But while Nathan sobbed uncontrollably Manuel had offered no answers. As with every time before, fate had prescribed that Nathan would be the victor and that his path to success would remain clear.
Back in the present day Nathan kept trudging forward, feet throwing up small clouds of dry salt with every step.
“Manuel couldn’t stop me…that assassin last night couldn’t stop me…the men in that truck couldn’t stop me…”
But he didn’t think it was because he was too skilled or too smart for them, not really. He knew it was fate that kept him going, and fate alone.
“I wish one of you had been able to stop me!” he rubbed away the tears with the back of his hand. “I wish you hadn’t let me kill you all!”
It was too much of a burden having to killing good people for this mission. It wasn’t that he didn’t believing in his cause, just that he couldn’t answer anymore whether it was worth the cost.
But…this was the path that fate had put him on, and only fate would relinquish him from it.
“I’m tired of being your agent,” he muttered softly. “Retire me…please! Choose another champion.”
Nathan realized his thumb was twitching on the release button for the portable nuclear bomb, his hand’s muscles were nearly exhausted. Craning his head to look over his shoulder he saw that he had long since moved out of range of the New Denver sniper. He couldn’t even see the city anymore. So he reached down and pulled the paperclip out of the hole in the bomb’s side. The blinking light turned dark and he was safe to remove his thumb.
“Soon,” he said. “Soon my part will be over.”
Just a few more moments and the worm and he would be dead. Then it would be upon the shoulders of others to take the next steps in this journey. Others would lead the masses to the West Coast. Others would build the boats and push off into the ocean. Others would navigate to Hawai’i or New Zealand. Fate would choose those souls just as soon as his chapter was over, he was sure of it. Hopefully their burden would be happier than his.
“Unless you radiate this whole area and it kills anyone who comes near,” a cynical side of Nathan spoke up.
“I hope not…” he said wearily. “But in either case…what will be done will soon be done.”
Nathan came to a full stop. It hurt to change his momentum so suddenly…but he had seen it! There, on the horizon, was a dark mound, the only disturbance to the extreme flatness that otherwise extended in every direction.
“The nest–” his hoarse voice croaked.
It had to be! Part of him couldn’t believe that after such a long journey the end could now be in sight…but it had to be!
Most of Nathan’s extremities were completely numb, his breathing was weird and labored, and his consciousness felt detached from his own body, but he didn’t care. No wounds or aches mattered now, so he settled into as fast of a jog as he was capable of and closed the distance to the nest.
And it was, indeed, the nest. Sprawled out for more than a hundred yards in each direction were stacks upon stacks of giant, yellow-and-green marbled eggs, slightly translucent with larva the size of a man wriggling inside. Several of the eggs were already cracked open, and adolescent worms the size of a truck were trying to burrow into the ground, but they were having a difficult time breaking through the hard, caked salt.
“I made it,” Nathan gasped as tears streamed down his face. “I made it. I finally made it.”
A few of the adolescent worms turned at the sound of his voice and began blindly feeling their way over to him, mouths opening and closing.
Nathan didn’t care. And he wasn’t about to waste time basking in the moment either. He lifted his foot and slammed it into the salt as hard as he could, raising a cloud of white all around him. Then he did it again. And again. Pounding a rhythm into the ground.
While continuing the rhythm, he cradled the portable nuclear bomb in his wounded arm and pressed its second button twice, then the first one once. The LED began flashing yellow, signifying that the weapon was armed. Another press of the first button would detonate it.
Krrrawww! one of the nearing worms pulled back and whined hungrily.
Nathan reached his good head down to his belt, pulled out his sidearm, and shot the worm five times. It rolled over onto its side, dead.
And then he felt it.
All the ground began to tremble. A rolling, shaking rumble that passed under his feet in waves. Thirty feed ahead the salt began to dance up into the air, sparkling in the sun like a million tiny lights. And then, at last, the carpet of white opened up and the Giant Sand Striker Worm broke the surface, slowly raising higher and higher, bending its open-jawed face down towards Nathan, a threatening roar gurgling in its throat.
“The hero…or the villain…?” Nathan rested his finger on the nuclear bomb’s button. “That’ll be up to the others to decide.”
He pressed the button and heard a mechanical click inside of the device. All the rest was blinding light.