The Salt Worms: Part Eight

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

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.”

“What?!”

“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.

The Salt Worms: Part Seven

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

“Hey, come back here,” Manny had said.

“What?” Nathan asked.

“We need to talk.”

“Can it wait.”

A long pause.

“No.”

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?”

“What then?”

Nathan simply stared back intensely.

“You don’t mean…”

Nathan nodded.

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

Part Eight

The Salt Worms: Part Six

Photo by Luca Paul Dross on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

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.”

Nathan!

“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.”

“What?!”

“It was just something I threw together from the scraps left at an old Best Buy. It doesn’t actually do anything.”

“But–but–you said–“

“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.”

“Okay.”

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.”

“Nomads?”

“Influenza.”

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.

Part Seven
Part Eight

The Salt Worms: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

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!”

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

The Salt Worms: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

“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.”

“Yes, sir.”

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.”

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

The Salt Worms: Part Two

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Part One

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…”

“Samuel Iverson.”

“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.”

“Hmph, impossible.”

“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.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

The Salt Worms: Part One

Photo by Leonardo Rossatti on Pexels.com

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?”

“That’s right.”

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.”

“Oh…. And…?”

“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.”

“How’s that?”

“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.

“Nathan Prewitt.”

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.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight