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.”
“How are Beesk and Inol behaving?” Reis asked as he and Tharol chopped firewood behind the main hall.
“Hmm…think they’re plotting something?”
“No…I hadn’t really considered that. The Night Watch is right around the corner, isn’t it? Obviously they’d be nervous about that, right?”
“Yes, that could be. But I have to ask, why don’t you suspect that they’re up to something.”
“I don’t know, I just–I don’t have any reason to distrust them.”
“Really? I mean you certainly don’t have reason to trust them.”
“No, I guess I don’t. I just–I just don’t think that way.”
“Yes, and that’s why you’re so easy to beat in our competitions,” Reis grinned.
“Oh, so you’ve noticed. Well that’s good. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”
“Have you personally seen anything extra suspicious from Beesk and Inol, Reis? Or do you just generally think they’re likely to be up to something?”
“I haven’t seen anything. I just know what you tell me. So you say they’re acting jittery. Well yeah, maybe it’s just nerves about the Night Watch…or maybe they’re getting ready to stab you in the back. Whether or not that’s actually the case don’t you think it would be prudent to protect yourself from that possibility?”
“That’s a good point. Maybe I should start wearing a breastplate backwards under my shirt?”
Reis laughed. “So the rest of you finally caught on?”
“Just me I think.”
“Well it took you long enough! I was starting to think I’d be able to get away with it forever.”
“Well I have to say, it kind of ruined your duel with Golu for me. Once I realized you weren’t actually putting yourself at risk…”
“Of course it was a risk!” there was genuine offense in Reis’s tone. “You think that’s an easy blow to take, even through a sheet of metal?! And suppose he hadn’t happened to strike on it? I had no guarantee things would turn out as well as they did.”
“Shhh,” Reis hushed Tharol as Master Palthio passed overhead on the main hall’s parapet. Reis watched him all the way until he reached the end of the parapet and disappeared down the trapdoor to the apothecary. “More than winning duels with you lot I want to see how long I can keep the old man in the dark,” Reis said. “It amazes me how oblivious he can be.”
“Or just turning a blind eye.”
“Yeah, or that. Probably taking a cut of whatever Beesk and Inol haul in, don’t you think?”
Tharol didn’t answer. He actually didn’t think that that was very likely anymore. If Master Palthio had been in on Beesk and Inol’s little scheme then wouldn’t he have just put one of them over the Night Watch instead? Tharol hadn’t wanted to appear too pushy by asking Beesk and Inol what they knew about Palthio’s loyalties, but everything they had done so far suggested that they didn’t want him to know what they were doing. So if Master Palthio was corrupt it was in his own way. And if he wasn’t corrupt, then he must be a fool, just another lazy pawn for Lord Amathur.
“Do you think he’ll even do anything when we expose Beesk and Inol?” Tharol asked. “Anything of substance?”
“He’ll probably just expel them, then continue like it’s business as usual.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Like I said, we can’t rely on the order as it is today. We’re the order within the order now. If he won’t put the safety measures in place we’ll do it ourselves. I don’t mind telling you I’ve been waiting quite some time for this. The old order is broken and needs to fall so something stronger can take it’s place. That’s exactly what we’re laying the groundwork for here today!”
Reis was holding his hands out wide, face shining with the excitement of the moment. Tharol could tell that this was a speech Reis had been wanting to give for a long time.
“It sounds nice Reis,” Tharol sighed, “but I don’t know that our little operation here is going to make much of a difference in the larger scheme of things. We might stop Beesk and Inol this time, but the whole district is corrupt.”
“Oh yes, this whole area is filthy! Even up to Lord Amathur!”
It was a bold statement but Tharol didn’t hesitate to nod his agreement. “It’s true. And so what can you and I ever do about that? It would take forever to try and reform this place one step at a time.”
“That would never work, the tide against us is too strong faster than that. There needs to be dramatic change. Immediate change.”
Reis looked very earnestly at Tharol, as if burning to tell him something, but after a moment’s pause he shook his head and said “Let’s worry about Beesk and Inol today, and see about the rest later. We have to focus on what’s immediate.”
“Alright. And so long as we’re on the subject, we need to figure out our plan during the Night Watch?”
“I thought we already had that all figured. I’ll pretend to be sick, head to the latrine, then come rushing back in time to catch Beesk and Inol before they unfasten the gates. I’ll make an almighty ruckus and everyone will come running.”
“But where am I?”
“You? You’re in the barracks with the other boys, waiting alertly to hear an almighty ruckus and come running.”
“No. We can’t leave you out there alone with the two of them, all the more so if you’re ducking out to the latrine. What if they already have her in before you doubled back?”
“I can manage this. Trust me.”
“It’s not a question of trust. It’s just an unnecessarily risky strategy. Having a second pair of eyes will always be better.”
“They told you not to be there! They told you they were supposed to bring her in themselves! Now you’re going to risk that they’ll see you, realize something is up, and call the whole thing off!”
“I can manage this. Trust me.”
Reis bit his lip furiously. Tharol wasn’t sure why this seemed to matter to him so much. Could Reis really be so vain that he had to catch the perpetrators all by himself? That seemed so petty after all the ideals he had just been gushing about.
“I’m sorry Tharol, I don’t trust you” Reis finally said. “I mean I know your heart’s in the right place, but I can’t risk you messing this up.”
Tharol’s eyes narrowed as he swung his axe and halved the last piece of firewood. “I’m sorry Reis, but that’s your problem then,” and he left the chopping block.
After his conversation with Reis, Tharol started to be more observant of Inol and Beesk’s behavior. Even outside of his private pow-wows with them he would follow their routines whenever he could, observing if they were having other conversations without him, doing anything to suggest an upcoming betrayal.
He learned the patterns of their daily movements, the ways they ducked out of work they didn’t want to do, and where they each kept their stash of goods from the bribed merchants. He picked up on particular waifs who would occasionally bring them notes from the market. Tharol managed to get ahold of a few of these and learned that most of the illegal merchants Beesk and Inol brought in were referrals from ones they had already helped in the past. They didn’t have to go out of their walls to find new clients, the business came to them.
He also learned their routine for getting notes from the statue woman. Each evening one of them would stroll across the battlements, hand gliding idly over the rough stone of the outer wall. It appeared completely innocuous, but he understood that this was them feeling for the new letters. He wasn’t sure how the woman was able to get notes up on the wall without being noticed, but apparently she did have a way.
Tharol very much wanted to find one of those letters. He was sure there would be some final correspondence between them and the woman just before Reis’s Night Watch and he yearned to intercept it. But he was also sure that Beesk and Inol would notice if he took to walking the battlements each afternoon, so he contented himself with watching them from afar.
He had a system for accomplishing that. He would excuse himself after afternoon practice and rush up the Western Tower. If he was quick, he could survey the entire stretch of stone wall below while Beesk or Inol began their walk at the other side of the battlements.
And he did this routine every day, though nothing came of it, until at last his diligence payed off on the day before the Night Watch. Afternoon practice had just concluded and he left the courtyard, rounded the barracks, bounded for the perimeter wall, and stormed up the steps to the battlements. He passed Reis along the way, who was just on his way down from the Afternoon Watch.
“No time to talk,” Tharol called over his shoulder as he reached the top of the steps, coming out onto the long walkway that Beesk and Inol strolled each afternoon.
The Western Tower was immediately to his right and in a moment he had passed through its door and was racing up the spiral staircase. He ascended the first level and before going up the next flight he quickly glanced out the rampart-side window, checking to see if Beesk had arrived on the walkway yet.
And then he saw it.
There, fluttering in the breeze, was a piece of paper stuck against the outside of the wall, one block down from the very top.
Tharol froze, suspended between two conflicting desires: one to grab that paper and see what it said before Beesk and Inol could hide its information from him, and another to remain covert and careful, not risking being seen by the two boys.
He snapped suddenly into action, bounding back down the steps three-at-a-time until he banged out of the tower door and rushed along the ramparts. In one, smooth arc he swung his hand around the top of the wall, snagged the paper, turned on the spot, and sprinted back for the tower.
Every step he expected to hear an accusing voice call from behind or for another boy to come up the steps ahead and block his way. But nothing of the sort occurred. He cleared the door into the tower and flung it behind him, closing off the outside world. Before it shut completely, though, he spun around and looked through the narrowing opening of the doorway, just in time to see Beesk mounting the steps at the opposite end of the ramparts. Then the door clicked shut and Tharol found himself alone in the dark.
He had made it!
“See something interesting, Tharol?”
Tharol jumped a full foot into the air as he spun around in shock.
He had to blink a few times in the dark before he was even able to make out the silhouette of the figure before him. That figure reached up a hand and lit the overhead lamp. There before him stood Master Palthio, silently watching from the far side of the room. He must have been there the whole time, quietly observing all of Tharol’s bold behavior.
I’m a few posts into this revised final act now, and I’m pleased to say that I am very much liking how it is turning out. There were a lot of wrinkles to sort out and more loose ends than I’d realized, but I believe I have my road clear to the finish now.
It is worth saying that there were elements of the original final act which I did enjoy and which I was sorry to see get cut as a result of this change. While the central twist of it felt particularly weak to me it was then followed by an interesting game of cat and mouse that I had a lot of fun writing.
Fortunately I was able to translate many of those elements into my new work. For example, in the old version Tharol had a period of weeks where he knew about Reis’s treachery and he tried to trail that boy’s every move. This is partially represented in today’s post where Tharol tails Beesk and Inol, though it is in less detail here.
Also, similar to today’s chapter, Tharol observed that Reis walked along the battlements every afternoon to receive letters and he managed to steal one of them. That letter informed him that Reis was planning to meet with the statue woman outside of the keep that very night.
Then came a little twist. Tharol was sure that this was a red herring. He was certain the boy had been too shrewd to not notice Tharol tailing him. Tharol was therefore convinced that the letter was a ruse meant to mislead him, getting him out of the way at the convenient time, and so now he needed to feint like he had fallen for it, but then double back to see what was really going on. As you’ll see in my next entry, however, the contents of the letter have changed a great deal from the original version and will thrust the story down a very different path.
Before we get to that, though, I wanted to consider another aspect of today’s chapter. It’s the moment near the end where Tharol sees the paper waiting on the ramparts and hesitates, wondering to himself whether he should try dashing out to retrieve it, or else be cautious and wait inside.
I believe that describes a moment that many of us can relate to, the moment of indecision between boldness and safety. Whether it be debating if we should hold a crush’s hand or steal home plate, we all have that moment on the precipice between daring and shrinking. I’d like to take a look at examples from other stories that describe an experience that is immediately relatable to readers. Come back on Monday as we consider that, and then again on Thursday for the next entry in The Favored Son.