The Salt Worms: Part Fourteen


SHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!

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.

The Salt Worms: Part Thirteen


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.

PING!

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.

PING!

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.

WHAM!

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 Salt Worms: Part Four


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.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“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.

“Sorry?”

“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?”

“That’s right.”

“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.”