Tenney pressed in on a wide, flat button set into a stone outcropping and a ten-foot-square section of the stony ground shuddered into movement. Gears crunched and spun and a cavernous entrance opened, revealing a tunnel that faded downwards into the earth.
Holding his arm in front of his face to block out the blowing sand, Tenney scrambled back into the driver's seat of the crawler. He slammed the door shut, dulling the howl of the desert wind, and shook the dust out of his beard. "No wonder they built everything underground... It's terrifying out there!"
"And double the radiation levels of anything we're used to," added quiet, brooding, clean-shaven Raltar from the back seat.
Tenney shuddered, fidgeted in his pocket for a small plastic tube, popped the cap off, and turned it upside-down over his open mouth. A fat, wriggling worm fell out and he swallowed it smoothly.
"Careful how many of those things you take in at once," said Boss Osman, who was checking over some paperwork in the passenger's seat. "We don't wanna run out on the way back."
"Not much point making it back if we're getting bombarded with deadly radiation the whole way," said Tenney, "so it's a few more of these things or a permanent home in a HazMat suit. Besides, we've got dozens of boxes full of grubs stowed in the back. We can always keep a few extra."
"Those aren't for us," said Osman. "Those are for the client."
"I know," said Tenney, "but—"
"But nothing. We don't consume our cash crops. It's bad business. Get us inside. I can feel my skin burning darker every second. If the radiation doesn't kill me, the sun might, instead..."
"Yeah, Boss," said Tenney. He put the crawler into gear and drove it forward, down the ramp into the gaping maw of the cave. As the entrance whirred closed behind them, shutting out the sand, the wind, and the sun, artificial lights flickered on, illuminating their path.
"Anyways, kid," continued Boss Osman, "you don't want to suck down one of our mod-worms. We haven't tested this batch enough yet."
"Ah, what does it matter?" said Tenney. "They all come out the exact same, even at the genetic level. Isn't that the whole point of the process? We couldn't mass-produce 'em otherwise."
Boss Osman shook his head. "If they all came out the exact same, then how did the worms start absorbing radiation from hosts' cells in the first place? They had to change to get this way, and it only took them a few years after the wars to do it. Put 'em in a lab environment like we have and who knows what's been happening to their innards from generation to generation... Not like we test 'em each individually or anything. No, I wouldn't eat one if you paid me. Give me the natural ones from back home, I say."
Raltar chimed in from the back seat. "But you've got no problem selling mod-worms to someone else?"
Boss Osman shrugged. "The way I see it, we're doing them a service. Way too dry out here for the worms to breed on their own. These poor souls are so desperate they'll take any kind of grub they can get." Osman chewed on his beard for a minute while Tenney drove, glancing down occasionally at the paperwork in his lap. He spied a side tunnel up ahead and pointed it out. "That way, Tenney, then take the first left afterwards."
"Yeah, boss," said Tenney. The whispering hum of the crawler's electric engine echoed faintly along the cave walls.
Raltar was quiet as he massaged his bare cheeks and chin. He fidgeted with the radiation monitor hanging around his neck. "I still don't get why we couldn't just can some natural worms and bring 'em out here, like other traders do. There's plenty of good money to be made in that."
"Oh, sure, plenty of money," said Boss Osman. "And you've gotta spend weeks and weeks crawling around among the tree roots to gather the grubs, and then fill out something like thirty-five separate forms to get the trader's permits, and pay tax on your earnings..."
"Eugh, taxes," said Tenney. "Don't get me started on taxes. You know what taxes are? They're oppression, man. They're what—"
"Tenney," said Boss Osman, "shut up."
Tenney swallowed his diatribe. "Yeah, Boss."
They soon came across a branch in the tunnel. To the left was a low cavern lit by long strings of fluorescent lights; to the right was a steeper slope heading down towards the main network of tunnels that made up the underground city of Hwanij, the largest remaining population centre this side of the ScrapTop Mountains.
Tenney turned the crawler into the cavern and parked along the wall.
Boss Osman checked his watch. "They should be here in a few minutes. Remember, leave the talking to me. Your job is to unload the crates and inspect the cactus mush. Just keep smiles on your faces and make sure they can see that you're packing heat."
Tenney nodded and reached into his pocket for another worm tube.
"Put that away," growled Osman.
"C'mon, Boss!" said Tenney. "Have you checked your monitor down here? The rad levels are off the charts!"
Before he had time to do any further complaining, Tenney was interrupted by the hum of another engine approaching. A long, sleek crawler turned into the cavern and pulled up alongside them. Four people piled out, dressed in colourful vests and flowing pants.
"Who's Osman?" grunted one of them, a short woman with well-muscled arms and a shaved head.
"That's me," said Osman.
"Call me Mara," said the woman. They shook hands. "You've got the grubs?"
"In the back," said Osman. "Two thousand per box, and we've got sixty boxes."
"So that's..." Mara calculated quickly in her head. "A hundred and twenty thousand? I'll give you four tubs of cactus juice."
"Four?" protested Boss Osman. "Is that a joke? I could get twelve if I took this load to someone else."
"No, you couldn't," said Mara.
"Last trip out here the Durban brothers gave me a tub per ten thousand, no questions asked."
"Maybe," said Mara, "but two weeks ago I shoved the Durbans into a mixing vat. I didn't need that kind of price inflation, you know?" She smiled crookedly.
"Er," said Boss Osman. "I see. Still, I need at least eight to make this trip worth my while. Any less than that and there's no point in me coming back again. That'll drive your prices up, too."
"Six, and I'm not budging from there."
Osman looked back at Raltar and Tenney. Raltar shrugged. Tenney, following the instructions he had received, smiled and pulled his jacket back to show off his holstered gun. Osman subtly gestured to him to back down.
"Take it or leave it," said Mara.
"Fine," said Boss Osman. "Six tubs, but no guarantees we'll be back again after this. I gotta make a profit somehow... And before my guys unload anything, I want to make sure sure your stuff is legit. If you've watered it down at all, deal's off. The grubs love the stuff, but they only drink it in high concentrations."
Mara snapped her fingers and two of her men hauled a massive blue tub out of the back of their crawler. They set it down in front of Boss Osman. Raltar and Tenney came forward and covered their mouths with simple breathing masks. They pried open the lid of the tub and looked inside. It was filled with viscous green sludge. The fumes brought tears into their eyes.
Raltar took a small beaker out of a case and scooped up a bit of the cactus juice. He dropped a pinch of some chemical into it and waited a few seconds. Nothing happened. He gave Boss Osman the thumbs up, and he and Tenney sealed the lid back onto the tub.
"Okay, we're good," said Boss Osman. "You can stack the tubs here for now. Where do you want the worms?"
"Not so fast," snapped Mara. "You tested my wares, and I'm going to test yours."
Boss Osman held his hands up innocently. "What's to test?"
"Yeah," said Tenney. "A grub's a grub, right? They all come out the same." Osman glared at him to shut him up.
"Maybe," said Mara, "maybe not. These are mod-worms, and I always test the mod-worms."
Osman held his hands out appeasingly. "That really isn't necess—"
"Save it. Cheefo, bring her out." One of Mara's men reached into their crawler and hauled out a woman with a bruised face and tied wrists. She looked pleadingly from Mara to Osman and Tenney, and her eyes opened wide when she saw Raltar. "Okay, Gem," said Mara, "time to make yourself useful. Just gulp down a couple of mod-worms and see what happens. If you come through okay, who knows, maybe I'll decide you really aren't a government rat, after all."
Gem tried to squirm free, but Mara's man forced her to her knees.
"Grab me a sample," Mara ordered.
Boss Osman nodded to Tenney, who stepped around to the back of the crawler and pried open a box of worms. He fished out a tube with a fat, juicy lab worm in it. "Looks like this one's been nice and hungry," he said. "All the food in the bottom of the tube is gone."
"These guys had a long trip," said Osman.
"Doesn't matter," said Mara. She took the tube from Tenney, popped the cap off, and approached Gem. The henchman forced Gem's mouth open, and Mara took out the worm, which writhed and wriggled madly. "Active little nematode, isn't it?" She lowered it towards Gem's mouth.
"No!" shouted Raltar, drawing his gun from his holster. His shout startled Mara, and she dropped the worm into Gem's mouth. It immediately squirmed straight down her throat.
"Let her go," demanded Raltar, training his gun on Mara's forehead. Mara's men reached for their weapons, but Raltar cocked his gun and again shouted, "Let her go! And drop your guns."
There were a few seconds of tense silence.
Mara said, "Do it."
The men placed their guns on the floor, raised their hands, and stepped back from Gem.
"Raltar, what are you doing?" said Boss Osman.
"You, too," growled Raltar, turning his gun on Osman and Tenney.
"Guns down and back away!"
Osman and Tenney did as they were told, with puzzled looks on their faces. "This is a pretty stupid place for a hold-up, bud," said Osman. "You can't drive away two vehicles at once, and there's no way you can get everything onto one crawler on your own. Plus you're outnumbered ten to one."
Raltar helped Gem to her feet. As he untied her wrists, she said, "You have no idea how happy I am to see you, Vic."
Mara laughed. "So that's what's going on here. This isn't a hold-up. You're the Annelid Kid!"
"The who?" said Boss Osman. "Raltar, who are you?"
"He's an undercover agent," said Mara. "He busted half our network last year. I thought we had put him down, but I recognize those eyes now..."
"Should've made sure I was dead," said Vic. He pressed a sequence of buttons on his radiation monitor. "Don't worry, Gem. These tunnels are going to be swarming with agents soon."
Gem opened her mouth to reply, but suddenly her eyes rolled back and a feral moan erupted from her throat. She dropped out of Vic's arms and flopped onto the ground, clutching her stomach. "Gem!" cried Vic, kneeling beside her.
Seizing the opportunity, Mara sprang on Vic and knocked him down. His gun clattered across the stone floor, and chaos erupted as Mara's men came to her aid. They grappled with Vic and tried to pin him to the ground, but he fought with desperate strength. Boss Osman and Tenney yanked open the doors of their crawler and leapt inside, and Tenney fired up the engine.
"Don't let them escape!" shouted Mara, as her men scrambled for their weapons.
Before they could fire, Gem let out an unearthly howl and sprang to her feet. Her lips were foaming and there was fire in her eyes. One of Mara's men turned his gun towards her, but before he could pull the trigger she took two swift steps and batted the gun out of his hand. It flew across the cavern and shattered on the wall. She bore down on the man and knocked him to the floor, then loomed over him and sniffed him. His scent didn't appear to be to her liking: she stomped hard on his chest, cracking his ribs, then shook her head and howled.
"What are you doing!?" yelled Mara to the rest of her men. "Shoot her!"
Gem bounded towards the nearest standing henchman, renewing her ferocious assault. In a matter of seconds, she had scattered Mara and her men around the cavern. They lay bleeding and groaning.
Osman and Tenney watched in horror from the relative safety of the crawler, too shocked by what they were seeing to drive away.
"What's happening to her?" said Tenney.
"Good thing I didn't let you eat one of those things, eh?" said Osman.
The back door of the crawler opened as Vic crawled inside. "Get us out of here!" he yelled.
Boss Osman turned on him with a frown. "You can't just—"
The crawler rocked and Osman looked up to see Gem staring in at him through the windshield, mouth open like a hissing snake. She slammed the palm of her hand against the windshield. It shuddered, but didn't crack. Gem crawled up onto the crawler's roof. The three men heard her footsteps as she walked to the rear of the crawler, and saw her drop down on top of the crates of mod-worms. She sniffed at them and seemed pleased. Leaning down, she set her teeth into the straps holding the crates and began gnawing through them.
Tenney didn't need any more encouragement: he stomped on the gas and spun the crawler's treads into motion. The crawler lurched forward and Gem rolled off onto the ground. The strap broke, and several of the crates came free, tumbling down with her. Tenney turned the crawler out of the cavern and up the tunnel towards the desert surface.
The government crawlers arrived, sirens blaring through the tunnels as they emerged from the subterranean network of the city. They found Gem sitting peacefully in the middle of the cavern. There was an open tub of cactus juice on her right and a box of lab worms on her left. She was freeing the worms from their tubes one by one and dropping them into the tub.
As the police stepped out of their crawlers, Gem looked up at them with a benign smile. She reached into the tub, withdrew a handful of massive, wriggling worms, and held them out like a gift.
The radiation monitors twitched.