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The Worms of Purgatory: When the Hunter Becomes the Huntedby@huffhimself
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The Worms of Purgatory: When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

by Michael HuffSeptember 1st, 2023
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Vincent lives in a post-apocalyptic Earth called "Purgatory," a result of genetic experiments gone wrong. Giant, genetically engineered sandworms roam the Earth, making life perilous for the surviving inhabitants who live under domes. The story hints that Earth's elite and wealthy have escaped to outer space, while those who couldn't afford it remained behind. Vincent and Daryl's ancestors were among those who stayed. Vincent's team is tasked with investigating seismic activity suggesting a large movement of worms. They use devices that mimic the sound of rain to lure the worms to the surface, as the creatures come above ground during rainfall. After successfully luring and slaughtering a group of worms, they return to their city only to find it has been attacked by another group of worms. Vincent realizes the creatures may not be as unintelligent as they believed. The worms' simultaneous attack on their city and response to their luring devices suggests a level of coordination and strategic planning. The story ends with Vincent and his leader, Felix, recognizing that they might be up against a more formidable enemy than they initially thought.
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“Ah, man! That was awesome, the way you cut that worm in two! Bam! Bam!” Daryl said, both hands held together before him, taking aim at the dead worm. “Sweet!”


“It wasn’t me, it was the advanced weaponry,” Vincent said, slapping his high-powered, high-tech precision laser field rifle.


It certainly does the trick when it comes to cutting down these sandworms, a kindergartener could slay one if she could hold the weapon up. It does all the hard work for you, even calculating the exact intensity required to get the job done.


Vincent’s brow wrinkles at the stench that hangs in the air. The rebreathers keep the air clean enough to survive but do little to save them from the smell of rotten flesh.


“It’s amazing that these things are alive. One swift kick and it falls apart.” To illustrate the point, he kicks the thing in its ribbed side.


With a sickeningly dull thud, his foot sinks into the creature’s flesh and the wound oozes iridescent maggots that populate its rotten corpse even while the creature lived.

The smell that erupts from the gaping hole makes the already ghastly stench suddenly unbearable.


Daryl coughs and chokes back his lunch, trying his best not to vomit.


“What’s the matter with you? Weak stomach?”

Laughing, he adds, “You’d better get used to it. Wont’ be long and it’ll be your turn.”


“I’ll deal with it,” Daryl retorts defiantly.


“I know you will, bro.”

“All in good time,” Vincent says, putting his arm around Daryl’s shoulder, as the two of them head back towards the domes. “All in good time.”


As they near the domes, Daryl spots some friends ahead of them and moves to intercept them.

Vincent watches him run and smiles. He’ll make a good hunter someday soon, he thinks. Then sobering, “It’ll be sooner than you think!”


Stopping, he looks back at the sandworm — a horrible monster of death and decay — a product of mankind’s bioengineering gone amuck. It stands as a reminder that genetically modified genes, once released into the environment, can not be recalled. Nor, as it turns out, can their final outcome be predicted.


And they still can’t,” he thinks grimly, as he continues making his back into the city. The searing heat prickling through his EVAP suit.


Overhead, the white springtime light reminds him that summer is near. Already temperatures are pushing 65 degrees Celsius, in the shade. When summer does come, it will be nearly impossible for a man to move about on the surface without protection.


After years of tinkering with nature, humankind had succeeded in transforming the Eden that had once been Earth, into this hell now known as Purgatory. Dante would be proud.

That humans had wrecked the environment is now ancient history. They ruined it. Those who could afford to, had lifted off to the Moon, to Mars, to the Asteroids, to any place other than this one.


He knows somewhere out in space they had built a massive generation ship that had launched the remnant of humanity — the wealthy remnant — toward the stars. The population of Earth had been far too large to save in its entirety, and as it always had, it had come down to those who have against those who have not.


Vincent’s and Daryl’s ancestors had not. Their family history taught them that they’d fled the fall of New York, a now legendary city, and took shelter in the Appalachians. Eventually, they moved further west to the Rockies, skirting the quickly growing Great Sea, which had rapidly been swallowing up the Great Plains. Now, all that was left of North America was a series of island chains, the narrower to the east where the Appalachians had been, and to the west, a much larger land mass that included the Rockies, the Sierras, and the Cascades and all the land between. Most everything else had sunk beneath the oceans.


Purgatory knows extreme weather patterns—mind-numbingly cold winters and torturously hot summers. Humans have moved beneath domes that covered concave cities plunging deep below the surface where coolness and water were found. Beneath the domes, where the sun shines, but through filters that make it safer, rain, but without the ruinous acid and even cloud cover. Everything is carefully managed.


Cities are connected, as much as has been possible, by tunnels. But even with these precautions, danger dwells nearby, always waiting for an opportunity to strike.

The worms — the sandworms— have no concern about people or cities. They ignore humanity’s existence altogether. For all their size, there isn’t much going on inside their soft heads. They move about with about as much thought as an earthworm, their not-so-distant cousins. All the damage they do, they do with no malice or evil intent. They just do what worms do, plough through the dirt, taking it in at one end and putting it out the other in the form of worm castings.

It is their enormous size and their ability to swallow up just about anything they encounter that makes them so deadly. They have been known to plow through entire cities, leaving a pile of excrement in their wake.


It turns out, killing them is fairly easy, if you can catch them above the ground. As with their ancestors, the sound or vibration of rain on the surface, causes them to exit the soil in hopes of easier transportation on the wet ground.


Rain, unfortunately, is a rare occurrence. For all the water on the planet, very little of it seems to fall on the ground. But some bright person had figured out how to imitate the vibration of rain, a device that would broadcast just the right sound waves to draw the big buggers up out of the ground. Then it becomes the killing fields.


Vincent had never participated in a slaughter like that. So far, he’d only slain the random worm here and there. They had managed to protect Denver from attack for at least the last 25 years. That was how long ago the city had taken a hit. But it had been a bad one.

The worms had cut through the city’s filtration system, the system that keeps the air clean and safe to breathe. It had taken nearly a month to replace them and in that time, hundreds had died from toxic air.


Vincent looks back to where Daryl stands with a handful of other teens who had joined the hunt today. Like Daryl, they had been there just to observe. The kid’s going to do fine, he says to himself. He’s got friends and handles himself with confidence.

Maybe too much confidence, he adds.


When the airlock door slides open, Vincent steps in, along with a couple of other hunters. The kids hang back. They’re old enough to handle being topside without “adult” supervision.

The door slides closed and the lock begins to cycle. Everyone switches their rebreathers off, and slide the plastic clips from their noses to clip them on the device hanging from their belts, or strapped to their back, depending on which model they sport.


Sandy, a woman a few years younger then Vincent, smiles at him.

“Good shot, Vince. Way to go!”


The others chime in. One guy slap his back.


“Thanks! It’s not like their hard to hit, you know, their size.”


“And yet, people miss, don’t they?” Sandy says.


“That’s right,” another agrees. Vincent doesn’t know his name, though he’s seen him before. Probably from the lower levels. He looks it, rather pale of skin and a bit on the frail side.


“That’s the fifth rising in as many weeks. Looks like it’s going to be a busy summer!” That is Max, a large, dark-skinned man who originally came from somewhere further north, maybe Laramie? Vincent isn’t sure.


“I heard Taos got hit pretty badly a couple weeks back. Didn’t hit anything vital, though. They were lucky.” The other guy, again.


Vincent contributes his two cents. “I heard Maloney say this might be a sign of a new evolutionary turn for the worms.”


“What?” Sandy says.


“Who’s this Maloney? Sound like malarkey!” Max inserts.


“He’s a neighbor of mine, works at the university. He’s a biologist who specializes in sandworms. He says that consistency across changing patterns is an indication of an evolutionary shift.

When a group of animals begin to change a behavior, it is evolution right in front of us. That’s what the worms are doing.


“Used to be, they would basically disappear all winter and not show up until spring, and then, only as individuals, and rarely. Summers have always been the time for worm swarms. But now, they're showing up earlier and earlier each year and swarming before and after summer.


“It could mean they are adapting to something in the environment. Or it could be adapting to us.” He finishes.


“What it means is trouble!” Sand says. “And I’m not looking for trouble!”


“Bring it on!” Max says, as the inner door slid open and they begin to exit the lock.


“Wanna go grab a drink or a bite to eat?” Sandy asks Vincent.


“I’d love to, but I’ve got some things I really need to attend to. Maybe another time?”

“Of course. Next time.”


She turns left and Vincent turns right. He really doesn’t have anything to do of any importance, he just isn’t really looking to hook up with anyone right now. It hasn’t been that long since his last relationship blew up and he isn’t ready to get entangled again.


Vincent catches the first lift he finds empty and takes it to the 45th floor — that is 45 floors down. The 45th floor holds the firmly middle-class. The apartments are spacious enough to afford an extra room, maybe an extra bath, or a den and a living room. Down below the 75th floor, apartments are Spartan, providing just enough room. Some kids have to double up. Not that many families have more than two kids. A few do, and somehow it is always the ones who can least afford an extra mouth to feed. The wealthy always seem to stick with one kid or two at the most.


Vincent’s folks had three kids. Vincent is the oldest and Daryl is the youngest. In between is Rachel, who got married and now lives on the 15th floor in a very plush apartment. They rarely see her, now that they run in different circles.


Their folks had both decided to terminate when they hit fifty. A lot of folks do. Neither of them were sick. They just felt that it was a nice round number and there wasn’t much to keep them here.


So much for family ties.


Unlocking his apartment door, Vincent steps inside as the lights turn on automatically and the air begins to circulate. Music plays softly in the background and a woman’s voice greets him.


“Welcome home, Vincent. Are you hungry? I can have lunch ready in a jiffy, if you’d like.”

Sarah speaks with an English accent. For awhile, he had her using an Indian accent, but decided he liked the tartness of the Brits better.


“No thanks, Sarah. Not hungry.”


“How about a drink? A pop? Or something stronger?”


Sure, I’ll have something fruity, maybe an Orange soda?”


“An orangeade it is, on the rocks, as always.”


Vincent picks up the drink as he passes the kitchen on the way to the bedroom. The fizzy sweetness hits the spot.


In the bedroom, he strips off his protective suit, and then his civvies underneath, and steps into the cleaning unit. What he wants more than anything right now is to be rid of the worm’s stench. It always gives him the creeps and leaves him feeling grimy.


As he steps into the unit, UV-C rays sweep over his skin, killing bacteria. Then jets spray him with a waterless cleanser as he turns about, his arms over his head. Finished, he steps out and towels off, rubbing the liquid into his skin.


At thirty, Vincent has been hunting for over a decade already. He had been only a few years older than Daryl is now. He remembers how his parents had argued with him to go on to university, but that stuff held no interest for him. His parents were both academics and life promised nothing he wanted.


He had always ached for adventure and the only adventure to be had was topside. Sure, Engineers and builders work constantly to maintain the city and even improve it. And there are always dangers lurking in the depths, but those risks are all known. They can be anticipated and mitigated. What he wanted was the unknown. And only the topside could provide that.


Looking back now, he isn’t so sure he’d made the right decision. As part of the civil defense, he spends plenty of hours topside, but only ever a stone’s throw from the city and never further.


Even the risks he faces are known and mitigated, if more difficult to predict. He still longs to move out across the barren land, outside of a maglev tunnel, out in the open air, moving across wide stretches of land into the unknown and uncharted.


Sure, there is little that is uncharted, but most of that is from before. So much has changed and so little is known about the extent of those changes. He wants to know.


He can see now that maybe his parents had been right. A college degree might have opened up a different path to adventure. He begins contemplating the possibility of making a change when Sarah interrupts his thoughts.


“There’s a call for you, Vincent. It’s from Civil Defense. Do you want to take it?”


“Put them through.”


“Vincent, it’s Felix. Hate to bother you. I know you just got off shift.”


“But here you are, bothering me.”


“Yes, and if I had any other choice, I wouldn’t be calling you.”


“Okay, so what’s up? What do you need me for?”


“I’m not sure you are aware of this, but the folks down in Taos are developing a system using seismometers to detect worm movement. It doesn’t do anything for one or two worms, but it picks up swarms and could possibly be useful as an early warning system.


“Anyway, the folks at the university set up a system to test the theory, they just finished the installation about a week ago.”


“And?”


“And we just got a call. There’s movement to the east and it looks like it could be pretty big. We need someone to head out and see how accurate the meters are.”


“How does that work?”


“Bring the broadcasters and see if you can pull them out. They think you will find up near Greeley where the Cache La Poudre meets the Platte. They’ll be looking for moisture along the old river beds.


“Take a full squad. Scope it out. Find your most defensible position, then hammer them good.”


“When do I leave?” Vincent asks. “Sir,” he adds as an afterthought.


“As soon as you can get your gear together and gather your crew. I would think no later than 1400.”


“Yes, sir.”


“And Vincent, don’t go getting yourself killed. We need your wise ass around here to keep us all honest.”


“Yes, sir.”


“Cut the shit, Vincent. It’s Felix, and you know it. I’m not pulling rank here. I need to send someone I know will get the job done right. That’s you.”


“Thanks?”


“See you when you get back.

“Oh, and radio in every thirty and give an update.”


“Roger that. Will do.”


Felix cuts out and the soft music once again plays in the background.


As Vincent begins to pack a pack for the road, he asks Sarah to get Rachel on the line.

“She’s not picking up. Do you want to leave a message?”


“Yeah, put me through.”


“It’s recording in three — one, two, three.”


“Rachel, it’s me. I’ve got to bug out for the next 24 hours. It’s a last-minute thing and I don’t have time to make arrangements for Daryl. I know he’s a big kid and all that, but can you keep an eye out for him, maybe give him a call or something? Hate to bug you, but what’s a brother for, right? Hope you and Richard are doing okay. Hugs and kisses and all the shit. Thanks.”


“Okay, Sarah, keep tabs on Daryl. Nothing too intrusive. But I want to know if he pulls any shit. You know what I mean.”


“Yes, Vincent. I will monitor his comings and goings and keep track of activities in the flat. Be safe.”


“Thank you, Sarah. I’ll be back.”


Shouldering the pack, he heads out the door and into the lift, heading topside. Military command is nestled deep in the hole for safety sake, but most fighting units and equipment occupy the ground floor and above, for rapid response beyond the city domes. As he enters the staging area, he sees several of his crew have beaten him to it.


“What’s up, Vinnie? I got an emergency response order to get here ASAP,” a stocky blond soldier says as Vincent approached.


“Yeah, Bonnie, I imagine we all did. We’re bugging out up to Greeley. There’s been a worm swarm warning and we’re going to go hunting.”


“A killing field?” Harvey asks. He stands a full foot taller than Vincent and almost as much wider. His dark skin contrasts with the white and gray dappled camo that makes up their hunting outfits.


“A killing field.”


“Whoop, whoop!” Several soldiers respond together, pumping their fists in the air.


“Connelly,” Vincent says, looking at an older man, probably old enough to be his father, if he were still alive. “Get us two Strykers, fueled and loaded. Have them here in 15.


“Bonnie, you and Harvey pull some ordnance and have it here. We’ll need the heavy stuff, and laser rifles with backup power packs.


“Rufus, you and Malone get us two sets of broadcasters. Make sure they’re working.

“We’re bugging out in 20 ladies and gentlemen. Let’s get it done!”


“On it, Vinnie!”


“Got ya!”


“Sure thing!” Everyone scatters to their assignments


Twenty minutes later, loaded aboard two fully equipped Stryker APCs, 24 soldiers set out, north-northeast a distance of 100 clicks. There are stretches of highway that are still navigable, but most of it is not, so the going was spotty.


Along the way, Vincent checks in every thirty minutes, as directed. Three times their destination is changed, due to the latest telemetry being reported from the seismometers. A two-hour trip grows into four. They find their destination at last, not at the convergence of the Cache La Poudre meets the South Platte rivers, but 50 clicks south-southeast from there, a stone’s throw from the coast on the Great Sea.


Only a couple of the crew have ever actually set up a killing field before, Connelly being one, Sherman the other. But they all had drilled for it many times over, so with only a little guidance from the two old-timers, they quickly set up the perimeter, installing the broadcasters and establishing themselves on the high ground.


A full thirty minutes later, they find themselves looking to Vincent for the orders to get the ball rolling.


“This is Delta Strike. We’re onsite, locked and loaded. What’s the latest telemetry?”


“Vincent, Felix here. Nothing. The last you heard is the latest we’ve got. You are clear to kick off.”


“Roger that. Will let you know how it goes.”


“Great. Send pictures.”


“Right that. We’ll do selfies in the middle of a worm swarm. Roger and out.”


“Okay gentle people, let’s do this thing.


Nodding to Rufus and Malone, he adds, “Fire it up, gents!”


In an instant, a full-blown thunderstorm erupts, with peels of thunder and heavy rainfall pounding the earth beneath their feet. Only there is no rain. The sky above is as clear as it has been for many a day prior. As it is most days. And yet, to their ears and even to their feet, through the vibrations in the ground beneath them, a mammoth storm has overtaken them. The sound is not quite deafening, but enough to convince their senses that it’s real, despite the evidence their eyes offer to the contrary.


A solid 12 minutes pass with no results, just the incessant raging of their imaginary storm.

Vincent wants to check back with Denver to see if there are any updates on worm activity but doesn’t dare shut it down, and without doing that, he won’t hear a word they say on the coms.


“I don’t think it’s working, boss!” Rufus shouts.


“Connelly, what do you say?” Vincent barks in his direction.


The old-timer cups his hands to his mouth.

“It can take up to thirty minutes or more, if I’m remembering right.”


“We’ll give it 45 then. Just to be sure.”


Time ticks away, with some of the crew dozing at their post, despite the cacophony of sound. At 42 minutes, Vincent stands and raises his hand to signal Rufus to cut the broadcasters off. In that very moment, everything changes.


The ground beneath them begins to tremble in earnest, pitching them back and forth madly, nearly sending Vincent headlong to the ground. He just barely keeps his feet.

Then with a thunderous roar, the earth erupts along the edge of the killing field as a giant sandworm bursts from the ground, dirt and debris cascading down on the unlucky soldiers nearby.


“Hold your fire!” Vincent shouts.

Not that anyone hears him. But they are all a bit stunned at the moment, so no one pulls the trigger.


The first worm is followed by a second, then a third, and another and another. Each worm breaks the surface, rising some twenty or thirty feet into the air, before falling to one side or another and writhing out of the hole they have created. Soon the field is covered in sandworms, crawling over one another, looking for the promised rain.


“Cut it, Rufus. Now!” Vincent shouts.


Rufus reaches over and kills the drivers and the rains stop, but their ears still ring from the 45-minute-long onslaught.


“Now, fire at will. All weapons, engage!” Vincent commands.


Soon the scene changes once again. Light beams cut through the air, slicing through the rotting flesh of the preposterous worms, oozing out the green, maggoty bile that is their internal content. The worms have no chance. Their bodies are cut into pieces as each soldier takes aim and slices through their hulking flesh.


The air becomes ionized, carrying the energy of the powerful beams of light and heat, as well as the stench of burning flesh and putrid scent of rot. Not a few soldiers pause to spill their lunch on the ground, before taking aim again and continuing the slaughter.


It seems an eternity, but in less than ten minutes, not a worm slithers on the field. It is nearly impossible to get a tally of kills, the worms have been cut into so many pieces, but Sherman estimates the count to be about 23, give or take a worm or two.


Vincent snaps photos of the carnage and sends them off to Denver, before calling up Felix.

There is no answer.

Vincent looks at his communicator and tries to determine if something is wrong with it. He tries again.

Nothing.

Then he reboots it.

When it has powered up, he tries again.

Still nothing.


“Okay, heroes, let’s pack this Mother up and head home. The sooner, the better.”


Everyone jumps to, disassembling the equipment and loading everything back into the two Strykers. Once packed, they mount up and hit the road, angling west-southwest to Denver.

The roads in this direction are almost non-existent. Add a moonless night, and their pace was a crawl.


Every five minutes, Vincent tries Denver, each time with no luck.


The hours stretch out, as they pick their way down trails that are barely trails. Occasionally they would happen upon a dirt road, overgrown and heavily rutted. As they drew nearer, Vincent asked if anyone had private communicators on them. He encouraged them to use them to make contact with home. There was no network to speak of, only towers near Denver and within the domes themselves, allowed cellphones to work. Beyond that, satellite coms were the only way to go and the only folks with SatComs was the military. Maybe a satellite went down? It happens from time to time, though the timing now was terrible.


Bonnie tried her cell. “Nothing, Vinnie. No signal.”

Harvey reported the same thing, as did several others.


“Well then, it’s not the satellite,” Vincent spoke his thoughts aloud. “Could it be a power outage?”

“No, sir,” Rufus said. “All the towers and repeaters are on failsafe backup power modules. They shouldn’t lose signal.”


Everyone settled into an uneasy silence as each imagined what scenario would drop Denver offline. They were still thirty minutes out and each click of the clock crawled like an eternity. Each one had someone in the city they cared for and each one fought a personal battle of fear and dread.


The lead Stryker pulled up the last rise and turned its headlights towards the domes, which rose like rounded peaks among the more rugged mountain tops surrounding the city. With no moon in the sky, there was no aid in seeing the city, but it should have been lit from within and without by security lights. The domes were only shadows, a darker darkness surrounded by night.


The last half-mile confirmed Vincent’s worst fear. All about them, the earth was disrupted, turned over from fresh worm castings. Soon their headlights hit the first dome, only to see a gaping hole in its side. Smoke poured out into the night air.


The hangar bay was open, and inside, a flashlight shone about as men and women dashed about in an organized panic. Pulling up, they dismounted and grabbed the first soldier passing by.


“What happened here, soldier?” Vincent demanded.


“Worm swarm, sir! They hit us hard on several levels on every side all at once.” The solider was probably barely eighteen, wild-eyed and frantic.


“How long ago?”


The soldier blinked blankly, as if he didn’t understand the question.


Shaking him, Vincent shouted, “When? When did they attack?”


“Must have been about six hours ago, sir. I was just settling down for the evening. Yeah, six hours ago.”


Vincent released him and looked at Connelly. “Six fucking hours ago? That’s right after our last communication with Denver. Surely these worms couldn’t plan something like that, could they?”


“Hell if I know, Vinnie. Hell if I know.”


He thought of Daryll and of Rachel and wondered if they were alright. He knew duty called for them to report in, but he also knew that every one of them had someone they were worried sick about.


“Look, I know you all have someone you want to find right now. So, go. Find them. Make sure your families are okay. Then report to the OD and see where they can use you. I’ll hunt down Felix and report in.


“Go!” he said, as they stood in a stupor brought on by shock.


His words brought them back and thanking him, each one departed and made their way home.

With communications down, there was really no way to find Felix. Headquarters was a half-mile down and the lifts were probably down as well, or jammed with people.


Felix made his way to the 45th floor, using the service stairwells, which were not open to the general public. Even so, there were many people making their way up and down the stairs.

Arriving at his apartment, he found the place empty and Sarah offline.


Swearing, he made his way back up to the 15th floor and Rachel’s apartment. To his great relief, Daryl answered the door. He looked bleary-eyed, but happy to see him. Inside, he found Rachel distraught. They had not been able to get hold of Cheryl, her wife. She’d been on the 3rd floor at some after-work mixer when the worm swarm hit. Apparently, the 3rd floor was one of the first struck.


“At least the two of you are okay,” he said, gratefully. “I’ll see what I can find out and I’ll let you know as soon as I can. Stay put. You’re safest right here.”


He hugged them both and headed topside. On the 3rd floor, he stopped to reconnoiter and there he found Felix, barking out orders as medical crews worked on the wounded. Bodies were lined up along the hallway, nothing to cover their expressions of terror frozen on their faces by sudden and unexpected death.


Repair crews were working to shore up the floor above and eliminate any immediate hazards.

Looking up, Felix greeted him grimly. Filling him in, Felix told him the extent of the attack, which could only be described as organized, persistent, and deadly.


“And the timing,” Vincent said. “As soon as we turned on the drivers, they struck. It was like announcing to the world, all eyes are over here. We’re not looking close to home.”


“I hate to say it, but you’re right. I wouldn’t think it possible, but I think we’ve underestimated these things.”


Vincent nodded in agreement. “Everything changes from here. We’re not dealing with some giant dumb-ass like we thought we were. We’re dealing with an enemy who can think and plan and communicate.”


“Yeah, I think so,” Felix shook his head. “We’re screwed!”