Gunpowder Worm

Posted on June 26, 2017

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Preface

A few years ago, I realized all the stories in You Didn’t Know Me Then, were a collection of loosely connected vignettes that could all take place in the same universe à la Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine. In this near-future world, a comet carrying a silicon-destroying virus shatters in the earth’s atmosphere, distributing the virus homogeneously around the world, and ending digital technology overnight. This is the first story in the canon to allude to this event. I could easily edit those few sentences out and it would stand alone, but then I would have to put them in later when I compile the stories into a book.

1

Wegley stood on the ramp rolled up to disembark the plane. The wind was blowing the rain so hard he watched the back lit drops go through the prop and then circle back towards the front of the plane. The scientist in him was so enthralled by witnessing this phenomenon that his retinue had to give him a push from behind and yell over the engine and the storm that they needed to hurry.

The black, slab-sided sedan came out of the night like a sounding submarine breaching from the depths. Its white walled wrapped wire rims hissed to a stop on the wet pavement and the men got in. Outside, their trench coats and fedoras had kept the rain off of them, but in the car the water poured off of epaulets and brims, double breasts and coat tails, forming pools on the polished leather that the car’s environmental controls could not overcome. The car became fetid, steam coated the windows and ran down in rivulets. It closed in on them,  Mueller, Zorn, Wegley, as they sat there in their oversized clothes, holding themselves in, thighs together, knees and elbows tight like virgins in a speakeasy, trying not to touch one another like grown men do. Wegley held the leather satchel cross-wise in front of his knees, because that was the only place for it.

Mueller looked down at the case and was the first to speak. “How was the flight to Lisbon?”

“They put some bumps in it,” said Wegley.

“It’s not the same as the good old days, flying by wire, is it? Back then, they could fly through a hurricane and not even wake the pilot up,” said Zorn.

Wegley grunted. “I don’t mind it at all. It puts the romance back in it for sure. Back when machines worked for men and not the other way around.”

Zorn scoffed, “Caused the war though, didn’t it? All these people scratching for what’s left.”

Wegley shrugged. “People don’t start wars. Governments start wars. All the people want is safety for their families. I’m sure the people we are killing half a world away just want the same.”

Mueller leaned in, “We haven’t called in the landing yet. We are under radio silence anyway and on a black out for the air raids. The pilot will dummy the logs, so we have about 30 minutes for you to give your talk and hand out the vials, got it?”

Wegley was looking at his hands. He looked up, first at Zorn, then at Mueller. “Got it. That’s all I need.”

Small talk exhausted, he leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes. The other men looked out their respective windows as the sedan whisked them through the streets, each lost in his own thoughts. After a time, they turned down a dark street and parked across an alley way. The men got out without speaking and Zorn lead Wegley between the buildings. After looking both ways, Mueller thumped the roof of the car with the flat of his hand. It drove off and he followed the others into the dark. Halfway down the alley, Zorn descended a stairway and a man let them through a heavy metal door at the bottom.

A few turns and Wegley found himself in some kind of a meeting room, complete with a low, curtained stage. He stepped on to the stage and strode to the podium. He put his hat and coat on a chair, fumbled in his case, and turned to face his audience, a group of intent men and women, mostly lean and bespectacled. They sat forward in their seats and did not speak. He looked them over. They did not look brave, or strong, fierce, or belicose; but he knew them to be stalwart, which was good for the fate of the world lay upon them.

In his hand, he held up a glass bottle with a stopper held on by a steel clasp. “Here, in this bottle, we have the thing which we have all risked our lives on. Here in this bottle we can change the world. Here, is peace!”

The crowd stood up and began to clap and cheer. Mueller jumped up on to the stage. “Please! Please! Remember yourselves, we must have quiet!”

The crowd sat down, abashed but still excited. Wegley held up the tube; in the light it looked as if it was full of rice. “You will each get a tube, just like this. Go back to your factories and armories, sprinkle it in the powder stores, and among the bullets. Smash the glass and dispose of the glass and go about your business. That is all you have to do.”

“What happens then?” a voice from the back.

“The worms will hatch. If they are in powder, they will begin to consume it, metabolizing it into ash.”

There were murmurs in the crowd, “Sure that’s great, but there are years’ worth of munitions already out there, all over the world. What do we do just wait until they shoot it all up?”

“If they cannot find powder they will undergo metamorphosis into moths and seek it out, laying eggs where they find it. The worms have a drill-like exoskeleton that lets them bore into the brass of a shell, or through any other material with a hardness less than glass. Once inside a bullet, they establish themselves and start the life cycle all over again. They are unique in that they can reproduce either in the moth form, by laying eggs, or in the worm form by a mitosis-like division. As a life form, they are engineered for survival and reproduction.”

“Sounds great, but it will take a million years!” another voice from the crowd.

Wegley reached into the pocket of his suit and pulled out a clear glass box.  He held the box up to the crowd. “See this box? It’s a brand-new box of 45 shells. I bought it on the way to the airport and I still have the receipt if you want to see it?” This was only met with murmurs, so he went on. He opened the box and took a shell at random, then took a gun out of a shoulder holster. A gasp went around the room, he held up his hand. Then he opened the cylinder to show it was empty. One by one he put bullets into it, then snapped it shut. He raised the gun up and put it to his temple and pulled the trigger.

The trigger pulled back and snapped forward with the crash of a gavel. People jumped up. Again he held up his hand. Then One! Two! Three! more quick pulls. The last two, he aimed at the audience. People leapt aside. “What’s the big idea? Are you crazy?!”

From his suit pocket, he took out a pair of pliers. Once again he opened the chamber but this time he removed the shell. He used the pliers to pry the bullet off the jacket, and then he poured the contents into his hand. He walked down to the audience and they crowded around him. “Inoculated with one worm. Think about the caloric load. Less than 12 hours, the worms have reproduced thousands of times, and it’s ashes. Not a grain of powder in that whole box.” He threw the ashes into the air and a small cloud of grey moths emerged from it. They circled the room once and made a beeline for the door.

Wegley turned to Zorn, “Your man, is he armed?” Zorn nodded mutely. “Was armed,” said Wegley. He turned to the crowd. “It happens like that, just that fast, all you have to do is take these back and inoculate. They have a timed hatch cycle, every one will hatch simultaneously six weeks from now, and never be connected to you.”

Wegley turned back to the crowd. “As you can see, they spread very quickly. By this time next year, there will be no more gunpowder. No more war. Governments will not be able to expend your sons and daughters to further their ends, they will need to negotiate in peace. We enter a new age!”

The crowd erupted again. Zorn grabbed the case for dispersal, and Mueller swept him up the stairs into the night. When they got into the car, Mueller turned on him, his face white with rage, “What was that stunt back there! You could’ve been killed. The Resistance cannot afford to lose the greatest mind of our age!”

“Oh, posh,” said Wegley, “You just panicked thinking how you would have to explain it to your boss at the lab. If I hadn’t done that, they never would’ve believed me. Now, I’ve created an army of fanatics. My part here is done, and you know it. You just don’t want me to blow the mission.” With that, he leaned back again and was almost instantly asleep.

2

Wegley sat in his lounger reading. His wife Ellen was on the sofa, legs curled under her, knitting. The TV was on. A blond man in a windbreaker stood in the dark somewhere, reporting “live” from the scene of something that had happened hours ago in the morning. Apparently, a man had tried to rob a store with a knife and had been foiled by a phone book-wielding Pakistani woman. The man put his hand to his ear and leaned forward as if trying to hear.

“That’s right, Jennifer. Crimes with guns have nearly ceased entirely, and after a brief spike, all other violent crimes seem to be decreasing as well.”

The shot panned out to show him on a screen between two news casters, Jennifer and some older gentleman who looked like he had escaped the mortuary halfway through replacing his bodily fluids with formaldehyde. Through his professional rictus he said, “Scientists and authorities the world over are attempting to figure out the source of the gunpowder worm, and how to combat it.” After that, the entire thing devolved into some inane conversation about the superpower standoff while people tried to comprehend the new reality.

“The only thing that could unite them was figuring out why they can’t kill each other anymore and what to do about it,” said Wegley.

“What dear?”

“Never mind.”

“I hate it when you do that, you know it makes me lose count, now I have to take out this whole row.”

“Do what?”

“Talk to me while I’m knitting.”

“But you are listening to the news…”

“Nobody listens to the news, dear. It’s just background noise until the weather comes on, and then they tell you everything you need to know with those little pictures for the upcoming days of the week.”

He got up, “Well, now that I have your attention, would you like some wine?”

“That would be nice.”

Wegley walked up to the sideboard. He squatted down and rummaged underneath to pull out a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion. He looked at the picture on the wall, a bright-eyed young man in full military dress. “Tonight would’ve been Christian’s 30th birthday.” He eased the cork out, poured two glasses, and put an ice cube in one. “I bought this bottle the day he was born.”

He turned around and handed her the glass with the ice cube. “I know,” she said, to which statement or both, it wasn’t clear. Silently, they toasted. Just then the doorbell rang. He raised his eyebrows, then turned and walked over to answer it. The cold fall wind blew in as soon as he opened it.

“Peter Wegley?”

“Who is asking?

“My name is Lieutenant Nano,” said a man in a leather trench coat with a holstered side arm belted over it. “Division of Patriotic Affairs.”

Wegley said nothing, merely held the door with one hand and his wine with the other.

“May I come in?”

“If that is a question, the answer is no. If it’s not a question, don’t pretend it is.”

“Peter, I have some questions for you.”

“What is your first name, Lt. Nano?”

“That is irrelevant.”

“In that case, you’d better call me Doctor Wegley.”

They held each other’s gazes for a while.

“Doctor, I need to come in.”

“About?”

“It’s come to our attention that you are a member of a pacifist organization.”

“And now that war is not possible, this is a crime?”

Nano lost all patience, he put his hand on the door and pushed his way in. Wegley sipped wine as the officer stopped in the entry way getting a bearing on his surroundings. “I must insist.”

“Peter! Shut that door, I’m going to catch my death of cold from that draft,” said Ellen.

Wegley tilted his head and gave a roll of his wrist to Nano as if to say, “Well, get on with it, man.” Nano shut the door. Wegley did not offer to take his coat, but turned and walked into the living room. “Dear, we have company. As he is somewhat of a boor, I will take him into the kitchen and not disturb your knitting.” Ellen registered her surprise with a lift of her eyebrows, and Wegley turned on his heel without stopping to see if Nano followed him. In the kitchen, he offered Nano a chair, and then sat on the adjoining side of the table rather than across from him. “What is this about?”

Nano appraised him for a moment, then took a long look around the kitchen. “Don’t be coy. We know you made the worm.”

Wegley sipped his wine. “Me? I’m a simple trade chemist. Barely made my doctorate. Bottom of my class, you know.”

“I do know, Doctor, and I know that is not true. I have it on good authority that you are a genius. Perhaps the genius of our age.”

Wegley waved away the compliment. “Even were that true…”

Nano reached into an interior pocket and pulled out a sheaf of folded documents. “We have these.” He put them on the table. Wegley glanced at them without reaching for them. “Confessions Doctor. We cracked your little ring of pacifists.” He smiled, “It’s not like they put up a fight.”

“I have no reason to believe a word you say, or to implicate myself in anything you are traipsing out here.”

“It was quite brilliant, wasn’t it? A collaboration of people, all of whom had lost loved ones to the War. What better band of zealots than those who have lost everything?” He pointed a finger at Wegley, “Ah, but you forgot one thing: people by nature are weak, are fools. Their hearts get broken and what does that make them want even more? Love. You thought it would strengthen them, but it does the opposite. We flipped them one-by-one, with love,” he chortled.

“No, you manipulated these people, whoever they are, with the illusion of love. Had you actually used love, you would be a pacifist, which we know you are not.” Wegley using a finger, pushed the papers around, noted a few signatures. “And so? What do you want from me?”

“Besides those, we have your notebooks, Doctor.” Wegley’s chin came up, pointed at Nano. “Of course we tore the lab apart. Then the club. But the grave. It took us a while to figure that out, we thought you were just the attentive gardener for the longest time, until we began ‘rooting around’ for ourselves. Very clever. We have your cohorts, we have your notes. It’s not so easy any more as pushing a button and sending your thoughts around the world. You are shut down.”

“First you kill him, then you defile him.”

“Me? I had nothing to do with killing your son.”

“You, and all of the bestial men like you. The warmongers. The powerful. The ones who expend the less fortunate as the wages of greed.”

“Sometimes you need war, like this war, a just war.”

“Idiot.”

Nano pulled back his coat to reveal his stun gun, “Be careful.”

“Ah, how could I forget, such idiocy is never found in the vacuum of hubris.”

Nano’s eyes blazed, but Wegley merely tilted his head to one side, as if watching a specimen in a zoo. Nano regained control.

“My hubris? Look what you have done, you have totally shifted the balance of power in the world.”

Wegley twirled the stem of his glass. “Restored it rather. Guns don’t enforce peace, they allow our most primitive urges to persist and flourish, by allowing the threat of violence from a distance.” He looked over the rim at Nano, “ They are the tools of cowards who would never otherwise consider resorting to violence.”

“I wear a stun gun, am I a coward? You pacifists, you are cowards. You won’t fight for anything.”

“You would not be in this house except for that gun and the implied threat of force. There are countries where men rule by consent, and not by force. You think pacifists are submissive victims and you want to control them. That’s not what a pacifist is. A pacifist believes that any answer is better than force. He is not a man who does not believe in fighting for what he believes in.”

“Look what has happened, the number of stabbings is up. You are okay with this brutality?”

“Well you don’t threaten a man from 30′ away and force him to your will with a knife, do you?” He began playing with a pen on the table with his free hand, “No, you have to be close enough to use it, and you have to be willing to do the work. Those men have always existed. Guns let a new type of man evolve. The depersonalized killer.“ He picked up the pen and pointed it at Nano, holding it by the point with thumb and forefinger. Then suddenly, he reached out and flicked Nano on the nose with it, returning to where he started before Nano could even flinch. Nano kicked back his chair and went for his gun. Wegley laughed at him. Nano froze with his hand on his holster flap. “Also, guns give you a false sense of strength. In actuality, they are a terrible form of self-defense. I could’ve easily driven this through your eye into the back of your brain and killed you just now.” He looked from the pen back to Nano. “Perhaps I should have. But the point is, just like I easily put you on your heels with a pen when you wield a superior weapon, by taking the initiative away from you, we have won without fighting. We don’t need guns, we don’t need force, we are using our higher humanity to defeat your barbarism.”

Nano was clearly furious at being bested. Wegley again seemed to ignore the danger signs. This time it was Nano who smiled.

“If you don’t care about yourself, how about your wife?”

Wegley knitted his brows, “What about her?”

“Clearly she is complicit. No man is involved in such gargantuan events without his wife knowing.”

Wegley laughed out loud, “You are free to interrogate her. She would not know what you are talking about. She has no idea what I do for work.” He went into the living room, refilled his wine. “Ellen, honey, what do I do for work?”

She gave an exasperated sigh, “I’m counting! I’m sure I don’t know what you do. Some government lab thing, I think. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, nothing, sorry to bother you.” He walked back into the kitchen and sat down.

“How is this possible?” asked Nano.

Wegley shrugged, “She never asked.” Nano stared at him, in disbelief.

Wegley held up his wine. “Do you know what this is?” Nano shook his head, but Wegley was not watching, “It’s Chateau Haut Brion. It was fifteen years old when I bought it. It’s 45 years old today. I bought it to drink with my son, before some other man’s son shot him. Old enough to go to war, two years shy of being old enough to drink. It is probably worth a year’s salary for many people, which is why I wouldn’t offer it to a pig like you.” He looked at Nano. “She puts ice cubes in it. This is the extent of our interaction.”

“What happened to her?”

“She wrapped herself in grief and got swallowed by mediocrity. You know, if you can’t rise above it, it becomes a habit.”

“What does she do now?”

“She counts. She looks at pictures. If you took her from me, you might be doing her favors.”

““You are a cold man.”

“Wegley was looking at his wine glass, twirling it in his fingers again. “You made me so.”

“We also have your mistress.”

Wegley stopped twirling. “So, you think that matters?” He looked up. “What has been done cannot be undone. The world has changed forever. The worm is unstoppable. It will never stop searching, and if it finds nothing will hibernate for millennia. Gunpowder is a lost cause.” He put his wine down and extended both wrists, “Just take me away.”

“It’s not so simple. The work is brilliant. Even our best minds can barely follow it. How were you able to do this and hide it from us?”

“Us?”

“You are a government employee.”

“Ah.” Wegley put his hands down and pick up his wine. “Well, as you are an apparent career man, I will tell you the trick to longevity in any profession: never exceed the imagination of your boss. As long as your work remains within the bounds of your boss’s understanding you will be ignored, left in peace to do your real work.”

“You finally admit it then!”

Wegley laughed. “I might as well, it makes no difference now.”

“What have you done? What monstrosity have you created?”

“In essence what I accomplished was simple. I merely cracked the code to program the genome, moving the bits of DNA and RNA around the way you would use a computer language to flip binary bits. It’s been done before. The virus in the comet, you think a virus evolves to attack a non-organic compound? Ludicrous. Life eats life. Nobody questions that, but if you do, you realize one thing: it was a weapon sent here specifically for one reason, to keep us earth-bound. Once I realized that it was manufactured, it was relatively easy to disassemble. Honestly, the engineering was a feat; but nothing compared to the distribution and inoculation. That took genius. I raise my glass to those people, even if you somehow eventually cracked it.”

“Yes, the genome programming. The ability to tailor-make new life forms and program them for a specific task. This is to the future what gunpowder was to the past. With such technology, we can transform this world and any other.”

Wegley put his glass down. “This is why you are here? To enlist me? You think men like you can be trusted with power like this?”

Nano put his hands together on the table. “We are good men. We have the best intentions. Our tools have always just been crude, imperfect. We see that now, you taught us that. If you are willing to apply this once, why not again? Why not be the man to control it? With your accomplices, we will have all the finest minds. Think of it. As you said, we are bested. This is your chance to truly change the world.”

“It’s been done before, you know. The virus in the comet, you think a virus evolves to attack a non-organic compound like silicon? Ludicrous. Life eats life. Nobody questioned that, but if you do, you realize one thing: it was a weapon sent here specifically for one reason, to keep us earth-bound. They took the initiative away. Once I realized that it was manufactured, it was relatively easy to disassemble and apply the principles. But we are not alone; out there, in the stars, are men who think like I do.”

Nano put both hands on the table and looked flat at him. “So, we had surmised, but to hear it directly from you.” He turned just his eyes to look at Wegley. “All the more reason we need you – to prepare for our place amongst the planets. A chance for all of mankind to come together for a common goal.”

A cold feeling ran down Wegley’s spine. He stood up and began to pace. “To be honest, I hadn’t counted on your extreme incompetence. I had not expected to survive this long. I had not dreamed of taking the research forward. I had not seen this, but it is true!” He stopped, put both of his hands on the back of his chair. “Yes! I will do it. What an opportunity, to work not against you, but with you. We truly have changed the world. Where once rulers coerced by fear, now they will see the light.”” He reached out his hand. Nano took it and they shook, looking eye-to-eye.

“I but need to pack a bag and make my excuses.” Nano nodded, and they broke the grip. Wegley spun excitedly on his heel and headed down the hall to his bedroom. Once there he opened his dresser drawer and called over his shoulder, “I’ll just be a moment, have yourself a glass of wine and we’ll celebrate!”

With shaking hands, he pulled a small cardboard box from his bureau drawer. Inside of that was the very glass box he had taken to Lisbon. He held it up to the light. Worms were crawling over the surface, a few were embedded in it, starting to bore through the glass. “Ah, my beauties, you have solved the glass problem. Not a minute to spare I see. Carefully he lifted the lid and pulled out a slim chrome-plated pistol, barely bigger than the palm of his hand. Yes, it took them much longer to find him than he had anticipated, he had almost run out of time. The fools. He had taken away one weapon, and given them their next war. He had changed the world, but not the men in it. He looked at his son’s picture on the top of the dresser. With his free hand, he clinked the wine glass against the frame. “To you, Son. Happy Birthday.” The cool gun was beginning to warm up in his hand.

 

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