's 2017 Horror Write-off:

Brothers in Rust pt. 4

Submitted by Kira M.

I stood in front of Lefty the Dōkai (a giant race of robotic worms that have achieved sentience because hey, why not?) with the shovel held in both hands, horizontally and straight out from my chest. Like always it was ice cold to the touch, never so cold that it outright hurt or made your hands numb but chilly enough that it'd steam in warmer weather. If weighed by itself on a scale it varied in weight from 500 lbs. to 3700 lbs. depending on what kind of mood it was in; if I stepped onto the scale holding it my weight only fluctuated by two pounds at most. Other than our grandmother Biddy Jewel, I've been the only person to ever successfully pick up the shovel and actually use it for anything other than breaking all the bones in your foot. Now I've been told that it's an incredibly powerful weapon only I can use; because it's magical or something stupid. That's a load of shit though. Sure it has some very unusual properties, but that doesn't make it magical.

"Remind me how I'm supposed to work this 'weapon' again if you'd be so kind? Because none of this is making any sense to me, Lefty." 

Lefty squirmed closer to me and cleared her throat or whatever she uses to speak.

"Ahem, well yes. The shovel is old world magical; so even though it's purely technological in construction it was designed to BE magical. That means the creator didn't really understand how the technology worked. In essence it should actually be easier to use than the gauntlet because it will respond to a wider range of commands and requests. It might not have a database, an operating system or any moving parts but I guarantee it's incredibly powerful. The thing is completely analog, it's like someone made a super computer from one inert chunk of metal." Lefty almost sounded wistful that they didn't make'm like this anymore. I'm still not sure how a 80 foot long worm as big a round as a city bus can program a computer or build armor, but I'll probably find out sooner or later.

"So, you're saying I should just command it to do whatever I want it too? Do I even need to say it out loud or would mentally thinking it work?" 

"Both work, yes. What are you so hesitant for, just try it out already. We're running on a fixed schedule." 

"Fine, fine... alright, hold on..." I held the shovel with the blade facing outwards as if I was pointing it at something and focused my mind. I pulled the blindfold down over my eyes, though Lefty said it was unnecessary and overly dramatic. Forget her. Focusing my mind. Focusing... Blackness. Now, see the shovel. Don't ask it, tell it. Command it. You will stretch to fifty feet long and be lighter than ever... then yo-"

"Uhh, Kay, keep hold of the shovel in one hand and take off the blindfold with the other. You should probably see this." Said Lefty. I did as instructed and lifted the blindfold off one eye, and right in front of me was the shovel with fifty extra feet just like I'd told it to do. 

"Oh oh, what do I do now?!" I squealed. "Whatever you want too, Kay!" 

"Where's Jay at? Tell him to get behind me real quick, I want to try something out." 

Lefty shouted for Jay. He and Tiny appeared from behind the huge black boulder. Jay looked at the shovel then up at me and smiled. 

"So it works, huh?" He grinned and quickly trotted over and in back of me. 

"Okay, is everyone behind me? Even worms?"

"Yup. Go for it!"

I threw off the blindfold and left my eyes open. Once again I focused my mind. 'Shovel, you are long and nearly weightless. Your entire length will now become flattened, so thin you can nearly read through it. You will now have have an edge like a sword. I don't just want you to be sharp, you will be the sharpest thing to ever exist, no material will stop or slow you down. You will slice through steel as easily as you slice through the air or through water. Now, I command you to bite... ' 

The handle of the shovel was flat and so thin I could see the sand on the other side, but the section I gripped remained round, just like a sword. I took sight of the obsidian boulder and carefully drew the huge fifty foot sword back like a baseball bat, and gave the big rock a wicked swing. Unfortunately the last part of my order, "bite", seemed to be taken more literally than I had anticipated, because the next thing that happened was a gigantic silver and black mouth, long like the snout of a crocodile and full of ten inch long fangs crashed into the rock. Every ounce of fury the mouth could muster was channeled into biting the boulder, and the teeth passed through as if it was made of sourdough. After twenty terrifying seconds the rabid snout relented, spat out a chunk of rock, and swirled itself towards me then melted back into the normal shaped shovel. 

Hundreds of holes big enough to put your fist into were all that remained as evidence. Jaws like that hadn't existed since the dinosaurs and even then it had looked more like an angry mutant Venus flytrap than an animal. Carefully, I bent down and placed the shovel in the sand and backed away while never taking my eyes off it. 

Why now? I couldn't even begin to estimate the number of times I had picked the shovel up without thinking and carelessly tossed it around; why did it suddenly choose this moment to reveal itself, why not when I'd messed about with it with the Chase? So many times I've used it without thinking. I never thought of it as anything more than a shovel; I used it to stir the coals in the fire place or to pry thistles out of the garden. All of this time it'd been waiting patiently, as if it knew. Had Biddy Jewel known? She must've known something about it, after all it was a family heirloom. It had been passed down to me by Jewel herself...

It was after our father had brought my brother and I to visit her one morning when I was just eight and Jay was four or five. Being a child I had wondered around her cottage and into her bedroom looking for nothing in particular, and as I started walking out I saw the shovel in the corner behind her door. It's many runes, sigils and magical circles had started glowing red while the surface of it seemed to ebb and flow, creating intricate swirling eddies like molten black gallium. Any sensible child would've ran and cried at the sight of the demonic digging device; so it's probably very telling that I didn't hesitate for a moment to pick it up with all the caution of a toddler grabbing a cobra. 

Since I was a very curious child I promptly dragged the shovel into the kitchen where Dad and Jewel sat at the table drinking coffee. I remember lifting it up and innocently asking why grandma's shovel glowed, and saw the stunned face of my father and a tiny grin plastered on Jewel's face. She took a sip of coffee and being a woman of few words simply said "It's yours now. Don't ever get rid of it or loose it, not like you'll be able too though. Thing always seems to come back. Use it wisely, boy." then she shot me another little smile. 

Dad didn't talk the whole walk home. He must've realized there wasn't anything he could say or do now, it had chosen me and would've just become a useless unmovable shovel to Biddy Jewel from then on. Occasionally, Dad would preform experiments on it with my help since he couldn't manipulate it. He never once said thank you but he always asked my permission to test it. Some eight years later Biddy Jewel passed away silently in her sleep. Inside a small trunk underneath her bed were what she referred to as her 'real' possessions; there was only a small music box, a bag with some rare stones, a chunk of gold, a few dozen photographs, three large books, a revolver, a big ancient skeleton key, and a stack of envelopes bound with twine and sealed with black wax. Right on top of the stack in bright red letters was an envelope simply addressed to Kay. I remember opening it extremely carefully because Biddy was an alchemist by trade, and she had a habit of reusing paper that occasionally exploded.

Thankfully, it didn't. The letter read:

"Make sure these letters get to the folks they're meant for. Most of em will be easy, I've got the best idea of their addresses listed on the envelope. Give them to your daddy he'll take care of them hard ones. Kay, you're the only person I'm telling to who gets what. I'll let em know in their letters, but you're to make sure they get it. I'm leaving you my revolver and the book in my trunk titled "Alchemical Journal". I wrote it myself. Has a bunch of recipes and stuff but you ain't to try them ones in the back till you're older. Your brother is to get the big key and the book titled "Fighting To Win" about making and using weapons and your hands. Your dad gets the gold and the stones plus the pictures and that last book, he's to take that gold and the gems and use em to pay to take me back home, and bury me at the three locks cemetery. There's a headstone up near the top of the hill that looks like a big black cube and a giant set of granite doors. I paid for it a long time ago, that'd be by burial plot. Bury me there with my music box in my hands. He can use the rest of the money how he wants, there should be plenty left. As fur the house, well, sell it or something. Same goes for the belongings. I'm dead. Don't matter much to me. Except for the television looking thing in the basement, take that home and lock it up. Never did need much... Use that shovel wisely, boy. Anytime you come near the three locks your to bring it with you. Be good, look after yourself and everyone else. Love, your Biddy. Ps I ain't joking about that shovel. And tell Jay same goes for that key. I'll tell em in his letter I guess." 

We did what her letters said, except for selling all of her stuff. I took home most of her alchemy tools and the bizarre contraptions she'd pieced together over the years. I took special care with the television thing. Last I heard her cottage is a bakery nowadays, though occasionally some of the shortbread cookies will argue with you and on full moons the oven speaks in demonic tongues. It's due to the alchemical residue... we think. 

Suddenly I was back here in the desert of the Dread Shores, standing next to the worms and my brother who all stared at the shovel and then back at me. 

"When will the other worms get here?" I asked.

"Forty five minutes at most. Do you have a plan?" Asked Lefty.

"No, not really. I figured you might..." I said meekly.

"Wait wait wait... why exactly do we even need to do this? You guys don't even know what those people are building. Why do we need to destroy it?" Jay asked.

"Actually we had no intention of destroying it, we were just going to let it come and go as we always have. Many have attempted to conquer and tame this land, and millions have died from such hubris. Only the Abysmal Knights have ever succeed, but they worshipped the very things the others tried to change... Do you believe they, these humans, are dangerous to us?" Asked Righty.

"Let's put it this way: they're mercenaries and government goons to me and Kay. To you guys they're like a sentient disease. They breed and they die, but they also learn. They'll start weak but eventually become titans. If they take an interest in something like building a huge tower in the Dread Shores, no good can come of it... What we need is an inside man, someone who's familiar with it..." Jay rubbed the stubble on his chin.

"How hard would it be to 'borrow' one of those workers? Would you be able to grab one without hurting them too much and bring them back here to us?" 

"Oh, for sure, not hard at all. Why, is that what you think we should do?" 

"Yeah, I think that's our best move for the moment. Lefty, can you grab one of the workers?" 

"Sure can. Oh! I hear a suitable target now. I'll be back in a few minutes." 

Behind a dune and off in the distance a convoy of vehicles could barely be seen, and hadn't been noticed until the worm said something about it... Odd.

Before a formal plan could be reached though, Lefty's body segments started to spin in opposite directions while small points of metal emerged from between them. We watched as the huge worm's mouth parts whirled into life, and in a split second the eighty foot beast had neatly burrowed into the sand. Beneath our feet a rumbling could be felt as the worm shot off at an incredible speed towards a now barely visible convoy of dune buggies and dirt bikes some twelve miles away, who were racing towards the Rift boundary. For several minutes we watched in silence as the convoy inched closer to the edge of the Rift. Soon the underground rumbling disappeared. Jay took two cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and handed one to me, and lit them. Blue tobacco smoke lingered endlessly without any moving air, shuffling weird shapes and patterns as it drifted away and upwards, probably forever. Wind is only a conceptual idea in the Dread Shores. 

"You think this will work, man?" I took a long drag from the ragged cigarette and exhaled through my nose. Jay stared off into the distance, watching the cavalcade of vehicles in the same way an owl watches a vole. 

"It has too. I mean, technically we don't have no reason to help these worms... but we can't just stand around and let those freaks fuck this place up. Make no mistake, they're fucking this land up. I don't know how or why, but I can feel it. Besides, it's the right thing to do, we'd do it for our people. It's what Dad and Jewel would've done... can't ever make too many friends and allies in this world you kn- OH SHIT LOOK!" 

With a trembling finger Jay pointed at the convoy. Trailing behind them at a short distance the dune buggies and dirt bikes were being stalked by a huge underground tunnel, racing towards them at a phenomenal speed. Plumes of black sand rooster tailed from the very front of the quickly approaching mole of doom. Even from this distance the panicked screams of the leader could be heard shouting over a megaphone to turn off all the engines and stop. The boss man and leaders are always easy to spot. Mercenaries and gangs tend to follow a similar hierarchy to hyenas or elephant seals; the biggest, strongest and most aggressive pack member takes charge. On a similar note, in the natural world a bull elephant occasionally goes through a time called a musth where they produce up to sixty times the regular amount of testosterone, sending them into a murderous frenzy; and they attack everything from other elephants to suspiciously masculine trees and shrubs. 

So, take a seven foot tall steroid abusing bodybuilder, inject them with methamphetamine and PCP hourly, rewire their brains with Pavlovian techniques to associate pain, fear and suffering with pleasure. Then teach them to use improvised weapons like hammers or an opponent's severed arm plus a variety of machine guns like the Mark 48, M60 and H&K MP5K. Mix all those ingredients together and eventually you'll have a babbling lunatic or a mercenary leader; and they're not mutually exclusive. The weird masks, helmets and bondage gear they wear tend to develop naturally after a while. I have a theory that it's like a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and tree. 

Jay shouldered his rifle and peered through the scope while I fumble with my pack and quickly find my binoculars. Righty and Tiny looked at us with something akin to fascination, but we paid no attention to them. Several of the marauders abandoned their dirt bikes and tiptoed across the sand onto the higher ground of the buggies. Ancient sputtering diesel engines were shut off. Then, like any quasi-military squad worth their salt, they all effortlessly switched from barking orders to a complicated series of hand signals. Their boss man motioned towards the two other dune buggies that flanked him on either side. The riders quietly stood up and made their way to the large machine guns mounted to the backs of the buggies. Boss man bent down to a large metal case and pulled out a stinger missile like the one we'd seen earlier, all without ever taking his eyes off the horizon. Lefty had apparently dove down deeper; barely visible was a slight rising and falling of sand that continuously ringed the fleet of vehicles, a terrible metal shark circling around its squishy prey. Through the binoculars I could just barely see a scrawny man desperately clutching an odd shaped briefcase and a pistol. 

"Jay! Do you see him?" 

"Hm? Who?" He said with his signature bobbing cigarette.

"The skinny guy cowering next to the boss man. Here, use my binoculars." I handed them to him. Jay lowered the rifle and squinted through the thick glass lenses of the binoculars while breathing slowly. He scanned for a few quick moments then grinned from one corner of his mouth.

"Well well well well well... Kay, I do believe you've found our golden goose. Do you have the feeling, like the dice rolling gut feeling about it?"

"Yeah... that's their weakest member. Like, why is he being protected or even with them? Gotta be important. Brains important. I wanna roll them dice..."

"Tiny, uh can you remotely send like a message to Lefty?" Hollered Jay. The little metal worm nodded and enthusiastically whirled her drill. "What do you need me to say to Lefty?" She asked.

"Tell'er that we need to grab the skinny guy in the orange dune buggy. He's got a white coat on and is holding a briefcase. We need him alive so don't hurt him."

"What should be done with the other humans?" 

Jay took one last drag from his cigarette and snubbed it out on the heel of his boot and shrugged. "Kill em all, I guess. No use to us." He said flatly.

I'd been expecting that response, yet it still gave me a little jolt in the pit of my stomach. People describe the feeling of their stomach dropping in lots of poetic ways, usually involving butterflies or birds; it's a natural response to sudden anxiety or surprise. Your stomach contains neurons just like in your brain, and these can release neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. If you're extremely familiar with anxiety and fear like myself, you'll come to recognize that their are actually two different types of stomach drops: the aforementioned stomach drop butterflies and the much more intense sensation that originates from your kidneys. Specifically it's the adrenal glands above your kidneys squirting out their hormones. Fight or flight. It's a nugatory bit of information but when you read a lot of books and are scared as often as I am, knowledge like this can be comfortable. I felt my adrenal glands preparing for fighting...

Lefty and Righty have the same mouth / drill structure; a three coned grinding bit that looks identical to an oil well drill designed by Beelzebub on a weeklong ketamine binge. Tiny's drill, which comprised most of her head, looked more like a long sheet metal drill or an auger. It was surreally cartoonish looking and combined with her lack of coordination made her adorable, in a anthropomorphic drilling robot worm sort of way. With a clanking sound her drill bit suddenly extended out till five feet long, making her so top heavy she swayed like a bar crowd after last call. Plunging the drill and therefore her face deep into the sand, Jay and I watched her in fascination as a dozen thin brass wires snaked from between her body segments and into the ground and became taut. Her drill buzzed, clicked and hummed through the sand while the wires vibrated like plucked guitar strings. Seeing a sentient life form communicate in such an alien way; that they've built a language by using low frequency tonal vibrations through sand instead of air made me feel so small. It was one of the most humbling moments of my entire life. Of course, it was communicating orders to kill other humans because we told it too. Either way it was a monumental experience. She suddenly went quiet for a few moments before we heard this:

* click...beep*

She unclamped herself from the ground and retracted most of the confusingly phallic drill, along with rolling the wires back into place. Her mandibles wiggled together as if yawning, then she gently slithered herself right next to me. Thirty uncomfortable seconds later Jay cleared his throat and asked what the news was. 

"Oh, OH! Of course, the news. So sorry. The message was successfully sent. Lefty is trying to figure out how to grab the guy safely; she's worried that he may get hit in some of the ensuing crossfire. You fellas might as well take a seat, relax and watch the show. This will be a first for our species, I've only ever heard of humans participating in unprovoked massacres. I want to see this with my own eyes..." 

"Aren't you blind or something though?" Now suspicious since they'd all gone into great detail about it earlier. 

"We're born with them, but as we age and grow our eyes disappear naturally. They just sort of plop off eventually if you don't use them much." She tilted her head and shimmed back and forth like a swimmer trying to get water out of their ear. Some hydraulic tubes inside her body buzzed in protest and with two quick puffs of compressed air a pair of smoldering pink eyes glared straight through me. Her eyes sparkled like multifaceted gemstones, and it took me a moment to realize it was because that's exactly what they were. 

"Are... are they real eyes or l-like camera lenses?" I stammered.

"Is there a difference between the two?" She rhetorical asked.

The three of us sat down against the now tooth mark covered black boulder and silently watched the distant group of vehicles awaiting their doom. Jay mindlessly rolled a couple cigarettes to pass the time, while I dug my hands through the cold sand and sighed. All twenty odd feet of Tiny was coiled beneath herself, jeweled eyes occasionally shifted in their sockets with a soft tinkling sound. For the first time in my life I find this silence to be an awkward one. Unfamiliar urges to fill the air with trivial jabbering welled up inside me.

"Hey uh, Tiny, do you know what those things are?" I nudged her and pointed to one of the basketball sized green crystals near my foot that'd broken off the boulder earlier. She nodded yes.

"Don't touch them. Though if you do, wash your hands afterwards... actually you two probably shouldn't even be near all these. But, yes, I know what they are." She said. I kept looking at her as if she were about to continue talking, but she turned away and resumed watching the cars. I sighed.

"Ugh, Tiny, he wanted you to explain what they are to him, you ding dong. He's making small talk for some reason..." Jay growled and lit a cigarette. I blushed a bit. Jay looked up at the worm and narrowed his eyes.

"... Wait... Why shouldn't we touch em?" He said with new found suspicion of the worm.

"Ah, I see. My apologies. The majority of these crystals are Torbernite, although the one by Kay's foot is actually Uranocircite. They're mineral compounds of Uranium. You shouldn't touch them because they're extremely radioactive." 

"Jesus Christ! There has to be hundreds of pounds of it just laying around us!" I began digging through my backpack for the chunks I'd picked up earlier, then flung them as far away as possible. I gave the one by my foot a cautious kick. 

"Relax, you'd have to sleep on a pile of it for a month for it to be hazardous." She said so with the reassurance of creature who doesn't have to worry about their DNA being ripped apart by magic cancer rocks. Suddenly there was a great booming sound and the three of us watched as Lefty rocketed from out of the ground. The great platinum worm reared its massive head and towered above the convoy. With so many automatic weapons firing at once, the noise was little more than a continuous *BRRT* sometimes punctuated with the tings from ricocheted bullets. With a surprising swiftness, Lefty crawled forward and raised her massive tail section, brought it down on top of the dune buggy then quickly crushed the other as well. The orange buggy was now open and without support. Ever the sore looser the boss man decided to fire his Stinger missile at Lefty. The missile rose up high into the air before rapidly smashing into the worm. It exploded and to our disbelief, Lefty swayed back and forth before she crashed into the sand. She let out a rumbling low pitched moan as thick black smoke billowed from her mouth and wound. 

"No! We have to help her, come on!" I got up, but before I could run Tiny's tail had whipped out and coiled around my leg.

"Hold on, just watch. This'll be funny." 

Confused, I looked back up at the distant smoldering worm. The boss man was doing some well deserved gloating as the first human to ever fight and then kill a worm, so he naturally hopped out onto the sand and marched over to the once mighty beast. He inspected it for several minutes, even kicking it a couple of times before he came up to the worm's head. He called out to the weak sheepish man he'd been protecting, who dug around the buggy and grabbed a huge black camera. The brave warrior posed next the monster's gaping maw, while the sheep man stood to the side and snapped a dozen or so pictures. As the noble hero posed for one more photo in which he was humbly kissing his biceps, there was a shrill ear piercing screech as Lefty's mouth parts quickly went from grey, to orange, then red and finally white. Golden sparks poured out as a gigantic beam of neon blue light erupted from her mouth, traveling well past and over the horizon for hundreds of miles. Then silence... There was no boss man left to bury, as even his ashes had burnt; a huge trench of glowing molten sand scarred the ground as far as the eye could see.

"See? Told you it'd be funny!" Tiny giggled like a school girl. We watched as the sheep man started to slowly back away from the horror movie he'd accidentally walked into. Lefty raised her behemoth head up and crawled over to him; a thick black cable appeared from her mouth and it slithered over and into the dune buggy where it grabbed the bag he'd been clutching, and delicately placed it in his arms. Lefty then opened her three part mouth, burgeoning like a metal lotus. She then suddenly swallowed up the man, crushed the orange buggy with her tail, jumped high into the air and dived back into the sand. Several minutes later the ground trembled as Lefty crawled up and out from a sandy whirlpool a few hundred feet away from us.

Lefty released the sheep man from her gullet with all the grace of a dog hacking up a ham bone it'd dug out of the trash. He rolled across the ground and quickly stood up. Clenching the briefcase to his chest he glared at us. He had stringy red hair, the complexion of a cave creature and thick coke bottle glasses that looked too big for his face. Despite the pleasantly low temperature of the Dread Shores the man was sweating profusely and the white lab coat he wore clung to his damp skin. 

"What's in the briefcase, buddy?" Jay asked and grinned like a rusted saw blade. 

"It-it isn't any of your business. You dumbasses are going to be in a lot of trouble when they realize I'm gone!" The man's voice cracked as he yelled and backed away. Tiny wiggled across the sand and in between my legs, nearly knocking me over, and then reared herself up to eye level with the stranger. Pink eyes examined him like a lab experiment, and she spit out her drill stopping it less than an inch from his face. 

"You will not raise your voice again. You will open the briefcase and show us the contents. You will yield to me or be lobotomized. Now, tell us your name, please?" She cooed. Instantly the man's posture relaxed as he sighed and sat down in the sand; Jay and I walked over to him and did the same.

"Cigarette?" Jay mumbled at the man.

"Uh, sure. Thanks. I'm Kyle." 

"My name is Jay and the fat one is my brother Kay. That metal worm is Tiny, the bigger ones were Lefty and Righty. I'm not sure where they went off too..." 

Kyle fumbled with the cigarette while stealing glances of the shovel. He wordlessly unlocked the briefcase and turned it around for us to look into. There was some paperwork, a radio and a strange glass and metal tube the same size and shape as a soda can. It resembled a large fuse with a transparent middle section that held a glowing purple orb the size of a golf ball. The entire contraption was secured in place with foam. Tiny laid down behind me, and I rested my back against her. 

"It's a reactor cell, like an engine or battery. It's my own design."

"So what's it for then?" I asked. Kyle turned around and pointed to the white tower off in the distance. 

"It's for that machine they've been building here inside this Rift. They asked me, well, more told me at gun point, to design the new power supplies for them..."

"If you're supplying the batteries then you must know what the machine is, right?" 

Kyle shook his head. "No, they never said what they're going to use it for. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it's some type of teleportation device. They call it a Weaver. They shipped in a lot of stuff, but it's mostly built from things that were already here. Scavenged worms and such." 

"Is it well guarded or what's the security like for it?" Jay asked, ever the plotting type.

"Actually no, those people I was with were the only ones who guard it. There's still one person left besides me, but I doubt he'd be much of an obstacle. I forget his name, he's really weird though. There might be automated turrets, no idea if they ever got them up and running however. The Weaver is finished and hardly anyone ever comes out here now, just a skeleton crew to maintain it. They're dead now though... you guys saw to that."

"This might sound stupid, but I think we should just walk right up there and see what's going on." Jay said. Everyone sat in stunned silence. 

"I think you're right." Giving him a nod in agreement.

"You do?!" Jay said astonished.

"Yup, I think that sounds really goddamn stupid. Literally the stupidest thing I've ever heard. In fact, we should paint targets on ourselves. Or better yet, we'll just cut out the middle man and preform seppuku, pun intended." 

Jay furrowed his brow. "What's a seppuku?"

"It's a type of sandwich, Jay."

"Oh... We don't have any bread though..."

"It's ritual disembowelment, Jay. Suicide. Because that's fucking dumb. We don't need to get involved with this! We've spent a lot of time here already, and honestly the worms don't seem too worried about the thing. So why should we? It's not our problem." 

"We ain't leaving till we investigate. It's the right thing to do. Plus this could quickly turn into our problem, it's not very far from home. I can't be having my citizens in possible danger." Jay said. He crossed his arms and huffed.

"Ohhhh!" I moaned in a regal accent. "Of course, Lord Jay The Dunderheaded wishes only what's best for his kingdom! How very much and super dupery exquisitely patriarchal of you, your Jackass Jayness! A bully plan! Christ sakes. The only way it'll turn into our problem is by going there and making it our problem. So, I say we leave."

"What, and leave your sweet heart behind?" Jay said mockingly. "Figures the first woman you ever get a crush on is a mechanical worm. Did you hear that, Tiny? He's going to leave you behind!" 

In a flash of rage I threw a fist sized chunk of the radioactive ore at him, which audibly thumped off his shin. And just like that, we began tumbling around in the sand exchanging punches. Mostly it was Jay punching me with the arm not currently occupied by the death glove, and me laughing at him manically. Sure, I got in two solid hits but laughing hurt Jay in a way only a brother would know about. It stung more deeply than any bruise could, because I was laughing at him; whenever he couldn't solve something with his limited vocabulary and dormant neurons, he decided to beat a challenge into submission, yet he knew he couldn't. Not with me. He could fight and avoid it all he wanted, but I was still the older brother, the one who'd never missed an opportunity to slap the back of young Jay's head when he screwed up or laughed at him when he couldn't read as well as I could; in my heart I knew laughing was more cruel than anything Jay could ever do, apart from outright killing me. After two minutes of frantic tussling, we'd both become out of breath and simply stared hollowly at each other.

There was no handshake, no verbal acknowledgement or anything resembling an agreement or truce; there didn't need to be one. It was over and we'd gotten it out of our systems, which was better than silently fuming over shit because that's how people grow to hate each other. If you don't resolve things by physically fighting sometimes, it'd only get worse. An unspoken agreement had been reached and it was declared that we are both fucking stupid people who say and do hurtful things to each other so let's not mention this again and move on. Often times if people would simply punch one another and then shut the fuck up about it forever, the world would be a better place. Kyle had been watching us wide eyed like a man who'd never been in a fight before, half expecting us to turn our anger on him. 

It was, unfortunately, true what Jay had said though. I'm not entirely proud of it, but yeah, I like Tiny. She's nice, knowledgeable and friendly and she's assertive. I don't care if she's a robot or that she doesn't look like a human woman in anyway shape or form. To be perfectly honest, I can't describe exactly why I even like her, it's not like I was skirt chasing or anything. She's just... so different in every conceivable way, but her mind is completely familiar. See, this is why I don't examine this particular part of myself too often, because whenever I pry the lid loose and peak inside I'm suddenly pinned to the ground by a long neglected monster called Libido the Hungry. I looked over at Tiny and limply lowered my head when she met my gaze. There was certainly a very strange and awkward conversation in the very immediate future. 

"Right, so I guess we'll go with what Jay wants to do, since technically we followed my plan last time. You guys weren't there but it was actually just as stupid as this." I stood up and brushed some nonexistent dirt from my shorts, but quickly lost my balance from the thunderous shaking of the ground. I counted sixteen geysers of black sand, and watched as the biggest moving creatures or objects I'd ever seen came into sight. Their scale was like nothing I could put into words, their size is simply so astronomical it boggles the mind; it's like seeing something impossible move around, like watching a mountain range slide up next to you for a chat about the weather. I gestured for Tiny, who glided over to me.

"Can you please tell them that we're going to go check out the tower? We're sorry we bothered them. But we'll make sure they stop making all the noise." 

"Hey old timers, did you hear him?" She shouted. In a chorus of voices so deep it'd make you shit yourself and turn your bones around in fear, they said "YES..."

"There. I told them..." she sighed.

"Are you mad at me?"

"What? No. Well. More like confused. We can talk about it later."

"Sounds perfect to me. Can one of the bigger ones give us a lift to the tower?"

And so we were gulped up like a certain Bible man and a particularly large fish that was more likely a mammal, and traveled very quickly to the tower. Inside the worm it was rather nice, but since it was one of the bigger ones (I hadn't caught their name or size, but it was like being inside a stadium.) we got there within a minute or two. They carefully barfed us back onto the sand and sat lifelessly while we walked towards the Weaver. I held the shovel on my shoulder as we walked right up to the main entrance. A gargantuan white door slid open, and Jay, Kyle, Tiny and myself walked through it and onto a huge elevator platform. Some long catatonic mechanisms joyfully whirled into action and we started the long ascent to the top. The tower was hollow inside except for what appeared to be alarmingly large amounts of circuit boards, computer chips and ancient servers all hastily wired together with a crisscrossing patchwork of cables. It was also extremely cold, like a walking into a freezer. 

"Everything here was built from the scraps of things we found. It's a massive super computer. Kept cold to optimize performance. Now, on one of these levels we're going past there should be at least one automated turret system. Like I said before, I don't think it was ever functioning. If it is, I doubt it'll bother us, never has before. Not me at least. Never got the proper facial recognition software anyw-" 


Kyle's head had been changed from a decent looking man in his late twenties into a fine red mist with a spattering of brain, crunchy skull bits and gooey nougat of shattered sinus cavity. Above us, a device cobbled together from old security cameras and a 50 caliber rifle scanned for more interesting things to pop. Jay growled and the gauntlet shot a hundred feet up and ripped the turret from its platform, and brought it back down to us as we rapidly passed where it'd been mounted. The body formerly known as Kyle bled profusely from the mangled crater of hair and teeth that had been a face, its hands still gripped his briefcase with white knuckles. Jay shook it free and checked the corpse for anything valuable in its pockets, then grabbed its wrist mimicking the way you'd check someone's pulse.

"He's dead, Jim..." We exchanged looks and both doubled over in laughter, then I helped him push the body off the platform. 

"Au revoir, voyageur équitable!"

"I don't get it, who's Jim?" 

"Oh, it's from an old television program that our town used to watch. Our father had been poking around and found a projector and the film reels in some underground archive one day when he was young, and its kinda the only pre-test entertainment we had. There was a doctor who frequently stated the obvious, and it was just funny. I guess it's not really that funny, but we watched those things hundreds of times. It's hard to explain." 

"I think... one day I'd like to see this program. Watch it with you, I mean." She said it like she was still working out the idea of entertainment, especially from terrible medical advice.

"Okay, yeah we can do that. I've still got all the stuff in storage. Sounds like a date." Jay shot me a raised eyebrow but I glared at him. 

"Man, it's been years since we've seen those, Kay. I forget how much I loved watching them with Dad and Jewel." The platform slowed and shuttered to a halt. Thirty feet in front of us was a small yellow door. Above us hundreds of pipes and wires led to the door. A single halogen light tinkled softly and swayed in the brisk air. Jay cocked the rifle and shouldered it, while I held the shovel. We walked forward and took a collective breath, then kicked the door open and rushed in.

What we found was just plain confusing. The room was violently white, round and mostly empty except for a large white chair or throne, on which a scrawny bearded man sat looking very bored. His head was crowned by a obscenely huge hat like the kind ancient religious men, popes I think, used to wear. Except it was mechanical and some forty feet high, and delicately attached to the ceiling. Wires hung loosely from it while various lights blinked and exhaust vents wheezed. It took him a moment to realize there was a man pointing a rifle at him. He suddenly grinned and got up, along with the giant hat that was seemingly attached to his head permanently. Some support mechanisms above us groaned as it shifted the structure around the room. He had some type of orange goggles on and there were various tubes coming out or into him; later I determined he had a feeding tube directly implanted into his abdomen as well as 'waste disposal' tubes.

"Welcome! Welcome! What brings us these fine visitors today? A man with a cannon, a man with trowel and worm with a drill! My, what an eclectic group of individuals! Marvelous! I'd offer you some tea, but I'm afraid that the genus Camellia hasn't become commercially available in this particular place yet. Lack of rainfall and sunlight seems to really be the problem. Anyway, what can I do for you?" The man was uncomfortably chipper. 

"...Rrright, well, we came to see what this place is, I guess?" I vaguely gestured to the tower as a whole.

The man nodded thoughtfully as if agreeing that indeed, that was an incredibly important question. 

"Mhm, I can see how this place would evoke curiosity in minds inclined to be afraid of unusual or new things. Humans in a nutshell, I suppose. I'm glad you came to me with your concerns. Let's see... how best to describe it. Well, I am currently hooked up to this very large computer and sifting through the information locked away in the long dormant brains of the bigger worms like your friend there. I am also using the computing power to formulate the best solution for our now intertwined universes, with something that'd benefit all occupants of the post Test World. By some rough calculations I should have an answer or solution in the next five years. My human body presents certain... practicality issues that mean the process isn't optimized. One of the many limitations to having a processing unit made of meat that's reliant on chemical communication instead of purely electrical three dimensional circuits."

"What's he going on about? I can only understand like every other word." Jay whispered into my ear.

"Not quite sure... seems to be some kind of literal thinking cap. Ahem. So uh, this place isn't a weird weapon or something terrible like that?" 

"Heavens no!" He seemed genuinely shocked by the very idea.

"What was that burst of light that fires off from this place then? That seems like something a weapon would do." Jay said.

"Ah, yes, that... I can understand your point. However, that isn't meant to be harmful. Granted if you got in the path of it you'd very likely cease to exist, but it's unfortunately a vital part of the Weaver's operational status. The fuel cells tend to overheat, and to avoid going supercritical and having a catastrophic meltdown, they must occasionally be vented to discharge the excess amounts of heat and unused radioactive energy. Easiest way to do that is by firing it off and into the upper atmosphere as a beam of ionized thermal gases. Plasma. I wish there was a way to save the energy as it's literally a waste, but without traditional methods of coolant this is the best option. If only this land was as rich with lithium as it is radioactive isotopes, then we could build some form of high capacity batteries. Say, you folks wouldn't happen to have any super-capacitors, would you?" He looked at us hopefully. We shook our heads no.

"Silly request. Just as well, I suppose! So, that's about the long and short of it. Nothing overtly sinister, just attempting to bandage our fractured worlds. If there is anything I... Oh my... what's this... Did you know that my maintenance crew was recently murdered? What a shame, they were mentally unstable lads but reliable. Would you happen to know anything about this? It's simply awful!" 

"Yeah, they were scum so we killed em." Jay said coldly. 

My stomach dropped... then it took its pants off and fucked gravity on the first date; because Newtonian physics seeks male approval by being sexually promiscuous because her father String Theory said she was irrelevant a long time ago. Of course, a female scientific theory who's liberated herself from the sexually repressive heel of the patriarchal hypocrisy and standardized gender discrimination will say she has no obligation to live by outdated and repressive views; frankly she should be able to fuck who and what she wants without judgement... What were we talking about again?

Oh, right. How Jay put his foot into his mouth so thoroughly that it should be surgically grafted onto his tongue. Because he's stupider than, well... I can't think of anything that's as stupid as he is without it being derogatory by comparing Jay to them; maybe a pumpkin or like a sunflower. He's dumber than a lot of plants. I instantly rubbed the bridge of my nose beneath my glasses and sighed heavily. 

"You... three killed m-my crew? B-but why?! I don't even know who you are!" The man slumped against his throne, removed the goggles and started to weep. Without drawing too much attention I grabbed Jay's ear and hissed into the side of his face, hoping to god that there was some kind of brain listening.

"You stupid. Piece. Of shit. Are you fucking serious? Why would you say that?! What part of making enemies with the guy literally connected to the largest nuclear reactor ever constructed seemed like a good idea? Is there like, a fucking learning disability that prevents you from having good ideas?"

"You JUST said earlier that being honest is always the best option!"

"I think... the best thing to do would be if you three j-just leave, okay? I have to think about some stuff... It was a great pleasure to meet you..." The man pointed at the door without looking up at us. We sat Kyle's briefcase down on the floor and slowly walked out and onto the elevator. We descended the Weaver tower in absolute silence except for Tiny's odd occasional mechanical noises, and hurriedly walked outside. Jay had a great thought for once and decided to stand about 150 feet from me. 

"That certainly was... something." She said.

"I apologize for... whatever the hell that was. I don't think this guy or the tower is any real threat though. He genuinely seems to be working towards a solution that'd benefit everyone. It seems unusual that it might be government related, but I guess it can't all be bad. I'm just going to ask you straight up, do you think you'd want to travel with us? It won't all be terrible like that. I'd really like it if you came. And it's not like we're going that far away, it's only 40 miles or so away. You'd be gone for maybe a month but we're coming back the same way..." 

"My presence seems too... complicate things. But if you're coming home through here, I'll join you then. I'd like to see and spend more time with you, I really do. So don't think I'm trying to ditch you. I promise you that I'll be waiting on your return." 

I was honestly hoping she'd say no, if only because I know the coming journey was going to be shit. I outstretched my arms and slowly embraced the cold metal worm, who despite all preconceived notions of what love could be, I was feeling things generally reserved for humans for a piece of sentient drilling equipment. One of the big worms carried us all to the western edge of the Dread Shores. I hugged Tiny tightly one last time, and she gave me something akin to a smile. 

"Here, take this." A tube snaked from her mouth and gently slid a needle into the back of my right hand. "It's a ELF wave transceiver. If you hold the shovel and point it towards the east, we should be able to communicate back and forth with each other." I gave her a tiny kiss between her gemstone eyes and told her I'd be back soon, and then my brother and I continued our journey west.

 It took all of my strength not to look back...