Inside the worm is a hard place to be.
I should know, I had been in there for four days already when I got company. Luckily the worm had swallowed my whole camp — tent, rations, portable library, everything. But, of course, it wasn’t luck.
No, it was all part of the plan.
I was right where I wanted to be. Some people find that hard to believe when I tell them my method. But, then, this life isn’t for everyone. The risk is too much for them, the chance of failure. Bah, the only things worth doing are the ones with risk attached. Then again, everything is risky. Doing nothing carries its own threats.
I’d rather choose the battlefield. Or worm stomach, as it were.
I was, as I noted, four days in. Which left not quite another day. I’d tracked that particular worm for the previous year. I knew its cycle. It was deep in the wastes then. By the next day it would move nearer the edge of those scarred lands. All I had to do was wait.
I was reading when the boy arrived. Or, rather, when he was passing by. My taps were all set up, of course, and the vessels were filling nicely. That haul would do me for another year, maybe more. It was going to be my last journey inside a worm. But I’m getting off-topic. The boy arrived while I was reading.
The book was something I had picked up in a library years before. Most of the volumes in the ruined building had been lost to the elements and time, more dust and mildew than paper. But I had managed to salvage a few, mostly fiction. And that was good enough, I was passing time.
My camp was attached above the flow of digestive juices, on a little platform I had engineered years before. It was a cart, really, with my tent and other belongings nailed in place on top and wheels on the bottom. Once inside the worm, rafting down the river of saliva and bile, I scouted for a good location. Finding it, I dropped anchor and waited for a surge.
Now, a surge isn’t pleasant but it is necessary. Waste worms, like people, have to eat. When they do their bodies produce more digestive juices than usual. Thus, a surge in the stuff. When it comes, like a wave, I ride it, being lifted, and — very quickly — deploy my camp.
My platform has chains on the outer edge, secured at the two corners. Those have barbed hooks on the ends. I slide these between the epithelial scales that coat the inside of the worm’s digestive system. My platform then rests, suspended and horizontal, from the wall of the worm, with the digestive river below. Even the surges, most of them, don’t rise so high.
The boy didn’t have a platform. He didn’t have anything. He was lucky to be alive.
Now, inside a waste worm is a very dark place, as you might suspect. I’m used to it, sitting in that moist, hot darkness, listening to the gurgles of the digestive river as it passes below. It’s peaceful in its own way. I have my headlamp, of course. It provides light to read by, even if the curling pages — from the damp and heat — cast annoying shadows. But when I’m not reading I turn off the light, to save the batteries. So, it was lucky for the boy that I was reading. Otherwise, he might have passed by unseen. For he was unconscious, you see.
The surge happened when I was on page 13 of my book and starting to get into it. I don’t know how much ancient fiction mirrored ancient life but it seemed to be a very melodramatic time. Lots of rushing about and trying to do things in a hurry. But, yes, the surge. I saw it coming; there are always signs inside the worm if you know what to look for.
I placed the book back in the case and secured my camp — zipping up the waterproof tent, closing my watertight library case. The surge was just rising. I wrapped a strong cable — attached securely to the platform on the other end — around my arm, so as not to get washed away if it was a big surge. The cable had lots of slack; sometimes the taps needed to be set up below the platform and it gave me a way to lower myself down there. I was ready to ride out the surge.
That’s when I saw the boy.
He was not ready. He was in the surge, unprotected, and out like a light. My immediate thought was that he was dead, just more food for the worm. I was about to let him pass by but our shared humanity made me reconsider. Wouldn’t I want the rituals performed, if I were in his place?
I leapt from the platform and into the swirling maelstrom that was equal parts slippery and sticky. You might be thinking that the flow was thin, like water. But, no, it’s thick and viscous. And there is debris. Waste worms eat anything and everything. I had to dodge pieces of ancient concrete, glass and the carcasses of mutated creatures that populate the wastes. Perhaps it is this varied diet that helps them produce silverva.
Anyway, among all of that, I managed to grab the boy’s coat. Tucking my free arm around his chest I was able to get a good, secure hold and started back for the platform. It was a large surge and came almost to the level of my camp. It made slinging the boy onto the platform easier — though it was in no way easy. After that it was a simple matter of getting myself up there too, something I had done countless times.
The surge was passing by us then, continuing down the immense length of the worm. I sat with my legs dangling from the platform and watched it go. Remember, the boy was dead, as far as I knew. Imagine my surprise when he coughed behind me. I almost fell from my perch.
After he had spit up some of the worm’s dinner he nearly did the same. He jolted back when he saw me. Now, this wasn’t too surprising. I wear bright yellow oilskin coveralls of my own design. It even has a hood that leaves only my face exposed. They keep me clean and dry. And they have a lot of zippered pockets. I imagine I look very odd at first sight.
“Wuh are yu?” he asked, slurring. I hoped it was because he was only half-awake, that his trials hadn’t left him damaged.
I smiled. “Just a man, like you.”
“I’m not dead?” He enunciated this question much better; a good sign.
I shook my head. “No, you’re inside a waste worm.”
“It’s true,” he said, more to himself than to me.
“What is true, son?”
He looked around, wide-eyed, taking in the little he could see in the shadowy world of my headlamp.
“We’re inside a worm,” he said.
I was growing a little impatient at this point but forced myself to be gentle. “Yes, as I said. Now, what is true? You said something was true.”
He blinked and saw me, as if for the first time. “The worms, you can live inside them.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it living, and I wouldn’t want to do it for long. But, yes, you can survive inside a worm. For a while.” Something occurred to me then. “You wanted to get swallowed?”
“Ahhh… no, not really. Well, maybe?”
He was very young, barely past adolescence. And his clothes, drab in colour and quality, had patches over patches. He was poor. And immediately I knew what he was after. And why.
“You came looking for silverva,” I said, knowing it was true.
He looked at his feet — feeling guilty? — but then found some hidden reserve of pride. “And so what if I was? It’s very valuable; people will pay for it. A lot.”
I nodded. It was true. “And what about yourself? What would be the cost to you?”
He stared, not understanding.
“You nearly died,” I said. “Would have died, if I hadn’t been here.”
“You’re going to lecture me?” he asked, rolling his eyes.
“No. Just stating facts. Why would I lecture you? I don’t know you.”
“Because that’s what adults do.”
“Adults! Hmmmpf. We’re all children, all learning something.” I paused and scratched my chin. “No, you were brave and took a chance. And, hey, here you are.”
“But I could have been killed.”
“But you weren’t. Not yet at least. It could still happen.”
“Have patience. It’ll let us go when we’re ready.”
“Patience? It ate us!”
I shrugged. “It’s an occupational hazard. No, an occupational necessity.”
“So, how do we get out of here?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“You’re not going to tell me?”
“When the time is right.”
“When will that be?”
“When we’re ready. And the worm is ready. You’ll see.” I decided to change the topic and to impart a little knowledge. “Do you know why people pay a lot for silverva?”
He shrugged. “Because it’s hard to get?”
“Yes, partially. But do you know what people use it for?”
He shook his head. “It didn’t matter. The money matters.”
“Sadly, yes, it does. Silverva is very, very valuable.” I again looked him over. He was carrying nothing, aside from a satchel that looked in worse condition than his clothes. “What do you have in your bag?”
The boy clutched the bag to him as if it were gold. “It’s mine.”
“I’m not trying to steal from you, son. Look.” I looked in the direction of the taps I had set up in the worm’s side above my camp, illuminating them with my headlamp. I pointed with a finger to make sure he got the point. “Do you see those?”
“What? The tubes coming out of the worm?”
“Yes. Do you see how they’re connected to that bubble, like a blister on the worm’s side?” He nodded. “Follow them down.”
He did so and saw the collection vessels, secured like everything else to my platform. “Is that silverva?”
“It is. Now, do you have anything like that in your bag?” He shook his head. I decided it was time for his first lesson. “You tap the blisters. The bigger the better. You get good at scouting for them the longer you do this.”
“How long have you been doing this?” the boy asked.
I shrugged. “Long enough.”
“You must be very rich.”
I couldn’t contain myself, he had caught me so off guard with his naive comment. I laughed. And I laughed.
The boy scrunched up his nose, thinking I was making fun of him. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
“You think I sell the silverva?”
“Yeah, of course. It’s worth a lot of money.”
“Son, I hope you live long enough to learn that most things in life are more valuable than money. Knowledge first among them.”
“Learning can’t put food on the table.”
“No?” I asked. “What of a fisherwoman who learns to make a better net? Does she not catch more fish? Or a farmer who knows to rotate his crops each year? Does he not grow more food than the farmer who doesn’t?”
The boy said nothing but I could tell he was soaking it in. These were ideas he had never considered. No, circumstance had not given him the chance to slow down, to think about the why of things. But he was catching on quick; I was impressed. There was potential there.
“Like,” the boy said, thinking it through as he spoke, “a musician that creates a new song and entertains people with it. He can earn more because he’s the only one who has that song.”
“Yes, there you go. But it’s not only about earning more. The people who hear that song and learn it will repeat it. That musician, if the song is good enough, will never really die. A part of him, what he created, will go on.”
More lights were going on in the boy’s mind. I could see it in his eyes, the twitch of his cheek. Yes, he was going to do alright. He was bright and he had already proven he was brave.
“So, you keep the silverva,” he said. It wasn’t a question but I nodded anyway. “Why?”
“Now, that is the right question,” I said, smiling. “Have you ever had caffe?”
The boy shook his head and looked at his feet a moment. “We can’t afford it.”
“But you know what it does? How it makes you more alert?” He nodded. “Well, silverva is like that. Only it’s much, much, much more potent.”
“You eat it?” the boy asked, his eyes the widest I had seen them yet.
“Well, drink rather. I like it with a little peppermint myself.”
He looked to where the taps were drawing the stuff from the worm. “Gross.”
I shrugged. “It’s an acquired taste.” It was almost time for a meal and it gave me an idea. “So, you’ve never had caffe. Would you like to try it?”
He nodded so hard I thought his head might fall off his neck.
I spent the next while setting up my little stove and stocking it with fuel. Shortly we both had our bellies full of preserved vegetables and dense bread I had made myself. The water was boiling in the pot on the little stove by then and I poured two cups of steaming caffe.
“This, too, is a bit of an acquired taste,” I told the boy as I handed him the cup. “Careful, it’s very hot.”
He held it but didn’t drink until I took my first sip. Then he tipped it back. I expected him to not like it, many people don’t. But he smiled and licked his lips.
“That’s nice, warm in my chest,” he said.
I nodded. “Just wait until after, you’ll feel ready to climb up and down this worm.” Something occurred to me then. “What were you doing in the wastes? You know how dangerous they are?”
“My mom is sick,” he said, taking another sip. “And my dad died last month. My sister is too young to work. I thought…”
“To find some silverva,” I finished for him. Desperation will make us do crazy things.
“Well,” I said, smiling, “you’ve found it. And me besides. Lucky for you, eh?”
He nodded again. “But I don’t have bottles,” he pointed toward the collection vessels, “or tubes or… any of this.” He spread his hands to indicate my platform and its contents.
“Neither did I, once. We all start somewhere, son.”
He said nothing, just kept drinking his caffe.
While he finished up I checked the levels in the vessels. They were full; I had found a great blister. I only wished I had brought another vessel. Next time. And I knew there would be a next time now. I had made a decision.
“We’ve got a few hours to wait and then we’ll begin our preparations,” I announced.
“Preparations?” the boy asked, looking up from his empty cup.
“Yes, to leave.”
“Why can’t we leave now?”
“Right now the worm is deep in the wastes still. If we left we’d have to track across the wastes. But, if we wait, the worm will convey us where we want to go.”
“What do we do until then?” he asked.
“You must learn patience. It’s probably the most valuable skill you’ll ever learn. Doing nothing is the hardest thing if you’ve never cultivated patience. But,” I said, smiling, “I do have something we can do.”
We spent that time looking at books. I showed him my portable library and how the waterproof case worked. He was amazed by the case but bewildered by the books. He couldn’t read, though that was not a shock.
Over the next several hours I taught him the alphabet, using the books to show him the letters. And I explained how each letter represented sounds that he used all the time. Once he had this connection he was off to the races. I swear he’s the fastest learner I’ve ever seen.
Perhaps it was the dash of silverva I mixed with the caffe. I thought it best that he didn’t know.
By the time I started to pack up the camp he was studying an old hardcover book with a mix of text and photos. He had a spare headlamp wrapped around his head. It nearly blinded me when he looked up. “Did people really live in such giant buildings?” he asked.
I bent down and looked at the photograph in question. It was a shot of an ancient city, skyscrapers clumped together and lifting to the heavens. A river meandered along beside it, large boats filled with containers floated there.
“Oh, yes. Millions of people in one city.”
“Millions? How many is that?”
“A lot,” I said, smiling. “More than ever live in one place now. At least that I know of.”
“What happened?” the boy asked.
I didn’t have an answer, not a good one. So I shrugged. “A lot of things, I think. Some of the things we made hurt the planet. Others, like the worms, destroyed what we built.”
“Why would people make such things?”
“That is a very good question.” I patted him on the shoulder. “Come now, it’s time to get this place packed away.”
I showed him how to secure the tent, packing most of the gear inside it. And how to strap other things, like the case of books, to the platform. It didn’t take long. Then we were ready.
“You’re going to want a suit, like this one,” I said, pointing to my yellow garment. I zipped it tight under my chin, leaving only my face exposed. From a pocket on my leg I pulled large goggles and secured them to my face. I retrieved my backup pair from another. “Here, put these on.”
The boy took them and put them on, checking to see how I had done it.
“Great, now we’re ready to go. There’s just one thing missing,” I said.
I could tell the boy wasn’t happy that there was more waiting, but he said nothing. Already he was learning patience; he was cut out for this life. I knew it then but I doubt he did.
We didn’t have to wait long, I already felt the little tremors that came before a surge. When it was close I had the boy stand at one hook while I went to the other. We both had cables wrapped around one arm. I had shortened the longer one to accommodate both of us. It didn’t need to be very long, we only needed to stay on the platform during the bumpy ride to come. My heart was beating faster in anticipation.
“When the surge comes place your hand on the hook but don’t lift it out until I say so. Remember, not until I say so.”
“Not until you say so,” he repeated back to me.
The surge came then, a large one, rushing down the huge cavity of the worm. It was a great wall that threatened to swamp us, it was so high. But I knew that was a visual trick. By the time it reached us it would lower. I looked over and saw that the boy, as instructed, had his hand on the hook. I smiled and placed mine on my hook. Then I counted, watching the surge approach.
Not yet. Soon. Almost.
“Now!” I yelled.
We worked in unison, flicking the hooks from their purchase as the surge passed under us. It was only a foot or two below and the platform splashed into the flow, submerging. Then it bobbed back to the surface and we started moving downstream. Toward the exit. We were on our way.
It was a quick ride, but a crazy one. Waste worms are not small and this particular specimen was around two miles long. I had calculated that my camp was about half a mile inside. Covering the remaining distance would only take a few minutes.
But worms aren’t simply hollow tubes. The area we were in was the main chamber, where the silverva blisters form. I’ve heard from others that they burst, eventually, and help break down the worm’s food in some way. I’ve never seen that myself. But I have seen enough to believe that humans built the worms, once upon a time, when we had such abilities. It’s mind boggling to think we ever did. But it gives me hope for the great things my species can do again in the future.
After a minute we arrived at the end of the main chamber. We floated there, next to a narrow, pulsating sphincter. It was closed when we arrived. The boy worried a moment at that point, as the surge started building around us, pushing us toward the ceiling.
I laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Patience, remember.”
He nodded, though I could tell he was still nervous.
Then I felt the contraction of the flow as the worm’s muscles tightened.
“Hold on,” I said, and pointed to handhold rails that I had installed on the surface of the platform at various points. The boy grabbed two and I did the same. “Get ready to hold your breath.”
Then the sphincter opened, slowly, and we were squeezed through, quickly, but completely immersed in the flow. I could feel the layers of quivering worm muscle press all over my back and legs as we passed. On the other side, in another large, but smaller, chamber, we shot out under pressure. Soon we rose to the surface of this new river, calmer than the last.
“You okay?” I asked the boy. Mucous and digestive juices ran down my face. I was worried about him, how he had fared. I needn’t have.
He was grinning. A natural. “Can we do that again?” he asked.
I laughed. “Soon enough.”
We continued like that, through three more chambers. Each was smaller than the last. And more harrowing. In the last two, there were two sphincters to choose from. I knew, from experience, which to choose. I wanted to explain to the boy how I knew but we were under the river as much as on it. I would tell him later.
The last chamber was tiny, barely three lengths of our raft. But it was clogged with debris that the worm couldn’t digest. We were packed in with the other material, pressed against it. The stench was terrible. We were in a pile of shit, essentially. Now, worms are not like people but shit is shit. It stinks. There wasn’t much room for air in there but we wouldn’t be there long.
“This is it,” I said, “the exit. Still grinning?” I couldn’t resist.
He rolled his eyes at me. “I’m going to have to burn my clothes.”
“I told you that you’ll want a suit like mine.” A tremor ran through the chamber. “Oh, this is it. Hold on!”
The entire chamber compressed then, smushing us into the fecal material even tighter than we already were. It compressed even more until, finally, a ripple of muscle sent everything toward the rear of the space.
It happened so fast, and the transition to the outside and daylight was so abrupt that it was very surreal. You’re not sure for a moment what’s real, or if you’re even alive.
But we were.
I pushed the goggles up onto my forehead — they were coated in fecal material — and looked around. We were in the middle of a pool of worm excrement, some of it solid, some of it liquid. The worm, enormous and nearly blocking out the sky, was moving away, continuing back into the wastes. The boy was next to me, clambering to a sitting position. Aside from my face, I was still clean and dry beneath my suit. He was not.
From head to toe he was coated in brown and green worm feces. But from among those dull tones shone pearly white teeth. The boy was grinning from ear to ear. If I had any doubts about him they evaporated then. He was cut out for this life, maybe even more so than myself.
I made a decision then, and not an easy one. You might think, reading this, that I enjoy this whole process inside the worm. I tolerate it is more the case. Especially at moments like that, sitting in worm shit.
So, while I didn’t look forward to having to come back and do this sooner, I also wanted to help the boy. I looked around for the platform, now a cart again, and realized we were still on it. The vessels, strong and secured, were still there, though they’d need a good washing. And each one was filled with a fortune, a wealth of knowledge or money. I hoped the boy would want the first but I knew, too, that he had immediate needs.
“Look there,” I said, pointing toward the first vessel. “That vessel, that is yours now.”
“Mine?” he asked, not understanding.
“Yes, that bottle of silverva is yours to take. Sell it, some of it at least, and help your family.” I paused. “But, then, after that, I hope you’ll come back. Let me teach you.”
“How to build my own platform? About the silverva?” His enthusiasm, his desire to learn, was like food to me.
“About everything,” I said, smiling. Yes, I could tell that the boy was going to do great things.