This story first appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated (Issue #21)
What really mattered in life was dying. There was nothing in the whole world that sounded better than drowning, preferably in nice cold water. Deep, cold water. The kickoff party for the Infinity Project had been the night before and he had indulged in a binge of legendary proportion.
Ernest Reginald Eddison, Bore Specialist, that was what the name badge said. Anyone who knew him from his mining days called him E.R. and nobody, except, of course, the payroll people, used the term Bore Specialist. It sounded too much like the kind of guy you’d get stuck next to on a transatlantic flight, the one in the Brooks Brothers suit, reading Accounting Monthly. E.R. was more of a Monster Trucks Digest kind of guy. In fact, he liked anything that was big and loud and made for abuse. That was part of the reason he was a wyrm rider. He was one of that selectively insane class of people who could take the storm and stress of piloting the big tunneling machines.
It was that very job that was now driving him to thoughts of suicide. Nursing a nasty hangover is bad. Nursing a truly evil hangover in the command cabin of a hot wyrm is tantamount to sticking bamboo slivers into your head and lighting them on fire. First there is the Earth-shattering noise the motor makes as it builds up the power necessary to move the multi-ton bulk of the wyrm. Then there is the heat. To keep rock liquid on its way through the pipes, the system has to stay above 1800°C. Even with three feet of the best insulation ever invented, and a hellacious refrigeration system, the control cabin and living quarters of a wyrm are far too hot for any unmodified human. Worse, the physical and bio-chemical enhancements that allowed E.R. to function in this environment caused pain killers to have extremely erratic and potentially debilitating effects. So, no aspirin. He was in hangover hell.
He gritted his teeth and dreamed of a cold grave until the sound of the fusion plant told him it was time to roll. A half second later the status board agreed. The multi-million dollar sensor array that fed the board may have been required by the design specs, but E.R. considered it vastly inferior to his own, original-equipment, ears. His headache was momentarily put aside as he listened to the fully operational machine. The gurgle of the cooling system, the hum of the electronics, and the low rumble of the gear train. It was pure music. He reached for the com switch.
“E.R. here, OreBoreUS is red hot and ready to roll!”
A crisp clear voice responded. “Acknowledged, E.R. The elevator is waiting in the main shaft. Climb aboard and secure for descent.”
“You got it. ” E.R. grinned inwardly. That cheery crystalline voice belonged to Bo Matheson, who had matched him drink for drink last night. Unless Bo was some kind of superbeing, it masked a world of hurt. “See you in a couple of weeks, Bo. If you’re a betting woman, now’s the time to put your money on OreBoreUS. That way, you get in before the odds have shifted too far in my favor. I’m going to leave that bastard Jalander and his EuroWyrm Jormungand choking on my exhaust.”
Bo laughed. “I sure hope so. The pile of Krugerands that goes to the first team to the mid-Atlantic point sounds mighty tasty.”
“You can spend them now. They’re in the bank.”
“Glad to hear you that confident, but I think I’ll wait till they’re in my hot little hands before I buy the Porsche.”
“If you want to delay gratification, Bo, that’s up to you. But there is no way I’m losing this one. Well, my ride is here. I’ll see you in a few. Maybe we can lift a couple when I get back.” He pulled OreBoreUS onto the giant freight elevator in the main shaft and stopped rolling.
“That’s a roger E.R., control out.”
“OreBoreUS out,” he replied.
On the descent he had nothing to do but nurse his hangover, so he cradled his head in his hands and concentrated on pumping out endorphins while hoping that the elevator operator would set him down gently. The jarring thud as the platform met the ground was not what he had in mind. At that point it was immaterial, because he was in front of a wall of virgin rock, and it was time to tunnel. With the blissful smile of the obsessed doing what they love, E.R. engaged the tread rings and started up the bore. Two seconds later OreBoreUS was eating granite. The wyrm, moving at a slow walking pace, crawled into the hole it was making in the wall. E.R. waited for the tail to enter the new tunnel, then switched on the sprayers.
The bore was the widest part of the wyrm. It consisted of six huge, superheated, hammering tungsten-iridium screw bits arranged in a hexagon. These bits cut and melted the rock, most of which was then compressed into the walls by the body of the wyrm. The rest went into the mouth of the conveyer that ran to the melting furnace near the tail. In this furnace, heat from the fusion plant was used to melt the already hot rock and bring its temperature up to 1,800°C. This liquid rock was then convection pumped to the sprayer array, a circular arrangement on the very tail end of the worm. It looked like a huge wedding ring studded with shower heads. A hydraulic ram sent the molten rock out through these spray heads in a myriad of tiny streams that splashed on the walls of the tunnel and quickly cooled, coating it with a layer of volcanic glass. Later, a wyrm chaser, essentially a steamroller with a rotating screw instead of a roller, would come through and smooth the surface. Finally, a tank truck would spray a tough polymer on the walls to seal them in preparation for the eventual evacuation of the tunnel. After that, it became the rail crew’s problem.
E.R. happily bored his way through the sub-Atlantic granite for the next four hours. At the end of that time he was forced to take a two-hour break and run OreBoreUS through a cooling cycle to keep from burning out the cutting heads. As soon as he shut the sprayers down he extended the com laser from the tail array and checked in with the main office.
“E.R. here, I’m putting it in a down cycle and taking a breather.”
“Control acknowledges a down cycle OreBoreUS,” came the reply.
“Shit,” thought, E.R., “Bo’s using her ‘professional’ voice. The boss must be in the office.”
Sure enough, Bo’s musical voice was followed by the harsh Texas twang of Colonel Robert Roy Justice, the owner and CEO of the Lubbock Oil & Mineral Co.
“Son, can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, Colonel. What can I do you for?”
“None of your sass, boy. I hired you because you can bust rocks better than any other digger in the business, not because I want to listen to you yap. I’m calling to let you know that I’ve placed a little side bet with Erikson at EuroWyrm. I’m counting on you to win it for me. There’ll be a hefty bonus in it if you do. If not, of course, there won’t be any hard feelings. Do you understand me, son?”
“Yes, sir, I do, perfectly.” He did, especially the subtext. When Rob Roy Justice said no hard feelings he meant just the opposite. He wouldn’t have E.R.’s legs broken or anything tacky like that. No, he would just quietly arrange things so that E.R. couldn’t find work as a digger ever again. E.R.’s headache returned with a vengeance. The idea that Rob Roy was concerned enough to call hurt his dignity. “I don’t lose, sir. I never have and I never will.”
“That’s good, son. I just want to make sure we understand each other. You weren’t looking real victorious this morning. Remember, all of Texas is rooting for you. Don’t let the good ol’ boys down.” This was followed by a sharp click and the rhythmic snarl of an empty com wave.
“Joy,” said E.R. The last part of that message had been clear as well. Rob Roy might not have E.R.’s legs broken, but that wouldn’t prevent others from doing it. He massaged his aching temples for a few minutes. They seemed to pulse in time to the crackle of the carrier wave. How could anyone believe that he’d let anything get in the way of winning?
E.R. flipped the com to standby and crawled into the tiny living quarters behind the control cabin. He tossed a dehydrated steak-and-potatoes meal into a pan of water on the little stove and plopped himself on the folding bed. With a flick of the remote he turned on the 3V. The signal, coming in via the com laser, was crystal clear.
With a liter of Gatorade in one hand and the remote in the other he channel surfed, hoping to catch some coverage of the Infinity Project’s kickoff, and maybe even some footage of OreBoreUS making its descent. He found it on CNN2.
“This is Michael Gordon and I’m speaking to you live from Washington D.C. where I’ll be talking with David McIntyre, chief spokesman for the Infinity Project. David, why don’t you tell us a little bit about this golden reward that the project is offering to the first team to hit the midpoint.”
“Well, since the project is essentially a cutting-edge-railroad we thought it would be nice to tie it in to earlier pioneering moments in rail history. In particular the transcontinental railroad and the opening of the American West struck us as a fortuitous image. That golden spike is a beautiful symbol, don’t you think?”
“It does put a nice closure on things. But, isn’t ten million a bit much?”
“In terms of the cost of this project, ten million is chicken feed.”
“Mighty fancy chickens, if you ask me. Why Krugerands?”
“Well, the transcontinental railroad was an exclusively American endeavor, and Infinity is international. The Krugerand is the international gold standard. What could be more appropriate?”
Martti Jalander flipped the 3V to mute. “Paessi!” The whole idea of the gold was a silly one, but the billionaire to whom the Americans had awarded the contract had his eyes set on a Senate seat, and he wanted publicity.
“Damned Americans,” the Finn thought to himself. “They’re all cowboys or maniacs. Take Eddison. The man is a hazard. He thinks he’s some hero out of a Hemingway novel. He shouldn’t be allowed to ride a bicycle, much less a wyrm.”
Then Martti shook his head. That wasn’t strictly true. There was no arguing with the fact that Eddison was an unstable mallet-head. But, there was also no way to deny that he got results. Martti had studied Eddison’s career carefully. The speed with which the man had bored the Seattle-L.A. line for the first leg of the American evacuated maglev system was phenomenal. Before that, when he was running a mining wyrm for Lubbock O&M, he had the best ore-per-tunnel-mile ratio in the world.
Still, it wouldn’t do him any good. Martti wasn’t the type to bet on the outcome of the trans-oceanic race he was running against OreBoreUS, but he was just as certain of his victory as the American was. He ‘knew’ that E.R.’s boisterousness would eventually be the man’s downfall. A picture of Jormungand came up on the screen and he turned the volume up to find out what they were talking about.
“–Michael. Jormungand is the flag of the Airbus-Mercedes-Volvo tunneling consortium, EuroWyrm.”
“And the American machine?”
“It was built by Lubbock Oil & Mineral, a privately owned firm.”
“Ah yes, Colonel Justice. He’s running for the U.S. Senate, isn’t he?”
“As a matter of fact he is. I-”
E.R. flipped to SPN. David McIntyre was also privately owned, by the same Texas billionaire, in fact. He might be flacking for Infinity now, but just as soon as the tunnel was done, he’d be going back to work for Rob Roy at O&M. The next twenty minutes were guaranteed to be a homily to the genius of Rob Roy Justice. That didn’t interest E.R. in the least. No, what interested E.R. was winning. That had always been the way of it, and he saw no reason to change now. The gold wouldn’t suck either. The gold that his wyrm, his beautiful dragon, was going to earn for him. A little over an hour later the sounds of the wyrm climbing up to operational temperature brought him out of his reverie and sent him to the control cabin for another four-hour shift.
By the end of the shift he knew something was funny with the number four bit. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he had felt a slight hesitancy in OreBoreUS’ left side response. He ran a diagnostic. The computer didn’t register any problems, but something was wrong. He could feel it. So, he strapped on the forward waldo rig and replaced the bit. Then he dropped the old part into the cooling tank and took his break. When his two-hour minimum cool down was up he pulled the bit out of the tank and took it with him to the command cabin.
There was nothing obviously wrong with it, but a close examination with a magnifying lens showed carbon scoring around the base, a sure sign that the bit was losing its temper. It wasn’t a critical problem, nor even a serious one, but it could have developed into something worse if he hadn’t caught it.
“That’s exactly what I need,” he thought, “another headache. As if the one I just got rid of wasn’t bad enough.” Like the Devil called up by the sound of his name, the throbbing which had finally faded out over the past couple of hours returned. He slid down and grabbed another Gatorade, then started the big machine forward.
And so it went, four hours on, two hours off. It was a vicious schedule, but he figured that he could keep it up for a least a couple of weeks. It would be worth it, too. Rob Roy’s call had really irritated him. He wanted to show the billionaire what victory really meant. It wasn’t just beating your opponents, it was grinding their faces so far into the dust it took ’em a week to dig out and see how badly they’d lost.
Lying on the little bed six days later, he was beginning to worry. It felt like he had been run over by a freight train. He pressed his palms into his eyes trying to squeeze out the soreness. It was all because of the damn headache. His modifications allowed him to jazz his endorphin production and his dopamine receptors to suppress the worst of the pain. Unfortunately they didn’t do jack for the sensation that his head was swelling like an overfilled balloon. That was a special hell all on its own. It was destroying him.
It sure couldn’t be the schedule. Under normal circumstances he only slept about five hours a night. He wasn’t really running far behind that. He had eight hours of downtime every day. Even if half of that was spent eating or in the john, he should be getting four hours of sleep. He sank back onto the bed and, with the volume low, flipped the 3V on to CNN2 while he waited for the wyrm to cool down enough to sleep.
“Day seven of the transoceanic race has seen OreBoreUS really pulling ahead of Jormungand, Mr. Justice. You must be proud.”
“Call me Rob Roy, Michael. Everybody else does. As for OreBoreUS, I wouldn’t expect anything less. Eddison’s a fine example of Texas manhood, and he’s driving a fabulous piece of good old American know-how.”
Martti shook his head. He wasn’t impressed with OreBoreUS’ lead. Eddison was achieving it by running himself into the ground. Four hours on, two hours off. Stupid. Martti himself was following design specs and going four, two, four, six. Since it took about half an hour for the wyrm to cool off enough for comfort, and about the same amount of time to climb back to operational temperature, he had five hours to eat and sleep every other shift.
That was the whole point of the living quarters. It took twelve hours from the time a wyrm was shut down till the time it was cool enough for the pilot to exit and another sixteen for it to get back up to operating temperature afterwards. Rather than lose a full workday every time you switched drivers, the designers had opted for a system wherein one driver would stay on board for up to several weeks at a time. The solution made good engineering sense.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” said Martti, to the 3V.
The Infinity project’s logo filled the field. The world serpent with its tail clenched in its teeth slowly rotated on its axis, eternally devouring itself, while a voice talked about the names of the various teams and how they reflected the myth of the Great Wyrm.
Groggily, E.R. shook his head. It hurt. He put up an arm to block the harsh light of the set. There was a horrible buzzing sound that almost drowned out the 3V, and an acrid smell filled the air.
“What the hell?”
Then, it came to him. He had dozed off while waiting for his dinner to cook. Or, was it breakfast? He wasn’t sure what time it was, or even what day. Whatever was on the stove, it was on fire. He staggered over to the little oven and turned the burner off. Then he grabbed the extinguisher and sprayed the smoldering stuff in the pan. When it was out, he looked at it more closely. He still couldn’t decide whether it was breakfast or dinner. But that didn’t really matter. The message it was sending him was clear. Like it or not, it was time for some real sleep.
He dragged himself up into the command chair and reluctantly set OreBoreUS for a ten-hour cool-down cycle. Then he called in to base.
“Hey, Bo, this is E.R., what’s my lead look like?”
“Beautiful. I should have placed that bet. Barring a complete drive meltdown, you’ve got it in the bag.”
“Glad to hear it, I think I’m gonna take a full night in the sack then.”
“Go ahead, you deserve it. Goodnight, E.R.”
Tired though he was, sleep did not find him immediately. He lay awake, staring at the low ceiling. He didn’t want to take a long break. He shouldn’t need it. It felt too much like getting old. He shook his head, reminding himself of the hangover that would not die. That had to be it. Something he drank that night had screwed with his enhancements. His core temperature felt like it must be down close to human normal. Maybe it had been the saki Bo had ordered. He never should have drunk it. From now on he would stick to his good ol’ boy roots. If it wasn’t beer or Jack Daniel’s, it wasn’t going to pass his lips.
He had only slept for seven and a half hours when the com bell yanked him back to reality. He rolled off the bed and crawled into the cab.
“What the hell do you want?” he growled into the mike.
“Time’s a wastin’, boy.” It was the unmistakable Chihuahua bark of Colonel Justice. “I’ve been told that you’ve been sitting there doing nothing for almost ten hours. Is that what I’m paying you for? Well?”
“Screw you, Rob Roy.” He flipped the com off and retracted the laser array.
Now, if the old man wanted to chew on his ear, he’d have to do it the hard way, one letter at a time over the ELF. The extremely low frequency transmitting system was designed by the U.S. Navy for contacting subs running deep. It was slow, and it was expensive. A modified version was also the only way to talk to a wyrm with its laser off. He chuckled at the image of the fuming billionaire typing in a letter, waiting five minutes, then typing in another. That wasn’t the way it really worked, but it made for a pretty picture. Then, since he was awake anyway, he switched OreBoreUS to go, reactivated the laser, turned on the 3V, and grabbed breakfast while he waited for the wyrm to heat up.
“–so, David, our chart shows that the U.S. machine has been shut down for an unusually long time. Is OreBoreUS experiencing any mechanical problems?”
“No, Michael. Eddison is just taking a little break. Considering the way he’s been tunneling, you have to admit he deserves it.”
“I’ve got you now,” said Martti. The schedule was finally getting to Eddison. That was obvious. The man had never shut a hot wyrm down longer than the suggested max. of six hours in his career, and here he was out for ten.
He flipped the 3V off and headed for the cab. He had only taken three of his recommended six hours, but now was the time to push a little. If he could just swallow a little more of Eddison’s lead, Martti was sure that he could goad him into a rash return to two, four, two.
His hands flew across the controls like clockwork. Each motion was precisely controlled and elegant in a mechanical sort of way. There was never a wasted gesture, and that was how Martti liked it. He saw himself as one tiny, but vital, part of the great machine’s inner workings.
“That’s a common misperception, Michael,” said David. “They won’t actually meet in the middle. That would be disastrous. Jormungand is boring the tunnel for westbound trains and OreBoreUS is running the eastbound. They’re racing for an imaginary line that marks the midpoint of the Atlantic crossing. When they pass each other, wherever that is in relation to the finish line, they’ll be about fifty meters apart on a north-south axis.”
“Thank you, David. About that finish line, what do you think of the latest gains made by Jormungand?”
E.R. snarled and smashed a fist into the wall before flicking the 3V off. What a perfectly miserable end to a bad day. He lost a cutting head first thing and was forced into an early cool down on his second shift. Then, on the third shift, his inertial guidance system had gone buggy on him, and he’d been forced to spend half an hour fixing that. Now, when he wanted nothing more than a good long night’s sleep, he found out that Jalander was changing his operational patterns and gaining ground. That was unacceptable. He hauled himself back into the cab and changed the cooling cycle from six to three hours. Sleep would just have to wait until the race was won.
Two hours later, when he woke, his body was telling him that it wanted more sleep. His eyes were full of sand and his head felt like someone was driving a hot spike into it, right above the left ear. He was tempted almost beyond endurance to climb up to the cab and hit the switch for another eight-hour cooling cycle. If it weren’t for the bad news from CNN he might have. But he just couldn’t do it. He dragged himself off the bed and through the hatch into the control cabin. The com light was blinking.
“Go ‘way!” he snarled into the mike.
“Hey, is that any way to talk to your favorite monitor?” came the response in Bo’s sweet contralto.
“Sorry about that, Bo. I’ve felt better.”
“Actually, that’s why I’m calling. You’ve been sounding like the walking dead for a week now. I just wanted to remind you that the world won’t end if you ease up a bit.”
“Hell with that, Bo. I’m going to win this thing if it kills me.” Then he flicked the com off and, blinking sand from sleep-blurred eyes, began the process of putting the great beast in motion.
He lasted through the shift, but at the end of that time he couldn’t keep himself from setting the wyrm for a ten-hour cool cycle. “OreBoreUS needs a break as much as I do,” he thought to himself. “I owe it to her.” Then he collapsed. When he woke he was sweating, ravenous, and half blind from a migraine. Feeling like he weighed a thousand pounds, he forced his way out of bed and into the kitchen. He didn’t have the energy for cooking, so he grabbed a half a dozen nutri-bars and a jug of Gatorade. Pausing only long enough to look longingly at the bed as he passed it, he headed for the cab. This time he ignored the com light.
He turned the cabin lights way down and opened the first of the bars while he got the bore moving. Then, while OreBoreUS chewed granite, E.R. chewed nutri-bar. The dry, dusty taste of the bar seemed to fill his whole attention. It was like the crushed rock sliding down the gullet of the great wyrm. He felt the bits of bar as they traced their way toward his own inner furnace and could imagine the sensation of the broken rock sliding through OreBoreUS on its way to the smelter. He felt his awareness suddenly reaching out to encompass the wyrm. In his exhausted state it seemed that the boundary between man and machine was evaporating. He could feel his teeth chewing into the granite wall ahead of him, sense the slight changes in texture caused by a vein of copper, understand the hunger of the wyrm, its desire to devour the world. Human concerns seemed to drain away as he monomaniacally drove onward into the bedrock.
The gestalt lasted through the whole shift. At the end of it he was more tired than he had been at any time in his life. He fell as he bent to crawl through into the living quarters. He was planning on another eight hours devoted to sleeping, but first he had to eat some real food. To keep himself awake while he waited for the food to cook he turned the volume up on the 3V. The sounds beat at his aching head.
Martti smiled as he set the dial for six hours. It had worked. Even better than that, Eddison was starting to make mistakes. How else could you explain that two-and-a-half hour work shift. In his tiny quarters, he flipped CNN2 on and lay back to enjoy it.
Rob Roy was not pleased with the state of the race. The readout from the ELF made that abundantly clear. Well, neither was E.R. Jormungand had been making really good time for the past couple of days and was seriously narrowing his lead. E.R. swore viciously. If only he could get rid of the damned headache. It tore at his head like a living thing. Crawling back into the living quarters he bolted his lukewarm meal before collapsing into a deep sleep. Four hours later the need to win drove him from his bed.
It was very close now. All Martti needed was one lucky break. The race had narrowed to a difference of a few kilometers one way or the other.
E.R. checked his guidance readout. He was only a few hundred meters from the Atlantic midpoint, but it was time to run the machine through its cool-down cycle. He could feel the cutting bits as if they were his own hands, hot from a long hard day’s work. OreBoreUS was tired. He was tired. His head hurt. It was time for them to rest. He started to reach for the cooling switch, paused, stopped. Somewhere in his bones he could feel that something was wrong. The rhythms of OreBoreUS were sending him a message. He turned his head slowly through the air licking his lips as he went, trying to taste the problem. Finally he focused on the ELF.
A sheet of paper was sitting there. He picked it up and read it: J=2km N-NW. It was a present from Rob Roy. The EuroWyrm was close. Too close to shut down. That was what he had been feeling. Martti Jalander was barely two thousand meters away. Knowing that, it wasn’t hard to isolate the slight change in the vibrations coming from the tread rings. This close, the granite would transmit the sounds from the passing of the other wyrm in the same way that a tuning fork did.
Silently he apologized to OreBoreUS. He couldn’t afford to stop now. Not when his lead had narrowed to three hundred meters. “Just a little while longer my beauty,” he said, “just a little while longer and then you can rest. Less than a thousand meters, a half hour, no longer.” He typed in the command override that kept the computer from automatically shutting him down. As they moved on he could feel the gestalt building once again. OreBoreUS became more than just a tunneling machine. It became a part of his self. He was no longer a wyrm rider, he was the wyrm.
His jaws, the huge cutting bits, were terribly hot and tired, and his head pounded, but he shook that off. The vibrational story his treads were telling him was clear. Jormungand was near, but not near enough. Not if E.R. kept going. Jalander was too late. A few hundred meters of stone was all that separated OreBoreUS from victory over Jormungand. He chewed into the wall with gusto. Only a little way further and his triumph would be complete. A chunk of stone crunched down his gullet, dropped into his inner furnace, and was excreted as black glass behind him. Another followed. He moved forward a meter, another. He was two hundred meters from the mid point. One hundred. Fifty. He hit a huge vein of chromium. Disaster. His pace slowed to a fraction of what it had been. Not only was it harder to cut, but with its melting temperature of 1,850°C the smelter couldn’t process it and it tended to foul the sprayers.
He reached out with his treads, tasting for the enemy. Jormungand was close and getting closer. A race that had been a sure thing seconds ago became dicey. As he chewed through the chromium he cried and swore at the fates. His pulse hammered a wild beat in his temples. This was a thing that must not happen. Jormungand must not win. Ten meters were crossed in the time he felt the other wyrm cover a hundred. Another ten. At last he felt his jaws close on silicate granite once again. He lurched forward. Only thirty meters to go. But, already he could sense it was too late. He would not arrive before Jormungand. The last few meters between OreBoreUS and the line that marked the mid-point of the race passed. He felt the other wyrm close up the last of the lead. OreBoreUS, overheated and tired, could not summon up the necessary speed for a clean win. But he had to. Losing was not an option.
Together the two Wyrms crossed the invisible line that marked the end of the race. It was a tie. For the first time in his life E.R. had failed to win. It was beyond bearing. He had to do something.
Martti was sweaty and exhausted but triumphant. The ELF confirmed that he had tied the American. It was not victory, but it was enough. In some ways, it was even better. The publicity would be fantastic. He and E.R. would share a handshake and the spotlight. If they worked it right it would be a brighter spotlight than either of them could have earned alone. There would be no disappointed nationalistic news service hunting for some other story to remove the sting of failure.
That was when he noticed something wrong. The character of Jormungand’s internal sounds had changed. He ran a quick diagnostic, but nothing showed as malfunctioning. A light began to flash on the control board. It was a proximity alert. The computer was showing OreBoreUS’s vibratory signature as very close and still moving. That was strange. They were both supposed to stop and turn on their coms for a remote interview when the race ended. Instead, OreBoreUS was passing on to Jormungand’s left. Martti shook his head and stopped his machine while he waited to find out what the crazy American was up to.
The Wyrm OreBoreUS felt wracking pain in his head and jaws. He had been tunneling for too long. He desperately needed a break. Sleep called to him from the depths of his soul, but its voice was not as loud as hate’s. The Midgard Serpent Jormungand had robbed him of his victory, robbed him of everything. He must have vengeance. Still, he had to rest his jaws, if even just for a few minutes. Ahh! There! He was through the last bit of granite and into Jormungand’s back trail. He could close his mouth for a short while. He turned and slithered into the tunnel.
“What is that idiot doing!?” Martti asked of the air. E.R. had tunneled completely past Jormungand and was now behind him in the passage leading to London. At least, that was what the computer claimed. It also claimed that OreBoreUS was coming at him at maximum surface speed. He didn’t know what was going on, but he didn’t want be in the way of a runaway wyrm, either.
Reluctantly he reactivated Jormungand and cut through the thin wall to his left so that he could move into OreBoreUS’s back tunnel.
Ahead he could feel the enemy start to chew rock again. The coward was trying to escape. But it was too late for that. He could feel it. He knew he would be there before Jormungand escaped. He was right, but it was a close thing. Only the very end of the other wyrm was sticking out of the side passage when OreBoreUS arrived. That was enough. Without a moment’s hesitation he sank his jaws into the retreating tail. A spray of molten rock rewarded him.
“Voi Vittu!” whispered Martti. “He’s gone out of his tiny little mind.” His hands, moving with the same mechanical precision that they always did, danced across the panel. He quickly programmed a series of violent gyrations into Jormungand’s guidance computer, trying to separate his wyrm from OreBoreUS. It was no use. He fractured the thin wall between the two wyrms, but he could not dislodge the American’s bore. In horror he felt the tail of Jormungand being pulled further into OreBoreUS’ jaws. Yellow indicators flashed on his board as lovingly maintained systems began to fail. He could feel his carefully maintained calm and perspective starting to go with them.
If it had been possible he would have bailed out then, but opening the hatch would be like stepping into the flames of a crematorium. He tried desperately to think of something he could do to stop Eddison before he hit Jormungand’s fusion plant. A mad idea struck him.
OreBoreUS screamed as he felt Jormungand’s jaws close on his own delicate tail. The two wyrms were now joined tail to jaw to tail to jaw in an endless loop. “So,” he thought, “it is a race again. Who will devour whom first.” He redoubled his efforts, feeling his teeth crack and grind as they slowly crushed the heavy armor of his foe. It hurt, but he had to win.
Martti shook his head sadly as he looked at the damage control board. His beautiful machine was breaking down and there was nothing he could do. He had hoped that by taking OreBoreUS’ sprayer array into his own bore he would be able to use the action of the two machines grinding against each other as a friction brake until something shorted out. But the Wyrms were too flexible and too tough. A bright red light came on in the center of the board and an alarm sounded.
“There,” thought OreBoreUS. He could feel Jormungand’s heart pulsing beneath his teeth. He paused for a moment to savor his triumph, then bit down.
“–no, Michael,” said David McIntyre. “I’m not sure what’s happening down there right now. The monitoring equipment seems to be having some problems, maybe because of the two wyrms in close proximity. Still, this is an historic moment. Even as we speak the race is ending a few thousand feet below where we sit. In just a few short months the rails will be in place, the air pumped out, and maglev trains will be shooting between the continents at speeds in excess of five hundred miles an hour. I’m glad that you agreed to join us on the ship here at the finish line.”
“How could I turn down a scoop like this?”
Those were Michael Gordon’s last words. Before he could say anything more the ship was tossed into the air by the force of a huge underwater explosion. The simultaneous breaching of two fusion reactor containment fields and the resulting mini-nova killed everything within a fourteen-mile radius. That included the Infinity Project ship and a half dozen smaller pleasure vessels along to witness history. In all, two hundred and twenty-nine people died then. Almost that many more were killed by the tidal wave that swept the tunnels clean. Of all of them only E.R. died happy. He was finally at the bottom of that large cold body of water he had been craving when it all started.
Copyright © Kelly McCullough 2000. May not be reproduced without the author’s permission.