Like every modern scientist, Ferdinand earned his pay by making persuasion videos. A compelling enough documentary usually led to a brief crowd-funded career. Though traditionally trained, he eased into the dominating entertainment era with all the other academics who now had to film for income. His decades-old, unhip publications meant nothing anymore. Thus, at age 56, he took on the latest tactics of the cyber economy.
He strolled into the shanty town with a minicam in each of the two buttons of his white shirt collar. His straw hat hid a microphone. The thin power cable ran down the back of his neck to a battery pack in his slacks pocket. The hidden cords taped to him felt like live snakes, because old-school biologists only filmed one way: reluctantly.
The wind wended around the corrugated metal shacks as though to bully away the junkie population. Each smack of the breeze covered Ferdinand with a slight rust odor and plenty of autumn coldness. He tasted the brown dirt and its hint of stenchy bare feet. Bony children scuffed along running errands and exchanges for their emaciated moms and dads. The parents, all addicts, stayed in the tawny hovels. Ferdinand saw only a scabby ankle or a filthy sleeve through the gaps in the rope-hinged doors. Sometimes the knobby limbs flopped outside, whether to air out or just to loll.
The creature he came to see, however, had become the ugliest of them all. A gargantuan tentacle, eight meters in diameter at its thickest stretch, lay like an overfed python through the heart of the shanty town. Studded with sheet-metal huts, only streaks of its black skin remained visible. The top of the slack beast served as flooring for clusters of the biggest shanties. The sides of the godly appendage served as a wall for countless more homes hammered into its flesh.
The creature curled around a nest of free-standing shanties. It formed a crude number six, four kilometers long and viewable from space. Ferdinand only now beheld its majesty, its grasp at beauty among the filth it had found above ground. He had watched every online documentary about the appendage. Now, after so many taxi rides, he finally stood close enough to fully admire the chthonic beast. Its warmth came out to touch him, fueled by a heart hidden in the Earth.
The warmth. The inert tentacle radiated a soothing 32 degrees Celsius. Yet it made no movement against those who exploited its body heat. Even uninsulated, the “free-heat huts” trapped in enough hot air to keep the occupants comfortable for a few extra months before winter. The meth addicts could lounge against the generous beast for its hot blood, or they could waste away in homeless shelters instead. They couldn’t smoke meth in the homeless shelters.
Ferdinand approached and slid his arm between two closely-spaced shacks. His palm pressed the thick black skin of the beast. It felt like he just put on a microwaved mitten. He slowly gasped, but the smile never came. Where the sheet metal cut in, he saw a scabbing of hardened maroon blood encrusted further with dead flies.
Ferdinand shuddered and withdrew his hand. The junkies hadn’t even merged their shelters to share one metal wall as two. They wouldn’t even hammer in the sheets a little closer to their neighbors. At least whalers would use what they could of the whale.
Hardly on the horizon, the gray blur of the city loomed. Ferdinand slouched and still saw its fog over the low shacks. He spotted a jeep less than 20 meters away from him, the only vehicle in the shanty town and the only jeep he had ever seen painted white. The color either made it an emergency response vehicle or simply deflected summertime heat. Whatever the case, it reminded Ferdinand of a medicine cabinet exuding the smell of pills.
A huge bodybuilder pivoted in the driver’s seat. He scanned the dirt trails with a glint of heroic concern in his eyes. His gray safari clothes would look loose-fitting on anyone but him. The veins in his meaty forearms didn’t throb out like those in muscle mags, which probably meant his last workout happened yesterday. Even so, the 240-pound humanitarian still needed cooling, judging by the saucer-sized stains under each arm. The cold wind only seemed to bother his blonde bangs.
Ferdinand approached him. Such a disciplined health advocate could probably fire out a stream or two of good English. The wiry kids and stoned adults, whether they milled or lolled, would only slur out something too improper for the geeks who viewed docs.
The big blonde smiled and waved with a salute which belonged on a postcard. His teeth, incredibly, had no gaps between them, no diastema to fill out that blocky jaw. Apparently, genetics rather than steroids had widened his face.
“Good day,” Ferdinand said. He shook the driver’s hand which waited for him over the tiny jeep door. “Dr. Ferdinand.”
“Call me Vaughn,” the bodybuilder said. “Doing a documentary?”
“Well climb aboard. I can drive you around to the most interesting areas.”
“Oh,” Ferdinand said. “I don’t want to take up too much of your time–”
“Nonsense. Don’t worry about gas money or anything. We’ve got this beautiful creature to study.”
“Uh, alright. Thank-you.”
Ferdinand hurried around the jeep and climbed in the passenger seat. Vaughn started the engine as though in a little race. His huge calves, Ferdinand noticed, jutted far past his rolled-up pant legs. He wore Steel-Heels, a modern offshoot of steel-toe boots in shoe form. Bodybuilders bought them for their durability, since regular footwear wore out quickly from bearing so much mass. Three hundred pounds had become the new two hundred, just as people demanded more spectacle out of science as well.
Vaughn drove off at a timid sixteen kilometers per hour. His head flicked constantly to watch out for the gazing kids and catatonic adults.
“So,” Vaughn said, “addicts or aliens?”
“Aliens,” Ferdinand replied without pause. DNA samples had debunked all the alien theories years ago, but he smirked out of politeness. “Just so you know, I have some recording equipment on.”
“Of course,” Vaughn said. “I don’t mind.”
Vaughn smiled broadly as though he did some doc editing himself. He probably knew positivity would help with aesthetics. The smile lasted even as he hunched to spot all the bony children among the equally frail shanties.
“I guess you see all the washed-up biologists drawn to the area,” Ferdinand said. “And maybe a few sneakier ones who just want whatever dirt they can find on you.”
“I don’t mind that either,” Vaughn said. “I love helping out around here too much, I guess.”
The jeep drove over a mosaic of children’s footprints in the mud. Ferdinand squinted toward the sinkhole half a kilometer west where the creature had first wriggled into the light. Even after four years of stagnancy, the widest part of the beauty lost no measurable weight. It still filled most of the opening like a living mountain range.
“Did any researchers sneak down the sinkhole yet?” Ferdinand asked.
“Nope,” Vaughn said. “Still illegal to see the whole worm.”
Ferdinand rolled his eyes as Vaughn made his next shoulder check. Hundreds of shacks encrusted the creature, even though city officials had criminalized that too. The metal dwellings rolled by, and the cool autumn sun reflected nothing off of them.
The wind stank of human filth and something else, maybe the smell of the creature’s pain. To evict all the encroachers and tear out their homes, however, would only weigh one controversy over another. Today, hearts swelled for homelessness over animal abuse. Ferdinand glared into the puny alleys between shacks. He could easily slip into any of them and push a syringe through the skin. He could test for infection and maybe even nudge the police into protecting the marvelous beast. Despite all its suffering, though, the law still forbade that one needle poke.
“We call it an appendage,” Ferdinand said over the rumble of the jeep, “not a worm.”
“I know,” Vaughn said. His smile expanded. “The squatters have dumbed down the polysyllabic to the monosyllabic. You won’t get much out of them. You come off as one of the honest and proper scientists. The addicts here revile anyone successful.”
“Including yourself, I presume?”
Vaughn made a couple of redundant shoulder checks. “I can’t help but to help.”
The wind tried to push away Vaughn’s words, but only had luck with his hair. The ugly shacks rolled past, their walls and roofs flapping in the same tough breeze. Their corrugated metal, coated with multicolored rust and dirt, protruded from all but the thinnest slivers of the tentacle. Only dried, dark blood showed through. Even the plywood looked driven in deep. It left unhealing wounds in the wondrous new flesh the world had birthed.
“I must admit,” Ferdinand said, “I personally wouldn’t bother helping these scofflaws. It looks like they spaced their huts to hurt the appendage more, to vent their own agonies on its skin. Either that or they just hate the closeness of each other.”
Vaughn’s lips pinched together in a barely suppressed smirk. His playful eyes too said he had helped pound in some of the sheet metal scraps himself.
I can’t help but to help, that guilty giveaway said.
The urchins ran alongside the jeep, often veering to deliver drugs to their parents. Some waved their twiglike arms at Vaughn. In doing so, the little peddlers of life and death hoisted baggies and syringes. Vaughn saluted them. Calories danced away on his big face, producing that huge, flexing smile.
The scabrous appendage shrank as they rode toward its tip. Wherever shanties wouldn’t fit, the exploiters had hammered planks into the creature’s hide to form benches. Addicts slept curled above and below the splintery wood.
The tip of the tentacle narrowed to a simple cone. It radiated too little heat for human use. Crows had pecked it into something prickly, but not enough to warp its conical shape. The leathery skin had a toughness only man could harm.
Vaughn parked a respectful few meters away. Ferdinand sprang from the jeep and knelt beside the appendage. Though blunt and dead-looking, the last meter of it twitched. Its side-to-side flops occurred rhythmically, every four seconds.
“I’ve always wondered how such an amazing, gorgeous beast can breathe and feed itself so deep underground,” Vaughn said.
He stood over Ferdinand, though still at a respectful distance to attain a broader view.
“We believe it maintains a superslow metabolism,” Ferdinand said, “far slower than other bradymetabolic animals. It probably hibernates. But no one knows why it suddenly basks here and why it won’t react to all these…stabbings.”
“Well, some of the other scientists I showed around think it has a mouth in the middle part still underground, and its other end matches what we see here. So maybe I got the ‘worm’ name right. After all, on rainy days worms will lie with other worms.”
Ferdinand looked up in time to see Vaughn wink. The brawny man looked around and waved to whatever waifish moonshiners he spotted. They had plenty of heat in them from the booze and needed little from the tentacle’s last stretch. They sat with their blackened sneakers on mattresses dragged into the open elements.
“Do you know how long it has moved like this, visibly?” Ferdinand asked.
“It just started this morning,” Vaughn replied. “I called other researchers, but they don’t care much.”
“They can’t afford to,” Ferdinand said to the cityscape. “They know of the unanimous extension theory. We expect the appendage to reach out further from the sinkhole, maybe far enough to smash the city. No one wants the onus of warning the officials. If the beast remains still, we’ll get fined for alarmism and sued for evacuation costs. If the beast extends, we’ll face manslaughter charges for not calling in soon enough. As for the squatters organizing an evacuation–”
“They’ll find ways of botching it,” Vaughn said.
“I’d call the mayor’s office myself, but they’ll want more proof that the beast will move. This looks to me like its warm-up.”
Ferdinand stood. Vaughn looked a decade older with concern. They both knew all the appendage’s pain will hasten the extension. Every hammer blow into the flesh ticked another second off its basking time. One thrash could kill hundreds, starting with the squatters.
“I can take you to another expert still in the area,” Vaughn said, looking afar.
“Let’s go, then,” Ferdinand said.
They hurried to the jeep and swung themselves into the front seats in unison. Vaughn made a U-turn and drove faster than before. His meaty head made the most dexterous, speedy checks Ferdinand had ever seen. Scraggly kids darted from random hovels or the spaces between them. Vaughn tapped the brake subtly for each child. He expertly dodged shack corners and even their flapping doors made of cloth or cardboard. He seemed tirelessly skilled at whatever tasks he needed, gifted even. The jeep weaved past dozens of shanties in the maze without brushing one sleeve on a clothesline.
Every child had a lit rollie jutting from his or her mouth. No matter how young, they all had become bundles of bones and nerves that only knew of smoking. They smoked foraged tobacco from cigarette butts mixed with whatever substances they could skim from their parents’ deliveries. Everyone stank of many different resins.
“It gets worse in the shadows,” Vaughn said. He checked the sun’s position. “All day they dope up. All night they drug down. The grownups do their drinking. People today have fallen away from caring.”
Vaughn ended his poetry with another smile, one begot by perfect nutrition since his days in the womb. Ferdinand’s eyes finally broke free and studied the huge man. Vaughn practically breathed smiles, as though raised by dolphins. More realistically, his valkyrie of a mother must have married a eugenicist wrestler. How else could a man keep his calories, physique, and attitude up while spending so much time here? The elitists had endowed him with intellect and affability. They built up a knight in the wildness and squalor of the modern world. Ferdinand beheld an apex paladin who couldn’t fail at anything, especially here among the human twigs.
Of course, Vaughn politely overlooked the askance stares.
A sleek gray hut swelled in the windshield, the tallest and cleanest of any hut anywhere. The back of its walls, ceiling, and floor bent perfectly around the curves of the appendage. The builder must have 3D printed the parts and snapped them together to construct this little research station. It popped out from the surrounding mess of shacks like a new trailer. Vaughn pulled up and kept the engine running.
“You go alone,” Vaughn said. “I’ll go pass your concerns to some other people I know.”
“Thanks,” Ferdinand replied. “You might just save this whole community along with parts of the city.”
Vaughn flashed that glimmer of guilt, or perhaps mischief, in his eyes again. He had a hefty handful of IQ points, unfairly so in this dried-out strip of stoners and drudgery. Ferdinand left the jeep slowly. To let Vaughn go felt wrong. He probably knew more about the beast, its nature and its needs, than most of the scientists who strolled this way for petty profit. A humanitarian this skilled at everything would have picked up something.
“I’ll find you later to help with your video,” Vaughn said in a flurry of multitasking. All at once he waved, did a U-turn, and shoulder checked all the familiar shacks pinned to the appendage and nestled around it. He sped off, and the slanted outhouses called homes engulfed even him.
Ferdinand hurried to the station’s plastic door and rapped on it. It opened on simple and perfect 3D-printed hinges. A slouching old man in a labcoat stood inside. His eyelids and shoulders drooped too much, and his shaggy beard would soak up scorn in any respectable laboratory.
“Good day,” Ferdinand said. “Dr. Ferdinand. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”
“Perfect,” the scientist said as he shook Ferdinand’s hand. “Thank-you for stopping by. I could really use your help for a quick scan. Come in, please.”
Ferdinand entered the well-lit, solar-powered station. He sidled to avoid bumping some tall stools used as tables. The wind rustled precarious heaps of fast-food containers and canned beverages which covered the seats. The floor had empty take-out trays of its own stacked about knee high. At the back, the edges of the room contacted the appendage humanely. The curved plastic stuck to the beast’s skin with a caulklike adhesive.
A blast of words would soon come. These little labs always vibrated with chat after days of pent-up boredom. Ferdinand fired out his packet first.
“The tip of the appendage started moving this morning,” Ferdinand said. “You might have time to disassemble your station and ship out before extension. I suggest you warn your colleagues. And please consider consulting the authorities. The more of us who disseminate the warning, the more likely they’ll take us seriously and evacuate.”
“Incredible,” the scientist said. “Sad, but incredible.”
His bushy gray mustache looked like two dead mice. It moved about as much. Ferdinand put his hands on his hips for some extra presence. He saw no lab equipment among the towers of pungent food containers apart from a laptop on one corner of the floor. The letters had partially rubbed off the keyboard.
“I have little to leave behind in the way of findings,” the scientist said. “Before you leave, could you place your palm on the appendage there for a quick heat scan? It will take a second, and our big friend might like you more than my unsavory lot of volunteer subjects.”
The weighty old man pointed to a palm-sized rectangle of blue tape on the tentacle wall. Alone, it stuck there like a picture frame with nothing inside. Ferdinand approached the appendage and placed his palm within the tape borders. More than the warmth, he felt the grit left by many hands held there before. The scientist, who lacked both a nametag and the social-skills equivalent, took a mobile device from his labcoat pocket. He held it a few centimeters from the back of Ferdinand’s hand.
“Alright, thank-you,” the scientist said on his mope to the laptop.
Ferdinand went for the door.
“Unbelievable…” the scientist said. Kneeling like a knight at his laptop, he gazed up at Ferdinand. “This heat transfer surpasses all four hundred samples by more than double. The vasodilators have flushed this region with blood. The species not only feels pain from all the construction, but fondness as well.”
“I guess it really does like me,” Ferdinand said.
“I meant that literally, Dr. Ferdinand. My research tests the animal’s metabolic reactions to different subjects. And now I have the world’s only proof of emotional communication with man. If I hadn’t spent my last twenty-four dollars on lunch, I could pay enough subjects to confirm the finding right away. The appendage may have started liking us all, or maybe just you for whatever strange aspect of your hand physiology. You could become quite valuable for getting grants, Dr. Ferdinand.”
“Look up my email,” Ferdinand said. “We’ll get in touch later. I need to get everyone off the appendage.”
Ferdinand bolted outside and closed the door to cut off any protest. Now, however, he could only stand and ponder. How can one panicky biologist lead an evacuation of homeless junkies? The eight abusers he could see from here looked sedated into borderline comas. A strong enough wind could bury them in the dirt like seeds.
Ferdinand walked away only to stop after four steps. The cold headwind already hurt him again. He tucked into the narrow space between the wall of the research station and a neighboring plywood shack. There, he pondered more until a skinny woman with a few stubs of teeth walked past. She knocked on the door, sweating out the last of the drugs she took. The nose had become the mouth for this one, and that mouth ate cocaine.
“Yes?” the scientist asked. His voice barely made it through his mustache and around the corner where Ferdinand overheard.
“Sir,” the woman’s gummy voice said, “do you maybe have a bottle of water? Maybe? I haven’t cleaned my kids’ teeth in two months.”
“Please, come in.”
The door closed and cut off their voices. Ferdinand could hear them faintly, though, through the thin plastic wall. The woman spoke loudly. She probably suffered hearing loss from the constant drone of traffic in the years before the worm. The scientist spoke louder for her.
“I can spare one bottle, ma’am. Would you mind putting your hand on that rectangle there for a quick heat scan? I’ll give you a full bottle for ten seconds of your time.”
“Alright,” the junkie said. “Don’t expect any clothes to come off. I can still bite, you know.”
“Just boring old science here, ma’am. Now wait one second, please.”
Ferdinand pressed his ear to the wall. Eavesdropping took his attention away from the blood-caked appendage and its wafts of sickly warmth. Apart from Vaughn’s jeep, the shanty town had no other safe surface to lean on anyway.
“Unbelievable…” the scientist said. Ferdinand pictured him gazing up from his humble kneeling spot at the laptop. “This heat transfer surpasses all four hundred samples by more than double. The vasodilators have flushed this region with blood. The species not only feels pain, but fondness as well.”
“Sir, my kids got things crawlin’ on them you’ve never read about in any book. Do you have that water you promised?”
“Yes, of course,” the man’s voice vibrated through the wall. “You and your kids could end up rich because of this. My research tests the animal’s metabolic reactions to different subjects. And now I have the world’s only proof of emotional communication. The appendage only likes you, for whatever strange aspect of your hand physiology. If I just had twenty-four dollars handy, I could pay my colleagues to hurry along the next grant application.”
“Sir, if you do get that twenty-four dollars, could I borrow half or maybe even all of it? I’ve got a kid who will stab me in my sleep if he don’t get his meth.”
Ferdinand tightened his fist, but he only took it for a walk. He stomped away until he noticed Vaughn’s jeep parked far ahead. The hulking man at the wheel waved to everyone. Ferdinand stopped and stared.
Vaughn knew every detail of this rotten skidmark on Earth. Surely he had learned about the scammer, the scum who fed on the scum. So why did Vaughn bring the region’s one good scientist here? To oust the evil one through proper channels?
Ferdinand now had to admit to himself that he wouldn’t have believed in a scam this deplorable unless he saw it evinced firsthand. Vaughn just had a sneaky way of teaching newcomers.
But the scam almost went overlooked. Only a fluke revealed it. What did Vaughn really want from this encounter? Did his mischievous look give off a hint, or give him away?
Through his spotless windshield, Vaughn made brief eye contact with Ferdinand. He pretended not to notice, even as Ferdinand waved jumping-jack style. Of course, the bodybuilder did notice. He even nodded politely to every other person. They all shambled or sat around looking as similar in their filthiness as bacteria. As always, Vaughn made each moment into a sort of drunken handshake. He then quickly drove away, heading toward the sinkhole. Over a hundred slanted rooftops blocked it from view.
Ferdinand began a jog, a slow jog, but one his ageing legs could maintain for at least a few minutes. To his right the coppery shacks rattled in the wind. They flew by in a rust-red blur of mud and metal. The appendage filled the view to his left, its entire hide pierced with the same trashy dwellings. It looked like a giant vine with enough crowded thorns to hide its entirety.
Skeletal urchins gawked at him. Ferdinand saw new teeth that had grown through gums only to have mottled soon after. He saw bony elbows and knees that resembled ball-and-stick models of molecules from his university days. As he ran, his heart pounded for the kids and himself. The wind took what little heat they had as they delivered the dope and ran the region’s petty economy. Their parents stayed stooped inside the blood-heated shelters. They sat bent up like folding chairs, lounging or doped into a permanent lethargy. The ground itself wanted them to die and go lower. The shivering children carried not only their parents’ drugs, but the same stupor in their eyes.
Ferdinand’s ribs and diaphragm wanted to rip the rest of him apart. Forced to slow down, he noticed the appendage moving. It bent subtly, but only noticeably when viewed over a kilometer-long stretch. Its barnacle-like sheet metal squealed and thrummed as usual, but this time not from the wind. The whole town wouldn’t even know unless they looked, and who ever wanted to look? Ferdinand ran rightward in case the tentacle decided to roll his way. At least the kids would scurry and avoid getting crushed. Vaughn had his jeep and observantness to help him dodge the uncoiling.
The benighted addicts, though, and their opposite castes in the city, would die by the thousands as the tentacle extended.
Ferdinand stopped and covered his eyes. Panting, he tried to visualize the sinkhole from space. He’d have to race around it afoot while Vaughn could simply drive around to the other side of the appendage. And Vaughn would indeed drive there – to hide, traitorously, behind the beast.
Ferdinand lunged at the tentacle. He grabbed the eave of the sturdiest looking shanty and hoisted himself onto its roof with a painful pull-up. Dirt and rust smeared the front of his clothes. He seized a smaller hut’s roof atop the one he stood on and clambered up to the second story. Although it pained and spurred the underground giant, Ferdinand scrambled up the rounded top of the tentacle and stood panting between two shacks.
He saw the white jeep on the other side. It sat parked among the brownness of the dwellings, about a hundred meters rightward along the appendage. Ferdinand jumped down from one rooftop corner to another, shaking the shacks beneath him and indeed the whole tentacle. He hopped onto the dirt and rolled in it to save his ankles.
The urchins on this side, same as the ones on the other side, gaped at him before scampering back to their parents’ dirty chores. The adult junkies peered from their tattered doorways. Most slept, probably doped out. Ferdinand saw only thinly fleshed skulls with nothing left inside. They had smoked and aged until they looked like worn-out socks.
Ferdinand ran to the empty jeep and banged on the hood hard enough to leave a dent. Nearby, Vaughn had his broad back turned while pounding a five-foot-tall sheet of metal into the appendage. The corrugations looked like dozens of lined-up spotty gutters, all gushing blood instead of rain. The skin bled down to the dirt as the new wall stabbed in inch by forceful inch. Vaughn whacked the edge of the sheet metal with his left Steel-Heel. The heel itself worked perfectly as a hammer.
Upon hearing the boom of his crumpling jeep hood, Vaughn spun. He faced Ferdinand with an aw-shucks smirk and a shrug in the works.
“You spend your IQ points on this?!” Ferdinand yelled. “You can’t help but to help, huh? You held me up back there so you can slowly kill this species for your self-aggrandizement! Look at you! How can a millionaire have a midlife crisis anyway? Well you keep pounding, buttercup.”
Ferdinand stomped away, this time on a dirt path perpendicular to the appendage. Vaughn hopped after him on his one shod foot. Having no skill in this for a change, he scuffed to a stop.
“I meant help the beast!” Vaughn shouted after Ferdinand. “Not the people! You have to cut yourself off from them, sever all the honor and honesty we have for the worst of us! Don’t you know that yet?! How can you not recognize a lost cause?!”
Vaughn spun and beheld a spate of dwellings rolling past. He scrambled into his jeep. Ferdinand jogged backwards a quarter kilometer from the shanty town to film the whole appendage movement. It didn’t extend, but retract. It snaked backwards along its own rut. The corrugated metal shook but held. Ferdinand recorded as the giant tentacle slid into the sinkhole from where it had emerged.
The attached shanties and their occupants shuddered. They all descended into the sinkhole along with the arm that kept them warm. All around the sliding mass, the less sturdy shelters fell apart like houses of cards. The children dashed away into the city where the body of scientists had gotten their lead theory wrong. With all the controversy and exploitation abound, they failed to think of the simplest action for the beast.
“Screw ’em all to hell,” Ferdinand said.
He filmed until the tip of the appendage disappeared into the unplumbed depths. Now the world would know how it eats.
by Nicholas Stillman