Little Red Worms
They’re just for reclaiming the desert, right? Right?
It was just a little red worm. Tiny. Photosensitive. Looked completely harmless.
And then it opened its mouth. “Holy fuck!”
Dave snickered. “Yeah, and we haven’t even touched it yet. It’s actually a caterpillar, lives in the desert, comes from a dull little moth that buries its eggs in the sand and they bake into this evil-looking little thing.”
I was immediately suspicious. “And we have this why?”
“Because it’s a commission, kind of. This little guy is popularly called a Mongolian Death Worm, and they wanted to know if we could make him bigger.”
“Not Mongolia. Saudi Arabia.”
I considered that. “What do they want them for? Nobody’s been reading Dune over there, have they? Or worse, watching Beetlejuice?”
“No, and possibly,” Dave told me. “I already explained to them about the size limitations of the process, just gave them a kind of general rundown of how it works, and they said they understood but they still wanted something as large as possible. So I’m working on plotting out the mod for this scary little guy, and then Pete can run more sims to see which big snake we want to mod with him.”
That made sense. To get a big one, you have to mod a big one. “I’d say only non-venomous constrictors,” I suggested. “With that mouth, I think making him venomous would just be gilding the lily – and then dipping it in arsenic. So they won’t tell you what they want big ones for?”
“No, but I think I know. These little guys are aerators, like earthworms only for the desert. So if you put some big ones out there, you get more aeration, more turning of the soil.”
I started to grin. “They’re trying to get it back, you think? Desert reclamation?”
“Most likely. The desert has been expanding, according to the latest report I found on National Geographic’s website, at almost a foot a year for the past decade or three. If this works, Saudi Arabia could fight that trend and possibly win in the future. I did warn them that once the modded worms are in there they’ll probably never be able to get them back out again. They didn’t care.”
“And this came from the government?”
“Yup. I double-checked, even.”
I pulled up a stool and sat down, watching the red worm nose around the inside of the specimen container. “Are these dangerous on their own?”
Dave shook his head. “To plants, like any caterpillar. These may also eat carrion, but nothing I could find confirmed that and they wouldn’t touch the meat I put in the tank with them.”
“Fresh meat?” He nodded, and I shook my head and stood back up. “They aren’t going to find much fresh meat in the middle of the desert, not under the sand. Let’s try some jerky.”
Joey occasionally buys jerky at the store, but he never eats more than one piece of it and then he doesn’t want any more. I found his second-to-last acquisition and dropped a piece into the tank. And then Dave and I stood there watching in horror as the little red Mongolian Death Worms plowed through that thing like tiny red wood chippers. We double-checked to make sure the tank was sealed and then went back out to sit down again. “So…they do eat meat, but only if it’s dried out.”
“Yeah.” He frowned. “Maybe that’s where they got the ‘death worm’ name, do you think? They eat dessicated corpses.”
“That sounds plausible, yeah.” I looked at the one in the cup. “What about a scarlet boa? I’m guessing they want to keep some color, and that’s the only large snake I can think of with reddish coloration.”
“That could work.” Pete was out doing Pete things somewhere, so we logged into the sim program and started plugging in data ourselves. First for the boa, because that was a known animal we actually had specs for, and then for the death worm mod. We started the first sim at fifty-fifty just to get a baseline, and got something right out of a horror movie with what looked like a mouthful of revolving teeth which were in a mouth that could have enveloped a basketball. Twenty-five got us a red boa with an ugly round mouth, and we eventually ended up going up again and got the desired result at seventy percent mod because it balanced the snake’s jaw out so it didn’t look like the mouth was a vacuum attachment anymore. Then we saved the sim and flagged it for Pete so he could go over it himself – we’d all go over it, multiple times, before we so much as touched a live boa with MDW mod.
In the end, we never got to make an extra-large Mongolian Death Worm. Their government had okayed it, yes, but the governments of the other countries around them who also claimed a share of the desert – not to mention the Bedouins who live in it – threw a fit; they said Saudi Arabia was trying to disrupt the traditional trade routes, prevent native peoples from going out into the desert, kill tourists, and destroy the graves of their ancestors. Saudi Arabia’s response to this was the diplomatic equivalent of blowing a raspberry at everyone, and we had to tell them to get their relationship with their neighbors straightened out first and then we could talk worms. They thanked us politely, told us they’d be in touch soon, and then start fighting with said neighbors all over the international news. The UN was not amused by these antics, and they were quick to produce the specific-named subpoena for our records once someone over there realized just what kind of business it was their current problem child had been trying to patronize.
Talking to the international investigators from the UN was interesting. They were nice about it, just really nice and polite, and we showed them the sim we’d settled on and explained what we’d thought the oversized worms were supposed to be for and what their limitations would most likely be. The aeration idea interested them quite a bit, in fact – one of them was originally from the Sahel region in Africa – and we got a call from his government a week later, followed by a container of native aerating worms and some very specific size requests. Or in other words, the Sahelians just wanted really big worms, not really big scary caterpillar worms with horror-movie corpse-eating mouths. We made them three different sizes to test, and then made a few additional batches of the medium-sized ones because they’d worked the best. It would be years before we’d know if the worms were making a difference, but the possible outcome was worth the wait to them and we agreed.
And yes, we did ask: Nobody over there had been reading Dune. Or watching Beetlejuice.