Poor Fenwick had been in the rear, so when the drilling machine struck the heavy glass worm enclosure he was thrown right out of the hatch and onto the atrium floor.
He’s having a rotten day, Ben thought. But the mole people in the cabin had also been thrown around. Three had lost their ray guns. Ben snatched the last of the ray guns from the mole leader and trained it on her. That out of the way, he was able to do what everyone else was doing: he stared through the windshield at what had recently been an impregnable glass worm container. Now the thirty-foot worm was slinking out between the shards of broken glass. Its poisonous spines were twitching.
“Okay,” Ben said. “We need a new plan.”
The worm reached the nearest of the mole women. Its spiky head shot down and pierced the leather of her suit. In an instant her back arched and she fell to the floor, writhing briefly, before her helmeted body grew stiff in front of their eyes.
“You see that?” Ben asked the mole leader. He waved the ray gun at the worm. “They’re poisonous. You can’t tame ’em. Heck, you probably can’t even eat ’em.”
The little mole woman couldn’t understand the words, but it looked like she was getting the idea. She leaned forward and meeped into a microphone. But the moles didn’t fall back. They held their worm crooks out straight in front of them and tried to surround the worm.
Fenwick, alone in the shadow of the drilling machine, rose from the floor and tried to reason with the mole people. He didn’t have any more luck than Ben.
“Fenwick!” Violet shouted. “Behind you! The worm!”
Young Fenwick tried to dive for the underside of the drilling machine, but too late. His body rose, squirming and jerking, clasped in the mouth parts of his Improved Worm. The venomous spines had already got him.
“Oh, Fenwick,” breathed the young woman with the Spherical Obfuscator.
“He’s already gone,” Violet said. She tapped Ben’s shoulder on her way through the hatch.
“Wait!” Professor Zappencackler called. He threw the Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover after her, and she caught it without slowing on her way toward the venomous worm.
Ben was miming eating in front of the mole leader. Then he clutched his head and writhed on the floor. “Poisonous! Get it?” She ignored him as she meeped more orders into the microphone.
“She must think they can eat the worms anyway,” the Sphere bearer said. “Maybe they can. But how can they catch them?”
The mole people were forming into a double line. The front line kept their crooks extended, while the back line aimed their ray guns at the worm. It had dropped Fenwick’s body and was now looking at the second glassy worm tube, from which its comrade was observing events with interest. The great worm inched toward the unbroken tube and began to coil around it.
Violet leaped onto its tail, the Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover in one hand, and she began to scale its spiny back. The worm reflexively struck at her with its spines. This had no effect on a robot, of course, but the worm kept trying anyway. Violet ran lightly up its back and wrapped her legs around what we will – for convenience – call its neck, brandishing the Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover. She fired off a blast.
The Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover emitted a small but devastating cone of dessication: three spines on the worm’s face crumbled away into dust. The worm came to an immediate stop; it seemed be be considering the situation. Its tail lashed up at Violet, but she held on and the tail spines snapped off when they tried to puncture her metallic body. The worm slowly loosened its grip on the tube and it slithered onto the floor, only to face the ranks of mole persons. Their little faces were set in expressions of grim intent, and they advanced in step. Violet twisted upright on the worm’s neck.
The worm crooks looked useless for their purpose of winding and binding the great worm; but the mole people were using them now more or less like pikes, guarding the gunwomen behind them.
“They just want to take it down,” Ben said. He climbed out of the drilling machine and approached the melee, but he had no idea what he could do to help. Zappencackler, the Sphere bearer, and the mole crew followed.
The worm lunged toward the moles, but Violet used careful blasts of the Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover to stop it. It swayed in place and tried to get at her with its mouth parts. The mole line advanced until it reached the bodies of Fenwick and the fallen mole.
Violet aimed the Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover at the dead mole person, but then she reconsidered and pointed it at Fenwick, instead. She let loose another conical field of dessication. Fenwick’s body dried up in an instant and curled in on itself.
The moles came to a stop. Violet raised the Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover and aimed it at their front line.
The worm whipped its tail back and forth. Its chiming impacts on the remaining worm tube were the only sounds in the atrium.
The silence held for a long moment until the mole leader called her troops back. They all formed up around the drilling machine for a short conversation of meeps, but the upshot was that they all got back inside and – with pointed looks at Violet – they backed the machine up and reversed it down the hole in the atrium floor. Up above, along the galleries, the students raised an enthusiastic cheer.
Ben walked up to the Sphere bearer, who was looking down sadly at Fenwick’s mummified corpse. “Sorry about Fenwick,” he said gently, reaching out to her.
“He was going to write my Non-Linear Dissolution paper for me,” she sniffed.
That reminded Ben where he was. He withdrew his hand.
Up on the worm’s neck, Violet was waving the Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover over her head.
“Can somebody figure out what to do about this worm?”