The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 2: Mechanical Earthworm

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Nicholas Belardes is a dual-ethnic Chicano writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the YA-themed edition of The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Barrelhouse, and others.

He illustrated map drawings for the New York Times best-selling novel West of Here, and is the author of the first twitterature in novel form, Small Places, which has been studied as part of digimodernism in literature by scholars who seek to discover the fusion of art with digital technologies, in specific, electronic fiction as a new literary current.

Sometimes a ghostwriter of contemporary fiction and YA, he currently lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his wife Jane. The 12 Rules of Survival is his first MG novel. You can find him a or on Twitter @nickbelardes

Mechanical Earthworm

Things could have been better this morning between us. Dad seemed so bothered by everything I was doing at breakfast. I could feel his eyes on me like two pinecones thrown at the back of my head.

The coffee finished percolating. Dad started filling his thermos. He rubbed his red-blond beard, anxious to get to work. “Everything you do makes me late, Cameron.”

His words instantly made me feel guilty.

I shrugged. Part pleading, part apology, part hey-I’m-a-kid, please don’t hate me grimace sort of thing.

“It won’t hurt you to wake up a little faster,” he added. “Take your shower a little quicker. And eat your cereal without building pyramids on your spoon.”

Man, what was wrong with him, I wondered. Oh yeah. Dad. He’s like this almost every day. I guess I do like to take my time about things. I’m very falcon-like. Like that little merlin who perches on a high branch watching the tiny birds below. I sit and observe. Although I would be the kind of merlin who eats frozen pizzas.

Dad shook his head like he couldn’t believe I was still doing this to him all the time—slowing things down when he wanted me to speed them up. It’s something we kids are really good at. Dad calls it annoying. I call it me.

For some reason he was extra annoyed before school, before the earthquake. “We need to make it to our jobs on time,” he said. He always calls school my job. I guess that’s why I always try to get good grades. Dad always works hard, so I do too. I just like pushing his buttons when I can get away with it. Don’t you?

I stuffed the spoon in my mouth and started talking. Dad never likes when I do that so I tried speaking out of the side of my mouth. “Just counting ‘em before they go down the tunnel.” I imagined giant Cheerios dancing in a line. After I swallowed I stuck out my tongue, ahhhh.

Dad was still on edge. I couldn’t even make him laugh.

He tucked a newspaper under his arm. “Did you feed Snapers?”

“Uh oh.” I raced with my bowl to the sink. Even falcons have to feed their offspring. Snapers—I’ve known him since he was a pup. He chases birds. Can’t ever catch them. What dog can? Anyway, you’d think I’d own a bird. No way. Besides, Dad doesn’t allow them in the house.

Snapers swished his tail back and forth.

Dad’s voice echoed: “I’ll meet you in the car.”

He was already out the front door before I could rinse my bowl. Dad was really in a thick mood.

I darted to the pantry, grabbed an enormous scoop of dried dog food, dropping bits everywhere. Snapers slurped them off the floor, then followed me to his bowl.

“Are you hungry, boy?” I asked.

His tail wagged and he let out a super excited aruff! Unlike Dad, he’s never annoyed with me. He’s a Bordoodle, which means half border collie, half standard poodle. He’s black, fluffy, and likes to run run run at the dog park. He’s a miracle of science and named after a potions wizard. Although maybe I should have called him raven or crow.

Just who invented the Bordoodle? I don’t know but I do wonder every time I see his happy dog face. It’s as if some scientist was inventing all kinds of weird animals like the tabby-robin (imagine fuzzy-flying cats singing on morning lawns as they pull worms from the ground), or a stinkbug-bear (all black shelled and catching fish from a stream—stinking them out of the water).

Anyway, we have this crazy connection. Me and Snapers. It’s like I can tell what he’s thinking and he can tell what I’m thinking. Maybe it’s just, I don’t know, our bond. Snapers loves me. I love him. Who knows, maybe the next dog inventions will be even fluffier or have intricate patterns of lizard scales and western sandpiper feathers around their eyes.

I scratched behind his left ear. “You like that, don’t you?” Then I patted him on the side, grabbed my backpack, and flew out the door.

Inside the car, Dad pulled on his blue-and-white Yamaki TBM Company trucker cap and tucked his lunch and thermos behind the seat. “Hurry up. Gabby needs us to be on time.”

“Dad . . .”


“Gabby’s not real.”

“She’s real,” he said. “And she’s waiting. She’s been very temperamental over the past forty-eight hours. We’ve had to change several discs on the cutter face and her corkscrew lift got jammed something awful.”

Gabby is not a person or an animal. And definitely not a bird. More of a slithery thing with a drill for a nose. She’s a Tunnel Boring Machine, or TBM. She’s the biggest in the world, even larger than Seattle’s Big Bertha.

The best way I can describe what she does is she chews up rock and dirt like a giant mechanical earthworm. Her front face is round like a giant clock that’s seventy-feet tall with all these cutters on it for chewing and grinding rock. I can’t imagine that spinning around in a tunnel. She’s long too. More than four hundred meters.

And guess what? My dad gets to be one of the tunnel pilots. He doesn’t use a steering wheel as he tells her to go, up, down and around corners. It’s more like GPS. Satellites. Computers. Stuff like that.

Before she started burrowing into the mountain I got to go to the worksite and sit at the controls. You’ve never seen so many black knobs, red buttons, green buttons, long strings of colored lights, and multiple computer screens called PLCs, where every measurement of tunnel boring can be monitored. Some of the buttons are even grouped in big circles. I also saw staircases, an infirmary, conveyor belts everywhere, all kinds of cool stuff.

So, yeah, Dad said a few other things about Gabby having a mind of her own and being hot tempered, until finally I said, “You always say she’s alive. She’s just a machine. Not even a robot.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t like robots. I’ve always been a big fan of robots of all kinds. See? I’m not just about birds. You can find robots at the toy stores. Some are remote control. Some move on their own. They can learn things and talk to you. Movie robots are cool too—like giant evil Transformers. And don’t forget the good Transformers and robots like K-2SO, the Iron Giant, or Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dad watches Data on Netflix all the time. In one episode, Commander Riker has to take off Data’s head and plug it into the starship Enterprise. Kinda weird for an android that has a cat named Spot.

Anyway, Gabby’s not a robot. There’s a difference. She can’t just think on her own. She isn’t that kind of machine. The workers inside her wormy metal body have to help her. Robots—like Data—they kind of do things on their own. Artificial intelligence or something controlled by a positronic brain. Gabby—she’s wired different.

Dad always disagrees. “She’s not just a machine,” he said. “She protects me and the guys. She talks to us, let’s us know how she’s doing. Anyway, let’s go. I don’t want you to be late.”

He didn’t say anything as we drove down Apperson Street and parked outside the school. Before I hopped out of the car we gave each other our fist bump, forearm bump and fist explosion. That’s always my favorite part. Then he said: “Hey, no counting imaginary Cheerios during class. Pay attention.”

“All right,” I said. Did Dad think I was spacing out all the time? I thought I always paid attention. Had Mrs. Lucas said something to him? I was about to slam the door and run straight to the play yard but I spun around, feeling guilty all of a sudden.

Dad was shaking his head at me.

Oh man, I’d almost forgot. “Love you, Dad.”

That was something we always had to do—kind of like a rule but not. One of us has to use the word “love” when we say goodbye. Always. I guess at the time I didn’t think it was such a big deal to almost forget. It’s not like I knew there was about to be an earthquake and that we were going to be separated.

“That’s what I want to hear,” Dad said. “Love your family with twice your heart. I’ll see you after work, okay?”

“Okay.” I shut the door, kind of embarrassed someone might have heard and I flew down the sidewalk to class, just like a merlin.


2 thoughts on “The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 2: Mechanical Earthworm”

  1. Susan Reep says:

    I’m glad I didn’t read this lasts week, because now I don’t have to wait a whole week for the next installment. My stomach is tied up in knots.

  2. Alessandro Tinchini says:

    What a fantastic relationship between father and son.

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