Down in the Drains
By William Bitner
Death Falcon Press
2612 Winter Street
St. Albans, West Virginia 25177
© 2017 R. W. Bitner III
Another one for Annie.
Love you, sweetheart.
If you’re familar
with William Bitner’s writing, you probably think of him as that
guy who writes all those scary short stories. Down in the Drains
is his first novel, but you should know that it actually predates
much of his work that’s already in print.
I read an initial draft
of Down in the Drains back in the antediluvian days of the
early 1980s. I thought it was quite good, and I was keen to get my
hands on the completed book, but for reasons of his own, William set
the project aside and went on to write, and do, many other things.
revisited the Drains (in more ways than I care to go into
here) in 2002, and after a bit of revising and renovating, he crafted
it into the version that you’re about to enjoy. Self-publishing as
we now know it was virtually unheard of at that time, with publishing
outside of traditional channels carrying a “vanity press” stigma
that a diminishing number of anachronists still cling to today.
William diligently followed the conventional course and submitted
Down in the Drains to a number of publishers of science
fiction. One of them accepted and paid an advance, but after several
years they decided not to take Drains to print. They didn’t
ask for the advance back, which was a good thing, since the money was
long since spent.
After getting his
publishing rights back, William sent Down in the Drains off to
an editor friend of a friend (it’s not just who you know, it’s
who your friends know) at another large publisher. He received a
positive response, though not an official acceptance. The editor had
informal discussions with William on the possible timeline for
publication and payment should her employer eventually decide to
publish Drains. In short it would have been a long time before
Drains saw print and for not as much money as one might
William Bitner is not
known for his patience, and Down in the Drains was coming up
on being fifteen years old, and that’s just if you date it from the
most recent revisions. He’s rightly proud of Drains and
wanted to get it in front of readers sooner rather than later, so it
was not a difficult decision to abandon the trad-pub route and
publish Down in the Drains through Death Falcon Press, which
he’d already established in the intervening years with his many
short story collections.
So here it is. It’s a
good read and it’s my sincere hope that when you’ve finished it
you’ll be as happy as I am to finally see Down in the Drains
It started out as just
another day down in the drains. I was dropping with Baba and Lutger,
which made it a worse day than normal, I suppose, but I’d had bad
teamings before. Not too damn many as bad as this one, though…
Lutger, I didn’t know
very well. Offtime, we didn’t travel the same social circles, which
meant that he ate, drank, worked out, hung out, and got laid with
companions other than myself, because down here all circles are the
same. We’d only been teamed a couple times in the past, and those
so long ago we were still going down in pairs, and he was strictly on
I didn’t have a good
feeling about him, though. We’d never run into any big trouble
while down together, but I didn’t like the way he’d reacted the
time we’d run across a sewer whore. I can appreciate a guy
flinching, coming across a meter and a half—spider?—slug?—that
looks almost like an over-painted woman, a fat faced strumpet with
too many grabbing legs, but Lutger—if I hadn’t been right behind
him, I honestly think he’d have turned and run.
It worried me,
wondering how he might react to something really bad. There’s
things down in the drains make a pissing little sewer whore look like
your own sweet mother.
Baba was a different
bucket of sludge entirely, all bullshit bravado and bad attitude.
Baba was reckless, and careless, a certified accident waiting to
happen. I just hoped he didn’t get a good opener killed along with
him when the inevitable caught up to him, and I really, really hoped
that good opener wasn’t me.
If my teammates this
time weren’t top of the line, at least I got a good weapon when I
went to the armory to pick up my rifle, a select fire 12 mm
Some guys will tell you
a gun is a gun is a gun, but I’m not one of them. I know almost all
the rifles in our racks, even though there’s a big turnover in
Drainopeners. Conditions in the drains are hard on our weapons, eats
them up damn fast, which is something you try not to think about
during those drops when you’re down there without a respirator.
Recently, a lot of the rifles weren’t coming back up at all, and
too damn often, neither were the openers who had been carrying them.
The Drainopener I
pulled this shift was probably my favorite, ever. It was the rifle
I’d killed the big hammerhead with. It had been a good shot. Hell,
why be modest, it had been an excellent shot, perfectly placed, while
four plus meters of chitin and spurs had come blood hunting, that had
disjointed its double spine and left it immobilized, grinding its
obscene eye-mouths in futile rage while Tariq, the flamer that day,
had used half a tank charring it.
I picked up a flenser
at the armory as well, hooked it to my belt, then walked through
access tunnels that barely cleared my head to today’s drop point,
where Baba and Lutger were already waiting.
Baba’s hair was white
and cropped close. The last time I’d seen him it had been black and
near shoulder length.
He would be operating
the flamer on this drop. He’d already slipped the scooped,
wraparound tank onto his back, and was busy threading the hose
through the eyelets on the underside of his arm.
That left Lutger on
shotgun, the third weapon that had recently been added to drain
opening crews, now that a lot of the things down there, the small,
vicious, hellishly quick things, had stopped running from our
flamers. He was apparently absorbed in checking and rechecking the
color-coded shells in his shotgun’s drum, which ranged from
cyanide-coated birdshot, to depleted uranium slugs.
A drop tech popped the
lid on our bucket, and we got in. I took the single seat, the new one
that had been added up front, leaving the two original side-by-sides
for Baba and Lutger. When we’d gotten seated and strapped in, the
tech gave us a perfunctory thumbs up and we started down to the area
of drain we were to clear this day, so the patch crews could come in
behind us and do their job.
Going down, there’s
not much to do. You can’t really see anything while you’re in the
drop tube, and you can’t hear that much, not the constant dripping,
and the sloshing and surging, like you can when you’re outside.
The only things that
really penetrate are the smells. Sometimes strange, chemical stinks
that coat the back of your throat, and make you instinctively hold
your breath, like that would do any good; sometimes the odor of
active rot and decay; sometimes a nose pinching actinic, like
lightning had somehow impossibly struck close by. You have time to
think, if you want to, which is not always a good thing.
I used to wonder a lot
on the ride down about the patch crews, and if they really exist at
all. No opener I know of has ever seen one in the flesh. Supposedly,
they’re housed above us, and come down to the drains through a
different system of tubes. Yeah, and I’ve also been told there’s
a moon up there somewhere, too.
I will say this. If the
drains really do need to be patched through all the sections we
clear, and the ones all the hundreds of other opening teams clear—and
while outside of our cadre I’ve never seen those guys either, them
I do believe in—then they are absolutely falling apart, and we’re
all in deep shit, bad pun intended.
Hundreds of miles of
drains, hell, thousands of miles, certainly, little drains, hooking
into big drains, hooking into bigger drains, hooking into enormous
ones, all carrying their sludge, all connecting and going down and
down and down, or maybe west, some say, where I’ve heard that
there’s an ocean.
I saw what was
purported to be a map of the drains, once. It was just one godawful
jumble, more like a tangled nest of needle worms than anything with
any kind of thought behind it.
I just don’t know. I
didn’t design the drains, if anyone did, certainly didn’t help
build them. I’m far too young. I don’t know if there’s anyone
living who can say with any real certainty where they terminate. The
sea, like mentioned earlier. A gargantuan recycling plant. A vast
sludge pit, somewhere near the earth’s core.
My favorite is that
there’s some kind of immense transporting device at the end of all
the drains that pumps all this stuff off into another dimension, or
back into the distant past, or jettisons it into a black hole. I’m
highly skeptical such a device exists, but if it does, I’m sure
this is exactly what it would be used for. To flush our sewage.
It’s also said that
the real reason we open drains is that the drain things are mutating
and multiplying so rapidly, we’re the only thing keeping them even
marginally in check. There are always tales going around, almost
certainly apocryphal, of ravening drain things forcing themselves up
through disposal units, especially large bore industrial ones, and
the slaughters that follow. My personal favorite is the one about the
larval arachnocobra that got up a corporate heel’s bunghole while
he was on the crapper. One could only wish.
Baba and Lutger had
been conversing. I hadn’t really been listening, just aware of the
sounds of their voices. A name caught my ear.
“…did you hear
about Omar?” Baba was asking, his words muffled somewhat by his
mask but still understandable. “Lost his arm yesterday—”
“—to a Jay-toad. A
goddamned Judas toad. Now you tell me, how the hell did that happen?
“Hey, Baba,” I
“About Omar. Are you
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“I didn’t hear
anything about it.”
“Can’t help that,”
“How’s he doing,
have you heard?”
“Not too well, is
what I hear,” Baba said, with at least the grace to sound sorry
about it. “His gunners, big Johann and some other guy, one of the
new Abdullahs I think, killed the toad with their flensers and hauled
Omar’s ass back up. They got him out pretty quick, but even so…he
lost a lot of blood. And I hear the stump is already infected.”
Infected, sure. These
things down in the drains, these foul damned mutates, their systems
are so full of poison from the hellish environment that’s spawned
them, that even the smallest of bites, the most minor scratch that
they inflict, runs the risk of erupting with what’s generically
Our medical personnel
do the best they can with what they’ve got to work with—we’re
not exactly talking autodocs and timecures, here—but it seems like
more and more, even as the drain dwellers get more aggressive, their
toxins get more resistant to treatment.
I flashed on Omar,
squat and hairy, face chiseled into what looked like a permanent
scowl until he laughed, which was often. His was a good laugh, real
and rich with humor, not Baba’s ass’s bray.
Omar was one of the few
openers down here I actually looked on as my friend. He was also one
of the most competent, most thorough, flamers it was ever my good
luck to walk behind, and now he was stretched out on a treatment slab
with a festering stump where his arm used to be.
Taken out by a Judas
I hated to quote Baba,
but Jesus, how the hell did that happen? Omar was too good, too
careful, to get hit by something as minor as a Jay-toad.
We weren’t going too
deep today, and the bucket soon stopped. We opened up and climbed
The length of drain we
were supposed to clear today started here. We were to follow the
drain straight ahead for five hundred meters, until it made a ninety
degree turn to the left, and began a downward slant of eleven
degrees. We then moved along for another two hundred meters, where
the drain Y-forked. The right fork sloped down more sharply, at
almost thirty degrees. We were to take the left fork, which returned
to level, and follow that for a distance of two hundred seventy
meters, where there was another drop shaft, and a bucket waiting
there to lift us back out of the drains.
The bucket we were
leaving would remain here until we entered the far one and activated
its lift cycle. This was a simple safety precaution in case one or
more of our team was injured near our embarkation point. Aside from
the distance involved, any drain behind us was in theory clean, and
so much safer to withdraw through to evacuate an injured opener.
Also, there always
stood the possibility that a team could run into something they
couldn’t get by, an obstruction in the drain, living or otherwise
and would need to return to their drop bucket, though to keep openers
honest any return in your original bucket didn’t count toward
fulfilling your contract unless you came back with casualties.
So, we were facing
fourteen hundred seventy meters, a fairly typical length of upper
drain to be cleared in one pass. I’d done lengths in this range in
as little as three hours, but that had been some time ago. With
conditions as they were now, I’d be happy if we were through in
The drain we were in
was three meters in diameter, which placed it in the small to medium
size range of drains that we opened, with about a third of a meter of
slowly flowing sludge to wade through. We opened drains going up to
ten meters in diameter, with double crews, and then left it.
The larger, deeper
drains below the ten meter ones were almost entirely filled with
sludge. Nothing human could survive down there, no matter how well
Clearing the deeper
levels, for the patch crews, right, we had to wear respirators
instead of just masks, and special, double thick suits that lasted
just one time down and then had to be sent away to be recycled. Those
deep suits were bulky, and cumbersome, and hot as all hell, and the
drains that deep were hot as all hell on top of it, and often filled
with mega-toxic ooze as high as your waist. God forbid your suit leak
I know personally of
two openers who were quite literally dissolved inside their
compromised deep suits. Even that’s preferable to what happened to
Dietrich C. It was thought at first that he was going to survive the
burn like lesions he received until twenty four hours later, when,
while still under observation in the Infirmary, he metamorphosed into
a raging, cannibalistic…something, that shredded and partially
consumed a med tech and two other patients, and was far harder to
kill than anything human should have been.
“Let’s go,” Baba
said, and we started out, he in the lead, Lutger behind him, while I
brought up the rear.
drains went like so. The flamer in front, in this case Baba, hosed
down the exposed inner walls of the drain, killing smaller organisms
and driving larger ones on. We weren’t down here to kill,
necessarily, just clear. As long as we drove off whatever was lurking
in our section of drain, we were doing our job.
Lutger was along to
shoot the smaller, quicker organisms—I don’t call them animals,
because not all of them are, completely—flushed, maybe injured by
the flame, the things that used to run, or crawl, or slither away,
but that now, more often than not, came for us. Things like Judas
I was there in case we
were unfortunate enough to encounter one of the larger, more lethal
drain predators. With my Drainopener I could put down anything, up to
the mythical (dear God, I hope) supercrocs.
I carried my rifle
slung across my chest, within easy access, but unhooked my flenser.
It was of a lot more use against the smaller drain monsters, and from
following Baba in the past, I’d found it prudent to be ready to use
Flensers, or “plumber’s
helpers”, are a three meter long coil of metal, pointed at the far
end, partially flattened and edged, something like a sharp steel
whip. Twist the handle and it stiffened, and could be used as a
It was a damned handy
weapon, if one that required some time to master. An untrained man
swinging and slashing with a flenser could be more of a menace to his
partners than almost anything he could rationally be using it
against, but we’ve all been instructed in its use.
At least, the veteran
openers have been. Kurt told me he was down with a new man on shotgun
not long ago and the guy had gingerly prodded at the flenser on his
belt and asked Kurt how you could tell if it was loaded. When Kurt
realized the guy wasn’t kidding, he took the flenser away from him,
and I don’t blame Kurt at all.
Some guys, Kurt among
them, practiced extensively with flensers on their offtime. I’m
bored a lot too, but Jesus, that’s still a bit much for me.
Some of them had
reached impressive levels of expertise, where they could snap a smoke
out of your mouth, or a drink cylinder off the top of your head.
That’s your mouth, and your head, not mine. I didn’t see a lot of
point to it myself, in fact, some of those flenser addicts made me
nervous with their reliance on them. Pulling a flenser on something
like an arachnocobra for any reason other than to go down fighting
Baba, Lutger and I made
it through the first five hundred meters of drain without incident.
We encountered only a few minor drain dwellers, worms and borers for
the most part, and a pair of horned snails, all of which burst
noisily under Baba’s flamer.
Lutger had to use his
shotgun once, firing over Baba’s shoulder to drop a glistening
slime moth, almost a meter across the wings, as it flapped
determinedly toward us, perversely attracted to Baba’s flame. Even
with the baffled plugs in his helmet’s ear flaps I’m sure Baba’s
ears still rang after that shot.
I think probably one of
the biggest misconceptions about the drains is that they’re all
totally dark. I’ve heard some of the highest drains actually have
lighting strips, though we weren’t anywhere near that high. Still,
even the unlit drains down below are far from stygian.
The sides and ceiling
are often thickly encrusted with phosphorescent growths, running most
often to multiple shades of blue and green, though I saw some once a
shocking, vivid pearly-rose color, so beautiful I’m sometimes not
sure anymore if I didn’t dream it.
The sludge itself
usually has a slight overall glow to it as well, shot through with
swirls and curls, strange gleams and glimmers, depending upon what
crap, in what combination, you’re wading in.
We call the device we
wear on our shoulder a light but it’s not really. The beam it
projects is something else, something not visible to the naked eye.
The vision enhancing goggles we wear above our face masks pick up,
enhance and amplify this beam so that we are able to “see” even
in areas of total darkness, though I’ve also been in many a place
hundreds of meters below where a person could have seen perfectly
well without them.
Of course, considering
what there was down here to see…
More than one opener
has drawn the clichéd comparison of being down in the drains to
tramping around inside a vast living organism. It’s been said so
often because it’s so very apt, the drains in truth being the
diseased bowel of a truly sick society.
We passed a big clump
of pale, gelatin like flesh, one of the organic growths stimulated by
all the waste fluids stewing down here. Something had been recently
feeding on it. A number of bites, five centimeters or so across, had
been taken out of it along one side. Thin, straw colored fluid oozed
We rounded the first
corner, still having experienced no serious encounters. There was a
crack just past the corner, in the top of the drain. Baba
perfunctorily played his flame across it.
“Hit that crack
“I got it,” he
“All right, asshole,”
I said. “Walk under it if you want to, but I saw something move up
there after you flamed it.”
I hadn’t, but blatant
self-interest seemed to be the quickest way to get him to do his job
said, but he extended the nozzle, and turned on the fire. White flame
routed through the crack. Something popped greasily.
Baba turned the flame
up higher, and over its hissing you could hear a high pitched
squealing, and then a cluster of crisped sucker-bites toppled from
the crack and hit the sludge, steaming. Baba hosed flame on the
buoyant, lamprey-like shapes until they were completely charred.
Baba turned and shot me
what I was sure was a foul glance.
We moved on. I saw
Lutger jump as one of the floating crusts bumped his leg.
I don’t know if he
was doing it just to fuck with me or not, but Baba got more sloppy,
not less, as we went on. So, what happened to him was his own fault.
I don’t feel any better about it because of that…but it was his
We had almost reached
the Y-fork, could see it up ahead. There was a large, black,
tumor-like protrusion on the ceiling of the drain, just this side of
the fork. The inner drain surfaces are seldom smooth, lumped and
bubbled with chemical deposits and random organic growths, usually
benign. These places always got a thorough precautionary burn.
Baba just gave this one
a quick taste of flame, stepped under it.
I was getting ready to
jump his ass about it, and I believe Lutger was actually going to
protest as well, as I saw him start to raise his arm to point.
I think even Baba had
second thoughts about how recklessly stupid he was being, because he
stopped and looked up, to find the lump, I guess, and give it a
serious burn, when the leech that it was detached itself from the
ceiling and dropped on him.
It was the biggest
goddamn leech I’ve ever seen. At least a meter and a half long, and
fat bodied, it was thicker than my thigh. And I lift weights.
Baba gobbled out
something incoherent, “oh shit” would probably cover the gist of
it, before his voice was cut off as one end of the hose-like monster
irised open to an incredible degree and engulfed the entire front
half of his head.
Baba let go of the
flamer’s nozzle, clawed ineffectually with gloved hands at the
bloodsucker affixed to his face.
Lutger threw his gun to
“Jesus, Lutger, no!”
Lutger must have been
rattled to the bone. If he’d fired at the leech on Baba he’d have
blown the man’s head off. Of course, maybe I give Lutger too little
credit. Maybe he was fully aware of that.
Baba staggered back
against the sloping side of the drain, slid down it. His screaming,
if that’s what it was, was muffled, barely audible, but there was a
thick, gurgling noise coming from the vicinity of his chest. His
hands beat feebly, almost reflexively, at the leech, impervious as a
slab of neorubber.
I’d popped my flenser
free even as the leech had dropped. I stiffened it up, stabbed at the
monster. Baba chose that moment to begin convulsing. I missed, almost
putting the flenser through Baba’s neck.
“Lutger, hold him
Lutger wrestled with
Baba’s writhing figure, finally got behind him, holding Baba’s
head above the sludge his spasming feet were churning to foam. Baba
was going fast, if he wasn’t already gone.
I limpened my flenser,
looped it around the leech directly behind its working mouth, and
pulled. A brief resistance, and then the edged metal sliced through.
A gout of blood, and what looked like the remains of Baba’s goggles
and mask, spurted from the severed leech, as its body dropped away
into the sludge.
It fell toward Lutger,
who batted it away with a sound somewhere between a snarl and a sob.
I got my gloved hands
under the rim of the leech’s still attached mouth-parts, its
suction loosened considerably by the process of cutting it in half,
and pulled it off of Baba. Like wet tissue paper, the remains of
Baba’s face pulled away with it.
Everything from scalp
to chin—eyes, nose, lips, flesh down to the bone—was gone. It had
happened that fast. The leech had even cut away the section of helmet
it had engulfed.
Lutger staggered up,
and away, ripping off his mask. I heard him begin to vomit, loudly. I
didn’t join him until a hand groped blindly toward me, clutched
convulsively at my arm, and I realized Baba was still alive.
It was a good thing I’d
stayed on Baba’s ass earlier, and we’d done a good job of
cleaning the drain up to that point. Lutger and I were forced to take
turns carrying Baba across our shoulders back to our original drop
Baba had gone limp,
dead or unconscious, while we’d flamed the twitching leech halves.
Carrying him left only one of us free to defend against any drain
things attracted by the sounds of violence, or the smell of fresh
We’d ditched Baba’s
flamer. It added too much weight to carry with him, would take time
we didn’t have to waste if we were going to save Baba to try to rig
it up on one of us.
Nothing attacked us on
the trip back to the bucket, which is only because nothing was there.
I tripped the ER switch
in our bucket, so there would be a med crew waiting for us when we
got to the top. I sat next to Baba in the back going up, supporting
his slumped, shallowly breathing form, after giving him a shot of
antishock from the bucket’s medkit.
Once on top, even the
hardened med techs recoiled from the bloody skulled thing that was
“Good Christ,” one
of them exclaimed.
“Leech,” I said,
maybe a little more curtly than necessary. “Get him out of here. He
needs treatment, fast.”
The tech looked up at
“Don’t see much
sense in hurrying,” he said levelly.
“By God,” I
exploded, “if it’s ever me hurt like that, you’d damn well
better hurry. You don’t make those kinds of decisions.”
“Let’s go,” the
tech told his partner tightly, and they took Baba away.
Lutger and I stood
there while a drop tech ran a hand held rad counter over us. They
weren’t supposed to be dumping hot stuff in the drains, or at least
that’s the fantasy openers are told. If that was true, why were we
required to submit to checks for radiation exposure first thing,
every time we came back up?
Yeah, that’s what I
We then handed over our
weapons to a couple of waiting armorers, to be bagged and taken away
for decontamination. Don’t ask me how, but more than one gun has
come back up with a worm or borer in its barrel.
“There was a flamer?”
one of them asked.
“Yeah, that was him
they took away with his face ripped off,” I said.
“We meant the
“I know you did. It’s
still down there. You want to go after it?”
“Thank you, no.”
Lutger and I continued
to stand in place while two more of the ubiquitous techs sprayed down
our suits with “disinfectant.” Considering the environment they
come from, I don’t know what’s in the spray that the drain things
find so repellant—probably milk and honey, or sugar water—but it
works a charm dislodging any of them we inadvertently bring up.
As the spray hit the
back of Lutger’s legs I watched a bull tick drop off him, writhing.
I ground the grape sized thing, which had changed its color and
texture to match perfectly with the neorubber of Lutger’s suit,
under my boot heel, then swiped the remains with the side of my foot
over to the grate next to us, where the swirling disinfectant run-off
took it down—into the drains.
“See you later,” I
No more drain life fell
off our suits. We stripped them off and handed them over for bagging,
and a more thorough decontamination, before getting showers
afterwards, I took a good look at Lutger, and didn’t like what I
saw. He looked ready to—what? Cry, scream, throw up again? I didn’t
know the man well enough to pick the response, but I knew he was
still having problems with what had just happened.
“You really don’t
want to dwell on this,” I said.
“Are you thinking
there’s something else we could have done? That maybe somehow it’s
partially our fault?”
“Good. I’m not
normally interested in pointing fingers. You’ve been in the drains
enough to know that down there shit just sometimes happens. But
this…what happened to Baba was that dumbass fucking Baba’s own
damn fault. Not yours. Not mine. Not Fate’s. His.”
“I know,” Lutger
said. “I know. But dear God, his face…”
Yeah. I’d be seeing
that hellish image in my nightmares too, before it was all over. I
didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing.
I finished buttoning my
coveralls, got ready to leave.
“If it gets to be too
much for you, Lutger, you can always…”
“I’ll be fine,”
he said quickly. “It’s just still fresh.”
“You heading to Rec?”
“Not right now. I
think I’ll stop by the Infirmary,” I said.
“You won’t be able
to see Baba this soon.”
Now why in hell
would I want to see that asshole, I almost snapped. I maybe had a
bit of an edge, myself.
“I’m not going
there to see Baba,” I said. “I want to check on Omar.”
Lutger patently didn’t
feel like being alone right now. He relished a trip to the Infirmary
“Think I may head
down to Rec, then,” he said tentatively. “Maybe have a drink, and
hook up to…or maybe I’ll just go back to my cell and lie down for
“That sounds like a
better idea,” I said. Lutger looked like his knees were going to go
out on him at any second.
Lutger went left,
toward the corridors leading to our shift’s cluster of cells, which
were here on base level. I went right, to find a lift shaft to take
me up two levels to where our medical facilities are located. Making
them only forty levels below the surface.
When everything blew
down around here in the last war, they just gave up on trying to
salvage anything. It was a damn sight simpler, and I would imagine
cheaper as well, to just level everything off, pack it all down good
and tight, sink the very first drains down through it, and just
rebuild the new on top of the remains of the blasted old.
That was a long time
ago. Growth went slowly for decades. With raw material being so
scarce during those times, it makes you wonder sometimes why they
abandoned so much of what they did.
Now, though, with all
the stuff they’re bringing in from off planet, and have been for
the past hundred years or so, the city’s growing again, like
mindrot, like cancer. There’s more people now, and more industry,
and consequently more and more waste, with more and more drains
needed to flush it down, and my guess is that it’s just going to
continue on like this until the next war comes along and smashes all
this shit flat.
They informed me at the
admissions station that Omar was in Ward 6. No private rooms here,
sorry. Luckily, Ward 6 was one of those open to visitation.
Omar was in the first
bed inside the door to the left. I sat down on the stool by his bed,
thankful for small favors. I was happy to be spared walking the
length of that room, forty beds deep, each one holding a thing-mauled
Omar didn’t look
His arm had come off
just above the elbow and the stump, black and swollen, was soaking in
an antibiotic solution. Not even the sharp, medicinal tang coming off
the pan of antibiotic was enough to cover the wet, rotten smell
coming from what was left of Omar’s arm.
His normally dark skin
had a greenish cast to it, which looked completely unnatural, almost
unreal. His eyes burned black and bright, his face glistened with a
feverish sweat and held this lost look, puzzled, but unperturbed.
“So,” he said,
giving me this odd, half smile. “Where the hell you been?”
“I just found out you
were in here. You only came in yesterday,” I added guiltily.
“Really? Funny. It
seems a lot longer.”
“I’ll bet. How you
“Oh, hell,” he
said. “I feel great. Spacey, but great. It’s like, intellectually
I know something really bad has happened to me but…I just don’t
seem to care.”
He tilted his head
toward his soaking stump.
“No pain from this,
it just feels sort of hot. Stinks like hell—”
“No argument here.”
“—but it doesn’t
hurt at all. Maybe it would be better if it hurt…”
“Don’t ask for
that, man. You’re better off with it the way it is.”
He licked his dry lips,
with an equally dry tongue. I could hear them rasp against one
There was a large,
lidded cup on the stand beside his bed, a clear flexible straw
sticking out of it.
“Want some of this?”
I asked, picking it up.
I held it for Omar
while he took a sip of the pale orange fluid that the cup contained.
He made a face.
“Shake that up for
me, will you?”
I put my finger over
the end of the straw, gave the cup a vigorous, swirling shake, put
the straw back in Omar’s mouth. He drank thirstily.
“Jesus,” he said
when he’d finished, and I’d set the cup aside. “I guess it’s
supposed to taste like that.”
“Wouldn’t be good
for you if it didn’t taste bad.”
“That shit must be a
miracle cure then,” Omar said. He tried to concentrate through the
haze. “What time is it, anyway?”
“You work today?”
“Yeah, already been
“How’d it go?
Straight shot? You’re up awful early.”
I debated lying to him,
decided not to.
“No, it wasn’t a
straight shot, by any means. We had to evacuate. Baba got his face
pulled off by a leech.”
said slowly, considering, and for the next few minutes, and for the
last time, the man I knew came back into those burning eyes. “A
“Baba being a dumb
“Go figure. Still,
just a leech…”
“Well, not just a
leech. It was the biggest leech I’ve ever seen down there. Damn
thing was almost the size of a tunnel snake.”
“Well, no, not that
big, more like a cottonmouth. But still…”
“You kill it?”
“Oh yeah. We brought
Baba back up alive, but I don’t see how he can make it. I jumped a
med tech for saying it, but it might be best for Baba if he didn’t.
His whole face is just…gone. It’s like it dissolved…”
Omar lifted his stump
free of the antibiotic, which fell in green, syrupy strings back into
“Sort of puts this in
perspective,” he said.
you mind my asking?”
For a minute I thought
he wasn’t going to answer, and I was mentally kicking myself for
being an insensitive ass.
Then, “I’m not a
dumb fuck like Baba, am I?” Omar asked quietly, almost like he was
talking to himself as much as me.
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m a good
“Hell, yes, Omar, one
of the best. Maybe the best.”
“I’m not careless
down there. I give everything a good singe. Everything. I’d rather
char a lump of phosphate or a pile of drain jelly than take a
“I know that. That’s
why I like working behind you.”
“And I still get
taken out by something as piss ant as a Judas toad. Although he was
the biggest damn toad I’ve ever seen, a lot like your leech.” He
gestured toward the cup. “Is that thing empty?”
“No, there’s a
little left. Here…”
Omar lay there for a
minute or so just gazing up, and I thought he’d drifted away.
“Abdullah X, new guy
but steady, had dropped a spider bat with his shotgun, out at about
twenty meters,” he said abruptly. “It settled along the side of
the drain, with about half of it down in the sludge. When we got up
close I gave it a squirt, you know, standard, but I didn’t really
“It had taken three
shells before it dropped, and it was just shredded, you know, most of
its head was gone, blown off and back there somewhere under the
sludge. I know they’re hard to kill, but I also knew this was the
deadest damn bat I’d ever seen.
“I never dreamed
there’d be a Judas toad under the bat.”
“Under the bat?”
“Yeah. It came in up
under the bat, I guess under the sludge, and hid there. Waiting for
“Maybe it just
crawled up there to get away from your flame,” I said, while
knowing how weak that sounded.
“There’s a couple
things wrong with that,” Omar said. “First off, it was already up
under there when I started flaming. Secondly, what Judas toad, I
don’t care how big, is going to get up under a spider bat? How many
toads have you come across, hanging there alive and paralyzed, all
webbed up and full of bat eggs? If there’s a Jay-toad hell, and I
sincerely hope there is, its demons are spider bats. It doesn’t
“No, it doesn’t.”
reason why I just gave the bat a small squirt. Not only because it
was obviously dead, but because I never believed anything small
enough to hide under a spider bat, would, you know?”
“So, I flame the bat,
he lights up, and I start to turn away and head on down the drain,
when out of the corner of my eye I see the bat—move. A lot of dead
drain things will still twitch when the fire hits them, but this was
different. It wasn’t a twitch, it was more of a shifting.
“I had enough time to
think ‘that’s not right’, when holy God, there’s this
eruption in the sludge, and out from under the wing…all I could see
was mouth. Thank Jesus I had at least a clue it was coming, and threw
my arm up, or he’d have gotten my face.”
Omar laughed shakily.
“Let me tell you,
Willy, that little son of a bitch was powerful. It dragged me down on
my back into the sludge, and started shaking its head back and forth,
slinging me around as it did like I weighed no more than a little pin
“I’m still in
shock, I haven’t even fully grasped what’s happening. I can hear
Johann shouting, ‘What is it? What is it?’ when the toad goes
like this—” he made a sudden, twisting motion with his head, “and
I felt the bones go in my forearm. The last thing I remember of the
attack is seeing the toad go into this spin, and thinking, dear God,
it’s going to rip the suit…”
“I came to for a few
seconds in the bucket coming up and the arm was already gone,
Abdullah and Johann had put an emergency cap from the bucket’s kit
over what was left. Apparently, after they’d killed the toad, they
couldn’t get it off me. Even after decapitating the damn thing with
their flensers, they couldn’t get it to let go. Little bastard had
my name on him, that’s for sure.
“So, they took the
arm off with their flensers back at the bucket, capped it, and
brought me back. Actually, I’ve been told leaving the arm behind
might be what saves my life. It was ruined, anyway, and maybe by
taking it off that kept enough of the toad’s drain poison out of
Omar looked drained
himself. I was truly sorry now that I’d asked.
“You talking about
Baba being a dumb fuck hit a nerve,” Omar said. “Tell me I wasn’t
being a dumb fuck, Wilhelm.”
shouldn’t even be asking something like that. I don’t know an
opener in this cadre, flamer or gunner, who wouldn’t tell you that
what happened to you is next to impossible. I mean, you said it
perfectly. If Judas toads have a Hell, it would be crawling with
“There’s no way you
could’ve expected that one to do what it did, that it would hide
there under a bat, or even to go for you like it did. Toads never
used to come at us like that.”
Omar was looking even
worse than he had when I’d come in, and I wasn’t feeling so hot
“I’m going to go,”
I said. “I’ll be back, soon.”
“Sure. Bring Kurt if
you can. And Dee, if she’ll come.”
“Of course she will.
They both will. I’m sure the only reason they haven’t been here
already is because they haven’t heard yet.”
Omar grabbed my bicep
with his remaining hand, squeezed it hard, and I looked into my
friend’s eyes for the last time.
you’re a good opener, too. But being good, it’s getting to where
it’s not good enough. Those things in the drains…they’re not
just getting bigger, and meaner. They’re getting smarter. And God
help us all, I think they’re starting to work together.”
Other books by William Bitner
M is for Monster
T is for Thing
N is for Nightmare
Death Falcon Zero Vs. The Zombie Sluglords
(with Daniel Boyd)
Gone Where the Goblins Go
Heavy Planet Man
She Saw Dinosaurs