Down in the Drains
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.
William Bitner 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 expect.
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 in print.
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 flamer.
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 Drainopener.
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? He—”
“Hey, Baba,” I interrupted.
“About Omar. Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“I didn’t hear anything about it.”
“Can’t help that,” Baba replied.
“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 termed “infection”.
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 toad.
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 out.
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 twice that.
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 protected.
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 down there.
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.
Theoretically, opening 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 toads.
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 it.
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 lance.
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 was insane.
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 from them.
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 again.”
“I got it,” he said, nettled.
“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 right.
“Bullshit,” he 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 own fault.
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 his shoulder.
“Jesus, Lutger, no!” I shouted.
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 down, dammit!”
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 bucket.
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 blood.
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 Baba.
“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 me.
“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 think too.
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 weapon…”
“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 said.
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 ourselves.
Getting dressed 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?” Lutger asked.
“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 even less.
“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 a while.”
“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 opener.
Omar didn’t look good.
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 doing?”
“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 another.
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 down.”
“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.”
“Goddamn,” Omar 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 leech?”
“How’d that happen?”
“Baba being a dumb fuck.”
“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 the pan.
“Sort of puts this in perspective,” he said.
“Really…Omar, do 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 flamer?”
“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 chance.”
“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 cook it.
“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 us.”
“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 make sense.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“That’s another 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 worm.
“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 me…”
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.”
“Jesus…you 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 spider bats.
“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 myself.
“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.
“Willy…I know 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.”
Descending into the hellish underworld of the drains to face the horrors lurking below, unnatural abominations like arachnocobras, spider bats, and supercrocs, is the stuff of nightmare. Human determination and courage pitted against a horde of mutant monstrosities constantly getting bigger, faster, more deadly. The only thing that could conceivably make conditions worse for those sentenced to clearing the drains would be if the horrors inhabiting them also began to get smarter…and started working together. Down in the Drains is tough, fast paced futuristic adventure with depth and bite.