Short Story: Tough Shift

Soon to be released, my next book the Vermin Anthology is a collection of short stories featuring rats, insects and other monsters to make your skin crawl.

Enjoy one of the stories for free, read it before bed at your own peril!

***

Tough Shift

 

You can get used to anything.

Cameron had always considered that the mantra that made the world keep on spinning. You can get used to anything. He was becoming an old man now but that one lesson proved itself true again and again.

When people would say “how could that happen?” or “how could people live like that?” he knew the answer. You can get used to anything.

Even the guards at Auschwitz probably got bored, he reasoned. They would be in bed at the bunkhouse, shiny black uniforms on the coat hanger by the bed, the alarm clock would buzz and would groan about having to get up for another to at work. The guards would have become accustomed to the pain and misery around them and had the same chats by the watercooler most office workers did. They got use to the nightmare around them, now it was banal and boring.

Professional hitmen, like the one who took an axe to Big Bobby, the Glasgow crack kingpin, probably had days where they were tempted to look on a recruitment website and see if there was anything else. Murdering people for money would probably get boring after a while as well surely.

Cameron wasn’t bored at work but he was ceartinly use to it. If the public had known about it, they would have asked him “how can you do that?”

“You can get used to anything,” he would have replied in the hypothetical conversation.

He felt at home in the dark tunnels beneath the city of Edinburgh, he knew them as well as others might know their war around the Royal Mile or the pubs on Rose Street. The tunnels were devoid of any decoration, the same narrow corridors and hanging pipes repeated again and again. Those imposing overhead pipes carried the refuse of an entire city, numbering five hundred thousand.

The darkness didn’t bother him, neither did the silence. He felt himself missing the silence as his compatriot blabbed on and on. Maybe it was nerves but the man, some youngster called Nick, wouldn’t shut up.

“I mean, when an opportunity comes up, you need to grab it with both hands, right? Won’t lie, I was scared but sometimes you need to take the plunge.”

Cameron said nothing but Nick continued, “The way I see it, twelve months of hard work, then I can put my feet up for the rest of my days. Maybe take up a few hobbies, I’ve always wanted to try golf. Feels like the national sport, you know? If I can afford it I mean.”

It wasn’t like that scene from Armageddon where the drillers turned astronauts could all demand millions of dollars from the government, a tax free life and other luxuries. The men, and it was mostly men, who volunteered for this job in the sewers would never need to work again and could enjoy a steady, middle of the way income that would see them into old age. Not glamorous lifestyles but comfortable. For a lot of people in post-recession Scotland with a flat economy, it was a damn good offer.

Fatalities did happen but were pretty rare, these new recruits weren’t being marched into the Somme.

Cameron had seen a grand total of four deaths in his time.

The two men marched on, “don’t talk much, do you?”

Cameron used his hand held industrial torch to cut a swathe of light in the ever present darkness. Most the lights in these parts got smashed out because of the inhabitants and the council saw no point trying to replace them, now they armed the teams with their portable torches.

“Think we will see any action? I’m four months in and haven’t seen a damn thing.”

Cameron could feel the weight of his heavy back pack starting to take its toll. His joints ached, that was the curse of old age, even his rubber suit felt like it was made of lead these days. Nick seemed able to handle his own large metal pack with ease although he held the sprayer gun awkwardly and kept getting the tube that connected pack to gun tangled.

“Don’t get your tube tangled,” Cameron said to him, the first words he had said since patrol began. Four out of the four fatalities he had seen, that was the cause. There would be danger, panic, the adrenaline rush and some idiot would try to spray the acid in their backpack with the tube not going anywhere. Nothing would happen, no burst of sizzling acid, and they would be torn to shreds. All over in a few seconds normally.

“Ten years, I’ve seen four deaths, all because of the damn tube getting tangled. Keep your eye on it or you will be number five I’ve seen. That’s more paperwork for me.”

Silence again as the two men trudged onwards through the labyrinth of tunnels.

Hesitantly, Nick spoke, “I thought you only had to do this for a year.”

“You only have to do it for a year.”

“Wait, so you choose to do this? You could have quit by now?”

Cameron growled at Nick, ending the conversation.

He wasn’t going to justify himself to some kid. This wasn’t about bowing out to some middle of the way life. Unlike the rest of these punks, Cameron saw a point in what he was doing. It made him feel satisfied, happy even. They did important work here, work that kept the entire city safe.

Not that any of these clowns or the idiots in charge really appreciated it. Not really, not like he did. He had served on the frontlines and would continue to do so, at least for another year or two, when he felt like this could be left in half way decent hands. Succession planning, that’s what the bigwigs called it, he needed someone in place to take over when he was gone. That would keep the fatalities low and the job done to the highest standards. So far, no one decent had caught his eye. They all wanted to cash in their chips and walk away from the blackjack table.

“Wouldn’t you rather be home? Wife, girlfriend, even just some pals? I can think of a million better things to do than this.”

Cameron didn’t really have anything to go home to but that wasn’t the point, even if he had, he was sure he would rather be in these dark tunnels. This is where he was needed, this was where he mattered.

“Shut. Up.”

Cameron was quickly losing his temper with this idiot. Next shift he was asking for a change in his support. The north-west tunnels were even more maze like and prone to bother than the rest, that was why he asked for it and the higher ups wanted a veteran to take point. It was the best of the best that should be serving here, not people like Nick. Other part of the tunnels, like the eastern ones, had gone years without a single sitting. Not so in the north-west, they knew real trouble. Cameron regretted that a part of the secrecy clause in their contacts forbade contact after the job was over. He remembered Darren who had worked in the tunnels a few months ago, good guy, dependable, knew his stuff. Quiet as well unlike Nick.

“We probably won’t see anything today either,” mumbled Nick to himself.

Idiot.

They rounded the bend and bingo, exactly what Cameron was looking for.

It was a chair sized mound of flesh and dark brown, matted fur, reeking of damp and sewage. Swarms of rats were crawling over and around the creature, a teeming, living carpet.

Pink, thin tentacles, resembling extended rat tails whipped in the air and the shapeless lump emitted a high-pitched screech from somewhere deep inside it. Despite the fact it didn’t have a face, a dozen misshapen and diseased eyes narrowed in what could be perceived as anger.

Rats flowed forward, as if ordered by their general into action, desperate to sink their teeth into the interlopers. Rats were aggressive creatures at the best of times but these ones were practically salivating at the thought of violence.

Nick screamed.

Cameron would have turned to look at him in utter disdain but he couldn’t afford it.

When the city council approached the people to work in the sewers exterminating these things, they made sure they were well prepared. It was explained to the new starts the purpose of the job, how they were keeping the city safe from these creatures that seemed to live in the sewers and spawned through some unknown process. Secrecy was vital to prevent panic from the general populace.

The new inductees were shown footage of the monsters, nicknamed rat kings but with the official designation the sterile and bland hostile lifeforms. They got pictures, they could even see recordings that they had managed to get.

Despite all this preparation, most of them buckled at the first sight of a rat king. Dozens, hundreds of rats fused together in a twisted single entity and leading the lesser kind. It was nightmarish, no way around that, but they should have been ready. Cameron bad been ready all those years ago when he killed his first rat king because he did the prep.

He became obsessed with understanding those creatures but there was so little information on them. He didn’t know if other cities had this problem, if they were naturally occurring or some bizarre experiment. Left to their own devices though, they would breed, and soon the entire undercity would be brimming with the foul monsters. Worst of all, they would meet and fuse together. All of Edinburgh being seated on one colossal creature would keep Cameron awake at night. That was why what they did matter, that was why he refused to take the cash and bow out like so many others.

Cameron knew most of the new recruits wouldn’t care about grandiose missions, they wanted money. The were pouring over the employment information the council gave them. How much they would be paid. The guarantee of a monthly salary until they reached sixty-five, more than enough to live on. The secrecy clauses in their contracts. They memorised all that and tossed the monster information to one side as useless junk.

Nick probably wished he had spent more time on that.

Cameron sprung into action despite his age, spraying the approaching rat hordes with the acidic goo, reducing them to little more than puddles. Step one, take out the smaller rats, step two, get rid of the rat king.

Nick fumbled with his own gun, spraying the good harmlessly onto the wall and not catching a single rat. Had he fired the thing before? Pathetic. He was moving forward and continuing to spray, getting ten out of ten for enthusiasm but little else.

“Go easy on it Nick,” shouted Cameron.

He was actually starting to cut into the hissing rats.

Click.

The spray suddenly stopped from Nick’s gun, the arc lessening until nothing came out the gun.

He frantically squeezed the trigger.

Click. Click.

Nothing.

Cameron realised the idiot had used up almost all the pack during his wild attack and had ran dry. Like it was in the training, controlled, short bursts not trying to do a Rambo impersonation. The packs could only hold so much of the lethal acid.

A rat leapt and clamped its jaws down on Nick’s arm. He gave out a cry of pain and tried to pull the hairy ball off him but the rat had locked its jaws down onto his tender flesh. Rubber clothing could stop the smaller, younger rat’s teeth but not the mature adults. Others took advantage and began leaping onto him in droves, biting, scratching, clawing. Nick fell to the ground, rolling wildly and trying to get them off.

Cameron dare not spray him, the acid would eat through Nick as easily as a rat, he had to focus on wiping out the swarm and keeping his distance from the rat king as best as he could.

The rat king rolled over and a large segment of it cracked open, revealing an oversized mouth with at least seven rows of broken, jagged teeth. Pink, rat tail tentacles coiled round Nicks neck and pulled him closer, inch by agonising inch. He wailed pitifully for help. Then it clamped down, Nick screaming from inside the rat kings mouth as it awkwardly chewed, shredding him into bloody chunks, blood spraying like a fountain.

Cameron knew Nick was a goner now, and directed his fire to the rat king, dousing the foul creature in thick, viscous acid. It wailed in pain and started to dissolve into itself, pausing only to burp out what looked like Nicks left cheek.

There was the sizzling for several minutes and then nothing.

Silence.

Back to the normal silence.

Nick was missing the top quarter of his body, gone in the pile of discoloured slime that was the rat king. Five fatalities Cameron had seen now. Four from a tangled hose. One from excessive overuse of pack acid. He would make a note of that in his report and suggest it be included in future training.

Per procedure, he removed the equipment and doused Nicks body in the acid. It was easier that his head was missing, spraying a recruit in the face with acid wasn’t a pleasant activity. Within in a few minutes, there would be no evidence he ever existed. The formerly chatty young man would be brown goo soon enough and Cameron would meet his replacement tomorrow, not breathing a word about his predecessor.

Time to head home before the shift tomorrow. Home, glass of milky tea, biscuit, and then lie in bed with the tv on.

You could get used to anything.

***

I hope you enjoyed that, it was fun writing it as always.

If they even make it into a film, I would insists the rat king be animatronic or a puppet and not CGI haha.

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