Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge from last week involved tweeting @YouAreCarrying to receive a list of random inventory. This list of items must be integrated into the story in as literal or abstract a way as you want. As usual, my list will be below the story.
Cale tried to breathe shallowly as he crouched on a narrow ledge in the mouth of the outflow pipe. Slime coated his boots and even though he felt the fresh air ruffling his hair, it did little to combat the foul smell. A rotting apple bobbed by him in the trickle of oil-slicked water and, despite the surroundings, his stomach rumbled in protest. He had eaten nothing in thirty-six hours—not that he’d been hungry stumbling around in excrement and garbage for thirty-two of those hours. Varren should be here by now, he thought. They were supposed to meet here at sundown. He did not want to spend another night cramped and shivering, watching the unnaturally large rodents and wraithlike inhabitants of the canals skitter by. The canals were no place for updwellers like him. It was the only time he was thankful for the stench of rotting food and human waste mixed with the acrid chemical blend dumped down the sewers to “sterilize” the soupy muck—they hid his scent. A clang and a muffled curse echoed from behind him and he peered into the gloom, reaching for the cudgel hanging at his side.
“Mary, Jesus and Joseph, I’ll not be taking a job like this again without learning a wee bit more about it.” Varren stumbled into view, panting.
“Saints, you scared me half to the grave, Varren,” Cale said, reaching a hand to pull the heavier man onto his perch.
Sweat gleamed on Varren’s bare forehead as he set down his lantern and put his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath.
“Oh good, you’ve held onto your lantern.” Cale eyed the heavy brass-cased light. It was slick with sludge like everything else. “Lost mine when I fell somewhere in the west tunnels. Thought I was like to drown.” He shuddered at the memory. Drowning itself was no way to go, but drowning in shit was the stuff of nightmare.
“Almost lost that bloody drill bit, though.” Varren patted his various pockets, producing a packet of miraculously dry cigarettes, wrapped in oiled canvas. Varren lit both cigarettes and flicked the glowing match into the mire at their feet where the fire was immediately sucked down into the ooze. The tobacco helped take the edge off Cale’s hunger and he inched to the edge of the drainage pipe and leaned out.
“Nothing,” he said, scooting back into the gloom. “Bloody abandoned us to this shite-hole most like.”
“Think your brother’d do that?” Varren asked around his cigarette.
Cale scuffed the toe of one boot against the side of the other, trying to dislodge some of the filth crusted on the leather. His brother wouldn’t leave them, but not because of any sort of blood loyalty. They needed Cale and Varren—despite what his brother said about them. Dash had laughed when Cale joined the rebel Alliance. “Barely old enough to be in trousers and wanting to join the cause to get away from his mum.”
He called Varren the Lord of Lard and said that if he didn’t eat himself to death, he’d cough into the grave. Cale resented Dash’s ridicule. They were only four years apart and Dash had been the one saying that the rebellion was a hopeless cause, a dream no more enduring than a ring made of smoke—always blowing out a smoke ring and demolishing it with a wave of his hand to prove his point. Fancy words and parlor tricks, that’s all Dash was. Cale saw through Dash’s arrogant smile and flamboyant Rebel speeches and Dash hated him for it.
“Hear that?” Varren nudged Cale and stubbed out his cigarette.
Cale felt the low thrum through his boots and it set his molars buzzing against each other. With one hand on the wall, they made their way down the sloping ledge to the mouth of the outflow pipe, sucking in lungfuls of fresh air when they reached the edge.
“Hello, comrades,” Dash said cheerfully, grinning up at them from his perch in the stern of the hovercraft. “Get in, get in, but keep your muck to yourselves, if you please.”
Cale waited until the hovercraft held steady and hopped the gap into the bow, feeling the lightweight craft sway slightly beneath his weight. He moved to the far side and braced himself as Varren boarded. The hovercraft dipped slightly before Dash regained control of the tiller. He sent the craft skipping along the top of the reservoir and as the distance from the sewage output grew, the water became almost clear. Not that any amount of money could persuade Cale to drink it. He pulled off his gloves and stuffed them in his pack before shoving both to the side and sitting down on the narrow bench. Something came flying out of the air from the back of the vessel and he deftly caught the aluminum-wrapped package Dash launched at him.
“Quick fingers, brov,” Dash said with mock approval.
Cale ignored him, ripping the package open with his teeth and biting into the crunchy mixture of oats, nuts and honey that was pressure-packed into a brick. A full meal, they claimed. He’d eaten three once and still been hungry. Trying to savor the first sustenance he’d had since they set out on their little mission, he eyed Dash. His older brother lounged back in his seat, boots polished to reflect the clouds scudding above them, immaculate blue jacket buttoned up to his throat. They shared a build—tall and lanky—and the same grey eyes but where Dash’s hair matched the rows of gold buttons on his coat, Cale’s was the color of bootblack.
“Well? How did it go?” Dash asked after Cale and Varren finished their meal bars and passed Varren’s flask of whisky back and forth a few times.
“There were guards at the Archive, but I got through all right. The stones are held in by a little glue and coal dust—a good dousing and the passage will be open again. Your boys will be able to get out in a hurry, long as they don’t mind the smell.” Varren took another swig from his flask and smacked his lips.
“You do both smell rather worse than a privy,” Dash said, wrinkling his nose.
Cale rolled his eyes. One minute his brother was speaking rebel slang like he’d been born in a blue coat, the next their upbringing would come to the forefront and he’d sound like one of the King’s Men.
“How did it go with you, then, brother dear?” Dash asked.
Cale shrugged, then saw that wasn’t answer enough for Dash. “The sewers leading from the cells follow the map—your man had it right the first time.” He didn’t say that he knew his brother sent him to slog through waist-high shit for the fun of it.
“Must check all possible outcomes, mustn’t we?” Dash said, idly steering the hovercraft with one foot on the tiller.
“Whatever you say, Captain.” Cale slouched down into his seat and crossed his arms, trying not to breath in the smell coming off his clothes. “I’m going to get some sleep before we get back to the compound.”
Cale considered it a small miracle that he fell asleep with the way Dash flew. Varren shook him awake when they entered the hangar and Dash powered down the hovercraft, hopping over the side and calling back over his shoulder that he expected to see both of them in Command after they washed. Cale’s eyes felt packed with sand and there was a cramp between his shoulder blades, but he hoisted his pack and walked on leaden legs to the cube of showers. He dropped his damp, stinking clothes into the bucket designated for his laundry, thinking they might be better off in a wastebasket. The five minutes of rationed water felt shorter than usual and the lukewarm trickle turned icy after two minutes. He toweled dry and retrieved his belongings from his pack before dropping the canvas bag on top of his discarded clothes. His bunk was in one of the many cubes that honeycombed the walls, accessible by iron rungs set into the walls. The higher-ranked members of the Alliance got the lowest quarters—less chance of losing someone important to a drunken misstep on the ladders. Cale hauled himself up to his cube and barely resisted sinking onto his narrow bunk and going back to sleep. The narrow closet held two blue coats and the rest of his uniform. He dressed and combed his still-damp hair away from his face, tucking the red scarf into the high collar of his coat. He wondered if the rebels intentionally copied the outdated clothing from the Royalists’ ancient history. One of many questions he dared not ask. His dress boots felt stiff, but his others were still coated with muck and he didn’t have time to clean them. He took extra care descending the ladder since the soles were slick from under-use. Varren met him in the corridor, his coat straining over his chest and belly. For all his size, Varren moved lightly—one of many reasons he’d been chosen for their mission.
“Could’ve used twice the water ration with all that filth,” he said.
Cale agreed but didn’t say so aloud. They snapped to attention and stepped to the side to allow one of the Captains to pass with a troop of new recruits. Cale eyed them as they passed.
“Can’t be much more than fifteen,” he said.
Varren snorted. “You weren’t even that when you joined up. Fourteen, fifteen—what’s it matter. Alliance will send them all off to get killed one way or another.”
Cale grabbed Varren by the front of his coat and shoved him against a wall, taking his friend by surprise. “Keep talking like that and they’ll shoot you for treason.”
Varren shrugged him off and quickened his pace; Cale let him put distance between them before trailing him through the warren of tunnels. It amazed him that the Royalists had no idea there was an entire Rebel compound built into the side of the cliffs and stretching underneath the Capitol. They entered Command to see that everyone else was already seated. There was a palatable hum of tension in the air and Cale slid into an open seat at the far end of the table. Varren took the seat next to him, but avoided his gaze. Cale couldn’t tell his friend that he agreed with him. The Alliance was little better than the Royalists, but it took joining up to find that out. Dash stood and dropped something onto the table. The thud silenced the room as all eyes turned to him.
“Thanks to our loyal comrades,” his eyes flicked briefly to Cale, “We have recovered one of the personal journals of the Emperor from the year of the Purge. It states that the Emperor released infected vermin into the poor quarters of Capitol—effectively killing thousands of ‘undesirables.’” Dash tapped the cover of the book. “This is all we need to take the Emperor down.”
Cale’s heart sank. That’s what his brother wanted from the Archives—the evidence to wage war against the Capitol itself, to bring it down in a bloody blaze that would earn him eternal glory. Cale’s foray into the tunnels probably provided Dash a way in. Cale stood, ignoring Dash’s glare.
“What are you going to do? Wipe out an entire city for the crimes of a few?”
He knew what Dash thought—they chose to be Royalists, none were innocent. Some of the Council murmured in discomfort but no one spoke. Cale stared at the assembled faces in disbelief. Yanking the red scarf from his neck, he threw it onto the table and unbuttoned his coat so quickly that several buttons popped free.
“You’re not as bad as the Royalists, you’re worse.”
Dash’s voice echoed through the corridors, shouting his name, but Cale didn’t look back.
My “inventory” from @YouAreCarrying: an apple, a waste basket, a bar of food, a brass lantern, a book, an outflow pipe, a large drill bit, a smoking gun.
The large drill bit was the hardest to integrate naturally and I used the Emperor’s journal for the figurative smoking gun.
3 thoughts on “Dirty Secrets”
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This is another example of why I envy your talent. Your descriptive prose is so wonderful — the smells, the visuals, and the fantastically realized characters. PLUS PLUS PLUS this was a great little story.
I really enjoyed this.
Thank you thank you thank you! I actually got really attached to these guys…they’re on a burner somewhere way in the back of the queue. I’m glad you liked it–I was worried the ending was really rushed, because I reached the point where I had about 200 words left and wasn’t to the end yet.