-A Ship Story -

#1: Priority Number Two

Read Time: 55 min

Sal and Travis, two maintenance workers sent deep into the tunnels beneath the city, are assigned to locate the source of a high priority sewer backup. But when they get there, they find more than just a few old pipes…

Options for enjoying this story:

  • Give it a read or listen straight from here (just click play or scroll down).
  • Listen on YouTube.
  • Prefer to download? Click on the download button below for mp3 audio and epub/mobi eReader file formats.


“Well what do they know about it anyway? They don’t know nothin’…”, Sal muttered through a mouthful of fried potatoes.

It was a common refrain in the industry. Most people living in the city don’t think about where their bodily waste ends up until there’s a problem. They make their complaint to sanitation, and immediately expect things to start flowing again, as if the sewer fairy will suddenly show up waving her magic crap wand. And then you’ve got the high-ups and dispatchers, who somehow think sending an experienced pipe jockey is all it takes to clear out a major blockage. Of course, when it turns out there’s a major section of pipe that needs replacing (or you need something made at the fabricators) they treat you like you broke the rusty old pipes yourself.

“What do we even know about it Sal? Nobody’s been down in that section for twenty or thirty years, maybe more if those dates are real. I mean, all we have to work with are hand-copied blueprints, and those are just copies of copies. Who knows if it’s even accurate?”

“Yeah, well, we’re the ones on the hook to find out what’s going on, and I’m gonna make sure this bowl’s good and empty before I even think about second guessing orders.” Sal took another bite and poked absently at the last bit of eggs.

It had rained hard earlier, and now that it had stopped, the street smells were hanging in the air as it evaporated. Dirt, piss, and the occasional whiff of potpourri mixed with the smell of their food. The sound of chewing always bothered Sal, and even with the rolling steel door open to the street, the soggy footfalls and muted voices of passers-by weren’t enough to distract him from it.

“Hey Trav, you ever wonder how long people have been eating potatoes and eggs together?” Sal mused.

“To be honest, I never did great in history, always too busy with the lady technicians instead of going to class,” Travis winked across the table, but Sal just continued eyeing his breakfast with admiration.

“I mean, they just seem to go so good together, y’know? A little sea salt, a little pepper… some onions? It’s like it was meant to happen.” Sal took his last bite of potatoes and eggs, and washed it down with some double-caffeinated black tea. Travis motioned to the waitress that they were done, and polished off the last of his biscuit, leaving a few pale crumbs suspended in his thin black moustache.

“How many other things are like that, right? I mean, did you ever have fish and hothouse lemons together? It’s like kismet.” Sal left some money on the table and wiped his mouth. “Did I ever tell you we had a hothouse growing up? My ma used to make the best fish, I swear.”

Travis cut him off, “We’d probably better get moving boss,” Sal raised an eyebrow, wrinkling half of his bald forehead in the process. Travis bulled ahead, “Sorry to…I, …well, dispatch said they haven’t had a real priority-one backup, you know, like this one, in a long time. A really long time. I don’t want to make them mad… and… and…”

Sal shook his head at Travis as he pushed back in his chair. “Look, we been partners for a while. You do good work, but you’re still pretty green compared to some of the youngest guys I been partnered with,” the veteran mechanist looked at his empty bowl ruefully and drained the last of his tea.

After a long pause, he sighed.

“Lemme ask you Trav, who do you think they called for the last priority-one?”

Now it was Travis who hesitated, considering. “Really? You? So those notes were…?” Travis’ tone betrayed his youth.

“No, no,” sighed Sal, “I didn’t take the notes. The last P-1 wasn’t even in that section…” Sal seemed at a loss and paused again, “Look Trav, this thing could be bad, I’m not gonna lie. I’ve seen guys trapped under buckled pipe, drowning in pisswater and foulness down there, begging for help, and there’s nothing you can do to save ‘em. Whole teams of fellas have been lost before, and more than once. And The Ship doesn’t even care, they just send replacements.”

Travis looked at his mentor, wide eyed.

Cracking a forced smile, Sal made for the door. “Relax though, pods. Most of the time these jobs are just a lot of careful planning. Slow. Lots of listening; lots of drips. We might not even figure out what needs fixin’ for a day or two.” Travis followed Sal out the door, still hanging on his words.

They walked down the puddle-pocked road for a few blocks in silence. Travis seemed lost in his worries, while Sal searched for something to say that might calm his apprentice’s nerves.

“Y’know Trav, if I’ve learned anything, it’s when to listen to dispatch, and when to ignore their bellyaching about ‘hurry it up down there!’. Trust me, there’ll be a lot of bellyaching, maybe for the next couple of days. Just follow my lead, watch your head, and get ready to say ‘yes’ a lot. And remember, The Ship will be keepin’ an eye on us for the whole operation, so if you have anything bad to say about ‘em to dispatch, stow it.”

Travis looked at Sal nervously. “Not that I’m sayin’ you do,“ Sal diverted easily, “heck, if we do it up fast and don’t need parts made, you might even end up making journeyman early.”


Sal spent too much time at The Flamingo, and he knew it. The bartenders there knew it too, but Sal was always friendly, and he never started any trouble, so they liked him well enough. It was guys like him that paid their upkeep and kept the place open. It also didn’t help that his apartment was two doors down and three floors up from the place.

Proper apartments were hard to come by in the sprawl, and there were only a few available at any given time. Most were reserved for various workers and shop owners in the buildings that butted right up against the wall. The frontage road was well lit, and private security guards patrolled the adjacent alleys and nearby backstreets to discourage would-be burglars and street toughs.

As Sal walked past his favorite pink-plastered haunt to go up to his place, he heard the familiar “doo-da-Dah! doo-da-Dah!” cadence of accordion and drums, and he absently hoped he’d be back home again in time to grab a drink and a bite before they closed for the night. Of course, the odds of that happening were slim to none, so he tried to push it out of his thoughts.

Gotta focus kiddo. Priorities. First things first.

Sal chuckled at himself for hearing his old instructor’s voice in his thoughts all these years later, as he climbed the creaky stairs up to his dwelling.

“Yeah, priorities,” he shook his head, working a handmade key into the lock on his door. That key’s slightly-smaller counterpart unlocked a large metal cabinet inside his bedroom, where he kept the most valuable things he had collected during his fifty-one years of service as a wrench jockey.

Sal’s apartment was humble for a skilled worker, and he liked it that way. It wasn’t particularly tidy, but there weren’t any rats looking to make a home there either. He was practical, and kept his place pretty well stocked-up in case of shortages.

He had a small balcony that overlooked the road, and during good weather he sometimes stood out on it and watched people as they went about their business. He often listened in, straining to catch bits of conversation. Sometimes it was interesting, like bits of news about The Ship, or happenings way out in the wilds. Most of the time though, it was the same kind of idle, boring chatter that’s been going on for centuries; swapping stories about work, complaints about poor sleep, or any number of other things that didn’t register as important unless you were part of the conversation yourself.

The floor was reclaimed wood, with a plain-woven, lightly-stained beige rug taking up much of the larger room, while the door to the bedroom was usually closed and locked tight. His tools and valuables were in there, and even though break-ins were rare in his building, it made him feel better to leave things buttoned up tight.

His furniture was plain, sturdy and functional; no flashy edge-work or dangly knob-pulls. Most sewer workers like Sal were single, and he didn’t need much; a comfortable chair, a bed, and a couch, really. The table that sat in the middle of it all was littered with old coins, a hobby he’d carried with him since he was a kid. Finding old coins was one of the few perks that came with the job, and he’d amassed a pretty decent hoard over the years.

Sal was only there to grab his work kit, and he was running a little behind thanks to breakfast. Fortunately his apartment was on the way, and that’s where he kept his tools.

Most of the older, experienced techs kept their gear at home and could afford to live in the city, where it was safer. But living outside the wall afforded Sal a whole extra room, and more freedom to stretch his legs if he got into a pacing mood. Plus there was the Flamingo.

A lot of the younger guys kept their equipment in lockers back at the yard, but Sal didn’t trust people he didn’t know, and every year that went by, there were more new guys, and less people he trusted.

Sal unlocked his bedroom door, fumbled with his second key in the dimness of curtain-filtered light, and inserted it into his strongbox. With a click, the heavy door swung open and the perfume of aged books, oiled metal, and his fresh tin of Carruthers’ hothouse tobacco slowly wafted their way into the room. Sal squatted down onto a low stool in front of the cabinet, reached over to a glass lamp on a nearby table and it flickered to life, illuminating the box’s contents. Sal always felt a bit of pride and shame intermingled, seeing all his best stuff in one place, remembering how he grew up. It wasn’t every day that he got to show off to the young hotshots or pull out his best equipment and tech toys.

There were wrenches and saws and saw blades made of tempered steel, neatly organized in leather roll-up bags; gauges and calipers, hand-torch accessories, and other trappings befitting a lifelong tradesman, all in perfect working order. On the inside of the cabinet doors hung various keys, along with specialized calibration tools, his awards and certificates, and his ID badge, which he grabbed.

The last time he’d gone down into the bowels, his team slowly ended up shedding bits of gear just to fit through some of the tight spaces. Because of that, Sal toyed with the idea of going in light from the get-go. But not knowing the layout of the area made him nervous, so he loaded up his backpack with a good array of implements, as well as a few he probably wouldn’t need, grabbed an extra canteen, and strapped on his toolbelt for the long day ahead.


Sal locked his front door, went down his three creaky wooden flights, and made a beeline for the north gate, which wasn’t far from the sewer access point. He had a fair distance to cross, and his full stomach wasn’t looking forward to the walk ahead of him; dragging his feet during breakfast meant that he’d have to move double-time.

He’d been down to underground portions of the old city before, and it wasn’t for the faint of heart. In the distant past when the city was first being built, it had actually been the original street level, where people walked around and did their business. Horses and wagons were common back in those days, before the invention of cars.

Over time, a part of the city sank into the soft ground it was built on, while the rest grew up around that area, literally, until it was closed off to the public. Eventually it was covered over with roads, complete with pipes and wiring, built right over the top of everything.

Almost a hundred years after it was abandoned, a portion was opened back up, renovated and repurposed as a tourist attraction. Even now, some relics from the tours remain intact; trash, mostly, but also names and dates carved into the wood and masonry. Sal remembered the first time he had been in that section, and idly wondered what Travis would do if he clicked off his worklight and ducked into a side tunnel suddenly, leaving the poor kid alone in the oldest part of the city.

The idea of it made him chuckle out loud, which drew a dark look from a couple passing by in the opposite direction. He couldn’t blame them either; half the people on the streets were either crazy, or on something, or both. And here he was, looking like a crazy tool-thief, trying to walk full speed away from the scene of a crime. For a second he considered trying to explain himself, but thought better of it, and quickly continued on his way to the north gate to meet up with his partner.

After a few minutes he cleared the last bend, and he spotted Travis with two wall maintenance workers talking by the gate. The workers walked back toward the gate before Sal could catch any real details, but he did hear one of the guys calling back to Travis, “…don’t say you weren’t warned, chucklehead!”

Sal approached Travis, and saw his protege looking like he’d gotten some bad news mixed with some bad seafood.

“Everything okay pal? You don’t look so hot.”

Travis forced a smile, and chuckled, “Oh, yeah. Fine, fine,” he gulped hard, “Just a couple of wall guys giving me a hard time about going into the underground, that’s all.”

“Trav, It’s all underground. C’mon man, relax. At this rate you’ll be as bald as me and white in the whiskers before we even figure out what needs fixing.”

Travis did relax, but he still couldn’t shake the butterflies from his stomach.

“Sal, did you ever hear noises when you went into the old city? You know, anything …weird?”

“Jesus flippin’ calypso Travis!,” Sal clapped Travis hard on the shoulder, “You been worried about old ghost stories all morning? Is that what’s been buggin’ you? Here I thought you were afraid of old brickwork collapsin’ on our heads. Or bumping the wrong pipe and having four hundred pounds of rusty metal pin you to the floor, while you’re drowning in two hundred year old shit water! Really? Ghost stories?” Sal stifled a laugh.

Travis wasn’t amused. “How about zombies?”

Sal got a little more serious, “Look, I get it. I’ve had times where I get creeped out. Recently even. But when I was a greenhorn like you?”, Sal shrugged, “Used to happen all the time.”

“But I’ve heard stories, Sal. People going down exploring and never coming back. I mean…”

Sal interrupted, “Listen Travis. And listen good,” his eyes hardened, “All of the stuff you’ve seen? Stuff we’ve seen? I’ve seen more and worse, and I’m not proud of it. More bodies, more bones. In all kinds of bad shape. But it’s all the same; some people are like monsters, man.”

Travis opened his mouth to disagree, but closed it.

“You remember the “Pier 5 Poacher” right?” Sal continued, “I was on the crew that found where he’d been keeping all the bodies. The people living around there thought for sure a pipe had busted on account of the smell, but…” Sal wrinkled his nose and paused, lost in the bad memory of it.

“I… Jesus.” Travis looked up, rubbing his moustache.

“Yeah. The smell was somethin’ else, I tell ya. But when we got to where it was coming from,” Sal took a deep breath, “you’d think only a monster could do something like that. But it was just a person Trav, a person.”


The duo approached the entrance to the underground, and Trav handed Sal a two-way radio.

“Check, check. You hear me dispatch?” Travis clicked his radio and waited.

“I hear you loud and clear. How about you Sal, go ahead.” a gruff, raspy female voice replied.

Sal cleared his throat, “Check, check, check, check, check. That your sweet voice I hear, Alice?”

“You know it is honey. Wouldn’t miss it. A P-1 in the old city? Underground? I wouldn’t miss this one. Plus I wouldn’t want you getting lost down there.”

“You’re makin’ me blush,” Sal replied to Alice.

He clicked off the radio and looked at Travis, “Al’s been dispatching for longer than I been cutting pipe, so if we get split up, you’re in good hands. Just listen to her, and you’ll be okay.”

“You sure know how to butter a girl up,” Alice’s smiling voice grated through Sal’s tiny radio speaker.

“You weren’t supposed to hear that. What’s this damn button broke or somethin’?” Sal looked at his walkie-talkie skeptically, clicking the button off and on, repeating, “check, check, check, check,” with each push.

“It’s working fine Sal. You have to put your back into it and push the button real hard,” Alice joked, “But thanks for the compliment.”


There weren’t many people out on the street on account of the rain earlier, and they made good time getting to the locked maintenance access point. The outer gate, which closed off an otherwise empty alleyway, was made of heavy bar metal. Beyond the gate they could see a locked floor hatch, which led to the old elevator and a stairwell.

Sal produced a key, and ceremoniously handed it to Travis, “After you Trav. Lead the way. Unless you’re still spooked.” Sal winked and smiled, wiggling his fingers at Travis in a ghostly fashion.

Travis smiled back, “Thanks. A lot.” The gate came open easily, and Travis locked it behind them once they were both inside.

Sal began to un-sling his pack to put on his coveralls and get his flashlight when a stiff breeze suddenly kicked up, and within a matter of seconds they began feeling the spittle of rain starting to fall.

“Let’s hope this doesn’t pick up steam. I was really hopin’ it wasn’t gonna rain again.” Sal looked at the clouds and scowled, grumbling, “Dammit.”

Travis followed his gaze, “Sure, looks like rain, but who cares? We’ll be out of it in just a second.”

Sal just kept frowning at the darkening clouds while Travis fiddled with the reluctant lock. After a few muttered curses, there was a sharp >clink<, and Travis swung open the metal double-doors. The doors hit the ground at the same time, causing a metallic boom to echo through the darkness below like a massive drum, and snapping Sal out of his consternated thoughts.

Travis pulled his flashlight from his belt and flicked it on, pointing it down into the darkness. The smell of stale, musty air wafted up from the hatch and into the alley at the same time as a fat raindrop landed on the tip of Sal’s nose.


“Storm drains,” Sal said abruptly, after following Travis down the hatch.

“Huh?” Travis replied.

“This part of the city had big ol’ storm drains,” Sal gestured to Travis to start making his way further down, “You could drive a small transport through some of ‘em. Honest.”

Travis shot Sal a doubtful look, ducking down to flash his light around again before gingerly descending down a corrugated industrial staircase.

“The drains aren’t plugged up here, at least not all of ‘em,” Sal followed Travis closely, each step downward taking them away from the already bright-seeming daylight, “So when it rains, a lotta’ the water from the streets gets washed down into these sewers. And since so many pipes were salvaged in the early days, nobody knows what drain ends up where. There’s been washouts, sinkholes, you name it.”

“What if we get cut off by the water?” Travis asked, wide eyed, “While we’re down there?”

“That’s what I’m tellin’ ya, kid. It can get gnarly down here in the old city. Why’d ya think I packed extra food?” Sal tapped his creased forehead audibly, “And I brought an extra canteen of clean water too.”

Sal decided Travis had enough on his mind, so at the bottom of the steep metal stairs he took the lead and stopped short.

“I think I’ll take it from here,” Sal said mischievously, pulling out a headlamp and his own flashlight. He gave it a twist, illuminating the surrounding area, and beyond. Flicking his light around, he found the passage he was looking for, and began pulling his map out of it’s tube.

“Dang, Sal. That’s bright!”

Sal laughed. “It’s old. At least all the parts that matter,” Sal flourished his Mag-Lite for a moment before switching over to his headlamp, which itself was nearly as bright, though it didn’t shine nearly as far.

“I only take these out on special occasions,” Sal continued, producing a matching headlamp and handing it to an awestruck Travis, “which I consider this to be.” he winked at his partner.

“These have to be twice as bright as our normal headlamps!” Travis sounded every bit the giddy teenager, “How’s it work?”

“Beats me,” Sal said, shrugging as he unrolled the map, “It’s electrical, so it’s magic as far as I’m concerned. I dunno know how that stuff works, I just know how to use it.”

Sal halved the brightness of his headlamp in a twisting motion and focused on the map while marking the ground with chalk to indicate the direction.

“In case we need rescue.” Sal shrugged, “It’s old-timer stuff, but if it works don’t break it.”

Their radios both beeped to life, “Okay guys”, croaked Alice, “I gotta ask. Did you find our problem yet?”

“Sorry Al. Can’t quite say that. We’re makin’ pretty good time though,” Sal lied, “the bit I still remember is good to go. How’s the rain?”

“It’s coming down. Not like last night, but pretty steady. You and your greenhorn come across any flooding?”

“Not yet, but I expect to.” Sal replied.

Travis interjected, “The name’s Travis… ma’am.” Sal’s lamp beam snapped up from the map into Travis’ eyes, “I… I mean, in case you forgot my name from earlier… ma’am.”

“I didn’t forget hun. I try not to remember. No offense. Most guys don’t last long in your line of work. Gals either.” The transmission stopped for a moment, “Anyway, the high-ups wanted news, and I gotta tell them something. Thanks for the update. Stay safe, and get your butts moving!”


Once they had their coveralls on, the pair methodically followed the route they had planned at breakfast. On paper, it had seemed to Travis that it would be smaller and more confined, but after only a few minutes of walking, stopping, checking, and chalking, Travis began to feel like he was in an immense low-ceilinged tomb, or catacomb.

Many of the routes on the map had been determined to be irrelevant dead ends, or loopbacks. But in the dimness, every unexplored passage disappeared into an endless nothing, and it felt like any wrong turn would lead you completely off your mark, regardless of map or compass.

The air got cooler as they went, and there was almost a breeze or a hint of moisture in the air. The scent of mildew caught in Travis’ nose a couple of times before Sal stopped again to listen. He took his time, checking their map, noting the difference in the air, and marking their direction on the tunnel floor.

“We’re gettin’ close to some runoff, you can tell. This tunnel goes another three blocks or so, then we turn and start going down again.” Sal said, jerking his thumb to the right and downward indicating their next move.

“How come we’re stopping here?” Travis asked.

“We gotta put our waders on somewhere, and I gotta take a leak. Here’s as good a place as any.” Sal walked a good distance away from Travis and dimmed his light.

Travis couldn’t tell whether his sense of worry had diminished, or if he had just gotten used to the anxiety of occupying a space where nobody had been in decades, but he felt a little more at ease than he expected, being alone for a long moment, surrounded by darkness.

After a bit, he began fidgeting with his borrowed headlamp, still marveling at how superior it was to their standard-issue gear. The way everything fit together so perfectly began to remind him of history class. He ran his fingers across the joinery for a few long moments, imagining a time when everything was made like that.

He thought he heard coughing from where Sal had walked off to do, but it sounded too far off to be Sal.

“Hey boss, you hear that?” Travis turned to look at Sal, but there was no one there.

Sal was gone.


Forgetting completely about the radios, Travis felt his hand trembling as he reached for his work knife in a panic. He heard the coughing again, but closer now, coming from one of the side tunnels. Switching on his inferior handheld light, he took a deep, shuddering breath.

Travis shambled a dozen steps in the direction Sal had gone, while craning his neck to extend the headlamp’s range and flicking his yellowish hand-held beam from wall to wall. He was about to call out again, when suddenly a human shape appeared, and Travis was instantly met with a much brighter flashlight beam, square in the eyes.

“Jeez. Can’t a guy get some privacy?” Sal nearly growled at Travis.

“Sorry, I just… I got spooked. I didn’t expect you to go that far. And …without a light?” Travis shuddered.

Sal sounded mildly annoyed, “I don’t need a light to know where my pecker is, kid,” he saw Travis wincing, and smoothed out his tone, “Just throw your waders on and let’s get movin’.”

The white noise of rushing water echoing through long brick tunnels was nearly indistinguishable from the hissing of their radios.

“Don’t tell me that Sal. You know they don’t want to hear it. You’re just going to have to find another way.”

Alice’s rough voice had a hint of sympathy in it, but Sal knew she was right. He knew there were other ways around, at least according to the maps. Having to double back wasn’t a problem, but not having any notes about the condition of the side tunnels was worrying to the experienced workman.

“Alright Al, got it. But maybe you can pull a second crew in while we’re at it?” Sal asked open endedly, clicking off the radio, “but I ain’t holdin’ my breath…” he muttered the last bit to Travis.

“I heard that, you know. Maybe your radio’s broken after all.” Alice cackled, adding, “But you’re probably right about getting a second crew down there. You wouldn’t believe it, but there’s another big one that just got called in over by the market. Big time P-2. Water pressure’s out in the shops and the restaurants.”

“Jesus. How long?” Sal asked.

“Ship wants it fixed yesterday. I say you should get backtracking and find out what’s blocking everything up. Let me know when you have something.”

“You got it Al,” signing off with a loud beep, Sal went back to studying the map to plan their new route.

Travis was just standing there, staring at the torrent of water cutting off their path, shining his light into the clear-brown storm runoff as it rushed by, wondering how far back they’d have to go.

A huge culvert pipe was protruding from one side of the tunnel, and directly across the way was a wide, gaping hole. At some point, a massive amount of flood water had blasted straight through the brick. Now it was the path of least resistance, unless you were a wrench jockey, in which case, finding another way was the only option.

The muddy runoff was only a few feet deep, but it was fast-running, and the entire surface it was flowing across had a slippery-gray mold clinging to it.

“Whaddaya think about roping up and trying to cross it?” Sal asked the younger man, “What is it? Maybe fifteen… twenty feet to the other side? I don’t know if I could make it across, but I could anchor you here if you wanna try.” Sal indicated a thick concrete beam to wrap a rope around.

Travis looked at him surprised, “What happened to slow and steady?”

“I’m just putting it out there… I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time I seen it done. I’d probably give it a try myself in my younger days, but you got a point, kid. We don’t need anybody gettin’ killed just to hurry up for some bigsho…” Sal caught himself, “some big shortcut.”

Travis laughed in relief at the idea of not being washed down into the blackness, perhaps out into the ocean. He thought for sure he was going to have to play tough guy for his rugged mentor, but instead he went over and seriously looked at the map again with Sal.

“So how far backwards do we have to go Sal?” Travis asked matter-of-factly.

“You tell me Trav. You can read a map pretty good. This is us here,” he indicated a couple of different spots with his thick index finger, “We’re in uncharted territory as far as I’m concerned. No old map notes out this way. Not one.”

“This last major four-way here,“ Sal poked the map again, “was the last place I been or seen, and we didn’t come this way, we headed east. This whole last hour of ploddin’ and chalkin’ is new ground. No maintenance tech alive has been down this far, or if they were, they didn’t take notes. It’s virgin map where we are.”

Travis tried to sound sure of himself, pointing back up the way they had just come, “Well, we have to go back to the last chalk-mark, if only to scratch it out, right? There was an offshoot there,” Travis pointed at the map, “and it looks like it hooks up with this other smaller access tunnel here.”

Sal nodded agreement and abruptly rolled up the map, clapping Travis on the shoulder, “Good call pods, good eye. Why don’t you lead the way this time.”


Sal brushed away the old chalk arrow, drawing a new one, and making a note on their map.

“Whaddaya know about this Trav?” Sal asked excitedly, shining his light on an old pair of shoes a little ways down the new tunnel.

“Oh shit! Is that from the old days?” Travis exclaimed excitedly, rushing over and kneeling down to pick up one of the grimy, dust-covered shoes.

“Gotta be,” replied Sal, picking up the other, and letting out a low whistle, “Just look at em!”

Before any more could be said, Sal had dusted his shoe off completely, revealing the once-white surface of an ankle-top sneaker. Travis followed suit, leaving a cloud of dust hanging in the light of the headlamp.

“Rubber,” Sal said, his thumb pressing into the sole of the shoe, causing hardened bits to scatter on the dusty, brickwork floor, “The old stuff. It’s all cracked on the outside, but the middle’s still squishy!”

Sal didn’t try to cover his excitement as he squeezed again, holding his shoe up next to Travis’.

“Nike? Huh.” Sal shrugged, “Never heard of it.”

Travis pulled up the shoe’s tongue and strained to read the tag: “Made in China?” he thought for a second, “‘Nike’ sounds maybe like a Chinese word to me.”

“How would you know?” Sal replied, giving a questioning look.

Travis shrugged, “Why don’t you head up north to the campus and ask? I’ve heard they have a language department there.”

“Well, I’m no traveler, but this is a pretty decent find we got here. Ship’ll pay nicely for these,” Sal eyed the shoes and his voice took on a conspiratorial tone, “and the Flamingo pours ‘em nice and strong,” he winked.

“Always with that pink flamingo place man,” Travis laughed.

“Yeah, well, if we want to end up there tonight, we’d better get a move on.” Sal said, putting his chalk away and tucking his half of the prize into his pack.

After they had found the shoes, they began to find ever increasing signs of human activity, clearly dating back to before either of them had been born. Bits of decomposed clothing, a few more shoes, rusted cans, and lots of brittle plastic. All of it, covered in a layer of fine dust.

“You feel that? We’re close to that junction where the water broke through. The air’s moving and kinda moist. Plus we been walkin’ long enough to be back. Just keep an eye out for more goodies, eh?”

They continued for a while longer, scanning the ground, careful not to kick up unnecessary dust while ducking around cobwebs.

The rushing sound of water continued increasing in volume as they went, until eventually the sound muffled the echoes of their footsteps and idle chatter. The ground was perceptibly vibrating from the force of the flowing water, somewhere nearby.

Their path wasn’t entirely straight, and just as they were marking, and rounding another curve, there was a massive concussive rumble that reverberated through the tunnel, and suddenly the sound of rushing water and collapsing masonry drowned out everything else.


They approached the site of the washout, only a few hundred feet from where they had been, glad they hadn’t been in a hurry.

“What are we going do to Sal?” Travis asked, wide-eyed.

For once, Sal was nearly at a loss for words, “Well, we ain’t dead. That’s a good start.”


“But nothin’, we didn’t get flushed down into the… there.” Sal shined his flashlight into the churning water, which ran steeply downward and out of sight. Blackened chunks and fresh rust were now commingled with the light-brown runoff from the city streets above, and the familiar smell of fresh, pungent sewage began filling the surrounding tunnels.

Travis gingerly approached the edge of the washout to get a closer look at the water when suddenly their radios came blaring to life.

“Sal? Travis? Is everything going okay down there?” Alice asked, sounding concerned, “I just got word from out that way, that the backup was fixed. That sure was fast.”

“Yeah Al, we’re fine.” Sal shot Travis a quizzical look, “How’d you hear about it so quick? We’re just seeing the flow ourselves.”

“The Ship’s got radios too, you know. Spotters maybe. Word travels fast. What was the problem anyway?”

Sal didn’t answer right away, remembering a side tunnel he’d spotted earlier.

“We might end up with bigger problems than that sewer-main backup, depending on what all just got washed out,” Sal attempted to sound convincing, “You know Al, maybe Trav and I oughtta’ double check some of the other tunnels while we’re down here.” Sal clicked the radio off, waiting for Alice to reply.

“Hey Trav, did you see that side tunnel about twenty minutes back? It looked like it had more antique stuff…” Sal left the question hanging.

Travis took his meaning and nodded agreement, just as the radio crackled back to life.

“That’s a no-go, guys. They want you back for that P-2 in the market. Just make note of the washout and double-time it back up here, and that’s orders. We’ll send a team back later. Got it?”

“Loud and clear boss,” Sal replied, winking at Travis in the dim reflected light bouncing off the tunnel walls, “Loud and clear.”


When they turned off of their original route, Sal marked it out of habit, and flashed his bright beam down the side tunnel. There was definitely something down that way, more than he remembered seeing before.

“Well, let’s be quick about this, eh?” Sal said, leading the way.

Travis approached an old shopping cart full of dust covered cans, and empty plastic water bottles with holes gnawed in them, “Wow, look at this stuff. There’s still something in these,” Travis felt the weight of one of the cans in his hand, and passed it off to Sal, who looked at the can skeptically

“‘French-cut green beans’? What the hell is ‘french cut’ even supposed to mean?” Sal wondered aloud.

“Do they mean ‘fresh’?” Travis scratched his head, “Maybe we’ve been saying it wrong? Maybe nobody’s looked it up in a dictionary for so long that we just say ‘fresh’ but really, maybe it should be ‘french’?” Travis mused, “french fruit, frenchly baked bread… do you think?”

Sal wrinkled his nose at the idea, “I dunno Trav, that don’t seem right to me,” he rummaged around with his flashlight, “Anything else in here?” he asked, tucking the can of green beans into his pack.

“Just more cans,” Travis replied, “Geez, look at this stuff. It’s in really good condition.”

“It won’t be for long, now that there’s all this extra moisture in the air. I figure the cold, dry, and dark’s the only reason all this stuff held up so good. You should snag somethin’ for a keepsake. Or maybe to sell, if you can find an antique collector.”

Travis grabbed one of the cans and stuffed it into his pack. Sal flashed his light beyond the shopping cart and saw some plywood and planks leaned up against the tunnel wall, butted up to a small side passage.

“Huh? What have we got here?” the old plumber sounded perplexed. There was a five gallon bucket made of plastic, and a couple of old tools were half-buried in dust near the side-passage. As the two approached, it became clear that it was more than planks and a bit of plywood; there was actually a makeshift door set in a similarly made wall which covered the side passageway. It appeared sturdy, complete with hinges and a latch.

From the looks of things, it had stood closed for decades, and probably a lot longer.

“You think we should call it in Sal?” Travis asked timidly as they approached.

“No, no. Lets… just…“ Sal half-replied in a quivering, dreamlike monotone, his mind clearly elsewhere.

Travis stopped and stood motionless as Sal took the last step, reaching out for the latch. He grabbed the wooden lever where it was held shut, and pushed down, bringing the other end up. There was a pop, and the door swung open a couple of inches, and then continued creaking, slowly widening.

A strange, sweetly rancid smell made its way out into the tunnel, and mixed with the already putrid scent of fresh sewage.

“God, that’s awful.” said Travis, turning his head away.

“It’s somethin’ all right. Let’s give it a sec to air out,” Sal said, swinging the door open wide with his flashlight.

A dusty cloud hung in the still air, temporarily obscuring their view into the blackened space. The bright beams of the flashlight and headlamps only made it worse.

“Whaddaya think’s in there?” Sal asked Travis quietly.

The pair stood transfixed, straining to see inside as the dust settled. After a moment, they were able to make out rough shapes. Tables, shelves, and a few other things further back.

They hadn’t reported their discovery back to Alice yet, and now, with the dust fully settled, they stood in silent disbelief. They had found the mother lode.


Of all the discoveries Sal had ever made, from tokens that comprised most of his old coin collection, to the antique revolver he’d found and kept for himself, the volume of old world knick knacks they could see, even from outside, was staggering.

“Sal? What are we gonna do? We gotta call this in. The higher-ups are going to want to look through every bit of this stuff.”

“We’ll call it in all right, but we gotta think. This ain’t like those shoes. Those are salvage, every bit ours, the same as when we found that big pile of copper wire last winter. On the job bonus.”

“That paid up my rent for two months Sal! Second day on the job too…”

Sal cut him off, “This stuff is different. There could be old tech in there. Fancy stuff”, he lowered his voice conspiratorially, “Ship stuff. Computers, electrical, maybe even some goodies for us,” Sal thought of the ultrasonic pipe tester in his pack, “Stuff like these flashlights.”

Sal clicked his Mag-lite off and on a few times, making his point, “We go in, have a quick peek around, don’t disturb much, see if there’s anything… useful, and then we call it in. Easy peasy.”

“Well, okay. When you put it like that… hey, is that how you got these crazy-bright lights?”

“The headlamps? Nah. Those were a gift from my old mentor, Vic. But this flashlight? I told ‘em I bought this thing off a tinkerer myself, out in the sprawl,” he double-clicked his flashlight again, “Anyway, let’s have a look before…”

As if on cue, their radios gave a loud beep that made them jump, and Alice’s voice blared through their speakers simultaneously, “Okay guys! I‘ve got a boss to answer to, and we need a good wrench jockey about an HOUR ago.”

“We’re hustling Al, we are. My legs aren’t as limber as they used to be ya know, and I got bad knees. I’m hurryin’ here, but I ain’t gonna run.” Sal breathed heavily into the radio, pretending to be winded. Travis smiled, shaking his head.

“Well maybe you should, you old codger. It’s getting late, and this market problem needs fixing or else. It’s going to be an all-nighter unless you two get back here and help these lunkheads pretty quick.”

Sal fought back the urge to grumble, but simply said, “I got it,” and left it there.

Travis broke in over the radio, “Ye…Yes ma’am. We’ll pick up the pace,” He looked at Sal nervously, “I’m trying to get on her good side, so she’ll remember me.”

“She will Trav, we’re partners. Partners are like family, and Al’s definitely family. Why don’t ya keep an eye out for something nice for her, eh? A memento.”


As they peered in from the outside, the strange scent seemed to hang in the air, almost actively; a mix of odors hinting at rotting fruit and meat, or garbage. The odor seemed to be lingering around their nostrils, before eventually disappearing into the tiny wind currents of the tunnel system.

Sal’s headlamp illuminated a handful of the seemingly ancient items; some easily recognizable as old tech, some not as much. There were old papers and dried up ink pens strewn across a desk, as well as what they both thought must be a folded computer.

Travis could see a variety of electrical cables and wires protruding from a box in the corner of the desk, as well as a few other electronic-looking bits which caught his eye. A plain ceramic plate, a fork, and a table knife sat in the middle of the desk, and Sal wondered if someone had eaten their last meal here, and just never came back.

He flashed his light from the desk to the shelf, and found rows and stacks of the same style of food cans they had run across in the shopping cart, but in even better condition. There were preserved boxes of cereal and oatmeal, jars of still-unopened jam and peanut butter, dried noodles, condiments, and things neither of them recognized.

Travis shined his lamp into the back of the room and found a mattress piled with a bundle of blankets and rags and ropes, along with a couple of large metal lockboxes shoved up against the adjacent wall, like a makeshift nightstand. Sitting on top was an old oil lamp and a few other items the young apprentice couldn’t quite discern in the scattered light. Tightening the beam on his headlamp, he made out the shape of a pocket watch, a yellow pencil, a dust covered note… and a handgun.

Sal took a full step into the museum-like space, “Hey Trav, look at all these books!” Sal exclaimed, nearly shouting, “These are probably worth a…”

Like a bolt, the entire pile of blankets on the cot lurched at once. There was a loud crack as it sprang toward Sal, sending a cloud of dust into the air before landing with heavy thud on the cement floor.

Sal sprang straight backward into the tunnel like a startled cat, “What the?! Did y…”

Before Sal could finish, the snarling cry of a wild animal rang out, half growling, half screaming from beneath the heavy pile. Some of the rope was caught up between the blankets and the metal bed frame, and the writhing bundle began to strain wildly against something. The struggle sent more dust into the air, obscuring their vision as they continued backing further away from the door.

They heard more metallic banging and tearing, along with frantic, raspy-throated hissing sounds. Sal kept his eyes on the doorway as the dust settled down, and he began reaching into his toolkit for a large pipe wrench.

“What the heck man?!” Travis already had his work knife out, but he turned his attention away from the door and back up the way they had come, “Let’s go boss!”

“Uh… “ Sal wanted to get a better look before he chickened out and let his nerves get the better of him. He’d seen some big rats, and even the occasional raccoon during his time as a pipe jockey, and he didn’t want to get chased away from his treasure so easily.

“Sal. Come on!”

The dust had mostly cleared, and Sal trained both of his bright lights directly at the foot of the doorway.


The zombie had never seen a person before.

Having locked herself up as an infected human, she knew the day might come that someone would find her. She did everything she could to try to end it; to take out her own brain before she turned, but she couldn’t do it.

Her last days were spent tied to a bed, lamenting the question of free will, staring at a pistol. But here she … it was, all these years later.

Sal and Travis stared in horror at what was once a human being, the partners transfixed in the present by a nightmare from the past.

The bundle of blanket-wrapped zombie was straining toward them on the ground, growling and gurgling, legs still apparently bound to the rickety frame by the rope restraints, unable to get at them.

It’s head and an entire arm had come loose from the blankets, and it was hopelessly attempting to drag itself toward them. One arm was still tangled up, but it’s hands were missing entirely, still laying by the restraints where it had torn itself free. It’s teeth snapped at them but the bright sound of clicking teeth was soon replaced by a wet, pulpy, clopping sound as the teeth broke off or fell out, one by one.

Sal had his wrench in hand now, but there was no part of him that wanted anything to do with a zombie. He grabbed Travis by the shoulder and shook him to attention.

Sal spoke quickly, fumbling in his coat pocket, “Trav, here. That thing I said to Alice about my legs? I wasn’t kiddin’. I can’t really… run, y’know? I can shuffle real fast, but not run. Here.” Sal handed Travis his handmade keys, “Just in case you gotta run, you run.” Both of their headlamps were still fixed on the snarling zombie.

“Sal, let’s go! I’m freaking out here. I’m not going to lea…”

The bedframe gave a sharp squeal and slid halfway across the floor of the room as the zombie advanced another few yards further into the tunnel. The creature roared like something unearthly, gaining intensity until the sound was interrupted by a squishy gurgle. Their lights revealed a thick, tannish-brown and black liquid pouring out of its mouth.

“Oh god, yeah, let’s go kid, I can still move pretty quick. Follow the chalkmarks!”

They had gone about a block and a half at Sal’s shuffling-pace, when suddenly they heard the bed slide again. There was a metallic squeal that echoed through the black tunnels all around them, followed by a crash and the brittle sound of a rope snapping.

They remained silent, straining to hear anything at all.

Slap. Slap…sliiide. Slap…sliiide.

“I think I can move a bit quicker,” Sal tried making it a joke, but it felt to Travis more like he needed reassurance.

Just then, their radios crackled to life. This time the voice wasn’t that of Alice.

“Salvatore Alterra. This is first captain Nathaniel Huff. Do you copy?”

Sal continued moving as fast as he could, knowing that the zombie had broken free, and was on their heels.

“Yeah, I copy. I copy. We’re in some real shit here captain! And I’m not talking about the sewage. You gotta help us! There’s a… a…”

Travis heard the hesitancy in Sal’s voice, and switched on his own walkie talkie, “There’s a zombie, captain. I don’t know how else to say it. A real one. We found this hidde…”

“We know. We’ve been listening.” Huff interrupted, “We have a team on it’s way to extract you. Keep moving, and get back to the original route that you logged when you left base. My team will be there shortly. Huff, out.”

The radio went silent, and they continued on as fast as Sal’s knees could take him. After a short way, the pair dared to stop and have a listen. Hoping to hear the sound of rescue, all they heard were echoes of their heavy breathing and the blood pumping in their ears.

Then, ever so faintly, Slap…sliiide. Slap. Slap…sliiide.

Travis and Sal both turned to look, but there was nothing. Travis was flooded with relief, but Sal clicked on his more-powerful handheld light and shined it down the corridor, revealing the half-clothed, semi-limbless zombie, still dragging itself toward them.

Once it saw their light in the distance, it became animated, pushing off with its stump and back leg, causing its head to gyrate as it spider-crawled toward them, faster than before.

“GO GO GO!” Sal yelled, half, skipping, half speed-walking, cursing all the time he had spent in a crouched position, wrenching on pipes. Every few dozen quicksteps he felt a sharp twinge in one of his kneecaps, and he prayed today wouldn’t be the day one of them finally gave out.


“Aaargh!” Sal hit the bricks, yelping in pain as he crumpled to the ground. Travis rushed over to his side and tried to lift Sal up.

“We have to ditch our packs if we’re going to have a chance. Now come on!”

Sal quickly weighed his options, and slipped off his pack, leaving it next to Travis’ on the tunnel floor. He leaned heavily on his companion as a crutch, and they started back down the tunnel as fast as Sal could hop.

They didn’t seem to be putting any distance between themselves and the sound of the awkwardly crawling zombie, so Travis picked up the pace for a while, hoping to buy them some breathing room.

After a few long excruciating minutes of hop-limping Sal spoke up.

“This ain’t gonna last long, pods. Sorry to tell ya.” Sal winced in pain and sucked air sharply through his teeth with every hop, “It’s both my knees ya know? Both wrecked. When the other one goes…” Sal imagined that thing crawling toward him and was glad he hung on to his heavy wrench. He’d be damned if he was going to just roll over and die.

Travis’ voice hardened, “Then I’ll carry you over my shoulder like a bag of sea salt, or drag you. I’m not leaving you down here. Now let’s just get as far as we can get, and take it from…” Travis suddenly let out an excited yelp, “There! The shopping cart!” Travis pointed excitedly.

With his partner’s help, Sal made a few dozen more painful hops, and they reached the cart. Travis dumped out the cans and clothes, and Sal used his shoulder to gingerly climb in. After centering himself in the basket, Sal gave the go ahead, and Travis put his weight behind the cart.

It made tracks in the dust as it rolled a few feet forward.

Travis slapped the top of Sal’s bald, sweaty head and rubbed it, “Looks like luck’s on our side boss,” he snuck a look over his shoulder, shining his light far down the tunnel to see if their quickened pace had done the trick, “I don’t even see it back there!”

Slap…sliiiide. Hissssss.

“Trav, look out!” Sal cried.

Somehow the zombie’s pace had quickened, and rather than losing ground, it had been slowly gaining on them, it’s gory amber-brown stub now reaching out for Travis’ ankle; without a hand, it came up short. Before he could even think, the nimble young plumber turned reflexively, kicking the monster in the head and twisting its neck sideways with a sickening crack.

Hanging skin and meat had slid and given way where Travis’ boot made contact, exposing the thing’s skull, but the zombie wasn’t discouraged. It’s head now lolling around limply, the creature reached out again for Travis. He took a few quick steps away from the cart, and the zombie scrambled after him.

Sal kept his flashlight fixed on the scene and Travis called out with an idea, “I’m going to lead it away! Just stay put!” Travis easily stayed out of the mangled thing’s reach. It snapped its toothless jaws together viciously over and over, leaving a sloppy, wet trail across the tunnel floor.

The apprentice knew the shopping cart was only a few hundred feet from the main passage they had first come down, and he ran a dozen yards in that direction, shining his light at the zombie and yelling, “Over here! Over here!”

Sal clicked both of his lights off, not wanting to divert the monster’s attention, and he sat in the darkness, watching, as Travis and the zombie slowly disappeared around the corner and out of sight.

Sitting in the dark, helpless, Sal considered radioing to Alice, but remembered captain Huff on the other end and thought better of it. The echoes of, “Come on! Come on!” and “This way! Over here!” became more distant, and Sal began to imagine what might happen if Travis tripped and fell. Eventually the silence was almost absolute, and Sal couldn’t be sure whether the distant noises were real or imagined.

Sal shined his light into the passage for no real reason except to fend off the dark, and he shuddered at the thought of being stranded, watching a zombified Trav rushing toward him.

Instead, Travis’ voice came through his radio, full of relief, “Sal! Sal! We’re safe! They got it!” Sal breathed a sigh of relief, paused for a moment of calm, and let out another deep sigh.

“Sal? Sal?! Are you there?!”

“Sure thing.” Sal smiled in the darkness, “Still sittin’ in this ol’ makeshift wheelchair, but now I ain’t got no chauffeur! How about you, Trav? You alright?”

“Yeah, not a scratch. They got here and…”

The radio beeped, cutting Travis off completely.

Captain Huff’s voice came through loud and clear, “This is first captain Huff, currently on my way to the extraction point. I want transport ready by the time I arrive. That is all. Huff out.”

Travis continued, oblivious, “…in some kind of bag, I didn’t see where to. I’m on my way back to you now with a couple of big guys that can help get you out of here easier. Should be maybe twenty minutes, not much more.”

“Sounds good to me pods, I got nowhere to go.” Sal replied, already straining his ears for the sound of voices. He clicked off his light and headlamp and sat in the black semi-silence, waiting, and knowing that nobody would believe him except for Trav.

And that was fine by him.


“Well, it ain’t the Flamingo, but you won’t hear me complainin’!” Sal grinned as he clanked glasses with Travis, looking out across the water toward the city.

“I never understood why you liked that place so much?” Travis half-asked, wrinkling his nose in distaste, “I mean, a dive bar close to home I get. But that garish pink?”

Travis nodded his approval toward a small stage, where a drum, saxophone, and bass trio was playing to the small crowd, “Now this… I could listen to anytime,” Travis slurred, “But that accordion they had at that flamingo of yours? No thank you.”

Sal shrugged, “My uncle played accordion when I was growin’ up. Everybody in the neighborhood used to come over. Just good memories I guess…” he trailed off into his drink, recalling his childhood.

“Beats the heck out of the bad ones,” Travis said, shooting Sal a sober look.

“You got that right.” Sal gave a knowing look back.

The musical trio finished a song to a smattering of applause, and Sal took another long pull off of his drink. The sun was beginning to set, and the breeze was unusually warm as it blew in from the ocean. It felt nice.

“Who woulda thought a couple a’ sewer techs would end up livin’ it up on The Ship anyway?” Sal mused.

“Don’t forget about Alice!” Travis beamed, looking over at the matronly dispatcher, who was lost in a conversation with the barkeep.

The band picked up again, and Sal lowered his voice to a near whisper, “You still ain’t asked anybody else about how they got here, did ya’? I mean, doncha’ wonder if they got stories too?” his eyes took on a suspicious cast as he looked back and forth between fellow patrons and shipmates stationed at tables and booths of their own.

“God lord Sal, no,” Travis hissed. “and I don’t plan on it. We made a deal. They could’ve left us for dead down there, or just killed us after questioning us. As long as we keep our word, I think they mean to keep theirs.” Travis’ voice was even lower than Sal’s.

“Yeah, I guess,” Sal relaxed a bit, still feeling conspiratorial, “I just wonder why not have us go back to regular life? I mean… why?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, boss. Maybe they figure if we have a good thing going, we’ll keep mum?” Travis’ tone became more personal, “We gave our word to them about keeping quiet Sal, but what about us?” Travis cocked an eyebrow and swirled his drink, raising his glass for a toast.

Sal thought long and hard before raising his own glass in kind, “Well, I’m still gonna keep my ears open, but you got it. You got my word,” Sal and Travis touched glasses, taking in the newness of their situation once again, almost overwhelmed.

Feeling the warmth of free liquor in his belly, and looking at his young friend who was suddenly grinning like an idiot, he decided to let it go.

“Y’know what Trav, I can keep my yap shut forever for this kind of pay,” he raised his voice, “To The Ship!”

Everyone within earshot heard that last bit, and raised their own drinks in common refrain, “To The Ship!”

How About a Happy Ending?

Show me some love by donating and I'll make sure the next story treats you real nice.

download icon

Download Format Options

Please select your preferred format to download audio or eReader file.

Having trouble downloading on your mobile device? Make sure you are using Google Chrome or Safari.
newsletter icon

Wise Choice
My Friend.