's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" Cleaners "

Submitted by Irene Vallone

The silence of the desert in midday was broken by the sound of a huge black garbage truck-like vehicle rolling across the disused highway. Its four massive tires left distinctive imprints in the sand as it they rolled along - the first tire tracks the sand had seen in decades.

In the cockpit of the truck rode two cleaners - a passenger and a driver. Both were dressed in the standard cleaner uniform, a black rubber suit with gloves, heavy boots, and a gas mask, leaving no skin exposed. They had not spoken for several minutes. The passenger spoke up to break the silence.

"We've gone quite out of our way today," they said.

"We have to," the driver responded, without taking their gaze off the road.

"Why is that?"

The driver glanced at the truck's radio. "The queen is about to make an announcement," they said.

Just then, the broadcast began. The radio buzzed and popped for a moment before the voice of the queen could be heard clearly.

"Hello, my children," said the queen. "We are sure that many of you have heard the news by now, and we wish to dispel any rumors that may be going around."

The passenger turned to look out the window as the queen continued her broadcast. They stared dispassionately at the abandoned buildings as the truck passed them slowly.

"It is true," the queen continued. "All of the vermin appear to have disappeared from the Fifty-fifth District, and the inhabitants of that district have become unable to continue cleaning. The surrounding districts have graciously agreed to provide for the inhabitants of the Fifty-fifth, but the newly increased population will undoubtedly be taxing on them."

The truck passed the corpse of a deer lying by the side of the road. There was still some fur and rotten flesh clinging to its bones. The passenger looked down at it as they passed.

"Our expansion into the Temperate Zones has thus far been unsuccessful," the queen went on, "So we must find new areas to clean in our already-occupied territory. Bounties for captured vermin are increased until further notice. Any cleaner who delivers to me the coordinates of a previously unknown vermin infestation will be rewarded. That is all. Remember, cleaners: The world is a dirty place, but we were born to clean."

With that, the broadcast ended, and the radio returned to static.

"Good," said the passenger flatly.

The driver did not respond.

"The Fifty-fifth situation," they clarified. "It's good."

"Why?" asked the driver.

"They don't clean anymore," the passenger said. "Can you imagine not having to clean anymore? That sounds wonderful."

"Everyone needs to clean," said the driver, ignoring the question. "But cleaning must be done in moderation. Clean all at once, and you'll be left with nothing."

The passenger didn't reply to that. They turned to stare out the window again.

"Where are we going?" they asked.

"To the First Point," the driver said.

The passenger noticed a large green sign on the side of the road as they drove past.


"What does that sign say?" asked the passenger.

"Didn't see it," the driver said dully. "We're here."

The passenger eventually realized that the driver had stopped the truck. They opened their door and stepped outside as the driver began making preparations.

They looked around at the long-abandoned town ahead of them, which had fallen into a state of disrepair after years of disuse. The sun had scorched and whitened the structures around them, and many of them had fallen apart or collapsed on top of themselves.

The passenger looked down at their own glove-obscured hands, turning them over and moving their thick, clumsy fingers. Such a fleeting, useless form, they thought. They couldn't wait to discard it.

Behind them, they heard the metallic groan of the truck's rear doors opening. They turned and saw the driver approaching them.

"Do you really think that we will find any remaining infestations in the First Point?" asked the passenger. "This area of the district was purified years ago."

"Exactly," the driver retorted. "No one else will have checked here."

He pulled a large nightstick-like club out of a holster on his belt. The passenger looked at the club for a moment, then did the same, unenthused.

"Let us go," said the driver, heading down a street to the left. "We will split up. Keep in contact."

The passenger wordlessly turned and headed down a street to the right, flicking on the radio attached to their belt as they did so. They began lazily running their fingers up and down the sides and speaker of the radio, but were unable to feel its texture through their thick gloves.

They lifted their club and began turning it over in their hands, inspecting it as though they had never seen it before. They looked their hands over once again, marveling at their thick fingers and loose, clumsy grip.
They had learned that once, in the distant past, they would have needed a body to get around, always. They would have had to puppeteer a clumsy hulk of flesh around everywhere they went, impeding them at all times, surrounding themselves with a horrid cloak of filth and rot. But this was years ago, before their people had organized themselves, before the Cleaners were established to strike back against the vermin infestation. Before there was even a queen.

"Have you found anything?"

The passenger snapped out of their daydream.

"Not yet," they replied.

"Keep looking," said the driver through the radio, before falling silent again.

The passenger stopped and looked around the dirty, garbage-covered street. They heard nothing except for the clicking of their radio, and saw nothing except for trash.

They hated how unclean the vermin made everything. Leaving waste everywhere they went, and secreting liquids out of their horrid skins. They weren't at all like the passenger. Sleek, smooth, and elegant.

They hoped that the queen's ideas of temperate expansion would succeed soon. As far as they were concerned, the vermin still occupied too much of the world.

The passenger was not naive, however. He recognized that they still required the vermin to survive. Hideous as they were, they were inextricably linked with the passenger's people.

They heard something rustling down the street.

Cautiously, the passenger brandished their club and slunk towards the source of the sound. They peered around the corner of a building and discovered three vermin in a dead-end alleyway. The two larger ones were digging through several trash cans while a small one sat beside them.

The passenger quickly ducked back around the corner.

"Come find me," they said into the radio. "I've found them."

"I will track your pheromones," said the driver. "I will be there momentarily."

The passenger marched back around the corner, holding their club in one hand. The two larger vermin had heard his radio and were aware of his presence, but the smaller one seemed to have taken no notice. One of the two larger vermin ran over to the small one and embraced it protectively.

The passenger made a sudden realization.

They noticed the driver marching down the street towards them and stepped aside to let them stand next to them, blocking the vermin's only means of escape.

"Get them out here," said the driver.

The passenger beckoned for them to come closer, but the vermin just stared dumbly forward. Eventually, the driver got frustrated and strode towards them. When they tried to run, the driver clubbed them both in the back, and they fell to the ground. The smaller vermin fell to the ground and looked up at the two cleaners with huge eyes. The driver moved to club it, but

"You'll kill it," the passenger stated.

"We do not need them alive," the driver said, but they lowered their club anyway.

The passenger picked up the small vermin, which regarded the passenger silently. The passenger could not read its expression. It found the way its face was able to contort nauseating.

"The smaller ones are larvae," said the passenger. "An immature form."

Suddenly, one of the two larger vermin leapt up and snatched the smaller one away from the passenger, screaming unintelligibly. The driver raised their club again, and the vermin flinched.

"See?" asked the passenger. "Protective of its offspring."

The driver considered this a moment.

"We need to take this to the queen," the driver said.

The other larger vermin scrabbled to its feet and attempted to grab onto the other one and flee. The driver quickly clubbed it again before grabbing its staggered body and began to drag it away. The passenger grabbed onto the other vermin and began ushering it behind the driver, ignoring the vermin's throaty cries.

After loading their prisoners into the back of the truck, the cleaners drove for many hours. As they drove across the desert, the sun set behind them. The sky turned orange, then pink, then purple, and then black. Stars began twinkling in the sky, unobstructed by any pollution. After a few hours, the vermin in the back of the truck stopped screaming.

The passenger held the young vermin on their lap as they drove. They watched its small, fat fingers wriggle and bend, observing how its flesh folded and bent in on itself with every motion. They were disgusted, but agreed with the driver that it was better to separate the young vermin from its parents now rather than later. They tried not to look at it as much as possible, but on occasion its warbling cries drew their attention.

After hours of mostly silent driving, the cleaners drove up to a large trading post at the side of the road.

"We're here," said the driver. "Let's take them to see the queen."

Wordlessly, the driver parked the truck. The passenger opened the door and clambered out of their seat, haphazardly carrying the young vermin under one arm. As they approached the back of the truck, the driver pulled the lever that opened the rear doors.

The passenger inspected the two vermin inside. They were lying pitifully on the floor, exhausted. The larger of the two noticed the passenger and began making its grunting noises again.

Wordlessly, the passenger held up the young vermin. The larger vermin shook the smaller awake, and they both began making noises at the passenger. The passenger motioned for them to get out of the truck, and they did so hesitantly.

Quickly, the driver grabbed both of the adult vermin, interlocking one of their arms under each arm. They began marching them towards the door of the trading post.

The young vermin began screeching horribly. Fluid began leaking out of its face. Repulsed, the passenger almost dropped it. The adult vermin began hooting and bellowing in response.

"Make it stop," the driver barked. The passenger slapped a hand over the young vermin's face, muffling its cries.

As the cleaners approached with their vermin, the shoddy wooden doors of the trading post swung open. A loud humming emanated from within the darkened interior of the building. To the passenger, it was calming; it made them think of home. The vermin, however, began screaming, as if they were in pain.

"How do we get them to be quiet!" growled the driver.

"Just wait," said the passenger calmly, soothed by the humming. "We won't be able to hear them soon."

As they entered the trading post, the humming became words.

"Cleaners," said the humming. "Have you news for the queen?"

"We do," answered the driver and passenger in unison.

The cloud of flies that took up most of the inside of the building parted, allowing them to pass. They headed for the center of the cleared-out building's interior.

Lying on the floor in the center of the building, underneath the sole remaining working light, was a
massive grub-like insect. At least three feet long, her smooth, sleek body glistened under the light, and underwent rhythmic spasms as she continually laid eggs that were quickly carried off by her attendants. Upon looking at her, the driver and passenger's bodies prickled with arousal.

"Welcome, children," the queen buzzed warmly. "We see you have brought gifts."

"Yes, your Majesty," said the driver reverently. He pushed the two adult vermin down. They fell onto the ground in front of the queen and stared at her.

"They are transfixed by our beauty," said the queen, stating a fact.

"As are we all," replied the driver in earnest.

The passenger hesitantly approached with the young vermin.

"Cleaner," the queen asked, "Why do you bear this stunted vermin? It is hardly good for cleaning."

"Your Majesty," said the passenger reverently, "It is their child. The small vermin are their larval forms. They are born fully formed, but small."

"Are they, cleaner?" the queen asked, genuinely curious. "But where is their queen?"

"We did not have a queen once, your Majesty," said the passenger. "Perhaps the vermin are the same."

The queen was silent for a moment.

"I see."

"We can breed them," the passenger went on. "We can farm the vermin. This will keep the vermin in check, allow us expand as we wish, and will grant us as much food as we need."

The flies surrounding them buzzed their agreement. A few of them landed on the vermin, who recoiled from their touch.

"A capital idea!" the queen crowed. "Give the young one to our attendants."

The passenger set the young vermin down. The cloud of flies swirled around it, ushering it away into the darkness and

"As for these two," the queen went on, referring to the two adults, "They shall be your reward for your wonderful discovery. You may feast as you wish, and then you shall search for more vermin that we shall breed. Our children will never be hungry again!"

The driver and the passenger eagerly peeled off their gas masks and the hoods of their suits. Their heads were masses of flies.

The adult vermin recoiled in horror.

From the neck holes of their suits, the driver and passenger swarmed out, their bodies each composed of thousands upon thousands of flies that poured forth and swarmed towards the vermin, eager to taste their reward.