The Cleaners

Photo by Klemen Vrankar on Unsplash

The Cleaners touched down on the long-empty planet.

Marie glares at a blinking cursor on the screen in front of her. She only needs to mark down a few final, perfunctory words to confirm that the operation was a success and the site cleared for use. Then she can go home for the day. It’s an easy enough task, if only she could bring her thoughts to focus. But snatches of her last trip back to Earth keep rattling into her mind instead, and she finds herself wondering whether that buzz of adventure is really worth the work that she does. Her title, officially, is Growth and Opportunity Executive. Colloquially, they’re referred to as Cleaners. Which sounds just about right to Marie. This job has never been about seeking Spaces of Great Potential. It’s only ever been about sweeping away the debris and replacing it with a shinier example of the same crap.

Their plane had come in to land on a vast stretch of tarmac. Overgrown with weeds, yes — and coated with a thick layer of dust — but still recognizable as something essentially human. A long strip of rusting metal carves the space into two long strips. There are even small splashes of white paint visible, markings that used to tell people where they should form their orderly, single-file lines. Further along, the way is all but impassable thanks to the shells of cars that were abandoned when their engines finally burnt out. But here the debris is minimal: there’s space to breathe.

Max tumbles out from the plane first, blinking against the too-bright daylight but eager to see things that, up until now, have only existed for him in photographs. He’s done his research and knows that they’re standing on what used to be called a motorway. This was a functional place, designed for ferrying people from one built up habitat to the next. It was a transitional place. Max had read that on one of the old information slides in his colony’s library, and thought it seemed fitting that this was where they would land. An in-between space; somewhere to give him a little bit of time to adjust to the new surroundings before hitting the city proper.

Not that Marie would have chosen to land here because she wanted the new kid to have a moment with his thoughts. Like every part of the operation — ostensibly at least — this has been done for practical reasons. In the spirit of the reclamation, the motorways have been repurposed as perfect landing strips. Move any closer in to the towns and you struggle to find somewhere clear enough or open enough to bring your plane down safely.

It does mean a trek before they can get started, though, and the others are keen to set off. Max realizes that his two colleagues are stood by the plane and waiting for him, packs already on their backs and masks on their faces. They are older, wiser and — of course — more experienced than he is. Marie is one of the most senior Cleaners that still bothers to take part in the grunt work and Eve, their pilot, must have at least five city dives under her belt. He scurries to join them and heaves a heady load up onto his own shoulders.

Which means, first and foremost, putting on his breathing gear. It’s fun to breathe the unfiltered air for a moment, but you’d have to be a fool to try to guzzle the stuff down. Marie hands him his mask pointedly and stares at him until he clips into it. She’s worked with enough youngsters to know that their excitement can sometimes get the better of them. But this is a job — they’re here to work. Sure, enjoy the scenery, but that doesn’t mean you should get sloppy. After all, it’s not as though they choose just anyone to participate in these operations. Even a first-timer will usually have done military service, and they’ll certainly be distinguished for their clear heads and rational minds. None of that seems to matter when you’re suddenly confronted with so many exotic colors and scents. Everybody goes a little giddy when they’re touching down for the first time.

For her part, she’s just keen to get there already. The first few days of a job are always hectic: they need to establish a base, ferry their tools across, assess how much work is to be done. Then, once they’ve found appropriate shelter and got all the equipment up and running, Eve will take off — and the plane will go with her. Marie used to love this moment more than anything. Even now, it’s something that she gets a secret little buzz from. That sudden thrill: stranded in an unknown land, almost alone. Yes, she has always tried to liver her life responsibly. This is her adrenaline rush, her one guilty pleasure.

Equally, though, she’s sad that Eve won’t be sticking around longer. During the journey down here, the two women have found a natural understanding. Now they fall into step together as they plough through the undergrowth.

“I don’t see how you could ever get enough of all this,” says Eve. Her eyes dart around, taking in the hard-grey tarmac against spongy green moss, the deep thickets of woodland lining the roadside, the drizzling rain from overhead.

As she speaks, she starts to feel foolish. Naïve, even. Marie is such a brisk, practical woman. Hair in a tight bun and nails filed down to the flesh, it’s hard to imagine her ever gazing wistfully into a sunset. As much as she likes and respects her older colleague, everything about Marie makes Eve feel untidy and disorganized by comparison.

“It’s probably different for you, though, stuck out on the job for weeks at a time. Missing your family and all that.” Marie starts to nod along, but then catches herself.

“You know, I did used to think like that. That it’s all about getting a good job done, making sure your supervisor sees it, getting the bonus at the end of the year. And it is important that we do these things properly. We need to take a proper record of what was here before.

“But you know what? If I was fired tomorrow, I’d worry about never seeing another city approach before I’d worry about putting dinner on the table.”

There’s a whoop from up ahead: the sound of a child raised in darkness seeing stars for the first time. It’s Max; he is shrieking down to them, standing proud at the top of the hill that they’ve been trekking towards for the past 90 minutes. Marie and Eve scramble up to join him at the peak, and the three of them stand together gazing out upon something spectacular.

The city, in all its degradation. In all its glory.

From a distance, you could almost believe that it still held life. From here, all you can really see is an eclectic assortment of shapes jutting up into the sky, fighting for attention. They catch the sunlight: you’re too far away to see rust or broken windows. It is a glorious, sprawling mess of metal and ambition. Up close every city is special in its own strange way; seen from the top of wild hill on a bright and airy Earth morning, they all ignite the exact same feeling of awe. It’s the idea that somehow people, with their infinite chaos and calamity, pulled it together and made peace with one and another long enough to build something better than functional. To give their home some personality. They linger there for a moment, nobody sure exactly how to react. And then Max shouts loudly, out into the empty air: “Well, shit. This is brilliant.” And then he’s off, tearing down the hill.

Up close, it’s clear that the city has held onto life — but not human life. It has some kind of bizarre life of its own. The way that the buildings conspire to layer patterns of shadows upon the ground; the way that the sound of your footsteps will echo off the walls until you’re sure that someone’s walking with you. You’ll find yourself wading down a muddy, narrow street pushing bracken out of your way and struggling to see the path in front of you until suddenly the street decides that it’s time to burst open and confront you with a wide-open avenue.

There’s definitely a rhythm to it — Marie knows that you get the most out of these places if you can fall into step with them. So few records survived the explosions, so much time has passed. Meaning that it’s impossible to know what to expect when you arrive, so why make too much of a plan at all? Far better to see where the city sends you.

Eventually she and Max will have to walk every street, at any rate. They’ll come out with their cameras and paper and start to make a note of every inch. Or, well, maybe not every nook and cranny — although she’d certainly like to. But they’ll be getting all the broad strokes, Looking for places of worship, places of commerce, places of rest, and then noting them all down. It’s not exactly taking the history of a place, although they’ll look for any scraps or relics that might hint at the things that had happened there. It’s more about noting down the present condition. Scholars and school children can fantasize about the way things were, or how they might have been.

But, first thing’s first: find somewhere to make base. After spending an hour or so peering down dusty side streets and stepping over the discarded remnants left in dozens of stores and family homes, they settle on a department store located deep in the city. Unlike the houses and offices, this place seems to have been looted to the bare bones — even the furniture has been torn from its brackets and taken, probably by people trying to make a home in the ruined city after the explosions and the rioting but before the dust finally settled.

This doesn’t mean that the nature hasn’t found its way through. The windows are all smashed out; rain has collected in puddles near walls and there is a thick layer of what can only be described as grime. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Max, who had sunken into a thoughtful silence as they walked through the too-still streets has now burst back into life and is happily using the extendable broom from his backpack to clear away a place for them to sleep. Eve has set to work putting the gas stove together: they have enough water and fuel to brew up a pot of coffee before bedding down. Marie rests against what once would have been a checkout desk and starts to plan the days ahead of them. From tomorrow, there will be plenty for everyone to do: fetching more supplies from the plane, setting up a filtration system so that they can use the rainwater for more than just washing muddy boots. Then Eve will be off, leaving Marie and Max to complete their audit of the city — and the two of them will be so busy that they’ll barely have time left over to think.

And as Marie reflects back over her latest job, it seems to her that that’s exactly the way they want it. There’s no reason they couldn’t send slightly bigger teams down, or designate longer periods to complete each audit. But as it is, nobody has the time to dwell too long on the beauty or the destitution of the city that they’re landing in. There’s too much work to be done cleaning away the junk, photographing the ruins. You always get that one first day, some time when you can breathe it all in — but that’s your lot.

Nothing to be done now, though. That was her 21st city, and now it’s starting to fade from the mind. The rest of the month had passed without much to comment on. It was important to resist the temptation to lust for the past. If they didn’t do this work then the cities would be abandoned entirely; nothing would be recorded. Everything would still be lost, in the end.

The sooner she gets this job complete the sooner they can hit Earth again, claim back more of their homeland and get another little rush. Max has done a great job of writing up their findings, clear and unemotional — he’s already starting to shed that young over-eagerness. To understand that there’s a job to do. Marie has put in her request to have the same team for her next job. All that’s left is to finish up the report.

We believe that we have recovered or recorded all items of historical or cultural significance. This report represents a full overview of City 71-B as it was at the time of documentation. Our more detailed findings are located in colony’s third archival collection. Furthermore, we uncovered no evidence of dangerous terrain and no items of unusual value.

I hereby confirm that the City 71-B is documented and cleared for destruction.

Cleo Chalk is a London-based writer penning stories full of mystery, mischief and the end of the world. Happiest with a pint and a plan for the incoming zombie invasion.

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