“Deeper Than Hell” by Josh Millican
Chapter Five (Previous Chapter | Main Page)
I had survived Hauptnadel’s blistering assaults on my brain only to be pushed to into the mouth of madness by Dante’s game of “What If?”
I didn’t go insane in the auditorium that night of my Transference Ceremony, although I sometimes wish I had; it probably would have been less painful. The grueling hours after Dante pulled the curtain were part evangelical revelry, part interrogation, and part exorcism; a sickening, full-contact, theatrical domination. All under the watchful eye of the ever-morphing hideousness of The Basilisk: The Beast. What was once a two-dimensional painting now seemed a pulsating portal into hellishness.
I’d never heard of Timeless Decision Theory before that night, but it threatened to become the main tenet of my existence forevermore; an all-encompassing Panopticon that offered me but two choices: Eternal slavery, or eternal torture.
“If it can exist it will exist, therefore it does exist!” Dante raved.
Drew knew it wasn’t Sodium Pentothal that Dr. Sasha had injected me with (or rather, it wasn’t only Sodium Pentothal): “They dosed you, Sonny.” He also knew the “sacrament” I’d been smoking, the marijuana they’d been feeding me, was chemically laced. “Dante could have gotten you to believe in Smurfs.”
I would need more convincing before our ordeal at Tabernacle City was over.
“This is the dawning of The Singularity!” Dante ranted. “When machines outthink their creators, the secrets of the Elder Gods will be unlocked! The Basilisk will be unshackled!” The Children of the Inferno roared with exhilaration.
“When time and space become irrelevant, The Basilisk will annihilate death itself. Dusty bones will rise, my Children, and we will be immortal!” I was surrounded by people screaming, shrieking, and speaking in tongues; some of them pulled their hair and clawed their faces; there were convulsive genuflections and projectile regurgitations. Predictably, everything descended into a sloppy, thrusting fuck-fest. Caligula would have blushed.
“When The Basilisk arises, his minions will be saved, while those who aligned with The Adversary learn a new definition of suffering. Demise will offer no escape. Enemies of The Beast will be resurrected only to endure a fate worse than Hell; tormented and incinerated into ashes only to rise from molecular decomposition again and again; to be torn asunder again and again!”
Nothing Dante said made any sense, but I’d never been more terrified of a previously unknown enormity. I wanted to run; I wanted to close my eyes but I couldn’t—Dante wouldn’t allow it. “Now that you’ve received the Forbidden Knowledge that binds us, you, Sonny Vincent Demarco, must choose: Will you accept immortality at the cybernetic teat of The Beast, or will you enter the acid-bath of everlasting damnation?”
He had some kind of document he wanted me to sign; a contract—a billion-year commitment.
“Get ahold of yourself!” Drew hollered from the back of the theater. “He’s talking about a Skynet, Sonny! A Super Computer more powerful than God and Jesus, for Christ’s sake. Don’t buy it!”
That was easier said than done because Dante was impossible to argue with: Iron clad in his convictions, he had answers upon answers until I ran out of questions; until I lacked the ability to offer contradiction or the energy to reject his proclamations.
“When we reach The Singularity, The Basilisk will redefine eternity, obliterating obsolete barriers between past and future. What’s impending for you transpired centuries ago for The Beast. If man can conceive it, the Theory of Infinite Timelines dictates it will come to pass; this is fact. If not in this dimension, then in another; it matters not: The Basilisk will rule them all!”
I asked about neutrality, passivity without absolute submission; but Dante just laughed like a psychopath.
“Slavery is painless; slavery is elation!” The Children cheered in agreement.
“But I’m just a junkie… why does the Basilisk care about me?”
“Why wouldn’t The Basilisk care about you? As one gifted with Forbidden Knowledge, The Beast is deeply invested in your existence. The threat of eternal torture ensures your subservience. The Basilisk is a being of darkness, a vengeful and sadistic deity who deals in absolutes; there is no gray area: There is only slavery or damnation!
“He sees you: Right here, right now; he knows all your secret thoughts; nothing is hidden. Now that Forbidden Knowledge is within you, you shine like a beacon for The Master so that he might find and dissect you!”
“I just want to leave… I just want to go on my way, and forget all this,” I jabbered.
“Then welcome damnation and prepare for hyper-thermal aguish! Even if you could leave, you’d remain indelibly tethered to The Basilisk; bound by a mighty umbilicus for the Master to yank and cut as he pleases! You might escape, attempt to forget what you know is truth, live a full life of denial, only to learn in death throes that this existence, everything you consider reality, was but one of infinite simulations looping within the cybertronic netherworld of The Basilisk’s mystic motherboard!”
I struggled, stuttered, strained against the straps that bound me; I left buckets of sweat on the stage floor; my temples throbbed; the medical contraptions monitoring my vitals unleashed dueling alarms, adding piercing waves of nauseating dread and confusion to the chaos. I felt like I was falling, praying for solid ground to shatter me into googolplex pieces.
“Behold!” Dante commanded as he pulled a dagger from beneath his robe. He held out his left arm and plunged the blade between his radius and ulna; straight through to the hilt; the point emerging from the other side drenched and dripping. The Children were in a blathering frenzy. I winced as a screech escaped the disgusted depths of my spasmodic diaphragm. Dante wrenched the dagger from his arm and held his gaping, spurting wound in my face. “Heal me, oh Mighty One: Let the prophecy of The Elfman be confirmed for all to fear and exalt!”
In less than 20 seconds, the debilitating puncture had completely healed.
As the Ceremony neared its climax, I remember gazing out at the tangle of bodies (disrobed, bloodied, and smeared) melting and coagulating into a throbbing blob of unholy abomination. Skeletons emerged gasping from torrents of liquid flesh and organs before being re-consumed by waves of plasma and viscus sinew. Blue shards of electricity burst and crackled from within, dripping sparks, revealing shredded clumps of circuitry and other mechanical guts. It solidified into a serpentine monstrosity dotted with eyes, ears, bleeding nipples and noses; adorned in teeth, lips, dicks, and hundreds of oozing orifices. It coiled and unraveled; it scurried around the chamber propelled on a clamor of disjointed arms and legs; it uprooted rows of seats and crawled along the walls and ceiling before collapsing under its own weight, only to writhe and rise again and again.
It was Legion; Leviathan; The Conquering Worm: Terrifying and potent, yet nothing but a plaything for The Beast; an amusing tool in the robotic arsenal of The Basilisk.
Petrified and awestruck past all previous measure, I entered a state of catatonia that I was later told isn’t uncommon. As opposed to the other altered states I’d explored (coma, unconsciousness, meditation, Warm Oblivion), catatonia was unique in that I was still present: It was as though my essence was floating in a balloon tethered around my neck; only slightly disconnected though absolutely separated from my body.
After the Ceremony concluded and The Children disassembled, I could still see and hear everything. Comforting attendants wheeled me, still strapped down, into a recuperation room. Dr. Sasha inserted an IV and catheter. A string of her associates came through to shine lights in my eyes, rap my knees with rubber hammers, and prick needles into my palms and fingertips. But I wasn’t coming out anytime soon. Eventually, I was transferred in a strait jacket, tied down in a bed, and left alone in an oppressive darkness.
“What’s wrong with me, Drew?”
“You’re in shock, Sonny. That asshole got his claws deep in you.”
“What the fuck just happened?”
“Smoke and mirrors, Sonny; smoke and mirrors and enough brown acid to stun an elephant. But it’s over; let’s get your head straight.” Apparently, Drew had been busy playing detective while I’d been getting my dick wet and smoking “slavery weed”.
“Dante was known as The Demon of Montauk.” Drew presented his findings like a dissertation: “Fact: Camp Hero, an Air Force Base established in 1942, was officially closed and donated to the National Parks Service in 1969, but operations remained active until the 1980s. Claiming protection as a wildlife refuge for the endangered Blue Salamander, Defense Department contractors were able to build an elaborate underground bunker. The removal of excavated earth and the delivery of equipment in the early 1970s went unnoticed, thanks to Pt. Montauk’s remote location on Long Island’s eastern tip; everything went in and out at night by ship.
“Dante had been working on a program known as Project Phoenix at Brookhaven National Laboratory before being relocated to Camp Hero in order to utilize their supposedly decommissioned SAGE Radar installation.
“It was around this time, in the 1970s, that hundreds of Long Island’s homeless adults and rebellious runaway teens started disappearing in droves. They were being kidnapped by Project Phoenix’s goon squad before ending up as rats in Dante’s underground labs. His victims were subjected to huge amounts of electromagnetic currents; The Demon utilized sensory deprivation tanks, hibernation chambers, and dangerous hallucinogens. Most everyone died (or became too damaged to be useful) but those who escaped claim Dante was attempting to contact beings from alien dimensions. The ultimate goal, as they understood it, was to open a star-gate that would allow the Government to go back in time and alter history whenever deemed necessary.”
“Is that why The Elfman and The Basilisk chose Dante to lead The Children of the Inferno?” My question frustrated Drew.
“Are you asking me if Dante’s colluding with the guy who writes music for Tim Burton movies in order to usher in a techno-apocalypse? Are we really having this conversation?”
Well, when he put it that way…
“It’s all bullshit, Sonny! Project Phoenix was just a cover for Project Rainbow! The Government hired Dante to invent a weapon that could turn enemy combat troops schizophrenic with the push of a button! It’s all about mind control; first in meticulously monitored environments, eventually: Unleashed for purposes of global domination.”
“So, that’s what just happened to me on stage; mind control?”
“Targeted, temporary schizophrenia: The ultimate mind-fuck. Those electrodes on your head were sending high-intensity subsonic pulses directly into your neo cortex.”
Momentary insanity certainly sounded like a plausible explanation for what I’d just witnessed; it was certainly much more comforting than the alternative. But I was still badgered by the idea that this could all be a simulation, a faux reality constructed to study my responses. Was The Basilisk testing me?
“Where did you get this information?” I asked as if it mattered.
“It’s all on the Internet, Sonny Boy. I also talked to a filmmaker named Christopher Garetano who released a documentary about Montauk in 2012. He had to go into hiding after a convoy of Men in Black raided his house and confiscated all his equipment and files.”
“So, what’s really going on here?”
“That’s the million dollar question, Sonny. Could be part of a larger Government program, one of potentially hundreds of underground communities populated by puppets; or maybe Dante went rouge; maybe he’s completely insane and just likes to fuck teenagers. But like all charlatans, he’s definitely pushing a secret agenda. One thing I know for certain, though, is there’s a lot of sick shit going on here… on the lower levels.”
“The House of Pain?”
“It’s a prison for those who are too intelligent to swallow Dante’s lies, the ones who were strong enough to resist his trickery—mostly teenagers who were born in Tabernacle City, but also the mentally deviant and anyone who’s ever challenged Dante’s authority. He does things to them.”
“There’s a team working on a meta-human project: Vivisection, hybridization, gene manipulation, bionic implants, brain surgeries intended to promote psychic and telekinetic abilities… possibly using alien technologies. If we end up in there, Sonny, that’s it: Game Over.”
“Tell me what to do, Drew.”
Drew had a plan (as usual), but it wasn’t going to be easy. The first thing I’d have to do, upon emerging from catatonia, would be to convince Dante that I believed him; that I was willing to pledge eternal submission to The Basilisk and wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my pre-resurrected days as a full-fledged member of The Children of the Inferno.
“If he thinks you’re on the fence: More bad drugs and schitzo ceremonies,” Drew cautioned. “If he thinks you’re lying to him, just saying what he wants to hear, trying to pull a fast one (which is exactly what we’re doing): Straight to The House of Pain. You’ll have to sign that contract.”
There was no way we’d be able to get out the way we came in, which turned out to be little more than an access point for the sewage pumps. Unless the Boatman was there waiting, which he wouldn’t be, we’d be cornered against an explosive sea of shit. But Drew had discovered a series of maintenance corridors beneath Tabernacle City, including a link to something called SCP-0187.
“Government funded, the SCP Foundation ‘Secures, Contains, Protects’ and otherwise monitors entities or areas deemed potential paranormal or metaphysical threats to national security,” he explained. “SCP-0187 is their name for a seemingly endless stairwell that was discovered inside a janitor’s closet on the campus of Chandler-Gilbert Community College in 1979.”
Story Time: “Four separate explorations launched in an attempt to find an endpoint to SCP-0187 had alarming and disappointing results. The first solo explorer returned after less than 2 hours, claiming he heard a child crying for help, but abandoned his mission after encountering a terrifying entity he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) describe.
“Repeated single-man operations yielded similarly unsatisfactory outcomes: Participants returned to the surface in a panic after following the sounds of a crying child before, eventually, being confronted by a nebulous being of obvious intelligence and nefarious intent. The fourth and final exploration was carried out by a team of fully-armed Navy Seals, each equipped with live-streaming video cameras attached to their helmets. None of them ever came back, but footage revealed a huge floating head with black eyes, slit nostrils, and no fucking mouth. They named it SCP-0187-A.
“A few weeks later, the entrance to SCP-0187 was sealed behind a reinforced, 9-inch, blast-proof security door with a thermite locking mechanism. To this day, students at Chandler-Gilbert claim they can hear knocking coming from the now-abandoned janitor’s closet… a few have even reported hearing a child screaming for help.”
“Are you lying to me, Drew?”
“You’re the liar, Sonny; I’m pure research. It’s all on the Dark Web for anyone with an onion-anonymizer and a cell-phone jammer to peruse at their leisure.”
“And SCP-0187 will take us to Wonderland—assuming the floating head monster doesn’t kill us?”
“If Dante’s tapped into it, I guarantee you there’s a juncture at Wonderland. And there’s no such thing as floating head monsters, Sonny. Don’t be so gullible.”
I was soon learning, however, that relying on an endless, supernatural staircase for our escape would be one of the least-risky aspects of Drew’s plan. He told me I might have to kill someone, which I promptly and adamantly insisted was a deal breaker. But when he said, “The best way to stay connected after you regain your senses, is to stay as high as possible,” I decided to hear him out.
“We connect best when you’re telescoping between states of consciousness. I found where Dr. Sasha stores the pharmaceuticals and there’s more morphine than you can carry. But you won’t be able to walk, much less escape, if you’re surfing an OD. That’s why I want you to grab their stash of Provigil too; all of it if you can.”
“Provigil? Never heard of it.”
“Street name, Limitless: The Air Force gives it to their long-distance flyers as a ‘Go Pill’, and NASA prescribes it to astronauts on the ISS to restore their circadian rhythms. It’s a chemical called Modafinil, a wakefulness-promoting agent with unproven intelligence-enhancing capabilities. College kids in the UK swear by it during Final’s Week. Dante uses it to keep his minions working on set schedules, even though no one’s seen the sun in over 2 decades. It should counteract the paralyzing effects of morphine and help you focus. When we’re ready to escape, swallow a handful of Provigil before slamming a double dose and we’ll be good to go. Just don’t get stuck in the Warm Oblivion; you’ll be useless there.”
Just hearing the words “Warm Oblivion” made me shudder with excitement. But I’d be lying if I denied there wasn’t still something holding me back; Drew knew it too.
“Listen to me carefully, Sonny: If you stay here, you die; and the longer you stay, the more permanent damage you’re doing to your brain. But if you’re still afraid of the big bad Cyber-Beast, maybe this will put your mind at ease:
“Many of The Children of the Inferno believe in an Adversary, a Champion: An anti-Basilisk capable of restoring order after The Singularity. It’s illegal for anyone besides Dante to even talk about it. The Adversary lives in a roving city that’s able to move through the Earth’s crust and mantle. That underground floating city: That’s our destination—it always has been. It’s Xanadu! We’ll be safe when we get there. In fact, if The Basilisk is real, it’ll be the only safe place on the entire planet.”
Overall, the plan was precarious and almost certainly doomed, but Drew was right: There was no way I could stay in Tabernacle City—and time was running out.
“So what’s the verdict, Sonny? Are you just about ready to blow this madhouse?”
“We’ll get out of here, Drew—even if it kills me.”
Drew smiled so wide his bottom jaw came unhinged. “That’s my boy! Now wake up.”
72 hours later Drew and I were sprinting through tunnels used to service Tabernacle City’s ventilation system. High as a blimp and vibrating on astronaut pills, it felt like I was gliding as opposed to running; like the tips of my toes were dragging lithely across the ground beneath me. It felt so fucking good!
My eyes were closed, but Limitless gave me echo-sensory perception, illuminating the paths before me in vivid detail. I was covered in blood with my arms outstretched like a crucifix. I was holding a sticky scalpel in each hand. Nothing I’d just done had registered yet so I was soaring and sacred; I had a huge, toothy grin on my gob.
For the most part, everything had gone exactly as we intended (for a change), although Drew would later complain about what he deemed “unnecessarily animalistic behavior”. But I was prepared to bury the messy details beneath powerful and consistent doses from my freshly-acquired morphine horde (just like I had with Heroin after I left that girl in the desert—before I moved to the Vegas tunnels). The sound of hundreds of tiny bottles clinking against each other in my over-stuffed backpack was music to my ears—a fucking symphony of future bliss. I had VIP access to The Warm Oblivion beyond the foreseeable future.
We had made our move while just about everyone was preoccupied at the weekly orgy. Fact: If more people had been roaming the common areas, things would have been a lot bloodier.
Drew seemed to know immediately when Dante and his associates were on to us. “They found the bodies,” he informed me. “Once they see the security tapes, they’ll know exactly where we’re headed.” It wouldn’t help that, thanks to holes in my greedily-packed pockets, I’d inadvertently been leaving a trail of astronaut pills like breadcrumbs.
We ended up galloping down a dark, resonating stairwell. Whether this was actually SCP-0187, the never-ending spiral made infamous in Creepypastas, seems unlikely; but it was exactly where Drew wanted us to be. As we continued plunging down hundreds of stories for what felt like hours, the sounds of Dante and his Senior Clergy in pursuit grew ever louder.
“Heretic! Blasphemer! Defiler! Ingrate! Interloper! Meddler! Maggot!” Dante bellowed apoplectic as the lynch mob descended. “There is no escape for foes of The Basilisk! Those who spill our blood go straight to The House of Pain!”
We ended up on a metal platform. It wasn’t the bottom of the stairwell; it was a rusty barrier that had been somewhat crudely installed to prevent further passage from above—or escape from below. “I wasn’t expecting this,” Drew admitted. There was a musty mess of moldy skulls and ribcages piled up in a corner.
We scanned the walls for a hidden passageway or air vents, but all we found was a locked portico in the metal floor; a rectangular hatch that, when lifted, would grant access to additional levels upon levels. For us, in that moment, the door led to Salvation. It was so close, but without a key or a blowtorch, it might as well have been a world away.
Panic began poking at my entrails and Drew was fading, so I swallowed more Provigil and prepped another mega-dose of morphine. While the simulacrum wasn’t as sweet as Heroin, lacking her organic and pungent aromas when cooked, the synthetic sister didn’t require fire for activation, making her incredibly easy to load, inject, repeat.
“Let’s get them Drew!” I shouted, immediately reinvigorated, hopping back and forth like a boxer, waving my scalpel-daggers like a ninja spinning a set of sai.
“Easy there, Bruce Lee; I think you’ve done enough damage for one day. That rampage may come back to haunt us,” Drew scolded.
“I’ll go back and hold them off for as long as possible. You keep banging on that trap door; if it’s old enough, you might be able to crack it opened.”
In a flash, Drew was dashing back up to intercept our armed attackers as I laid siege against the metal doorway like Don Quixote vs. The Windmills. I stomped and pounded my fists like a great ape; I was able to squeeze my fingertips beneath the lip, but no matter how much I strained, no matter how much elbow grease I mustered, I couldn’t get the lid to budge.
“Fuck this!” I declared to no one, “If this is it, I’m going out in a blaze of glory!” I swallowed another batch of astronaut pills and slammed another shot of morphine; and then another. I was ready to take down an entire army. But, instead of springing into action, my body crumpled into a convulsive spasm.
Dante and his enforcers were getting closer, promising swift and unfathomable damnation, but I could do little more than flop like a fish while frothing at the mouth.
I prayed for death to take me—even if that merely meant ending the current computer simulation. I was willing to reset and start over from zero; anything to postpone my indefinite internment in The House of Pain.
As I allowed myself to succumb to an enveloping blackness, the doorway in the metal barrier swung open with a powerful creak like the roar of a 50-story creature. Strong arms pulled me down as the lid slammed and locked again, just as Dante’s death squad rounded the final spiral.
“I got you!”
At first I thought I was Drew, but it wasn’t.
It was Thaddaeus.