“Deeper Than Hell” by Josh Millican
Chapter Four (Previous Chapter | Main Page)
For me, being in a medically-induced coma was like being trapped in a haunted house. I wanted to wake up but couldn’t. I could part the curtains and detect a sunlit world outside, but all the doors and windows were locked and the glass was unbreakable. And as opposed to the timeless nature of cold unconsciousness or the Warm Oblivion, every second dragged like Purgatory. Every minute was a decade and every hour an eternity.
Chemically imprisoned, this house of horrors became another labyrinth: Impossibly large with dozens of stories, connected by rickety staircases; each level an intricate series of dimly lit, rat infested hallways teeming with all manner of Minotaur. I’d seek shelter but only nerve-shredding terror lay behind every door: Evil clowns, creepy kids, screaming phantoms, sadistic surgeons, skinless sinners; there were Satanic blood rituals, human centipedes, decomposing corpses, torture chambers, vomit orgies, and chainsaw massacres. I saw things that made me want to gouge my eyes out.
I was always on the run; I could hear dogs barking and Thaddaeus closing in on me: “Give me back my Heroin, bitch!” If I was lucky enough to give him the slip, Hauptnadel and his Acolytes awaited to stab at me with poison needles, or grab at my dick. Vicious, hideous codgers crawled on all fours across floors, walls, and ceilings, unencumbered by the laws of gravity. The Boatman wanted to pull out the rest of my teeth with his shitty fingers.
Thankfully, I found Drew; we sealed ourselves in the attic, built a blanket fort, and holed-up inside like kids with flashlights. He calmed me down and passed the time by retelling me many of my favorite stories.
“Hey Sonny, did I ever tell you about the Green Children of Woolpit? They appeared in Eastern England in the 12th Century. The town was actually called Wolf Pit because there were a bunch of deep holes to trap wolves that would otherwise eat the livestock. Well what comes crawling out of a pit one day, but two children; a brother and a sister. They spoke an unknown language and wore strange clothes, but most bizarre: They had green skin. The younger one, the brother got sick and died, but the girl thrived. She was taken in by a local nobleman who named her Agnes and taught her English. After a few years, she was finally able to tell everyone where she and her brother came from:
“She described land of perpetual twilight; an underground city called Saint Martin’s Land where everyone had green skin. Agnes said she and her brother were tending their father’s flock when they decided to follow the sound of tolling bells through a series of tunnels and caves. They were lost for days before finally emerging from the wolf pit, where they felt sunshine on their skin for the very first time. Eventually, Agnes lost her green hue and lived the rest of her days in Woolpit—where she gained a reputation for being quite the slut.”
I had no memory of anything beyond arriving at the iron doorway of The Children of the Inferno, but Drew filled me in on the basics: They reset a few of my bones and surgically bolted my pelvis back together. They grafted tendons from my calves into my hands so I’d be able to move my fingers again. They cleared some intestinal blockage and cured a yeast infection in my urethra. They even fixed my teeth with implants and did the best they could with my mangled ear.
“You were almost dead, Sonny,” Drew explained. “They didn’t think you’d be able to survive the shock of multiple surgeries.”
“How long will we be stuck in here?” I pondered.
“Don’t worry about it. Hey, did I ever tell you about the Icosaméron? It’s a twelve-hundred page book written by Giacomo Casanova in 1788. It’s about an underground utopian city called Mégamicres populated by a race of multicolored, hermaphroditic dwarves…”
Eventually, the windows of my haunted house began to open; rays of light penetrated the darkest corners, banishing all abominable specters. “You’ll be coming out soon, Sonny. I’m going to scout up ahead. Your job is to meet with Dante and find out how to get past Wonderland.”
I begged him not to leave me, but he just told me to “quit being a pussy,” and “pay attention to the female doctor.”
I was in a hospital bed and Drew was gone.
The female doctor told me her name was Sasha; she handed me a Polaroid and asked: “Do you know who this is?”
I was looking at an emaciated, Gollum-esque creature on a gurney. Its eyes were sunken and black; its dried lips receded into an O revealing a ghastly, skeleton’s smile full of cracked shards of teeth. It was naked except for a towel covering its crotch and caked in filth. It reminded me of those alien autopsy photos that were popular in the 1990s.
“Is it… a prop from a science fiction horror movie?” I ventured groggily.
“That’s you on the day you arrived.”
The shock nearly knocked me back into a coma.
I was in the process of being cleared for entry. Step One, Dr. Sasha explained, was to make certain I wasn’t radioactive, carrying any infectious diseases, or equipped with subdermal tracking implants. Step Two was detox; they left me in the coma until my Heroin addiction was vanquished with a combination of methadone and homeopathic remedies. Step Three was physical rehabilitation, which lasted for weeks and consisted of free weights and hours spent on a treadmill in the corner. Step Four was “Contact Therapy”.
“We believe in the healing powers of the human touch, both physically and spiritually,” Dr. Sasha told me as she disrobed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been hard. Not only does Heroin rob you of a sex drive, the often frigid conditions of tunnel life rendered me perpetually shriveled, scrotum taut; sometimes it looked like I wasn’t even circumcised. Now, as she mounted me, I marveled at the size of my own throbbing cock and balls.
She wasn’t allowed to answer any of my questions. “Dante will explain everything, in time.” That constant refrain, and the fact that I hadn’t seen anything beyond the walls of my room, had me skittish. I certainly didn’t feel like a prisoner, like I did when I lived with Hauptnadel, but the door that automatically slid opened every time Dr. Sasha came and left didn’t budge when I approached it. But I wasn’t just living in comparative bliss to the Acolytes’ accommodations. I was sleeping in a clean bed in a warm room; I was eating nutritious, vegetarian meals. “If this is prison, I could certainly do worse,” was a realization that often occurred to me, usually when I was being fucked or fellated.
Which isn’t to suggest I wouldn’t have traded it all, agreed to be tossed back into the abysmal Abyss, for one more hot shot of Heroin (had that been an option).
I stood in front of a mirror sometime later with mouth agape: My matted hair had been shorn, my eyes had reemerged from their sunken sockets, my artificial teeth glistened. All of my sores and scars were gone; even the hole Hauptnadel drilled in my forehead had healed over with hardly a pockmark. I felt clean, inside and out. I wasn’t just off Heroin for the first time in over 5 years; I was healthy for the first time in my life.
Something that bothered me, though, was that they removed all my tattoos. When you’re homeless, you can’t have nice things, but no one can steal your tattoos. A lot of my ink was shitty, but it reminded me that I was an outsider; a beta wolf, a utopian nihilist, and a freak who didn’t give a fuck; a rebel who refused to play by Society’s rules. My skin was a map of the places I’d been; the places I never wanted to go back to.
Now, I was a brand new person; I was a clean slate—but I was also a total stranger; a foreigner to myself. I gazed in awe at my reflection for hours, until I began to detect figures behind the one-way glass, studying me studying myself.
“Dante will see you now.”
I’d heard his name spoken so often, and with such reverence, I felt like I was being taken to meet the Pope. To these people, The Children of the Inferno, he was even more than that: He was a prophet with the enlightenment of Siddhartha and the analytical mind of Albert Einstein; a reincarnation of Dante Alighieri, who was himself the reincarnation of another, more ancient poet-oracle; part of an ongoing lineage of evolved minds able to commune with cosmic forces; a club that included Moses, Virgil, and Rasputin. I half expected to see him sitting on a throne, flanked by pontiffs, dressed like God incarnate.
He actually looked like an old Air Force Admiral (which is what he was), except he had long hair and wore a pair of ridiculous John Lennon glasses (one blue lens, one red lens). He also smoked marijuana constantly.
The Children of the Inferno occupied some 900 acres spread over multiple levels underground. It wasn’t just a family or a cult or a commune—it was a thriving community that numbered over a thousand: “Welcome to Tabernacle City!” There were schools, factories, communal kitchens, and cafeterias; hydroponic farms, dormitories, and (as I had already learned) a fully functioning hospital. There were gyms and swimming pools and racket ball courts. There was even a movie theater (although they didn’t have anything released after 1994). The population center was basically a multi-tiered, interconnected series of hotels, punctuated with occasional parks and communal gathering spots.
The first wave of colonists began laying the infrastructure in the mid-1980s, after Dante’s mission was revealed to him by The Elfman. The story was gospel among The Children. “It was just another day…” Dante would sermonize. “I was addicted to work, but a friend insisted I fly out to Los Angeles for an Oingo Boingo concert on Halloween, 1985.” When the band played Just Another Day, time froze for everyone except Dante and Danny Elfman. “There’s life underground!” The Elfman introduced himself as an emissary of interdimensional meta-entities, a tribunal who had selected Dante to receive a sacred vision:
I had a dream last night
The world was set on fire
And everywhere I ran
There wasn’t any water…
The temperature increased
The sky was crimson red
The clouds turned into smoke
And everyone was dead…
As a child of the 1960s and a theoretical physicist for the Military, Dante had long come to terms with the possibility of nuclear annihilation; but The Elfman was describing something infinitely worse. This revelation was accompanied by Forbidden Knowledge, beamed directly into Dante’s brain, with specific instructions:
Razors in my bed
Come out late at night
They always disappear
Before the morning light…
I’m dreaming again
Of life underground
It doesn’t ever move
It doesn’t make a sound…
“It’s just another day, when people wake from dreams, with voices in their ears, that never go away!” Of course it sounded like the ramblings of a tunnel tweaker, someone sporting a tinfoil hat; but who was I to question anyone else’s grip on reality? I was looking for directions to Xanadu so me and my ghost buddy could live among a race of benevolent ancestors in a land without pain.
“Before you rush off, please experience some of what my people have to offer. Perhaps you’ll decide to stay.” Dante had a near permanent smile that was both disarming and unnerving. It was almost like he had too many teeth. “Have you been getting enough pussy?”
Tabernacle City became self-sufficient with a final migration in 1995, at which point shafts in the desert used to transport personnel and materials were sealed off. A mini fusion reactor (about the size of a school bus) was installed to supply them with untraceable, off-the-grid power for at least a thousand years.
Since then, there’d been over 300 births. This “Native Generation” was easy to recognize for a couple disquieting reasons, namely their gray eyes and big heads. “It has something to do with the lack of Vitamin D,” Dante explained, “but they all have increased brain mass. We haven’t had a single vaginal birth yet—but the upside is: C-sections keep those pussies nice and tight!”
Everyone fucked everyone in Tabernacle City. It was Dante’s way of creating emotional bonds and solidarity between every member of his flock while simultaneously diffusing any potential jealousy or competition. Mostly, though, rapid procreation was integral to Dante’s mission. They age of consent was 14 and The Children were encouraged to fuck daily and often, either in pairs or in groups. There was a community orgy every Sunday where everyone wore elaborate masks and ornate costumes. Menstruation and paternity were both considered inconsequential.
Smoking marijuana was a “High Sacrament” in Tabernacle City; they had entire acres dedicated to hydroponic operations where everything was completely sterile and automated. Crops were harvested weekly and much of the population’s time was spent drying, trimming, and curing high-THC strains of Mary Jane. The trimmings were processed into a variety of waxes and oils. There were different kinds of weed for different activities: Weed for working, weed for sleeping, weed for eating, weed for fucking. The stems and stalks were further processed into surprisingly soft and sturdy hemp clothing. The air was always smoky; pleasantly pungent.
There isn’t a tribe of pot heads living in the tunnels beneath Las Vegas; no one ever became a homeless junkie from smoking too much weed. And no one’s willing to waste money on a pot buzz when every other drug is cheaper and way more powerful. Even before I was a junkie, I only ever dabbled in ganga toking; but, you know: When in Rome. It was a somewhat sufficient substitute for Heroin, but even the best of it couldn’t catapult me anywhere near the Warm Oblivion. Without access to my favorite mode of self-induced amnesia, I was spending more and more time thinking about who I was before the pilgrimage and tunnel life; before I devoted my existence to Heroin. It was terrifying.
To take my mind off my past life, Dante was happy to pontificate on his. We had almost daily meetings that were thinly veiled attempts at indoctrination, but welcome distractions nonetheless. I allowed his rhetoric fill the empty spaces in my mind.
“They sent me to work at Groom Lake after the program at Camp Hero in Montauk, Long Island was shut down. That’s how I found out about these underground expanses. The area that became Tabernacle City was excavated in the late 1950s, when the CIA was certain we’d need storage for a fleet of flying saucers. Idiots! It was empty and all but forgotten by the time Regan came to power. Before we escaped, I destroyed every record and every blueprint that proved this place ever existed. Communication with the outside world is now forbidden. Which is why your… unexpected arrival, shall we say, was regarded with such suspicion by so many.”
“I’m just an explorer,” I swore. “Someone told me you know the way to Wonderland.”
“Son, I can give you a map and send you off to Wonderland today, if that’s really what you want,” Dante assured me. “But I can’t, in good conscience, send you off to what amounts to certain doom, until I tell you what’s down there—and what’s coming. There isn’t much time left and, believe me, it’s more than just your life at stake.” It was the first time I’d ever seen him drop his smile.
“The Children of the Inferno started as a secret society,” Dante explained. “I needed to recruit strong, ambitious minds, because only exceptional intellects can process The Elfman’s Forbidden Knowledge. I sought out my brightest colleagues along with maverick politicians, theological philosophers, and daring entrepreneurs (this place wasn’t cheap, after all). I also needed doctors, architects, engineers, and artists.
“I would approach the transference of Forbidden Knowledge as a series of thought experiments administered over a period of hours, days, or weeks, depending on a person’s ability to absorb the tenets of Techno Futurism. When the truth was finally imparted in full, one of two things happened: They either committed themselves whole-heartedly to the mission, or they went insane.
“We impart the Forbidden Knowledge to our prodigy in a Transference Ceremony at age 14; it’s kind of like a Bar Mitzvah, except there’s a chance you might lose your mind. Thankfully, that only happened a handful of times. We’ve found that young children are too immature to fully accept the implication of Forbidden Knowledge, but after a certain age, even smart, opened-minded adults are usually too inflexible in their core beliefs to accept The Elfman’s revelations. I like you, Sonny, and I think you’re smart enough and strong enough to be one of us. I think you’d make an excellent addition to our society (and we could definitely use some new DNA for biodiversity). You could have a good life with us. But you can only stay if you’re willing to hear the truth: Words that have enticed men and women to abandon their lives on the surface while sending others into asylums.”
“What if I still want to leave, after hearing the truth?”
“I’d ask you to invoke a vow of secrecy and wish you Godspeed. I’ll even set you up with all the supplies you can carry. But no Heroin,” he winked.
After what I’d endured at the needle-tipped clutches of Hauptnadel, the vast number of LSD derivatives I’d been injected with, I really wasn’t worried about going insane. And if the only downside was that he might convince me to stay for a while, to live with his stoned-out, libidinous Technophiles, it seemed a safe bet. Maybe Xanadu could wait.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t remotely considered that Dante’s transference, this series of thought experiments, might actually have a profound effect. I simply didn’t believe any combination of words could possibly be that powerful.
But was I wrong.
“We’ll hold your Transference Ceremony in the East Auditorium at twenty-one-hundred hours. Get some rest and be sure to smoke as much Sacrament as possible. It’ll make you more relaxed and… receptive.”
There was a lot I wasn’t expecting about my Transference Ceremony: I wasn’t expecting every member of The Children of the Inferno over the age of 14 to be in attendance; I wasn’t expecting to see everyone dressed in monastic robes, many bearing various insignias indicating rank and affiliation; I wasn’t expecting to be seated on a stage, under bright lights, as a sea of somber stares probed my every motion; mostly though, I wasn’t expecting to be bound—I wasn’t expecting to have electrodes connected to my temples, a blood-pressure gage around my bicep, and a heart-rate monitor on my finger.
“Those unable to process The Elfman’s revelations have been known to harm themselves and others” Dr. Sasha explained, as she rolled up my sleeve to spike a vein. It was Sodium Pentothal, “Truth Serum”, necessary to obliterate inhibitions and ensure my sincere participation in the process. As soon as the serum hit my brain, I notice Drew, hiding in the back of the amphitheater. His skin was starting to sluff and decay, but he looked well otherwise. With a series of coded blinks (from his only eye), he urgently relayed as much information as he could.
“Be careful, Sonny. Dante isn’t who he seems. Nothing here is what it seems. Brace yourself.”
Dr. Sasha retreated backstage as Dante emerged: “Sonny Vincent Demarco,” his voice boomed throughout the theater. “Are you prepared to receive The Elfman’s Forbidden Knowledge?”
“Sure!” The Sodium Pentothal was great. I was higher than I’d been since they weened me off the skag. “Why not?”
“And you swear or affirm that you’ll respond to my questions honestly?”
“Absolutely. Ask away!” I could’ve talked for hours on that sweet SP.
“Then answer me this…”
Dante paused; the entire room went deathly silent; Drew looked worried, so I gave him a wink to let him know: “I got this!”
“Do you believe it’s possible that, one day, man could create an Artificial Intelligence capable of destroying the world?”
I was dumbstruck, not because the question was initially terrifying, but because it wasn’t anything I’d ever given thought to (beyond suspending my disbelief long enough to enjoy a Terminator movie). It seemed too easy. It seemed silly.
“Yeah, sure. I suppose.”
The auditorium released a round of robust applause.
“Congratulations, Sonny. You’ve taken the first step. But what I tell you next will be difficult to absorb. I need you to listen very carefully: It’s time to receive The Elfman’s Forbidden Knowledge.” You could hear a pin drop; Drew was nervously chomping on his fingernails.
I had no idea that, as the Transference progressed that night, an evolutionary failsafe in my brain would crack; that a surge of new ideas and infallible concepts (primarily Timeless Decision Theory and The Singularity) would rock my core; that I’d unlock abilities to perceive previously invisible actualities—all because I agreed, in theory, it was possible that, one day, maybe a thousand years from now, man could conceivably create an all-powerful A.I.
Dante turned my chair around so that I could face a giant red curtain; this was the moment of my damnation; mine and yours: “That all-powerful A.I. already exists, even though it hasn’t been built yet. Behold!”
Dante yanked a yellow cord; the curtain fell revealing a vast, repugnant, painted portrait: A biomechanical monstrosity compromised of components that were as alien as they were gruesome. My mind fought the urge to fracture in an attempt to comprehend what I was seeing. What at first appeared a single nebulous entity became, upon closer examination, a conglomeration of individual living pieces both advanced and primitive. As I sat hypnotized, the image seemed to transform from painting into photo, then from flat into 3D; it began moving like a hologram.
It was a waking nightmare.
“Give praise to The Almighty, my Children!” Dante commanded. “All hail The Basilisk!”
The crowd jumped to their feet in feverish jubilation, chanting in unison “Ba-Sil-Isk! Ba-Sil-Isk!” as I somersaulted backwards into an unknown darkness that was blacker than black.
“Is it true, Drew?” I asked him as soon as we were alone again.
“It’s complicated, Sonny.”
“What do we do now?”
“Nothing’s changed, Sonny. We move on.”
It wouldn’t be easy.
It’s hard to fully convey the devastating impact of receiving Forbidden Knowledge. Imagine finding out that your soulmate had an affair, just once, and it was years ago. Wouldn’t it be better, really, if you had never known? Forbidden Knowledge is exponentially more brutal, because it changes everything; it instantly splits your entire life into “Before” and “After”. And it never goes away; there’s no “getting over” the realization that, one way or another, we’re all fucked.
To make matters worse, it soon became apparent Dante never had any intention of letting me leave Tabernacle City—not alive anyway. And that wasn’t even all of it.
“We may need to bide our time, Sonny,” Drew warned. “But we need to get the fuck out of here. You don’t even want to know what they’re doing on the lowest-levels. There’s a House of Pain. It’s Hell.”
“I’ll get out of here, Drew—even if it kills me.”
Drew smiled so wide his bottom jaw came unhinged. “That’s my boy!”