“Deeper Than Hell” by Josh Millican
Chapter Seven (Previous Chapter | Main Page)
“Hey Sonny, what do you know about the Wilkes Land Gravity Anomaly and Project Highjump?”
It wasn’t a blissful slumber, but it was deep. There wasn’t any weightlessness, organic psychedelia, or embryonic ambrosia to inhale; no swimming or diving or floating; no warmth. Just me and Drew, alone in an interrogation room without a door. The walls were made of concrete and the floor was cold; we sat across a table from one another in uncomfortable chairs with uneven legs. The only sound was the oppressive drone of rickety ventilation system; a metal fan had gone off its axis, incessantly chirping.
The body and mind were still in recovery mode following my escape from Tabernacle City and shocking reunion with Thaddaeus. Drew had previously diagnosed me with PTSD.
“The Wilkes Land Gravity Anomaly was first detected by NASA in 2006. Something beneath the ice in Antarctica emitted a geomagnetic flux that was so intense it knocked a couple communications satellites right out of orbit.”
“What is it Drew?”
“No way to know Sonny. It’s so deep, it would take us thousands of years to dig it up—if we even had the technology.”
Drew was decaying rapidly but also solidifying; his abdomen had nearly hollowed out and his lungs hung like pendulous, deflated balloons poking out from beneath his ribs. The contents of his pelvis were still rotting, but the muscles around his spine and ribcage appeared to be mummifying, a process accelerated by the hot yet dry climates underground. It gave him the necessary structural integrity to remain erect when sitting and walking. His one remaining eye had gone completely white and the cartilage of his nose and nostrils had shriveled into a black point; he had semi-permanently reattached his bottom jaw with a strap of leather and a few rusty screws. His tongue was blue.
“The Wilkes Land Gravity anomaly is important is because it’s in the exact same place where pyramids have been emerging from the glaciers, thanks to global warming. Remember Admiral Byrd?”
“The guy who flew over the North Pole and into Agartha?”
“That’s right Sonny. After what he discovered at the North Pole, he became obsessed with launching a bigger expedition to the South. He got funding from David Rockefeller for a series missions with the stated purpose of monitoring Nazi activity in Antarctica.”
“The Thule Society.”
“Very good, Sonny Boy! Nice to see you’ve been paying attention. The Thule Society, along with an SS offshoot branch called The Legacy of our Ancestors, had been desperately searching for a portal into the Underworld. They wanted to contact and recruit a tribe of Aryan giants to fight in Hitler’s army. Of course, Byrd’s obsession with Antarctica was put on hold once the US officially entered World War II. But as soon as the Nazis were defeated, the Admiral couldn’t get back to Antarctica fast enough.”
There was a coldness to Drew I was unaccustomed to; a clinical undertone. Sure, he could be serious as often as flippant, but this wasn’t like our precious Story Time back in the tunnels of Las Vegas. This was school.
“Operation Highjump (officially known as The United States Navy Antarctic Developments Program) was launched in August 1946, with every resource at the Navy’s disposal: 5,000 troops, 13 ships, 33 aircrafts, and 15 submarines—and those are just the official numbers; sources say there was at least one other aircraft carrier loaded with bombers. Their stated goal this time was to establish a scientific research station on the icy continent, but Byrd never denied the fact that his primary objectives were military. Now, here’s where everything gets really suspicious:
“For unknown reasons, Operation Highjump was abruptly scrapped after only eight weeks. Byrd was committed to a hospital shortly after that and barred from making any additional public statements for over a decade. The United States convened an emergency session of the United Nations where laws were secretly passed to annex the South Pole, forbidding all future explorations beyond the 90th Parallel.”
A dry-erase board materialized in the corner, and Drew quickly created an annotated timeline, connecting key events, locations, and players. He drew pyramids and a diagram of Earth explaining why satellites never pass directly over the North or South poles.
“Operation Highjump was followed by Operation Deep Freeze, which continued Byrd’s work in secrecy. In 1959, Byrd was invited back to Antarctica one last time for a mapping mission called Operation Avalon that sought the source of warm water currents flowing from under the ice-sheets. He was rushed back to America, however, after contracting a mysterious illness, and he died suddenly a week later. The final official US mission to Antarctica was Operation Argus, which dropped several dozen low-intensity nuclear bombs in a concentrated area, supposedly to measure electromagnetic responses. Guess what? It was carried out in the same area where NASA later discovered the Wilkes Land Gravity Anomaly.”
Names and dates, operations and anomalies were beginning to blur. For the first time ever, I found myself losing interest in one of Drew’s soliloquies. Besides, we were supposed to be discussing our plans for traversing The Great Bottom undetected; this felt like a geopolitical doctoral presentation—informative, certainly, but not exactly entertaining.
“You look confused, Sonny.”
“Not really,” I lied. “I just don’t see what all this has to do with us, Drew.”
Drew put down his dry-erase marker and rethought his approach: “Have you ever seen that movie The Dark Crystal?”
“What, that one with the Skeksis?” It was a favorite in fact, one of the few happy moments from my childhood I could easily recall.
“That’s the one. Remember how all the planets were lining up and the tribes were all gathering for a big showdown?”
“The Great Conjunction.”
“Exactly, Sonny, we’re having one of those—probably The Greatest Conjunction Ever. We need to get to where we’re going before then, or else it’ll be a big problem. If we miss it, we’ll never make it all the way to Xanadu.”
“Are you psychic now, Drew? Can you see the future?”
“Not really. I just know a lot more than I used to.”
“Communication with other dead people.”
“Can you talk to all of them?”
“Not exactly. It’s kind of like the internet. You can send a message to anyone who’s passed, but it’s up to them if they want to reply.”
“Have you been talking to Admiral Byrd?”
“I wish! He won’t respond. But he’s not the only one who knows the truth about Highjump, and Highjump’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.”
“Drew, if I needed to get a message to someone, could you…”
I was suddenly distracted by a muffled blip behind me; like a motion detector being tripped or a video camera turning on behind the walls. I turned to discover, for the first time, a one-way glass mirror. While it’s a standard feature of any modern interrogation facility or debriefing nook, I wondered why this one, inside my dream, needed a secret room when it didn’t even have a door. And then another realization slapped me. I went from curious to alarmed and then terrified. The nerves along my spine fired and tightened as invisible frozen tendrils grabbed me by the balls and throat.
“Drew,” I ventured without turning to look back at him, “who’s watching us?”
He didn’t answer.
“Drew…” I repeated as I spun back around—but I no longer cared. My friend had assembled a huge, glistening syringe of Heroin for my consumption. To say I was distracted is an understatement.
“Don’t worry about it, Sonny. You should rest now; tomorrow’s a big day.”
I’d dreamed about shooting up thousands of time. Nightmares of empty needles and weak sauce are a junkie’s alarm clock. It’s what gets us up to begin another daily grind for the precious tar. But this was different. When Drew tied me off and blasted me into the liquid bliss of Warm Oblivion, it was real. A dream within a dream; as sweet as anything that’s ever had its hooks in me, all natural. I entered an internal temple of pure contentedness as Drew’s voice drifted into infinity.
“Once you make it through The Great Bottom, just remember: Deep Underground Military Bases. Deep Underground Military Bases. Deep Underground…”
Despite everything Thaddaeus had told me, I was absolutely stunned by the immensity of The Great Bottom. The first look I got was from a bluff, giving me a full panoramic of the pandemonium. Tabernacle City was big for a self-sufficient underground agricultural colony, but The Great Bottom was actually city-sized. The cavernous expanse was so vast, in fact, that for the first time since I’d descended with Drew, I didn’t feel like I was underground. It was more like I’d emerged from a cave into land of perpetual twilight, a simmering and pungent Hellworld ala Hieronymus Bosch in another dimension. Above the smog was only darkness, like an endless starless sky. The perimeter of The Great Bottom was so immense, it appeared nonexistent.
The sprawling slum-burbia was erratically grouped into neighborhoods, trading centers, and combat areas. There were fields of moss and mushroom crawling with scavengers; dozens of bubbling pools, some overflowing rubbish and sewage, others emitting yellow or pinkish luminescence. I saw people filling buckets and bottles, as others dove for sunken treasures—it even looked like some of them were fishing. To the east, The Wellspring was a mountain of trash at least a thousand feet tall and, in the distance, I could see the towering effigy of The Registrar, tentacled and impatient, surrounded by a steady stream of raucous worshipers filing by, like pilgrims around the Kaaba, the massive cubic monolith of Mecca.
Even from the outskirts, the drone of impending madness was unnerving; a heavy bass rumble that turned my intestines. There were thousands, maybe tens of thousands of lunatics and maniacs marauding. In addition to the original Deinstitutionalized and their feral progeny, untold numbers of Exiled and Wasters crawled in packs, inciting additional tempestuous havoc. It was a sickening cacophony of singing, chanting, and screaming; sounds of plunder and murder and vicious assaults; ingestion, regurgitation, and ejaculation; people fucking and fighting and birthing and dying.
I would have done just about anything to turn around, but Drew left me a message that Dante and his enforcers were cutting through the metal barrier at SP-0187 with blowtorches. Apparently, they were unwilling to consider me a loss and instead were intent on bringing me back to face the merciless wrath of The Basilisk. Once again, the only way out was down.
One of the most genius aspects of The Junk Man apparatus was that all of its components folded neatly into a normal looking shopping cart, with legless Thaddaeus tucked safely inside like a turtle. The motherfucker was a real-life Transformer! As for me, my former mortal nemesis had adorned me in local attire designed to keep me sufficiently camouflaged: A body-wrap of burlap and black plastic beneath custom armor carved out of metal scraps, the most important being a rectangular breastplate cut from a chemical barrel. My arms, legs, and hands were wrapped in various materials to protect extremities from random biters, be they animal or cannibal. My mask was a crude breather made out of melted plastic bottles and homemade glue that had a reservoir filled with piss and charcoal. Thaddaeus had even managed to make some real glass goggles by melting sand. My head and ears were hidden and protected by the remnants of a green military tarp, tied around my neck with rope.
The plan, as much as there was one, was to wheel the Junk Man across The Great Bottom unnoticed. Drew’s map, as near as I could decipher, indicated a portal of significant depth on the other side, a passageway that would bring us right to the borders of Wonderland.
I maneuvered Thaddaeus down the bluff with no small amount of difficulty before we reached the cavern floor. Descending through the polluted haze had immediately effected my mental and physical constitution. The breather was great for hiding my face (I’d stick out like a sore thumb without a heavy heard) but it was a poor substitute for a functional gasmask; fumes immediately permeated the contraption, causing my lungs to burn and quiver. My eyes gushed until crusty puss boogers clogged up my tear ducts. My knees turned to jelly and my head went floating off several feet above my body; waves of gritty bliss were intercut with torrents of paranoia and fits of uncontrollable laughter that took all my energy to stifle.
“Keep cool, Mike,” Thaddaeus cautioned.
Into the melee we crept, shadows darting around in my periphery until we were undeniably in the thick of the mayhem. Feral kids swarmed us, tugging at my sleeves while attempting to peek under the tarp that covered Thaddaeus.
“What’s inside, mommy? Can we have some?”
“Mommy”, Thaddaeus had previously explained, was the universal pronoun of The Great Bottom: Every man, woman, and child was mommy, a throwback to the original Deinstitutionalized who were reduced to screaming for maternal saviors to rescue them from the bottomless pit in the earliest months of C.R.A.S.I.
“Don’t touch that!” I barked. But the more I attempted to out-maneuver or detach the rapscallions, the more they persisted. Soon, we were drawing attention from legions of rabid scamps, along with suspicious stares from adults of various shapes and sizes poking their heads out of hovels to investigate the hubbub. I was terrified, but the toxins floating in the atmosphere gave everything a dreamlike aesthetic that had me fluctuating between awe and inappropriate giggles now nearly impossible to suppress.
“Dammit, Mike. Keep your cool,” Thaddaeus reiterated in a hissing whisper.
I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep my cool to save my life: Fear, adrenaline, and hallucinatory compounds in the filthy atmosphere combined into a sinister tincture. Dr. Jekyll was dying, and Mr. Hyde was on the rise. I was meta-morphing into some kind of subhuman I didn’t recognize.
“Mike! Keep your fucking cool!” Thaddaeus pleaded from his hiding spot. Everything was going to Hell.
The din of madness seemed to be moving in on us, increasing in both volume and intensity. A disturbing dynamism was building towards some ferocious climax that I welcomed and dreaded in equal measure. But as the alcoholic horror built towards explosive levels, the insanity was shattered by the thundering clap of mighty gong; then another; then another. The clamor cooled as every resident of The Great Bottom stopped what they were doing and turned their full attention towards the towering effigy of The Registrar. The gong sounded five times total, after which the only detectable sound was the crackling of a thousand bonfires. The abrupt shift in the chaos was unnerving.
“What’s happening, Thaddaeus?” I inquired while chocking back my involuntary cackling.
“I have no idea,” The Junk Man responded. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
A powerful voice boomed from the vicinity of the effigy; the words were impossible to interpret at our distance, but the sentence was repeated by those close enough to hear (again and again) until the entire cavern was echoing the sentiment:
“We have an intruder!”
“We have an intruder!”
“We have an intruder…” and on and on…
When the clamor had reached the ears of every mommy, the voice continued its proclamations.
“Identify the interloper!”
“Identify the interloper!”
“Identify the interloper…” and on and on…
Everybody turned to scrutinize the mommies in their immediate vicinities. It wasn’t long before dozens of accusing fingers were pointed in my direction.
“Here’s the mommy!” someone shouted. Others repeated the assertion until the message was relayed all the way back to The Voice of the Effigy in the same primitive yet effective method.
“Seize the mommy!”
“Seize the mommy!”
“Seize the mommy…” was the order that returned.
We were surrounded; the obedient mob closed in.
With the push of a button and a mighty hydraulic sizzle, The Junk Man emerged from his hiding place, talons bared. He seemed twice the size of the mob’s biggest mommies, like a mythical creature, a mangled Minotaur. “Get back motherfuckers!” he commanded. I scurried to his side for protection as the residents of The Great Bottom gasped. But whatever fear The Mighty Junk Man had inspired among the fervent masses was short-lived. We were so vastly outnumbered it was ridiculous. We never stood a chance.
Thaddaeus was extracted from his apparatus like a hermit crab in the hands of sadistic children, like a tasty morsel of escargot greedily plucked from its cooked calcium coffin. I heard him screaming, and then he was gone—devoured.
I was overtaken and stripped in an instant as I allowed the crowd’s madness to consume me. I was elevated on a million arms like a rock star at an epic hippy festival, like Hendrix at Woodstock. Without my breather, the full blast of atmosphere was at first excruciating. But fear of suffocation subsided in a hot throb that flooded my lungs before dripping into my toes and fingertips. In a matter of moments, I was deftly delivered to the commanding Voice of the Effigy.
He was a hideous mommy, a High Priest of Perversion. He danced in the shadow of The Registrar; painted up like an evil clown, adorned in a jester’s cap strung with the eyeballs of those whose gazes offended him. He grabbed a hammer and once again blasted the gong, a dented disc that was twice the size he was, sending the attentive residents of The Great Bottom into a unified, celebratory frenzy.
“Nurse!” he commanded, “Bring the outlander mommy to me!”
Nurse was a humongous mommy, a chromosomally-challenged blob completely covered in custom molded metals; a gloomy and imposing caballero with eyes likes hoarfrost. He shackled me before marching me up the elevated platform to stand beside the degenerate shamanistic spiritualist.
“How many times can a guy almost die?” I wondered. When my sisters found out I was a junkie, they tried to scare me by reminding me any shot could be my last. But I’d already OD’ed and come back dozens of times, so I didn’t give a fuck. But since Thaddaeus (May he Rest in Peace) chased me into the labyrinth, I’d been assaulted, broken, raped, reassembled, mind-fucked, and sentenced to an eternity of immeasurable suffering. Now, I was being brought before yet another human devil for what would undoubtedly be yet another excruciating ritual. “Guess I’ll be seeing you soon, Drew,” I thought to myself. “Sorry I couldn’t make it all the way to Xanadu.”
“Just remember what I told you, Sonny,” replied Drew’s disembodied voice on a frequency set just for me.
The Voice of the Effigy looked me up and down, expressing both amazement and disgust.
“This mommy is not one of us!” he confirmed to the enraptured masses, who echoed his verdict throughout the expanse.
“If this mommy wants to live with us, to enjoy the bounty of The Wellspring and quench thirst in our waters, to live under the protection of The Registrar, then this mommy must give me its eyes!”
The entire vastness clamored in approval.
“Nurse!” the High Priest commanded, “Bring mommy my tools!”
Nurse rolled up a bloodstained table-top covered with dozens of sharp, rusty instruments recovered from The Wellspring; some were actual surgical utensils while others were little more than prison shanks. The Voice of the Effigy selected a tetanus infested scalpel. I winced.
“Of course,” the Voice announced, “If this mommy won’t give us its eyes, we can feed it to The Surgeon!”
Designated members of community heaved a series of ropes and pulleys, opening a huge trapdoor between the legs of The Registrar. Bloodthirsty exclamations neared deafening decibels until The Voice commanded, “Silence!”
For several long seconds, the quite that descended across The Great Bottom was nauseating. Then, a low rumble emerged from the darkness beyond the gaping portal; the rumble became a growl; the growl became a roar that emanated to the farthest corners of the wasteland. It ignited tsunamis of bedlam followed by hurricanes of orgiastic havoc.
I had a the terrible sensation of reoccurring déjà vu; from the auditorium of Tabernacle City to the operating bench of Master Hauptnadel, to my original faceoff with Thaddaeus that started me ever downwards, I was constantly choosing between death and something potentially much worse. And here I was again, forced to pick between demise and damnation. This time, I had to decide whether to die like a coward crawling in the muck on The Great Bottom, or get it over with quickly by jumping into a pit with, I don’t know, a giant monster probably. I was about to say goodbye to my eyes. I’d try to find my way back to Thaddaeus’s hole, dodging the Exiled and Wasters. I’d to survive on the toxic expanse until The Greatest Conjunction Ever came to pass. Maybe then my luck might turn.
But suddenly something clicked: A word scrawled in red paint; huge capitals letters above the opening to The Surgeon’s lair: DUMB.
“Feed me to The Surgeon.”
The Voice was speechless, but the crowd was ever ecstatic, forcing the manipulative messiah to comply. With a nod of his chin, The Nurse held me over his head like a wrestler preparing to deliver a knockout slam. The Voice returned to the gong, now pounding on it erratically, and further inciting both his audience and the creature in the hole. With a cathartic, guttural exclamation, the powerful Nurse tossed me through the trap door and, for just a moment, I was weightless.
I landed in a pile of slimy bones and cartilage teeming with spiders and rats. The Surgeon moved in quickly, circling me, brushing up against me with skin that was rough like a rhinoceros or a giant monitor lizard. I couldn’t see a thing but I could sense its enormity; something flickered across my body like a forked tongue. The Surgeon was as blind as I was.
I scurried around the perimeter looking for an escape or, at least, a crack to squeeze into. When I couldn’t find anything, I attempted to scale the slippery walls—unsuccessfully. The Surgeon either bit me or stung me in the Achilles tendon, sending paralyzing venom into my artery. I felt my throat beginning to tighten and lost control of my bladder. In a final Hail Mary (which I knew would be little more than a temporary postponement of the inevitable), I dove beneath the moldy bones and waited for The Surgeon to finish me off.
“Sorry, Drew. I guess I made the wrong choice.”
I could feel the beast breathing down on me, salivating on me, licking me, tasting…
One of the walls exploded inward, nearly burying me and causing The Surgeon to rear up angrily; mommies with rifles and high powered flashlights flooded in; one of them zeroed in on me.
“Target acquired, Sargent!” he yelled as others took down the screaming Surgeon with a volley of controlled bursts, illuminating the chamber like fireworks.
Sargent came over to confirm: “This dipshit? You sure Corporal?”
“Yes, Sir! He’s got a chip.” Corporal showed Sargent a hand-held electronic device that must have proved his assertion.
“I’ll be damned,” replied Sargent. He knelt down and studied me intently: “What’s your name Son?”
I couldn’t answer him because I was dying (again).
“He’s fading, Corporal. Let’s get him on a stretcher and back to the Outpost.”
As I embraced yet another all-encompassing darkness, I heard Drew jokingly giving me the business: “You’re not so ‘DUMB’ after all, Sonny!”
“I remembered, Drew: Deep Underground Military Bases.”