“Deeper Than Hell” by Josh Millican
Chapter Six (Previous Chapter | Main Page)
“You like stories, right? Here’s a story…”
It was Thaddaeus; I was paralyzed.
“Once upon a time there was a hard working guy with big dreams. He was a Cartel runner and a mid-level dope dealer, but he wanted to do more with his life, like, move to a nice city and open up a gym or a skate park. He never wanted to be a roller or a gangster. It was just the world he was born in, and drugs was the only way to keep his people fed. So he was trapped, you know?”
We were in a hole; a burrow; a stone-and-earth den of some sort; I couldn’t tell right away. My eyes were still involuntarily rolling back inside my skull. Thaddaeus was sitting on a pile of junk, throwing crumpled bits of paper and scraps of greasy cardboard into a crackling blue fire. It was hot.
“So one day, this guy the drug dealer thought was a friend says he’s got a plan to make them both a lot of money. He knew how to sell off a kilo of Heroin for a huge profit—not enough to retire on, but def enough to start a new life someplace. Normally, the drug dealer would never consider cutting a side deal, but this plan was pretty legit and his friend had a solid reputation. But it turns out this so-called friend was nothing but a scheming, greedy, junkie motherfucker who never should of been trusted in the first place.”
I started to think I’d heard this story before—at least a variation of it.
“So the junkie fucker gets his hands on one of the drug dealer’s kilos after brokering a deal through a Bitcoin credit union downtown. But when the guy goes to cash-out, they tell him there’s a hold on his transaction, that there’s signs of fraud. By the time he realizes it’s all a scam, the junkie fucker’s already scurried off down into the sewers, like the fucking rat he actually is.”
I wasn’t tied up, but I might as well have been. I was still frozen in the spasmodic throes of my near-fatal combination of morphine and astronaut pills. I was lying on my side, a steady stream of white foam flowing from my mouth, landing in sudsy plops on the dirt floor.
“Now, this wasn’t just a case of taking a financial hit; this was a life and death situation. You think it was the drug dealer’s own Heroin that the junkie fuck stole? Like, from his personal supply? Like, he just grew it in his backyard? Fuck no! That was Cartel Heroin, and this guy would either have to deliver it to San Francisco with the other bricks, as expected, or pay a heavy buy-out tax. Showing up empty handed with nothing but excuses: That’s a fucking death sentence. You ever heard of a Columbian Necktie?”
Drew was gone; he wasn’t in the hole with us. I closed my eyes and tried to contact him telepathically, but he wasn’t answering.
“So this hard working drug dealer who never really hurt anybody, who never even got high, who dreamed of a better life with a beautiful family someday, he gathers up some of his posse and goes after the devious swindling bitch motherfucker. They corner him in a tunnel where he lives with a bunch of other junkie assholes, and the bitch goes ballistic! He wrestles a gun from one of the boys and kills two of them, like: Pop-pop-pop-pop! When he runs out of bullets, he bolts away like a fucking cheetah; like, you never seen a junkie move this fast before!”
Thaddaeus looked different: His once-tidy cornrows were frayed and matted; he was wearing a filthy wife-beater that highlighted a surprisingly muscular upper torso. He had a full, thick beard and his hands were black with soot. He still had that chrome grill on his teeth, though; it glowed in the dark like a Cheshire Cat’s smile, capturing and amplifying the light from the pathetic flames, adding fire to his increasingly vitriolic words.
“Well now shit’s really serious, like, even when the drug dealer gets his product back, this junkie bitch has got to die. Him and anyone else involved in meddling with his business and murdering his boys. You can probably imagine: He was severely pissed off.”
Yes, he was.
“So the drug dealer grabs a couple more boys and picks up a few Rotties from the kennel behind his house, and it’s on: They’re on a mission to find and destroy this junkie motherfucker. He was easy to track because the idiot doused himself in gasoline, so they could smell him even without the dogs. They’re on his trail for like, hours, and they end up going down this long ass ramp that opens up into this huge dome space with a crane and other crazy shit in it. What happened next was… it was fucking insane.”
I knew what was coming next.
“This horde of crazy bums surrounded them! The drug dealer’s boys were dragged off screaming, but he had a gun and emptied his clip on them, like: Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop! The ones that didn’t drop scattered with the Rotties in hot pursuit. The place was crawling with rats and bugs, but the drug dealer noticed something slumped it a pile a few yards away. It was making a gurgling noise; kind of gasping. Know what it was? It was that junkie motherfucker who stole his Heroin!”
“Is Drew alive?” I ejaculated, spitting up froth and coughing.
“I knew it was you!” Thaddaeus roared. “I wasn’t sure at first. You look different, healthier. But when I saw your fucked-up ear I remembered clipping you that night. Son of a bitch, I knew it was you!”
“Is he alive?” The idea that I might have left Drew when I could have could have still saved his life broke me out of my drug shackles. I was seething.
Thaddaeus spent several excruciating minutes ignoring me; meticulously rolling a cigarette out of newspaper and a combination of dried roots and moss. He plucked an ember from the fire and lit his make-shift spliff, filling the room with plumes of putrid purple smoke. It had a terrible stench.
“Please,” I begged. “Tell me.”
“He was still alive when I left him, but only barely. I had a few more bullets in my pocket, but I didn’t need to waste one. He’d gotten his.”
“Motherfucker!” I erupted, enraged at Thaddaeus and myself in equal measure.
“Fuck you!” Thaddaeus retorted. “I couldn’t have helped him if I wanted. His blood was almost gone. Those bums were eating him, motherfucker! Besides, I’m the fucking victim of this story! Drew got what he had coming, but guess what? The Heroin was gone! Know what that means? It means I’m still a dead man! I can’t go home without it! It means Drew killed me, motherfucker! He fucking killed me!”
I struggled to my feet, certain a fatal clash with apoplectic Thaddaeus was eminent. But as I flailed and stumbled, the drug dealer lunged towards me over the fire revealing his new, truer form: He wasn’t sitting on a pile of junk—he was the junk.
His legs had been amputated above the knees; the jagged, cauterized stumps had been grafted and bolted through the mesh bottom of a mutilated shopping cart. It was part of an ugly, jerry-rigged exoskeleton surrounding his trunk; the push of a button thrust him up and outwards like a hideous jack in the box. Twisted metal crutches flipped down from under his elbows like mantis arms, allowing him to rise and maneuver. His extensions were adorned with talons: Shards of glass, metal scraps, and spikes made from of bones. Unseen gears whizzed and whirled from within. Thoroughly intimidated, I crumpled into a ball, awaiting the fatal fury of The Junk Man.
But instead of delivering brutal assassination, Thaddaeus donned a stethoscope and promptly pressed it against a corrugated sheet-metal wall (which I’d later learn was also a doorway). The Junk Man was frozen and focused, listening intently. There was fear in his eyes. He raised a filthy finger to his lips.
“We’re not alone, are we?” I whispered.
The Junk Man slowly, somberly shook his head. Whatever he detected creeping beyond our compartment must have been alerted by the ruckus of our verbal throw down. We held our breaths for what felt like many painful minutes. Our tempers cooled. When the perceived danger had passed, Thaddaeus settled back into a trash heap and, slowly, he told me everything.
The drug dealer had created the Junk Man persona out of parts scavenged from The Wellspring in order to intimidate the The Wasters after his legs were cannibalized.
Let me back up.
Thaddaeus knew he couldn’t go back topside without the kilo, so even though his posse and his dogs never came back, he pressed onward all alone. “One of three things would happen,” he hypothesized: “I’d find the brick, I’d find a way out somewhere far away, or I’d die trying.” He had nothing to lose because, as he had just pontificated, without the Heroin he was essentially dead anyway. He figured whatever fiend had swiped the kilo out of Drew’s backpack couldn’t have gotten too far. He’d be in a hurry to sell it or shoot it.
The exact details are sketchy, but after what could have been weeks or months, after getting hopelessly lost and facing his own unimaginable terrors and subhuman lurkers, after being dragged through broken glass, falling through trap-doors, stumbling into pits, and dodged pendulums, Thaddaeus arrived at a huge cavern with hundreds of offshoots. This it wasn’t just another open space: It was big enough to hold an entire city.
“There are people everywhere. They think they arrived down here decades ago after being dropped down a bottomless pit, intended as slaves and sacrifices to an ancient god! It’s crazy, right?”
I thought I knew who they were, maybe.
“Hey Sonny, have you ever heard of The Deinstitutionalized?” Drew had asked me one time ages ago, before any of this ever happened. I relayed the story to Thaddaeus:
“’Deinstitutionalization’ was the big word the Regan Administration used to describe the process of shuttering federally funded psychiatric hospitals in the 1980s. While it was propped on the tent poles of smaller communities, outpatient treatment centers, and the successful evolution of therapeutic medications for chronic mental illnesses, most patients were simply discharged and bussed out to Skid Rows across the country. Las Vegas was inundated.
“A bunch of them took up in the first runoff channels, but the rest flooded The Strip for panhandling and occupied valuable space in downtown’s cheapest hotels. Tourists were nagged and the powers that be were livid, so they came up with a plan; they called it The Compassionate Relocation and Shelter Initiative, CRASI, in all internal memos—but compassion was the least of their concerns. The program was enacted and funded by The Oligarchy and executed under the guidance, and with the cooperation of, a secret CDC affiliate.
“Hired mercenaries rounded up Sin City’s least desirables under cover of darkness on a nightly basis. Unmarked black buses with tinted windows shipped The Deinstitutionalized out to refugee camps in the desert. They healthiest were recruited for testing in the ongoing MK ULTRA program at Area 51. The sickest were quickly euthanized and cremated. The rest were inoculated and prepped for permanent relocation. But the thing is, no one ever left the camps, and no one could explain where The Deinstitutionalized were going. It wasn’t long before other cities began shipping their own undesirables to the camps, but CRASI was abruptly halted in 1994 after satellite photos of the internment facilities surfaced on anti-Government websites in Saudi Arabia.”
As for the bottomless pit: “This guy said they were sent down in converted cattle crates, a dozen or so at a time—on deflated weather balloons!” Thaddaeus relayed. “He said that, after a few minutes of drifting, they felt like they were passing through an invisible barrier that was, like, a high pitched vibration. Everyone got intense headaches, and their skin blistered. People started freaking out and breaking out, jumping out to their deaths. The ones who rode it out said it took hours to land; now they call this place The Great Bottom.”
“Drew told me about a huge portal in the desert,” I explained, putting two and two together. “It was controlled by a tribe of Basque separatists who settled in Elko, Nevada in the early 1900s. They believed it was a place or reverence, a corridor that ran all the way to the Earth’s core, where it was possible to commune with reptilian, seal-like creatures who emerged from within. The Government forcefully evicted the Basques when the pit was discovered following a series of intense black light pulses observed regularly throughout the 1980s. The location of the Basque portal is still highly classified. That’s what Drew told me.”
“Why you suppose they didn’t just, like, kill everyone if they wanted to get rid of them?” Thaddaeus asked. “You think they sent them down here for a reason?”
“What, like to study them?”
“You don’t think they were sent here as sacrifices for an ancient god?”
“No!” Thaddaeus snorted with a dismissive smile before getting abruptly serious: “But I’ve seen some things since I got down here…”
He wasn’t kidding. I’d seen things myself during my struggle to escape The Web, armed with the information Drew had drilled into me over the years. But when it came to life at The Great Bottom, Thaddaeus was the expert.
The Great Bottom, as he described it, was a post-apocalyptic underworld; hazy, noxious, and tremendously dangerous. It was hot: Bonfires burned constantly, and without ventilation, the smog lingered indefinitely. The air was painful to breathe and humid with human sweat, like a sauna. When enough moisture collected in the dank and stagnant atmosphere, it would rain down in opaque, fatty dropped that smelled like spoiled seafood. Resident wrapped themselves head to foot to protect against the toxic elements, fashioning goggles from glass and plastic bottles, and crude breathers to filter ash and other floating debris from the air.
The secondary effect of this standard garb, however, was to make gender initially indeterminable, as rape gangs were rampant.
“How dangerous is it?” I asked.
“It’s Bedlam. There’s no order; no code. It’s filthy; people catch the plague. Most everyone’s always laughing hysterically or screaming or fighting—or raping. It’s never quiet; it’s fucking cacophonous. Feral kids run in packs throwing their shit at people. The only thing they have in common is that everyone worships a monster. There’s an immense effigy in the center of The Great Bottom, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before: Huge red eyes and tentacles. They call him The Registrar. They make regular human sacrifices.”
“What do they eat?” I asked, fearing the answer I thought I already knew.
“Oh there’s plenty to eat down here. You hungry?” Thaddaeus tossed me a wad of oily newspaper. Inside: half a barbequed rat and some black chunks of something with the potent reek of moldy European cheeses.
“What’s this stuff?” I asked, rolling one of the gamey orbs between my thumb and fingers.
“Centipede meat,” Thaddaeus replied. “They’re big as snakes down here.” He tossed me a plastic bottle of heavy, cloudy liquid. “And for water, there’s mineral springs all over the place. Just don’t drink from the ones that smell like Sulphur. No, the problem isn’t finding something to eat; the problem’s that a lot of people have lost their taste for rats and insects. They’re cannibals.”
I was hungry, actually, but what I really wanted was morphine: Tiny bottle after tiny bottle of liquid Paradise. Unfortunately, when Thaddaeus pulled me through the hatch at SCP-0187, my backpack, and all its pilfered Tabernacle City treasures, had been abandoned. It was a devastating realization, almost as distressing as waking up prisoner to a drug dealer with a score to settle. My pockets were still lined with astronaut pills, and dozens more were scattered around the den; Thaddaeus either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care.
“Here, have some of this,” Thaddaeus said as he passed me a freshly lit spliff. “I don’t know what this shit is, but it hits the spot.” It was the harshest blast I’d ever inhaled, but after my blistering coughing fit subsided, a blissful throbbing drifted from behind my eyes throughout my extremities. It was actually better than any of the high quality marijuana strains I’d sampled at Tabernacle City.
We would continue trading stories around the campfire like old friends for hours, but all the while, I never expected to leave The Junk Man’s lair alive. Would you?
“It wasn’t always like this,” Thaddaeus explained between long drags of underground herbage. “This old guy told me things were going well for the first few years, like, everyone worked together and pitched in. Folks were, like, having babies and raising families. But then there was, like, an earthquake and a huge corner of The Great Bottom was flooded with junk.”
They’d been inundated with hundreds of cubic tons of poisonous, industrial and military waste—it piled into a mountain. Residents of The Great Bottom called it The Wellspring. They built shelters and suits of armor out of components mined from this copious bounty. The Wellspring was a giver of life, but it was also a monster.
“Drew told me the desert’s full of illegal, toxic landfills,” I hypothesized. “It sound like a sinkhole opened under one.”
“Everything changed after that. Scavengers formed gangs and tried to lay claim to the bounty, calling it a gift from The Registrar. Factions were formed; alliances were broken. When they uncovered the chemicals that’s when things officially went to hell. It was, like, the fall of society.”
“What do you mean?”
“First it was paint: Thousands of gallons of paint. It was like crack on The Great Bottom. They huffed it, they covered their bodies with it, they ate it; they would have injected it if they had needles—and it wasn’t long before they started killing each other for it. All these paint addicts went blind and started lashing out at everyone and everything, so the original Deinstitutionalized rounded them up and banished them to an unexplored section of The Great Bottom. They call them The Exiles, but it’s ironic because they don’t stay exiled; they still crave that paint. There’s an underground cartel that hordes what’s left of the paint supply, and they use it to control them like animals. Like a militia. They kidnap children and get them hook at an early age.”
“Are they the ones who… took your legs? The Exiled?”
“My legs weren’t taken; they were eaten. And no, not by The Exiled. It was The Wasters.”
Paint, Thaddaeus explained, was actually one of the least damaging substances unearthed from The Wellspring. Formaldehyde was also popular, as were pesticides, solvents, research chemicals, and compressed gasses; many were simply addicted to plastic fumes and would just huddle around burn-barrels, red-faced and huffing, all day long. But the real scourge of The Great Bottom was Trioxin 5.
“I’ve seen some of the empty drums and I memorized the warning,” Thaddaeus relayed: “Developed by Darrow Corp for the US Army. In Case of Emergency Call 1-800-454-8000.”
“What does it do?”
“It changes people into something else—and remember, these were only barley people to begin with. Now, they don’t even look human anymore—and they’re almost impossible to kill. The only way to kill them, everyone says, is to decapitate them. As long as their heads are still attached, they’ll continue to claw and bite and kill. They’re The Wasters.”
“Zombies?” I almost squealed.
“Don’t be ridiculous, asshole. Zombies aren’t real. And besides, these ain’t no braindead shamblers. These guys are fast, and smart; they hunt in packs, communicating through a series of clicks and hisses. They used tools to take my legs off—and they cooked them.”
“How did you get away?”
“I was stripped before I was mutilated, but I was able to get my gun back after they fell asleep. They’d never seen one before, so they didn’t know what it was. They just tossed it into a pile of bones. I got 4 of them right between the eyes, but now I’m out of bullets. Been on my own, laying low ever since. Just been waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Waiting for you, I think. And it looks like I found you just in time.”
It was true: Thaddaeus had saved me from Dante and his killer computer people. Of course, I figured he was inspired more by a desire to do the deed himself than out of human kindness. And I couldn’t blame him, really. I deserved to die; if not for the part I played in Drew’s heist, then for the guards I’d killed; and if not for them, then for the girl I left in the desert; and if not for her, than for the gift of life I’d wasted. All my rage and indignation was gone; I was calm and resigned. I was ready to die.
We sat quietly in the cloudy, flickering darkness for a long time before either of us spoke again. It was a lot to absorb—for both of us.
“What happens now?” I finally ventured.
“Don’t know,” Thaddaeus replied, obviously weighing his options. “You want to tell me why you’re covered in blood?”
I had almost forgotten; in the dark, everything was gray. “I did what I had to do. I had to get away.”
Thaddaeus nodded slowly, as though he understood perfectly. “You know I should kill you, right?”
I nodded slowly because I understood him perfectly. “Go on then.”
The Junk Man rumbled and rose; he bore his talons, and crept towards me; he searched a utility bag, I assumed, for the perfect method of dispatch. But instead of retrieving something sharp, heavy, or blunt, The Junk Man produced a piece of paper and handed it to me: It was Drew’s map.
“Do you know how to read this?” Thaddaeus asked.
“I do,” I told him, by no means certain I actually could.
“Good. Then let’s get out of here.”
If Thaddaeus had been psychic, he might have chosen to live the remainder of his days in that stinking hovel at The Great Bottom, eating centipede meat and smoking cave moss. He had no idea what was waiting for us. Neither of us did.
“What’s your name, by the way? I always just called you Drew’s Boy.”
“Mike… my name’s Mike,” I replied, confusing myself with the unnecessary lie.
Drew finally returned to me in a dream that night: “Hey Sonny, did I ever tell you about The Smithsonian’s efforts to suppress irrefutable proof of the existence of giants? There are hundreds of reports of fossils sent to federal labs for testing that inevitably disappear. I’m talking about humanoid skeletons, some close to thirty feet tall!”
“What happens now, Drew?”
“Onward, Sonny; onward and downward. We don’t have any time to waste. There’s a war coming.” The progression of Drew’s purification hadn’t dampened determination in the slightest. Regarding an allegiance with Thaddaeus: “We need him, Sonny—for now. But watch your back.”
The challenges ahead would be immense; the road to Freedom would take us across the sacrificial altars of The Registrar and beyond.