“Deeper Than Hell” by Josh Millican
Chapter Ten (Previous Chapter | Main Page)
You could go to a random spot on Google Maps, dig straight down for decades and never find a damn thing—or, you could find something universe shattering not much more than 20 meters deep. People can’t fathom what they can’t see, which is why we’ve spent billions flinging junk into space instead of exploring our own oceans; somehow, being able to see a dying star, thousands of light-years away, makes it more relevant than the living gods and monster swimming the same oceans our biological ancestors crawled out of. The ironic part is, even if we had the technology to build spaceships or tesseracts, we wouldn’t find anything out there. Not because space is dead, it’s just that there’s nothing more wonderous than what you can find underground. Because it’s more than just awe-inspiring or mind-boggling—it’s everything.
And it’s not just a source of wonder, it’s salvation; the answer to pollution, overpopulation, disease—even unhappiness. Of course, salvation comes at a price, and the road is paved with unfathomable dangers. My particular journey, my horrors, are but a fraction of what thrives and terrifies in the crust beneath our feet.
Add up every species of animal and insect on Earth and in the oceans, multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere close to imagining the multitudes of creatures that crawl underground—mostly bugs and reptiles, the kind of monstrosities surface dwellers are glad they’ve never seen. But it’s these disgusting creepy crawlies that saved my life. The hole I’d fallen down (my leap of faith) wasn’t empty space; millions of spider-subspecies had ballooned down over countless millennia of lifecycles, creating gossamer netting that crackled as I dropped threw it. But there were more than webs; bee-relatives built hives in the crevices that dripped a viscus byproduct; transparent centipedes had molted, casting their husks off as they grew at alarming speeds; small mammals and reptiles who’d stumbled into the pit were trapped and devoured, but their hair and bones remained; all combining with the organic cast off of a billion undocumented, unnamed insects from the size of pubic lice to dolphins, anything that had passed through this pit by design or chance, through cyclical migrations that coincided with interplanetary alignments as opposed to seasons or the moon or by dumb luck. And they’d all left bits of themselves, from grains of fecal waste to all manner of milks and secretions, along with swarms of larva and quivering egg sacks. And it was this semi-solid vector jetsam that surrounded me as I fell for over sixty-thousand feet, surrounding me, first like sour wisps of cotton candy before the larger chunks of skin, broken legs, wings, and antennae accumulated evenly as I spun in darkness. I fell through various atmospheric changes in humidity and heat, along with the cooling rush of wind from beneath me. This bizarre, random process equaled perfection in the form of life-saving symmetry.
Before I came to rest, I was like a giant hairy ovum, debris trailing like tentacles—like the putrid tail of a grotesque comet. The pit began to curve, ever so slightly at first, allowing my protective casing to slow as it ricocheted and, eventually, rolled out like a pinball. I was blasted into a vast cavern before coming to rest on a black sandy beach on the edge of a river; miles off a dwarf volcano painted the hot atmosphere in purples and crimsons. I heard hands and tools cracking the shell, breaking through layers, digging me out—and I waited with a mix of equal parts desperation and dread. Like everything else about my unfurling adventure, I expected to go from the frying pan into the fryer. I was right of course. I was wiser then than I was when I first left Las Vegas under the threats of Thaddaeus’s bullets.
We’re at the point in the story where I know everything, because I’d been fed the Sacred Moss; the Chutsee tribe has been living underground for over 40 thousand years and had long evolved past the need for language. The Sacred Moss grows along the walls of caverns below a certain depth; it’s an incredibly bitter, black substance that burns the nose and throat on the way down with side effects including extreme nausea and migraines. One digested, the Sacred Moss allows for telepathic communication with others—so long as they’re also under the influence of the moss’s miraculous qualities. The Chutsee Chief fed me the Sacred Moss when I proved to him that I was both intelligent and extremely submissive.
I survived a plane crash when I was 5-years-old: PSA Flight 1777. It’s not something I like to talk about, mostly because I don’t remember. My parents were divorced so, every summer, I’d fly back and forth between Sacramento and San Diego, splitting my free time equally. I was asleep when the plane landed, skid off the runway, and burst into flames. Ironically, being asleep probably saved my life, because my body was relaxed; my entire row of seats was dislodged and tossed hundreds of yards away from the explosive inferno. Still, the people on both sides of me, strangers, both died—impaled by mangled debris as the plane shattered and cartwheeled. I was the sole survivor. My mom told me it was a miracle, that God himself must have protected me from an otherwise un-survivable scenario. “You’ve been chosen,” she told me, would tell me, every day. It drove me crazy.
I nodded off in a “shooting gallery” (a heroin junkie hangout) a couple years ago and, when I woke up, I realized someone had tattooed the letters HELL across the knuckles on my left hand. Some prankster’s idea of a laugh-riot, I supposed. Truth is, I couldn’t have cared less.
The tribe knew I was coming; as I fell and accumulated the mass of my parachute-egg, I created a whistling noise in the cavern below—almost like a doorbell announcing my impending visit. The exit of the seemingly bottomless pit is a favorite hunting ground for the tribe, as meaty morsels are delivered in an incapacitated form that eliminates the inherent dangers of killing startled prey. Like ordering your meat from the your local grocer and having it arrive nicely wrapped in thick white paper. They eagerly chipped away at my sticky, milky layers until they unwrapped me from the core, coated in slime and crawling with larva. Everything hurt and I’d never been more terrified.
I was screaming for Drew without even knowing it. Like a newborn infant clearing its lungs, I bellowed like these were my first gulps of air; I hollered like I was expelling soot and fire from my core. This seemed to amuse the tribe. They began imitating me, filling the cavern with whoops and shrieks that combined into a maddening cacophony. Then they laughed; their laughter sounded like a series of rapid-fire clicking that seemed to emanate directly from their throats. Drew never answered; I feared he might have finally abandoned me, but he was closer than I realized.
Like all animals who fell from above, the Chutsee didn’t regard me as anything but meat; they bound my arms and legs, gagged me by placing a smooth rock in my mouth and gluing my lips together with a fatty tincture. The march back to the City took hours, during which time I drifted in and out of consciousness. When I was unable to walk and too heavy to drag, I was hoisted onto the back of a work-animal, something the size of a mule with the look and feel of a naked rat.
“Welcome to Xanadu, Sonny.”
It was Drew’s voice in my head. I slowly opened my eyes, hoping to take in the glorious paradise I’d been promised. Instead, I beheld an unholy environment that could only exist on a metaphysical plane deeper than Hell.
I wasn’t the first surface dweller to fall into the pit; strays from The Great Bottom tumbled down at semi-regular intervals. They figured I was just another paint-eater: Tasty meat for the fires; sturdy bones for weapons and jewelry.
The Chutsee weren’t a naked tribe, but they wore more paint than clothing; created from clays and phosphorescent algae’s, their skins were a swirl of whites, yellows, and reds. Their faces were human—they were human; cave dwellers who went deeper while other emerged into the sunlight. They had lived generations in pitch blackness before arriving in caverns illuminated by scalding vents and glistening microbes; they found their Jerusalem, the City, the place Drew called Xanadu, after thousands of years crossing underwater oceans, annihilating predatory species, fracturing into subtribes, and praying to the God of Meat. They numbered close to a million in the City with offshoot colonies numbering hundreds of thousands below all of North and South America. They were both primitive and transcendent, devoid of technologies but ruled by principals unlocked from reptile brainstems. The discovery of the Sacred Moss eliminated the need for language, combining the entire race on a cerebral level; the Scared Moss also eliminated the need for written records, instead creating a cache of knowledge exponentially more illuminating than the Library of Alexandrea, an unabridged information depository available to all with access: a mouthful of Moss.
My mom had me involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility when I was 15; she told doctors and police that I was a danger to myself and others. She suspected I was in the throes of some insidious drug addiction. Ironically, the hospital’s where I got my first taste of the really good shit; regular cocktails of tranquilizers and opioids interspersed with group therapy and individual torture sessions. It’s also where I lost my virginity, that hospiral…
Physiologically, the Chutsee had developed features that would instantly differentiate them from surface dwelling homo sapiens. Specifically, protruding brows and boney spikes along their spines. They’d also developed a sixth toe, one that hooked down from just above the heel, allowing them to transverse the diverse subterranean extremes; from slippery slopes to razor sharp shards of lava-rock and quarts. They used the same colorful clays they splashed on their skin in their hair, creating thick chunks that were sculpted into spikes, locks, and swirls. Their eyes were black with blue sclera. They were beautiful and disgusting.
I had been crucified; the skin on my left leg had been completely peeled off; the pain equaled my terror. I was surrounded by a crew of chefs and butchers; I could hear and smell the strips of my skin sizzling on hot rock stovetops like bacon. As was tradition, the Chutsee Chief oversaw all ritual slaughter; he immediately realized that I wasn’t one of the usual, devolved specimens they’d seen before. As he approached with the organ extraction device, I looked into his eyes and pleaded. I said “Please” so many times the word lost meaning; the very letters decomposed into a meaningless sludge of indecipherable screeching. He gave me a heavy slap to shut me up, after witch I continued to look into his black eyes, silently pleading with all my might. He paused for several intense moments before commanding a couple of his underlings to cut me down; another crammed a fistful of sour Sacred Moss into my mouth. I thrashed as the phototropic subspace seared its way down my esophagus; the bitter mass hit my stomach acids, causing an instant reaction that blasted outward from my core like grenade.
“Kneel before your savior, slave!” The commandment came from one of the butchers, but I couldn’t tell which one; no one’s mouth had moved. This is because the words were spoken directly into my brain. I stumbled towards the Chief, my left leg almost giving out as hot dust clung to my flayed skin. I crumpled before him and erupted into gratitude: “Thank you thank you thank you thank you…” I emoted without words; and the Chief, along with everyone else in the immediate surroundings, heard me; they enjoyed my subservience; they were impressed by my desire to live.
“You come from above,” the Chief stated; it wasn’t a question that required an answer; it was proof that my mind was now an open book for him and all the Chutsee to read. They took my limited knowledge, added it to their vast information treasure trove, and explained the universe in terms I could understand.
“That world is gone,” he explained. “Fire from the sky; demigods in the halls of power; diseases combining into unprecedented pandemics. The Greatest Conjunction is at hand, and only those at peace with God will survive to sleep again.”
“I’m at peace with God,” I assured the Chief who responded with laughter and condemnation.
“It’s not for you to declare. God decides if peace shall be granted.”
I clasped my hands and begged, “God grant me peace… please God, grant me peace…”
The Chief kicked me and replied, “We don’t pray. We speak to God face-to-face. Will you oblige?”
Was this what Drew had been talking about the whole time? Was Xanadu, in fact, not a place, but an experience—the experience of meeting God? Of course! It made so much sense. Because this physical geography, the Chutsee City, was a place more shocking than anything the poet Dante could have imagined. More hideous and exquisite than I have the words to express. This can’t be the land without pain but, perhaps, standing before the one true God, basking in God’s grace, is the extreme and infinite bliss we’ve been craving? Yes, I decided.
“Yes,” I proclaimed with conviction. “I’m ready to speak to God—face-to-face.”
The privilege came with a heavy price; a ritual to prepare me for my meeting would also serve as a rite of acceptance—should I survive. There are no days in the Chutsee City, only endless hours of shifting illuminations; times of day included Red, Purple, and Foggy. I spent these cycles enduring complicated rounds of bodily mutilations, during which intricate patterns were carved into my remaining skin. I was coated in clays and salves concocted from the eyes of reptiles and organs of unclassified mammals. They put me into a ceramic vessel and filled it with a near boiling mixture of mud and manure, only able to breathe through tubes forced down my nostrils. I was sealed into a box with billions larval arachnids who feasted on the puss that gushed from my wounds. I was cleaned in a bubbling pool of Sulphur water and hung upside down my ankles until blood spewed out from my nose like a gusher. No, they weren’t trying to kill me or merely torture me; if that had been the case, I’d have known it. The Sacred Moss prevented lies; the ease of communication was facilitated, in part, by an evolutionary advancement that may deception impossible. The ritual was brutal—but it was pure.
Back in Vegas, people always used to comment on how much Drew and I look alike: “You guys could be twins!” I didn’t see it; Drew had an aura of power and health; my aura was dull yellow, like earwax.
I was sealed into a cold chamber with a screeching earth-monkey and a gargantuan centipede. “Kill them both and eat them both,” the Chief instructed, “And then it will be time for you to meet God.” The centipede was easy to kill, even though every prick from its thousands of feet was like a poisoned needle delivering agony. The monkey was harder to kill, not just because it was stronger, but because of how it pleaded for its life; not with words, not with telepathy; but with pitiful sobs that sounded like a teenage girl weeping. I wasn’t hungry, but I gorged myself, consuming bones and hair and everything. I didn’t have to tell the Chief when I was finished because he already know. The chamber was unsealed and he stood in the opening, a great white light behind him.
I was slathered with fresh batches of colored clay and adorned in decorative leathers and bones. The Chief led me towards the Great Doorway, behind which I would meet my maker; legions of Chutsee followed me, chanting beautiful, haunting hymns telepathically. “We made it Drew,” I muttered, tears flowing.
Drew hadn’t disappeared as I had initially feared; the power of our impact after falling obliterated what was left of his physical form, crushing his bones to dust and splattering the rest of him into a bloody jelly. But his essence had been absorbed into my body; he was a part of me now, forever, and I was his home. We’d been pulverized into a single entity.
“I knew you could do it Sonny. I always believed in you.”
The Great Doorway was guarded by The Processor, an inhuman hybrid of missing links and unclassified species; he stood like a man but looked more like an elephant, one with slippery, gray skin like a dolphin. The Gatekeeper had long fingers, each capped with a sharp nail that dripped a honey-colored liquid. He was there to prepare my mind and body for my meeting with God; the final component in the ritual. The Processor touched my arm and delivered a dose of his nectar into my bloodstream. Boom: My pupils turned to pinpricks, my heart raced—I realized I really was home.
I was swimming in the glistening pools of The Warm Oblivion, diving deeper than I ever dreamed possible.
The Great Doorway opened, and I was ushered into the royal antechamber; then it slammed shut with an echoing thump that resonated throughout my entire body. This was the Waiting Room, and I was ready to meet God.
Like a dying man seeing his life flash before his eyes, I was cast into a tempest of memories: The shootout with Thesaurus, Drew’s murder at the hands of the hideous codger, the tortures of Hauptnadle and his acolytes, the indoctrination of Dante and Nurse Sasha, the prison of forbidden knowledge, the threat of the Basilisk, the realm of SPC-087, my short-lived partnership with The Junk Man, my humiliations on The Great Bottom, the fever-inducing venom of the Bantar, The Outpost occupied by militant madmen, my face-to-communion with an entity named Eve—all of it; everything.
God will see me now.