“Deeper Than Hell” by Josh Millican
Chapter Three (Previous Chapter | Main Page)
“Open your eyes.”
I opened my eyes and saw Drew standing over me. The Sun was shining behind his head giving him a spikey, radiant halo.
“We made it, Sonny Boy.” I was lying on warm concrete just outside the mouth of our home tunnel. Drew had saved my life. He must have dragged me out while I was unconscious.
I heard a buzzing; Drew pointed into the azure sky at a 2-seater aircraft cruising in the distance. “Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd was an ace combat pilot in the first World War and a national hero,” Drew explained. “In 1926 he set out to be the first person to fly over the North Pole—but ended up somewhere else entirely.”
“Where?” I asked
“Where do you think, Sonny?” Drew’s face started turning pink then red; beads of sweat ran down his face.
“Xanadu? Shangri-La?” My hands hurt.
“Agartha.” There was blood on Drew’s teeth and in his mouth.
“Tell me a story, Drew.” My ribs hurt; it was hard to breathe; the back of my head was throbbing.
“Can’t right now, Sonny,” he said as his face began to contort and distort.
“Why?” I asked, as my stomach dropped.
“Because you’re waking up.” The sweat streaming off Drew’s face tuned to blood. The Sun went black and the ground beneath me crumbled, sending me somersaulting into a humid abyss. Disembodied laughter taunted me and intimidated me; dogs were barking. I remembered everything as my body crash landed with a bone-crushing thud.
I convulsed in a double earthquake of physical agony and emotional ruin; it was a shattering of the senses that was momentarily transcendent, until I returned to my mortal coil only to find the landscape decimated, my soul eviscerated, my core obliterated. I wished I could and I tried in vain to reclaim my unconsciousness, if only to reunite with Drew again. A primal, guttural utterance forced its way from my diaphragm and through my shredded throat, before it erupted with the urgent intensity of an air raid siren. “How could you?” I asked myself, “How could you leave him, you pathetic coward?”
“It’s not your fault, Sonny,” said Drew’s voice in my head. I knew I was just imagining what I hoped he’d say, but I pretended anyway; like he was speaking to me telepathically from someplace not too far away.
“I left you! I’m the worst friend in the world!”
“I was already dead. Remember?”
The vicious, hideous codger must have crept up on us in the Staging Chamber sometime after the fire had died down, and we had long gone silent. I don’t know why it chose to pounce on Drew instead of me, but by the time I was awake and on my feet (in the center vortex of what felt like a perfect storm of bats, bugs, and albino rats) it was already too late.
The he-crone clung to Drew’s back like a rabid chimpanzee before taking him down. It bit into Drew’s neck and pulled away with a mouthful of meat and sinew; it dug its claws under Drew’s ribcage. I could see bone, burgundy liver, and gushing blood. Frenzied bats swarmed as roaches, some big as the palm of my hand, crawled inside Drew’s deepest wounds. The codger began screaming like a wild boar enjoying an orgasm of bloodlust.
“Run, Sonny! Run!” With a free arm and the last of his strength, Drew lobbed something in my direction: The night-vision goggles.
“It’s killing you, Drew!”
“Run you stupid fuck! Run!”
God forgive me: I abandoned my best friend, my soul brother from past lives—like a coward. I strapped on the goggles, and I ran. I ran with the roaches and the gargantuan white rats. I ran straight towards the mountain of wreckage at the far side of the dome. The codger’s squeal echoed throughout the chamber, until another call (of slightly higher pitch) chimed in from a distance—and then a third. There were others. The codger was inviting its sinister brethren to a feast. I heard a fourth blood-curdling squeal, and a fifth. I looked up and saw figures climbing down from the cab of the crane, grappling and swinging from the upper tiers like evil monkeys. They were everywhere.
As I climbed over boulders of concrete (covered in tetanus-infested rebar) I could feel and see arms reaching for me from between the cracks, clawing at my ankles. There were more of them living in the crevasses beneath me—I could hear them hissing. I never would have made it through and over the jagged crumbles, the twisted scaffolding, and the mechanical debris, if it wasn’t for the goggles. But I did make it over: Scraped and bleeding, bat bitten with stinging cockroaches in my boxer-briefs, retching from fear and already suffering an intensity of guilt I never knew existed—but I made it.
I faced four huge openings to what had been four immense freight elevators. The lifts had long been decommissioned and dismantled; only four vast shafts remained, each a potentially bottomless pit. I chose the second one from the right for my descent and spotted a ladder just an easy leap from the perilous lip. I leaned forward and gripped the upper rung tightly, but as my feet followed, a shock went through my system: Some fucker had welded razor blades to the top handhold. The tendons in my palms were instantly severed and all my fingers went limp. It was a fall that seemed to last a lifetime.
I assumed this was my swan song which, truth be told, suited me fine; no more pain and no more guilt. At one point during my turbulent tumble, I hit a net that had been strung across the shaft; I have no idea if it was meant as a safety precaution or a trap, but it didn’t matter: The fibers were so rotted, it barely slowed me down before I snapped right through it. But landing hadn’t killed me; it was just a momentary detour into the comparative Heaven of unconsciousness. Now, as I continued to emerge from the fog, there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to claw my way back into that weightless, gray nothingness.
I must’ve been out for a long time because I was already viciously dope sick. Almost as unforgivable as abandoning my Pilgrim Pal was turning my back on half a kilo of Heroin; it’s a regret that continues to gnaw at me to this day. But sickness was only one of my problems.
I’d been taken in (to put it politely) by Meister Hauptnadel (whose name I can’t even write without wincing), an egomaniacal German psychonaut who sounded like your stereotypical mad scientist. “Vee fount you in a pile off mut. You hat fallen… so very far.”
I’d been pulled from a pit of semisoft clay and cleansed, he explained. But any sense of gratitude I might have felt was stifled by the realization I was strapped on an operating table: Arms outstretched lethal-injection style, wrists bound. “You haff been aschleep for quite some time. Many off your bones vill… never be zee same.” I was covered in a stained white sheet that hid a feeding tube in my stomach and a catheter in my dick. My hands had been crudely stitched and wrapped. There were several bright lamps pointed at my face, making it impossible to see beyond my immediate surroundings.
Hauptnadel looked like one of Clive Barker’s Cenobites crossed with Edward Scissorhands. “Sank you for zee lenses. Zey haff given me some… very interestink insights.” He was wearing Drew’s night-vision googles, but that was the least bizarre aspects of his attire. He usually sported sets of mechanical “fingers” attached over the tops of his hands; each one, including the thumbs, was capped in a thick metal syringe, and each needle’s thick tip dripped a different colored fluid. He had five more metal syringes implanted, needle-first, in a horizontal line across his forehead like a crown. He wore a white lab coat over what looked like a shredded leather bodysuit. Bits of machinery, gears, and stray wires pushed through the tears, revealing possible cybernetic enhancements.
Hauptnadel presided over a dozen Acolytes of Ascension who were all female, transgender, or extremely androgynous. Most displayed shocking modifications, including artificial horns, extensive facial and eyeball tattoos, stretched lips, nostrils and ears, and implants of wood, bone, and a gamut of metal alloys. Some of them even had their mouths or eyes sewn shut. The only thing they all had in common was a silver plug in the center of their foreheads.
“Haff you ever hurt off trepannink?” Hauptnadel asked me, once he was certain I was cognizant enough to understand him. Trepanning, he explained, “is zee practice off removink a section of bone from zee skull. Zis is done to increase blood flow to zee brain. Zee benefits are… outstandink!” He spoke in platitudes, often pausing for dramatic effect, curling his lips for exaggerated emphasis. “Every vone of zem, mein Acolytes,” he would beam with pride, “has achievft levels of consciousness expansion you cannot yet fazom… Zough perhaps, someday, you vill.”
To demonstrate, Hauptnadel had his Apex Acolyte, his favorite, kneel down before him; then he removed the plug in her forehead. Pink tissue throbbed intensely, like a piece of glistening meat was trying to break free from her head and escape. Hauptnadel reviewed the needles on his fingers, explaining, “Different compounds haff different effects… but all of zem push boundaries you nefer knew existed.” He picked a finger and pushed the needle deep inside his Acolyte’s skull, where it deposited an appropriate dosage directly into her pituitary gland. “Soon, she vill begin speakink in prehistoric and mystical lankuages.”
In place of the plug, Hauptnadel inserted a glass globe that allowed her brain to continue pulsating as blood and other fluids collected and sloshed around inside it. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she did, indeed, speak “languages” I’d never heard before (punctuated by long periods of shrieking—for hours). All the while, Hauptnadel would play electro-tribal music, dance, and gloat: “You see? Do you see? She is ascendink!” When her spasms finally subsided, the globe was removed and the plug in her forehead reinserted.
He could work himself into similar frenzies by modifying and pushing the syringes in his forehead, constantly adjusting an ever flowing combination of potions and tinctures streaming into his brain.
“Can you help me?” I implored, when my voice finally returned. “Do you have Heroin?” I was dripping with sweat, periodically convulsing, and covered in my own vomit.
“Oh yes, mein younk cadet. Vee indulge all fancies here,” he teased. “In fact, vone of zees has exactly vhat you seek.” He fanned his needle-fingers, and placed one hand and in front of the other, creating what looked like a dangerous peacock shadow puppet.
“Can I have it? Please, I’m begging!”
“No no no, mein cadet, you don’t haff to beg—you merely haff to choose.” One of the syringes, he explained, was filled with an exquisite dose of China White, a junkie’s wet dream. The others, he cautioned, could have beautiful or disastrous effects. “Vone is LSD und vone is MDMA. Seferal are research chemicals. Vone is antifreeze, anozer is ammonia. So, vich vone vill it be?” The fact that each syringe was metal made it impossible to judge its contents by color or consistency. Still, for a 10% chance of finding a ticket into the Warm Oblivion, I was willing to risk it all.
“Right hand… middle finger.” Hauptnadel injected his poison deep inside my femoral artery.
This is how I spent my hours, days, maybe even weeks with The Acolytes of Ascension. Most often, whatever Hauptnadel injected me with only exacerbated my agonies. Even when I was certain I hit the MDMA, it couldn’t take me away from the pain in my bones or the sorrow in my heart. There’s just nothing like the real thing, baby.
When I did finally hit the China White (“Left hand… thumb.”), yes, it was glorious. Falling back into the Warm Oblivion was like returning home to a lover after a long and bloody war. I wept with joy. But the vacation from misery only made returning to torture exponentially devastating. Afterwards, I felt like a premature baby dumped out of its incubator onto a cold, filthy floor. Once the China White was discovered, it was reshuffled and the daily rituals of symphonic, systematic inflictions continued.
I came to understand, much to Hauptnadel’s delight, that pain can’t be rated on a simple scale of one through ten: It’s a vast and infinitely more nuanced spectrum. After experiencing brutal extremes, lesser assaults felt like pleasure. Being bitten, pierced, sliced, even branded became a welcome pleasure (though ever tainted by my all-encompassing dope sickness).
As I’d writhe, Hauptnadel would invite his Acolytes in to observe and participate. “You see, mein beauties? You see how exquisite is his sufferink?” He introduced me to Sybil, an Acolyte with her eyes and mouth sewn shut; her nose was grossly distended with a single nostril. Hauptnadel dragged her around by a thick black braid extending from the top of her head. “Sybil is psychic,” the madman told me. “Vonce vee took her eyes und her tongue, she learnt to decipher riddles und premonitions by zee sense off smell exclusifely.”
Hauptnadel removed her plug, injected her with a finger, and inserted a glass globe. “She eats trough her nose, she fucks trough her nose,” the fiend boasted as he pulled Sybil up onto my table, “Vhich is vie I hat to remoof her scheptum.” Sybil, whose ears were intact, nodded and snorted in agreement. He pulled the sheet away from my emaciated body. “Now let’s see vhat she can tell me about you!” He shoved Sybil’s head between my legs where she feverishly sniffed my testicles and taint, like a pig rooting around for a truffle. After a few moments, she reached out to Hauptnadel, who handed her some calk and a piece of slate. “Oh, zis is not goot,” he bemoaned as he revealed Sybil’s scrawl:
I was one of several cadets, I was told, each housed in a private Conversion Room, being vetted for membership. If selected (and if I survived the initiation period), I’d be invited to join the Acolytes; allowed to participate in communal acts of consciousness expansion in a glorious temple (adorned in red-velvet with satin-covered mattresses on an altar). I’d be fitted with permanent rings through my shoulders, ass cheeks, and calves so I could sleep with the other Acolytes: Suspended by hooks over a pit of smoldering coals. And, most importantly, I’d be given a Baptism by Trepanning.
“Zis is just a taste of vhat avaits you,” he told me one day before carving a hole into my forehead with a dental drill. I could smell my skull burning as the tiny bore pushed forwards. It broke through with a pop that startled me, followed by the roaring gush of a waterfall. “Zere, isn’t zat nice?” he asked as blood trickled into my eyes, mixing with remnants of a millions tears.
“You can join us, mein younk cadet. Vee haff carved out a lofely corner of Hell for ourschelfes.” He leaned in and whispered into my ear (the good one): “Vee… haff… Her-r-r-r–o-in…” rolling his r’s. Every hair on my body stood on end. “Just giff me permission… to open up your Third Eye…” In other words: Submit to trepanning. “But for now, you must choose a finger!”
“Right hand… Index…”
“You’ve got to get out of here, Sonny,” Drew told me after Hauptnadel injected me with a mega-dose of LSD. In my feverish, disembodied state, our plural consciousness aligned on a cosmic level, or (more likely) in my imagination. Either way, I hung on his every word: “Everyone here’s a slave, Sonny. Hauptnadel’s the worst kind of hedonistic hypocrite. He’s a fucking poser. Do not let him drill into you head again, Sonny! Do you hear me?”
“How can I get away, Drew?”
“He likes you because you entertain him. Stop playing his games and he’ll lose interest. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you go.”
“How am I ‘playing his games’? I can barely move.”
“Every time you scream, or plead, or cry like a motherfucking baby—you’re just feeding his ego. Soon, you’ll be begging him to crack your melon and sew your lips shut.”
“Tell me what to do, Drew.”
Drew explained that Hauptnadel was actually Reginald E. Carmichael, age 35—and he wasn’t even German. He came from old steel industry money but, more importantly, his father was a key member of The Bilderberg Group, giving him access to certain areas of The Web. He’d established The Acolytes of Ascension (with his trust fund) as a way of delving into body modification and experimental drug use while building his personal harem.
“Don’t do anything, Sonny. Stop picking fingers and letting his bitches nose-fuck you. When he comes to play, you just dive down deep inside. If you dive down deep enough, I’ll be there waiting for you.” It was easier said than done, but well worth the rewards. Giving in to the ravages of pain was essential, I learned, as efforts to suppress Hauptnadel’s cruelties only intensified my anguish and his pleasure. Eventually, I was able to dive down deep enough to connect with Drew on a regular basis; on an astral plane, or at the crossroads of insanity.
“Maybe this is all a dream, Sonny.” It was a nice thought to get lost in. “Some tribes believed the Dream World is reality, and everything we perceive to be real is just an illusion,” Drew would postulate. “Maybe you’re unconscious at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Maybe you’re in a coma and your body’s trying to heal itself. Sonny, what if this is your Jacob’s Ladder?” Day after day, I resisted dope sickness and Hauptnadel’s meddling, diving past chasms of psychedelic bliss and blistering madness to connect with my center.
“Hey Sonny, did I ever tell you about The Thule Society?” Drew asked. He had, but I didn’t interrupt him: “They were a group of German occultists who formed after World War I and, eventually, they became major players in the Nazi Party. When Hitler realized he was losing World War II, they told him about an ancient city, deep inside the earth, where the original Aryan race would welcome him as a God. Hitler was so desperate to find it, he sent expeditions to Jerusalem and Antarctica and a bunch of other places, looking for a way to get in…”
Drew’s plan eventually paid off. “I’ff grown veary off zis vone,” I heard Hauptnadel pining to his Apex. “I zought he had potential, but lately, I’m sinkink… not so much. He just lies zere.”
“What shall we do with him Master? Feed him to the C.H.U.D.s?”
“Perhaps I vill sell him to Dimitris; pull his teeth out and put him to vork in zee glory holes. Or perhaps I vill sell him to zee Skin Traders, or zee Organ Butchers, or zee Sport Hunters…”
“Dante,” I whispered.
“Vhat did he say?”
“Dante,” I croaked a little bit louder.
“He said ‘Dante’, Master,” his Apex responded.
“You vant us to take you to Dante?” Hauptnadel exclaimed with inflated amusement before bursting into maniacal laughter. “He vants us to take him to Dante!” he repeated, sending his Acolyte into a fit of cackling glee. “You sink I’m such a demon?” Hauptnadel erupted, suddenly appearing legitimately insulted. The Acolyte fell silent. “You sink zere are better opportunities for you down here? No no no, you could do much vorse zan endink up unter mein tutelage, younk cadet!” He said those last two words with such venom and contempt it sounded like he was hocking up phlegm. After enduring all of Hauptnadel’s batteries, it seemed I’d finally touched one of his nerves. “Take the fucker to The Boatman,” he barked at his Apex, completely dropping his fake German accent, exposing his true New Jersey roots. “If he can pay the toll, let him go live with fucking Dante! Get him out of here!”
The Acolytes did little more than dump me off the table (the space that had been my entire world for the length of my captivity) onto the frigid floor. They practically yanked the tubes out of my stomach and my dick before wrapping me in a bloody towel and tossing me, naked, in a wheelchair. They pushed me past several rooms, each containing another cadet (presumably), before we arrived in a large antechamber with red walls, a brilliant crystal chandelier, and a massive metal door. One of them pulled a lever and the door swung open with the heavy clunk of a bank vault.
I was ushered down corridors unlike anything I’d seen in the upper labyrinth: They were huge and circular, and arced as opposed to straight and angular. There was no graffiti, but I saw numbers periodically scrawled on the walls; coordinates maybe.
“It’s too bad, really,” The Acolyte pushing me scolded. “We party hard here. We have good times. Hauptnadel’s not perfect, but Dante’s on a whole nother trip. They don’t party like we do.”
It felt like there was sand grinding against cracked bones in my pelvis, knees, and elbows; it was excruciating. This fact, combined with my obvious weight loss and muscle atrophy, had me wondering if I’d ever walk again. And even though I’d only hit the China White that once, Hauptnadel had pumped me so full of chemicals, it was impossible to tell if I was leaving his lair more or less sick than when I arrived.
We met The Boatman at the edge of what turned out to be a vast sewage desalinization tank. He demanded two of my fingernails and a tooth for passage across the Lake of Shit. “No smoking!” the hooded man with a braided beard and tattooed hands warned me. “Methane: One spark and, boom!” I hadn’t had a cigarette in God knows how long. As he yanked his payment away with plyers, I thought about those wonderful Pilgrim Packs, filled with glorious bounty, no doubt looted and consumed by the fiends of the Staging Chamber long ago.
The vessel was nothing but a rotting wooden platform balanced on eight floating tires. The Acolytes heaved me aboard without an ounce of finesse before retreating hastily from the stench and Sulphur fumes, hurrying home to their Master. The Boatman used a pole to propel us forward, lifting and plunging it into the disgusting depths. We hadn’t gone far before I realized his hands weren’t tattooed, they were stained with shit from ferrying God-knows-how-many passengers along this vile expanse.
“Haven’t taken anyone to Dante’s in a long time,” he informed me, but was otherwise silent. Our voyage was occasionally illuminated by bursting clouds of blue gas, each with the potential to set off a catastrophic chain reaction. But I wasn’t worried. And as we approached our destination, I was elated to see Drew standing on the shore, waving us over. He was covered in blood, missing his left eye, and his guts were hanging out, but he seemed happy as a kid on Christmas. “You made it Sonny!”
“We made it, Drew.”
“Who’s Drew?” asked The Boatman.
“Thanks for the ride!” I called after him as he pushed-off, back into the hot sewage and swirling darkness.
I was lying in front of an imposing iron doorway. There was an inscription: “Children of the Inferno” and below that, “We Welcome Those with No Hope Left to Abandon.”
Drew rang the doorbell; his mutilated specter was giddy.