“Deeper Than Hell” by Josh Millican
Chapter Two (Previous Chapter | Main Page)
As we scrambled into the darkness, Thaddaeus popped off the rest of his bullets; luckily there was no further contact.
“You’re dead now!” he called after us. “I’ll be back with my dogs!”
Drew was dragging me deeper into the main runoff channel and, soon, down a connecting maintenance corridor. The extreme adrenaline surge that had sucked me prematurely from the Warm Oblivion was fading fast, sending me back into the foggy throes of semi-lucidity. I was like a toddler being pulled through a crowded department store by an impatient parent. The searing pain of my shattered ear turned into a warm throb as the river of blood running down my neck slowed to a trickle. Simultaneously, the whining of a tiny mosquito grew persistently louder until it became a screaming ring against my bruised eardrum.
My mind flashed highlights and low points of the past few minutes: Thaddaeus and his boys; guns and knives; Chinese guy with a blast wound to the left temple—his chrome grill knocked clean out of his mouth. Had that really just happened? Did a fat fucker just die on top of me? How much of this blood was mine, and how much was someone else’s? Was Thaddaeus really coming back to kill us?
I might have chosen different thoughts if I’d known I would never see the Moon or the stars again. I might have imagined the Sun rising and setting against the desert sky. I might have imagined meteor showers and lightning storms, eclipses and aurora borealis; one of those super flocks of tiny black birds that swarm and swirl like plumes of smoke; snow-capped peaks and fighter jets flying in formation; an airplane’s eye view of America, a patchwork of green and tan fields broken by rivers and mountains; the Ocean, the Ocean, the Ocean. Instead it was: Dead bodies in bloody track suits; staring down the barrel of a gun; Thaddaeus laughing manically.
“Don’t pass out on me, Sonny Boy!” Drew was swiftly maneuvering us through a series of passageways, down stairwells, and across open spaces vast as parking lots dotted with campfires. We were deeper inside the immense labyrinth than I’d ever been (ever cared to go), but it was familiar; I’d heard about its schematics often at Story Time. Now, random bits from years of ramblings returned as recollections presented in tightly organized dossiers; Drew narrated with the expert aplomb of a lauded professor:
“The upper network, where we live, is all municipal: The storm drains, flood channels, maintenance corridors, sewers, gas and electrical conduits; you can get anywhere in the City. Then, beneath the Stratosphere, there’s a core that’s like a reverse skyscraper underground: Levels upon levels; some developed, others completely skeletal with rows of concrete pillars but no walls. It’s called The Web because there are tunnels like arms leading to other stations, all emanating out from the center like a spider web.”
There were obstacles as we ran: Piles of trash and abandoned shopping carts, small but angry congregations of human ghouls passing glass pipes, drunken zombies passed out in puddles of their own piss and vomit. My diaphragm started seizing; my lungs were burning; the muscles in my legs were threatening to detach from the bones. The world around me was fading, but somehow Drew’s voice in my head was equalizing the physical agony. “There’s a secret organization of casino owners, politicians, and bankers called The Oligarchy who built The Web with funds diverted from secret Government programs. It’s an active system trafficked by smugglers, money launderers, and powerful white collar criminals, among many others; elite lowlifes. The deepest levels were abandoned in the 1990s. No one knows why for certain, but rumors reference riots, death-squads, and a man-made epidemic. It’s a jungle, Sonny; there’s no rule of law at those depths, not even unwritten codes; just chaos.”
I must have passed out because I have the faintest recollection of being slung over Drew’s shoulder like a sack of dirty laundry before waking up with my head in his lap. He was cleaning and bandaging up my ear.
“Is it still there?” I asked groggily.
“Still there, Sonny Boy. Just a bit smaller now. No biggie.”
Drew and I were situated on a dirty mattress in an abandoned janitor’s closet; it was relatively spacious compared to our shack, though significantly putrefied by less courteous tenants who came before us. The walls, illuminated by lantern, were drenched in graffiti; there was a utility sink and shelves that organized various soaps, detergents, and solvents, along with the dripping remnants of a thousand dead candles. “I found this place a few months ago,” Drew explained. “It’s too far out of the way to be a home base, but I’ve been using it as a storage locker. We can rest here for a few hours Sonny, but we can’t stay long. Thaddaeus…”
Thaddaeus wasn’t kidding when he said he’d be back to sic his dogs on us. The fucker was deep into the dogfighting circuit (when he wasn’t slinging or running dope) and had access to kennels full of trained attackers. We wouldn’t be hard to find either, since I’d left a trail of blood the entire way. And speaking of Thaddaeus…
“Drew,” I ventured, “did we really just get in a shoot-out with gangsters?”
“I’ll explain everything, Sonny. But first: Let me give you a shot.” The offer, even under the circumstances, was surprising. Drew and I had shared a lot over the years (toothbrushes, shit buckets—we even had a threesome with a rebellious Christian missionary who came down to talk with us about Jesus), but drugs were a different story. When it came to Heroin, it was “to each his own”, which is probably (obviously) why our friendship was so solid. But after what I’d just been through, and considering my ear was a hot mess, I was in no position to turn down a free ticket to the Warm Oblivion. Drew skillfully cooked up a couple syringes, tied me up, spiked me, and there it was: Freedom. Then he lit two cigarettes with a single match and place one between my lips.
His explanation for our deadly clash with Thaddaeus was complex and nebulous; not to mention, I was so bombed I couldn’t have followed a set of train tracks much less an hours-long confessional. He’d pulled some kind of scam, some sort of bait-and-switch that saw Thaddaeus separated from a sizable chunk of his product. There was a supporting cast of characters that included his ex-stepsister (who may or may not be a famous socialite), a hacker up in Canada, a banker in the Caribbean, and a dirty cop up in Reno (all of whom owed him favors). There was stuff about Bitcoins and cloned websites. Bottom line: It was a swindle. Drew had stolen from Thaddaeus. Making things infinitely more severe, he’d just killed 2 of the dealer’s lieutenants. Drew was a dead man if he ever went back topside—and so was I, most likely.
“But Drew, why?”
“I’ll tell you everything, Sonny. But first: Let me give you another shot.”
It was an unabashed attempt to calm my nerves, thereby making me more susceptible and sympathetic to whatever he was about to tell me (sell me?), but I had absolutely no intention of saying “No” to the offer. A few moments later, I felt like a buoy floating on an ocean of Warm Oblivion, phasing between semi-consciousness and hyper-slumber.
“Do you know what a pilgrim is, Sonny? A pilgrim is anyone who goes on a long trek, usually on foot, to a destination of great spiritual significance. Christians considered the act of pilgrimage to be a form of self-imposed exile, where a person learns the truth about the world: Humanity and divinity. It’s a process of transformation from wretchedness to beatification.” His voice was atypically hypnotic. I imagined the two of us sitting on the crest of a massive sand dune at twilight, looking down on the full expanse of Death Valley and all the way to the Pacific Ocean. “It’s time for us to take a pilgrimage Sonny; it’s time for us to transform.”
“A place I’ve been dreaming about all my life, Sonny; a beautiful place somewhere inside the Earth itself—a sacred place. It’s like, I’ve always had this subconscious echo of it down in my reptile brain. You could probably hear it too, Sonny, if you listened hard enough. And Las Vegas, or rather, the desert it’s built on, just so happens to be one of only six portals on the entire planet that can take us to it.”
Drew pulled a rectangle of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it; it was a hand-dawn map, and he’d point at different areas as he spoke: “Below The Oligarchy’s Web there’s a system called Wonderland. It began as a joint project between the US Government and the Freemasons at the end of World War II; stewardship was given to FEMA in 1978. Wonderland connects every major US city with corridors as far north as Alaska and south down to Nazca. If (and this is a big if)—if there’s a conspiracy involving a shadow government and a race of extraterrestrials called The Grays, all the answers can definitely be found in Wonderland.”
“Are you being serious, Drew?”
“Totally, but it doesn’t matter because Wonderland’s just as stop along the way. We’re going so deep, Sonny, there isn’t even a word for it yet—except maybe Xanadu or Shangri-La. I’ve always imagined caves coated in luminescent algae that open onto expanses vaster than Montana; fields of nutritious fauna and fresh-water lakes full of fishes; maybe even meat from herds of moles the size of buffalo. If there are intelligent societies (which I’m assuming there will be), they’ll have figured out how to harness the Earth’s thermal energy. There’s enough power beneath us to light up a million Las Vegases.”
“And you know how to get there?”
“Not exactly,” he told me, but he knew where to find a guy named Dante: “He’s a Utopist, with an entire community of free-loving hippy types. They’ve been down here since the 1980s. He knows the way.”
“And you really think we’ll eventually get to, what… Xanadu?”
“I know we can. I’ve been planning this for years; studying and stockpiling. I was just waiting for the perfect time to set out, Sonny. The perfect time and the perfect partner.”
“Me? How can I possibly be the perfect partner, Drew? I’m weak.”
“You’re not weak! From the moment I met you Sonny, I knew you were special. I feel a mystical connection with you, like we’ve traveled together in previous lifetimes. We might have been Lewis and Clark, or crew members on a tramp steamer sailing down the Congo. You feel it too, don’t you Sonny? It’s like: Destiny.” I found myself crying; it was a mixture of genuine joy and nauseating terror. “I didn’t plan to start out by running for our lives, but that big score was the final piece of the puzzle. We’ll need it, Sonny.”
He was right. Without a sizable stash to sustain us on a journey, we’d probably die from detoxification sickness within a few days—especially in this hostile and unsanitary territory. For Drew, addiction was the only anchor keeping him chained to the surface, the only thing preventing him from perusing his life’s ambition (bizarre and improbable as it may be). Then I realized, the same was true for me too, basically. I hardly relished the idea of descending into a claustrophobic underworld, but I’d given up on humanity years ago; there was nothing left for me topside besides Drew and Heroin. So if they were leaving Las Vegas, then so was I.
“How long does the pilgrimage last?” I inquired.
“Eighteen days? That’s a long time!”
“Let me explain: There’s an Amazonian tribe that protects one of the other portals, one that’s hidden beneath some Aztec ruins, okay? Every few years the Shamans go on underground vision quests, and it takes them eighteen days to get someplace they call The Land of Ancestors, a city populated by benevolent giants. So I figure it will take us at least that long.”
“What about when we run out of Heroin, though?”
“We won’t need it anymore. By then, we’ll have something even better. No more pain—ever. I promise.” Now, I’ve never been a sucker; I don’t put much stock in big dreams or fast talkers. But I’ll be damned if he didn’t have me near convinced. I certainly wanted to believe him. Who wouldn’t? “What do you say, Sonny? Will you be my Pilgrim Pal?”
I still figured Xanadu, a land without pain, was another one of Drew’s fantasies, but it didn’t matter. If he was trying to find it and wanted me to come along, then so be it. Even then, though, I didn’t honestly consider I might never breathe outside air again. And even at my most committed (or co-delusional), something had changed between me and Drew. I’d never seen him kill anyone before and now, the images were burned inside my brain: He hadn’t hesitated, he never lost his cool; he made it look easy. And that made me very uneasy, like maybe he’s done it before—and was good at it. But I loved him.
“Yeah, Drew. I’m with you.”
He hugged me so tight all of my uncertainties melted away—for a little while at least. “You won’t regret this, Sonny Boy!” We celebrated with a third shot of Heroin before I slept like a baby, without a care in the world—like a fetus in a womb of Warm Oblivion, breathing embryonic ambrosia.
We woke up the next morning (I assumed) to the sound of barking dogs coming through the air ducts. “They’re getting close, Sonny. Come on: Get naked.”
We threw our clothes in a pile and huddled around a deep utility sink in the corner; there was no running water, but Drew emptied one of several murky bucket of rainwater into it. Then he grabbed a canister of Comet. “Scrub down.” Drew and I had always been semi attentive to our personal hygiene (ahead of the curve, at least); we always made certain to wash our armpits, dicks, and assholes at least once a day. But this wasn’t some whore’s bath: This was some industrial strength deep-cleaning. My ear stung like hell when detergent hit my wound. “Don’t get any of that shit in your eyes, Sonny.” After a rinse and rubdown, we tossed our clothes into the sink along with a fresh bucket; Drew emptied an entire bottle of bleach on everything. Our wardrobes were then rinsed in another bucket and wrung out before we re-dressed. “That should throw the dogs off our scent for a while, but it won’t be enough.” So Drew drenched a couple dirty towels in gasoline poured form a rusty can. “We’ll wear these around our heads.”
Drew was much more prepared for our pilgrimage than I could have possibly realized. Over the past few weeks, he’d assembled two backpacks (“Pilgrim Packs”), each containing: A few dozen needles, spoons, a 12 pack of lighters, a big box of waterproof strike-anywhere wooden matches, a carton of smokes, a handful of glow sticks, a ball of string, a roll of aluminum foil, a couple single-battery flashlights, candles, a 2-pound bag of beef jerky, toilet paper, a water purification kit, a utility knife, and an assortment of hard candies. The only significant difference was Drew’s bag had a fist-sized chunk of Heroin and an empty gun in it, too.
“We can’t use flashlights yet, Sonny. That’ll lead them right to us.” He pulled a set of high-tech black goggles from a box and put them on. “I could only afford one set of night-vision headgear, so I’ll lead the way.” He tied a length of rope around my waist. “This’ll make sure we don’t get separated. Hey, don’t look so worried, Sonny. You trust me, right?”
Based on the events of the past 12 hours, there was absolutely no reason I should’ve trusted Drew. But he was my best friend—more than that—my Pilgrim Pal from past lives. I’d follow him anywhere, even if it meant dying along the way.
“I trust you, Drew.”
We were off on the ride of my lifetime. We crept out of the closet, heads wrapped like jihadists, and off into the darkness. The gas fumes burned my eyes and nasal cavity, but the pain came with its own, not completely unpleasant, intoxication. At first, I kept my hands on Drew’s shoulders, but before long, I dropped back and clung exclusively to the umbilicus between us. The echoing cries of barking dogs seemed to be closing in before abruptly fading into the gray area behind us. The labyrinth was occasionally lit by flickering or yellow bulbs, but most often, everything was pitch black. It wasn’t long before my mind began to conjure strange blobs of colors, like when you rub your eyes for a while. Then, I was seeing a myriad of faces materializing all around me, abstract but clear, like seeing shapes in clouds. The echoes of barking dogs continued to fade until they were only barely detectable.
“We’ll get to the Web in a few hours, Sonny.” It was another twisting, sweaty, grueling whirl through tunnels, hallways, and stairwells. Eventually, we arrived at the opening of a wide, sharply curving ramp. “There used to be a fleet of golf carts to usher people down to the Staging Chamber, but we don’t have access to anything so luxurious.” Drew untied the rope around my waist, picked out a couple shopping carts littering the immediate vicinity, and tied them together.
“What, we’re riding down in shopping carts?”
“We could walk, but the ramp spirals more than fifty levels down.”
“Yeah, but that sounds pretty dangerous.”
Drew laughed. He laughed so sincerely it wasn’t long before I was laughing right along with him. “Come on Sonny, live a little! Besides, the sooner we get to the Staging Chamber, the sooner we can set-up camp and get wasted.”
As we raced in rickety metal cages into a corkscrew of darkness, it first occurred to me that I might be having the best day of my life; it was certainly better than any other day I could easily recall. Mere hours after being involved in multiple murders and personal physical disfigurement, I was blasting noisily through the gloom with wind in my hair. We traveled to the soundtrack of Drew hooting and hollering from the cart in front of me, where he maneuvered us (barely) by wedging a broomstick against the back wheels. “We’re on a Highway to Hell, Sonny Boy! Going down!” It was wide smiles and gut-slapping laughter all the way, dizzy on fumes and centrifugal force. We were nearing speeds that might have simulated weightlessness.
Eventually, we spilled out into a vast, flat expanse; our train wobbled and shook violently before spilling us out onto dusty concrete. The cages continued to slide, eventually crashing into the base of a virtual mountain of shopping cart. It was a visual record of the intrepid explorers who came before us; other pilgrims perhaps. It was a hard landing to say the least, but even a bloody nose and some cracked teeth couldn’t dampen my mood. Drew hurried to his feet, pulled me to mine, and gave me a bear-hug. He was so happy I could feel his boner pressing against me.
The Staging Chamber was an immense domed enclosure, at least the size of a sports arena. It was faintly lit by a single overcast beam that shown down from the apex point. “It’s called Refractory Technology, Sonny. They bounce that light down from the surface on a series of solar cells and mirrors. It was designed to keep construction workers and contractors from losing track of time.” Drew explained how he’d only been down to The Staging Chamber once before, about 6 months ago. After an arduous, exhausting, 6-hour return trek back up the ramp, he knew he wouldn’t be back again until the official start of his pilgrimage (our pilgrimage, this pilgrimage).
Besides the mountain of shopping carts, the far end of the chamber was littered with massive mounds of industrial debris; chunks of cracked concrete, twisted girders, even a few dead tractors. There was an immense crane, something you’d expect to see loading containers onto cargo ships, standing like a skeletonized dinosaur in the midst of it all; like a monster trapped in an opaque snow globe. “This is the top level of The Web” Drew explained. “This is where all the raw materials were loaded in and where larger components were fabricated. Behind that pile of wreckage back there are some huge freight elevators. That’s our way down. They don’t run anymore, so we’ll be climbing.”
What little refracted light remained was fading, so we made haste setting up camp a few yards down from the ramp. Drew figured we’d be safe for the night as long as we stayed close to the wall, “even if some nasty Web heads catch wind of us.” Once the fire was lit, he cooked up a couple extra tasty shots of Lady H and sent me off into the Warm Oblivion, head resting on my Pilgrim Pack like a pillow.
“Hey Sonny, what do you know about Hollow Earth theory? It’s mostly bullshit, especially that stuff about an inner sun and reverse gravity. But the truth is, scientists know almost nothing about the planet’s consistency. The farthest we’ve drilled is 8 miles down, and that’s just a hole the size of a coffee can. The guy who discovered Halley’s Comet, smart guy, he suspected there are actually 3 concentric Earths, and we’re on the top layer. Each one has oceans and a breathable atmosphere capable of sustaining life. And each one has its own rotation, and that explains why the magnetic Poles are always wobbling…” The campfire settled into a pile of embers.
I started having strange dreams that weren’t exactly nightmares, but weren’t especially pleasant, either; like: I dreamed of sailing across a Lake of fire and ripping my own flesh from my chest; staring into the eyes of the World Maggot and summoning up a necromancer; I felt an ancient rumbling miles beneath me, something with an overwhelming enormity that made me utterly microscopic in comparison. Then an earthquake of chaos erupted, with Drew screaming: “Run, Sonny, Run!”
Except I wasn’t dreaming anymore—and there was pain.
“Run, Sonny, Run!”
I scrambled into my Pilgrim Pack for a glow-stick and I cracked it. As I got to my feet, the toxic green illumination revealed the air was thick with bats; they were swirling and dive-bombing; slapping my face with their wings, clawing and biting. Worse, the ground was swarming with roaches, biggest I’d ever seen; some were the size of bars of soap. Many found their way inside my pant legs where their feet stung like needles as they charted courses towards my crotch. A herd of albino rats the size of rabbits rumbled past. Someone, or something, was hooting in the deeper darkness, laughing. Somewhere, dogs were barking.
“Run, Sonny! Run!”
Drew was being mauled by a monster: A vicious, hideous codger with a disgusting beard, sharp black teeth, and long thick fingernails like yellow daggers—its soulless eyes were covered by a semi-transparent membrane. Drew was fighting for his life, and he was obviously losing.
“Run! Run! Run!”