"Infrayno" by OneEyedJasper
02/13/2009, 5:18 AM #
This novella is dedicated to my wife, the only saint in the whole book.
02/13/2009, 5:21 AM #
Johnny Come Lately Goes to Hell
“I swear, Hon,” said I, “Some people would say your brownies are better than sex.” My wife smiled then glared at me. “I know, I know. ‘And I’d better not be one of them.’”
I swiveled around on the wide picnic bench seat, laid back, leaned my knees against the table, clasped my hands behind my head and closed my eyes. God! I felt good! The glass of Black Opal cab was the perfect balance to the decadent double chocolate brownies. My wife and I had just finished a picnic lunch in Redwoods National Park. It was unusually warm for a February day—73 degrees—but at the same time it was too early for the place to be teaming with tourists. In a word it was peaceful.
A slight breeze tickled my cheek. I cracked my eyes open and peeked into the world outside my ensconced bliss. The silent, giant trees stood like dispassionate moai. The redwoods near my peripheral field converged towards the center of my vision at a point hundreds of feet out of sight and over me. Bits of sky and sun peeked through the branches and needles. Another breeze brought with it a scent of earth and bark. They may know we’re here and they may not care. They moved. They rustled. They did nothing. What have they seen, I wondered. If they could speak. . .
I looked under and across the table at my wife. She had stretched out on the opposite seat bench in like fashion. Clearly, nothing was more important right now for the both of us than a nap. The food, the wine, the breeze. . .yes. A nap would be fine. I closed my eyes and let the peace overwhelm and consume me completely.
* * *
I awoke with a start.
I was completely well rested but for some reason I sat straight up immediately. What was I dreaming just a second ago? Something was wrong.
It was dark. Dark! I swung my feet around and took it all in. The stars were bright on this cloudless night and moonlight played through nearby trees. How the hell long was I asleep? “Hey Hon?” I called out. I looked where she was before our nap and she was gone. “Hon!?” I yelled. Silence.
I got up. Stars? My brain had fully rebooted from my slumber. I looked up and saw the big box constellation that is Pegasus. A nearby clearing looked like it could afford a better look at the moon so I started walking. Full moon? I thought. It wasn’t very bright last night. In fact. . . .
I entered the clearing and looked for the moon but found, what? A total eclipse! Shit! Cool! I must have awakened when the sky went dark! And Pegasus in February? It made sense now. My wife is probably back at the car getting the camera! Shit! I wish I had mine now. She’ll never make it. There’s nothing left for me to do except stand and enjoy it for the few remaining seconds.
A few seconds passed and I began to think. This is unusual. I’m a big astronomy buff. How could I have missed the news? A total eclipse in the Bay Area? I would have caught that! And one that’s lasting for this long? It was at least 3 minutes from when I awoke. Not unusually long except that I’m not sure it began right when I awoke. Okay, I’ve seen it. Maybe there is enough time to get the camera.
I ran in the dim light back to the picnic table. “Hon?” I bleated again. Her side of the table was just as if she had risen and walked off. I tried to get a closer look in the dim light. A fruit fly hovered over a used paper plate. I touched the table cloth looking for something I didn’t know. The fruit fly continued to hover. I mean it really hovered.
I retrieved a lighter from my pocket to get a closer look at that fruit fly. It hovered alright. I illuminated the far side so that the fly was between my eye and the flame. It was a fruit fly alright or more like one of those tiny bugs people call “fruit flies” but are actually small harmless beneficial wasps.
It hovered. And did not flap its wings.
I touched it. It moved where I moved it and hovered there. It was frozen. No spider web to suspend it. No other kind of optical illusion. I moved it to a space over the fork, over the napkin. I lifted it and placed it over the empty wine glass. It simply stuck in space frozen like a, like a . . .
“Like a fly in amber.”
I jumped at the voice. I doused the lighter and looked. “Hello?” I said.
“Do you know me?” said a man at the entrance of our picnic clearing. I looked hard in the eclipse light. How long is that thing going to shine? I stepped a little closer.
He was a small man. Grey hair, glasses, pretty professorial looking. He was wearing a brown herringbone blazer and carried a lantern in one hand and a book in the other. I approached close enough to see the title, “Ilium.” I knew the man.
“Aren’t you Dan Simmons?” I said.
“Indeed I am.”
I immediately started to slobber. “Wow! You’re like my favorite writer,” I slobbered.
“Well, thank you very much. That’s very kind,” he said. I had heard that before. In fact, he said it with the exact cadence and tone as when I attended a book signing—Ilium I believe. I slobbered then as he signed my copy and he replied with those exact words. They sounded friendly, practiced, mechanical.
I told myself to shut up and treat him like an equal. “Are you here for the eclipse?”
“In a way, yes.”
“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? I can’t believe I missed the news!”
“Oh, I don’t think you’d find this one in the news,” he said. And he’s right. With the presidential race and the Iraq War going on, something like a measly eclipse wouldn’t even be on page 13. “Shall we go?”
“Go?” I said.
“Yes. I’ll show you the way out.”
Re: Chapter I
02/13/2009, 5:22 AM #
“That’s alright. I know the way out. My car is over—“ I strained in the dim light but couldn’t see the path back to the car. The path or at least where I thought the path should have been was blocked completely by a giant redwood. The path entrance where we both stood was the only way in or out of the clearing. But that’s not the way it was when my wife and I arrived!
No matter. I was all turned around. Must have been the excitement of the eclipse. Fine. This must be the way out.
“Shall we go, my good Dante?” he said.
Dante? Oh, I get it. Jesus! Fucking writers! Virgil wrote the Aneid, a knock off of The Iliad and Simmons wrote Ilium which involves an elaborate recreation of the Trojan War played out on the Martian plain of Ilium. Here he is with a copy of his own knock off in hand playing Virgil leading me, “Dante” out of the dark pit. Okay, fine. We started off through the trees.
I couldn’t bitch too much. My favorite author was inviting me on a walk. I have a pretty high regard for Simmons. He could be great—like Thomas Pynchon great. Time would tell. Taking a stroll with him and gleaning a bit of insight would be a bit like walking with Einstein and hearing what he has to say about relativity. Chance of a lifetime.
While walking I tried to think of something intelligent to say. Illium. What about Illium? It was a story that wove three plot lines together in the distant future: One involved two sentient robots discussing the finer details of Proust and Shakespeare, another involved the quest of a small group of eloi-like illiterate humans—all humans are illiterate in the future—to rediscover knowledge and literacy and the third line dealt with a resurrected 20th century scholar named “Hockenberry” who’s sole purpose was to record exactly the events on the red plain of “Ilium.” The gods (true origin unknown to the reader for most of the book) have recreated the battle and wish it to be played out in exact precision. Hockenberry was there as a simple recorder but still wanted to know what he was doing reincarnated hundreds of years in his future.
Nothing intelligent came to mind. “So were you reading your own work or doing some research or something?” I said, feeling dumb.
“Oh this?” he said holding the book up in the lantern light. “This is a hand written piece. I just grabbed a dust cover and Ilium was handy.” He lifted the dust cover to expose a plain black book, no title, no picture. It looked like one of those blank books you buy in Barnes and Noble.
“Cool,” I said. “Are you working on your next book?”
“Oh no. This is not my work. This is somebody else’s. And by the way, feel free to use that ‘fly in amber’ line. It’s been used countless times throughout history by writers better than either of us. You can use it too but try to find something a little more original, will ya?”
Gotcha. He’s proofreading someone else’s manuscript. Editing. Offering suggestions to some other writer.
We came to a paved road after several more minutes of walking. The road led to a cave immediately to the right with a sign next to it. Down the left side, inky blackness. Simmons stood next to the sign and I approached him.
“Ah Dan? I don’t think that’s the way out.”
“Well, it doesn’t look that way but I assure you, this is the way we need to go,” he said. I looked up to find the eclipse and the stars but found more inky blackness. I looked back at the path emerging from the woods but it had vanished. The entire world seemed to be that which was lit by the lantern. Outside that sphere of light was void.
I strained to see the sign next to Simmons. It read, “Abandon all hope, all grammar, all style, all complexity, all paragraph structure, all variety, all science, all nuance, all patience—“ I skipped ahead a bit “. . .all vocabulary, all relevance, all skill, and all humility ye who enter.”
Simmons smiled in the light of the lantern and said, “There have been a few changes over the centuries”
02/13/2009, 5:25 AM #
“I’m not fucking going in there,” I said.
Simmons just stood and held the lantern.
I walked to the edge of the light on the road. The light appeared to be bright enough to extend several more feet beyond and yet it stopped about a foot and a half from me as if landing on a slanted, black curtain. I put out my hand to touch the edge of light and felt nothing. I pressed my fingers forward and they disappeared into a veil of black mercury. I clenched my fist but had no sensation at all. My hand was numb! I yanked it back and examined it. I had sensation, mobility. I clenched and unclenched my fist. It was dry, healthy, and clean. Dark ripples oozed and flowed on the black shell like a pebble dropped in a lake.
I turned and walked up to Simmons looking all around, trying to gage the extent of this new prison. “What the fuck is going on?” I demanded.
“I think you know.”
“You’re fucked if you think I’m going in there.”
He simply smiled and shrugged.
I walked to the edge of the light again and sat down watching him. Overhead I could almost see where the black shell arched away towards a zenith about forty feet over the lantern. I realized my back was very near the liquid black shell and I stood up almost sticking my head in the void. I walked again over to the cave entrance and sat down watching him this time with a rock against my back. “You’re fucked!” I said again. He looked at me and said nothing.
After an hour of thinking about how fucked I am I took a mental inventory of what I had on me: a watch (stuck at 12:00 noon—probably the time I awakened), a lighter, a lock blade, my wallet and keys, and a half bottle of water. I’m fucked.
I stood up and peered into the cave. Nothing. The shadows cast by the cave opening and surrounding rocks truncated the lantern light well before it reached any black shell. We were both in a room outside. I stepped away from the cave, faced the nearest shell wall and shouted, “Hello?” Nothing. No echo, no breeze in the needles, no birds or animals. Even the scent of earth and pine was dampened. “Where’s my wife?” I asked Simmons.
“I don’t know. She’s not a part of this.”
“This? What is this? What do you mean ‘this?’” I was pissed off and gesticulating.
I turned my back on him and walked again to the liquid, black shell wall. I touched the surface and made ripples. Why the hell was I here?
I turned and walked to within six inches of Simmons’s. I stood nearly a foot taller and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. I peered directly into his eyes and tried to make myself look as intimidating as possible—my vain attempt at confronting the supernatural. I growled a response between clenched teeth. “Lead the way, Virgil.”
He stared right back at me, brushed me aside and entered the cave. The light rushed in after him and I followed.
The interior had sound, echoes. Simmons wore loafers and I could here distant footfalls reverberating off the walls. This was a huge cavern and there didn’t seem to be any liquid shell in here. The lantern light filled a hemisphere almost twice the size as it did outside before diminishing into the darkness. We walked along for about three minutes on the hard asphalt road in silence. In the distance a light not unlike our lantern grew in a sparse fog as we approached.
“Well?” I said finally.
“Yes?” he said.
“Need some info!” I said.
“What would you like to know?”
“How about, ‘Double-u tee eff?’ for starters? Where are we going? Why am I here? You know, the basics.”
“Well, you’re here with me because you like adventure.” He cast a mischievous eye that in the lantern light looked a bit more evil than I’d like. “We are here because the man has remodeled the place and would like to show it off.”
“Why does he care? Is he trying to sell it? If he is he picked a shitty time for it.”
“Well, he’s not showing it off but rather its inhabitants. There seems to be a growing preponderance of writers.”
“Bad writing is a damnable offense?”
He stopped, turned, looked me in the eye again and grabbed my forearm, “You’re goddamn right it’s a damnable offense,” he said. I suddenly remembered who I was talking to. “I’m not sure we all deserve to be damned but that’s the way it is. Either God hates bad writing or the man loves tormenting writers. Hopefully, I’ll learn something myself on this tour.”
“So we’re supposed to learn something?” I asked.
“You’re always supposed to learn something, man!” He seemed genuinely disgusted now as if I’d just crapped all over his Hugo award. “Every fucking day you learn something. If you don’t you’re just taking up space and taking my oxygen.”
We were nearing a cliff where the asphalt ended. The yellow light and fog filled a cavern obscuring most of what we could see below. It was a kind of dim sodium color and reminded me of a bug light.
We stood at the edge of the cliff and took in the strange sight. The cliff on either side curved away from us as if we were standing on the edge of an immense bowl. Below us, about five feet down was a ledge made of packed dirt. The ledge extended forward into the fog and light.
“Notice anything different?” said Dan.
“Now, how would I—“ Stop! Shut the fuck up. I thought for a second. This guy is intent on making me out to be Dante. I got the feeling he wasn’t playing “the dramatic writer” here. There is the distinct possibility he thinks I am Dante. If he really thinks I’m Dante Alighieri then. . .then what?
Then he’s not Dan Simmons. And I don’t know who the fuck he is. I thought about fessing up and saying “Look, I ain’t no Dante. I’ve never been here before,” and ditched the idea. I never said I was Dante but I went along with the game. Getting caught in a lie while in “hell” may not be such a good idea. I stuck my hand half way in my pocket and felt the reassurance of the lock blade against my fingers. For now, I’ll keep it there.
“Why don’t you point out the differences as we go? You’re the guide.” I finally said. I began rifling through my memory of “Inferno.” Long poem. Constructed in tercets. Nine rings. Noble Pagans (or was it “Virtuous Pagans?”) in the first ring. Divided up how? Think! Lesser rings had the lustful, the gluttonous, relatively small crimes. Later rings had heretics, liars, traitors. . . I had thought about it a little in the woods but was distracted by being in the presence of “The Master” (I was embarrassed to have fallen for such a con). My tongue dried and throat tightened as I tried to remember the details of the poem. I slid my fingers around the lock blade.
Re: Chapter II
02/13/2009, 5:28 AM #
Simmons or the demon that played Simmons motioned towards a set of stairs. “Okay. Let’s go this way.” We descended the stairs into the first ring of hell.
“The Virtuous Pagans,” I said, venturing into my memory.
“Yes,” he said. “You remember it as the ring of the Virtuous Pagans but in fact it has changed. It’s now called ‘The Well Intentioned.’” We walked off the final step and began walking counter-clockwise as viewed from above. As we progressed, the fog in the distance seemed to lift slightly revealing more of the packed dirt ring. This structure reminded me of an immense stadium or an upside down wedding cake. “It’s populated with people, Fraysters primarily, who’s only good thing about them is that they were well intentioned.” We were approaching something in the distant fog. “They were mostly harmless.” It was a person. No. Two people near the outer concrete wall. One was talking the other crying. There was an animal with them. “They meant well, and sometimes they effectively made a point but due to their lack of balance, rhetorical skills, or wit they were passed over, dismissed, ridiculed, or ignored. They were weightless.”
“You mean they were idiots?”
“No. Only about half were idiots. The other half sucked up to other Fraysters or let their valid emotions cloud an otherwise cogent argument losing their credibility in the process.”
We arrived at the scene. Truly bizarre! A demon sat on a stool eating an avocado with a pocket knife facing a woman lying on her back. She was dressed in rags and her wrists were manacled to the concrete wall with battleship chains. A filthy mutt dog tore viciously at an enormous gash on her right thigh while she screamed in pain, above her head on the concrete wall—an enormous bronze plaque:
For loving animals more than humans _ellen is condemned for all eternity to be eaten by the dog Cerbermite while the demon “Stubbleberry” taunts her for tasting bad.
“’Ere now. You makin’ me dog vomit!” said Stubbleberry motioning to Ellen. He had a Cockney accent. He was bald, overweight, and blood red from head to toe. Bits of smeared avocado clung to his massive, cartoonish, stubbled chin and “wife beater” T-shirt as he sat in grimy shorts peeling another drupe. “If you ‘adn’t been such a bleeding vegetarian you might ‘ave tasted better an’ me poor bloody Cerbermite wouldn’t be bahfy all the time!”
Cerbermite was the mangiest dog I’d ever seen. His fur was missing in great diseased patches, his gapped, yellow snarl was a broken picket fence grimace and I could count his ribs. I’d feel sorry for the bastard if he wasn’t tearing into Ellen like a starved saber toothed tiger. He growled, tore another steak sized chuck out of Ellen’s leg and swallowed it while Ellen writhed in pain. The dog staggered back towards Stubbleberry and cowered as if he were about to be punished. Then Cerbermite lowered his head, curled his back in great violent pumps and purged under Stubbleberry’s stool.
“Aw! Bly me! ‘At stinks! An’ it’s all your fault, Ellen! If you ‘ad eaten a steak or maybe a pork chop when you were above, Cerbermite would’a been well fed an’ wif proper choppers but bugger all you said, ‘Oh NO, ‘at’d be eating animals! I could never do such a fing!’ An’ now look at ya. So mealy even a dog ‘asta eat ya twice just to eat ya.” He turned and noticed us standing in the fog. “Oh ‘ello gents. Didn’t see ya standin’ ‘ere. Care for an avocado?”
Simmons declined but I took the demon up on his offer. He handed me half inside its leathery skin minus the pit. It was large and healthy with a soft green glow that gave just a little with a squeeze. I went beside Ellen’s head, knelt on one knee and put the avocado to her lips.
Stubbleberry leapt up and kicked my hand. Hard! The avocado sailed into the fog and into the deeper rings of Hell, lost. “What ‘e fuck’s wrong wif you?” yelled Stubbleberry, his face inches from mine. “You tryin’ to make me dog extra sick? Ain’t you got no feelings for me doggie?” Cerbermite growled his broken snarl at me and cursed me with yellow burning eyes.
I stood up and looked at Ellen then at Stubbleberry.
“I fink it’s best if you two gents fuck off, now. Mind your Ps and Qs,” said the demon.
Simmons and I did just that. We fucked off. We left Stubbleberry and Ellen in the fog and continued along the first ring.
We walked for several minutes in silence. “Sonofabitch!” I finally said, “I kinda liked Ellen!”
“Oh you did?” asked Dan.
“Well, yeah. She was a little loopy but her heart was in the right place. I think I understood her.”
“Hmm,” said Dan. He didn’t believe it. “You like loopy writing?”
I kept quiet. Then after walking further, “Are there any more Fraysters on this level?”
“Oh yeah. But not as many as in the lower levels.”
“Are we going to see them all?”
“Well,” said Dan, “That’s up to you.”
02/13/2009, 5:52 AM #
After thinking about the options, I decided to delay. Wait and see.
In the distant fog we could hear construction noises—machinery, diesels, pneumatics. As we pressed forward, several searing lights pierced the mist. A team of road workers, demons with hard hats, shovels, tampers, and rollers were paving the packed dirt ledge into an asphalt road.
The foreman was the largest demon well over seven and a half feet tall. He had bloodshot, yellow cat’s eyes and upturned, bulldog fangs. Like all the other demon road crew he wore a hard hat and a reflective lime green vest (which given his red skin offered more contrast than the reflective orange vest I was expecting). But unlike them he was the only one with fur covered goat legs. He was the meanest looking sonofabitch on the crew.
“What’s this?” I asked Simmons.
“That paved road we were on just before we entered is the Road of Good Intentions. We’ve had so many people with good intentions arrive that The Man decided to pave more of Hell.”
We walked right up to the crew and could see this was no ordinary work sight. Safety signs were everywhere.
Wear your hardhat! Keep Hell safe!
13 days since the last giant fuck up by you retards
On the left side of the road (towards the center of Hell) a raised, narrow gangplank with handrails carried hundreds of people in single file line. At the head of the line just underneath the gangplank a hopper fed into a silver bulky grinder. Hamburger and blood extruded from the bottom into a furnace that accepted the meat and periodically shoved out road grade asphalt from its side at ground level. The demon foreman stood under the front edge of the gangplank with clipboard in hand. He said something to the person first in line.
That person then jumped in the hopper.
When I was a kid, my brother and I would play little jokes on each other. He’d secretly put a few spirals of dried pasta in his mouth and say, “Hey! Watch this!” Then twist his ear and crunch the pasta at the same time. It sounded like he broke every bone in his ear. I tried it on my nose and it worked the same only much louder since the crunching was going on inside my head. When that guy jumped into the hopper, that same sound shook my skull.
“Next!” yelled the demon foreman. “State your nic!”
The foreman checked his clipboard. “Yep! In ya go!”
Sgt_Rock snapped to attention, smartly saluted the air in front of him, and jumped in straight as a rod.
CRUNCH! “GAAAA!” yelled Rock. Meat and blood pressed out of the bottom.
“Next! State your nic!”
“JulieBoomer,” said the woman at the edge of the gangplank.
“Get in,” barked the demon.
“Vive la gated community!” she yelled and jumped in.
CRUNCH! Followed by an unintelligible garbled scream.
“Next! State your nic!”
“Justoffal,” said the next in line.
“Hold it!” The demon foreman checked his clipboard, flipped to the next page and checked. “I’ve heard of you before. Aren’t you some sort of suck up?”
“Well, I suppose so. I always thought I was just being considerate.”
“You’re a suck up!” said the demon. “I know I’ve seen your name on here but I can’t find it right now.”
“Maybe there’s been a mistake.”
“Yeah. And maybe monkeys will fly out of my ass!”
Since this was Hell I completely expected him to shit a flying monkey. Maybe later.
“Alright. Get down and stand over there next to Baltimore Aureole while I sort this out.” Justoffal climbed down a ladder to road level. The foreman motioned to a woman standing on the other side of the road and Simmons went over to chat with the two.
“Next! State your nic!”
The foreman looked up and found no one at the front of the line. In fact, the front of the line was about forty feet down the gangplank. The guy in front was holding on to both handrails while several people in back were yelling and pushing trying to get him to go forward. It seems everyone in line is in a rush to be ground up into hamburger.
“Hey! Idiot!” yelled the demon. The guy pointed to himself with a look on his face as if to say, Huh? Me? “Yeah! You! Get your ass up here!”
He released his death grip on the handrails and slowly, haltingly began his way to the front edge. The guy looked rather confused and agitated as he stumbled and stopped his way forward. He wore retro low rise Converse basketball shoes with white socks pulled up tight. Three inches above his ankles his cuffed jeans began. The other end of his jeans were cinched tightly just below his rib cage with about a foot of unlooped belt flapping as he turned from side to side. His T-shirt was tucked neatly inside his underwear.
“Um, ah, Y-Yes sir? Sorry I’m late. I got lost along the way,” said the man.
“How do you get lost in a single file line?” said the foreman.
“Oh it’s quite easy. You see—“
“Shut up! State your nic!”
“Yes your nic. You know what your nic is, don’t you?”
“Well, yes. But I’m not supposed to be here. You see—“
“Shut up and state your nic!”
The man stood there in silence.
“What the hell’s the matter with you? State your nic dammit!”
“You want me to shut up or state my nic?” replied the guy.
The demon smacked his forehead and smeared his hand down his face. “State your nic and then shut up!”
“My nic is NickD. But if you’ll just let me explain—“
“SHUT UP! Oh, here you are,” said the foreman, “Right at the top of the list in big bold letters. You see that? It says ‘NICKD.’ Now, get in.”
Re: Chapter III
02/13/2009, 5:52 AM #
Nick could see the letters from twenty feet off the ground. “Yes I can see that but you see that nic is in all caps. I don’t use—“
“Shut up and get in!” yelled the demon.
Nick sat down on the edge and dangled his feet over. He slid his butt over the edge and then hung from it by his fingers. His feet were now just above the spinning blades and churning corkscrews of the meat grinder. He just hung there for a moment. The next guy in line looked like he might want to stomp on Nick’s fingers.
“Well?” said the demon.
“Well,” he said hanging above the meat grinder, “I just wanted to say—“
“SHUT UP!” yelled the demon, “Drop!”
Nick hung there for several more seconds. His feet stopped swinging. His body was still. It looked like he was done speaking. Then, he just let go.
The meat grinder chopped and ground and mulched the poster that was NickD. From inside the metal masher a plaintive voice came. “Can I yell ‘ouch’ now?”
“Next!” barked the demon.
It was then that I noticed something very peculiar. I looked down at my feet and saw patterns in the asphalt and I got on my knees for a better look.
This was actually a pretty high quality road. Shiny patterns like bits of mica glittered and reflected under the construction lights. At first it was quite beautiful. Upon closer inspection I saw what those patterns formed.
Glittering under the construction lights were faces and hands wrenched in agony. They were the final spasms of pain as the meat grinder crushed its victims and extruded them into the asphalt furnace. Each face was unique and each one was frozen in an open mouth scream, some with hands tearing at their own face, some contorted so completely as to look more like a melting wax sculpture. I thought about what the road will look like tomorrow as the crew pressed on. In a few hours, in the midst of a sea of screaming, contorted faces would be the face of NickD with puzzled brow and a slack jaw as if saying, “Huh?”
Simmons came back. “You ready to move on?”
“Yeah. Let’s go,” I said, “So what was with BA and Justoffal?”
02/13/2009, 5:55 AM #
“It appears they may have a stay of execution.”
We started off walking down the newly paved road this time I was very conscious of the fact that I was treading on human faces—human souls. “How’s that?”
“It’s uncommon but not unheard of.”
We were at the end of the line ramping up to the grinder hopper when a commotion in line caught my eye. “Hang on a sec, Dan,” I said.
We ran over to the line. Somebody in back was doing everything possible to get to the front as quickly as possible.
“’Scuse me! ‘Scuse me! Coming through!” She pushed people, climbed over them and nearly threw a couple of them over the handrail to get to the front.
I got as close as possible to the gangplank. The people’s feet were right at eye level. “Excuse me,” I said, “What the hell are you doing?”
It was LaurieAnnM. “There’s ice cream at the front of the line and I’m getting there before they run out!” She continued her attack on civility to the consternation of those around her. “Get out of the way! Pardon me! Watch it! Coming through!”
Simmons and I looked at each other. “Should we tell her?” I said.
“You think she’d believe you?” asked Simmons.
“Na. Let’s go. Who all are these people in this line?” We resumed our walk down the paved road and headed for a stair landing on the left side. It looked like it led to the next ring.
“Hundreds of people—people you’ve never heard of or read.”
“Let me see.” He opened up the book with the Ilium dust cover. “This is the Catalog of Condemnations. Everybody who suffers here has an entry.”
It’s a catalog!
“Each entry,” he continued, “has the person’s name, the major sin, and punishment for the crime. It comes in handy since not everyone has their crime laid out in a bold, bronze plaque like Ellen.”
“Gotcha. So who’s in line?”
“Let’s see here. Ring one.” He flipped through the tome as if it were a dictionary. “Here we go. ‘Pavement Pounders.’ Phullashytt, dems rock, TheGeniusofAynRand, Dreambird, Seasoldier—”
“What if you have one poster with multiple nics?”
“Then they do double time depending on the performance of each nic. There’s not a whole lot of difference between the nics of the same person. It’s an extremely rare writer who can come across like Mark Twain in one nic and then in another appear to be Forrest Gump’s inbred cousin with his hands stuck in his pants. In fact, those writers are usually too good to be here.”
“So not all writers are here?”
“Hell no! You think Mark Twain—“
“Chango!” I said.
We arrived at the landing on the left side of the road at the same time someone ascended from the lower level. He wore combat boots, tight jeans. . .and that’s it. No shirt. I knew immediately who it was.
“Yeah. That’s me. And you are?”
“Well, my nic is Jasper,” We shook hands. “And this is Dan Simmons.”
“Oh, I know Mr. Simmons,” said Chango.
“Really?” I said.
“Well, yeah,” said Simmons, “We both live here and this is not my first tour.”
“So, Chango,” I said, “Um, forgive me for asking but what are you doing here in the first ring? I expected you to be . . .ah, somewhere else.”
“Oh you mean in with the rest of the lusty buggers? You can say it. Go ahead. Well, for a long time I was with the sodomisers but they kicked me out because I was having too much fun.” He threw his head back and laughed. “They put me in with the blasphemers but I was too much of a natural. I started giving orders and they didn’t think it was proper for a damned soul to start acting like a Fallen Angel. And so with this big Hellish make over The Man has ordered they did with me the only thing they could do. They promoted me.”
“They what?” I said.
A huge grin spread across Chango’s face. “Yeah! Check it out! They’re gonna make me a deeeemonnnn!” He was so happy he sang the last word. “Don’t you think I’ll look totally bitchin’ with red skin? I hope they give me a choice of eye color. If they do I’m gonna choose a real cool light blue to contrast with my red skin, you know. I could have kind of a ‘fire and ice’ thing going on.”
“Sounds cool. You gonna shave your head?” I noticed the coolest looking demons were bald.
“Of course I am! I can’t let hair distract from my horns and a mohawk would just be more distractive. Only old men have hair and horns.”
“Well, sounds great. Congrats! Where are you going now?”
“I’m going to Baalzebub’s office to get it finalized. Wish me luck!”
“Hey,” said Simmons, “Did you bring your bug spray?”
“To the office of The Lord of the Flies? No. I kinda figured it would be bad taste.”
“Well, you may need it. Here.” Dan tossed Chango a small can of Raid he had in his jacket. “His minions and his secretary can be a pain in the ass. Use it on them if you have to then ditch it in the potted castor plant just outside his door before your meeting then pick it up again on your way out. Good luck.”
“Good luck,” I said. Chango thanked us and started walking further up the paved road away from the road crew.
Simmons and I started down the incredibly long flight of stairs to the next level. “Here. You may need one too.” He handed me a can of bug spray as well. Okay,” he said, “Now, about BA and Justoffal: They’ve been given a sort of stay of execution. BA will probably be redamned at a lower level but Justoffal is a little more complicated. He may end up back in line. He doesn’t know why he was pulled out of line and neither do I.”
We continued down the straight, long staircase. “So,” Simmons said, “Your nic is ‘Jasper?’”
Shit! I introduced myself to Chango as “Jasper.” Well, it is my nic. But apparently he didn’t know “Dante” was now “Jasper.” Shit! I can’t lie. And here we are now between levels on a dark staircase with no witnesses (in Hell? Would that even matter?). I wanted to ask, “What did you think my nic was?” but decided I might not like the answer. I slid my hand in my pocket and felt the knife.
“Yeah,” I said finally, “Jasper’s my nic.”
“Interesting,” said Simmons.
Interesting. Why is it interesting? What the hell is he thinking?
The rest of the journey to Level 2 was in silence—an extremely awkward silence. I haven’t felt that kind of uncomfortable silence since my wife and I climbed Kilimanjaro. I was chatting with an Irish guy in our group after setting up camp. My wife and I agreed that while traveling on vacation we shouldn’t broadcast the fact that we worked in Iraq. It’s just a bad idea. But Donny seemed okay. We were having a friendly chat and I figured it would be okay just this once to reveal where we worked. And besides he asked where we work and what we do. Donny then revealed he has a girlfriend in Najaf.
We reached the bottom of the stairs. A small demon sat in a puddle of filth hugging his knees drawn up to his chest. He was red like all demons I’d seen so far but this one instead of being shaven bald had more like male pattern baldness. He had enormous Yoda-like ears and a huge, down-turned, sea bass mouth. His sad eyes greeted us as we approached. Above his head on the wall in back of him in a large bronze plaque a single word proclaimed:
“What’s this?” I asked Simmons.
“This,” he said, “Is Tartuffe.”
Re: Chapter IV
02/13/2009, 5:57 AM #
“But he’s a demon. I always thought he was human.”
“Ah yes. Well, perhaps a little explanation is in order. This ring has been renamed ‘The Incontinents’ because its inhabitants are only slightly more focused than those of the first ring. They cannot control themselves and so are slaves to their emotions. They either spout nothing but vitriol or they speak about one topic. Usually that topic is politics.”
“I don’t get something. How is it they lack control if they in fact over control by posting only about politics?”
“They lack control because politics control them. But remember it’s not all about politics here. It’s about lack of control. Take our friend Tartuffe here.”
“Yeah. Why is he a demon?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” said Simmons with a devilish smile.
I went up to Tartuffe and squatted down being careful not to drop to a knee and touch the filth he sat in. Good God! What the hell was that crap?
“Tartuffe?” The demon lifted his head from his arms and gave a sad nod. “How did you become a demon?” He shot a glance to Simmons, then to me, then put his head in his arms again. “Hello? Tartuffe?” I tapped the cleanest part of his body—the top of his head. “Hello mah boy.” I never liked tartuffe’s posts. Always bitching about something. Always with the impression that he thought the road to good posterdom was through angry, snotty, arrogant writing. “Hello? Tartuffe?” I flicked one of his big dopey ears and he shot me an angry glare. “Yes, I’m talking to you. What the hell happened to you? Whatsamatta? Cat got yer tongue?”
Tartuffe was pissed. His glare turned into a snarl but still he remained silent. He glared at Simmons who by now was grinning but stifling a gufaw. Tartuffe didn’t like being made fun of and I was beginning to enjoy this game.
“Come on demon.” I flicked the other oversized ear. “You were never at a loss for words when you were posting.” I flicked his ears again. “Now you’ve got nothing to say? I can’t believe that!” I poked him in the chest and his back was against the wall.
His eyes were red now with murder on his brain. He started breathing heavily. His snarl revealed sharpened saw like teeth. I thought he was about to scream. And in a way he did. He drew in a deep breath, opened his mouth and. . .and shit launched forth from it.
“WHOA!” I yelled leaping backwards. Chunks splattered near my feet. Tartuffe came at me again. He was puking shit! Diarrhea shot form his mouth and I leaped to my left. Simmons was crouched over laughing his ass off. I ran to the edge of the ring towards the center of Hell. Tartuffe was after me but did not look well. He drew in another deep breath but closed his eyes early before another purge. This gave me a split second to jump right and miss the onslaught. Tartuffe purged and his filth shot over the edge of the ring and splattered below. Shouts and consternation erupted from the next lower ring.
Tartuffe was now on his hands and knees spent. He looked like he had a bad case of food poisoning and was trying to share his misfortune with me. Simmons sat on the bottom stair laughing so hard he couldn’t stand up.
“What the hell was that?” I yelled to Simmons. Tartuffe had no more fight in him. He silently crawled back to his place under his plaque through his own filth and sat once again with his arms around his knees drawn up to his chest again. He panted as he recovered.
“Well,” said Simmons between laughs, “all you had to do was ask me.”
“Okay. Now, I’m asking. What does your little catalog say about Tartuffe?” I was not exactly spotless from the encounter and I wasn’t in a laughing mood.
“Tartuffe,” began Simmons, “is a transform. He was transformed into a demon and cursed. It says it right here,” Simmons pointed to an opened page in the catalog. “Since Tartuffe in life wrote nothing but shit, in the afterlife he will speak nothing but shit.” Simmons was clearly enjoying the irony.
“So he’s Second Ring’s greeter,” I said. “He’s got no explanation in his bronze plaque which prompts you to ask him questions. He doesn’t want to respond because he’s perpetually sick but if you push him you get pure Tartuffe as he was in life.”
“Yeah. If you don’t like the answer—“
“Don’t ask the question,” I finished, “Yeah. Good one. Ha ha. You got a towel?”
“Here.” He handed me a towel from inside his jacket. Something was telling me this was no ordinary jacket. I wiped my face and my shoes. With the amount of verbal diarrhea Tartuffe launched I realized I could have fared much worse.
“Let’s go. What else have we got here?”
“Alright let’s go this way.” Simmons motioned in the counter clockwise direction. “See ya later Tartuffe.” Tartuffe gave us both the finger and we walked on.
About fifty yards in front of us we saw light beams coming from a glass door on the outside wall of the ring. “I think you may find this interesting,” said Simmons.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Oh this is pretty self explanatory. Have a look.”
We got to the door and I looked inside. A huge conference room filled with rows of people—posters—filled an auditorium. There were about three hundred of them. We stepped inside.
The door was in the front corner of the auditorium. To our left was an elevated platform and a podium with spotlights and teleprompters. It looked like someone was about to give a speech. But that was the most mundane aspect of the room. The audience was another matter.
Each member of the audience sat in a large, heavy, wooden chair. Wrists and ankles were strapped down and their heads were made immobile with clamps and a heavy leather strap. All eyes were forced to view the empty podium. And behind each poster was a personal demon. And each demon clenched in his right hand a rusty ice pick. Cries and sobs emanated from the crowd like incense from a censer.
I walked up to the first row looking for someone I may know. Everyone wore “Hello my name is. . .” tags. I walked down the first row scanning tags. I came across one that read, “Hello my name is DallasNE.” The leather strap forced his gaze to the podium.
“Dallas,” I said, “What’s going on?”
“Go away,” he sobbed, “Just leave now.” Dallas’s demon stood behind him and gave an agreeing nod.
“You might listen to the damned man,” he said and raised the rusty ice pick to make his point.
And then I heard something quite unexpected. Ruffles and Flourish played over the PA system. I stood up and made my way over to the near side of the room. By the time I got to the side Ruffles and Flourishes had played three more times. The sobbing and crying spiked and then quieted. The PA system blared out Hail to the Chief. At the far end of the raised platform a door guarded by two demons with M-16s opened. In walked a man in an impeccable dark suit. He had grey hair, moderate stature, and close set eyes. As the tune played on the PA system, he walked across the platform. Hail to the Chief finished as he arrived and took charge of the podium.
“Thank yuh, ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a Texas drawl. The crowd surged in sobbing. The man was President George W. Bush.
02/13/2009, 5:59 AM #
I had a very bad feeling about this as if everyone knew what was about to happen except me. I made my way down the side to the back of the room to get a better view. In a seat next to the aisle, I saw a condemned soul with a “Hello, my name is Woolley” sticker on his chest.
“Woolley,” I said, “What’s going on?”
“He’s gonna fuck it up. He always fucks up. He’ll fuck up like he did yesterday and he’ll fuck it up tomorrow too,” he sobbed. The restraining clamps and leather strap of the heavy chair forced him to stare at the podium.
“What?” I yelled at Woolley and placed my face between the podium and him, “What is he going to do?”
“No. No. No,” he cried. “Please don’t.” He was so restrained he couldn’t see the other demons smiling in anticipation, laughing, licking their rusty ice picks.
I looked to Woolley’s personal demon. “Fill me in. What’s going on here?”
“Fuck off!” he said, “Why should I tell you shit?”
“Because,” I said, “You can tell me in excruciating detail what has happened and what will happen.” It was weak but the best I could come up with at the time.
“It’s really quite fascinating, you see,” said the demon. “Oh I almost forgot my manners. My name is ‘Ripskin’ by the way.” He extended a red hand and I shook it. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet you too,” I said. A polite demon?
“You see, all demons in this room are apprentice demons,” he continued, “Some are quite good. Usually, they’ll complete three months as a personal tormentor in the Blood Room here or in the Mucus Room and then it’s off to study under the tutelage of a Master Tormentor. They then get their Journeyman’s certificate and onto freelance tormenting or they get picked up by the syndicate.”
“The syndicate is Hell?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, silly!” The demon gently slapped my shoulder. “And sorry about the ‘fuck off’ thing earlier. We’re required to be unpleasant to anyone who starts a conversation but the rules are pretty vague after one has started.” He smiled a ragged, toothy grin and I realized Ripskin was a Chatty Kathy! “I’m a bit of a rebel around here. Anyway—oh! This is a good part! Let me explain.”
“We’ll start with a post from one of my favorites, Jack Dallas,” said the President. A crescendo of screams rose and fell in the audience and the demons laughed.
“Is Jack Dallas here in this room?” I asked Simmons.
“Oh no,” said Simmons, “He’s down a few levels. We’ll see him later.”
The demon explained while Bush talked. Ripskin said, “Most people here spent the vast majority of their time on the Fray writing about politics. It consumed them. It was far more important than loved ones, humor, poetry, a light heart. . .so for eternity they will be married to politics and their pain will be the pain they inflicted on others’ ears and eyes when reading their posts.”
“Now, this’uns a doosy,” said the President. He clears his throat and starts to read Jack’s post.
“President George W. Bush—heh heh that’s me—is engaged in a high level meeting with the political opposition. In addition to the president, those at the meeting are: VP Dick Cheney; Hillary Rodham Clinton; Nancy Pelosi; John Murtha; John Edwards; and Joe Biden.
“There is a knock on the door of the Oval Office and Bush—I mean—‘I’ rush over to open it.”
The entire room screams as one as the President corrects himself.
“Ohhhh. That’s important,” says Ripskin. The demons began working their subjects. Most simply glided the tip of the ice pick up and down the subject’s right cheek. Some circle the ear and make light scratches on the neck and face. Woolley for now had nothing done to him because his distracted demon, Ripskin, was talking to me. “Bush, of course, is known for his mispronunciations, malapropisms, and gaffs verbal and otherwise.”
“His Bushisms,” I said.
“Yeah. He’s good. His screw ups give apprentice demons a kind of rhythm to work with. He screws up, they increase the torment.”
“So this is where you learn to be a demon?” I asked.
“Exactly,” said Ripskin.
“I rush over to open the door,” continued Bush, “and I encounter Barack Obama arriving late for the meeting.
“’Oh, hey fellah,’ I says, ‘hang on a minute…..anybody need a drink, or some pretzels, anything?’ And he says, ‘There must be some mistake, Mister President, I’m O. . . Obbracka Bama.”
Another crowd scream. Demons focus their attention on their subjects’ right ear. The demon in front of Woolley circles his subject’s ear with the rusty ice pick, sticks the tip into his ear lobe, corkscrews it around in a cone and whispers, “You ready for this? You know what’s coming don’t you? This will be good. Sooo good!” He circles his ear with the ice pick again and jabs lightly at his outer ear.
“See? That was a tough one,” said Ripskin, “Jack intentionally screwed up Obama’s name and stuck it in Bush’s mouth with his writing. Then Bush fucks up the mispronunciation when he reads it. There’s no way we weren’t going to bump up the torment on that one.”
Woolley just sat there crying and screaming with the crowd expecting . . .something but not knowing what.
“I’m running for president,” continued Bush, “’I was invited to this meeting.’ said Obracka. Heh. Obracka. That’s a good one.”
Crowd scream. This time it’s as loud as the whine of a jet engine and I press the heels of my hands against my own ears. The demon in front of Woolley slides the rusty ice pick into the ear canal of his subject. Woolley, untouched, screams as the other screams subside.
“Wow! That was incredible!” said Ripskin. “Take a look around. You’ll see all the demons in exactly the same position.” Indeed he was correct. All demons were standing in back of their subjects and had their right hand on their ice pick and were sticking it in the ear canal of their subjects. “Nobody is feeling any pain right now. The ice pick is in the ear canal but just touching the tympanum. That scream was all about fear. Not pain!”
“How do know nobody’s feeling any pain?” I ask.
“Oh you’ll know when they feel pain,” says Ripskin, “You’ll know.”
Woolley couldn’t take it anymore. He was the only one in the room without an ice pick in his ear but the sounds, the anticipation, the horror made him snap. “Shut up!” he screamed from his chair, “Don’t fucking say it! Don’t say ‘strategery!’ Don’t say it! Somebody shut him up!”
Once again the room erupted in sound but not screams this time. Nearly every subject, every soul, over three hundred of them were yelling for Woolley to be silent. “Don’t be stu—Shut the f—Woolley—fuck up—Shut—Woolley—Shut up! Don’t give him any idea—Woolley! Shut--!”
Bush called for silence but nobody really listened. “Don’t say what?” he said.
The cries from the subjects spiked to a roar but Woolley’s pleas could be heard over them all. “Shut Bush up!” yelled Woolley, “Don’t say ‘strategery!’ Don’t say it!”
Bush yelled into the mic, “I can’t hear you Woolley. Don’t say what?”
The subjects roared all the louder. Ripskin turned to me and said, “Excuse me. I’ll be right back.” He walked down the side aisle to the front of the audience while the strapped in subjects were now screaming for Woolley’s head or his tongue or his vocal cords or anything in the ethereal plane that would shut him up and keep him from voicing his request for the President to hear. Ripskin reached the front and stood between the raised platform and the front row and yelled clearly, with no mic, in a demonic baritone that cut through the din of the subjects, “DEMONS, SILENCE YOUR SUBJECTS!”
Three hundred demonic hands clamped down over three hundred mouths and the screams were muffled but not silent.
“A subject has something he’d like to request something the president,” said Ripskin, “I think we should give him a chance. Go ahead Woolley.”
“Don’t fucking say it!” screamed Woolley, “Don’t say ‘strategery!’ Don’t say it!”
“Don’t say what?” said Bush.
“STRATEGERY!” yelled Woolley beginning to get hoarse now, “Don’t fucking say ‘strategery!”
Re: Chapter V
02/13/2009, 6:00 AM #
Now the muffled cries of the subjects were silent. The only sound in the entire auditorium was Woolley hyperventilating. Bush’s brow furrowed.
“Strategery?” asked Bush.
Three hundred demonic hands unclamped three hundred mouths and a shock wave of screams punished my skull as rusty ice picks punctured three hundred ear drums. Bloody geysers shot sideways and soaked faces and shoulders.
“What the hell is ‘strategery?” Bush shouted over the noise. The ice picks plunged deeper and the screams shook the walls and floor. “Why would I say ‘strategery’? I don’t think ‘strategery’ is even a word is it?”
As Ripskin walked back to Woolley every demon was working his subject sticking and jabbing and stirring the ice picks in the ear canal, past the tympanum, trashing the middle ear bones and mangling the cochlea. The screaming was not of this world.
It was the sound of Hell. And I couldn’t take it anymore.
Ripskin was about to get busy again. “If you gents will excuse me, I have some catching up to do.” Then to Woolley, “Now don’t worry Woolley. This won’t hurt a bit.”
I motioned to Simmons and we beat it for the door as Woolley’s scream suddenly added to the bedlam.
We opened the door at the front corner of the room and left. As the door closed I looked back and saw in the first row a subject/demon pair. The demon corkscrewed his ice pick into his ear up to the hilt and cranked the handle around and around coning out sections of ear and brain. With each cone crank of the handle, the subject screamed and a new gush of auditory blood reddened the side of his face and his right eye, in front of the embedded, rusty tip bulged from under closed lids.
The door closed and the screams ceased. Once again we were standing outside in the fog.
“Christ!” I said, “What the fuck was that?” My ears howled with pain from the sound and the imagination of what the subjects were feeling.
“Christ has very little to do with that room,” said Simmons.
“Who was in there?”
“DallasNE, Woolley, BobW, Watt4Bob, Tarquin Machismo, Dr H, Dubina, SnollyG, Smarmalade—“
“But not Jack Dallas?”
“No. He has ah. . . a special case. Don’t worry. You won’t miss him.”
“Whoa! What about Sarvis?”
“Funny you should mention him. He’s right next door.”
I peered into the fog. Just inside the limit of visibility I could see light coming from another door.
“Shall we?” said Simmons.
Chapter VI (new chapters start here)
02/13/2009, 6:02 AM #
The light dribbled from the single window and reminded me of a midnight London scene. The fog flowed slow and thick as it dimmed the light beckoning us to draw near lest we lose sight of it. I felt the irresistible pang of cliché and metaphor, “like a moth to a flame” as we approached.
We peered in to find a much smaller room than the one with the president but nevertheless as equally furnished—subjects in heavy chairs with head straps forcing their gaze to the front. Each subject had a tiny demon on his or her shoulder. They each looked like one half of a person’s conscience in countless movies. At the front, a man in a baggy, light blue suit and gauche tie stood behind a hollowed out log on a table. This. . .man. . . was quite strange. Had we been in a city block I would have passed him by as a transient and not paid much attention to him—I perhaps wouldn’t even look him in the face. But here, behind the door, it was different.
His face was indeed different. His hair was long and unkempt both facial and cranial. He had swollen gums with missing and crooked teeth and his brow was incredibly thick at the bottom of a sloped forehead. In fact, I was looking at a caveman in a thirty year old polyester suit. And he was addressing the small crowd. Simmons and I stepped through the door.
“Now I don’t expect you people to fully appreciate this piece,” said the caveman. He was surprisingly articulate, “It deals with something I doubt you fully comprehended in your corporeal lives—freedom. It’s a piece from one of your own, Sarvis, but don’t think that he’s any exception. You’re all here for a reason. Even Sarvis.” He motioned to a guy in the second row sure enough it was Sarvis looking more terrified than honored.
“So without any further ado. . . demons please take your positions.” Each tiny demon lifted from behind its subject’s chair a mallet at least the same size as the demon wielding it. Each one lifted it above its head and positioned themselves on the chair back such that they looked like they were about to pummel their respective subjects.
The caveman stood close to the hollowed out log, positioned a piece of paper on a table podium picked up two mallets of his own and said, “This is a piece from Sarvis in 2007 dealing with your twisted idea of freedom.” He raised his mallets over the log in a way that reminded me of the galleon scene in Ben Hur. And then the caveman read.
“Rohhhh[bam] saaaaa[bam] Pahhhhrks[bam]”
With galleon-like rhythm and in monotone song the cave man pounded out Sarvis’s post
I remembered it. Sarvis equated Rosa Parks with Andrew Meyer, the jackass attention whore of “don’t tase me bro” fame—a comparison I found laughable and insulting to greater people of which I was confident I would not find here.
“Rosa Parks was most certainly the Andrew Meyer of her day. . .”
With each thump of the caveman’s mallets each little demon walloped their subjects over the head with their own much bigger mallet. The torture continued. . .for them and for me for I had to listen to the post being read as long as I was in the room. I took a quick scan of the room.
Dan motioned to me. It was time to leave. We exited and continued to the right down the spiraling path.
The fog lifted somewhat and revealed more mountainous terrain by the soft, sickly glow from the left farther down in the pit. The path began to wind as if we were in a mountain pass. We stood at the edge of what looked like a canyon.
Under the bug light of lower Hell I could see about a mile of the trail in front of us. It wound down one side of the canyon, crossed the far end, and continued on the other side where it rounded a curve and went out of sight.
Simmons and I took in the sight for just a second. Above ground, on a clear day this might have been an incredible sight. In fact, it reminded me a bit of Colorado where I grew up. But down here under the surface a poisonous claustrophobia hung in the air along with the mist. We were on the edge of a vast gaseous open sewer.
Starting down the canyon trail we came upon another alcove hewn in the rough rock. At the back of the alcove a single naked bulb shown on gold tinted elevator doors.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“This is the way to the next level in Hell: The Improvers,” said Simmons.
“The Improvers?” I said, “You go to Hell for improving Slate?”
“It’s a bit of a lie,” he said, “They write better than most. They could improve Slate but they don’t. Here.” He handed me the catalog. “Hold this. It’s getting heavy.”
Only one button on the panel, down. Of course it’s down. What else would it be? I pressed the button and waited.
“. . .so tell me Jasper,” said Simmons. I swallowed hard at the sound of my nic—my deception uncovered. “What do you think of Hell?”
What do I think of Hell? How do you answer a question like that? The elevator bell chimed and the doors opened. I walked in looking down at the floor in front of my feet contemplating what to say. Deep in thought. Walked to the back of the cab. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” I turned around. Simmons was still outside the cab. He had taken a step back. He was grinning. His eyes were on fire. My heart stopped.
I lunged for the open door but was too late. The door had closed very quickly and the cab and I dropped in near free fall.
“No!” I screamed. “You asshole!” It was all too clear now. Too clear, and too late. Simmons was not Simmons at all but a demon. And that fucking demon didn’t even have the balls to shove me into a trap. He just let me waltz right into it. I’m sure he was enjoying himself thoroughly laughing his ass off right now. Fuck him.
My fear, adrenaline, and the sensation of falling make my stomach rise. I was alone. I was hyperventilating. I fought to stay standing. Pressed my spine into the back corner and gripped the hand rails as the cab fell. The din of the cab rushing down the shaft grew to a roar. The light in the cab flickered. My legs shook and then buckled. The cab, loud as a freight train, accelerated further into free fall. I could do nothing but sit and grip the rails now above my head. I pressed myself to the floor giving me the illusion of gravity.
I braced for impact and waited for the inevitable.
02/13/2009, 6:04 AM #
Gravity returned. The cab slowed down. The greater air pressure at this level reminded me to yawn and pop my ears. I might die but it looked like it wouldn’t be from an elevator crash. The cab slowed and stopped. A bell dinged and the door opened.
I sat on the floor and looked out. An aquarium? The bell dinged again and the doors began to close. I jammed my hand in the way and jumped out of the cab.
I was inside now—deep inside what looked like a shockingly clean water treatment facility. In front of me was a plexiglass tank ten feet high and tens of yards wide and long filled with clean water. People swam in it. No. They were struggling. Drowning. I approached for a closer look.
Everyone in the tank had their feet bound and tied to a number of huge three ring binders—some leathery, some wooden, some stony. Some people had only one binder. Others had as many as ten. Every binder was stuffed with sheets of paper. For the most part they seemed waterproof and reinforced although there were many pages torn loose and floating among the commotion. The ones with five or more binders struggled especially hard to get to the surface gasping for air. The people were in absolute chaos.
Everyone used everyone else. People were stepping stools. One would near the surface only to be yanked down by another who then used his opponent to launch himself upwards to the precious air. Fights erupted constantly, all under water. One person after pulling his competitor down stood on his shoulders to break the surface and breathe. It was a mad pandemonium of elbows, yanked hair, tied feet, and tangled binder straps as Fraysters punched, gouged, and kicked their way to the surface to breathe.
I noticed the water level didn’t exactly stay constant. Sometimes it nearly overflowed while other times it was as low as about seven feet. I spied a bronze plaque at the base in the middle of one side of the aquarium. It read:
Witness now with your own eye
And see if you can deftly scry
The curious fate of these here sods
Writers yes as you can see
Swimming among vainglorious debris
Of politics, and lust, and petty bourgeoisie
And bibbles and bobbles and bullshit and God
Their notes and posts lashed to their feet
In binders that sink and weigh like concrete
They fight and compete for breath incomplete
And drown like a boat full of cod
Not all suffer so as they thrash to and fro
The tiniest of respites would be apropos
But for just the most vicious and cutthroat Cousteaus
Who enjoy a little backstab now and then
For the one who breaches and takes in sweet air
Will trigger a mechanism most unfair
And raise the water, deepen despair
And screw all the others again and again
‘Tis best to be still. Let the water recede.
But tell that to the drowned and you will concede
Their logic and reason have escaped them indeed
When all but breathing is beyond their ken
So watch the proud, the kind, the well read
Punch and strangle and kick in the head
Their brethren drowned but never dead
Forever and ever and ever. Amen.
And then it struck me. Nobody ever dies in the tank! They just keep drowning. The crushing pain of starving lungs never ceases. The cramped muscles. The relentless battle for air. There is no rest. Ever. Every minute of every day is spent drowning and fighting for air with a personalized boat anchor tied to your feet.
I opened the catalog to search for names. Lots of names here. Topazz. Isonomist. Thrasymachus. Demcon. Moloch. Sawbones. Archaeopteryx. Schmutzie. Savory Goodness. Meridiantoo. Firstphone. Thomas Paine. Camille Claudel. Predicto. MFP. Ender. Dumb_blonde. Ducadmo. Bright Virago. Zeus-Boy. Dr. No, Gypsy. One guy with ten fat binders on his feet had worked out a very rhythmic system. He’d sink all the way to the bottom, rest a second then lunge to the top just barely breaking the surface to breathe, sink to the bottom and do it over again.
“Locdog,” I said.
Another held onto his small binder and floated on his back as far away as possible from the thrashing mob. Only his nose and lips ever broke the surface. He wouldn’t have been able to stabilize himself with two or more binders.
And one more curiosity. At the far corner of the tank, at the bottom sat a bald wiry man with eight binders tied to his feet. His eyes were closed and once every minute or so a tiny bubble escaped from his nose. His skin was pale and nearly blue but he seemed almost content. As if he were meditating.
“Appollonius?” I tapped on the glass. “Appollonius? Is that you?”
The man opened his eyes barely—just slits to see me. I unintentionally startled him and he coughed, shot me a furious glare, flipped me the bird and shot to the surface.
“Assho—!” he yelled at the top, gulping in water. The level rose. “Sonofa—! Fucking sh—! Thanks a lo—!” He sank back down with air in his lungs and color in his cheeks. Shot me another glare, gave me another bird, and resumed his meditation.
“Sorry, man,” I said.
Across the tank at Appollonius’s end was an exit door—a heavy door with a push bar latch. Aside from the elevator it was the only exit. Since the elevator had no up or down buttons and since I’ll be damned if I would ever get on that thing again I pushed the bar and left the Fraysters to their drowning.
02/13/2009, 6:07 AM #
I was outside again on a path much like the one before the elevator. I tried to look up to see the trail above but this particular one began at the door. This must be a second path I didn’t see while above.
But something was very different about this trail. The stench! Rotten egg sulfur choked the air and a thick haze once again filled the bug lit atmosphere. I continued on through the smog, jagged rock to my right, steep cliff falling off to a seemingly bottomless pit to my left.
After a few minutes of walking the path widened considerably to the point where it looked like one could drive a car on it if it weren’t for the previous narrowness. It was here that I noticed I was approaching a most unusual rock formation to the right. Underneath a streetlight which helped my vision but not much, were two horizontally arranged smooth hemispherical lobes jutting out from the otherwise jagged rocks. Sitting next to them sat a man in a straight jacket shackled to the rocky incline. He was bald with intelligent but not bookish glasses and had headphones on his head and duct tape on his mouth. A cord ran from the headphones to a jack in the rocky incline.
The two hemispherical lobes were very strange indeed. They were gigantic, about two stories high and smooth except for what looked like sparse lichen or hair. I walked to a point between them and observed what could only be described as a star shaped emblem of sorts right in the valley at eye level where the two hemispheres met. I looked at the man in the straight jacket. He was looking back at me with wide eyes shaking his head vigorously as if saying, “No! No!”
I walked over to him, squatted in front of him and took off his headphones. He was listening to music!
Well I’m a standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona. Such a fine sight to see.
It’s a girl my Lord, in a flat bed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me
He made moaning sounds from behind the duct tape. I tore it off. “Thank you! Please for the love of God get those headphones away from me!” I set them down next to him and unplugged the jack. He was hyperventilating. “Please. . .please . . .just let me listen to the silence. Please just. . .” He caught his breath and for a long, long moment nobody said anything.
From the star shaped emblem came the sound of a tuba and a voice, “PFFTTTH. Hey! Who turned off the music?”
“I did,” I said.
“Well, turn it back on, dammit! That’s my favorite band!”
“Wait a minute,” I said. And pointing to the bald man in the straight jacket, “You must be Thelyamhound.”
“That’s right,” he said.
“You’re hell is to be forced to listen to Eagles tunes for the rest of eternity?”
“Yeah. It’s a bitch isn’t it?”
“Oh knock it off,” spake the star between the hemispheres, “PFFTTTH! I swear! You artsy fartsy people don’t know good music when you hear it.”
“And you. . .you’re JackDallas.”
“That’s right rocket scientist. How’d you figure it out?”
“Well, the Eagles tipped me off but what confirmed it was. . .was. . .”
“Well? Out with it!”
“Well, Jack. . .you’re an asshole.”
“That’s right, asshole. I’m ‘Hell’s Asshole!’” he said proudly. “Looks like the powers that be finally wised up—PFFTTTH—and gave me some proper recognition.”
“Alright. Well, that explains the rotten eggs smell.”
“Christ, Jack! What the hell have you been eating?”
“Well, I don’t eat anything but I process everything. The bitch about it is, Hell is absolutely choked with liberals. No shit. And do you know how much tofu liberals eat? PFFTTTH!”
“Gwad! Cabbage too!”
“Yeah, cabbage, beans, prunes, bran muffins. All kinds of roughage. And it all goes through me. It wouldn’t be Hell without vegetarians!”
“Heh. Yeah. You got that right!” I avoided the urge to “back slap” one of the hemispheres remembering at the last minute what it was. “So uh, you guys know what’s next?”
“Actually, you’re pretty close to the bottom,” said Jack. “You just came from the clear tank?”
“You’ve got one more real level to go. Some of the worse offenders are around here somewhere but my ass doesn’t have eyes so I can’t tell you exactly where. I do know that if I weren’t an asshole I’d rather be drowning in clear water rather than dealing with what those assholes in that level deal with.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s just say you’ll find a lot of similarities between that last level and the next. There is one big difference though and it has everything to do with me!” He said the last word in an absolutely nefarious tone.
“I . . .see” I said, not knowing what to think.
Re: Chapter VIII
02/13/2009, 6:08 AM #
I went over to Thelyamhound and thought. He was just sitting with his eyes closed perfectly content to be listening to the lack of Eagles music.
Maybe there was something in the catalog, I thought. I flipped through the pages until I got to the center plates. Holy shit! The catalog had an entire map of Hell in full color!
I traced my entire path so far. From the Road of Good Intentions past the auditorium. . .here. “Jack’s Hole? Is that where we are?”
“PHFFT!” said Jack.
“Looks like I have one more stop and I’m at the bottom of Hell. Should be a frozen lake. What was the name? Cocytus. They have a lake here but the name is crossed out.”
“Probably more renovations,” said Hound.
“Alright. Well, it looks like the next level is this way down the road so I guess I’ll get moving.”
“Whoa! Hold on a sec. You have to get by him first.”
“Him? You mean Jack?”
“Yeah. You walk past him and you’ll get blasted over the side. You’re still pretty high up you know. That’s why I was shaking my head ‘no’ at you earlier. You were standing right in the line of fire. Had he been paying attention. . .”
“Hmm. . .okay,” I said. “Hey Jack. Any chance you could let me pass without you blasting me over the edge?”
“PHFT! Sure. But it’ll cost you.”
“Great. And what’s the price?”
“One snowball,” Jack said and laughed a thunderous laugh punctuated here and there with farts.
“A snowball. . .in Hell. Yes. That’s a good one, Jack.”
“Tell you what. You plug my music back in and I’ll think about it. Hound and I share a common sound system so to speak.”
“Okay.” I walked over to the headphone jack in the rock. “Sorry man,” I said to Thelyamhound, plugged in the headphone jack and listened a bit to what was playing now.
. . .relax, said the night man,
We are programmed to receive.
You can checkout any time you like,
But you can never leave!
“Ahhh. . .PHFT. Much better,” said Jack, “Does Hound have his headphones on again?”
I looked at Thelyamhound who was now looking back at me with wide fearful eyes. He slowly shook his head side to side.
“Yeah,” I said slowly, “He’s got Hotel California playing again.” I put the ears together and place the headphones as far away from Hound as the cord would allow.
He mouthed, “Thank you,” closed his eyes and listened to the relative silence.
I went over to him again and whispered, “Sorry I can’t do anything about his farts.”
He said, “Don’t worry ‘bout it. Compared to The Eagles, his farts are music to my ears.”
I grinned not wanting to laugh and made sure I had everything with me: catalog, bug spray, knife, flashlight. “Okay. Here goes,” I said and sauntered out into the line of fire.
POW!! PHFFFT!! Like a clap of thunder, Jack blasted me head over heels towards the edge of the path. The hurricane force fart sent me somersaulting over the edge as I hung onto a large rock jutting out. The catalog was inches in front of me still on the path. “Ha ha ha haaa! Woo hoo! That was a good one!” said Jack, “Hey, I thought about it and the answer is ‘No.’”
Well, this is Hell, I thought, and he is Hell’s Asshole. My feet found purchase and I scrambled up to the path again, gathered up the catalog and scurried past the line of fire. “See you later, guys,” I said and headed down the steepening path.
A minute later I could see the bottom. The path took a hairpin turn to the left and out onto level ground obscured by the smog. To the right at the hairpin turn was a door. Over the door a sign: “The Defilers.”
“This is what Jack was talking about,” I said to no one. I approached the door cautiously. It was another exterior looking door with a heavy handle and thumb latch. I didn’t want to fall into another elevator type trap so I planned on propping the door open with the catalog to have an exit of my own choosing rather than one of Hell’s choice. I didn’t even need the prop.
I opened the door, stepped inside, and began choking.
02/13/2009, 6:10 AM #
I kept the door open with my heel—no need to place the catalog there—and immediately left and slammed the door shut.
Oh Christ! I had never smelled anything like it! I was sure that if I had stayed in there I’d be unconscious in a minute and was already feeling the beginnings of a grade A headache coming on.
What I saw in the full two seconds while I was in there is as follows. It was an exact replica of the aquarium in The Improvers room: giant tank, people drowning, levels changing. It was dark though. Very dark. The entire room was illuminated by a single naked bulb dangling over the main tangle of fighting limbs and faces. And those faces and limbs! This was not the same kind of water treatment facility as The Improvers had. This was something different. I thought about what would be worse than perpetually drowning and I had the answer: perpetually drowning in shit!
I had to know so I began flipping through the catalog. I had to know who belonged to those faces always choking, always drowning, never dying, covered in muck. What was worse than not breathing? I knew the answer.
Here’s the chapter. And the list: ghost of a-z, MichaelRyerson, oxboggle, days, biteoftheweek, Chi-townGirl, HeWhoMustDie, Sydbristow, lilmacg, Lono, Dr. H, Appollonius—wait! Didn’t I see him in The Improvers? I breathed in the sulfurous stench of exterior Hell and counted myself lucky.
This was the bottom of Hell. I was indeed very far from home. I missed my wife. I wondered what she must be thinking. Where the hell did I take off to? I remembered the fruit fly frozen in time on the surface floating above our picnic table. Maybe she doesn’t even know I’m gone yet.
Time to press on.
Down here at the end of that descending trail Hell opened up under the fog. The hairpin turn ended on level ground with a grove of dead trees in the distant disappearing into the fog. A trailhead divided the grove. I took a look at the map in the catalog. The trail looked very short and led directly to the shore of the frozen lake. Good. The sooner I get to what the hell I’m supposed to see the sooner whatever happens happens. I was getting sick of all this bullshit and was ready to go home.
Hell on this level was exceedingly different from the Hell of the mountain trail. The dead trees in front of me stuck out of grey earth. The appearance of the landscape was not unlike that of the aftermath of an extreme forest fire. Grey ashen dirt and debris, stick trees and the stench of death in the air.
As I approached the trail head I heard a rustling as if some one were rolling around in leaves. I continued on with my ears suddenly peaked. I looked through the trees. There was a movement. Coming towards me. Something was tunneling in the grey debris making a beeline towards me. I stopped at the trailhead and squarely faced whatever it was. It came to the trailhead and emerged from the debris. It stood on its back two legs a full seven feet high and blocked the trail. It was a giant cockroach.
“Oh shit,” I said annoyed.
“Shit indeed, mental midget” said Gregor Samsa in an affected British aristocratic accent, “I’m Greg—“
“I know who you are. Now shut up and get out of the way.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t seem to recall having to do a goddamn thing you tell me. But I shouldn’t be surprised. You are, after all, you,” he chuckled and wagged a foreleg, “One mustn’t expect too much from a troglodyte and a bibliophobe.”
“Hey shit eating insect. Black Flag called. You gotta go back to the motel and return the towels you cheap bastard.”
“Droll, my good boy. Droll. Well, not really but who’s keeping track? No. You are going to have to do something quite extraordinary to get by me.”
Oh fuck. Here we go again, I thought. I simply ignored him and tried to walk past. Not a chance. I did a fake to the left but there he was on my right. And trees all around. I was very annoyed.
“I’m thinking of a number,” he began, “I can get that number by adding 1 plus 1 plus 0.5 plus 0.1666 ad infinitum plus 0.04666 ad infinitum and so on. Do you have the faintest inkling of what I’m getting at?”
“You mean e? Euler’s number, dumbshit? You’re just expanding it out in a series.”
“Ah. I see my error. I made it so easy even an anencephalic squirrel monkey such as yourself could answer it. Fine. Answer me this: Why is the number 10^36 such an important number as to have ‘cosmic’ implications?” He chuckled smugly and made “air quotes” with his four upper legs upon saying, “cosmic.”
“Well probably because that’s the ratio of attractive electrical force to gravitational force in an atom. Just a few less zeros and the universe would be tiny in comparison, stars would be very short lived and no creatures could evolve larger than an insect,” said I to the seven foot insect and grinned obnoxiously. “It always comes back to you, doesn’t it Gregor? You always gotta say ‘Look at what a big dick I have!’ don’t you?”
“Actually, I am an insect. I have no ‘dick’ per se.” It sounded like he nearly choked on the word “dick” as if it were something “icky.”
“You got that right.”
He stopped and looked at me with his compound eyes. If he had had eyelids I’d imagine he was narrowing them at me. “At any rate. . .imagine a tetrahedron made entirely of balls—”
“Speaking of balls—” and I kicked him at the apex of his two lower most legs hard enough to lift him off the ground several inches.
He stopped talking and looked about as nonplussed as a cockroach can be for a long moment and then as if hit by a bolt of understanding exclaimed, “Oh! I get it! You think I have balls! Oh my word, you’re stupid! Not only do you not understand basic insect anatomy you seem to have forgotten my previous statement of—” and he collapsed to the ground coughing and choking so violently I thought he might cough up a lung or whatever cockroaches use to exchange air. He was choking because I had pulled out my can of Raid I received from Simmons when we were talking with Chango and maced the seven foot tall cockroach with it.
He was on his back with his legs flailing in the air. I continued spraying concentrating on his head but also covering his entire “insect anatomy” as well walking around one side of him and then the other spraying all the while. It felt like I was giving him an Earl Scheib paint job. “You getting all that, bug?” I shouted over the coughing as I exhausted the contents of the can between his mandibles. As the can emptied I dropped it and proceeded down the trail, the horrendous mustard gas hacking ringing in my ears. I was convinced the trail was now clear of all bugs or at least all pompous ass bugs.
My headache was kicking into high gear. The pain focused just north of my temples. Must have been the fumes from the bug spray. I needed some aspirin.
I hadn’t been walking for more than a minute when the trail bent and I could see a lake shore where it ended. I saw three people waiting for me. Two were standing looking at me and a third was seated back towards me. It looked as if he were hunched over typing on a laptop on a small desk.
One became immediately recognizable. I’d know that tweed jacket and diminutive stature anyplace now. I walked right up to him.
“Jasper. It’s good to see you. How are you?” asked Dan Simmons.
“Guttentag meine scheisskopf,” I replied. Sometimes German is the perfect language to hurl epithets.
“Oh come now,” he said, “You know it had to turn out this way. You look no worse for the wear.”
Next to him stood what could only be described as a zombie. Quite a bit shorter than Simmons, he had a receding hair line and a rotten green yellow pallor to his complexion. A hand sized flap of gory scalp and hair folded down from his forehead covering up an empty eye socket and exposing a cracked and bleeding skull beneath. His other eye was dim and small. His hair was a complete mess and a hole the size of a golf ball in his cheek revealed yellow and broken teeth. His left arm bent at an impossible angle. In fact, his entire body was bent sharply just below the waist although he managed to stand up. His suit must have been excellent at one time but now was crumpled, torn, and in shambles. In short he looked like he met his demise by crossing a street while being in the unfortunate path of a semi trailer who had no time for trivialities like stop lights and pedestrians.
“This is Jacob Weisberg,” said Simmons, “Editor in Chief of Slate.”
Re: Chapter IX
02/13/2009, 6:13 AM #
“Holy shit!” I said.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Weisberg and extended his better looking right hand. I shook it. His hand felt like cold, raw hamburger. “So, what do you think of Hell so far?”
I jerked my hand back and stepped away from them remembering the last time I heard that question. That ancient reptilian section of my brain concerned primarily with survival asserted itself as I looked around for the trap door, the hammer, the board of spikes or whatever was about to smack me. “Fine fine fine,” I said, “It’s nice. Real nice.”
“Meet any interesting people?” asked zombie Weisberg.
“Yeah. Let’s see there was Laurie Ann, and ellen, and chango. . .”
“Chango? You met chango?” It was the third person sitting at the lap top. He jumped up and ran over to me. His eyes lit up like the happiest things I had seen in Hell. He looked like a seven year old girl who was just told she was actually going to get a pony for Christmas. It was Kevin Arnovitz and he was positively beaming. “You met chango?” His mouth agape and his fingers curled up on his chin in excruciating anticipation.
“Yeah. Way up on the Road of Good Intentions,” I said.
“Did you tell him Kevin said, ‘Hi’?”
“Ah. . .no. No, I didn’t”
“Goddamn it!” he said and stamped his foot. He turned a hundred and twenty degrees around and literally stomped off into the dead forest at some crazy angle arms straight down, fists clenched. I imagined the seven year old girl whining upon receiving her horse, “But I wanted an Araaaabian pony, not some crappy Shetland pony!”
Simmons and the zombie snorted. Simmons said, “Here. You’re going to need this. It gets pretty cold out on the lake.” He handed me his tweed jacket even though I am a full head higher and considerably larger than him. I thought the act a little ridiculous. “Go ahead,” he said, “Put it on.”
Cautious as ever but realizing I could probably be dropped here in Hell with or without a jacket I decided good manners might be the better policy here and slipped it on if just to show it wouldn’t fit.
But it fit quite perfectly. It was comfortable. And I don’t recall it ever looking baggy on him.
“Come on, Jasper,” said the zombie Weisberg, “Let’s go for a walk.”
We continued down the trail leaving Simmons behind. Weisberg had to walk on my left side since he skewed so far to the left. From behind he looked like a greater than sign, “>” His limp was horrendous—like a victim of spina bifida times ten. I thought he might tip over at any time. He pulled a smashed and broken cigar out of his jacket and lit up. “Would you like one?” he offered.
“No thanks,” I said.
“You sure? It’s a Cohiba. Siglo Cuatro. Good smoke.” His remaining eye brightened at the mention of it.
“I’m sure. Thanks.”
“Suit yourself.” The smoke escaped out the hole in his cheek and appeared to make smoking somewhat difficult for Weisberg. I imagined he might have better luck by closing his lips and inserting the cigar in the side of his cheek making a seal with his fist but I didn’t make the suggestion. It seemed to have trouble staying lit anyway. “You may remember the frozen lake in the original Inferno.”
“That’s right. Filled with the frozen souls of the most wretched human beings to have ever lived.”
“Yes. They were cut off from each other by the ice. No human contact for eternity they had isolated themselves so badly from God’s plan.”
“Right. Well,” he said as the diminishing smoke made his shrunken eye squint, “We’ve changed that a bit. I’ve filled it with the greatest offenders of Slate.”
“Really? I figured The Defilers were the greatest offenders.” In the distance I could just begin to hear the faintest of mumblings.
“Oh no,” he said. The cigar refused to stay lit so he tossed it. “Those people just had some kind of shitty ax to grind and went about grinding their own bones in the process. These bastards are the worst violators of Slate. And to reflect the new inhabitants I’ve renamed the lake. You know what it is?”
“Well guess. Come on. Who are the worst violators of Slate.”
I just didn’t feel like playing games or giving a damn. I wanted to go home. “I dunno.”
“Geeze. Okay. Well, here we are anyway.” We arrived at the end of the trail at the shore of the frozen lake. A dim, jagged sign proclaimed the new name of the lake.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked.
“No. Not at all. Serves those fuckers right.”
“You condemned Quiblit posters to Cocytus?”
“Well, I didn’t make the call I just provided suggestions. But you betcherass I suggested Quiblit posters. It’s called ‘eliminating the competition.’ Buncha traitors. And it also has the forgotten and those who just don’t seem to fit in here anyway.”
“Has anybody ever told you that’s an incredibly stupid reason for damnation?”
“Oh yeah. All the time. But I never listen to them.”
Re: Chapter IX
02/13/2009, 6:14 AM #
“You don’t say.” I was dumfounded. We reached the lake shore. The mumbling had grown slightly. There were words spoken but I couldn’t make out what words nor could I determine their location. The lake itself was ugly if a lake can be ugly. It was huge with the surrounding shoreline populated with more dead stick trees or just mounds of dirt and cinder. The ice was without ripple and perfectly clear with no snow on top. In fact, it may have looked invisible had it not been for a light hovering about 300 yards out over the middle of the lake casting its reflection. It was the bug light that was the sole source of illumination for Hell. A tiny sun it provided no warmth and pathetic light to its surroundings. “So who makes the final call on these things?” Just then something caught my eye below and in front of the bug light. It was in the ice. Stuck half way. Frozen. Huge and distant. It moved but could not free itself from the ice like a fly caught on fly paper.
“You mean you don’t know?” said Weisberg looking at me sideways.
There had been so many changes to Hell as recorded in “Inferno” I had long since concluded the ending would be different and dismissed any significant change imagined. So much was different why should the ending be the same? It wasn’t until I saw the giant figure moving. . . flapping in the middle of Quiblit Lake that I came to realize. . . and that mumbling that muttering was coming from it. . .from him!
I paused a long moment taking it all in. Cocytus. The frozen souls I would see. And Satan.
I turned to the zombie Weisberg and said, “You’re an advisor?
“More like a steward. I suppose in a biblical sense I’m sort of a John the Baptist gone horribly awry.”
“Or horribly akimbo,” I said then immediately regretted it.
Weisberg smiled and said, “Well, good luck OneEye.” He executed a five point one-eighty turn around and hobbled back up the trail. I was alone at the lake shore.
* * *
I buttoned the tweed jacket and started walking towards Satan. A few seconds out and a wisp of hair beneath the ice beckoned my attention. I dropped to one knee to get a better look.
Arms crossed, body straight and tilted, hair flying about as if spinning and frozen. I remember her posting on Quiblit—the chief sacrilege.
To the other side of my path was Catnapping. Frozen. Arms crossed again. Eyes closed. Hair long and styled. It looked like she was laying in a coffin without the coffin.
A few feet in front of her under the ice was WVMicko. What? I’m not sure but I don’t think he posted on Quiblit. What was that Weisberg said? More than just Quiblit posters? My head was really starting to hurt. Time to get moving. I couldn’t stay and look at every frozen soul.
Twiffer, keifus, tempo, The Bell, Fritz_Gerlich. They seemed to be all in a straight path to Satan. I wondered if souls were concentrated around this seeming path and straying off it would reveal just empty ice. I didn’t investigate but kept walking.
Robes and Switters. What? I had to stop. Switters with his unmistakable fro and crazy thick glasses. And Robes. Robes. What a decent poster. I continued walking.
Getting closer now. Satan was huge. From the waist down he was encased in ice like everyone in Quiblit Lake. What protruded above the lake was six stories high. Couldn’t make out any features but he was definitely flapping, cooling the ice, trying to escape. And that repetitive cooing!
Much closer now. Rundeep, artansoul, DragonTat2, skitch, inkberrow, keifus in his toga. But there, now, was the poster closest to Satan. The only one with any body part or any appendage sticking above the frozen lake. Thrusting up from the ice was a forearm. At the end of the arm was a fist. At the end of the fist in the direction of Satan was an extended middle finger. I knew I’d found Schadenfreude.
I dropped to one knee to get a better look. Yes. Not only was Schadenfreude sneering in his direction giving Satan the bird but with his other hand he seemed to be grabbing his crotch.
I rose again and stood at the base of the flapping, trapped Satan. He was burnt, bronze and mottled constantly flapping his dark bat wings. The three faces had a Frayster in each mouth. Chewing, grinding, reassembling, skinning and reskinning. But the face of Satan was familiar to me. The other two faces contorted the features and made recognition difficult but then I heard and understood the repetitive mumbling.
God is not great. God is not great. God is not great.
I was looking at three faces of Christopher Hitchens.
02/13/2009, 6:16 AM #
On the ice directly in front of Satan Hitchens stood a plaque. It read:
I am he, the bearer of light, the fallen angel wrapped in you
Your pristine heart, your cultured mind, your tortured soul I’ll cut in to
My lies are truth. You know it’s so
For in my words you surely know
That my own motives, that my own thoughts
Are surely those of wicked deeds you wrought
For you are me and I’m in thee
We’re locked together with no known key
So if you try, tear us apart
I will torment you, rip out your heart
For one must live and one must die
And I am ageless. You can’t deny.
One failure left that’s all you need
And for all eternity I’ll make you bleed
You will stay in this land down
When you try and fail to take my crown
So be the hero if that’s your aim
Or be the Devil’s bitch. Lucifer is my name.
I read it again. And thought. To get out of here I need to climb to the top—his crown. The three poor bastards he’s chewing on may be able to help. Hitchens’ head, maybe all three of them had the promise of salvation or the curse of damnation.
I walked an entire circle around Hitchens. It was definitely him but entirely mechanical. It was a moving bronze statue but one that I couldn’t help but think was somehow alive. Hitchens had three faces each rotated a hundred and twenty degrees from the other. On his left, the white face of death. His right was the red face of anger. And in the middle, the one facing forward was the yellow face of cowardice. The jaw that chewed and skinned Judas in Inferno. On each face the lips and cheeks had been cut away revealing a skeletal grimace. One face, the yellow one did not have human teeth. Instead this set of jaws chewing on a Frayster continually skinning him and impaling him had a set of Tyrannosaur teeth—much more efficient an perhaps painful than molars. Blood drained from each mouth—enough to fill hundreds of bodies.
I wanted to climb up but had no way. While looking up and thinking of how I could scale him I noticed three ribbon festoons in the dim bug light. They divided up Hell’s darkness into three pie pieces with one set of ends disappearing in the zenith and the other ends disappearing somewhere in the upper levels. I was staring at the bottom “U” shapes of three thin ropes. They looked like. . . At that moment I reached in the jacket to scratch a rib and felt a loop inside. I pulled the loop out. In fact, it was a coiled length of climbing rope the very thing I had been thinking of. And then I remembered.
Of course! This is the jacket that Simmons was wearing when he tossed me the bug spray. He got it from inside his jacket. This jacket!
I thought of aspirin for my headache and pulled out a bottle of it from the inside pocket. I thought of a paper cone cup filled with water and pulled that out as well. My hands were full now so I dropped the cup and fished out two aspirin and shoved the bottle in my pants pocket. I reached in the jacket to find. . .another cup of water. Incredible. I downed the aspirin and contemplated how to climb Mt. Hitchens.
I pulled out dental floss, and a bow and arrow. I tied one end of the floss to the arrow and the other end to the uncoiled climbing rope and shot the arrow in an arch over Satan’s triple head. Sloppy. Missed. Hitchens’ triple face offered a nice “V” shape between any two faces. I was trying to arch the dental floss through the V between his front face and left faces.
The beating wings made the effort especially tough since timing became an issue. I had to be accurate (shouldn’t have been that tough with a fairly large target) as well as on time. Missing on one or the other invariably ended up with a wing “backhanding” the arrow as it sailed over his back quadrant. Eventually, timing and accuracy converged and the dental floss sailed right over the V and the arrow hit the ice behind the Satan Hitchens.
I ran to the other side and pulled the dental floss and climbing rope over. Now Satan was draped with a length of climbing rope from one side to the other. I pulled out a piton, a carabiner, and a hammer from the jacket and looked for a suitable place to anchor.
The Satan Hitchens had a roll of fat near the ice line. I test fitted the piton and found a good place along the roll. I hammered in the piton, attached the carabiner and tied the rope end to it. I then strolled around to the other side again surveying the work so far trying to imagine what could go wrong with the geometry, jagged edges, burrs, those damn flapping wings.
On the other side of Satan I pulled from the jacket more carabiners, gloves (my hands were too soft from lack of climbing practice and chalk on Satanic bronze and blood was of questionable use) and a harness. I strapped in and thought for a minute. What the hell was I doing? I didn’t know but that seemed like a bad excuse to stop.
Climbing up to the shoulders was pretty quick work. I tied off every twelve feet or so. But now, at the left shoulder just underneath two giant mechanical jaws presented a problem. I wanted to see the posters damned to eternal Satanic mastication but the chewing make it impossible. It also became clear as I approached the jaws that the three inside were screaming in pain as their bones and bodies were crushed between molars or flayed between Tyrannosaur teeth. The three jaws didn’t exactly chew in lock step with each other. There seemed to be some sort of sinusoidal mechanism operating. First the Tyrannosaur jaw crashed shut then the right jaw then the left. By that time the middle T-Rex jaw was ready to crash down again. The bronze oral caves and the noisy internal mechanism seemed to muffle the sinners’ screams. Even the constant mumbling of “God is not Great” was attenuated next to the reciprocating knocking and laborious churning of levers and gears. I hung there in my harness between two gigantic clanking jaws.
I reached in the jacket and pulled out a tire iron. I then scooted over next to the Tyrannosaur jaw and found the closest interface between the lower and upper jaw. It seemed there might be enough jags to achieve what I had in mind. I scrambled as far back as I could to the back of the jaw back where I could get to the temporomandibular joint and observed how wide the jaw periodically opened. There might be just barely enough room.
Satan opened his giant Tyrannosaur mouth and I jammed the tire iron into his temporomandibular joint. The jaw closed. Or at least it tried to close. All three jaws came to a groaning, grinding, high tension stop.
The wings stopped flapping. The jaws stopped chewing. The Satanic muttering ceased. All was quiet except for the now clearly audible mewling of the three bastards impaled or otherwise crushed in the Great Jaws Three. I imagined the effect as being similar to having a Brazil nut still in its shell jammed back in my mouth between a pair of my upper and lower molars.
The left jaw had just crashed down before all three came to a stop. A writhing squirming body lay in its clenched teeth. Blood poured forth and the white Satan drooled red ichor. The moaning was not exactly what I expected. In fact. . .it was not a painful moaning at all. This person, this Frayster seemed to be enjoying this. My hands were full of rope and harness so I had to leave the catalog on the ice floor below. I scrambled over to the white jaw gushing blood.
“Hey! Hello, in there!” I said.
“Ohhhhh,” he moaned.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Me?” One arm and one leg hung on the outside of the molars. His head was near the back of the jaw and was so crushed as to be unrecognizable. A piece of flesh moved and I took it to be his mouth. “I’m ciinc.”
Re: Chapter X
02/13/2009, 6:18 AM #
I found a semi-comfortable ledge in the bronze, half leaned half sat in it and thanks to the earlier encounter with zombie Weisberg suddenly remembered a certain possible capability of the jacket. I reached in and pulled out. . .a Cohiba Maduro.
“I see. Of course you are.” After I clipped the end I pulled out a zippo and lit the cigar. I put the zippo in my pants pocket. This one’s a keeper. “That makes sense. Forgive me for being blunt but you don’t exactly sound like you’re in pain. I’ve heard this kind of moaning before and . . .well. . .it sounds more like you’re having sex.”
“Ohhhhhh.” He shuddered. “You have no idea. . .”
“So why are you here? You know this is about the worst place in Hell. What are your crimes?” The sweet smoke curled and billowed. Really a fine smoke. The essence of what a good cigar aspires to be.
“They said. . .mmmm. . .They said I was guilty of. . .of treachery of the highest. . .ohhh. . .order. But it’s a lie. Mmmm—oh God! A lie!”
“A lie? I dunno, ciinc.” I blew a puff at him. “I remember you as being pretty goddamn treacherous. How do you—”
“Solid gold. I have a solid gold, iron clad, bullet proof—ahhhh!—bullshit detector! And I’m telling you right n-n-now.” He was panting. “I did none of those things. I only told the truth, and—oh God. . ! Oh God!—and kept my word. Always!”
For just a fleeting second, gone as fast as it came, I understood. I can’t say I understood immediately afterwards and I don’t understand now, but I remember at one time, for just the blink of an eye, I did understand. “You lyin’ sonofabitch. You enjoy this don’t you.”
“How could anyone enjoy this!”
“No. You really enjoy this.” I took a long slow, pull on the Cohiba, opened my mouth and just let the smoke sit there. I gently pushed a bit out with my tongue and let the smoke play around my nose and chin. Exquisite! “You’re like that guy in Hellraiser. Whatshisname? ‘Pinhead!’ That’s it!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Pinhead! You fancy yourself as one of those ‘angels’ in the movie. You experience pleasure to the extreme until it becomes pain and pain until it becomes pleasure. To you they are gloriously the same. And your self-loathing, self-persecution, self-inflicted, self-flagellation is all as it sounds. It’s all about you. You get off on this.”
“You put me here!” he screamed.
“No. As always, you put yourself here.” I stuck the cheroot in my gob and prepared to leave. “You’re a bastard and you’re made for Hell. I’d wish you a nice day but you’re already having one. Good bye you fucking freak.”
I flicked a sizable ash into the mouth of the white Satan and scrambled back to the rope center line and drove a piton into a fold in the bronze, attached a carabiner, and inched down below the jaws. I brought up about fifteen feet of rope, retied in on my harness and slid down until I dangled like a bob on a line. This might be a little tricky.
With the rope securely tied to my harness I put my feet on Satan Hitchens and stood perpendicular to him so all of Hell appeared sideways or nearly sideways. I backed up under ciinc’s jaw—his little Pleasure Dome—to get a running start. Then I sprinted around Hitchens’ chest towards the other two jaws. I swung like a pendulum with legs.
The rope pivoted around the upper carabiner until it contacted the Tyrannosaur jaw. I was running up now at about a forty-five degree angle. The rope continued to wrap around the underside of the central jaw and my pendulum arm shortened again. I was attempting to button hook under the central jaw and position myself between the center and right jaws.
I was running vertical just as I came to a place between the center and right jaws—that is the red faced Hitchens and the yellow T-Rex jawed Hitchens. I threw myself onto the shoulder and quickly drove in a piton. Carabiner, hook in, retie, rest. The Cohiba survived. Excellent.
“Hey, man! You made it! Nice work.” It came from the red Hitchens’ jaw. The jaw had begun to open but not wide enough for the person to escape. I could see movement inside but no discernable figure. The red Satan’s jaw drooled a brighter arterial red. “You gotta let me out, man!”
“I do?” I asked. “Why issat? Who are you?”
“It don’t matter, man. Nobody should spend eternity here! Especially being chewed up like this! I mean, what the hell did I do?”
“I dunno know. What did you do?”
“Nothing, man! That’s just it!”
“Why don’t you just tell me who you are? I mean how bad could it be?”
And after a long pause, “Well. . . you’re a conservative, right?”
“So you get it, right?”
“. . .Yeah. I ‘get’ it.”
“Okay. That’s cool. I was beginning to wonder. Okay. I’m CaliforniaDreaming so I’m—“
“Oh, fuck this!” I said. “Fuck me! You mean I just risked my ass swinging around the underside of Tyrannosaurus Hitch just so I could let you out? Oh, fuck that! And fuck you!” I checked my footholds and prepared to unlatch from the carabiner.
“Wait a minute you sonofabitch!” Yelled CD. “You can’t just leave me here, you traitorous fucker! Come on man! These people are assholes!”
“Life’s a bitch, then you die.” I said around the cigar. I unlatched and pulled up the slack. “Then you get chewed up in the jaws of Satan for eternity. Heh. Sucks to be you.” Clumsily I slid back down the right side of Satan Hitch until I was hanging like a bob on centerline again. Once again, I climbed up to the upper carabiner, tied in and took a breather.
My cigar was nearly half way down. It was a miracle it didn’t get smashed in that buttonhook or when I slid back down. I contemplated the irony of it all. In Hell. Smoking one of the best most enjoyable cigars in the world. I took another long, slow pull. Made in a dictator’s kingdom. And yet not made in Cuba. In fact, it came from this jacket not some dictator which made me feel better. I had a sudden strange thought and pulled open the jacket. There it was. Right on the inside pocket. A sew on label that read, “Made in China.” Shit!
I tied on about ten feet of slack and scooted over to the yellow Hitch—the Tyrannosaur jaws. Not a peep from this guy the whole time. I climbed up through the five foot tall picket fence teeth and stood between two gigantic daggers in back and looked in.
I realized what a magnificent view of Hell this guy had if he ever got the chance between chews to enjoy it. Down below in the crystal clear ice of Quiblit Lake souls lay isolated from each other for eternity. I could see the path I walked from the shore. It was a way cleared of bodies as if they were stones cleared to make a trail. The rest of the lake was crowded with people—too many to be Quiblit posters—all frozen but none touching. I then looked inside the jaws of the Tyrannosaur.
Blood was everywhere. In a horseshoe shaped cave the size of a child’s bedroom the bright red blood coated every square inch—the teeth, the roof, the back. In the center was the blood coated tongue which was in fact, not bronze. It was alive and probably the only thing that kept its inhabitant from drooling and oozing out with the rest of his own blood. Near the bottom front teeth, a coagulated breathing heap of flesh and mutilated organs wrapped around those huge daggers began to heal and take shape before my eyes.
“Hello, daveto,” I said.
Re: Chapter X
02/13/2009, 6:19 AM #
“Fuck you,” he replied. Skin began to form.
“Dave, dave, dave. Whatever happened, man? You and I used to be such great friends!” I could see an eye now in the blood just looking at me. A lone bloody middle finger a couple feet away pointed upwards. A knee wedged between two tall teeth writhed. “Whatsamatta? Huh?”
“For starters, you’re a fucking racist,” he said. The blood was still too thick to reveal his Asian-American features but more and more drained out the mouth and off the chin of the yellow Hitchens.
“And a psychotic mutherfucker!” His head was healing now and appeared to be impaled on a very sharp stiletto like tooth, very long and very thin. The tooth went in one eye and out the opposite ear.
“You know dave, I think I know what your problem is. You have trouble thinking because you have a spike through your head. Did you ever think of that?” Then realizing my faux pas, “Oh. Sorry. That was stupid of me. Of course you didn’t think of that. You have a spike through your head!” I couldn’t help but chuckle. This was getting to be fun. “And from my point of view it looks like that tooth may be going through your soft palate as well which could explain your unwitting assault on the English language and your inability to form a coherent sentence.”
“Fuck—” The T-Rex’s spike tooth in combination with the ongoing regenerative process indeed interfered with his speech.
“You, dave. You. ‘Fuck you.’ Come on, now. It’s a simple two word sentence. Say it with me now. ‘Fuck you.’ I’m sure you can form a sentence if you just put your mind—oh, sorry. There I go again.”
“Whipped any blacks lately?” he asked. His Asian features becoming more apparent now with more blood draining off of Satan’s chin. Dave never could discern the difference between talking about race and racist talk.
“You know, dave,” I said drawing another long sweet pull on the Cohiba and flicking the ash on the fat, serpentine tongue. “I’d love to have another one of our famous knock down drag outs but you’d only end up worse than you are now and I have better things to do. But before I go I do have a little parting gift. Something to help liven the place up a bit.” I reached in the jacket and pulled out a ten pound bad of rock salt. “Here you go mah man.” I threw the bag at the lower front teeth and the bag split open pouring rock salt all over the regenerating dave. A thick slimy goo ran down each side of the massive tongue and pooled on and around dave at the front of the jaws and oozed out between the massive teeth. The salt was making Satan drool. Dave growled as the salt entered still open wounds.
“And a drink,” I pulled out a large shot glass of Macallan single malt Scotch. “Sorry man. I’d offer you one but you’re in no condition to drink.” I raised the glass and addressed the nearly fully reformed dave. “Thank you dave for inviting me into your life your world your home. May you have many happy moments here for the rest of eternity.” I downed the Scotch—perfect with the Cohiba—and smashed it against the front teeth as with the rock salt. “L’Chayim!”
I took one last look at the pathetic mess that was dave and was suddenly moved. One of the most horrific images that still haunts me is when I was a teenager driving on the highway near my home. A dog, a German Sheppard mix, wandered out on the road two lanes over and several yards in front. The car in that lane couldn’t swerve in time. He was impossible to miss. And it happened so fast. I hate that image. Burned into my memory. I wanted to do something at the time but knew it was too late. I looked at dave now and saw that German Sheppard again.
I carefully walked down the side of the jaw holding onto every tooth as I went through the drool and muck and blood careful not to slip and made my way down to the front where dave was. I crouched down to talk to him. “You wanna leave?” I asked.
Dave just looked. Contemplated the offer.
“Come on, Dave. Let’s get outta here. I’m serious. What the hell’s the point of this, anyway?”
For a long moment dave said nothing. He was whole again. I could help him get his head off the tooth, unwedge his knee. . .he could be truly whole again in just a few more minutes. He thought about it for another long moment.
And then he spat in my face. “You are dead to me,” he said, “Go to Hell.”
I wiped my face and stood up. I turned and climbed hand over hand up the steep grade of the inner jaw. At the back I turned and stood holding onto a tooth for support. I nearly tripped over the climbing rope which now draped over and in between a couple of teeth.
The Cohiba stayed cool right up until the very end which was about now. I looked one more time at dave, took one more long pull on the cigar and said, “Good bye dave. You’re a fool and a moron.” Then I crouched down and stubbed out the Cohiba on Satan’s tongue.
Something deep inside the bronze statue groaned angrily as the cigar hissed out. The jaws began to rock left and right in a way they hadn’t before and I could see the teeth in front were beginning to close. I struggled to keep my balance and hung onto a tooth. I stuck my head outside the jaws for just a second to look for the tire iron. It was bending and buckling and Satan was groaning louder.
I yanked my head just as I heard the tire iron snap and ricochet off Satan’s shoulder. The giant jaws snapped shut. Hitchens was alive and chewing again!
Blood, drool, salt rock, and glass shards ground into dave as he flew from daggers to daggers. The giant tongue bucked like a mad bull slamming him down between a new set of spikes impaling him a thousand times in a few seconds skinning and reskinning him. I’ve never heard a human being scream like that.
The tongue came after me as well. It pressed me hard against the inside of the teeth trying to push me between the uppers and lowers. I fought back by bracing my elbows against a set of uppers and my knees against a set of lowers. The teeth moved less here at the back of the mouth close to the joint but staying out of the impaling spikes was nearly impossible. My view flashed like multiple scissor shutters between total darkness and the aerial view of Hell as dagger-like teeth sliced closer and closer to my torso. I could see the climbing rope down at my feet severed but stuck between two lower teeth like a length of dental floss. I was losing this fight to stay off the Tyrannosaur spikes.
Only one chance left. I grasped two lower teeth. The jaws opened wide again and I let the tongue push me out. I hopped the teeth like I was hopping a fence and began falling to Quiblit Lake below. I reached for the climbing rope ersatz dental floss.
My wrist fumbled the rope free but it was not in hand. My other hand swung violently around and grabbed the rope end. The rope tore free of the Tyrannosaur jaw and I began swinging again.
I slammed into the bronze shoulder of the demon and skidded towards centerline. My grip began to slip on the bloody and ragged rope end. I reached up with my other hand and grasped it hand over hand. My knees and shoulders bounced and scraped along until I came to rest at centerline. For a long moment I just hung there.
Carefully I pulled my beaten and bruised body up. My arms were on fire and did not want to comply. As I inched my way up the rope until there was just enough to tie into my harness I thought of home again. I rested after a long drink from an orange juice container in the jacket.
All around the T-Rex and naked human jaws continued their assault on dave and ciinc and CD. Blood poured anew out over Satan’s chins again.
Re: Chapter X
02/13/2009, 6:22 AM #
A tie in and I was ready for the final ascent. The interface between the two faces afforded a convenient V shape for climbing. Hitchens’ hair was slicked back for this statue and so didn’t provide descent hand or footholds. Near the crown I threw my arms over the edge and clawed and kicked my way on top. There was a strange square hole in the center of the triple head. I was too tired to investigate. Piton, carabiner, tie in. I collapsed on top of the Satan Hitchens staring at the three ribbons above bending into the darkness.
On my back I listened to the horrible mechanical torture and the three screaming posters as punishment recommenced. I realized something else. There were no real utterances of “God is not Great. God is not Great.” What I actually heard was the rhythmic reciprocating pounding, racheting and groaning of gears and levers. The combination and repetition of all these mechanical contrivances conspired to create what sounded like a repetition of “God is not Great.” Satan’s voice was nothing more than the machine within.
The ribbons draped above began to wiggle and sway. I heard a far off voice bellow, “Avast me hardies! Prepare to be boarded!”
The ribbons moved. They began to droop towards me. From three corners of upper levels the ends of those ribbons were speeding towards me. Each one had a man at the end with a foot in a stirrup swinging as if each were a Hell bound Tarzan. But there was a problem. Their timing was off. Or rather it was exactly on. It was too good to be safe.
Three distant screams all Doppler shifted higher as they came rushing to the top of Hitchens. WHAM! The three crashed dead center over Hitchens and uttered a collective groan.
They fell from their ropes and with the clank of a cutlass and other foreign metal objects tumbled about the crown of Hitchens in a messy triskelion. Three ropes with stirrups bobbed and swayed and disappeared into the inky zenith.
“What are you doing?” I asked. They were all holding their rib cages trying to regain their wind. The voices came quiet and strained.
“Here to. . .”
“Save yer landlubbin’ arse.”
One was decked out in biker chaps, backpack, and jacket another in a football jersey and another, the one with the cutlass, in a tricorn hat, eye patch, and pantaloons.
I got to my feet and surveyed the top of Hitch. The three lay about in considerable pain holding various parts and appendages. “Bly me y’scurvy dogs!” said the pirate. “That was about as smart as tackin’ in a hurricane. Who taught you how to board a ship?”
“You did,” they both said in unison. “We all board at once. At the same time. That’s what you said,” said the biker.
“Man, that looks like it hurt,” I said, “I’m One Eyed Jasper. Who the hell are you guys?”
“The name’s ‘Captain Urquart’ the Undying,” said the pirate still on his back but lifting his cutlass aloft. “skipper of the frigate, Barracuda. And thar’s me first mate, Kaz,” The one in the jersey lifted his hand. “And me weapons officer “Nose Tarrrrrrrr!” The biker who fared only slightly better than the rest gave a quick wave and began to sit up. “And we’re here to get you back to whar you belong. Back to yer sweet lovin’ Missy.”
“Excellent!” I yelled, “What do I do?”
“Yer Missy is at the top of one of these ropes,” said Capt. Urquart. “Just hook yer boot into the stirrup and a wench—“
“That’s winch,” interrupted Kaz.
“Aye! Winch it is. A winch will haul you topside.”
I looked at the ropes in front of me. I held one. This rope was connected to home! “And that’s it?”
“Aye! That be all,” said the Captain.
“Which rope is the right one?”
“The one yer holdin’ now, me lad,” Urquart scratched his costume beard and looked at me with his unpatched eye. “But fer givin’ you this bit o’information I was wonderin’ if you could do a bit of a favor for us.”
“What you got in mind?”
“Well, me hardies and me we’re planning on taking Slobberin’ Crissy here right down to Davy Jones’ Locker but we need one more deck hand.”
“Satan? You’re going to destroy Christopher Hitchens? But how?”
“Take a look under your feet me lad!”
I looked down at the square hole in the middle of Hitchens’ triple head. “Keyhole?” I said.
He slapped me on the back. “Aye! Now yer followin’!”
“From the plaque down on the ice!”
“Aye laddie. So what you say? I’ll cut you in for a quarter of what lay beneath ol’ Slobberin’ Crissy here.”
With no hesitation I slapped him on the shoulder. “I’m in!”
Re: Chapter X
02/13/2009, 6:23 AM #
“A fine choice me hardie. Mr. Kaz!”
“Aye Captain,” said Kazillions.
“Battle stations Mr. Kaz. Mr. Nose Tarrrr! Assemble the fly swatter. Mr. Kaz assist the weapons officer.”
“Aye aye” they said in unison.
Nostar opened up his back pack and pulled out a heavy square pipe with a stout block at one end and two massive L irons. He quickly placed the block into the square hole (I was surprised it fit snugly) and Kaz slid the L irons down over the top. They had assembled what appeared to be a 3D cross very similar to the one depicted in Salvador Dali’s painting “Crucifixion.” The rope stirrups dangled around the central square pipe.
“This is the key?” I asked, “The one mentioned in the plaque?” I tried to remember and recited aloud. “My lies are truth. . .we’re locked together with no known key?” I thought for a minute. “Why even mention ‘key’ if there is none?”
“Aye me lad. A key was never made but that don’t mean me weapons officer can’t make one!” Nostar grinned proudly. “We tried turning it before with just us three but discovered we needed an extra deck hand.”
“Actually it was just Nostar and me,” whispered Kazillions, “Captain U didn’t want to dirty his fancy pants.”
“Quiet on deck!” bellowed Capt. Urquart, “Gentlemen, assume your positions.”
Nostar and Kaz placed hands on opposing cross members and looked as if they were about to turn a wheel. I grabbed a third cross member and Capt. Urquart grabbed the final. “Wait a minute,” I said, “Are you sure we turn it this way?”
All three went over the right hand rule in their own particular way. Nostar repeatedly grabbed air with his right hand and stuck his thumb up then down. Kazillions formed a three dimensional coordinate system with his right thumb, index, and middle fingers. Capt. Urquart said, “Righty tighty, lefty loosey. I was always partial to that saucy wench, Lucy.”
“Yeah. But do we want to tighten something or loosen it?” I asked.
After a minute Capt Urquart exclaimed, “Bly me! Always with the confounded details! Arrrr! This time we turn roighty toighty!”
We all turned ninety degrees from where we were and grabbed the corresponding cross member. We prepared to turn the key clockwise. Capt. Urquart gave the order.
“Ready and heeeeave!” We all strained against the cross members. “Put yer backs into it lads!” yelled the pirate. “Heeeeave!”
Slowly the key turned. We continued to push. The key turned through ninety degrees, then a hundred eighty. We pushed through an entire circle when an internal stop blocked any further progress.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Aye. That’d be it.”
“I don’t rightly know. We never got this far.”
All four of us stared at the 3D cross key sticking out of the head of Christopher Hitchens who continued to beat his wings and chew his victims.
I looked at Nostar and he looked at me. We shrugged. The rope stirrups hung straight down with the top of the key rising just in the center of them.
At first it was only slightly perceptible. No sense of motion. The stirrups started to move away from us in a straight line and quickly picked up speed. Then we felt the tilt beneath our feet—the sickening swirl in the inner ear—and four men scrambled madly for three ropes.
I got a rope. Or rather two of us were on one. “Grab another one!” I yelled not knowing to whom or even if another rope was available. The guy on my rope found another and transferred. I climbed hand over hand until I could put my foot in the stirrup. Next to me in their own rope stirrups were Nostar and Kazillions.
Then the explosions began. A glow grew from below. The key had opened up a crack below Satan. It grew and lava poured out under the ice turning boxcar sized chunks into explosive steam. Cracks in the ice grew like lightning emanating from the bronze demon. Glowing magma gushed forth, shattering the ice and venting steam.
And the bronze demon that is Satan, the three faced Christopher Hitchens began to sink and pitch forward. Captain Urquart was still on Satan’s crown cutlass raised, cursing and giving orders bracing himself against the key as they continued to list.
“We did it mateys! Take that you bloodthirsty barnacle bottomed jellyfish! Har harrrrr! You drunken one legged son of a bilge rat! You thought you could outlast ol’ Captain Urq and the crew of the Barracuda you skirt wearin’ parrot stranglin’ gallows monkey! Harrrr! Jasper batten down the hatches or we’ll be taking on water! Jasper, where are you, you rum swiggin’ land lubber?” He looked back and saw his entire crew dangling from three ropes watching him going down with the demon.
“Avast me hardies! It just means more booty fer me! Har harrrrr! Look for me in Sloppy Sally’s. I’ll be the one with gold in me pocket and wearin’ a monster’s bronze tooth around me neck!” He turned facing forward into the pitch and continued to hurl insults at the doomed Hitchens. He and the Slobberin’ Crissy disappeared in the billowing steam.
The explosions grew to a deafening roar. I could see new lava spreading farther along the bottom of the lake. As soon as it appeared a new shock wave shattered more ice. Hell was getting hot again.
I was rising. We were rising. Somebody was reeling us in. I floated past the bug light as it became enveloped in the lava illuminated steam. Higher we rose. Soon I began drifting from the other two and they drifted apart as if we were being pulled up through three different moving holes. “Thank you,” I managed before it was too late. They both waved and then darkness enveloped them.
I looked up. I could see stars in a dark and growing circle. It was night time on the surface. I looked down. Quiblit Lake was a distant fire. The steam was so hot it had already dissipated leaving a clear view. It was a large, distant, boiling inferno. I was tempted to bounce in the stirrup to test its stretchiness but thought better of it. It seemed pretty elastic which meant it was long. I got the impression it was very long.
With nothing to do but wait while being hoisted up I remembered I had a headache. The aspirin did absolutely no good. With one hand I held onto the rope and with the other I rubbed my forehead and temples and found. . .Christ! I reached in the jacket and pulled out a lit mirror. “Well, that explains my headache,” I said to no one. On either side of my forehead, near my temples were two short, budding horns. I dropped the mirror into the glowing darkness below. Heh, try explaining that to your wife! I thought. What did the plaque read?
You will stay in this land down
When you try and fail to take my crown
Well, I got his crown alright. I climbed to the top. And now it looks like I may become the new Prince.
I looked up to greet the approaching stars.
02/13/2009, 6:24 AM #
I emerged from the hole into a flood of light. Hands grabbed me and pulled me out. People everywhere. Blinding lights. Cameras. Microphones. I was pulled up into a full court media event. A circle of flood lamps bathed the hole, the climbing rope, the winch on a huge, strange truck and me in naked blinding light. I breathed in the sweet clean air of home. I put my hand to my forehead to hide my horns but immediately found they were missing! I felt all around for them but they were gone! I didn’t imagine them. They were there less than an hour ago! Think about it later. The media invaded.
“Jasper, how does it feel to be rescued after all this time?”
“Jasper, congratulations on surviving. Can we have a word with you?”
People crawling on me like ants. All of them wearing crazy clothes. Most of them with the latest gadgets held to their heads or some sticking out of their heads. Signs barely visible just beyond the lights read, “Welcome home, Jasper.” Cars were assembled just beyond the crowd so strange I couldn’t pick out a single make, model, or year not that I had time to ponder. An old woman came in close to hug me.
“Where’s my wife?” I yelled, “I want to see my wife!”
“My uber goober,” came a quiet voice. There was only one person on the planet who called me that and she immediately had my attention. The voice came from the old woman hugging me. The media backed up just a bit and went into flash frenzy. I looked at her. Grabbed her frail shoulders to get a better look. “My uber goober,” she said again.
I looked into her eyes. I peered deep. They were her eyes. Warm. Loving. Smiling. Now wet with tears. Her hair was long and grey now not the vibrant brunette I remember. Her skin was aged. I looked for answers. “Hon? Is that you?”
“Yeah,” she said, “It’s me.” She looked to be in her eighties.
“Hon,” I said, “What happened?”
“Well, it’s been a long time.” She placed her hand on my cheek like she’s done a thousand times before. Tears flowed freely now. This was my wife.
“How long?” I asked.
“It’s been over forty seven years since we had that picnic, Sweetheart. But you don’t look a day older than the day I lost you.”
It then came rushing in. The clothes styles, the cars, the weird gadgets. This was the truth. I had missed most of my marriage. And so had she. The day after that picnic was to have been our third wedding anniversary. Slobberin’ Crissy had won.
She was crying now as she hugged me. I took my wife, my sweet, beautiful wife gently in my arms and held her. And we cried.