5ive and Dime- Part 2: Orientation
Tyler watched as several impressive trebuchets were wheeled into position half a mile away along the shore of Moonblade, the city teeming with movement and noise that he could just begin to make out as the longboat drew nearer through the foul smelling black waters. He and several other Condemned souls had taken to standing near the port bow and watching with curious intrigue as the voyage neared its termination in their new home, one of Hell’s most populous cities. The wooden constructs were being set up just down the shoreline from a shipping port, followed by dozens of vague figures and what Tyler could tell even from where he stood were rolling cages. Some of the sounds coming from the activity there could not be mistaken for anything but what they were, the shrieks of agony and terror from the Damned within those wheeled cells.
When the boat was a hundred yards out from its dock, Tyler and the others watched as a person was taken from one of the cages nearest them, then prodded by a massive, red-fleshed ogre with a trident until the human got up into the cup of the catapult. A moment later, with a creaking of wood and the ‘thwang’ of a rope, the Damned man was launched through the air, limbs flailing akimbo, until he landed in the jet black water, which steamed and hissed at the point of entry.
Dear God am I lucky I’m only Condemned, Tyler thought before he could consider his choice of words. I really just thought that, didn’t I? He shook his head to dismiss this particular mental train, and when he refocused his eyes, he found himself watching as a winged cow skull, half of the flesh torn away from its face, flew out over the waters with a long, skeletal stinger tail drooping down beneath it. Separating from the rest of the Condemned at the bow, he maneuvered to the stern, watching alone as the creature swooped down toward the water, thrusting the stinger down into the bubbling waters. The appendage kept extending, far beyond what it should have been able to if visual perception could be trusted. Then again, this was Hell, where, he imagined, physics had generally been cancelled. Well, maybe not cancelled, but certainly given a lot of leeway, he amended as the Damned man, nothing more now than a skeleton with some bits of organs and meat still clinging to the bones, came dangling up out of the murk on the demon’s tail.
The boat settled finally at the docks, and several demons onboard tossed securing lines over the port side to their counterparts on the wooden walkway, all of whom tied the ropes fast to aging posts near to hand. The gangplank was lowered, and people began shuffling off the ship as the crew-demons barked instructions. Tyler listened intently, so that he didn’t miss something important.
“The city’s sector chiefs will be waiting in the shipyard for you,” a minotaur-like fiend barked loudly. “You should have been informed by your Condemnation Assignment Representative which sector you’ve been assigned to for residence while in Moonblade! The chiefs will be holding up signs bearing the number of the sector they oversee, so form up into a group before them in as orderly a fashion as you can manage! Anyone here who does not get to their sector chief before they leave the shipyard will have to wait on the docks until tomorrow, and you will be subject to the whims of whatever tormentors and torturers may roam the area until then, so get a move on!”
Tyler got on the gangplank, swiftly descended to the pier, and made his way to the solid ground fronting the shipyard, where people began breaking off in search of their sector chiefs. He spotted the first of these within moments, trying to ignore the stench of tar pitch that hung heavy in the area and the intense heat trying to burn through the soles of his shoes. He paused in his tracks, looking down at his Converse sneakers, staring at them, unsure of why seeing them on his feet felt so strange, yet significant.
Someone brushed against his left side, jarring him out of this unexpected reverie and back to the moment. His eyes locked back upon that first sector chief, a gargantuan toad-man in a scarlet fur cape with white trim, black spots dotting the trim all the way around. The toad demon wore no shirt under the cape, but did have a pair of plain black trousers on his lower body, his feet and shins covered by a pair of shining silver armor boots, the fronts angled into stabbing points. The demon stood probably twelve feet tall from head to foot, and his rail-thin amphibian arms held a plain white poster board sign over his head bearing the number ‘12’ in black marker.
People all around him were already forming into their groups, causing Tyler to feel a faint touch of trepidation. He had to get to his sector chief; he refused to have held himself mostly together through this whole ordeal since the waiting room just to lose his shit upon reaching Moonblade. Half-jogging, he headed along the stretch of the shipyard in search of a ‘26’, which he spotted after a couple of minutes. Spotting a clutch of fellow Condemned in front of that sign, he sprinted the rest of the way over, slowing down as he approached to take in his sector chief, whom Jixa had informed him was named Decker.
Decker gave off an air of apathy so obvious that it was palpable from a good twenty feet away, the sign held over his head in one hand. Physically, the sector chief appeared to be a ten foot tall black-furred gorilla with thick serpents for arms, a pair of tiny, toy-like bat wings standing out on his shoulders. His forehead was wrinkled forward, eyes half-lidded as he looked over his people. Tyler noted that his was, thus far, the smallest group of Condemned, and by the time all of the humans had gotten themselves sorted out, that remained true, with only twelve total being assigned to Sector 26. Decker tossed his sign behind him casually, cleared his throat, and crossed the giant boa-arms over his chest.
“All right, maggots,” the demon rumbled, his voice instantly putting Tyler in mind of Ron Perlman, of ‘Hellboy’ fame. How very fitting, he thought. “Listen up. I, am your sector chief in the 26th. You may call me Decker. I’ve got a few things to go over with you all before we climb into the bus and head to our part of town.” He turned his head toward a nearby demon, who looked like a suit of medieval armor with glowing red eyes in its empty, open-faced helmet of a head. “The bus is ready, right?”
“Aye, my lord,” the demon replied.
“Thank you, Telman,” Decker said. The gorilla demon faced his people once more and addressed them. “First thing’s first, we are going to be riding to the sector’s central office. Once there, you will all be seated in a waiting area, where you will, obviously, wait, until such time as I can have a little pow-wow with each of you individually. You will not leave the waiting area, except to use the bathroom. Yes, the bathroom, folks. Certain functions, you will no doubt have noticed, have carried over from your mortal form to the one you currently inhabit. This is largely to help with the transition, but usually ends up holding over thanks to habit.
“While in the waiting area, you are free to converse with one another. You will not, however, engage in violence against one another, or against any of my officers who will be observing you. Doing so will immediately earn you a full day as a member of the Damned in my sector, and you don’t want that, folks. I keep a few very unpleasant people on my staff, and they love nothing so much as the opportunities that come their way to torture mortal souls.” Tyler and his fellow Condemned exchanged nervous glances among themselves, then directed their attention to Decker once more. “Once we’ve had our chat, one of my officers will guide you from my office to your personally assigned residence. At that juncture, you should be prepared to start your eternal afterlife proper. Undoubtedly, you will have questions even after our talk and any information you glean from your escorts or neighbors upon arrival to your new home. That’s to be expected. What you will not do, however, is bring me any of those questions, not for at least two weeks. When I’m done with you today, I don’t want to see your fucking faces unless it happens to be a glance while I’m out and about the sector.”
He paused, looking around at the dozen Condemned new to his sector. Tyler shared the demon’s look, impressed with the overall self-control his sector-mates seemed to possess. Perhaps that’s something we all have in common, a unifying factor. That could be why we’re all part of the same group, and why it’s such a small one, he mused. Decker grunted, a faint grin quirking up one corner of his wide mouth.
“The Condemned of my sector all tend to come from the United States, up and down the east coast,” said Decker. “Some of you may suspect you’ve seen or even met some of the folks you’ll be ‘living’ near,” he said, using air quotes on the word living, allowing Tyler to see that the actual faces of the serpents that composed his arms were embedded in the palms of his hands. “Chances are good that you’re right. Just don’t go thinking that a previous connection to these people necessarily means you’ll enjoy one now.” Decker gave Telman another look, nodding to the animated armor suit. Telman marched swiftly away, disappearing around the corner of a nearby low, one-story structure. “All right, people, follow me, we’re getting on the bus.”
Tyler allowed himself to fall back into the middle of the line that naturally formed itself from his group, an orderly procession following the broad, muscular back of the gorilla-like demon who would be overseeing their afterlife. When they came around the side of the building, he spotted a tall, bright orange double decker bus, reminiscent of the sort he’d seen in films set in England. He stifled a snicker as he peered up and down the roadway the bus was parked upon, looking for the life of him like a modern American metro area. He met eyes with Telman, seated in the driver’s seat, as he climbed on board, and he felt a primal dread wrap itself around his stomach just before breaking eye contact.
Decker may be the boss here, but he’s not the real threat. That demon tin can is. He shuffled down the narrow, rubber matted aisle, locating an empty seat, and slid down into it. Gaze locked out the window, he took in his surroundings as the bus slowly eased away from the curb, pulling out onto the wide roadway between tall, shabby-looking buildings made of what looked like ancient brick or stone. The bus’s interior was cool and comfortable in comparison to the open-aired shipyard they’d left behind, and now that they were moving and not under the direct gaze of demons, some of his fellow Condemned could be heard talking to each other in hushed tones.
Tyler looked across the aisle at a middle-aged man with a short, neat beard and moustache, wearing a pair of chino shorts, black tennis shoes and a plain red tee-shirt, his forearms covered in faded tattoos. The other Condemned man, athletic in build and darkly tanned, had eyes that seemed to gleam with a secret amusement. Tyler lifted his head slightly in greeting, and the other man replied in kind. “Tyler,” Tyler said by way of introduction.
“Rory,” the other man replied. “So, what landed you here, Tyler?”
“Shit,” Tyler said with a sigh, shaking his head. “I was just working at my job, a convenience store. Guy came in to rob the place, shot me in the fucking head. You?”
“I was walking my dog,” said Rory, looking down at his lap for a moment. Still looking down, he continued, “The dope snapped his leash, ran off on me. I was chasing him down, didn’t look where I was going, got taken out by a big rig.” Tyler winced, lips pulling back over his teeth. Rory caught the look and chuckled darkly, putting his hands up as if to say, ‘hey, what can you do?’ Tyler admired the man’s levity. “Could have been worse, you know?”
“True enough,” Tyler said. A small, long face suddenly poked out around the back of the seat in front of him, a cute young woman with platinum blond hair giving him a dour glance.
“At least you guys bit it quick,” she squeaked in a mousy voice, her icy blue eyes twitching. “I spent the last minute of my life in a complete panic.”
“How’d you go, blondie,” Rory asked. earning a head-whip from the young woman. Turned away from him, Tyler saw that she had a small dolphin tattoo on the back of her neck.
“I drowned,” she snapped brusquely. “Everything was fine, I was just swimming in the lake up by my parents’ vacation house, when some dipshit in a boat hit me in the head with his oar when I came up too close for air. It didn’t knock me out, but it stunned me long enough that I wound up taking in water before I could get to the surface. It was awful,” she said, shuddering, clutching herself tight as she leaned back up into her seat. “I could feel myself drifting down deeper into the lake, getting colder and colder, until suddenly, I was getting hot, boiling even.”
Tyler knew she meant the fall, which he thought might be deserving of being capitalized as an event. He shared a quick look with Rory, both men nodding, then turning their attentions out their windows, watching the city go by around them. It didn’t take long for them to pull to a halt in front of a squat block of lime green painted concrete with a sign out front declaring it the 26th Sector Center. The hiss of air brakes being engaged belted out, followed by the ‘clunk-creak-slide’ of the doors being opened. The bus rocked, tilted, bucked as Decker, huge as he was, clambered off first, followed by several of the Condemned. Tyler got up out of his seat, Rory sliding up right behind him to take up drogue on the line. Before turning to head down the steps, Tyler stole a look to Telman, but the living armor demon held solid, staring straight ahead with its gauntlet/hands gripping the wide steering wheel. Tyler headed down the steps and followed the person ahead of him for a few steps, pausing to take in the building before them.
The sector center reminded him of a town hall/police station combination of the sort typically seen in more rural or suburban townships, and it stuck out from its surroundings like a black stain on a crisp white shirt. All about them the city of Moonblade thrummed with demonic citizenry and veteran Condemned going about their day-to-day business, the whole of the cityscape illuminated by the queer volcanic light that seemed to naturally filter down from the infinite, starless blackness overhead. Placed periodically along the uneven sidewalks were tall, black wrought-iron street lamps, of a design Tyler thought he’d seen in many shows and films depicting the early Industrial Era.
A ‘wheesh’ sounded behind him, and Tyler looked back at the bus as the doors clacked shut. As it slowly started rolling away, he did a double take, staring openly at the tires of the bus; they were people, bent and burned into roughly circular shapes, their mouths sewn shut with barbed wire, eyelids cut away so that they had to stare at their world of torment as it spun round and round. He shuddered, his gorge threatening to rise and spill over. A firm hand gripped his shoulder, Rory, shaking his head faintly.
“Just don’t think about it too much, bud,” said the older man. “Let’s hurry up and wait, as they might say in the army.” Tyler reclaimed his place in the shuffling line heading indoors, gasping as he passed through the doorway held open by the person in front of him. The interior of the building felt like a restaurant cooler compared to the permanently gauzy haze of humidity outdoors, refreshing and most welcome.
The lobby was arranged like a quaint indoor courtyard, complete with benches surrounding lush vegetation and plant life boxed in by chest-high brick enclosures. Several hallways branched off of the lobby, and there were windowed offices on two partial walls to the left and right ends of the room, blinds turned shut to prevent anyone seeing inside. Decker stood at the left-hand door, fumbling with a key as Tyler took a seat on one of the benches. Rory sat next to him, propping one foot up on the opposite knee, arms draped back on the top layer of bricks behind them.
“This doesn’t seem so bad,” Rory commented.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Tyler, observing the greenery behind him. He reached out to feel the long, thin green leaves, marveling at the simple pleasure of touching something genuinely alive. As he pushed some of them aside, he spotted a furtive movement amid the dark, loose soil, and squinted his eyes to try better to make out what he was seeing. Running through the thicket came a little woman, a torn dress flapping about her bleeding, filthy body. Chasing close behind came three beetle-like insects, each one carrying a serrated long knife in its front legs. Tyler let go of the leaves and swiftly faced forward once more, shutting out the Damned woman’s pathetic moans and pleas for mercy as best he could. “Doesn’t seem bad at all,” he muttered, adding even more quietly, “at first glance.”
“What’s that,” Rory asked.
“Nothing, nevermind.” Tyler wanted nothing more than to just keep his head down and wait his turn to speak with Decker, find out what his job was going to be and go to his residence, but he suspected Rory was going to want to make small talk. No harm indulging him, I suppose. What else have I got to do right now? Decker pushed open the door to his office, then turned to his newly assigned Condemned.
“All right, folks,” he rumbled, hands on his hips. “Telman will be here after he’s parked the bus, and he’ll be bringing in the officers I mentioned before with him. If Telman gives you an order, you obey it as if he spoke on my behalf. Don’t worry about how long I take with each of you. After all, it isn’t like you’re going anywhere,” he said, snickering as if he’d just told a genuinely amusing jape. He stooped low to fit through the doorway, ducked down on the other side and called out, checking his clipboard first, “Samantha Wynn, you’re up first.” The platinum blond who’d spoken to Tyler and Rory about her drowning got up from her bench and timidly followed the gorilla-demon into his office, easing the door shut behind her. Despite her gentle motion, it clapped like a thunderbolt when it closed.
“They really go all-in on the theatrics here, don’t they,” Rory observed.
“Well, it is Hell,” Tyler replied. “I imagine they’ve got quite the budget for special effects. Pyrotechnics must eat up a lot of that, though.”
“Oh, undoubtedly,” Rory said, folding his arms over his chest and making his mouth into a firm frown. “I mean, it only makes sense, right? Hellfire don’t come cheap.”
“And you know it’s practical work, none of that CGI nonsense,” Tyler added, feeling his previous tension starting to ease away little by little.
“Anything less would be uncivilized.” Rory and Tyler broke into schoolboy giggling, the older man actually slapping his knee a few times before regaining control of himself. “Ah, shit, man, this is just so bizarre. I mean, we’re in Hell, man! I didn’t even wholly believe in this place anymore!”
“So, you’re an atheist,” Tyler asked. “Or, were?”
“No, no, not exactly,” Rory said, leaning back once more, but with his arms over his chest. “I just wasn’t a very good Catholic anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t kill anyone or anything like that,” he said, waving his hands emphatically. “Buuut, I didn’t exactly do the right thing all the time. I told a lot of lies, little white ones, mostly, and a few big black fibs mixed in here and there. It’s actually one of those that got me kicked out of the priesthood,” Rory said. Tyler barked a short, sharp laugh, cut off quickly by the realization that the man beside him had absolutely no reason to lie to him. Wide-eyed, grinning like a dope, he addressed him.
“You were a fuckin’ priest, man? Jesus, that’s just,” he began, searching for the right word. “Weird.”
“I’d have gone for ‘ironic’ myself, but thank you, young man,” Rory said. “You see, while I’d spent about seven, eight years of my life after graduating from the seminary searching for signs of God’s hand in the world around me, I became more and more certain of one thing.”
“And that was?,” Tyler prompted.
“That I wasn’t going to find any. But do you know what I did find whenever I wanted to? Jack Daniels whiskey,” Rory said, leaning toward Tyler, elbow now propped on his leg, hunched forward and to the side. “I was okay with not getting laid so long as I could get blitzed, and more often than not, I found myself drinking to avoid thinking about some of the young women in my congregation in a lustful manner.”
“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what was the fib that did you in,” Tyler inquired. Rory put his head down between his knees, legs wide apart, and took a loud, deep breath, letting it out in an equally theatrical fashion. He straightened up, and paused as the center’s main doors opened, letting in the fiend Telman and a clutch of shorter demons of various shapes and sizes. They all bore an identical black sigil on their chests over where a heart would likely beat, Tyler noticed, and with another careful look at Telman, he saw that the living armor demon bore a similar mark on his left breastplate. Telman swept his right hand in an arc in front of him, and the twelve underlings began ambling about the large lobby, eyeballing their charges.
Telman himself tromped off down the left hallway, sticking close to the wall as he disappeared from view. Rory cleared his throat, thus drawing Tyler’s attention once more. “You were asking what the fib was that killed my career as a clergyman,” the older Condemned man said. “Well, the bishop I reported to came by for a visit one day, and he asked me if I was happy in my parish, if everything was going well. The lie I told him was that yes, I was doing just fine, thanks for asking. But Tyler, let me tell you, I was about as far from ‘fine’ as a snowball is from a bullet in terms of damage potential.
“Two days after he left to head back to his regional office, I got into a drunken ramble at a local watering hole. I wasn’t wearing the collar, and I ended up getting picked up by a young woman who, it turned out, was one of those very same said women I had been trying to avoid having carnal thoughts about.” Tyler whistled low, and Rory just nodded. Tyler sniffled, his nose wrinkling at a whiff of some wet, sour garbage smell coming from one of the lesser demons pacing a few yards away. Rory soon also had a pinched face, giving the demon a sour glare. “Dear Jesus, what the fuck makes a man smell like that,” he asked of Tyler.
“Not anything healthy, that’s for certain,” the young clerk replied, waving one hand back and forth in front of his face. He snapped his fingers at the malodorous thing, and it slowly swiveled to face him, a short, man-like thing with dull green eyes, a flat, noseless face, and a long, sloping gray torso. Its legs were but ambulatory stumps. The overall effect made it look like something out of an elementary schoolers’ art project. “Can you give us an estimate of how long each person usually takes in there,” Tyler asked amiably. The sloppy demon just shrugged its vague shoulders and ambled away, apparently not wanting to be around any human curiosity.
“Chatty fellah,” Rory murmured. “Anyhow, she ended up blabbing to a few of her friends about it, and they got together and wrote some letters to the archdiocese, and I was given a choice; lose the booze, or lose the flock. Can you guess which one I picked?” Tyler nodded, twirling one finger to indicate that Rory should finish up his story. “Well, I had to find a real job after that, and thankfully, I had an education and some skills, thanks to Saint Augustine’s. It was enough to get me a job working as a councilor at a halfway house.”
“So, what about the booze,” Tyler asked. “I figured that was leading to some kind of rock bottom you hit, realized you needed to change your life, blah blah blah,” the younger man said blithely, even going so far as to roll his eyes. Rory let out a shocked laugh, which turned some heads toward them for a moment before their fellow Condemned returned to their conversations or quiet contemplation.
“I’m sorry,” Rory said, still smiling quite broadly. “I’ve just never met someone your age who could be so cynical about serious topics like alcoholism.”
“Rory,” Tyler said, casting an over-the-top look around the lobby. “In case you didn’t notice, we’re in Hell. I don’t know about you, but I never really thought I’d end up here, so a little cynicism is called for, I’d say.” The former priest pursed his lips, eyes squinted, and made a ‘hm’ sound.
“You have a point, Tyler. But no, I didn’t have a rock bottom experience exactly, though it was a rock bottom that got me to knock it off with the booze. One of the guys at the halfway house finally had some money squirreled away, and one weekend, he got authorized to take a couple of days away from the home. When he came back Sunday night, it was just for long enough to gather a few things under the watchful eye of his parole officer, who was about to escort him back to prison. It turned out that he spent most of Friday night at a bar with some of his old pals from before he got locked up the first time, and, well, you know what they say about old habits.” He paused, wordlessly offering Tyler an opening, but the younger man held his tongue; he had a quip on the ready, so long as Rory followed up. “They die hard.”
“Great movie. Bruce Willis, Allen Rickman, good stuff,” he said, giving Rory the ‘double guns’ finger point and wink.
“Holiday movie, though? What do you think,” Rory zipped right back at him.
“Fitting for the season, but watchable any time,” Tyler replied. Rory held one hand up, and Tyler high-fived him. Their conversation came to an end then, though, as Samantha Wynn came out of the sector chief’s office, immediately joined by the garbage-smelling demon that had ignored Tyler and Rory just a couple of minutes earlier. Together, they made their way toward the center’s main doors, leaving behind the men and women she’d arrived in Moonblade with. Tyler had caught the briefest glance at her face as she left Decker’s office, and what he’d seen had been strange to him; she had looked almost happy.
Happy in Hell.
Decker’s simian head poked through his doorway, drawing all eyes to him. “Tyler Evans,” he said. Tyler took a steadying breath and got up from the bench, giving Rory a firm handshake before following the lumbering demon into his office. The office itself was, from top to bottom, proportioned to accommodate Decker, resulting in a sense of having stepped into the role of curious little Alice in a bent version of Wonderland. His desk was enormous, easily spanning twelve feet from one end to the other, a mahogany beast no common man could move. Broad bookshelves flanked Decker’s seat on the other side of the desk, looming like the shelves of some lost, forgotten library that had been buried rather than put to the torch.
“Have a seat, Evans,” Decker said, settling into his own chair, which protested with a metallic groan. Tyler literally climbed up onto his chair, from which he had a good enough vantage to see a closed laptop computer to the right of Decker’s hand, which rested atop a green three-ring binder. The gorilla demon opened his hand, revealing for a moment the slitted snake eyes and tongue-flicking mouth in his palm, and pulled the binder open to its first page. “So, first thing’s first. Your residence is actually not that far from here, Evans, over on Pelag Avenue. You’re getting your own place, but there will be other Condemned residents in the building with you.”
“Sort of an apartment building set-up?” Tyler made sure to scrub any lingering traces of sarcasm or cynicism from his tone and his present state of mind. It was one thing to joke around and be flip with Rory while trying to ignore the plight of the tiny Damned woman fleeing sword-wielding beetle-things. It was quite another to try that ‘laugh in the Reaper’s face’ approach with something like Decker.
“Yes, that would be a suitable approximation,” said Decker with a nod. He looked down at the binder, flipping to the next page. “Now, what follows from here,” he said, looking Tyler in the eyes and running his finger down the edge of the papers, pinching in near the bottom of the pile held in the binder by its three metal rings. “To here, is a tally of your notable moments in life. Not notable in the way you probably got used to thinking, though. Notable to us, and the other side. Moral decisions and actions, ethical decisions and actions, and their counterparts. We get a full run-down, and the angels get one too. The record is constantly updated, of course, as you might expect, and it’s mostly automated since about the fifteenth century A.D.”
“So, all the moments that I might have thought about for at least a few days will probably be in there,” Tyler observed.
“Right,” said Decker, flipping through a few pages, letting his club-like pointer finger, covered in serpentine scales, land on a random spot. “So, for instance, when you were twelve years old and discovered what masturbation was, we had a bit of a kerfuffle on our hands. Or rather, on your hands,” said Decker with an idiot grin. “You see, the act itself is nothin’, not a big deal in the slightest. However, there are some mitigating factors that will occasionally bring the act to our attention. For instance, we have it on record that you were thinking about your cousin Emily when you jerked off for the first time to completion,” rumbled the gorilla demon, tapping the paper under his hand. “While the morality of incest is neutral to Heaven and Hell, the fact that she was a full year younger than you, and she was still pretty much an innocent kid who didn’t know anything about sexual truths, made this a notable moment in our favor.”
Tyler cringed in his chair. Emily, Jesus, he thought. I haven’t thought about her for years. Wait a minute. Tyler cleared his throat and, with as stern an expression as he could muster, asked Decker, “If you know the Condemned and the Damned’s thoughts in life, can you hear them now that we’re dead?”
“Now now, Tyler, it doesn’t work like that,” Decker said, waving his hands and smiling solicitously, leaning back in his chair, which once more protested against any movement from his mass upon it. “We don’t hear anything, not even when you’re alive. That’s well beyond the pay grade of the vast majority of our kind. The only ones who can decipher the thoughts of humans in the Mortal World are the Ravagers, the Deep Fallen, and the big man himself, Lucifer Morningstar, who we call boss. And even then, Lucifer’s the only one who can do it seemingly at whim. As for here, in the Pit? Not even Lucifer can read your thoughts here, not without directly coming into contact with your soul. But again, that power belongs to only him down here. Now, shall we continue?”
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry, Decker,” said the young clerk. “Please, go on. I’m sure everyone out there just wants to get their information and get going.”
“Probably, yes,” said Decker, raising one eyebrow at him. “But why should you care? This is the afterlife, Mr. Evans, and in case you forgot for a moment, you didn’t get into the place with the gossamer clouds and harps and shit. Why be altruistic if you’re already in Hell?”
“Because altruism stems from ethics, not morals,” Tyler responded instantly, his honed responses in debate to religious folk on forums such as Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr coming as easily to him as breathing the rank, sulfurous air outside of this center would become with time. “A person who opts to do something pleasant for others without necessarily expecting, demanding, or even hoping that something equally or more positively aligned will transpire or be done for them is an altruist. That doesn’t require the dogma of morality that stems from, well, religions,” he said, tapering off as he finished, realizing how foolish it sounded, given the evidence of a demon sitting across an oversized desk from him.
“Still fucking with your head, being here?”
“Welcome to my world, kid. I was fucking born here, so imagine what that feels like. As foreign a concept as Heaven and Hell were to you in life, the idea of a place that isn’t Hell or the Void seems awfully fuckin’ strange to me,” Decker observed, his toothy grin fading as he contemplated the notion. “But I digress. Back to this,” he said, looking down at the papers again. This time he flipped to the last few pages, and peered down at them for a long minute before proceeding. “Tyler, your records indicate you were a clerk at a gas station/convenience store combination starting in your junior year of high school. You have held no other jobs, and have demonstrated no more unique skills than running a small store like that, and arguing with thiests online.”
“I don’t think I like where this is going,” Tyler muttered.
“Bearing in mind that there is no single duty which is guaranteed to be permanent and everlasting here in Hell, you have been assigned, for now, to be the first shift clerk for the local 5ive and Dime, just a couple of blocks away from your residence.” Tyler blinked at the gorilla for a moment, then pressed his hands up against his face and sighed, shaking his head. “Something the matter?”
“Oh, no,” Tyler said with venomous sarcasm. “Nothing wrong at all, big guy! It’s not like I got shot in the face just a few hours ago at just such a job, thus being flung like a bit of flotsam into a place of eternal torment that I had come to believe, through the use of logic and reason, didn’t exist! Oh, wait, that’s exactly what happened!” He banged the flat of his hand against his knee and grunted, a weird, animal noise that seemed to have no rhyme or reason other than to aid in the expression of how impotent he felt against his current reality. He snorted, crossed his legs in his seat, and half-turned away, elbow propped on the back of his chair, forehead resting against the back of his wrist. There came a lengthy pause as neither man nor demon spoke. Finally, Tyler looked over at Decker with a turn of his eyes alone.
“Done with your little hissy-fit,” Decker asked quietly. Tyler snorted again, less passionately or aggressively now. He had been hoping that Decker would be a likable demon, and though he certainly wasn’t the sort of monster one might think of when asked what someone’s overseer might be like in the Pit, Tyler hadn’t yet come across a clear sign of likability. “Good enough,” said the sector chief. “I need you to know a few other things, Tyler, because they’re going to come up now that you’re here with us. For starters, you will be trained in on your duty tomorrow morning. I realize that ‘morning’ doesn’t mean quite the same thing here as it did in your world, but the concept remains valid in the broad scheme. There are no excuses for missing your training. Failure to show up and learn how to do your duty will result in a seven day suspension of your rights as a member of the Condemned.” Tyler sat up now; the threat of severe torment was very real in Hell’s confines. “Secondly, there is an order to this place, albeit a very, very loose one. The chain of command and responsibilities, as well as basic information on the various types of demons and people in Hell is all available on your CIR.”
“This thing,” Tyler asked, raising his hand loosely, waggling his middle finger just a few hairs to either side.
“Yes, that thing. Your CIR, if plugged into a port in your domicile, will grant you access to a whole plethora of information. But we’re not going to examine it all now. For now, I’ve got your residence papers,” said Decker, pulling open a drawer by his right knee and taking out a crystal tumbler. He set it on his desk on Tyler’s side, and from the drawer he then took a large bottle of some faintly neon greenish fluid, pouring a small measure into the tumbler. Next to the glass, he then slid over several of the papers that had been in the front pocket of the binder holding, essentially, Tyler Evans’s life story. “Also in there is a full rundown of your duties at the store. So, congratulations, Mr. Evans, you are hereby officially one of the Condemned. Have a drink, and welcome to Hell.”
Woodenly, Tyler took the glass and swigged down the strange beverage, surprised by the cool, minty flavoring of the liquor. When he set the glass back down, he experienced a moment of vertigo, but then shook it off, lips flapping as he blew a raspberry. “What was that?”
“It’s called Green Peace,” said Decker, turning the bottle around and around with two fingers. “Not to be confused with those hippies up in the Mortal World. It’s one of the few liquors we can enjoy down here.” He opened another drawer, pulled out a thin booklet, and slid it across his desk to Tyler. The young Condemned man grabbed it and held it up for his inspection, grinning at the cover. The cover was an image of a hipster pulling off the ‘modern lumberjack’ look, his legs and hips bound in barbed wire, two old-fashioned cartoon imps brandishing pitchforks at him on either side as he looked out at the reader with a look of terror on his face. Above the picture stood the words ‘So You’ve’, and beneath the image, ‘Been Condemned’. In smaller, formal font beneath this it read, ‘The Official Rulebook of the Condemned Afterlife, 2600th Edition’. “That booklet covers the rules here, which really aren’t all that complicated. It also spells out the punishments for breaking those rules. Continued Condemnation is not guaranteed, you’ll see. If you aren’t careful, you can end up Damned.”
Tyler flipped quickly through the booklet, pausing to look at a few pictures that graced its pages. They were bizarre, abstract images, and when he stared at one for a few seconds, he realized that the image was moving, like something out of one of the Harry Potter novels or films. He snapped the booklet shut, and tucked it in one of the pockets of his jeans. His fingers tracing the material along his leg. “Can I ask a few questions, Decker?”
“Sure, if you can keep it short,” the gorilla demon replied.
“How am I wearing clothes? And wherein do I get more?” The demon barked a strangely enjoyable laugh, slapping his desk.
“The clothes you were wearing when you died are what you arrive with,” Decker said, leaning back in his chair once again. “And although I’m not fully aware of the mechanics, most of your wardrobe will be waiting for you in your residence. Next?”
“Yeah, next. Um, how big is Hell? Geographically, I mean? And how can we tell day from night?” Tyler had far too many questions, he knew, but these were fundamentals that he felt compelled to know the answers to, so that he could at least attempt to make some sense about this newfound existence. Without a basic grasp on how his environment functioned, Tyler had slowly begun feeling untethered, as if he might start raving like a lunatic.
“Hell is, well, big, Mr. Evans, and it is ever expanding,” replied Decker. “I was created here, and I haven’t even seen a quarter of its entirety. We constantly need more real estate with the influx of the Damned and more demons, though things have slowed down the last thirty or forty years. As for daytime and nighttime, trust me, you’ll notice the difference. It would’ve been quite difficult while you were on the waters of the Styx, sure, but here in the city itself, you’ll be able to tell. During the day, the overdark seems a lot less dense. During the night, it’s as black as can be, and the hellfire street lamps have to be turned up a bit.” Decker rose to his full, considerable height, wound his fingers together and turned his hands palms-out, the serpent faces hissing at Tyler as the slitted eyes blinked in rapid fire, knuckles popping loudly. “That about wraps our time together for now, Mr. Evans. One of the sector officers will now escort you to your new home.”
Tyler rose, still feeling a little wobbly from the Green Peace, but overall capable of walking under his own power. “Thank you, sir,” he said, heading for the door, but pausing when he had his hand on the knob. “Decker?”
“If I’m Condemned, and that was already a certainty, then why the awful drop?” There came no immediate answer from the gorilla-like creature behind him, but there was a sensation of stirring, as though Decker had shifted position once again. Tyler looked over his shoulder, and found Decker seated forward, a stern, solemn look on his simian face. His arms were propped on his desk, hands clenched together, thumbs rolling one over the other.
“That, Mr. Evans, is but a taste of what happens on a constant basis to the Damned. Every soul in Hell receives torment, as you have already been made aware. Even you will have a minimum amount of suffering to experience on a weekly schedule. We use ‘The Drop’ as an initiation to the pains one will know during their time here. Think of it as a crash course in eternal torment.”
“I see,” Tyler mumbled, satisfied with Decker’s answer. “Well, thank you, again.” Tyler opened the door and stepped out, greeted by a stout, bipedal dog-like man with a single bone horn thrusting out from his forehead in a deadly spike. The demon officer was dressed in a kind of ersatz military uniform of medium gray, with shining gold buttons and a black leather strap worn from right shoulder to left him. The breed of dog was uncertain, though the closest thing Tyler could think of was a bulldog, the wrinkles, snub nose and googley eyes pointing him that way. “Officer,” he said, inclining his head slightly in greeting.
“Evans,” the dog demon replied, his voice squeaky, almost cute. “Come along, hume, and let’s be quick. I’ve other tasks before me.” Tyler followed the short demon, making note of a small sigil on the demon’s neck before falling in step behind him. The Condemned man waved to Rory as he passed the ex-priest, then headed outside with the officer, almost gagging when the humidity of the environment washed over him like an unseen sludge.
“Hell feels a lot like Florida in high summer,” Tyler remarked.
“What’s a Florida,” the officer asked.
“Nevermind. So, who do I talk to when I want to get my week’s torment out of the way,” Tyler inquired.
“Any sector officer can tend to those needs at the base level,” said the officer. The street he led Tyler along appeared to be fairly vacant, with only a few distant Condemned and demons seen in the distance, perhaps two blocks distant. The street looked darker than before, confirming for Tyler what Decker had been talking about in terms of noticing the difference between night and day in Hell. The evenly placed street lamps glimmered with flickering hellfire light, the subtle odor of sulfur permeating the area. The sidewalk they strode along, composed of a smoothed red stone, did not appear to have any separation of blocks, a single, solid surface that stretched on until it turned the corner at the intersection ahead.
“Are there other vehicles in this city,” Tyler asked.
“This time of day, not many. Still, it’s safest to stay off the streets this close to the sector center. The 26th is of a good size, but there’s a lot of cross traffic during the day, given our relative proximity to the pinpoint center of the city as a whole. You’ll see that for yourself as you get used to being here.”
Tyler tried to take in the myriad tall buildings around them as they walked, though he felt a queer sense of sadness at the lack of distinction between structures. There was a uniformity that struck him as uninspired and, if he remained honest with himself, lacking in imagination. It isn’t as menacing as I had thought it would be. Then again, I’m not Damned. Maybe it’s not supposed to be menacing for me. His thoughts turned briefly once more to the tiny woman being chased by the monstrous beetles with swords, which further assured him that yes, the cities of the Condemned and demonkind were probably not supposed to be intimidating for them.
“Any general tips or guidelines I should know? Beyond what’s in the booklet Decker gave me, I mean.”
“Well, for one thing, I’m sure you’ve wondered what might happen if you die here, or get injured in some way,” the bulldog demon said, slowing his step so that Tyler drew even beside him.
“It had crossed my mind, yeah,” Tyler replied. Before he realized what was going on, the demon officer pulled out a small dagger from a sheath on his left hip, flipped it into a stabbing grip, and brought it crashing down into Tyler’s outer thigh. The Condemned young man howled in agony, dropping to the sidewalk on his ass, clutching the wound as blood quickly spread through his pant leg. “What the fuck, man,” he screamed at the demon, as the odd black metal of the blade burned in his flesh. The officer plucked the weapon free with a wet ‘shlop’, though the pain remained, a bright flare amid the darkness of his blue jeans. However, in seconds, as he watched, the wound closed, glowing with a deep crimson light. The pain subsided just as quickly, leaving only a narrow tear in the pants and a blotchy bloodstain. Marveling at this phenomenon, Tyler stared up at the demon officer, who sheathed his weapon and offered the young man a padded hand up. Tyler accepted, and was hauled with a surprising strength to his feet.
“If I had cut your throat, you would have dropped dying to the concrete. However, you would then disassemble, and reassemble either somewhere nearby or in your residence. Having not yet arrived and logged yourself into your residence with your CIR, you would probably show back up a block over in some direction. This is Hell, after all. If you die here, where did you think you’d go?” Tyler could have slapped himself for being so naive. It only made sense, he supposed, that death in Hell would work very strangely. He’d already been told as much by Jixa, and the Damned were routinely slaughtered as part of their eternal torment. How else could that happen without the sort of system that the officer had just described to him?
He followed the dog demon the rest of the way without question, opting instead to simply take in the city itself. It reminded him, in its way, of downtown Philadelphia, except for the black-and-red chromatic theme that dominated everything. Finally, after perhaps ten minutes, the officer stopped, turning to face a humble three-story Brownstone, the appearance of which Tyler found jarring to the eye. Unlike the many surrounding structures, this one had been painted a dark brown, with the windows framed by a cream-colored wood.
“Sort of stands out, doesn’t it,” Tyler said.
“Not really,” replied the demon. “Your vision has not yet fully acclimated to the environment of Hell, that’s all. I imagine that you’ve seen everything around you as predominantly red and black, yes?”
“Shades thereof, yeah.”
“It will take some time, but eventually, you will have the vision of a resident of the Pit, and see things as they really are,” said the officer, hands on his hips. “The Assignment Station and sector center, I’m sure, looked perfectly colorful to you, right?”
“Yeah,” said Tyler. A distant scream somewhere drew his attention for a moment, but he quickly shrugged it off as none of his concern.
“Those are vital points for the Condemned, so we have arranged to alter them for your benefit. However, everything else will take a couple of weeks to get used to. Not that you’re strapped for time, precisely,” the demon said with a derisive chuckle. “This is you, Evans, unit 206. I’ll be here in the morning to take you to your first day of duty.”
“Work, you mean,” Tyler said. “My job.”
“Whatever word works to get this over with. Now, you are not to leave the building until I come to fetch you in the morning.” Tyler failed to repress his own snicker. “Something funny, Evans,” the officer grumbled, hands on his hips.
“Sorry, sorry,” Tyler said, back of his hand over his mouth. “It’s just, well, word choice. You know, ‘fetch’? You being a dog and all?” The demon’s face went slack, and in yet another movement so swift that Tyler could barely track it, the officer whipped out his knife and stabbed it into Tyler’s thigh again, conjuring forth a fresh howl of pain, Tyler lifting his leg and hopping about, limping in a circle before he stopped and tried to pry the weapon loose from his thigh. His hands, slick with blood, kept slipping from the handle.
“You can’t remove it, even if you get a solid grasp on it,” said the demon flatly. “Humes cannot wield infernal weapons.” Tyler wiped his hands on his shirt as best he could, got a proper grip on the dagger’s handle, and yanked as hard as he could, to no effect. The demon spoke true, it seemed. Tyler groaned as another flare of pain ripped through his leg, the blade pulsing with demonic heat. Finally the dog demon reached out and slid the blade out, licking Tyler’s blood from it before slipping it back into its sheath. “I may only be an Imp-Class, boy, but I am a demon. You will show me the proper respect.” Tyler felt another quip working its way from his mind to his mouth, but in light of this most recent result of his smart-ass nature, he managed to lower the portcullis between thought and speech. “Do we understand one another?”
“Yeah, big time,” Tyler replied with a bloody thumb’s up. He started up the steps of the Brownstone, looking back at the dog demon, who came only to the bottom step, then stopped, reaching into one the pockets of his military uniform and producing a silvery key.
“You’ll only need it this first time to get in. After you step through the door, you will find a CIR port on the wall. Press the ring to it, and follow the steps. After that, you’ll be able to use the CIR port on the outside of the door to get in. I leave you to it now, hume. I will, retrieve, you, in the morning.” Tyler took the ring, turned, and went up the rest of the steps into the building. The main entry foyer was a small, dark, cramped chamber with two branching hallways, north to south, and east to west. In front of him, off to the left side of the north-south hallway, stood a winding staircase leading up to the next floor.
“What, no elevators,” Tyler mused aloud. The pain in his leg had subsided, thankfully, and he ascended up to the second floor, finding the decrepit, peeling wallpaper in the hallway and the thin, threadbare carpeting to be utterly fitting. A filthy faux-copper plate stood on the wall opposite the stairs he’d just come up, indicating even numbered units to the left, odd to the right. He turned left, and slowly made his way down the hall, turning the key back and forth in his hand.
The door to 206 looked like the sort of cheap wood used in every shithole apartment building and hotel the world over. There appeared to be some sort of boot print just beneath the doorknob, and he wondered if this unit had been occupied until recently. Quite likely. Why give the new folks a new place? He slipped key into the hole under the knob, turned it, and with a ‘pop’ and a flash of silver light, the key vanished, the door creaking open. Tyler stepped inside, easing the door shut behind him. A light came on overhead of its own accord, revealing to Tyler that he was standing in what looked like a simple, Spartan living room, with a light switch to his right on the otherwise blank wall, and next to it, a square of black marble inset into the wall.
Tyler did as he was instructed, making a fist and pressing the ring on his middle finger against the square, which illuminated with a soft scarlet light. A floating holographic screen appeared on the wall before him at about eye level, and the flowing text simply read, ‘Registering: Please wait.’ He did so for another half a minute, after which the message changed to, ‘Thank you. Welcome, Tyler Evans, Condemned. What would you do?’ He didn’t bother reading the options for the time being. For the moment, he just wanted to get an idea of what eternity was going to look like most of the time.
The unit was indeed small, but ideal for a single person. There was in the living room one recliner, situated across from a rickety entertainment stand upon which sat an old RCA color television. The Condemned, it seemed, were allowed to keep abreast of programming from the Mortal World, as well as his discovery that apparently Hell had its own entertainment industry. He came across a program cheerfully entitled ‘Torture Today’, which, if he understood it properly, was a sort of running competition to see who among all of Hell’s premier tormentors had the greatest imagination with regards to doling out punishment on the Damned.
There was a small kitchenette, the fridge stocked with a few basic staples. He understood that he didn’t need to eat, per se, but Jixa and Decker both seemed to have implied that a mortal soul will cling to the habits of a mortal life, at the least for a little while. Likewise, there was a bathroom, closet-like in dimensions but entirely functional. Lastly, there was a bedroom, with the closet and dresser already filled with reproductions of the clothing he had owned while still possessed of a pulse.
So, he thought, Hell is a shitty one-bedroom and a dead-end job. I think I already knew that. But Tyler felt a wave of fatigue wash over him, and all considerations of any sort flew from his mind. Though it had seemed unlikely when he first arrived in the Pit, he was able to climb into the creaking, solitary bed, slip under the thin blanket afforded him, and when he had rolled onto his side and settled, Tyler Evans fell easily into a deep, much needed sleep.
His first day in Hell was done. There were only an infinity left to go.