In the end, Industry
conquered the Earth.
The oceans and mountains
were stripped of their resources, while the ancient forests were
depleted and replaced with steel and glass. Great shafts were
drilled into the planet to extract her minerals, while her sky
was polluted with satellites so numerous they rivaled the stars.
In time, the Earth was transformed into a hideous sphere of metal
and flickering light, drifting obscenely through the blackness
Running out of room
to live, the human race began to build upward, striking new cities
upon the tired bones of the old; fashioning towers, grotesque
in their majesty, which reached into the heavens like shrines
to gluttonous consumption. By the time they were done building,
they had increased the thickness of the Earth’s crust by some
The coveted spaces
at the top of the skyscrapers, where a person might still catch
a glimpse of the Sun through the eternal grey twilight of the
Earth’s atmosphere, were reserved for the wealthy and the privileged,
the sons of the men who had destroyed the planet to begin with,
the ones who could not pass the strict genetic and political
requirements for relocation to one of the colonies on Mars.
Everyone else lived
in the Down-dwell, the habitational levels between the crowns
of the old cities and the feet of the new, where lifetimes were
spent toiling under electric light and the horizon was only as
far away as the next bend in the corridor ahead; where fresh
air and an open sky were concepts nearly incomprehensible.
Most lived a life
of servitude, laboring at some factory run by the world government,
building things they couldn’t afford to buy. Their apartments
were owned by the government, as were the items with which they
were furnished, as would be their bodies when they died.
And yet, despite the
conditions in which it found itself, mankind continued to flourish
on the face of a planet which had grown sick, becoming strange
in her ways, populating the dark, wet places with freakish mutations
and gifting people with powers over science and nature they could
barely control. Terrifying became the spaces beneath the old
cities, where nightmares shambled along vaulted passageways and
the darkness itself had become an element to be manipulated by
the evil and the mad.
called it Gehenna; others called it home.
Those too lawless
for the Down-dwell lived there, in the abandoned sewers and vent
shafts, in factories and foundries which had stood empty so long,
all record of their original purpose had been lost to time. There
were makeshift settlements and tent cities throughout Gehenna.
Some had even grown into fortified trading posts which did business
with the braver merchants of the Down-dwell.
Life was hard in the
basement of humanity, where battles erupted daily over food,
water and whatever useful bits of technology might still be uncovered
in the tunnels and forgotten places of the world, but a person
could make a reasonable living if they had the grit.
Most who lived in
Gehenna joined gangs in order to survive, while those more independent
became bodyguards, bounty hunters and prospectors. Violent and
unpredictable though they might have been, the citizens of Gehenna
wanted the same thing everyone else on the planet wanted: they
wanted to leave.
Savannah Vaughn stood
in the high, narrow corridor of rusted steel and studied the
stubborn hatchway before her. Wiping sweat from her eyes with
the rag tied around her wrist, she inhaled through her mouth—shallow
breaths—against the stench of decaying flesh, thick as smoke
in the air around her. Working in the dim glow of the electric
torch clipped to her leather jacket, she redoubled her efforts
and tried not to look at the nightmare above.
A score of bodies
at least, they hung suspended from the ceiling like a macabre
mobile. Fastened with lengths of heavy chain pulled through flesh
and bone, limbs splayed by cables sporting merciless hooks, all
woven through with a barbarously intricate web of concertina
wire, the carcasses swayed gently in the hot breeze emanating
from the air vents.
Clothed in the garb
of prospectors, ragpickers and gang members, all of whom looked
to have been tortured with everything from razor blades to industrial
rivets, they were a warning, a final word on the wisdom of going
through the hatch. Judging by the condition of some of the bodies,
the practice had been going on for some while.
Savannah had seen
corpses before, had even left her fair share, but the man directly
overhead was somewhat disheartening. Hanging by a length of towing
cable which seemed to have been fed into one eye socket and out
the other, bloated and rotting though he may be, it was most
certainly Tymon Rhodes.
Rhodes had always
been better at this than she was. If this was how he’d ended
up—a Six Boys totem; a deterrent to trespass—then she didn’t
stand a chance.
Savannah worked the
fringe settlements, hiring her services out as a guide, an armed
escort, an assassin; whatever the occasion called for. She wasn’t
exactly a top-shelf gunslinger, but she was getting there, as
was her reputation, which allowed her to be judicious about whose
employ she found herself in. Only hiring her services out to
those who could pay cash, she didn’t barter and she didn’t trade
favors. She charged enough to cover her living expenses, comfortably,
along with those of her ward, Piffin, and still have enough left
over to make it worth saving. Their dream, like that of so many
other self-styled adventurers, was to earn enough money to buy
their way off the dying planet. They didn’t actually know any
migration officials they could bribe, but figured they would
cross that bridge when they got to it. If they got to it.
The Corsairs had been
up front about the work from the get-go: they needed someone
to get them into Six Boys territory to steal something; something
which the Six Boys were not likely to give up without a fight.
Although Fendrick, the leader of the Corsairs, insisted that
the “something” was on a need to know basis, he did allow that
it was extremely valuable and, should they recover the item successfully,
he would pay triple the going rate for this sort of endeavor.
had shunned any work which would pit her against the Six Boys.
Homicidal, drug-fueled, Satan-worshiping to a man, they kept
to the darkest places, attracting the worst degenerates in Gehenna.
Generally unskilled, they survived by raiding settlements for
weapons and provisions, raping and torturing the inhabitants,
selling those they didn’t kill as slave labor to the underground
They reveled in bloodshed
and lived in awe of things mechanical, particularly those whose
function they couldn’t comprehend. Satan, so they believed, his
spirit having been shattered into innumerable pieces upon being
cast from Heaven, dwelt in all items manmade, like bits of a
broken mirror reflecting the same face. Through technology, he
was using the hands of the human race to rebuild himself, to
fashion the planet Earth itself into the terrible, metal and
stone juggernaut of his body that he might one day crash the
gates of Heaven and claim his throne, his followers beside him
as mighty princes.
In spite of their
medieval beliefs and diabolical practices, Six Boys membership
rolls continued to swell each year, with chapters springing up
throughout Gehenna. So numerous had they become of late that
Savannah had been forced to make a choice if she wanted to continue
to work: get on their side of things, which she wasn’t going
to do, or work against them and risk making enemies she might
not be able to contend with.
Gritting her teeth,
she put a shoulder to pitted steel and tried once more to turn
the large wheel in the center of the door at which the humid
passageway ended; a door which had been spray painted with a
single gang symbol: “666.” Holding her breath, exerting the full
force of her strength, she ignored the dark droplet of viscous
fluid which fell from above, spattering the back of her hand.
Her rubber-soled boots began to slide on the damp fungi that
covered the metal grating of the floor in purple and bright orange.
Moist with perspiration, her hands slipped on the wheel, thick
flakes of rust cutting deep into her skin.
She cursed, let go
the wheel, and took a step back. Her left palm bled freely.
There was a murmur
from the dozen men which crowded together in the corridor at
her back. Turning, she regarded them.
A midlevel gang of
some renown, the Corsairs seemed to be doing well for themselves.
Their gear and weaponry, though maybe not state of the art, all
looked to be well-maintained and functional. They wore the obligatory
leathers: the heavy boots, thigh-high and bristling with buckles;
the motorcycle jackets, each adorned with a skillfully painted
image of a pirate bearing a Tommy gun; the metal-studded collars,
gloves and bracers of back alley gladiators. In keeping with
the latest fashion trends which had filtered below from the Down-dwell,
a few sported silver mesh leg warmers or red leather codpieces.
Like many other gangs in Gehenna, the Corsairs all wore their
heads clean-shaven. This had less to do with faddism than hygienic
concerns; no hair equaled no lice.
The gang parted and
their leader approached.
“What’s the problem,
Vaughn?” Fendrick whispered.
Ignoring the man,
Savannah addressed the teenage girl standing just apart from
“Piffin, fix me up,” she
said, holding out her bloody palms.
Slight of build and
small of stature, dressed head to toe in special ops army surplus,
the girl moved quickly, silently, and was at the woman’s side
before she had finished speaking. In contrast to her black clothing,
whatever minor genetic flaw she carried had caused Piffin to
be born with snow-white hair. She wore it short beneath the straps
of her night vision goggles.
Reaching into a kitbag
at her waist, the youth dutifully produced a small, yellow canister.
Depressing a plastic nozzle at its top, she directed the spray
onto Savannah’s hands.
Catching her breath
against the sting of the antiseptic, the woman glared at Fendrick.
“You’re sure this
is how you came?” she asked.
“I told you already,” the
man answered, voice tinged with annoyance, “this is the way.”
“That’s what you said
at the pipe forest,” commented Piffin, as she bandaged Savannah’s
Three days into the
excursion and they had already gotten lost four times, following
Fendrick’s directions, as well as having lost two members of
the gang: one to a shoddy rope bridge, the other, a good looking
boy whom Piffin had struck up a quick friendship with, to a colony
of cinder mites at the pipe forest north of Chance City. The
girl had taken it hard, had been all but silent since it happened.
“That hatch,” Savannah
informed Fendrick, “feels like it hasn’t been opened in years.”
“Well, it was open
last time we were here.”
“Oh, right. They just
left it open for you to go waltzing into their territory.”
“What do you want
me to say, Vaughn? It was open.”
Savannah turned away,
directing the beam of her torch at the rusted wheel.
“Piffin, get some
gun oil on that thing.”
“Gun oil?” Fendrick
remarked. “For crying out loud, you’ve been at this for twenty
Piffin took a can
of oil from her bag and stepped to the door.
“We’re wasting time,” complained
Bors, a brutish young man with a basement-made flamethrower and
a clinically dumbfounded look on his face who had been bellyaching
pretty much since the start of the expedition.
Turning from what
she was doing, grey eyes bright with anger, Piffin said, “So,
how about I waste you instead?”
Bors came forward,
hands tight on his crude weapon.
As if to balance out
her friendship with the boy who had died, Piffin and Bors had
been nurturing an antagonistic relationship since day one. It
was only a matter of time before it came to blood.
ordered, stepping between them even as Savannah moved to Piffin’s
side, finger on the trigger of her weapon. “This is not going
to get the door open.”
Bors stopped where
he was, face twisted in a scowl.
“Can you get this
thing open or not?” Fendrick shouted.
“We’re working on
it,” Savannah replied, coolly.
“Well, work faster.”
The gang leader turned
his attention to Piffin who was slipping something, presumably
a weapon of some type, up the sleeve of her jacket. Her movements
had been too quick for him to get a proper look at the item.
“You,” he addressed
the girl, “just watch your lip.”
She laughed at him.
“Oh, I’m all done
with this,” exclaimed Bors.
Letting the gun of
the flamethrower drop to his side to be dragged by the hose which
connected it to the tank on his back, he pushed passed them,
causing Fendrick to lose his footing on the slippery fungi on
which they stood. Even as the gang leader fell to the floor cursing,
Bors placed both hands firmly on the metal wheel.
“Wait,” Savannah cautioned.
With a loud grunt,
he gave the wheel a turn. The mechanism caught, disengaging the
rusted bolt with a metallic scream which caused a few of the
gang members to cover their ears. Bors flung the door outward
with a crash that seemed to go on forever, echoing off into parts
When the echoes had
finally died down, swallowed up by the darkness, Savannah whispered, “That
“It’s open, ain’t
it?” retorted Bors.
He made to step through
the opening and Savannah place a hand on his arm.
“Hold on,” she said.
He stopped moving,
although he wasn’t paying the woman any mind. Flamethrower back
in his grasp, he squinted into the darkness before him.
“What’s this?” he
Without so much as
a scream, he stumbled rapidly backward and crashed to the floor
Piffin, scrambling to clear the doorway.
Complete story available in the
print edition of Big Pulp Winter 2010