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 of space.

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 two miles.

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.

The Down-dwellers 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.

Historically, Savannah 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 pharmaceutical houses.

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 the gang.

“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 hands.

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 minutes already.”

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.

“Enough,” Fendrick 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 unknown.

When the echoes had finally died down, swallowed up by the darkness, Savannah whispered, “That was subtle.”

“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 mumbled.

Without so much as a scream, he stumbled rapidly backward and crashed to the floor beside Fendrick.

Bats!” cried Piffin, scrambling to clear the doorway.

Complete story available in the print edition of Big Pulp Winter 2010



E.A. Manning lives in New York City with Nurse Peege (a half-elf gypsy expat), Razzle (an enchanted puggle), and a menagerie of crickets, mushrooms and succubae. They reside aboard the Manning family dirigible, The Cheshire Moon, which has stood anchored to the west pylon of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for generations, is fashioned entirely of saltwater taffy, and must be filled weekly with kitten sneezes to keep her aloft. The author has been published in a few places, under different names, and is currently writing a novel. When not writing, the author enjoys chemistry.

For more of E.A.'s work,
visit her Big Pulp author page


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