Dystopian

#2: The Ladder to Inferna

‘Tales From Inferna’ is an ongoing web serial. Part writing exercise, part homage to the pulp-fiction genre. Click here if you’re interested in learning more about the scope and goals of the project. Below you’ll find Issue #2, but be sure to start at the beginning with Issue #1 

ladder

Yura couldn’t climb the ladder any further.

‘Guys,’ he croaked, his arms shaking.

His companions pace quickened.

‘Guys!’ Yura repeated, louder this time.

‘Quiet!’ said the man furthest ahead, climbing ever faster.

They were leaving him. Leaving him to die. He could feel the miles of nothingness below, prickling his back, willing him to fall. He glanced downwards, wondering if he might have enough strength to climb back down. But that path was madness.

‘Mikki, please! I need help!’

The man furthest ahead continued to climb, but there was another behind him who paused.

‘We can’t help you, Yura,’ said Mikki.

‘I can’t climb anymore, Mikki,’ begged Yura. ‘Please don’t leave me behind. You’ve got to–’

‘Shut up!’ shouted the man farthest ahead. He was now out of sight, hidden by the darkness of the tunnel.

‘What our charming leader means is, any energy spent talking is energy not spent climbing. So unless you want to decorate the floor a nice shade of Yura, I suggest you get moving.’ With that, Mikki started climbing again.

Yura found himself all alone.

When Yura was young, he and his friends would play in the tunnels pretending to be hunters. Sometimes they would dare each other to climb the ladder. Yura was the only one who ever made it to the top. Back then the top of the ladder hadn’t been very far; a padlock and a metal grill stopped anyone who shouldn’t be there from climbing too high. To a gang of children though, it was as if Yura had touched Inferna itself.

But this was no longer pretend.

‘Yura!’ came a voice from above. ‘We’ve found the last hatch,’ said the voice again. It came from the leader of the expedition, Koko. ‘Get your arse up here now.’

Yura began to climb, each movement a trial. His body protested in agony, any moment now it would fail and he would plummet to his death.

As his grasp started to waver, two pairs of hands seized him and hoisted him upwards through a narrow opening.

He collapsed. He heard his pulse thumping in his ears, and faintly, the sound of a hatch being closed.

They were so close.

He wished his old friends could see him now: Yura the hunter. It still hadn’t sunk in. He was going to have the adventures they had all imagined, live the life they had dreamed of once upon a time.

‘You still with us, kid?’

Yura opened his eye to see Mikki and Koko standing over him. In the dark, with their identical suits and masks, it was impossible to tell them apart.

‘I’m ok,’ said Yura smiling, holding up a thumbs-up. ‘I am ok.’

Koko shook his head. ‘This isn’t playtime. We’re here to do a serious job.

Yura saw Mikki roll his eyes. ‘I know the circumstances aren’t ideal, but it’s the kids first day. Let him have a little fun.’

‘We’ve got hundreds of miles to walk,’ Koko started. ‘Rough sleeping. Nothing but disgusting liquid nutrients to keep us going. All to find a needle in a haystack. Not my idea of fun.’

‘Come on,’ said Yura, smiling. ‘Any day walking on the surface has got to be better than a day down below.’

Koko was silent, for a moment. It was only now Yura realised how thick the mood had been.

‘Let’s not forget why we’ve been sent up here. Amorak is dead. A man I once considered a very good friend. For some reason it just had to be me they sent to find his remains.’ said Koko. ‘So no, to answer your stupid question. The days up here are not “better”. I, for one, want to get this done and go home. Shape up and take this seriously, or maybe you’ll die up here too.’

All day Yura had worn an excited smirk, only now did he realise how it had been grating on Koko’s patience. The verbal walloping caused his face to yo-yo from a deep shade of red to a sickly pale white.

Koko stormed ahead to the next room, muttering.  

‘He’s moodier than usual today,’ said Mikki, offering a hand to help Yura up.

‘I didn’t mean to upset him.’

‘You haven’t done anything. You’re excited to see the surface, no shame in it. The dead bloke we’re looking for, Amorak, is a sore subject with Koko.’

‘Why?’ asked Yura.

‘It’s a whole thing, let’s just leave it at that. Come on, before he explodes again.’

The followed Koko into the next room. One much larger than the tight tunnels and shafts the three had been navigating for most of the day. At the far end of the room, Yura eyed a giant metal door and did his best not to smile.

Koko was kneeling on the floor, spreading open a map. He patted the edges down as they bounced free and let out a frustrated sigh.

‘This is us,’ Koko said, pointing to a section of the map. ‘We’ll hang about here for a bit. It’ll get cooler when the sun starts to set, meaning the suits don’t have to work quite so hard—meaning we’ll save some fuel.’

‘Are you writing this down?’ said Mikki.

‘I… I didn’t bring a pen.’ said Yura.

‘He’s joking.’ muttered Koko stone-faced. ‘He does that.’

‘Oh crack a smile you moody old git,’ said Mikki.

Koko ignored him. His finger slid across the map, resting on a series of crudely drawn houses. He then traced it back an inch and tapped the spot. ‘This is as far as I’m hoping Amorak got. If he made it any further I doubt we’ll ever find him.’

‘We’ll find him,’ said Yura. ‘His family is counting on us.’

Koko and Mikki exchanged a look.

‘What’s that?’ asked Koko.

‘His family? We’re bringing the body back for them surely?’

‘Oh Yura,’ said Mikki chuckling. ‘You sweet innocent babe.’

Yura frowned, confused.

‘We’ve been sent to get his suit. Not the body.’ said Koko. ‘One of these suits are worth a hundred of me or you. The ugly truth of it is…by this point, with nothing powering the suit…there’s not going to be much left of him. You’ll need to prepare yourself.’

Yura didn’t understand. He’d seen a dead body before. Life below in the Empyrean was cramped and people died all the time. How fragile did Koko think he was?

‘I can cope with a stiff.’

Mikki and Koko exchanged a look which filled Yura with unease.

‘He won’t be stiff.’ said Mikki quietly,

‘Huh?’

Look,’ started Mikki uncomfortably. ‘Sitting out there in that ungodly heat. By now there’s a good chance he would have…liquefied.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Yeah,’ nodded Mikki. ‘What’s more, if we find him we’re going to have to open his suit and, err, tip out what’s left of him…’

‘It won’t look pretty,’ Koko continued, ‘it’ll smell something fierce as well, that filter in your mask isn’t going to do a thing about the stench. I tell you this because if upon seeing the remains you throw up inside your own mask—you will not get an opportunity to take off that mask until we return. That is going to be one shitty walk home for you, lad.’

Yura’s stomach churned. He felt like he was going to throw up right now. Was he even allowed to take his mask off now? He’d been told to put it on before they’d started climbing. Yura swallowed hard and tasted bile slide back down his throat.

‘Paints a picture, doesn’t he?” smiled Mikki.

Koko carried on, explaining the finer details of the journey they were about to embark on, but Yura’s attention was gone. He could hear the surface calling him.

He’d waited so long to see what was left of the earth.

‘Turn your suit on.’ said Koko finally. He approached a control panel on the wall, and the hum of a huge motor roared into action. ‘It’s time.’

Yura’s heart thumped hard. He did his best to feign a grim look of determination.

The doors opened, slowly at first, then suddenly all at once. The dark, grimy room became illuminated.

There was a terrible light, and Yura found himself blind.

Issue #3 due out in October

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A Moment In Inferna

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Everything had gone to hell.

That was the only thing that had gone through Amarok’s head for the last hour. He’d stopped walking, stopped planning, stopped trying to find a way out of this whole mess. He stared into the distance. And something stared back.

In a gloved hand Amarok held a small canister, his last one. It was a lifeline. A last flicker of hope that he’d hold out long enough for some reprieve or rescue, but he had long since given up. He was going to die.

All around in every direction lay a wasteland of sand. Desert dunes stretched for miles upon miles. Empty. No vegetation, no noise; not a trace of what had once been here. Just sand and Amarok. And the things staring back.

If I dug here, miles down I would find a city, he thought. A city buried in sand, littered with corpses. Would the remains still be there though? It had all happened so long ago; who knew what the heat had done to them. Amarok pictured petrified bodies, mouths wide open in fear. Maybe they had been reduced to ashes, a sterile but final end. He feared his final theory was correct; they were mulch. Dripping and stagnating; nasty piles of oozing mush.

Amarok could very much feel the heat of the sun. It worked its way towards him, penetrating through his thick suit, drenching him with sweat. Breathing was becoming difficult, when he coughed his visor was sprayed with spittle, clouding his limited view.

He sighed and squeezed his last canister a little tighter.

What good would a few more days do me? He was lost. The great Amarok, lost two days into a fucking hunt. He’d got turned around, took a left somewhere instead of a right. Such a small mistake. Monstrous sandstorms would ravage the land on occasion, shifting mountains of sand and flattening others, meaning Inferna was never quite how you’d left it. The best hunters however had always been able to spot the subtleties, and Amarok was meant to have been the best of the best.

Far away in the distance, at the top of the furthest visible dune, Amarok could just about make out three figures, unmoving. Amarok knew they were watching him.

They were jet black against the horizon. For a while Amarok thought them to be an apparition of the heat, a mirage, brought on by his failing equipment. He had walked for days and they were always there, a half-a-dozen leagues away, but always there. Amarok never saw them move. The heat shimmered all around them, making them look like ghosts.

They were real. Amarok had suffered through more than a few risky hunts in his time, none anywhere close to this one, but he wasn’t a stranger to the odd mirage now and again. This was different. Whatever the figures were, they were real.

Other hunters, prodded a quiet voice in the back of his mind, not for the first time.

“No.”

Amarok cursed at his own idea. He could see the figures and they could see him. If they were other hunters, they would hail him on his radio, or, failing that, they’d surely give some sort of signal. But the radio was dead, and no matter how long he waited, or prayed, or eventually even cried; the radio had remained dead.

He stood, dropping the canister to the sand.

“What do you want!” he screamed, fists clenched at either side, knuckles white. “What do you want from me! What do you—”

He began to cough, began to choke; to die. Amarok fell to his knees and tried to breathe. Nothing. He tried again and the whole world started to fade away.

Finally a breath came. It was weak and made an unpleasant rattling noise; Amarok was sure it was his last.

It wasn’t. A second came, and eventually even a third.

Slowly, Amarok rose to his feet gripping the top of his mask. 

“I know what you want.” he whispered, eyes wide. 

Amarok ripped off his mask, and he began to scream.

The intensity of the sun was unimaginable. In an instant every inch of skin on Amarok’s head began to blister. His nose began to bleed and his eyeballs bulged horrifically as if they were about to burst. A smell of burnt hair invaded his senses as a crippling pain at the back of his skull brought him to his knees. Huge white spots blinded his vision; his hands scrambled for the discarded mask.

As soon as it was secured the sheer intensity of the heat faded, but the searing pain remained. He could feel the meat of his body, cooking. He vomited, plastering his visor. A loud ringing in his ears disturbed him most of all.

Amarok knelt like that for a while as a ruin; as broken as the city that lay buried beneath him. The pain did not stop, but eventually began to dull.

His mind was made up. He patted the sand, caressing it here and there until his hands found what he was searching for.

Amarok stood to his feet, his body shaking in fury and pain. At the back of his suit was a thick, technical panel with a canister protruding slightly from a fitted slot. Carefully, Amarok removed the now empty canister and replaced it with the one he’d found on the floor. His last one.

The suit hummed to life, cool air surrounded Amarok and offered him some small relief from his agony.

As best he could Amarok squinted into the distance through his soiled visor. The vomit smelled foul and turned his stomach, but he dared not remove the mask again.

The dark figures were right where he’d left them, not having moved an inch during the display of madness.

Amorak took a tentative step without incident, surprising himself. So far so good. 

He’d been pushing forward for days, hoping in vain for some sign of home. Now he pushed backwards, in the opposite direction, retracing his steps. Home was no longer the objective. 

An hour passed; Amorak found himself pleased with his results. He’d closed the gap between him and his stalkers considerably. Were they moving towards him too? He hadn’t seen the bastards move, but it sure seemed that way to what was left of his melted senses. Shadowy vultures, coming to claim the rewards of their careful patience.  

“You’re not coming for me,” he panted, still moving. “I’m coming for you.”