Read Part 1
The hiking was rough. Cyril wasn’t in good shape since he’d lowered the effectiveness of his muscle-repairing nanoprobes. The True Believers didn’t approve of artificial longevity and so they turned their nanoprobes as low as they could, though only an authorized government physician knew how to turn them off.
The craggy plain was hard and uneven. Sharp rocks jutted out at odd angles, and each one was designed to twist an ankle or cause a fall. Several times he stumbled close to a fire pit. Every stumble sent his heart into his mouth--once a soul was in a pit, no known technology could get it out. All the denizens of hell that were in the pits when the Liberation Forces arrived were still there and the workers at the Soul Chamber reported that they often sent up a hideous shrieking together. Some of the workers had needed extra doses of mind-soothers as a result. No one could figure out how to put out the fires and the pits were very deep.
Cyril’s foot slid for the hundredth time, but this time he fell, feeling sharp pains as the rocks bashed at his thigh, his ribs, his hands. Breathing hard, he looked down and found that his foot was within an inch of the flame. He sucked in a deep breath as he lay across the scab-rock and he shuddered. His ears were full of the crackling of the fire and the squelching noises made by the boa-sized worms lining the walls of the pit.
He felt something on his left leg.
He was surprised that he didn’t flinch. Whatever it was, it felt like ice and made his whole leg go numb. He was too afraid to cry out, so with an imitation of calm, he lowered his gaze to see a blister-covered hand, rife with maggots, clutching his ankle.
It’s going to pull me in, he thought. He wasn’t sure if it was a rogue demon still at large after the War of Liberation or if it was a damned soul, but either way, he was sure it meant him no good.
The face rose out of the flame and about half the body followed. This creature was covered in horrible burns crawling with larvae, but Cyril could still make out that it was vaguely human in shape. One of the enormous worms was wrapped around its neck, and the worm’s needle-like teeth gnawed at its cheek. Another worm wrapped about its waist with its teeth somewhere lower, out of sight. More worms seemed to be crawling about the arms and chest. Perhaps it was their coloring, or the tightness with which they clung to the hapless body, but it appeared as if the worms were a part of the thing, becoming one with it as they consumed it.
Even with its human outline, this soul, or whatever it was, was so mutilated and deformed that it looked more like a beast than a man. Only its eyes, glaring from within rings of boils and pustules, looked bright and unharmed. It opened its mouth and the inside was a deep cavern, larger than its head, in which cobwebs crawling with vile things were visible in the distance. Its terrible breath blew over Cyril in a rank wind. It grinned, and then it spoke in a horrible deep voice. It sounded unreal, like a machine.
“Hey, little brother.”
Cyril could not say why, but he was calm. He peered at the face. Somehow, he recognized it.
“What are you doing here? You’re back on Earth.”
It laughed and began pulling on Cyril’s leg, wriggling its own body back into the pit.
A demon, Cyril was certain--a demon imitating his brother. Lying on his left side, he raised his right foot and sent out several kicks to its nose, its eyes, its cavern-like mouth. Blisters on the face broke and the skin ruptured. He brought his heel down hard on his own ankle, smashing the hand holding it. The hand released. Another kick to the face and the thing tumbled back into the pit, falling into the lower depths.
Only then did Cyril realize how frightened he had been and his body convulsed. Though ghosts on Earth were insubstantial, in the netherworld they were very much like corporeal bodies and could be harmed, luckily. Cyril rose to his feet and continued on his way, noting the spot on his mental map so that he would be able to avoid the demon when and if he returned.
He shuddered again.
Oh how, how, how did he end up on this assignment?
He thought back to the meeting. “You’re a good member, Cyril. We prayed about it and thought you were right for it, Cyril. You’re not married, don’t have much family, do you, Cyril? No criminal record, Cyril?”
He made vague protests. Hate the Soul Chamber? Yeah, he hated the Soul Chamber, he guessed. Want to blow it up? Well....
“The man who undertakes this mission is a man who will reap great rewards in the kingdom to come. All will honor him, and it’s not even that difficult. A few minutes or hours at most, all planned ahead of time, and we’re sure we can get you out.”
“Cyril.” He felt a hand on his arm. He turned to see Pastor Frederick staring at him. “Cyril,” Frederick said, “Cyril this is important. There are people here who have been working on this for years. We've planned everything. We have passwords, fake identification, a jimmied cloak, and a lot of bombs. There are people working for us at every level. We just need the man who will go in. Someone who can do this, who can make it happen. Someone young, strong, like yourself. Do this for us. Do this for yourself. Say yes.”
Cyril felt a lump in his throat. Pastor Frederick, who had been there for Cyril when Cyril’s mother died. Pastor Frederick, who had been there even when Cyril’s own father hadn’t. Pastor Frederick, who answered questions, made everything seem so simple, and brought Cyril into the fold.
Cyril swallowed the lump. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, I’ll do it.”
Yes, he’d do it for Pastor Frederick. But he couldn’t help feeling he’d gotten a raw deal. Being a True Believer was supposed to be simpler than this. They always talked about how simple it was. Just believe. That’s simple. Hard but simple. But Cyril didn’t find that hard.
Sneaking into a guarded compound while loaded with bombs, that was hard.
Read Part 3