(photo @ writersandartists.co.uk)
Please note: This story will only remain up for one week so the good people over at TerribleMinds.com can offer critiques and pick it apart. After that, it will be taken down, reworked, and sent off to multiple publishers from which it can be rejected.
This week's 'Flash Fiction Challege' from Pen Monkey Master Chuck Wendig gave us two lists from which we were to randomly pick an item.
MUST CONTAIN #1
MUST CONTAIN #2
For the List #1, the random number generator selected 8. A Monster (YES!).
For List #2, it selected 2. An infernal bargain (Meh).
I was really hoping for 8 again so I could write my long burgeoning story about an escaped fart that kills everyone on board a passenger plane, but this one actually turned out to be a lot of fun. In fact, what you see below you is only a portion of it (probably one third), as I will probably keep going. I also managed to tie it into my first Flash Fiction Friday story ever, which was kind of cool (in my opinion, anyway).
I cheated a little with the word count and only having the monster show up near the end for a few seconds. I promise, however, that if/when this one's finished, everybody's favorite three-headed pooch will end up having played a much more prominent role in the story.
So without further ado, please read, comment, and give suggestions!
The Cerberus Protocol
by Nick Nafpliotis
“Cryo lock will engage in five minutes.”
The emotionless, artificial voice was about the closest thing to a source of comfort that James Stonestreet been able to fixate on in the last hour. But as the number of minutes before ethereal insertion got closer, his anxiety levels were spiking his blood pressure into deadly territory. In most situations like this, the person undertaking the mission would have been scrubbed. But in James’ cases, he was given a fairly large amount of leeway by the medical staff. After all, it wasn’t easy finding people who were willing to go to Hell and back for the sake of a homicide investigation.
The technology to temporarily send a soul into the afterlife, dubbed Project Screwtape, had taken many years to perfect. This was due not only to the unprecedented requirements for such an undertaking, but also because of the heated ethical debates that task inspired. If it hadn’t been for black market and rogue researchers proving it could be done by helping to find a missing little girl, then the project would’ve never received government backing.
Getting subjects to actually go on the missions, however, was an entirely different (and much more difficult) challenge. For starters, most people weren’t crazy about the idea of temporarily being dead no matter how “safe” the tests had proven it to be. That left researchers with a pool of subjects which overwhelmingly consisted of three types:
Everyone else was either too scared due to the whole “death” thing or the possibility of finding out they weren’t going to Heaven. Fortunately, the team behind Project Screwtape was eventually able to find a few very good, brave, and smart people who were willing to venture into the afterlife.
But finding virtuous people who were willing to experience evidence of their faith being righteous and rewarded was easy compared to the other option. A trip to Hell would require someone who knew they were going there, accepted eternal damnation and suffering as their eventual afterlife, and was still motivated/virtuous enough to help solve cases…all of which made James Stonetreet a perfect match for the program.
Stonestreet had been a great detective back on the more conventional investigative force. He was tough, honest, and driven by a need to make sure that justice was served for those who had been victimized. About the only thing that got in the way of him ever doing the job well were his many vices. If he wasn’t working on a case (and sometimes when he should have been), James could be found either drinking himself into a stupor or spending every last dollar he had on whatever call girl he’d developed an attachment to that week. The fact that he was the only available “Demon Subject” for Project Screwtape increased the already astronomically high pay into the stratosphere. This predictably enabled him to indulge in even more sinful behavior.
Stonestreet tried to justify his soul’s continued slide into the abyss as a “necessary evil,” believing that if he ever really changed his ways, he’d be stuck on the Halo Team…and that meant not being able to question the really bad guys like the one he was visiting today.\
“Your target is Kenneth Skilling,” the project supervisor had said while sliding a picture of a bland looking older man in a business over to him. “He made a bargain with Lucifer a while back for money and power.”
“How original,” Stonestreet snorted while holding the photograph out in front of him.
“Hey, say what you want about Beezle B, but that’s one promise he always delivers on,” the supervisor responded with a slight air of reverence.
“Yeah…until everything goes to $#%&,” Stonestreet shot back with a smirk.
“Yep,” the supervisor said while pulling out a new set of photos. “And in this case, things ‘went to $%#&’ in the form of him having his head decapitated and stuffed into his fourth wife’s mailbox.”
“Nice,” Stonestreet said with a nod as he glanced over the crime scene photos. “Any leads on why it was done besides being the most badass anti-infidelity message ever?”
“Skilling made a lot of enemies during his company’s rise to the top,” the supervisor replied. “Before his death, it was discovered that he’d been cooking the books to artificially increase his company’s stock price. Once that got out, they went under. Around 30,000 folks lost their jobs. Many more had their retirement funds decimated in the blink of an eye.”
“So the dude really is a walking stereotype of a greedy asshole,” Stonestreet replied grimly. “Are we hunting down his killer to give him a medal or something?”
“Not really,” the supervisor said grimly. “Skilling may have been a bad person, but that still doesn’t make murdering him legal or acceptable.”
“Look…sorry, I was just joking…” Stonestreet started to say before the supervisor cut him off.
“His many children, however, didn’t deserve to die either,” he said while slowly filling the table in front of Stonestreet with more gruesome crime scene photos. “The youngest one was only three years old. You probably couldn’t tell, however, due to how is his body…”
“That’s enough!” Stonestreet barked as he turned his head away, his tone suddenly shifting from jovial to one of pure rage. “What do you need me to do?”
Two weeks of testing and detoxing later, Stonestreet found himself in the familiar staging area, receiving his final briefing before getting “Bannistered”. The reference, which one of the Halo team members came up with, referred to an old movie from the near the end of the last century called ‘The Frighteners’. In it, the main character (Frank Bannister) freezes himself so that he can “die” temporarily and interact with ghosts during the course of an investigation.
The “cryo-lock” process used by Project Screwtape was much more sophisticated and supposedly safer, but that didn’t make temporarily dying any less terrifying.
“Your target will be in Bargainer’s Row,” his supervisor said before turning on the freezing gas. “One you reach the gate, our contact will meet you and help with the extraction process.”
“We have a contact in Hell?” Stonestreet asked incredulously. “Is this someone we know?”
“Sort of…” the supervisor hesitantly responded. “He calls himself ‘The Devil’s Rider.”
“Please don’t tell me I’m meeting Satan’s girlfriend down there,” Stonestreet said with a smirk, causing his supervisor to let out a chuckle.
“Not really,” he continued with a grin. “This is the guy who sits in the car with people and makes them say terrible things about other motorists.”
“Ah, so he and I have met,” Stonestreet replied with a knowing smile. “I just didn’t know it yet. Why is helping us, anyway?”
“He’s curious about you,” the supervisor said while closing the pod over Stonestreet’s chest. “…at least, that’s what he told us. Keep your head in the game while you’re down there and try to get this done quickly; you’ve only got 30 minutes before we wake you up.”
Stonestreet then began the agonizing process of waiting while freeze gas filled the room. Dying and going to Hell was something he was already resigned to being inevitable, but that didn’t make the possibility of it happening in the next few minutes any less scary.
“Demon One health override negated” the artificial voice said as the counter reached thirty seconds. “Prepare for ethereal insertion.”
Suddenly, the world went dark. The only interruption in the blackness was a flashing light, which blinked at an immeasurable speed at completely unpredictable intervals. Stonestreet felt like he was falling, but sideways instead of down. The presence of wind was there, but it beat against the back of his neck rather than into his face. As the air around him got warmer, screams of agony and anguish filled his ears until his head felt like it was going to burst. Every once in a while, one of the screams would morph into maniacal, high pitched laughter, piercing his skull with such force that it felt as if a hot needle was going directly into his either one of his eyes.
Stonestreet began screaming as well, his voice joining in with the chorus of pain and suffering around him as the temperature of the air passed from being mildly hot to boiling. If felt like he’d been falling forever, but he knew that the passage of time was an illusion. The lab team had thoroughly tested the insertion process, clocking it at a little under five minutes. When his feet finally hit the hard, black dirt below him, his timer showed twenty five minutes, just like he’d expected.
“Have a nice trip?” a calm yet forceful voiced asked from behind.
Stonestreet whirled around, unable to see anything in the pitch black around him, save for the occasional flash of red and yellow light in the distance. The screams had stopped, but he was still shaken from the journey. Stonestreet staggered forward and focused on his breathing, slowly inhaling and exhaling while trying to focus on anything but the despair and grief that had gripped every fiber of his being.
“The trip sucked,” Stonestreet said with as much bravado as he could muster. “I guess you’re the contact, right?”
“I am,” answered the disembodied voice. “I normally wouldn’t ever go behind the Big Guy’s back like this, but I just had to see you in action for myself.”
“Not much to see,” Stonestreet replied while trying not to sound scared. “I just need to find Skilling and get some answers out of him. Can you help me with that?”
“Can you answer a question for me?” the voice asked while ignoring Stonestreet’s request. “Do you ever feel guilty about all the racist things you say in your car about Asian drivers while you’re spending ‘quality time’ with that one Vietnamese prostitute you like so much?”
“Yeah, I get it,” Stonestreet said while rolling his eyes, his confidence slowly returning. “I’m a terrible person, you’ve helped to corrupt my soul for the Fallen Angel’s amusement, blah blah blah. Now are you gonna help me, or should I just go through the gates on my own?”\
“Of course,” the voice replied. “I’d be happy to help you rescue a man who has ruined more lives than he has hairs on his head.”
“Oh cool!” James exclaimed with mock enthusiasm. “You guys actually let us keep our hair when we get down here? Because if so, I’ll start using Rogain the minute I get back.”
The voice was silent for a moment before finally speaking again, its tone much less playful than before.
“Well, you’ve definitely got more resolve than most of our guests,” it said with a small hint of respect. “After you go through the gate and pass Cerby, you’ll see a rotted calf carcass that looks like it was dipped in gold.
Turn there into the entryway with all the hands motioning for you. After that, the path in front of you…”
“…’is whatever I chose to see, because Hell is different to everyone’” Stonestreet interrupted in a rehearsed cadence. “I know. How do I find Skilling once I’m on Bargainer’s Row?”
“Follow the signs leading to his former company, Norne Enterprises,” the voice replied. “Skilling’s being kept in a cell that keeps replaying the day it all fell apart over and over again.”
“Nice touch,” Stonestreet replied with genuine admiration. “Thanks for the help.”
“No problem,” the voice replied, the amusement back in its words. “Look forward to having you stick around down here soon.”
“Hopefully not today,” Stonestreet said while checking his timer.
Only 20 minutes remained, meaning he didn’t have much time to extract the information after locating Skilling. He quickly jogged towards the gate, where the monsterous, three-headed form of Cerberus snarled in his direction while remaining in place.
“Yeah, same to you,” Stonestreet muttered at the dog as he crossed the threshold, where the golden calf carcass could just barely be seen shining in the distance.