fifth_circle_of_HellI woke with a headache that made my eyes water, my stomach turn, and my hands shake. It felt as if someone had pounded a handful of hot railroad spikes into my skull with a brick. I didn’t want to open my eyes. I didn’t want to move.

“Maxim!” a voice shouted. The brick returned and hammered the iron spikes deeper into my skull. Unbelievable agony. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear anything ever again.

Something struck my cheek with a rough slap. I winced and groaned.

“You alive, Maxim?”

I knew the voice. I opened my eyes. They stung with sweat. I blinked a few times. My vision cleared. Parker was kneeling over me. I didn’t know if I was out of trouble or in for more. His know-it-all smile made me cringe.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” he asked. The sound of his voice was like a dozen taiko drums pounding in my head.

“Shut up,” I whispered.

Parker nodded, still grinning. I glared at him. He didn’t seem to care.

It was the mother of all headaches. I rubbed my ears and came away with blood on my fingertips. I turned my head and saw Ghia face down on the floor next to me, gripping her head in her hands, and moaning into the floorboards.

“Quiet,” I groaned. I rolled over on my elbows and tried to get up. I thought I had a pretty good handle on things as I got to my feet, but my body had other plans. The room bobbed, then weaved. I tried to brace myself against the wall, but the damn thing feigned left, took a sharp right turn, and the floor snuck up from behind to crack me in the skull.

I howled in pain and covered my ears. My own voice sent a torrent of pain through my head.

I gave it a minute – just breathing, eyes closed.

“You shouldn’t move,” Parker said with a chuckle. “The dizziness will pass in a few minutes.”

“Uh huh,” I replied. “Thanks for the late advice.”

“Just trying to help where I can, spaceman. You know me –”

“I’m not done with him yet,” Ghia interrupted.

“The hell you aren’t,” Parker snapped. “Marianne says that he may be the one we’ve been waiting for. No one touches him – especially you.”

“Fuck you, Parker.”

“Shut up, both of you,” I hissed.

Parker leaned down over me again. “That little girl packs quite a wallop, doesn’t she?”

I reached out for Parker’s face but couldn’t judge the distance correctly. Parker stood and laughed at my wasted effort.

“What the hell is going on here, Parker?” I groaned. “Who invited you to the party? Where’s Marianne?”

“Well, aren’t you full of questions now.” Parker replied. “Ghia set off an alert when Marianne didn’t return home on time. So, I’m here as back-up.”

“You’re a valuable asset, Parker.”

“I do try.”

“And Marianne?”

“She’s with Pili, recovering.”

“She okay?”

“She will be, yeah.” Parker said. “In an hour or two she’ll be bouncing around again like nothing ever happened. You and Ghia, however, will feel like shit for days.”

“Good to know.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and reopened them, trying to ward off the spins. “And – what exactly happened? One moment this acrobatic assassin,” I said, jerking my thumb toward Ghia, “and I are having a lively disagreement, and the next I’ve got an eleven year-old screaming hammers into my ears. Then I wake up staring at you?”

Parker knelt down and looked me in the eye. “Marianne is a special girl. But I think you already knew that before she blasted you two.”

“Special may be understating it.”

“Yes, well, she has a few extra… talents. Something bestowed upon her by Dr. Robertson and your buddy Spegg.”

I hated Spegg. The mere mention of his name filled my head with visions of many deaths for that sorry creature.

“Marianne was enhanced?” I asked, confused. “I’ve never see that kind of –”

“They didn’t enhance the girl.”

“Ah.” I paused, then raised an eyebrow. “Then what the –”

“They made her.”

I chuckled quietly. “Like an LMO? That’s impossible. Pumping fish and reptiles with snippets of synthetic human DNA, sure, you can do that. But you can’t cross a human. There are laws, regulations, ethics –”

Ghia broke in. “Mierda. Your orderly little future is gone, shithead. There’s no such law in Bellingshausen. The fishheads do what they damn-well please.”

I shook my head.

“It’s true,” said Parker. “Marianne was one of the first models to roll off the line.”

“Don’t fucking call her a model,” Ghia spat. “She’s a kid.”

Parker exhaled. “Kid.”

“So how many more of these kids do they have?”

“A few. An army. Who knows? Marianne said that she saw groups of twenty, thirty kids in various parts of the genetics annex. But that information is over five years old. By now there could be thousands of Evols running around.”

“You can’t say that,” said Ghia. “We don’t have any hard numbers.”

Parker gave her a sidelong glance. “But if you ask me, Marianne may be the only Evol that matters. The fishheads want her back real bad.”

“Evols?”

“That’s what they call them. The brand name, I guess.”

“Sick bastards,” Ghia spat.

“Where the hell do they get the kids from? I mean, you said the water makes you sterile, and Marianne is the only kid I’ve seen in all of Bellingshausen. Surely they’re not growing them.”

“We don’t know. No one has been out of the Fifth Ring for half a century.”

“I don’t get it. Makabe never mentioned anything about this.”

Ghia sat up, wobbled for a moment, and then fell back to the floor. She turned her head and stared at me. Her mouth hung open. “Who the fuck did you just say?”

I scooted back a few feet from her. “I said Makabe never mentioned anything about this.”

“Makabe! Where the hell did you hear that name?”

“I didn’t hear it from anywhere. That’s who I’ve been working with for the last two weeks.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” Ghia screamed.

“Oh God,” Parker said, rubbing his eyes.

I couldn’t have been more puzzled. “What?” I asked.

“Makabe is Three-C,” said Parker, shaking his head.

“He’s what?”

“He’s a fucking enforcer from the Central Ring. The ranks don’t go higher than Three-C. It’s those pricks, then the Director, Spegg, and Wayne-motherfucking-Robertson. And you say you lived with him?”

“Worked with him, actually. I was staying in his little maintenance shack.”

“Oh, that’s rich,” Ghia laughed. “Makabe – posing as a janitor in the Fifth Ring. No wonder your little attack on the security post went to shit.”

“What? He set me up? No, that’s not possible. That was my idea.”

“Ha!” barked Parker, walking away. I saw him shaking his head as he turned through the doorway into the room where Marianne was recovering with Pili. I looked back at Ghia. Her expression was a mixture of disgust and – maybe – sympathy.

Your idea? Sure it was.” Ghia grumbled. “What the hell were you thinking trying to take out an LMO security post? I know you’re stupid, but that’s fucking suicide.”

“I got bored,” I said, smirking. “And I guess I was sick of seeing innocent people slaughtered, apparently by my hand, if you believe the news.”

“Yeah, the fishheads do love a good smear campaign,” Ghia snorted. “And the Fifth Ringers are about as gullible as they come. It doesn’t make sense. There’s no one of use out here at all. Drug addicts and thieves, the whole lot of ‘em.”

“I’m confused. Aren’t these the same people you and the others are fighting to save?”

“Oh, hell no,” Ghia blurted. She stared at me. “God, you’re stupid. You really don’t know anything do you?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Enlighten me.”

“Oh, you’re well past that point. Why should I even try?”

“I thought that I was here to help, Ghia. But all I get from you and your people is push-back.”

“Some help, yeah.” Ghia turned her head toward me. “Where are you from again?”

“Earth.”

Moron.”

I stared at her for a moment. “I grew up in Japan.”

“Right. And you came here from some kind of alternate future time zone.”

“I, uh… ” I began, but quickly realized that the story was a little long and involved. “Yeah, that’s right.”

“In a spaceship.”

“Yeah.”

“And how exactly did you do that? By flying’ into a black hole?”

“A wormhole, actually. Entering a black hole is not a good idea.”

“Whatever.” Ghia interrupted. “I’ll never know for sure if you’re telling me the truth, and you can’t prove it by predicting the future because you come from an alternate future where none of this exists, right?”

I scratched my chin. “Pretty much.”

Ghia set her jaw. “Um hm.”

“Look, Ghia –”

She cut me short. “So there are three possibilities here, she said. “You’re telling the truth. You’re completely bat-shit insane. Or you’re an LMO plant, here to root out and destroy our little pocket of resistance.”

I nodded and smiled. “Those are three possibilities, yes.”

“Well, whatever the case, once I can pick myself off this goddamn floor, I’m going to beat your ass until I get the answers I want. So we might as well try to enlighten you.”

“Might as well.”

“You read much, Max?”

“It’s Maxim. And, of course. Whenever I can.”

“Alright, Max. Well, I don’t. Very few books came to Bellingshausen. And I’ve only seen half a dozen in my entire life. But after my father died I found a book that he had stashed away in an old crate. Something called The Inferno.”

“So you can read?”

“Are you going to listen to me, pendejo?”

“Yes. The Inferno. Sounds remotely familiar. But we’re not big on gods and mythology in the future.”

Whatever. Many believe that we’ve been abandoned here. Fate – or whatever – dropped us off in the coldest, most dangerous shithole on Earth, and left us to wither away without any just cause. Here we all are. The weak go first.”

“You really believe that?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Ghia frowned. “In the book, Dante, the author, describes a journey through the Nine Circles of Hell. In each circle, he encounters the souls of the dead, suffering specific kinds of torture based on the wrongs they committed in life.”

I closed my eyes and shook my head. This was the kind of archaic thinking that led to so many centuries of human atrocity.

Ghia continued. “The Fifth Circle of Hell was where the wrathful fought each other on the surface, and the sullen remained beneath, withdrawn into a black sulkiness which could find no joy in God or man or the universe.”

“Sounds like Dante had some issues.”

“Be that as it may, Max, this is exactly where you are today. The Fifth Ring of Bellingshausen is the Fifth Circle of Hell – the place where all the rejects, the malcontents, the murderers, the thieves, the scum of the city are dumped, neutered, and forever imprisoned and tormented by the fishheads until the day they die.”

“And that’s your outlook on life, Ghia? This is your little circle of Hell. You’re fighting for lack of anything better to do and the future only offers you death?”

“Now you’re getting it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. There’s a whole continent outside of the city. You picked me up outside the city. Why not just scale a wall and walk away?”

“Sure. Brilliant idea.” Ghia laughed to herself. “It’s the coldest place on Earth. Ninety eight percent of the land is covered in ice. There’s no food or water. No shelter from the elements. You can’t make a fire or dig a hole, Max.”

“Do the LMOs patrol outside the city?”

“Yes they do. They also have advanced-technology organisms patrolling the outside perimeter.”

I thought about the bugs crawling through the depths underground. I remembered the robotic insect the LMOs sent into the ship when I crashed.

“There are worse ways to die here, Max.”

“And this vision of Hell defines your day-to-day existence? This is it?”

“There’s no place to go and nobody to save here, Max. We are all damned. Yes, we fight because that is what you do in the Fifth Ring. You fight until you are beaten. And after that, some poor bastard takes your place until he is eventually cut down.”

“A race to see who can be the last man standing.”

“You got it now. Feel enlightened yet?”

I let out a long breath. My little grudge with Spegg and his group escalated tenfold. It was time to get up off the floor.

“Parker,” I shouted. “Get in here!”

[Communication Relay:  11SEPT2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]