Discover more from Works Progress
Upkeep of a Bottomless Pit
In the not so distant future of this wild Lane Chasek story, there's only one torture device sufficiently terrifying to keep the global population from demolishing itself: bottomless pits.
And where there are bottomless pits, there are bottomless pit operators like our main character Morris, who is staring into a little personal abyss of his own.
Mind the gap, happy February.
Morris Noir’s earpiece came to life, a metallic chirp that came close to deafening the maintenance man as he descended beneath Earth’s crust. He winced and tried to adjust the volume knob on the receiver, but the knob itself was too small for his calloused fingertips to grip properly. His boss, Variety, thus roared deafeningly into his ear, “Are the microcarbons at full TS?”
Morris brought the microphone up to his lips and whispered, “Don’t worry, Variety, there’s no risk of snapping.”
“Good,” Variety’s voice crackled on the other end. She ended the transmission, and as the signal joining Morris to the main office was killed, Morris was plunged into the comforting silence and sweltering heat of his descent. Fifteen miles beneath the surface, he figured. He brought the microphone cover up to his nostrils and breathed deeply. This deep within the mantle, the foam-rubber covering was already damp and pungent with his musk and sweat, and since it was his own body odor, he found the stench oddly satisfying. Perhaps five years as a bottomless pit maintenance man had done that to him, not to mention all the other odd habits and predilections he’d acquired during his tenure. Morris was certain that if he were a married man like so many of the other bottomless pit guys, he’d drive his spouse insane with late-night speeches addressed to hypothetical adversaries or his tendency to populate small rooms with imaginary friends. He had become a sated panther of a man, Morris admitted to himself, a recluse and misanthrope by virtue of his profession. Whenever he reached the surface at the end of a shift, his reddened face and sweat-drenched features made him a marked man. If bottomless pit operators weren’t so integral to the survival of the planet, Morris was sure the people who crossed to the other side of the street whenever they encountered him downtown would spit on him or hurl broken glass in his face.
Morris cleared his throat, looked up at the transparent aluminum paneling of the elevator roof, the monstrous, glowing red tunnel that tapered to a fleck of pale sky miles above his head. That pale blue fleck, Morris reminded himself, was civilization, the world he left behind with each descent, the torment to which he would eventually be forced to return. Up there was the rest of the team, the men and women who maintained a vast network of bottomless pits throughout North America and beyond. But they were just the brains behind the operation. It was people like Morris who acted as the probing fingers, the eyes that ensured that these bottomless pits were, in fact, bottomless.
A shrieking buzz in Morris’s ear—another call from Variety.
“Morris, darling,” Variety said. “It’s Friday night.”
“Yes, I realize that, boss.”
Variety huffed on the other end. “I don’t like it when you call me boss.”
“Would you rather I call you…I don’t know. Babe? Toots?”
Silence from Variety for a few minutes. The elevator passed through a magnetic band, causing the silence to flare into static, like lulling ocean waves. Just like the beaches of Sydney, Morris thought, before the wars began, one of the many all-too-human problems the bottomless pits had put an end to.
“I don’t know what I want you to call me,” Variety eventually said. “It’s just that…I find it so sad that you’re stuck down there on a night like tonight.”
Morris laughed. “I don’t need you feeling sorry for me. You know us pit boys. We have plenty of imaginary friends to keep us company.”
Variety grunted, then said, “Okay then.”
Which was as much of an answer as she’d ever want to give. In a way, Morris felt sorry for Variety. She could be a real pain sometimes, and she was more of a stickler for procedure than any of Morris’s past managers, but she was the kind of hardass who obviously had an ax to grind, or else had something she needed to prove, if not to the world, then to herself. It was as if her mother naming her Variety had scarred her from an early age, a long, absurd shadow of a name she was doomed to forever attempt to escape from, never realizing that the name and legacy were hers permanently.
Variety began rattling off figures, but Morris had long since given up paying attention. Instead, he thought about all that had been lost in the brief twenty-eight years of his life—not just what he’d lost, but what the world had lost. After the Skeet Fighter and Meat Helmet Wars of 2037 and 2040, so much of the world had been plunged into social and ecological chaos. Only bottomless pits were capable of reminding the global population to behave itself, to keep in mind that, below everyone’s feet, bottomless pits reigned supreme, a man-made Tartarus that would finally accomplish what the long-dead concepts of Heaven and Hell had failed to do—change human behavior for the better.
Sometimes Morris couldn’t believe he was part of that global peace plan that had been initiated when he was only three years old. Tartarus I and II had been the first bottomless pits in the world, with Tartarus I beginning in Pittsburg and burrowing all the way to a mountain village in Nepal, while Tartarus II in Hawai’i tunneled through the molten core of the planet toward frigid Moscow. Such amazing implements of torture, Morris thought with warmth in his heart.
He blinked a few times and Dr. Elizabeta Stromboli appeared before him. Not the real Dr. Stromboli, but a likeness of her, which Morris often conjured in his mind’s eye in order to pass time in the elevator. The real Dr. Stromboli was retired, living out her twilight years in Sri Lanka, but the Dr. Stromboli that Morris spoke to was the same tight-minded vixen he’d recalled seeing on news streams when he was just a lad while Tartarus I and II were under construction. A flirtatious apparition, she knew just how Morris liked to be teased.
“My, what a handsome young man you’ve become,” Dr. Stromboli said, tittering behind a manicured hand. In Morris’s mind, the Doctor was forever young, forever that stunning redhead who’d made Hell a place within Earth.
“What can I say?” Morris said, leaning against the wall of the elevator, the molten, writhing mantle shifting like the innards of a lava lamp. “Tartarus keeps me young.”
Dr. Stromboli placed a hand on Morris’s heat-armored chest, nibbled his earlobe, and removed her glasses.
That hand. It felt real. Morris wondered what it meant.
These mid-shift Stromboli sessions were the best part of his job, but they had always been hallucinations and nothing more. Even though he was nearing thirty and had not so much as kissed someone who wasn’t his mom or older sister in years, his imagination had become so vivid through isolation that these sessions were (he imagined) just as good as speaking to a real woman. But to feel human contact for the first time in years, with pressure and warmth. It was almost too much for him to process.
“You’re not real,” Morris whispered.
“I can be,” Dr. Stromboli said. She bit the edge of Morris’s ear so hard he thought he felt her break the skin. “For tonight, at least.”
“Morris?” Variety asked, her voice barely audible. “Morris, are you talking to yourself again?”
“Let me be real,” Dr. Stromboli said. “You need this, darling.”
Her lips were real, too. And her hips. And her breasts. And her vulva. Morris was making love to the greatest engineer of recent memory, not just an incredible scientific mind but penal entrepreneur as well. Experiencing the Platonic ideal that was Dr. Stromboli in her prime, he was titillated not only by the sensations of feeling and experiencing her body, but also by the thought of what that brain of hers had devised—holes with two openings that, while mathematically finite, were made infinite by Earth’s gravity. You’d fall in at Hole A, then continue to accelerate as you descended closer and closer to the core; and after you had passed the core, you would begin to fall upward toward Hole B, your velocity slowing until you eventually reached light and fresh air on the other side of the planet, and then—you’d descend once more, a never-ending damnation. You could fall indefinitely, provided you had the right heat shielding in your suit. The heat suits Dr. Stromboli had designed for Tartarus I and II’s initial runs burned out after five circuits. The poor bastards who had first taken the plunge had all been cooked alive.
That had been the initial role of maintenance men like Morris—to traverse the bottomless pits in shielded vehicles in order to retrieve the charred, mangled bones of deceased criminals. Now, the role of maintenance personnel was largely symbolic, but it was the kind of useless symbolism and window dressing that Morris was more than happy to participate in. Just by being down here, Morris reminded the world that these pits still existed. If anyone on the surface so much as thought of committing a crime, they could easily be thrown in.
Dr. Stromboli writhed sensuously beneath him, her pleasured moans husky and self-satisfied in only the way great minds are ever satisfied. She was a gentle, caring lover, but hungry, a woman who knew what she needed and would pursue what she wanted from him. She gripped the back of Morris’s hand, bit into it. It was at moments like this that he was struck by just how similar Dr. Stromboli looked to Katherine—before she’d left him. Perhaps Kathy had been right about these pits. Perhaps Morris did take too much pleasure in them. He’d always loved how mentally and emotionally clean the pits left him feeling. The weightlessness of freefall made emptying his mind a simple matter. There was no history down here, no wars or domestic squabbles or financial burdens. Just baptism by gravity. Kathy may have been right. Maybe Morris was addicted to the pits. Perhaps the pits were and would forever be Morris’s one true love.
So what if he’d sacrificed happiness? Happiness was fleeting. And so what if the Australia of his childhood no longer existed? He thrust harder and harder into the image, the concept of Dr. Stromboli.
“Morris? Morris, please answer!” Variety pleaded.
Sweat dripped off Morris’s face and beaded the pale surface of Dr. Stromboli’s skin. He leaned down, licked the sweat away. He could taste Dr. Stromboli beneath the salt of his perspiration, her sweetness and the pleasant bitterness that lingered beneath it. His body shuddered. He was close to climaxing.
Dr. Stromboli gripped the back of his hair, pulled his face into her breasts. The softness of that skin, the weightless, empty feeling in his stomach—it was a return to something primal, an ageless, comforting sensation in which he could dissolve entirely.
“You’re real,” Morris muttered. “You’re real, you’re real, you’re real.”
“For tonight, honey,” Dr. Stromboli said, loosening her fingers from his hair.
As Morris’s body convulsed, the elevator suddenly ground to a halt. He came just as the conveyance hit bottom—a bottom that shouldn’t have existed.
Dr. Stromboli looked up at Morris wistfully. She put her glasses back on, massaged his back and thighs. “I hope it was good for you,” she said. She smiled at him as if he deserved pity, like a mother about to tell her child something sad and inevitable. Her hands were so cold now.
Morris shuddered. He rose awkwardly, his limbs suddenly lead-heavy with the full force of gravity.
“What happened?” Morris said. “We’re—we’re not falling.”
“I’m sorry, Morris,” Dr. Stromboli said. Her body shuddered as it turned transparent and gradually dissolved into nothing.
Desperately, Morris grasped at her disappearing breasts, her dissolving waist, her once-beautiful thighs which were now nothing more than air and unfulfilled dreams.
“No. No! You can’t leave me like this! This can’t happen!” Morris said.
His earpiece buzzed to life.
“Morris? Morris? Can you hear me?” Variety cried.
“She can’t be gone! She can’t be!” Morris said. He clutched his sweat-drenched hair, started pulling it out by the roots. Sweat streamed down his face, stinging his eyes. He fought back tears and blinked rapidly, hoping to once more conjure the nude form of Dr. Stromboli—the only woman he could ever love.
“Morris, you need to listen carefully,” Variety said. She paused before proceeding. “There’s been an…unexpected limit to the pit. A limit you’ve…well, you know what happened. You’ve reached the limit. Oh, what am I trying to say?”
“A limit?” Morris said, finally coming to terms with reality—Variety’s reality, the reality of the above-ground world that mocked and despised him.
“You’ve…I don’t know how to say this,” Variety said, breathing shallowly on the other end. “Morris…you’ve hit the bottom.”
“Yes. This bottomless pit…is no longer a bottomless pit. Come back to the surface, and we’ll consult with engineering. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know how it could have happened.”
Curled into a fetal ball in the corner of the elevator, watching the swirling forms of the mantle coalescing into phantasms and faces beyond the transparent walls, Morris wondered if this was how all dreams were destined to end. A bottomless pit with a bottom, after all, wasn’t a bottomless pit. It was simply a hole.
Lane Chasek's work has appeared in Atlanta Review, Hobart, MAYDAY, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, North Dakota Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Taco Bell Quarterly, and many other publications. Lane is the author of the experimental biography Hugo Ball and the Fate of the Universe (Jokes Literary, 2020), two books of poetry, and the forthcoming novel She Calls Me Cinnamon (Pski's Porch).