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Hell is...

Robert Bagnall was born in a doubly-landlocked English county when the Royal Navy still issued a rum ration, but now lives by the sea. He is the author of the science fiction thriller 2084--The Meschera Bandwidth and over fifty published short stories, twenty-four of which are collected in the anthology 24 0s & a 2. Both are available on Amazon. Three of his stories have also appeared in NewCon Press' annual Best of British Science Fiction anthologies. He blogs at meschera.blogspot.com and can be contacted there.

Third on the left along the somber corridor. Overhead, lights cast a flat, cold, glow. One buzzed, as if holding a dying wasp.
As I went to open the door, the notion struck that I couldn't recall which floor I was on, nor why I was certain this was the right room. I paused, searched my mind for who had told me third on the left, tried to remember what I pressed in the lift, and why. But I came up empty--emptier, now not even sure where this building was.
Inside, I found a windowless blank-walled meeting room. An ambient background hum--air-conditioning, perhaps, maybe lights--apart, it was utterly sterile, neither warm nor cold, devoid of the slightest odor, good or bad. A bustling cardigan-clad woman with overweight hair and thick ankles beneath a tartan skirt was completing a circle of chairs. I watched as she shuttled between the corner of the room and the middle, transporting grey plastic chairs one by one from a stack. Her inefficiency instantly irritated.
"Anywhere," she said without making eye contact, waving vaguely.
I made an arbitrary choice. "Not there," she told me.
There were six of us. I hadn't heard the others arrive. Did I look as tired as them? Gaunt, grey haired, they chatted amongst themselves at the back of the room around a table of plastic coffee pots, a low burble in a minor key, heads drooped, mouths turned down.
On pressing their pumps, each urn gave a tired wheeze and a last splutter. I looked around. There were now at least a dozen, all with full cups. Why could I get no joy from any of the pots? I tried opening a bottle of water, but grazed my palm on the metal cap.
Examining the scrape, I noticed a name badge affixed to my sweater. Tomas. Was that me? It didn't feel right.
Wordlessly, we were called to order. Somebody moved, and herd instinct made us follow. The woman with the hair started speaking but all I heard were sounds. I couldn't make out words. I concentrated so hard I found myself gurning, like I was leaning into the wind. People sitting opposite were staring.
"Hell to me," an elderly black man in a blue suit with salt and pepper hair was saying, "would be like going into battle. Not the moment of going into battle, but the moment before going into battle. You're about to go over the top, the order's going to come any second, that whistle's gonna sound. You're trying to hang on to that last moment of stillness and calm, before the screaming starts, the gunfire, the thump, thump, thump of your heartbeat in your ears. Hell is the moment tranquility ceases, the tipping point when you know you have left serenity behind...."
I zoned out. He was still talking, a Proustian avalanche of words to describe a sliver of time, turning it over and over and over like chicken on a grill. My eyes drifted to my chest. Thomas. Is that what it had said before? I couldn't recall.
A pasty woman with lanky hair who looked like she'd be felled by a single microbe was being interrogated. What would Hell be for her?
"I don't know?"
"You must have some idea?"
"If you tell me yours, that might give me an idea."
"Is it a place, a person, a time? For some it's even a frequency or a flavor."
"Tarragon," said a burly man to my right, who wouldn't be drawn further.
Big-hair--why was I the only one with a name badge?--turned her attention back to sickly-woman. "Your personal Hell is personal to you. What Hell is for me has no bearing on what Hell is for you."
How many people had been asked the same question, over and over?
The deathcamps.
Things crawling under my skin.
Living with the guilt of my failure and lies.
I recalled a succession of empty cow-like faces, more people than this room could possibly hold. How long had this insufferable nonsense been going on? There was no clock on the wall. I checked my wristwatch, but it was not there--was that really my arm, so sallow, the skin so thin?
"What is Hell to you, Tim?"
Big-hair was looking at me.
My eyes dropped to my badge. Tim. Tip-of-the-tongue close, but still not quite right.
"Hell? My idea of Hell is a pointless, never-ending focus group...."
With a stomach lurch I remembered who I was, where I was. And why.
And then I was back in the grey corridor, with no recollection of how I got there. Third on the left. Now, how did I know that was correct?
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 25th, 2022

Author Comments

Outside of writing, I'm a freelance HR consultant--the archetypal Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B role, and the very first example David Graeber gives in his book Bullshit Jobs. So believe me when I say that I've been in those rooms, worn those name badges, and tried to get coffee out of those coffee pots. If you've been there too, you'll know it's a small step from there to here.

- Robert Bagnall
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