It was a particularly generic summer day at the office. Hot air was wafting through the window, and Vihaan looked at the people around him fanning their faces, leaning back on the creaky office chairs, hoping to catch a wink of sleep amidst the bustle of the crowded fourth floor of Babylon Towers Pvt. Ltd.
“Vihaan, are the floor plans ready yet?” Ruhi, his superior, entered the main area from her air-conditioned cabin, not a hair out of place, and stared at him expectantly. Vihaan sighed, exhausted from the heat and the constant buzzing of all the humans sitting around him.
“It’ll just be ten more minutes!” he called back. He watched her retreat into her glass cabin. It felt like an eternity since he had left his hometown to come to Mumbai to chase a career in a large company. So much for the big city dreams that everyone in his town kept preaching to him. He still had to go through the everyday crunch. Wake up at 7am and shower before the water runs out, reach the station, and hold onto the train for dear life to reach work on time, and after that? Well, that brings him here, sitting in a congested cabin with 20 other graduates doing the same job as him, hoping they’ll climb to the top someday, but until then, swarming one tiny room like houseflies.
No going back now, he thought, as he hit the elevator button to get himself some coffee before getting back to his work. The elevator arrived with a sharp ‘ding’, and the doors opened to reveal five other people in there. “Place for one more,” he asked. He saw the girl standing right in front of him begin to shake her head, but the janitor standing at the back smiled and said, “I’m sure we can make place for you.”
Vihaan squeezed himself in, and he heard the others groaning and sending him sour looks. Everyone except for the janitor, of course, who had a strange twinkle in his eye while looking at the rest of them. Weirdo, Vihaan thought, as the left started to move downwards. The LCD Screen taped roughly to the wall of life counted down excruciatingly slowly.
Vihaan breathed deeply, his stomach sinking at the sudden jerk of the left descending. 3
He could feel someone breathing down his neck, and he shifted, trying change his position a little.
The girl standing behind him sneezed and mumbled an excuse me.
Almost there, he breathed deeply.
And then, just with a second to go, the janitor reached his arm out swiftly, and jabbed the emergency stop button, and everyone in the lift fell forward.
“So,” the janitor said, as everyone brought themselves back on their feet, “I bet you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here today.”
“No doubt, Sherlock!” A girl screamed at him. “Do you want to kill us?”
“Something like that,” he smirked, and the lift shot downwards. Vihaan closed his eyes tight, expecting them to hit the ground in a few seconds, but they kept shooting downwards in the tiny metal box. He could hear someone screaming, or maybe it was more than one person, but the pressure building up in his ears wouldn’t let him confirm that.
And there they were, a few seconds later, on solid ground. They had crashed, but, he hadn’t felt the crash. Is that even possible. Vihaan rubbed his eyes open just as the elevator doors chimed open and a breath left in lungs.
Vihaan wasn’t a believer, he was pretty sure of that. And a conscience was not something he believed in. Because if he did have a conscience, it would have told him not to convince a 56- year-old woman from Vietnam into believing he was in love with her. And it would have definitely told him not to ask her for $10,000 to buy plane tickets to visit her. And it would have definitely, definitely told him not to spend that money on buying himself a plane ticket to Mumbai and escape his mundane small-town life.
But after standing in the steaming hot landscape in front of him, drenched in rivers of lava and mountains of ash, he had to pinch himself. This was real. He believed it. He was actually in-
“Hell!” The janitor laughed, as if reading his mind. “Isn’t it something?”
“I’m sorry, what?” Vihaan questioned, “Is this some escape room or something. Because this isn’t funny.”
The janitor continued to smile, but Vihaan watched as the smiling face morphed slowly into different features. The smile widened, his face extended to form two distinct horns, and the janitor uniform transformed into heavy battle robes.
“Don’t recognize me yet?” he snickered.
“Didn’t realize I had a ticket to Comic Con 2021,” the man standing next to Vihaan said.
“That’s because you don’t, Aditya,” the man resembling a demon replied. “I am Yamraj, Lord of the Dead, and I welcome you to my not so humble home, HELL!”
The last word boomed across the entire expanse of land, echoing loudly as if mocking the five of them.
“I’m assuming the question in your minds is why you are here.” Vihaan raised an eyebrow at the so-called God. “Well, the simple answer is – you are all terrible people. The scum of your company frankly, and perhaps even the scum of the earth.”
“Excuse me?” The girl standing to Vihaan’s left explains, “Who are you to judge us? Aren’t you a demon or something?”
Yamraj laughed, “I am actually the only person that gets to judge you, and you five suck. Reva, lets start with you. How does your best friend feel about you dating her ex-boyfriend? Not great, I suppose. She certainly won’t feel great when she realizes you were the one who poisoned his mind saying that she was cheating on him.”
The girl called Reva scoffed.
“And you, Aisha. How old was your sister when you tried to kill her? 2 years old? Did you get the attention you were missing after that diva act?”
Aisha opened her mouth to protest, but Yamraj has already moved on.
“And here we have Aditya. Does your boyfriend like jail? Is he even your boyfriend anymore, considering that he is in there for the supposed shoplifting that you did? I bet that was some real relationship building activity.”
Aditya stared daggers at the god.
“Maya! I’m really surprised your company still hasn’t discovered how much you’ve been stealing from them. That hair perm is believable but the Chanel bag? I’d say that’s a dead giveaway.”
Maya glanced nervously at her purse.
“And of course, Vihaan! Aren’t you the charmer? Honestly, I have respect for you catfishers. The lack of conscience is quite hilarious, yet impressive.”
Vihaan looked down at his feet. So, his sins had finally caught up with him. But he was still alive, wasn’t he?
“Yes, you are alive and in hell. And yes, Vihaan, I can read minds. Frankly, the rebirth system in hell has been pretty messed up for a while. You see, everyone that you see on earth is a rebirth of someone who died earlier, or who used to be a citizen of hell. Population explosion has really toyed with the balance of hell. We used to have so many people. Now, everyone who enters hells leaves within the day, as one more excited couple decides to have a fifth child, because why not?”
He began to walk, and the group began to follow him, interested in where their fate was heading.
“Look around you. Hell used to be a happy and prosperous kingdom. Well, happy for me at least, not the other of course. Now, it is, if I may be crude, a dump! The dump yard of the earth, the gods above call it. They really do think its funny. I, on the other hand, think its time to renovate. I need to organize hell again, rebuild it. I need it to be, well, not a mess.”
“And where do we fit in?” Reva asked.
“Look at the five of you! An architect, and engineer, an accountant, an administrative manager, and an IT Tech. You could really revolutionize this place. Rebuild all these broken structures, fix the rebirth algorithm, tell my employees to actually do their jobs for once. It’s the perfect group of people to revolutionize hell.”
“So basically,” Aditya said, “you want us to do the exact same thing here, that we did up there.”
“Bingo,” Yamraj said, “Now that we’re all clear, chop chop! We don’t have all the time in the world. Or actually, we do! But either way, get to it!”
We walked away swiftly, his laughter fading into the red smoke in the distance. “What. The. Hell.” Maya said.
“Exactly,” Vihaan replied.
“Don’t be funny with me right now,” Maya almost screamed. “How are all of you having zero trouble with coping with all of this.”
“Oh, I absolutely think this is a dream,” Aisha replied.
“Either way,” Reva interjected. “The dude scares the daylights out of me. I’m going to start with the work.”
“Hello there!” The five of them jumped as another demon shaped figure approached them. “Who are – ”, Vihaan started.
“That’s none of your concern,” the demon cut him off. “You’re the super bad group from earth right. Let me show you the strings around here. It’s not the easiest job, but hey, forever is a long time to get used to it.”
“What do you mean by forever?” Maya questioned the unnamed demon.
The demon giggled. “That’s cute. You all thought you could go back after you were done with the work? This is forever! You are officially citizens of hell. Congratulations!”
Vihaan took a deep breath, contemplating his fate. Did his lack of conscience just cost him his life? Was he so bad that he had been banished to hell together, because he was definitely not here because of what a phenomenal engineer he was. Before he could think, he grabbed a rock and hit the demon on the head.
“Vihaan!” Reva screamed, “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking forever is a very, very long time. And I’m not going to spend all that time here. We’re getting out, I don’t know how, but we are getting out.”
Aditya nodded in agreement, and Aisha added, “Vihaan is right.”
She pointed into the distance at a glass pod. There were several people lined up in front of it. “I may not be the smartest girl in the world, but by what Yamraj said, that seems to be the rebirth system.”
“Where are you going with this plan?” Aditya started, confused.
“You idiot! Can’t you put it together? That hole in the ground there is obviously taking them back to earth.”
Vihaan stared harder, trying to observe what exactly was happening in the pod. He saw a woman step in. A light flashed brightly in the pod, and when it dimmed again, the pod contained an infant child. The humans were being reborn in hell itself.
“There’s a small hole in your plan in case you didn’t realize, Aisha. Pun intended.” She looked at him exasperated, and he continued, “They are going back as children. What’s the point of that for us?”
“Simple solution,” she replied, “We destroy the pod and jump through the hole.”
“That sounds quite destructive, the opposite of what Yamraj wanted us to do. And not to mention, dangerous. What if we come out all distorted and weird?” Reva said.
“I’d say that’s a risk worth taking, Reva,” Aisha concluded. Vihaan knew there was no point arguing with her. And besides, the plan was fairly sound. At least, it was the only one they had.
“Vihaan, you’re a civil engineer, right?” She looked towards him, one eyebrow raised. “Ummm, yeah, but how does that help us.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’d say that box of TNT the demon was holding can do the job. And I’m assuming you know how to operate it?”
He looked around and saw the group looking at him expectantly, hopefully. “I guess so, he said. But it’s dangerous.”
“We are literally in hell,” she replied, “Add this to the long queue of dangerous.” * * *
Vihaan wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead as he walked towards the queue of people waiting to be reborn. He could hear screams of protest as he walked past the line straight towards the pod. Turns out even people in hell had rules about lining up. He hesitated for a moment, as he stood in front of the large pod. Was he sure about this? He quickly brushed away the second thoughts and put the TNT in place, concealed well behind the pod.
“Get in line, buddy,” he heard another scream. That’s my cue, he thought, as he lit the TNT and walked away slowly, knowing the exact time it would take to detonate. And then, just like one of the movie scenes he had pictures himself in countless times, the bomb exploded
behind him, and his silhouette was carved by the flames engulfing the exploded pod. He turned back, and between all the flames covering the landscape, he saw it. A gaping hole, dark as night, staring at him, calling him in.
“What are you waiting for?” Aisha caught up with him, still heaving from the sprint she had just attempted. “Let’s go!”
“Wait,” Vihaan said. Appearing from the same red smoke in the direction opposite to the hole was Yamraj. He didn’t have any spring in his step anymore, and Vihaan could tell that they had tested his patience.
“We need to go now,” Reva cried.
“Stop,” Yamraj said. Even though he was several metres away, his voice came from all around them. “Yes, you will reach the hole before I reach you.” Vihaan stood still, but he could hear Aisha running towards the hole, the others contemplating the decision. “But I got you here because I needed your help. And after this disaster you have just caused, I will need it more than ever. I have nobody to fix this enormous mess, and if you leave now, the rebirth system will be jammed forever.”
“Why should we care.” Vihaan shouted back.
“Because your population on earth will go into extinction if you don’t. How do you think people will continue to populate earth if they have no way to get back there? Once the last person on earth dies in 80, maybe 90 years, that’s the end for humanity.” “He’s lying Vihaan,” Aisha called back to him, “Don’t listen.”
Vihaan didn’t know what he was thinking. If he had to make a decision the day before, he would have jumped through that hole with no hesitation at all. But seeing what he saw today, knowing his fate, he couldn’t do the same.
He turned around. “Aisha, wait.” He called out to her, just as she reached the precipice of the hole. “Don’t do this. He’s right. We have a chance to finally fix things. Yes, we came here because we were terrible people. But maybe this is our chance for redemption.” He could see her hesitate, as she stared down the hole. “Your sister hasn’t forgiven you yet, has she? I know she will, she might, if you do this. You will be a good person again finally. You can’t change what you did to her, but you can change this.”
Aisha cried, tears filling up her eyes, and stepped away from the hole. The other stared at Vihaan, and he could tell they were thinking of every selfish thing they had done in their lives.
“We fix this,” Aisha said through her tears. “I’m sorry Yamraj, we all are. We will fix this.” * * *
Vihaan gasped as he opened his eyes, trying to breathe in through this oxygen mask that was strapped to his face. His daughter smiled at him, her tear-stained face grateful to see him open his eyes once again.
“Dad, we love you so much, all of us. I hope I can be as good as you were. I hope every could.”
“You can,” Vihaan gasped, using every last bit of breath he had left in him.
Just as his vision began to blur, he saw a shadow hovering behind the hospital curtains. The show had two long distinct horns.
Vihaan smiled to himself, 78 years, its not forever, but it is a long time to live. Thank you, old friend, for granting us our lives back. It is good to see you again.