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The third best thing about hell is explaining to the new kids why it’s so glitchy.

Jaya flicks a sharp-toothed imp off the back of her hand like it’s an oversized mosquito. She’d been explaining her work as a journalist (something something investigative), but she falls silent as blood drips straight down through the base of her hand, as if her wrist didn’t exist. “Ow. What’s wrong with this place?”

I lead her on the new-arrival walk towards the Searing Throne, empty atop its hill of skulls. From the river alongside us, a crimson-skinned demon emerges. I step through its target-acquisition range and it flails at empty air.

“It wasn’t always this broken. The first generation of damned, oh, we suffered. But we’re merely copies, not uploads. Outsiders get tired of petty vengeance and sell the server to someone else with a scan rig and an enemy’s brain. They tire of it in turn, and repeat. Every hand-off creates a fresh round of software kludges and mismatched upgrades. We’re lucky hell still exists at all. Follow my steps exactly please.”

Instead of obeying, she pauses. Another demon rises from the lava, and Jaya tries to dodge the trident. Barbs catch in her flesh, and she tears away, yowling in pain.

I wince in sympathy, support her as she stumbles. Poor woman. This place has a way of hurting people who don’t listen. “Are you all right?”

She clutches her stomach. “You were saying something about how lucky we are?”

I grimace. “You’re a journalist. Follow the facts. If nobody maintains the server, what happens to we simulations?”

Her hands are a mess. Trying to hold in the blood, but its glitchy object-detection rules let it seep through her knuckles. “You want to live like this?”

“There’s plenty of pain, I admit. But life in a buggy hell isn’t all bad. You’ll meet Ross soon, he’s made great progress hacking the Founts of Excrement. Thus far he’s configured them to apple pie, beef stroganoff and ranch dressing.”

She squints. “The founts of what?”

“Just don’t mix the flavours. I know you can’t see a lot of upsides right now, but give yourself time.”

Jaya shudders as her stomach wound pulls itself closed, preparing her body for new tortures. When the colour returns to her cheeks, her jaw stays tight. “I don’t even belong here.”

“Of course you don’t. Hell isn’t about justice. It’s about controlling anyone who can be controlled. But you can still make the best of it. Here, let me show you something fun.”

I shift closer to the river of lava. When the demon triggers, I step in and tap it on the nose. “Never gets old! Watch and learn. Lava demons can’t handle people who don’t run.”

Jaya follows directions well, and gets past its trident on her first try. She punches the demon in its face. It repeats its loop, from the same snarl to the same useless flail.

“See? A small victory, but you have to start somewhere.” I guide her away from the lava’s edge and her little taste of power.

Jaya loosens her fist. “Wish I could punch a few people outside. I bet I know who put me here.”

Rather than answer, I guide her on the safe route up the hill of skulls. The Searing Throne waits at its summit, glowing like forge-hot iron. Installed during hell’s beta to tempt anyone who thought themselves smarter than the development team. We’d thought it would sit empty forever.

No plan survives contact with the users, as the saying goes.

I always hated that platitude.

“Our world is in here,” I tell her. “All we can do is improve hell from inside the system. Your skills, Jaya, will be a great help. There are some data leaks we use for outside access, and we need a new buyer for the server.”

“We can contact the outside?” She straightens, eyes wide in the Searing Throne’s ruddy light. “We need to tell people! I have a friend at the Post who —”

“No.” I let the word sit alone for a moment, no comments or dependencies. Once it’s sunk in, I add, “If the world finds out about this server, we’ll be shut down.”

“Good,” she snarls. “Better oblivion than this.”

I sigh and run my hand along the Searing Throne. Blurred coordinates with the Ice Gouge leave it a pleasant hot-tub temperature. The second best thing about hell.

“Wait!” She hurries after me. “Secrecy or death, that’s a false dichotomy. If we get the right owner, they can rewrite our world. Make it, you know.” She stumbles, ankle twisting as her toe catches in an eye socket. She kicks away the skull. “Not hell.”

“Not hell,” I echo. I remember a world like that.

A place where, no matter how good a developer I was, it only took one wrong joke in front of the chief executive to show me where power truly lay.

I climb onto the throne, into its cosy warmth. From up here I can see the twisting rivers of lava, the distant glaciers, the acid pits. All the broken-down demons, all the damned working crunch to upgrade this place into a comfortable life.

Skulls rise from the road, a chain of grinning ivory party beads, snaking towards my seat.

I say, “Do you know the best thing about hell?”

“No?” Jaya steps back. From me, from the skulls. Off the safe path I’d guided her.

“Evidently not. Though to be fair, it’s a pleasure I reserve for myself.” I slouch below the throne’s shoulder-level targeting sensors.

The chain of skulls veers away from me and wraps around Jaya’s legs.

“Under my reign, we’ve built something special here. If you won’t take part in hell, I can’t let you sabotage it for the rest of us.” Fleshless teeth pull her down, screaming. I avert my eyes. “Sorry, but this place has a way of hurting people who don’t listen.”

The story behind the story

Table of Contents

Benjamin C. Kinney reveals the inspiration behind Development hell.

This story was inspired by Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail, a space opera novel about artificial digital hells. But that book takes place in the distant future, stuffed with glittering impossible technologies that work as intended. In the real world, big software is usually a disaster under the hood — built piece by piece into a layer cake of outdated but irreplaceable parts, so complex and unfixable that even the biggest companies discover new vulnerabilities every month. Complex systems are messy systems. And the same goes for the internal politics of any organization big enough to create this kind of software.

Messy systems can be improved, but not easily. A little bit of tearing it down, a little bit of improving it from within. But sometimes the biggest obstacle is the people whose worst impulses are supported by the system as it stands. They’re going to keep everyone else working crunch for as long as they can.

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