Some articles may include Amazon affiliate links. All proceeds go help us pay for original stories and support writers of speculative fiction. Read more here.

Wyrmhole: Jack Stein #1

By Jay Caselberg

Stein woke that morning with blood in his piss and the taste of something more insidious deep within his brain. Strangely innocuous, deadpan — that was how it felt. As if none of it really mattered. Heavy grav, that’s what did it. Too much weight and too many stims to keep him going. Heavy grav got you down.

(Image courtesy Jay Caselberg.)

He grunted, shook the last few drops of the accusatory pink-yellow stream, then dry flushed. Maybe he was just becoming paranoid. Too many stims would do that to you. He was going to crash big time without them, but his kidneys wouldn’t take it much longer. He peered blearily at himself in the mirror, then shook his head. What the hell? He reached into the cabinet and slapped on another patch. Time and tide wait for no man. Now where had that come from? Jesus, where did he get this crap? He was having too many random thoughts like that these days, stuff just popping into his head.

Back into the kitchenette to brew a cup, one foot planted ponderously after the other, every step an effort. The stuff didn’t even smell real. By the time he’d finished the lukewarm nothingness that passed for coffee out here on the Rim, and tossed the plastic cup into the disposal, the stims had started to kick in. He was starting to feel barely human again — sort of like strung wire — but at least human. He scratched at the stubble on his cheek and grimaced. Time to face the music. He eased the trailer door open and squinted out into glare and heat, leaning against the doorframe while his fragile senses adjusted to the morning assault.

A cluster of silver trailers caught the light, shining star shapes in his brittle vision. The air sucked moisture from his skin and he lifted a hand to shield his eyes. The bare, pink ground between the trailers, ground littered with small jagged stones, appeared completely devoid of life. With a growl, he eased himself down the trailer stairs. Where the hell was everyone? There should have been activity all around the campsite by this time of day, but the only thing that moved was the heat shimmer.

Stein walked a few steps from his trailer and turned slowly, looking for any sign of the others. The only thing he got was that uneasy feeling deep in his guts. Everything shouted quietness.

Too still. Too damned still by far.

“Hey, Johnson,” he yelled.

Nothing.

He yelled again, then cocked his head to listen. But, he didn’t want to hear the small faint voice in the back of his head telling him something was wrong. Too many stims made you edgy. Fuck it. He was in no mood for games.

“Johnson! Mitch! Hey, where the hell are you?”

Still nothing. The heat-thick air sucked his words away and left him with beating silence in his ears. The small, quiet voice in the back of his head got louder. Jack had learned to rely on that little voice, but it didn’t mean he had to like what it was telling him. It was as if something was stalking him like a man in black cowboy boots riding the dreamsnake in his head.

You’ve blown your cover, Jack. They’re on to you, it whispered.

He scanned the trailers and concentrated on the sounds outside his head. Still nothing. Logic started to overtake the internal voice. There was no way the rest of the crew could know why he was here. Or could they?

What the hell was he doing in this place anyway? He hated heat. Okay, it was money, but sometimes that just wasn’t enough. He licked his lips and crunched over to Johnson’s trailer. He lifted a fist and banged on the metal shell.

“Johnson, you in there?” He waited a moment then banged again.

The voice was back again, telling him stuff he didn’t want to hear. This was weird. The sun was beating down on the back of his neck, slamming heat into his body. It was funny the way no matter what star you were under, you always thought of it as the Sun. It might be a different color, but it was still Sol. He could feel the slight trembling in the ends of his fingers and the hard-wire edgy feeling around his teeth that meant the stims were really starting to kick in. His heart was racing now, but this time it had nothing to do with the chemicals. What the hell was he going to do?

He tried Mitch’s trailer, but the results were the same. He didn’t dare risk any of the others. Johnson and Mitch were the only ones who had treated him halfway like human since his arrival. These far-flung mining crews tended to be a pretty unforgiving lot, didn’t like outsiders much. The new boy always had to prove himself, to earn acceptance, and Jack Stein hadn’t been around long enough to make the grade.

He leaned against the trailer door, trying to ease some of the weight dragging at his limbs. You had to question a person’s motivation for winding up in a place like this. But you didn’t pry into people’s backgrounds. Not out here. He squinted into the sun then cursed out loud. Stupid to stand out here in the full glare. Bloody stupid. He walked around the trailer and squatted in the pinkish dust on the other side, using the trailer’s bulk to shield him from the heat. He rubbed his hands on his thighs, leaving pink smears on his legs like chalk dust trails on the sides of his suit.

It was still another eight days before the rotation shuttle was due. He’d already been here for two local weeks and found nothing. When the company had sent him in, he’d expected to have some answers within the first week, but so far, he’d drawn a blank. Most of the eighteen-strong crew was fairly tight-lipped, but there’d been nothing in any one of their actions to indicate anything suspicious. Jack was pretty good at picking up the signs, and nothing up to now had triggered his internal alarms.

He peered across at the jagged pink cliffs where the main shaft lay. The light sparkled in sharp traceries from the crystalline outcroppings, even at this distance. The problem was, he didn’t really know what he was supposed to be looking for. They’d called him into the office and said, “We’ve had reports of unusual happenings on Dairil III. We want you to go in and find out what’s going on.” That was it. Fat lot of help they’d been.

“So, what am I supposed to be looking for?” he’d asked.

“Anything unusual. Anything at all,” they’d said.

Well, now it looked like he’d found something, even if it was nothing. The men were supposed to be here. The camp should be full of noise, the rough, burly mining crew preparing for their day inside the mountain, swearing and grumbling as they usually did.

He hitched himself to his feet and walked slowly back around the other side of the trailer. He was achieving absolutely nothing here. The vehicles they used to get back and forth from the mine were still parked around the campsite, so at least that was something. Next stop had to be the mine itself, see if they were there. Grab his kit and drive over to the mine. That was the answer. He’d find them all there, waiting for him to show up, wide grins on their stubbled, sweaty, dirt-smeared faces. The fact that the vehicles were still there worried at the back of his consciousness, but he pushed the thought aside for now.

Stein had been in Intelligence once, but he’d left when the service hadn’t treated him the way he thought it ought to. Now he was freelance, but some of the old contacts kept him going. Intelligence. Well he didn’t feel very intelligent right now. It was far too early in the morning, and all he had was his sense of wrongness to keep him going. Not a good way to start the day. Not good at all. He rubbed the back of his neck as he trudged back to his simple, utilitarian accommodation.

Back in the trailer, he toyed with having another coffee before heading out to the mine, but then, rationality took hold, and knowing it would do him more harm than good, he dismissed the idea. He grabbed his items of kit from where they lay scattered around the small trailer, donned his hard hat, reflective jacket and shades and headed back out into the glare. If the others really were taking him for an idiot, then this time he’d have something to say. He didn’t go much with all this bonding shit they played at. But then again, Jack Stein didn’t really bond. Many years ago, he might have wanted to, but now he simply couldn’t be bothered. Experience had taught him otherwise. Everything was transitory; everything faded. Loyalty counted for nothing. You don’t trust anyone but yourself, and that was the way life worked.

Four yellow flatbed half-tracks stood at the end of the cluster of trailers that lay closest to the mine. Stein picked one at random, headed for it, and clambered aboard. It would take him about fifteen minutes to make it to the mine entrance. On the opposite side of the trailers lay the landing field where the rotation shuttle would set down and offload the relief crew. He knew from his background research that the site for the trailers had been chosen on purpose — closer to the landing field and further away from the mine. Somehow it gave the crew a feeling of closeness to home and kept them away from the constant reminder of the vast enclosing caverns and shafts they toiled in day after day. At the end of a relative twelve-hour shift, you just wanted to get away from the mine, banish it from your thoughts, but it was under your fingernails and all over your clothes and in the sweaty lines in your face. Nothing really took it away. He gunned the motor and headed out along the well-worn track, clearly ridged with the marks of their daily comings and goings.

He glanced back once at the clustered silver trailers, squinting against the glare even through his shades. Something seemed to waver above them, something gray and sinuous, but then it was gone. He swallowed back the feeling that rose in his throat and turned to face the track ahead, sweeping out through the featureless rose-colored scree. He hated the way the stims did that — caused flickers on the edges of his perception. He liked to be able to rely on his senses, not worry about every tiny visual aberration conjured by the dark places in his brain. One day, they were going to invent a stimulant that didn’t have side effects. With a conscious effort, he tried to banish the lingering thoughts of snakes from his head.

The constant whine and rumble of the half-track gave him some comfort. Machine noise was always good to pin down reality. He sucked at the water bottle as he jolted along, scanning the cliff face for any signs of life as he rolled the warm flat-tasting water over his tongue. Nothing. Well, he hoped they were getting some sort of perverse satisfaction from this little game. He sure as hell wasn’t. He circled the half-track to a stop and sat staring at the mine entrance, contemplating his next move.

Equipment lay scattered haphazardly across the ground where the crew had left it the previous evening. Large pieces of yellow metal scratched and scored from use. One of the advantages about working in a place like this, you only had to worry about yourself. It really didn’t matter how you left things. Nobody was going to take them, because there was nobody here to take them. The mining team were the only people on this god-forsaken ball of rock, apart from the occasional shuttle crew.

The pink cliffs loomed above him, covered in jagged protrusions made even more jagged by the intensity of the light casting crazy shadows across the surface. Jack’s concern suddenly started to become touched with logic. Up until now, he’d simply been running on his gut. If the rest of the crew had gone inside to start work, surely, they would have moved the equipment. So, what was it doing still lying about outside?

He stepped down from the half-track, shielded his eyes and let his gaze rove across the piled angular boulders to either side of the mine entrance, then on and into the man-made hole on the rock. It disappeared rapidly into the cool shadowed interior of the cliffs, fading into darkness. No lights. No stirring of life. High above lay the vast solar panels that drew power down into the mountain’s heart, but nobody had bothered to flip the switch. Maybe that was part of their game. So, where were they hiding?

He gave the side of the vehicle a frustrated kick, then searched inside himself for calm. If the crew had concealed themselves in the shadowed entranceway, watching him, then losing his temper would only give them more satisfaction. He reached into the half-track, retrieved the water bottle and took a healthy swallow. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and tossed the bottle back into the vehicle.

“Mitch, you in there?” he yelled. “Johnson?”

Vague echoes of his voice filtered back from the mine entrance. He listened for a response, but all was still.

Reluctantly, he stepped away from the vehicle and headed toward the entrance. The switches were about ten paces inside the mouth, on the left-hand wall if he remembered right. He’d never had to switch the lights on himself. That was the job of the crew boss.

It was marginally cooler inside the shadowed rock. He walked slowly, looking for the bank of switches along the wall, listening for a sound that might give the rest of the mine crew’s presence away. Only the echo of his footfalls came back to him from the wall, sounding strange and hollow in this vast empty space. The squirming snake feeling was back in his belly.

“Shit, Stein. Get a grip, will you?” he muttered under his breath. “Anybody’d think you were afraid of the dark.” He was, slightly, but he wasn’t going to let anyone else know that.

The rows of red switches lay above him, a panel, just higher than his head. Using both hands, he flipped them all, in groups. There was a satisfying rush and whoomph as all along the tunnel powerful lights surged into life, casting his shadow on the rock wall in stark silhouette. He turned and peered down the tunnel, but all he saw was rock and the pink dusty floor, scattered with chips of stone and the marks of boots and vehicle treads. Maybe they were further inside. He supposed he could go back, get the half-track and drive in, but now he was here, he may as well walk. Stein knew if they really were here, they were unlikely to be very far. And if they were already working, he’d hear the sound before he’d gone more than fifty meters.

He noticed the strange patterns on the floor when he was no more than twenty meters in. Long sinuous swirls marked the dust, and large patches had been swept free of litter. Here and there along the walls, deep piles of rock chips and other waste had been swept into small mounds. Stein stopped walking and frowned. He was sure the tunnel hadn’t looked like that last time he was here. He listened again, but only quiet stillness, marked by an occasional dripping from somewhere off in the distance came to him. He looked back down at the marks on the floor. The patterns reminded him of something. Something animal, but he couldn’t remember what. He’d remember what it was later when he wasn’t thinking about it. That was how it worked. He ignored the shapes and started walking deeper.

Everything was silent except for the sound of his footsteps, and the slight hum of the lights overhead, and that faint drip, drip, drip from further down the passage. If the other crew members were here, he should have heard something by now. At least he could get to the face of the latest workings and see if they’d even been there. Then, he noticed something lying on the tunnel floor ahead. It looked like someone had dropped a glove.

He was nearly on top of it, bending down to retrieve it when he saw what it really was — a hand. Perfectly formed. Perfectly severed at the wrist. Just lying there in the middle of the tunnel floor. No blood. No pool of anything. Just a hand. He swallowed and stood quickly upright, staring down at it.

A big chunky ring sat on one of the fingers. It was some sort of black shiny stone, and on it was a device, picked out in silver. A snake eating its own tail. The top half of the snake was black, outlined with silver, but the bottom half was of solid silver, marked with a pattern of scales. Leaning down, he could see that words in some ancient script lay within the looped body. The hand was broad and meaty, well-tanned. He could see the neat cross-section where it had been removed from its owner.

He took a deep breath, stood again and looked around, suddenly nervous. What the hell could do that? And more importantly, where was the hand’s owner? He peered further down the passageway. This was not turning out at all well.

Briefly, Stein considered his options. He looked down at the hand and prodded it gently with the toe of his boot. It seemed solid enough, real enough. He dug the edge of his boot under the thumb and flipped it over. The thick fingers were slightly curled in toward a palm with pink-brown dust ingrained into the lines. There were calluses on the palm, just below where the fingers joined. It was a miner’s hand, but he couldn’t remember having seen the ring on any of the crew he’d met.

If the hand was just lying there, it had other implications. If there’d been an accident, nobody would just leave it there, lying in the middle of the tunnel floor. Something had happened to the crew. Not just one of them — all of them. He sucked in his breath, feeling foolish. Great powers of deduction, Stein.

A noise came from behind him. A whirring, slithery sound that was somehow both wet and dry at the same time. Slowly Stein turned, his guts gone cold.

Something was sliding out from the tunnel walls, out of the smooth bare rock. Grey sinuous shapes pushed straight out into the air, iridescence sliding along their length. They were probing the empty air, slipping along the tunnel floor, like multiple tentacles coated in a slick of very fine oil that glazed the questing forms with vaguely shifting rainbow colors.

Stein took a step backward.

“What the hell…?”

✸✸✸

Jack woke back in the Locality, sweat pooling in the hollow of his neck. His hair lay slick, plastered across his skull. He sat slowly upright, trying to quiet the pounding in his chest. The dream still lay like the taste of bile within his mouth, making him feel like he wanted to scrape his tongue, making him reluctant to swallow.

He passed a hand across his forehead, then gently peeled back the inducer pads at his temples, working his nail under the fine adhesive edge.

Damned dreams were getting worse. He couldn’t sustain it for much longer if he kept emerging feeling like this. He worked his tongue around the inside of his mouth in an attempt to banish some of the taste, then swung his feet off the bed onto the cold stone-like floor. He sat there, hunched, arms resting on his thighs for a few minutes grasping at the knowledge of which reality he really was in. Any moment he expected the walls to extrude vast gray tentacles.

The dreams were like that; they imposed themselves on his waking consciousness for several minutes after he’d emerged. Just the same way his reality imposed itself on the dreams. In that half-blurred boundary of emergence, sometimes it was hard to distinguish exactly which was which.

A drop of sweat fell from the tip of his nose on to his thigh and he reached up to wipe at his face again. The sting of salt was in his eyes. He took a moment or two to compose himself, breathing slowly and regularly in an effort to steady his pulse. He used the time to look around the familiar bare walls.

This was his working room, about a third of the way along the Locality closer to Old than New. It would be about ten full years before he’d have to find another and relocate. Plenty of time. His apartment was closer to Mid and should be safe for about another fifteen years or so. Not that he planned being in the Locality for that long, but it suited him for now, at least until he worked out what the hell he was going to do.

The Locality was a haven, one of several self-perpetuating urban structures that crept across the landscape by millimeters every week. It took from the ground upon which it lay the components it needed to build itself, constantly renewing and adding new apartments, offices and other dwelling spaces toward New in shapes that were programmed into it. As with everything, it suffered decay. Eventually the lifespan of the tiny pseudo-organic builders ran out, and the walls and streets broke down to be recycled back into the whole, eating up the tail of the Locality near Old, consuming itself at the end. The Locality and structures like it had grown out of the old gated communities. As life became more perilous, and the technology had become available, those with the resources had built the first experimental structures. More and more had flocked to the security of their contained existence, and the environments became larger, first towns, then whole cities. The Locality had been one of the first, it’s immense growth organic as its population grew.

Jack’s working room lay in an office complex where the rents were cheaper because of their proximity to Old. To be honest, it was more Old than Mid, but it was close enough to the boundary to force the lie. But the location suited him fine; he had no need of the extended permanence to be found toward New.

Stein looked around the simple room, slotting reality back into his head. The blank walls and mid-height ceiling were a uniform off-white. He kept the room simple on purpose, so he wouldn’t be sent off on iconic tangents when emerging from dream state. Paintings, statues, and the like had too much resonance, not that he could afford any of them. Rather, he wanted to define the dream images, note them down before they slipped away from his semi-conscious mind. It could take mere minutes for them to fade. The blankness gave him a canvas on which to paint his dream realities and give them substance without having them confused by the clutter of possessions.

At least he had something to report to his client now. All he had to do was try and sort out the dream image from what had really been there. For a start, there was the hand. The way it had been apparently severed made him suspect a dream plant, something injected into the dream reality by his subconscious, disconnected from what was really going on, but he couldn’t be sure. He worked his tongue around the inside of his mouth again and reached for the water bottle he kept handy by the sleep couch. As he sipped, he sorted and classified the images one by one. Then he reached for his handipad, thumbed it into life and started making notes.

The ring was interesting. The Ouroboros symbol had significance, he was sure. The snake eating its own tail was a classic archetypal symbol — something easily found inside dreams — but countless societies and organizations throughout the ages had used it. He wondered what it might mean in the true context of the dream. There was power there. Maybe too much. It would link to the snake shapes sliding out from the mine walls as well. It was a starting point. He picked up the rock shard from the mine on Dairil III and hefted it thoughtfully in one hand. Warburg had been right. He had been given just about all he needed with that little chip of stone.

He still had a problem though. The mining crew had disappeared, that much was clear, but he already knew that from the contract. That’s why Warburg had hired him. The fact that Warburg had hired Jack Stein rather than some more mainstream investigator smacked of something less legitimate though. He could understand them wanting to keep the disappearance quiet, but there was more going on here. He needed to work out why a large corporation like Outreach would approach a two-bit investigator like Jack Stein in the first place. He had no illusions about his status in the Locality’s scheme of things. The call had come out of nowhere, and he hadn’t really questioned it at the time. The whole deal was far too good to pass up.

He’d met Warburg at the slick offices up in New. The hard-faced corporate executive with his slick designer suit took him through what they needed. They’d had a mining crew out on the world, Dairil III, somewhere out of the mainstream traffic lanes. Without explanation, the crew had disappeared. Travel to the planet would have taken months, but as Jack Stein was a Psychic Investigator, maybe they could cut through some of the time needed to solve the case. Time was of the essence and there was pressure from on high to come up with an explanation soon.

Jack had taken him through his abilities, explained the dreams, the psychic clues. All throughout, Warburg had sat, fixing him with a flat expressionless stare. When Jack had told him how physical prompts sometimes invoked clues, Warburg had merely nodded, slid the Dairil III rock shard across the desk and asked about his rates. It didn’t quite add up, but hey, he wasn’t going to pass up a fat fee just because it didn’t feel perfect.

The problem was that he was still no closer to understanding how or why the disappearance had happened in the first place. If his special intuition gave him nothing more concrete, he was going to lose everything, but the small retainer Outreach Industries had paid direct into his account, after all. He’d been running close to the edge for some time, and if he blew this one, things were going to get really tight and soon. Now, he had less than a week to come up with something he could give Outreach.

Just perfect.

This excerpt is the first chapter of Wyrmhole: Jack Stien #1. You can find it on Amazon.com.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Jay Caselberg is a writer and poet whose work, novels, short fiction, poetry, has appeared around the world and been translated into several languages. From time to time, it gets shortlisted for awards. Find out more at Caselberg.net.