The only way out is through.
Gods-be-damned, he hoped that was true.
He was going through hell now—almost literally—and he wanted out. Bad.)
Above him was rested the weight of the world. Literally. Beneath him, the heat from below.
A sick, loud, barking laugh sputtered out of him, his only companion – and that for but a few seconds – in this tight spot he was in.
A snarl-sneer-smile smeared itself bleakly across his wide, craggy features. Sweat rolled like small, fat, globule beings down the roughened terrain of his forehead. His blunt eyelashes furiously whipped the beads away. The saltiness splashed onto his stinging eyeballs.
And, dear gods, the flesh of the palms of his hands. His knees screamed from the tortuous heat of the rock upon which he crawled.
Crawled, because he could not stand. There was no room.
He imagined he smelled the slight scent of leather burning, from where his shoes scraped over the inhospitable “floor” across which he dragged himself. His shoulders scuffed abrasively along the narrow, rough-hewn walls that were just far enough apart from each other for the man to fit.
He was glad the laughter had fluttered away quickly, like the wings of invisible bats; dammit, he was glad for it. There wasn’t space enough for him and it.
The planet groaned above him, as if in agreement with his doom-laden feelings. He groaned in response.
There was too much of the planet above him, and too little of it beneath, between him and the heat of the planet’s core. It was only thanks to his hyper-augmentation that he was even alive down here, and he was pretty gods-be-damned certain the specs on the augment technology they’d used on him didn’t anticipate survival this close to the planet’s core.
Of course, this wasn’t Earth and the planet was dying and there wasn’t near as much heat down there as there was at Earth’s center, but fuck fuck FUCK that didn’t do a damn thing about the crushing weight of rock against which his back rasped as he crawled.
He shuddered to think who it was that burrowed this gods-forsaken tunnel through here. The portal which he’d discovered at the surface – just a square-ish hole in the middle of a rocky plain.
He certainly hadn’t intended to jump into it.
In fact, he hadn’t. He’d been pushed in.
In itself, that didn’t stretch credulity. Problem was, sensors all said there wasn’t a soul within miles and miles of him. He was alone. He’d thought he was, anyway. That’s how it was supposed to be.
Routine job. Fuck that.
Jorg kept crawling. He still didn’t feel any better about being on top of Inferno and beneath Mother Earth. She was too damn heavy and the former was too damn hot. But that had really been the problem from the beginning.
Or, almost the beginning.
The beginning beginning would have been when he landed on this junk planet. Why in the pi-squared Hells the company had sent him here was an unsolvable mystery.
Just like how you’re going to get out of this.
The beginning. Landing. Breathing was no problem since he’d had the ultra-light lung tanks surgically installed in place of his ordinary organic lungs. And his augment-hardened skin and the thin energy shield tightly hugging his body made drastically lower atmospheric pressure no problem.
The shield was generated via symbiosis and his augment skin. It protected from the rigors of space but still didn’t protect against this heat.
Jorg groaned again, this time anticipating the roaring, cracking, crumbling, rumbling, steamroller of a groan that rolled across above him, sending vibrations and shivers through his body.
He vomited. Not a lot, but right in front of him where the sour smell assaulted his olfactory nerves. A stalactite of drool stretched down to drip back against his chin. Jorg ignored it. There were bigger things to worry about.
Like the planet right above his head.
He’d left the ship without his suit. It was a short jaunt and no biggie, right?
His deeper, guttural laugh rollicked around the confined space like a crazy thing before going chattering off into the dark tunnel ahead.
Wonder how much dark tunnel there is ahead, exactly.
The chariot would have to swing low to catch him up. But that was now. The beginning was then. When he landed and went hop-skipping along like anybody’s idiot across the surface of this dead, boring planet.
Only he wasn’t bored now.
But then: Everything was as he expected it to be. Deadly dull rock. (Yeah. Deadly.) Nobody and nothing around. Sky of star and flame, black and blazing orange and tiny pinpricks of light. A shocking combination of stunning and terrifying the first time you saw it, but a man could get used to just about anything.
Except maybe for constant heat under your feet, knees and hands and elbows.
Everything had been as expected upon landing. Except for two things.
The first would be the inexplicable square-ish hole that hadn’t ever been there before. Or, he suspected, had been there but had been concealed one way or another. At any rate, there it was, but never before. Just now.
Then-now, that is. Not now-now when he was between a rock and a hot place oh gods-dammit ha ha fucking ha.
Then-now, he’d peered cautiously down the hole. Of course, he saw nothing but black. But let a strange hole just pop up one day and see if you don’t peer in.
Jorg’s flashlight hadn’t done any good either. Just blackness.
Then, a single moment of physical sensations, and information processing in his brain, all condensed into a singularity of frozen time, overlapped split-seconds in time, each with their share in the smooth flow of events, but the mental processing recording all the events in one flashbulb moment.
Here are the stimuli his brain processed (his first emotional response was utter surprise):
Something knobby struck him in the back. About the time he realized that, he was already tumbling forward. About the time that registered, some kind of sound he could strangely only describe as chitinous. That realization hit home about the time he was plummeting into the hole, getting pretty banged around in the process. And so forth. Like ripples collapsing from three dimensions to two atop each other, all these sensations flattened into a single moment.
Then there was the falling bit. Jorg had had a lot of time to think about that, since he fell for what seemed like forever.
It wasn’t his augmentation that saved him from accordioning against the bottom of the shaft. It was a peculiar updraft of warm air that grew stronger the closer he fell to it; by the time he neared bottom he was simply floating down. Of course, there was no blowing the first portion of the fall, so that bit was extremely frightening. Not that the rest had been a theme park ride.
He’d landed in the billowing, hot, pointing-up wind and thoughts of the old film star Marilyn Monroe flickered through his mind.
Jorg discovered he was in a hollowed out space and there in front of him was another square-ish hole, this one at the base of the space’s wall, leading forward into the tunnel in which he now – now-now – found himself.
He probably could have shimmied part way up the shaft to exit where he got kicked in except for a handful of problems. For one thing, there was no way his aching muscles could hold up for two miles of shimmying. Hells, no. And even if he did have a way up, his thoughts at the time – when his brain fluttered past Marilyn Monroe like ancient celluloid frames as he contemplated the hole to the tunnel – were that that escape hatch two miles up, where he’d gotten kicked in, was where he’d gotten kicked in!
In other words, the knobby chiton-thing – which was how he imagined it – might be up there still.
He shuddered to think of it. When he failed at blocking out thoughts of the thing, shudders of deep revulsion wracked his body. It seemed familiar, yet profoundly alien. Familiar, but too big. And menacing in a way that was like spiraling into a black hole inside your own mind, like a metaphysical snake eating its own tail, a paradoxical headspin of endless, mindless hell.
Jorg knew it obviously was menacing by the fact that it had knocked him down tat shaft. But the sense of bone-deep – deeper than physical sensation – horror that had snapped through him when the thing had touched him – well, it was a pure Abyss.
And so Jorg tried desperately not to think of it as he tried desperately to keep alive his will to plug ahead, crawl forward, looking for any kind of change in the scenery.
After a while, he got his change of scenery, after a fashion. He was still in the same shaft, but it started to incline – just a tad – at the same time that it began to veer left. Jorg had no way of knowing if this signaled a turn toward someplace safe but it was something. At this point, his hope was desperate to hook up with whatever cross-your-fingers phantom lover it could. A shift in direction would have to do.
Funny thing was, the gradual incline and veer gradually became less gradual. He came to a point at which it curved and twisted up and back and he’d had to gradually get himself pivoted around to climb the ledge that presented itself. He heaved himself into this sharp new direction and realized shortly that the twisting and veering and inclining was coming at him again. This stretch of the tunnel was apparently as buggy as that last part.
Buggy. Don’t think it.
Couldn’t help it. He screamed. And that was a dreadful companion. He almost wished for the crazy laughter instead. Or nothing. Nothing would be good. Then Jorg thought about nothing. Seemed like there was a lot of nothing down here. Nothing and rock.
A shudder hammered him. Then, he found something to be grateful for. The heat was less. He was heading up, away from the core. He was heading up. Toward the surface. Provided the tunnel kept moving this direction.
Something else to laugh about.
No, keep hope. It’s hope against hope. Or fear without facts. Jorg figured the former was preferable.
Jorg crawled. And climbed. And twisted. And kept on keeping on, following the insane path of this tunnel that had just flipped its lid and went from straight-forward to totally loopy.
Loopy was fine with him. It was carrying him back toward the surface. Hopefully, wherever he surfaced, he’d not find one of those things – the shudder struck – between him and his ship. To the Hells with this gig. He was getting off planet ASAP.
At one point, while crawling up a particularly steep incline in a stretch that was surprisingly just a little bit roomier – relatively speaking – he slid on loose rock and dirt. His slide thrust him back down to the sharp upward curve he’d just maneuvered and climbed past. Jorg richocheted roughly and slowly and – because he couldn’t get a grip while he tumbled in the tight space, he slid down to the curve before that.
But there he got things under control and continued his arduous journey.
What a gods-damned out-of-this-world tunnel. (His brain, for once, balked at making cracks.) Again, he wondered what race or species or what-the-fuck-ever had carved this and why. When he wondered that, he was wracked by another of those damnable shudders.
He took it as a clue. Well, to the infernal cyclones with those shudder-inducing bastards – spasm! – getting out was more important than figuring out who those creeps – cringe! – were and why they built this thing or even how he instinctively knew it was them –
– when it touched you that’s how you know –
– and besides, the less he knew or even thought about these things – shudder! the better. Just focus ahead. Or up. Or this way or that. With this tunnel, every which way.
Crawl, fucker, crawl.
After a very long time, Jorg became aware of the faintest flickering of light ahead/above/left. For a moment he was confused; and then he realized it was light from the flames lashing across the sky. The tunnel leveled out and in the near-darkness, Jorg almost crawled right into a shaft. The tunnel floor dropped away from him.
With a wearying mix of elation and panic, he realized his tunnel had intersected another vertical shaft like the one down which he’d been pushed or kicked or whatever. Jorg closed his eyes and groaned as the sickening shudder flopped through him.
If he could see the flickering, that meant this tunnel was intersecting the shaft very near the surface. Thank the gods for that.
Very, very carefully, Jorg twisted himself around, easing into the shaft and getting his limbs in a position in which they could shimmy the rest of him to the surface.
Following another long interval – not nearly as long, though to his muscles it felt like it – the rough-hewn square of flame and stars and black sky was almost as big as he was.
His perspective was telling him he was nearly to the top.
Jorg was tempted to put some enthusiasm – partly fueled by a fresh burst of adrenaline – into his upward climb but decided to put prudence before haste. So he maintained his pace of shimmying a little while longer, until he was able to get his hands up and out of the ground and hanging on and pulling him.
Jorg was halfway out when he looked up and stared directly into the maw of the thing that had shoved him down the shaft. This wasn’t a different shaft, after all. That tunnel had brought him full – circle wasn’t the right word, of course.
And that realization was the last sane thought Jorg ever had. His mind sprang loose from its moorings as he gaped directly into that – face isn’t the right word, of course.
Notify me of follow-up comments by email.
Notify me of new posts by email.