At first, he thought that it was a bear. It had the animal’s size and musculature, as well as the thick, brown coat, but its head looked more like a crocodile’s mouth full of jagged teeth. It hissed and then made a hideous gargling noise before rushing at Jason. With nowhere to go, he stood his ground as the creature bore down on him. He swung the mallet at the last possible second and hit the monster on what would have been its nose. The beast let out a yelp like a hurt puppy and skidded back. Jason thought maybe despite its bulk and strength, it wasn’t used to having its prey fight back and was confused. He raised the mallet and charged at the animal as it cowered in the dark tunnel. Jason smacked it again, and this time it ran off whimpering and gargling.
So much for the local fauna, he thought. That thing wouldn’t last five minutes with a badger, let alone a real bear. He wondered what it ate when it couldn’t get human.
Despite his jokes, the encounter with the bear-thing had creeped him out. He had seen pictures of all manner of weird animals from across the galaxy, and even met a few in person. But this thing had no eyes. It was just all legs, hair, and teeth. He supposed it must use echolocation or something similar, but that didn’t keep the strangeness of it from sending chills down his already frozen spine.
He continued on down the tunnel until it split into two separate passages. With nothing to differentiate them, he chose the right one at random. After a few meters it started to slope downward, so Jason considered turning around. He wanted to go back to the surface, not deeper into the ice. If it didn’t level off or turn back up soon, he would go back and try the other passage.
The decision was made for him when he came to another chamber similar to the last one. He swept the beam of the headlamp around, but like before there was only the one entrance. He was about to turn back when a strange shape caught his eye. Against the far wall there were what he could only describe as several metal washtubs and the stacks of ice molds that must have come from them. He moved closer to investigate and brushed the thin layer of frost away. Trapped inside were dozens of pale half-squid, half-fish things like it was some giant frozen seafood dinner. Jason quickly decided he didn’t want to meet whoever or whatever had made the strange blocks.
He saw one that seemed different and stopped to look before he left. Without a working video feed, the biologists would want to know all the details he could give them about the indigenous species. This one was larger and curled up in a ball so he didn’t recognize it at first. When the realization hit him he nearly threw up in disgust. It was a naked human body.
After getting over his initial shock, Jason tried to get a closer look at body. There were only a few hundred people on this planet. It would be hard for someone to go missing and for Jason not to have heard of it, but it wasn’t impossible. Maybe it was one of the original scouts who had fallen into a crevasse as he had. He moved around to the other side to get a look from the front.
Jason staggered back as he looked at the man’s face. There were empty sockets stained dark with dried blood where the eyes should have been. Whatever had encased the man in ice, had plucked them from his skull.
Despite the deformity, he recognized the man. His name was Leibovitz or Leibniz or something like that. He had bunked two cabins down from Jason on the trip from the Aggasiz relay base. If he remembered correctly, he was stationed at the Beta site fifty kilometers to the south. Jason wondered how the man had gotten here.
He shone his light along the wall and that was when he spotted the other bodies. Another man and a woman frozen solid and packed in ice like they were being preserved for later study. Or for dinner. He winced at the thought.
They were vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place them. He assumed they were from the Beta site as well. The one thing he was certain of was that he didn’t want to join them. There was only one direction left to go, and whatever had done this to the others lay in that direction. He gripped the mallet as hard as he could with his numb fingers and started back the way he had come.
He went back up the tunnel as quietly as he could, but the rough ice underneath made it exceedingly difficult. He had assumed that these tunnels were a natural formation, but now he was having some serious doubts. They were too straight and regular to be cut by water or any natural process, and they were too big for the animal he had seen earlier. There must be something else down here that penned those people up in the ice. He would have to be very careful and take nothing for granted.
When he got back to the fork, he took the left tunnel. It wound for several hundred meters before it opened up again, this time in a nearly circular chamber about thirty meters across. In its center was a large, open pit with a meter-high ridge extending around its perimeter.
Cautiously, Jason snuck up to the edge and peered down the shaft. It went down beyond the range of his light, perhaps even all the way to the ocean underneath. He could smell the warmer salt-laden air rising up from below. That must be where these creatures come from, he surmised. But how the incompetent bastards who surveyed this planet could have missed something this big, he couldn’t guess. Not wanting to meet whatever had made that hole, he skirted around the edge of the room to the far side where the passageway continued.
Just as he reached the entrance a loud skittering noise began to sound in the hole. Jason switched off his light so he wouldn’t give himself away. As the total darkness enveloped him, he realized that he was better off with the light. At least he would see what was going to eat him and have a chance to fight back. He pressed his body up against the wall and turned his light towards the opening of the pit to see what was coming up.
A large, wooly, crab-like creature, as tall as Jason and twice as wide, emerged from the pit. It ran effortlessly out and away from him, retreating down the other corridor towards the ice blocks. It carried a net full of the squirming fish-squid creatures slung over its back. The bear emerged shortly after, gargling and nipping at the crab’s legs like a naughty puppy.
The crab thing didn’t slow or even seem to notice Jason in spite of the light he was shining on it. Perhaps like the bear creature, it didn’t have eyes. If these creatures had evolved under the ice, starting out at thermal vents and then branching into other environments, they would have no need for eyes. Maybe these things had adapted to the ice the way fish had moved on to the land on Earth. Still they must sense their environment somehow. Like the bear-thing, it must use sonar. He decided not to get close enough to find out. He had been lucky once, and didn’t want to push it.To be continued