Dark System 2

Under the Ice

After a short recovery, three of the Erickson's crew must brave the elements of Niflheim to find a permanent colony, little do they know, the cold is not the most dangerous thing on this frigid ball...

We had been traversing the ice sheets, following the scared trail our crashing ship left on the surface as it crashed, for the better part of more than three hours. While the water ice was more solid than steel, the snow of the lighter gasses was powdery, almost perfect for a ski weekend. Our rover was the hottest thing on the surface of the planet and its radiance caused a weird micro climate in a constant state of flux, all the snow constantly shifting between solid, liquid, and gas as we passed, our tracks leaving semi-permanent evidence of our transit.

In our few weeks on Niflheim, we had to have some semblance of ordered time, we set up a system using the gas ultra-giant; only one step removed from a star, its fusion stunted by heavy elements, as the ‘sun’ or primary body of this dark system. The sky was a dark velour of diamonds, twinkling across endless plains of gray ice, and it was high noon, our ‘sun’ a silver dollar sized deep black orb. As Wagner operas spilled from the speakers, I considered our predicament and wished it were all a dream.

“Coming up on three 22 kilometers out.” I announced after checking the dials on the rover’s dash, from the co-pilot's chair, “Sean, get ready for the repeater drop, Jen, find us a good spot to pull over for a pit stop.”

What a trio of trouble we were: Jenifer, despite a broken hand, severe lacerations across her right cheek, and bruised ribs, insisted on accompanying us across the frigid desert; Sean had dislocated his left shoulder, his pelvis was cracked, his leg was broken, and he was now missing a few toes; and me, the worst off of the whole crew, with a swollen brain, low blood volume, every one of your bones is either hairline or cracked, and perhaps a little more, but I was in charge.

Jenifer was in the pilot's chair, eager to play her most prized skill. Like the rest of us, she was in a Class-V exploration exo-suit designed to be used from excessively thermal hot springs to the near vacuum of space. 

Our suits were colored so we could visually tell each other apart, hers was off orange yellow, mine was snot green and Sean, in the cargo bay, in the back was orange, all colors to distinguish us from the sad gray of Niflheim.

The suits themselves had multiple compartments for sample storing, tools, some repair materials, weapons like two blasters and four, three decimeter long, knives and ammo, everything an up and coming explorer could ask for.

Jenifer, like the pro she was, had already been looking for a good spot to put the signal repeater and as soon as I asked about it pointed off to the right, “How does that icy knoll look, Steve?” she asked already steering in that direction.

“It's as good a spot as any other.” I shrugged, then open a link back to the Erickson, “This is long boat one with scheduled contact/update, do you copy, over?"

Patchy static was the only response for a moment, then Stefany keyed her mic, her voice boosting my morale higher than just about anything else could, “Hey Steve, you're about 10 miles early what’s up… er uhm, Long boat one, Erickson, read you lima Charlie, ready for sit rep… over.”

“Erickson, we are about to set up a repeater station, are you ready with the system tie in?”

“Ready and willing, you got a serial for me?”

“PRQ-19X6.” Sean reported from the back, and fuel cells are fully charged.

“Copy all,” Stefany returned after some taps on her keyboard, “We are live, picking up handshake and telemetry, drop package when ready.”

“Copy, Stef, report on base activities,” I asked as Jenifer set the parking brake and stepped into the cargo area.

“Well, you know, same old, same old, the differing heat zones from the ship’s heat sinks are causing some methane ice buildup on some non-essential external equipment, were cycling sinks we should be alright, for now, and we are finally making headway on adapting Cargo II into an aeroponics chamber.” She sighed, “It's slow going, Steve, I really wish you were here.”

“We’ll be back soon enough, Stef, we have to get a good lay of the land and we have no satellites or telemetry. It’ll be alright.” I wished I were there too, “Maintain hot channel and report immediately if something untoward happens...”

“You too, stay safe, standing by, out.”

With a heavy sigh, I joined my team in the cargo area to start hauling equipment into the sub arctic wastes. For as far as the horizon extended, the sickly gray of non-water snow glistened softly a sickly mirror of the day-stars above. All in all, it was as dangerous as it was somehow beautiful. As it was colder than the seventh layer of hell, we had to work briskly just to stay cold, and even then, our cores could not stand more than 20 or 30 minutes un protected by the rover.

*****

As we approached the crevasse, the signs of the recent upheaval indicated the hole was opened by our crash and the non-water ice was working to seal it like some super slow non-Newtonian fluid. With boulders strewn about and surrounded spongy surfaces Jenifer parked as close to the entrance as she could and we carefully trekked the last few meters.

“There is some air movement, the inside is a few degrees above ambient.” Sean noted after taking some readings, “That means Niflheim has a hot core, that is good for our survival.”

“Let’s check it out, and get back home, I’m hungry,” Jenifer harrumphed as she brought up the rear.

We carefully entered the cave and gazed in awe, the inside was astounding beyond words. In addition to the multiple forms of ice, was stone and gems, and the cave stretched for kilometers.

“Whoa, how much do you think this is all worth?” Jenifer marveled, forgetting about her hunger.

“As there are no buyers, and we have no economy at all,” I shrugged, though I was also agape, “Absolute zero.”

“If we could sell it back on Earth, smarty pants.” She grimaced as she approached a cracked geode the size of a bowling ball.

“At last known prices,” Sean calculated, “A few hundred mill, easy. The fact that there are gems and geodes of this size and quantity this close to the surface speaks to a very violent past.”

“Let's just hope the growing pains are over.” Jennifer stepped back from the wall, “I have no desire to bathe in lava, I’m not that cold.”

“Why do you have to be such a Debbie Downer?” Sean chuckled at her change in view, “Hey this shaft leads lower, and there is more air movement!”

“You seriously thinking about delving deeper into an unknown crack on an unexplored planet?” Jennifer’s voice wavered in worry.

“Everything is unknown until it is.” I was not thrilled about the idea either, “But we have to explore all options to find a habitable zone, and get usable material.”

For a moment Jennifer was silent as Sean and I set up to descend the shaft, “Uhng, fine, you two go. I work on a mobile FOB, might as well do something to keep warm.” She accepted the need as she started back to the rover for the supplies, “Fuel cells on the rover can hold out for a few more hours before we will need to head back to the Erikson.”

“We’ll be back in three.” Sean sounded a bit too happy about splitting up.

As Jennifer worked on the base Sean and I set up a belay system to descend safely into the bowels of Niflheim. As we descended the temperature increased a few tenths of a degree, “Another chamber, Sean, if this continues there is a livable cavern in here.”

“And we can live like the ant people, developing tech to dominate Helheim.” Sean sarcastically retorted.

We continued our adventure for quite some time, repeatedly checking the clock to make certain we didn’t run over time. Chamber after chamber, some small some grand were all worthy of further study, but we wanted to build a workable map for future research as quickly as possible.

“It's looking like our odds are progressively increasing.” Sean finally admitted as ambient temps steadied around -20 C.

We approached another passage and my eyes widened in un abated shock, “And I think we have just hit the jackpot.”

Before us stretched a vast cavern covered in bio-luminescent growths, the walls stretched far into the darkness, and an underground sea reached past the bounds of plausible, “It’s too cold for water, not cold enough for anything else, WTF?” we both wondered

“Some oils have anti-freeze properties…” I tried to think.

“And there are other additives, like salt, that could do the same, along with the fungus, this is research gold.” Sean finished.

“We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.” I marveled as I didn’t pay enough attention to my stumbling.

“Fuck Kansas, I think Alaska could fit in here.” Sean scoffed

“And it’s just as cold,” I confirmed, still ignoring my immediate surroundings.

We were amongst some mega flora of weird glowing lichen and fungus. If I looked closer I might have seen some insects and arachnids that scurried away from our intense heat and noisy tread. There might have even have been some tracks of larger fauna, but my mind was light years away from my body. There was no sign I would return anytime soon.

“This biome is full of extremophiles thriving in an environment that, while not hostile isn’t long term survivable to us.” I marveled.

“Bro, you need to be more careful, this is an alien world.” Sean cautioned as he carefully followed, “But I agree, we set up a FOB in a side passage and science the hell out of this place.”

I had never been too smitten with plant biology, but I was taken aback by this place more than I thought possible. Caught up in the wonder as I was, I wondered about like a moron. It was never a good idea to completely ignore one’s surroundings, but in an unknown place, on an alien world in the middle of nowhere, it was especially hazardous. I should have noticed that I was ambling quite happily down a curious trail that lead right to a bait stand. But it was too late.

I was sprayed with some kind of caustic and corrosive liquid that quite happily ate into the seals of my suit and pitted the metal and even composts that should resist all types of corrosion. Like a confused wounded animal, my movements became erratic and stupid. More triggers sent more streams my way corralling me toward a wall covered in growths.

Like a fly trap, as soon as I triggered the right growths, vines and leaves flexed to shut me into a digestive pouch. I drew the two blades from my thigh sheaths and began to hack and slash the strangely cut resistant binders. Not only did it resist my cuts, the plant seemed to be aware that I was trying to escape and adjusted its tactics to compensate. If Sean had not been around, shooting the thing from a distance with his energy pistol, I would be plant food.

Just before it fully closed, I managed to get out of ground zero and made my way to the lake, “How about we don’t tell the others about this?”

“Yeah, we tell them you super advanced space suit decided to disintegrate for no reason at all, meanwhile everyone else’s are just fine.” Sean scoffed as he carefully approached and inspected my back, “You’re lucky these things are designed to be field repairable, though our on-site kits may not be enough for this level of damage.”

“I know, I designed them.” I retorted checking the damage readouts and visuals myself, “Though, this will not stand the rigors of ultra-subzero, even to get to Jen's FOB. Sean, you’re going to have to go back and get the heavy kit.”

“And leave you alone to piss off another plant?”

“I’ll be careful, I promise.”

“You sure you're good to wait here? It’s not quite warm enough for health.”

“No choice.” I sighed, “The under suit may be rated to -10, but the Windchill at the door will be far worse. I’ll see if I can make a fire or something outside of the wind.”

“Yeah, I’ll hurry. Don’t die on me, that won’t look good on my report.”

As Sean tiptoed his way back to the exit, I glared at the cavern as if my sheer force of will could change things for the better. It did not. With a dejected sigh, I began to very cautiously search for flammable material to help offset the cold while I stripped down to my under suit to repair my over suit.

It didn’t take long for the oppressive silence to assault my nerves. The silence grew to deafening levels as my pulse and breaths were the only noise punctuated by my scraping steps. After an eternity of deafening hush, I finally had a crackling blaze of a small fire that because of the insane cold felt like a bond fire.

As I relieved myself of my vestments, I did manage to begin to enjoy the moment again, like a knight after a major campaign, I’d imagine. I carefully set aside each piece as I admired the vista, glorious.

Each suit did have a small cache of emergent supplies and tools, but not nearly enough for the catastrophic damage my suit endured, but I could get started.

So, there I was, in my underwear, on the shore of a freezing lake, surrounded by icy boulders, in a frozen hell-hole, on a hostile frigid world, when I heard the sound of something approaching. 

The normally soft sound of boot scrapes on hard stone was like a torrent of noise. My pulse immediate jumped to dangerous levels and my blood pressure spiked, I couldn’t survive another killer plant attack.

My eyes darted to every potential threat location, but whatever it was knew how to hide. It must have known I knew about it and had entered ultra-quiet mode, great. Then, I saw a profile, a bi-pedal beast with pointy cat ears and, a tail? 

Yes, this thing wore an enviro suit and had a tail; definitely sentient, and definitely an alien, even for this place.

It was clear we were both hopped up on our equivalent of adrenaline, fear, and judging by the look of its suit, pain. We were not enemies, but we could not be allies, yet. Whomever won this engagement would determine the dynamic, assuming the other survived.

We floated around the edges of the other’s field, each trying to find the opening, while at the same time avoiding hazards we couldn’t anticipate. Staying on the rocky areas meant ice, but it also meant no killer plants, both being new we took the lesser of both evils and stayed on the rocks.

My opponent found an opportunity to advance before I did. He darted behind a boulder, and next thing I knew he was dropping from above, like one of Kali’s shadow tigers. I managed to deflect the blow with an over the head baton block and diverted the energy of the blow into a roll away from the combat cat.

He was on me in seconds, obviously a well-trained leopard. His weapon was like a policeman’s night stick, a thick club the length of his forearm with a short handle set perpendicular. He spun it, swung it, blocked with it, all the while kicking and punching and attacking with his tail, like a cheating cheetah.

I held my own with my special blend of escrima, kendo, and Brazilian jujitsu, but my opponent was pure sinewy muscle, built for speed. He knew he had the advantage and pressed it as hard as he could, I, on the other hand, gave ground and rounded rocks in a rope-a-dope hoping to tire him out, so far, not so good; I was losing more steam than he was.

Eventually, I slipped and fell back against a rock. I struggled through the stars and he moved in for the coup-de-gras. It was then that I noticed distinct chest bulges, that for an upright mammal, only meant one thing, this was a woman.

My gaze shifted from the torso to her eyes and noted that her eyes had no whites; she was from a predator species. Her totally deep purple eyes were filled with the fire of fear and desperation, and perhaps as much confusion as I was feeling.

As the final blow came at my head in slow motion, I only had one thought, “F...!!!”

To be continued…

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