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...?"