Going to a new world doesn’t mean leaving everything behind. Sharon excelled when it came to science. With people? Not so much.
When the first exploration of Charon takes an unexpected twist, and the mission commander takes an unplanned trip to Pluto, Sharon improvises while she seeks answers to questions she has asked her entire life.
On the fourth day without word from the Veil, Sharon went outside and looked up at Pluto hanging in the sky overhead. She bounded across Charon’s icy surface—it was a dirty snowball of a moon—in great seven-league steps like a superhero.
Okay, so each leap wasn’t seven-leagues, but it was still pretty freaking amazing. Zero-gee on the ship always felt like falling. Falling and falling for months on the way out. Here gravity held sway but only a fraction of that on Earth. Far less, even, than on Earth’s moon.
Her spacesuit smelled of days of sweat and trapped farts. She hadn’t left her suit since the trouble started. The others didn’t even notice when she left, they were too busy having sex. Almost non-stop. They’d take breaks to eat, sleep, and even use the lavatory, but that was all that they did. The six of them had been sent by their commander, Angie Tran, to establish a toehold on Charon and evaluate its potential to resupply the Veil. At first, that’s what they’d done.
Until it all changed.
The holographic heads-up display highlighted a dot in a bright orange highlight. A point of light that moved in the sky across the Pluto’s rusty face. The Veil. Two weeks ago, she’d gotten the message that Angie Tran had abandoned the ship for Pluto’s surface, leaving McMurty in charge. That didn’t make any sense at all. Angie would never give up command of the ship or the mission. It was all their petite commander had ever dreamed of, or had wanted. She’d made that clear on the way out. Never pairing up with anyone.
Sharon landed, and slowed, one smaller bounce following the next. No way to come to a sudden stop, not without toppling over onto the crusty ice. Windmilling her arms didn’t help, but that was instinct. She’d always been tall, pushing the limits the Diaspora Group set for crew members, and she’d always joked that her feet were so far from her head that the two didn’t communicate.
Kicking up final sprays of sparkling ice crystals, she managed to stop. Her rank breath echoed in her helmet. She squinted at the display and blinked open the communications channels.
“Veil, come in please. Veil, this is Sharon Calvert on Charon. Come in.” Sharon on Charon. She’d heard the jokes about that and always pronounced Charon with a hard ‘k’ sound. Not that it helped.
I’ve got a bone for you, Sharon, Boyd had said back when they were still on the Veil. Now he was busy giving it to everyone else back at the habitat.
It was all a joke to them. All those months on the Veil, watching the others pair off, break up, and pair off with other partners. It wasn’t like there was any privacy. Nancy Walters squealed like she had won a big prize whenever she came. She and McMurty were an item at first, but by the time the ship had reached Pluto-Charon, she must have gone through half the men on the ship.
Not Sharon. No one sought out her company after hours. She was tall and plain. Horse-faced, according to kids in school. None of that mattered when it came to getting the work done. Then she had their respect. She was always smart. She’d seen Terra Blackstone give a speech early on about the potential of the Diaspora Group and her bold vision of sending out missions to every world in the solar system. Why decide which world to colonize, to put all of humanity’s hopes into one basket, when there was so much to choose from? It had sounded impossible, but Blackstone lived to make the impossible a reality. Sharon had applied for a position immediately.
And she’d never looked back. She’d worked on every stage of the missions, working her way up, and made it onto the crew of the very first ship to launch, the Veil. All of the outer worlds launches were happening first because they had the farthest to go. Just the opposite of what others would have done, going for the nearby worlds first.
“Veil. This is Sharon Calvert. Come in.”
No response. The ship was right there, tracking across the sky. They should be picking up the transmission. What was going on up there that Angie Tran was off the ship? Soon the Veil would head back the other direction. It orbited the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system, on a faster track than Pluto and Charon spinning around the same point in space. The position gave them ready access to either world.
“Sharon Calvert, calling Veil. Come in.” Please.
Silence. Sharon focused on the command menus and blinked her way to the diagnostics. Displays flitted across her view. All of the communications equipment reported functional.
“Calvert, calling Veil, come in.”
Sharon bounced in place. Charon, the trampoline world. Except the icy ground didn’t give much when she came down.
“Veil. Come in. Come on, McMurty, Tran, somebody up there must be in charge! Answer me!”
She landed and ice crumbled beneath her boot. Not much, a few inches compacted by her jumping but she stumbled. She fell forward, but even that was happening slowly. She had plenty of time to get her hands beneath her. Her thick gloves touched the dirty ice and stopped her fall. She flicked her fingers against the ground and that was enough to get her started up.
Once she regained her feet she turned carefully away from the view. Time to go check on the pod.
The Charon landing site was only a couple kilometers from where they’d set up base as near to the geysers as they dared to get. Sharon bounced to a stop and sucked in big gulps of her foul tasting air. Although she had recharged the system only yesterday, her air was turning foul. The suit wasn’t designed to be lived in around the clock for days. Even with the catheter, it wasn’t like she could actually clean herself down there. The suit did its best to remove waste into the external storage bags but she still was beginning to smell like the inside of an outhouse crossed with a gym locker room.
The landing pod that had brought them to the surface squatted just down the slope, on a relatively smooth patch of rocky ground. Rocks from the size of boulders, down to pebble-size littered the field. Ice frosted the ground between the rocks. It wasn’t a clear landing place, only thirty meters behind the pod was a boulder that out-massed the pod. Despite the hazards, the rocky field presented one of the best opportunities to land. The worst case would have been to come in to land on a surface that was mostly ice where the landing thrusters might vaporize the ice and cause all sorts of hazards.
And they had the advantage of the pod’s six legs and flexible feet to deal with the uneven terrain. Sharon had a hand in designing the pods. The ability to land on uneven terrain was one of the key design features.
She bounced over to the lander in small leaps, watching her footing. The suit protected her to a point, but a bad landing could still break an ankle or leg.
The pod was a lot bigger close up. It rose above, sleek and bullet-shaped. A fine frost made the hull glisten and sparkle. Even with the rocks, there had been enough ice for the rockets to kick up a fine cloud of water vapor that instantly froze out on the hull.
Beneath the pod was a big gaping opening. That’s where the habitat sled and their supplies had been stored for the journey. The Veil carried a number of the landing pods, each equipped with the same habitats and supplies. A colony in a box, Blackstone had called it. Enough to get them established while they developed local resources and built a permanent colony.
Sharon moved into the shadow. The temperature readout along the edge of her vision dropped even more as the temperature plunged in the shadow. The suit fans and pumps kicked a notch higher to keep her from freezing. Alongside one of the legs was the ladder leading up into the shadowy belly of the pod.
She climbed up.
The hatch was clear of any frost. It had been protected on landing and without any atmosphere, there wasn’t anything to cause more frost to form. Sharon’s suit system interfaced with the pod’s, waking the dormant systems. A holographic access control appeared on the hatch. Sharon entered her code. Bright blue lights twinkled on around the hatch and pulsed as the hatch slid smoothly open.
She climbed up into the airlock and activated the cycle.
An hour later Sharon stepped from the pod’s tiny shower feeling clean for the first time in days. Her short blond hair was damp as she scrubbed at it with her towel. Her underwear clung to her skin and the cold air raised goosebumps on her arms. Still, she was loathe to even put on one of Diaspora’s standard issue workalls. She was clean!
The pod was small. In a pinch it served as a habitat itself. It was a multifunctional vehicle capable of taking off and returning her back to the Veil.
Except she couldn’t launch. Not without knowing the situation on the Veil, and not until she understood what was happening back at Charon Base. So far whatever had happened in the habitat hadn’t affected her, or infected her. That’s why she was staying in the suit while she tried to figure it out. Either something about the moon, or something that the others were exposed to, was behind this. Even if she was in touch with the Veil she couldn’t go back until she knew it was safe. She’d meant to inform Veil that Charon was quarantined, except she couldn’t get in touch with them.
Sharon climbed up into the cockpit at the top of the pod. It wasn’t difficult in the low gravity. She swung her legs up around and settled on her back in the command chair. She fastened the safety belts out of habit, and brought up the main system.
The pod controls came online. Sharon brushed aside the launch controls, and selected the communications system. She brought up the radio systems.
“Veil, come in. This is Sharon Calvert, calling Veil. Please respond.”
Dead air answered.
Sharon pulled up the interfacing controls and pinged the Veil. A response came back as expected. Good. The ship wasn’t dead then. She opened up a socket and stabbed the command to make a network connection.
A miniature solar system model spun in front of her, Diaspora’s logo, and progress icon. The planets spun around and around. After a few seconds a message appeared on the screen.
“Bandwidth unavailable. Retry?”
Bandwidth? How was that even possible? There wasn’t anyone out here for the Veil to communicate with, and if there was, they should still have plenty of bandwidth to handle all the traffic that was necessary.
She dug deeper, running remote diagnostics. The Veil’s response was sluggish. It took the better part of an hour before she unearthed an answer.
Almost all of the Veil’s computing and communications capacity was being used. Other than normal life-support and other key ship systems, everything else was taken up with something else.
What? Sharon couldn’t get an answer from the system. Her access was extremely limited, down to a few basic diagnostics. She couldn’t change anything on the Veil, couldn’t even get access.
Sharon stabbed her fingers into the holographic controls to disconnect.
She leaned her head back and looked out through the windows. Pluto hung up there in the dark sky. From here it didn’t look small. It looked like a whole planet, dwarf planet or not. The view reminded her somewhat of seeing the Earth from the moon’s surface in training.
What was going on with the Veil? Angie Tran had left the ship for Pluto, after she’d taken the time to set up automated monitoring stations and was insistent on learning all they could about the planet before landing?
And why would Veil cut off communication with Charon?
Was it related to what was happening here, with the others? Was that why Angie had left the ship? Had she picked up on the signs, the same as Sharon had, and fled to Pluto’s surface? If that was the case then the only other person that could help her was up there, on Pluto. And out of reach.
Unless Sharon launched the pod and flew it to Pluto. If she could do that, and find Angie, maybe together they could figure out what was happening.
Except the major flaw with that plan was that the pod was not equipped for the trip. Sharon could take off, even plot an orbit that would send her to Pluto’s surface, but she wouldn’t have enough fuel to land when she got there. Crashing on Pluto didn’t sound like the best option. If that wasn’t enough, she also didn’t have any idea where Angie was on the surface. Pluto might be a small planet compared to others in the solar system but it still had over six million square miles of surface area, almost as big as South America. Any way to look at it, that was a lot of area to cover.
Sharon rubbed her eyes. She hadn’t gotten much sleep the past few days. She was tired. Exhausted from trying to figure out what was happening to her team, and from spending days in that suit. She needed rest. Then maybe she could figure out something else to do.
The chair was comfortable. She closed her eyes. She’d rest here, and figure it out tomorrow. Maybe the Veil would be back in communication then, and she could get some help. Until then, at least she was safe.
A dull clang rang through the pod. Sharon woke, her heart racing. For a second she didn’t even recognize where she was, except she was out of her suit and only wearing her underwear. The others!
Again, something banged against the pod.
Sharon rolled off the cockpit chair and dropped down into the living quarters section beneath. She landed lightly on her bare feet. The indicators on the airlock showed the exterior door was open.
She crouched and opened the interface. There wasn’t a locking mechanism on airlocks. She opened the internal comm system and cameras. Two of them, in spacesuits, were in the airlock. It didn’t give her a good look into their helmets. She couldn’t see who it was.
“Go back,” she said. “Stay out!”
“Sharon, come on.” That was Boyd. Golden-skinned, seductive dark eyes and lush lips. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
“It’s okay, Sharon.” That was Nancy the squealer. Her voice was high, but soft.
The last time Sharon had seen her, Nancy was on top of Terry, her back arching, while Jenny suckled at her pert white breast. She was such a tiny thing and spunky.
“It’s not. It’s not okay,” Sharon said. “You have to stay out. You’re all sick! Infected with something. Something from the ice, maybe. There’s something about this place, and it’s gotten into you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with us,” Boyd said. “Maybe we’ve gotten carried away, but we’re fine.”
Sharon shook her head. Her breath caught in her throat. Normal people. Rational people, they didn’t spend days in a never-ending orgy. They did research. They explored.
In her mind she saw Boyd intertwined with Kevin, who reminded her of Mr. Miller, her sixth-grade math teacher. Like Mr. Miller, Kevin had a round belly that went with his round face. They even both had curly hair. It was completely wrong to see Kevin like that!
“Sharon, we’re going to come in and talk to you,” Nancy said.
The airlock cycle was nearly complete. They’d be in and she’d be exposed. She couldn’t get back into her suit before the airlock finished its cycle. There wasn’t time.
“Don’t,” Sharon said. “Just stay out. When I get in touch with the Veil, we’ll figure out how to help you.”
“We’re worried about you, Sharon.” Boyd’s voice did sound concerned. “We invited you to join us.”
“No one meant for you to feel excluded,” Nancy said. “You chose not to join in. That wasn’t our fault.”
Sharon hugged her arms, nails digging into her skin. That wasn’t the way it was. They were all like animals, wallowing in sex. Back on the Veil people partnered up, but even in Nancy’s case it was normal. People found privacy where they could on the ship and if you heard something you pretended that you didn’t. On a voyage that long it wasn’t realistic to expect people to remain celibate. She knew that, whether or not anyone was interested in her. She was okay with being the odd-ball, on her own. That wasn’t a problem. It was just people, finding what comfort they could, not a ship-wide orgy.
The indicator on the airlock showed seventy-five percent pressure inside the airlock. When it reached a hundred percent the inner door would open and Nancy and Boyd would climb inside. They’d take off their helmets and she’d be exposed.
Would they try to touch her? She shivered.
What if they didn’t?
Which would be worse?
The cockpit! It had its own door, and could be closed off from the rest of the ship. Sharon moved, leaping up the shaft, using the ladder as she moved up past the living quarters to the cockpit. She was almost there when the hatch abruptly hissed shut in front of her.
Sharon hit the hatch and bounced off. She caught the rungs inset into the wall/floor and struck the hatch with her feet. The indicator on the side showed it was sealed.
Something moved beneath her. Sharon looked down, past her bare feet, down through the living areas arranged around the central shaft. The first person was climbing through. The bright green on the shoulders, and the smaller size, meant that it was Nancy coming through first. Visible behind her was Boyd’s suit with his bright blue shoulder patches.
Sharon swung into the nearest workstation behind the cockpit bulkhead. It was only a gimbaled seat with holographic screens. One of four identical workstations set up around the shaft behind the cockpit where the crew could work using the pod’s systems. She tucked her feet up on the seat and hugged her knees to her chest.
“Sharon, honey? You don’t need to be scared.” Nancy’s voice was soft, and clear. Not coming through speakers. That was just her talking.
Sharon leaned enough to look down.
Nancy stood on one side of the hatch. Her helmet was off. Her black pixie-cut hair hung loose around her pale face. She had beautiful skin and pale pink lips.
Across from her, Boyd lifted his helmet free. He twisted around to stow the helmet and then looked up. His dark eyes met hers. He smiled, his full lips parting to reveal perfect white teeth.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Sharon. We’re not going to hurt you.”
A sigh escaped from Sharon’s lips. That was it then. If they were infected with something, some ancient microorganism that had been sleeping in Charon’s ices, she was exposed now. When this had all started, she had come back from a survey mission, gathering core samples from a search grid around the geyser field. When she had come back into the habitat, they were all naked. All of them, together. She had just turned around and gone back outside.
After all her time on the Veil, and in training for the mission, she hadn’t realized how much she missed simply going outside. Of course on Charon she still had to wear a suit, but she didn’t care about that. It was just like wearing clothes.
She’d never seen a landscape like Charon’s before. It was a bluish tan gray color, not that different from the moon, but with much more water ice. The areas around the geysers were brighter and sparkled from frost. From space it looked something like a speckled egg with the older surfaces being darker than the fresh younger surfaces where water ices coated the surface. The surface was rippled in spots too, from impact shockwaves that had traveled through the surface and froze in place before settling. The bright distant sun was small, and yet still illuminated enough of the surface to see. That alone made it look much more alien than the Earth’s moon.
“Sharon?” Boyd said. “What are you doing?”
She took a breath. “Nothing. Thinking.”
“We didn’t mean to exclude you,” Nancy said. “We’re sorry. One thing led to another, we were fooling around, and got carried away.”
“You could have joined in,” Boyd said. “No one would have minded.”
They wouldn’t have minded? What did that even mean?
“You didn’t seem interested.”
“No one ever asked me,” Sharon said, her voice barely a whisper.
“What?” Boyd said.
She couldn’t say it again. It was too embarrassing. She wasn’t a virgin. There was Chad Gehrke, her first year in college. Her only one-night stand, and it was an awkward, uncomfortable experience. The condom he wore had actually come off during sex and she spent the next two weeks until her period terrified that she was going to get pregnant the first time she had sex. And after that, she’d dated Steven Painter. Sex with Steven was just something they did like clockwork once a week, on Saturday night. It never lasted more than a few minutes, after which Steven fell asleep.
No one had ever made her squeal like Nancy.
Nancy appeared beside her, hanging onto the rungs with one hand and boot. Sharon shrank back in her chair but there was nowhere she really could go. She filled the space. She’d made sure the seats were built to accommodate someone her size, but they still felt like kid chairs.
Nancy wasn’t wearing her gloves any more. She had on the rest of her suit still, but her hands were as bare as her head. Her nails were painted green, like her suit. She reached out.
Sharon watched Nancy’s hand. It was small, the nails neatly trimmed and short, but green. A shiny lime green color. She must have used a portion of her personal weight allotment to bring cosmetics, which was just weird. Of all of the things to bring out to the far reaches of the solar system, Nancy had brought fingernail polish? Or had she manufactured it on the ship? It might be possible, but Sharon had never stopped to ask the question. She wouldn’t have thought about it.
Nancy’s fingers brushed Sharon’s ankle, caressed the smooth skin and then higher, tickling the soft hairs on her leg. Sharon closed her eyes, her throat tightening while Nancy’s hand moved in small circles against the light hairs. Nancy shaved her legs, and more, Sharon had seen that in the habitat.
“No one is going to hurt you, Sharon.”
She didn’t open her eyes but she smelled Boyd when he drew close, the salty masculine smell of him. His breath was warm against her shoulder. His soft lips touched the skin and she shivered again.
Her eyes opened. She looked at the two of them, hanging easily beside her chair. “Why? What caused this? There has to be something about Charon that caused it!”
Nancy’s pink lips twitched in a small smile. “In a way, I guess. At least for me. It was one thing on the ship. Cramped. Everybody was always around. Then we came here.”
“It’s so big,” Boyd said. His lips grazed her shoulder. “We walked out on the ice and there was a whole world.”
“That’s right.” Nancy looked at Sharon with bright eyes. “You’ve seen it. A whole empty world. We’re alone out here, this small pocket of humanity. It’s beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.”
It was. It was. The first time Sharon had walked outside after the landing, she had turned to the light. The sun was bright but tiny, like a flashlight far off in the darkness. She’d seen the Earth fade away to invisibility when they left, but here she had stood on a ridge of fresh ice and the sun was so far away.
“Blackstone understood it,” Boyd said. “I don’t know how, when she’s never been out here, but she gets it. She talked about each one of these worlds being a new start for humanity. We’re a tiny pocket of life on a dangerous world.”
“We’re not as strong as you,” Nancy said. Her hand slid up Sharon’s leg, past her knee, circling the smooth skin on her inner thigh. “You looked at it all, and you went to work. It impressed the hell out of me. Nothing fazes you. Not during the trip, not even coming here.”
Boyd kissed her shoulder again and looked at her with dark eyes. “So we lost it a bit. In a way it was Charon, it’s just so far removed from everything we left behind. We took comfort in each other, all of us, except you. You walked away.”
Sharon drew in a shaky breath. Her cheeks were hot. Nancy’s hand was warm and stroked higher on Sharon’s leg.
“I didn’t know how, I’ve never, not like that.” She couldn’t continue. She couldn’t think.
“It’s okay,” Nancy said. “When you left we realized what we’d done, how isolated you must have felt. That’s why we came after you.”
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Boyd said. “We can’t do it without you, and we can’t fool around forever. We have to come up for air sometime.”
Nancy winked. “If you’re interested, though, we can have some fun before we go back.”
Nancy’s finger grazed along the edge of Sharon’s panties. Her legs parted. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Yes. Please.” She closed her eyes.
Maybe it was the moon, something about Charon that had infected the others, and now infected her. Maybe it was simply feeling small and alone on the edge of the solar system. How could she know without running tests and experiments? There was so much about this world that they didn’t know yet. Either way, did it really matter?
Nancy’s lips grazed Sharon’s thigh and she gasped. Strong, masculine hands slid up her shirt and she surrendered to their touches.
Communication with the Veil was restored three days later. Angie Tran contacted them.
“Charon Base, this is Veil command. Come in.”
Sharon crossed the main room of the habitat. Around the edges were the six chambers that led to their personal rooms. Everyone was back at work, at least during the regular work shifts. They still paired off in the evening, the pairings changing each night. Sharon activated the holographic screen.
Angie Tran appeared. “Sorry we’ve been out of touch, Sharon. Terra Blackstone was visiting from Diaspora Base on the moon.”
Blackstone? That wasn’t possible. “Excuse me?”
“Yes, they’ve developed a new communications technology. It eats up a lot of bandwidth, but allows real-time holographic communication. We’re working on our own initiator up here. How do things stand there?”
They had all agreed not to bring up the incident with the Veil. They all were fine, and further analysis of the water ice mined failed to show any presence of unknown microorganisms.
“We’re fine,” Sharon said. “Our survey is progressing well.”
“Glad to hear it. We’re going to start plans to establish a permanent presence on Pluto. I’ve discovered something there that we can’t explain yet. I’d like your help with it.”
“You’re abandoning Charon?”
Angie shook her head. “No. We need Charon’s water. Pluto can supply nitrogen and methane we need, between the two worlds we have an opportunity to build our new future.”
“In that case, if it’s okay, I’d like to lead up the efforts here on Charon.”
“As you wish. I’d still like your input. I’ll forward you everything as we get it.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“Okay.” Angie smiled. “I’m glad our communications blackout didn’t cause any problems. We’ll be in regular touch after this.”
“That’d be good,” Sharon said. “Thank you.”
They ended the call.
Boyd was over at the kitchen station, a pot steaming as he worked with Terry to fix dinner. Sharon rocked back in her chair. Charon was home now. More people would come and join them. This was her world, her family, and her future.
This story is the 11th weekly short story release, and the 11th Planetary Bodies story. It’s the companion piece to Touching Pluto, because it made sense to me to write a binary story to the main story. Interestingly, this was also the first story published in the series, appearing in WMG Publishing’s Fiction River: Moonscapes anthology.
I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Haumea Exultant.