Caressing Charon

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.

1

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.

Hilarious stuff.

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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?

Ninety-five percent.

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.

“No!”

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.

5

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.

4,793 words

Author’s Note

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.

Touching Pluto

Angie Tran knew a thing or two about being underestimated, yet she still earned command of the first Diaspora mission to launch — to Pluto-Charon, the binary dwarf planet brought back into the spotlight by the New Horizons probe when she was a girl.

She felt a kinship to these worlds. She wanted her colony to have every advantage. Yet when some of the crew turn mutinous she faces her greatest challenge alone on Pluto.

1

Angie planted her foot in a fringe of ice and tested the footing. Hard. Not the rotten ice that hid leg-breaking shafts. Around her was a fresh landscape sculpted by the slow processes of this frozen world. It was a twisted and frozen world covered in frost. A nitrogen and methane cycle in the thin atmosphere had reshaped the world over its long seasons. Above her Charon hung large above the twisted horizon. As long as it stayed visible, she was visible, and they’d be coming for her.

It was a whole other world up there, a moon that wasn’t a moon, but a partner in a gravitational dance. Pluto and Charon whirled around like a pair of ice-skaters. A bright light glowed on Charon’s surface like a fire seen from space. Charon base. If you could call it that, a toe-hold at best. Two worlds for the price of one, that was the deal she had extracted from Diaspora, in agreeing to take the mission to Pluto-Charon. Maybe it wasn’t as sexy as one of the big Jovians, or as thrilling as flying a human-powered zeppelin around a planet like Carys Rex had done on Venus. And so far there wasn’t any sign of alien visitors like on Titan.

None of that mattered. She’d been in love with Pluto-Charon since she first heard about the planets in school. Pluto, the planet demoted to dwarf planet status. She got that. Angie Tran knew a thing or two about being over-looked by those bigger than her. When you’re only a couple inches past four feet, and popularly described as a “China doll” (forgetting the fact that she wasn’t Chinese at all, but was born to Korean immigrants), getting people to pay attention to her ideas, her plans, was sometimes a challenge.

Two worlds, that was the deal. Two worlds and she had meant to colonize them both. Another bright light sparked in the sky. That wasn’t on Charon, but in the space between. That was the Veil, her ship, orbiting the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system. Orbiting the same point that Pluto and Charon orbited. She’d lost the Veil to those traitors McMurty and Lee.

They’d be coming for her soon to try and get her to come back. Her and the Veil’s command core which she had on the sled.

Maybe they worked for Earth. The Veil had launched years before the more recent troubles when the United States had tried and failed to seize control of Diaspora’s Luna base. They were the first full-fledged colonization mission to launch. The other outer system expeditions to Huamea, Makemake, and Eris had left within weeks of the Veil‘s departure, but thanks to orbital mechanics those missions had reached their destinations a few weeks and months before the Veil reached the Pluto-Charon rendezvous. First launched, last to get established.

 

Could McMurty and Lee have been agents planted that far back? There was a lot of furor over their missions. The popular media called the Veil‘s launch a stunt, a reality TV show, and gleefully anticipated the deaths of all seventy-two would-be colonists. Maybe the government had decided early on to plant agents in Diaspora’s ranks, to report back on what Terra Blackstone’s private space colonization effort was doing. The only trouble with that idea was that the Diaspora Group had never been quiet about their plans. From the education and medical centers they had set up on Earth, to the asteroid mining missions, and even the development of the first commercially-viable fusion generators, Diaspora had made their agenda clear. The complete colonization of the solar system.

Maybe the government agents were there to make sure that the plans didn’t work.

Angie’s breath echoed in her suit helmet. She blinked through her suit’s heads-up system screens. Everything was functioning normally. Her mouth was dry. She took a sip of processed Charon water from the spout. It was cold, refreshing and pure water. Water was water, but this water was water melted and purified from ice mined on Charon. They had replenished their supplies locally when reaching the system. It was as safe as anything, but it was still thrilling to drink a bit of pure water that had never passed through any other organism.

The sled stuck in a wrinkle in the frost. Angie leaned into the strap and pulled. It came free and scraped along the icy ground. She didn’t hear it. What atmosphere Pluto had was thin and didn’t carry the sound well. Add the noise of her suit and her own breathing, she wasn’t going to hear it over all of that. But she felt the vibrations traveling up the strap. She was like an ant, carrying an impossibly large load, possible thanks to the low gravity. The sled held everything she needed to survive on Pluto. An inflatable six-person habitat, micro-fusion generators, grow lights, planting medium, seeds, packaged food, medical equipment, tools, 3D printers, spare parts, and anything else she needed. Part of the live off the land plan for colonization. The Veil carried dozens of these sleds, all packaged up and waiting to be deployed to the surface for colonization. Linked up the habitats would provide a base from which to construct more long-term habitats from locally-sourced materials.

This sled was also special because it held the Veil‘s command core. Which she had thanks to Greg, who stayed loyal when the mutineers tried to take over. He’d seen what was happening and had taken action to get her and the command core to safety. Without it the mutineers couldn’t take full control of the Veil. They needed it back, and her to unlock it, in order to have full control over the ship and the people on these worlds. She couldn’t give that to them.

Angie grunted and pulled on the sled again. Where other colonies were already well-established, they only had one team on Charon along with automated stations scattered across the two worlds and the smaller moons — Nix, Kerberos, Hydra and Styx. She hadn’t been in any hurry. If they over committed early and ran into problems they wouldn’t be able to pick up and try their luck elsewhere. The more they learned about the system the better their chances in the long run.

Ice crumbled beneath her feet, the rotten thin crust giving way but she found firmer footing beneath and trudged on. McMurty, he had appeared in the primary leader of the mutiny. He was a big man, so big he might have pushed at the upper limits of what they could take. His pale freckled face and curly red hair gave him the look of a snotty kid even with his big barrel chest and thick hands. He had one of those crude laughs, it didn’t matter what he was laughing about, it sounded dirty somehow. He had demonstrated himself a capable engineer and had gained popularity when he went out during a micro-meteorite shower to patch the damage to one of the primary oxygen tanks on the journey out. If someone hadn’t taken the risk the Veil would have lost a quarter of the stored oxygen. They wouldn’t have had air enough to keep everyone breathing before they reached Pluto-Charon and mined new resources.

She’d never liked the man, but she had respected him. Brash, rude and self-centered, he’d done his job and had stayed out of her way. She didn’t believe people needed to like everyone to do their jobs, but she had secretly wished that she didn’t have to have his genes in her colony. If there’d been anyone on the Veil that she would have suspected of mutiny, it was McMurty.

A small crater, like an empty swimming pool, blocked her path. Angie leaned into the straps and dragged the sled at an angle to miss the crater. Bright, fresh ejecta raised rougher bumps that crumbled beneath her boots and the sled runners.

Lee, on the other hand, was nothing like McMurty. He stood on the smaller side of average. A man with close cut hair and a mustache that was always trimmed and neat. He had a compact body and the sunken cheeks of a runner. He was agile and comfortable in zero-gee and extremely adept at using his bare feet as an extra pair of hands. She’d seen him working in the ship’s hydroponics, he was a botanist on the team responsible for keeping them fed, using his hands and feet interchangeably to work. Once she’d heard him say that the real trick in the future would be to engineer people with longer toes and an opposable big toe. After they licked the problem of bone and muscle loss in those environments. People always said they didn’t have enough hands, but that wasn’t the problem. It was gravity. Remove that and with a few modifications our feet would give us an extra pair. He didn’t really seem to need the modifications as it was.

Seeing him back McMurty’s take-over was a shock. She’d never suspected Lee of lacking loyalty.

What brought them to the point of mutiny after the years spent trying to reach Pluto-Charon? Was that always the plan? Wait until they arrived and then just quietly take over? They didn’t say that they were doing it for the governments back on Earth. Instead they said it was about her leadership, her refusal to get them off the ship and down on the ground. They got others to fall in behind them by claiming that she was keeping them on the ship so that she could stay in control, that she wanted absolute power over the colonists. It’d all started coming apart when she refused to hold elections for leadership. That was their first tactic, to push for elections that she couldn’t endorse. Not yet. Not until they were safely established. Then, and only then, would she relinquish command of the mission.

It was the element of truth that made their accusations carry weight. As soon as she denied them the elections, they accused her of planning to hold onto power even after a colony was established. It’d gone downhill from there. Years that she had worked to get them here safe, and McMurty had people believing all sorts of crazy nonsense about her secret agenda. There was even a rumor that she was keeping them on the ship because the aliens that had visited Titan had a secret, active base on Pluto. And she was supposedly following Diaspora orders to hold off on going to Pluto until some sort of agreement could be reached with the aliens. That was why, the claim went, that she had sent Sharon Calvert to establish their first beachhead on Charon, instead of Pluto. Countering such rumors only gave them weight, her denials, the fact that they had placed the monitoring stations on Pluto, all of it used as evidence of deception. The stations were only put there to build the fictional cover-up.

Angie cleared the crater and dragged the sled onward. The whole thing was crazy. Despite that a small minority was solidly behind McMurty and Lee. A larger portion of the crew was unwilling to go either way. She still had her allies, or she wouldn’t have managed to escape the ship at all.

One of those was Greg Coveney, thirty-three, skinny, with dark eyes and short dark hair. A quiet man, he was her second in command for the mission. A veteran of wars back on Earth, he had joined Diaspora as a chance to escape the endless warfare and paranoia that steeped the planet. Divorced, his wife had refused to join him in the effort. No children. He told her once that he hadn’t wanted to bring a child into that world.

It was Greg that had pulled the command core and stashed it in the sled. Last night, was it only last night?

2

The chime on her berth door was shrill and had brought her instantly awake. She touched the lock release and the door slid open. Greg floated outside her birth, and put his finger to his lips. She nodded.

He beckoned. She was wearing a standard Diaspora workall, there didn’t seem much point to change unless she was getting cleaned up. She kicked off out of the berth as he pushed away. She caught one of the grips beside her birth. The lights were dim. Night cycle. The Veil‘s habitat modules held rows of births on each side of the hexagonal module. Thirty-six in this section, and the same in the next. The ones that were open were the night shift, although it looked like there were more open than usual. Most of the Veil was a long passage along the spine of the ship, with each compartment serving various functions. Even for the night shift, it looked emptier than usual. Where was everyone?

Greg came close, very close, embracing her. She started to push away but he held her close. He smelled faintly of sweat. His breath tickled her ear as his mouth moved close.

“They think you’re asleep. This is the only chance you’ll have. Come with me.”

She hadn’t known then what exactly he was talking about, but she suspected. She’d noticed the whispers, the way people looked away or broke up conversations when she floated through the ship. She knew there was some discontent with staying on the ship but where she had really screwed up was not realizing how far and deep-reaching it had become. Fueled, no doubt, by the mutineers.

She and Greg floated down the spine without encountering anyone. For that to happen that meant people had to be in the rear compartments, down in the engineering sections at the far end of the ship. That was the only section where the bulkhead doors were always closed. Restricted sections, kept sealed except as needed for maintenance. At least in theory. People went in there for privacy as it was the one place on the ship where you could go and not be overheard throughout the ship.

By then she knew something was wrong. Even more so when Greg stopped outside the airlock to launch hatch three. He activated the controls. She grabbed his arm and caught a brace with her other hand.

“What are you doing?”

“McMurty and Lee are talking right now about removing you from command. They mean to do it while the rest of the crew is sleeping, and expect the others to fall in line.”

His words sank into her brain one at a time, as if she could hold them back and look at each one. He was talking about mutiny. “Mutiny? That’s what you’re saying?”

“I’ve stashed the command core in the sled. You have to go and keep it out of their hands until we get the situation under control.”

“The command core! Are you crazy?” Without it the crew couldn’t control the ship. The Veil would be crippled. Before long the orbit around the barycenter would deviate too far and without the command core they wouldn’t be able to correct. They’d either get flung out of the system altogether, or more likely, the Veil would spiral in and crash on Pluto’s surface.

The hatch slid open with a hiss. Greg pointed at the open hatch. “You have to go, Captain! There’s no other choice unless you want to surrender the ship.”

Even then she hesitated. What if this was the ploy? Greg might have been sent to convince her to get onto the launch and then they just eject her out. They could let her die on the surface, alone.

“You have to tell me what’s going on?”

“They’re planning on taking the ship. McMurty wants to be in charge.”

“How do you know this?”

Greg ran a hand through his hair. “They tried to recruit me. I complained about being stuck on the ship when we’ve got two worlds right there, and the most we’ve done is set up one temporary base on Charon.”

“We have to evaluate the best site. We only get one shot at this.”

“I know. They don’t care. They’re tired of staying on the ship.”

“But without the command core, the ship won’t last.”

“It’ll be fine long enough to get people to see reason. Most of the people are just afraid.”

“Then I should stay, I’m not afraid. I can convince people that we need to hold strong.”

The hatch slid shut. Greg swore and turned to the control panel beside the hatch. There was another sound, a knocking noise and the voices. Angie drifted away from the hatch. People were floating through the ship from the rear hatches. A whole group of them, with McMurty’s blocky shape in the lead.

Maybe Greg’s plan was the best.

“Can you open it?”

“Working on it.”

Angie pressed off one of the grips and caught the next ones past the hatch. She hung there and waited for McMurty, Lee, and the rest to get closer. McMurty caught a grip a couple meters away and stopped his progress. He hooked his toes beneath and faced her. Lee came to a stop beside him, neatly catching one of the grips on the side while catching another with his toes. The rest braked behind the ring-leaders.

“What’re you doing?” McMurty said, his puffy red face splitting into a ghastly smile. “Not thinking of going anywhere are you?”

Greg was still working. He hadn’t responded to the arrival of the others.

“Just doing some maintenance,” Angie said. She eyed the crowd. “What were you all doing away from your stations?”

“Captain,” Lee said, his measured voice calming. “We had a conference to discuss our current situation. While the rest of Diaspora’s colonies have established significant outposts, we remain on this ship.”

“It’s time for new leadership,” McMurty said.

“New leadership?”

“Turn over command to me,” he said. “We’ll build a new base that’ll make us the envy of the system.”

“We’re not ready,” Angie said. “What if the ground beneath your base evaporates when summer comes to Pluto? What if there are instabilities that you’ve missed, in your haste to get a base established?”

“We can’t sit here in this can forever,” McMurty said. “We didn’t come out here to do nothing.”

“Mr. Coveney,” Lee said. “Please move away from the airlock.”

Greg didn’t move. He didn’t respond. They might as well have not been there at all, for all the reaction he gave.

“You were told to move,” McMurty said, his tone threatening.

Angie’s heart was racing. Mutiny! She had to delay. “You don’t get to take charge by force, that’s not the way things work. I’m sure you’ve filed reports with Diaspora. If Dr. Blackstone wanted me replaced, don’t you think they would have sent orders by now?”

McMurty scowled. “They aren’t here! They don’t get to decide what we do. What happened to our independence? Wasn’t that part of the deal?”

“It still is. When we have a colony safely established, then the colony as a whole will have the right to determine its structure.” Angie looked past McMurty at those gathered. They’d obviously manipulated the schedules, volunteered to take the night shift, to give them time to plan together. “I don’t see everyone here.”

She pointed back up the Veil’s spine. “I think the majority of the crew are asleep right now in their berths. Don’t they get a say?”

“Sure.” McMurty scowled. “Step down first. Then we’ll see what they have to say.”

“No. I’m not stepping down.”

McMurty shrugged. “Then you don’t give us much choice. We’ll confine you until we can set up a new government. Let’s get her.”

The airlock hissed open. Greg grabbed her arm. Angie opened her mouth to protest, but he had already pulled her into the lock, swinging her around into the opening. Angie tucked into a ball and let him.

McMurty roared and they were all coming. She spread out her limbs in the airlock, catching grips with her hands and feet. Greg met her eyes and hit the controls. The hatch shut.

The small window in the hatch let her see a slice of the interior. Greg’s back to the window, blocking the way to the hatch. Hands grabbed him and ripped him away. If they blew the lock before she —

Angie twisted and dove into the pod. She hit the controls on the hatch and the door slid shut, sealing her off from the Veil. The pod was a small vehicle designed for orbital to ground and back trips. Each carried a sled in the cargo space, and room for up to a half-dozen people. She didn’t have time to suit up. They’d get the hatch open soon and drag her out if she didn’t launch.

The cockpit was small, designed for three people, but one could fly it. Angie slid into the seat and strapped in, pulling the straps tight. The sun was a bright ball, small, but intense and bright even out this far. She brought up the pod systems and started the launch sequence. There wasn’t much too it, just a selection of trajectories. The next possibility was coming up in seconds. A course down to Pluto. She stabbed the selection and braced herself.

3

It might have been her imagination, but pale Charon looked closer to the horizon now. Angie studied the sky. She didn’t see the Veil. It had to be out there, they couldn’t have moved without the command core stashed in the sled, but she was far enough that the horizon blocked her view.

She focused on her display icons and brought up the map overlay. The region ahead was one of the younger surfaces on Pluto. Slow processes had sculpted the surface. The tidal interactions with Charon kept both worlds more active than they’d be otherwise. They’d detected cryo-volcanism in this region, with geysers spewing out water ice into Pluto’s thin atmosphere. The surfaces could prove more unstable and difficult to navigate. There might be hidden dangers.

There could be crevasses covered with thin layers of brittle nitrogen ice ready to swallow her up at the first step. Or other hazards that she hadn’t even thought of. Since fleeing the ship she had been moving. First she had suited up once she was safe and on the ground, then she had freed the sled and started moving away from the pod. The Veil could watch her for a time, until she moved far enough over the horizon to be hidden from view. Without the command core they couldn’t reposition the ship to get a better view. And with no access to the remote monitoring stations or satellites, they didn’t have a chance to find her that way.

All of which meant that McMurty and Lee would have to come down after her. They’d have to find her and get the command core from her to take control. She had a head start but they’d be coming.

What was she going to do when they came down?

Ice crunched beneath her feet, giving way, and for a heart-stopping moment she thought she was going to fall through into a crevasse after all. Then her foot hit the bottom and stopped.

Carefully, slowly, she pulled her foot free from the orange-pink ice and found stronger footing.

She stopped and just stood for a moment. Pluto’s uneven plains stretched out around her in a twilight landscape of ice and rock. It was an unearthly landscape, a primordial planet frozen in place. Except this was mostly new surfaces, sculpted by the cold processes of this place.

Her heart raced in her chest. If she fell, if the sled and the command core was lost, it would doom the whole colony. They could evacuate the ship in the pods to set up what sort of base they could manage on the surface but they’d have to leave so much behind. The printers on the ship, designed to print out what they needed from locally sourced resources would be lost. The habitats they had on the sled were meant as temporary structures. Without the Veil their chances of surviving fell precipitously.

Why? Why the mutiny? What had she done in fleeing with the command core? Greg had acted without her orders, trying to preserve her command, but he had overreached. If things went badly now, they could all die. She wanted to save the people, to find the right place for the colony, not destroy them in the process.

Angie picked a direction at forty-five degrees to her right, away from the shining distant sun. The dark would be colder and more dangerous, but it would help conceal her until she could come up with a plan.

The sled grated and jolted across the surface. She leaned into the straps and pressed on.

The simplest plan was probably the best. Evade capture when McMurty and Lee came after her, and then get back to the pod and return to the ship. Once she got back aboard with the command core she’d have control again. If she had the command core back in place she could keep anyone out that she wanted. They couldn’t dock the pods or get back inside without her permission.

A cold seeped into her limbs. It wasn’t the cold from outside. The suit protected her from that. If anything it was the chill from sweat drying on her skin. Doing work in the suits, you could get overheated. They’d been cautioned about that during training back on the Moon. All of them had done work on the night side of the Moon (as if it was the only one in the system). Diaspora base on Luna was the first permanent off-world colony, created before the other missions were launched. It served as the administrative facility and training ground for new colonists. Now that there were many more colonies, there were other opportunities for training.

The sled stuck fast. The strap went taunt around her shoulder and her feet twisted out from under her. For a moment there was a familiar sense of weightlessness and then she fell.

It was a gentle bump as she hit the icy ground. The gravity on Pluto was less than half the gravity on the Moon. If she wasn’t burdened by the sled she could bounce across the landscape much faster (provided she didn’t land on her head). Of course if the gravity wasn’t so minimal she wouldn’t be able to move the sled at all. She really was like an ant carrying a burden much larger than itself.

She hit the ground, bounced, and hit again. The gentle bumps didn’t do any damage. She rolled and bounced back up onto her feet and steadied herself with the strap on the sled. It still didn’t move.

Moving carefully, Angie worked her way around the side of the sled. One of the wide runners had slid beneath the front edge of a large, icy, rocky, mass. It might be water frozen in the cold to a stone-like substance, or an actual rock. Maybe a rocky body that had impacted at an angle and bounced around on the surface. They’d already documented many of these ‘skip-tracks’ like skipping a stone on a flat body of water on Earth. They left a trail across the surface until finally you found the stone just sitting on the surface.

Stone or not, it had stopped the sled. This was probably only the top of a larger object embedded in the ice. No wonder it had taken her off her feet.

Angie grabbed the tube frame of the sled and pushed. At first the sled didn’t move, then it broke free and slid back from the rock. She braced a foot against the rock and hauled the whole sled around until the skids would miss the rock. That done, she picked up the strap, planted her feet, and pulled the sled past the obstacle. She kept going.

Her eyes searched the frozen landscape for a landmark, something to shoot for among all the sharp shadows and twisted shapes. A bright spot far ahead caught her eye. It caught the sun and gleamed like polished ice, but the sharp-edged shadows were too perfect. Too artificial. It was a monitoring station. Angie called up the map overlay. Her indicator identified her position and sure enough, to the northeast not far off was one of the monitoring stations. It was essentially a robot. Mobile, if necessary, to adjust its position given local conditions, but designed to remain within a certain radius of its landing coordinates and relay data back to the Veil. Its cameras may have already picked her up, giving away her position to those on the ship.

She studied the map. If she headed northwest of her current position, the terrain should shield here from the monitoring station. There were ripples in the terrain, caused by an impact further west, one of the larger craters in this region. It had fractured and melted the surface, leaving the rippled terrain visible on the map. As long as she walked along the bottom of the troughs she’d be hidden from view, deep in the shadows.

She tugged the sled around and set off. This could actually work in her favor for the plan. If she headed for the crater and set up the sled’s habitat she could make it look like she had stopped. When they came down, they’d find her tracks and follow her to the habitat. But by then she’d be long gone. It could work.

4

When Angie neared the crater she knew it was an odd crater. For one thing, there was no crater rim, no ejecta, no sign that anything was thrown up or out of the crater. Instead the ground in front of her dropped down in a series of cracked rings, each several centimeters lower than the next. It wasn’t a crater at all, but some sort of sink hole where the ground had slumped down, but the lower it got it was smooth with fine frost distributed across the flat surface at the bottom. A lake? It had that look about it, as if heat from beneath had melted the surface above.

She stopped pulling the sled and considered the landscape in front of her.

It was obvious. If she wanted to draw the mutineers out, this might work. The habitat would be visible in the crater, the long shadows might suggest that she was trying to hide it from view, but it’d still be visible enough to be found. That was the basic idea. If she hid it too well, then they’d never find it. She needed to draw them out, make them think that they’d discovered where she was hiding.

Chances were that McMurty would fall for it. Lee, maybe not. Succeed or fail, partly depended on who came down after her. One of the ringleaders would come. Not alone, no. They wouldn’t come alone. Both coming down would make things easier, but she couldn’t count on that either. It’d make more sense for one to stay with the ship and one to come down after her. McMurty would hate to give up his presence on the ship, but he’d also want to be the one that came down after her. Either seemed equally plausible.

There wasn’t anything she could do about that. All she could count on was that someone would come.

Angie dragged the sled down the slope. It wasn’t slippery, and with the low gravity the slope didn’t matter much anyway. The sled bounced over the cracked tiers after her down to the flat bottom. Another time it’d be interesting to figure out what had melted the ice here, causing this sink hole and frozen lake. Any volcanic activity they’d seen so far on Pluto was cryo-volcanism at very cold temperatures. This looked like something else. It was a mystery to solve another day.

It was funny. It put her right into the position that she had fought against since their arrival. The haste. So many of the colonies established by Diaspora happened after only a preliminary survey of conditions and possible sites. On some planets it didn’t matter much. Aphrodite was floating around Venus with the clouds. Hard to worry about a location when your habitat circles the planet every few days. Pohl Station on Mars had the advantage of decades of rovers and satellites studying the planet and its changing conditions in detail. What did Pluto have? New Horizons, and little else.

Now it was her turn to work in haste. This interesting spot was going to be the base of her operation to take back her ship because it was convenient and in front of her. Hopefully it would work out.

She unstrapped the habitat module from the tubular frame of the sled. As it activated, it established a connection to her glasses.

[Placement]? Flashed in her eyes. A translucent orange model of the deployed habitat appeared in front of her over the uneven slope.

Angie extended her hand and dragged the model around onto the flatter part of the ice. The model updated, parts flickering green as it found areas of even footing. At last it all turned green above the flat frozen ice. She slid the model across into the shadows. The model updated appropriately, showing how the shadow would fall across the habitat. She left the opening sticking out of the shadows and released her grip on the model.

[Confirm]?

“Deploy.”

Beside her the habitat module came to life. It crawled down from the sled, deploying fat tires. In its compact form it was the size of a large sedan, but with six-legs and enough intelligence to navigate across the surface. She stood back and let it work as it rolled out to the selected site.

Panels unfolded. It was like a rose blooming as orange fabric spilled out between the hard panels. Air tanks inflated the structure as smart struts unfolded and lifted the insulating material out of the body of the module. It crawled like a man dragging himself out of a hole, reaching and pulling itself out of the module. The structure grew and spread and in a span of a few minutes it filled up into a habitat the size of a small house, capable of housing a half-dozen people. The small fusion generator on the module, if kept supplied with more hydrogen, could keep the module powered and warm for weeks. Months if necessary. Each habitat module was designed for long-term occupancy while they built more permanent structures. Just like the exploratory crew she’d sent to Charon. Even that hadn’t silenced her critics.

Angie turned back to the sled. There was a bright blue crate forward of where the habitat module had taken up the rear half of the sled. It sat among darker gray crates. That blue crate was the command core. In the final phase of habitat construction, it was designed to be removed and used as the command core of the new base, once the Veil was recycled into parts and they were all on the surface.

This was always designed as a one-way trip for the Veil. Future opportunities to travel would come from the new, faster, beam-powered, solar sail-equipped transport ships being produced by Diaspora. The network would establish continual transit for trade and personnel among the various worlds.

But even with that, out here, any trip into the inner solar system was going to take a long time. She didn’t plan on going back to Earth. And in the long-term, as her body adapted to the lower gravity conditions, the bone and muscle losses would probably preclude her from ever returning to a higher gravity world.

Not that there was a reason to do that anyway.

The main thing was the command crate. She needed to take that with her. The rest could be left behind. She accessed her ship systems and checked her status. Air and power supplies were down. She needed to recharge before she could safely make the trek back to the pod. And somehow she had to do that without attracting notice.

She heaved the command crate off the sled and carried it over to the habitat and sat it on the ice in front of the airlock. There was a fine layer of frost covering the frozen lake, bluish and lacy. It caught her suit lights and sparkled. Where the habitat had moved as it settled the frost was crushed to dust and scattered.

She went back for more crates. It had to look like she was planning to stay for a time. Plus she needed some supplies before making the attempt on the pods.

5

Three hours later she was ready for the attempt. McMurty, or Lee, had to be coming by now. The longer she stayed with the habitat, the more likely she was of being caught without options.

She had recharged her suit from the habitat supplies, purged filters and even took a moment to enjoy — if that was possible — a brief meal of turkey-flavored paste. More importantly, she had finished her other preparations. The crate with the command core was strapped to her back, low to help with her balance. She’d overridden her suit and turned off all external illumination and had minimized her displays. Over it all she had used blankets taped together to create a dark cloak to hide her suit even more. In the realm of ice and shadows surrounding the habitat, she could become nothing more than an odd lump on the ground. A rock, a chunk of ice, but not a woman in a space suit.

Unburdened by the sled, Angie bounded up the cracked slope away from the lake. Her muscles sang as she put effort into each leap. It was almost as if she had superpowers, or seven league boots. Two leaps, and she had reached the top of the crater. At the top she paused and looked back down. The main body of the habitat lurked in the shadows, the neck extending out into the sunshine like a turtle looking around cautiously. It looked isolated and lonely. But the crates, the unloaded sled and the disturbed frost around the habitat made the site look fresh and active like a new construction site. She had purposefully tracked around the lake, as if she had been testing the ice, and in the process covering evidence of her departure. Her other tracks were small and difficult to see.

Angie bounded away into the darker night.

Moving into Pluto’s night side, away from Charon’s glow and the Sun’s own light, the landscape around her was lit only by starlight. But what light! There was never a night like this on Earth. Even out in the country, away from city lights, it wasn’t like this. The closest she had gotten was on training expeditions to Antarctica, and even there the thick atmosphere had impacted viewing the stars.

But out here there was none of that! What atmosphere there was on Pluto, it was so thin as to have little impact. The whole of the Milky Way stretched across the sky, a true river of stars crisp with startling clarity. On the Veil she had admired the views, but that was always seen through a window, a tiny slice of the sky. This was the whole vista spread out right in front of her! With each bounding step she floated up feeling as if she could simply fly away into that starry river. Yet each step ended, as she came back down to the ice and rock.

Bounding away through the night like this was hazardous. She shoved the thought aside and tried to aim for views of clear ice. Each time her boots landed she tensed, ready for the ice to give away and collapse beneath her. The star-lit landscape was eerie and cold, details washed away by shadows. She slowed, taking smaller leaps. Her heart raced at her recklessness. It wasn’t only her future, but everyone’s future that rested on getting the command core back to the ship.

She stopped.

Bending over, making sure that the blankets covered her helmet, she pulled up her map overlay. She was in the region past the terminator between day and night. Far enough now that she didn’t need to go farther in, instead she should turn and make her way along parallel to the terminator until she was close to where her pod had landed. Then she could make for the pod, assuming that they had landed already.

They must have. Why wait longer?

The map couldn’t tell her if they’d landed. Her suit sensors accurately tracked where she had traveled on the map, but that was it. If she had access to a satellite network with real-time feeds of the surface, maybe she could find out. The monitoring stations might potentially capture her pursuers on camera but she didn’t have direct access to them. That all went through the Veil.

What if they didn’t come after her?

That didn’t make sense. Without her, without the command core, everything was at risk. They couldn’t do anything. They’d have to abandon the ship. Greg Coveney had taken a big risk in getting her and the command core off the ship.

A really big risk. Too everyone on the ship, including him.

He had stayed on the ship.

Why?

Why hadn’t he come with her?

He could have followed her into the pod, but he hadn’t. At the time it had seemed like he was trying to protect her. What if that wasn’t it?

Angie shrugged off the blankets, pulled them free to float slowly down to the ice. She pulled the straps that held the command core free and swung the blue crate around.

How had Greg released the command core without triggering alarms? The shut-down procedure required her authorizations, which he didn’t have. That meant that he had to pull it out without shutting it down. There should have been alarms blaring as soon as the core was disconnected without going through the proper procedure.

She hit the releases on the crate and lifted the lid. Her heart sank. The gray segmented balls curled up in the crate weren’t the command core at all, but scutters. Nothing but the robot cleaners that worked through the tight areas of the ship to scrub away moisture and debris for recycling. It had all been just for show, to get her off the ship without a real fight!

Angie rocked back, and sank down on her knees. She didn’t have the command core. No one was coming after her. With her removed Diaspora wouldn’t have any choice except to give one of the others command override for the mission. McMurty? Lee? Terra Blackstone wouldn’t like it, but she was all the way back on Luna. She wouldn’t have any choice except to do what they wanted, or risk the loss of the whole colony.

Her breath caught in her throat. For long seconds she might as well have been trying to suck Pluto’s almost non-existent atmosphere. Her limbs hung like dead wood inside her suit. Or ice. They’d find her like this, kneeling on the ground, frozen solid. A monument to her colossal failure.

How had it gone so wrong?

Obviously Greg Coveney was in on the plan. He was good. He had told her enough of the truth to make it believable. He set her up for the others.

Terra Blackstone might not like the news, but what could she do? What should she do for someone that had failed so spectacularly?

Angie’s breath hissed through her teeth and tears stung her eyes. She blinked them away. She couldn’t cry. Not here, not now.

She had failed. She hadn’t realized that the complaints about staying longer on the Veil were as serious as they had turned out to be. Mutiny and exile, that was the outcome. Oh, they’d set her up well. With her out of the way on the surface they could continue with their plans for building a base without her interference. The fact that they hadn’t simply killed her showed intelligence too. Blackstone might not have agreed if they’d killed her, but with her alive they could simply say that they removed her from command. It was a local decision, not Diaspora’s decision.

Blackstone would have to give them local control. Even though the Diaspora Group worked together, they’d carefully stayed away from any idea of establishing some sort of central government. Each world was free and independent, working together for common goals, true.

Exile, then. She could go back to the pod and try to return to the Veil. Maybe they’d let her back on, but maybe not. She couldn’t force her way in. Beg?

Angie shook her head. Sniffled. She wouldn’t beg. She had the habitat and supplies. She’d be fine for a long time with what she had. In fact, letting her leave with the loaded sled was a big sacrifice for the establishment of the new colony. They’d wanted her out of the way that bad.

With glacial slowness, she shut the crate that should have held the command core. She fastened the catches. She stood up.

For a few seconds she stared at the bright blue crate sitting on the ground, then she lifted it by the straps and fastened the straps back over her suit. On a world like this, she didn’t dare give up any of her resources. Scutters might prove useful in the habitat. Even the crate could prove useful.

She pulled the blankets over her suit again. Not to hide, but she didn’t want to leave them either. The cloth was stiff from cold but it was designed for a wide temperature range, like her suit.

The suit was going to be a key piece of survival gear. If she took care of it, it would serve her well for a long time. Without it she was stuck inside the habitat, and she couldn’t live like that.

The first step was the hardest. She took just a small step back the way she had come. Then another, and more. One after another. No bounding leaps. Almost as if the gravity had increased to the point where just taking a step was hard. Each step was chosen with care, picking her way across the star-lit landscape.

6

Being in the inflated habitat was almost like being back out in the Antarctica desert again. Except she was alone with no one except the scutters for company. The outside of the habitat was orange, but the inside depended on the current theme displayed on the smart fabric. The default them was an unimaginative forest green on the lower half, and sky blue on the upper half. The colors were textured and subtly animated. Out of the corner of her eye it looked like grass moving slightly in the breeze, and hints of clouds drifting across the sunny blue sky. The theme was picked, no doubt, to remind people of being on Earth. Except when she grew up, she lived in the city and most of the green she saw was on the trees along their street. The rest was all asphalt, glass, concrete and steel, and the sky was hidden behind tall towers. She was used to crowds and cars and noise. Not this pastoral scene. None of the available themes were urban landscapes. Something to bring up with the designers, should she ever talk to them again. She settled on a transparency theme that turned the walls of the main habitat transparent, while leaving the alcoves spaced around the sides opaque. It was an illusion. The outside sensors embedded in the habitat took in the view, which the smart fabric mimicked. Much like the “invisibility” outfits that were popular back on Earth.

Each alcove was equipped with sealable curtains for privacy. Those were the private dwelling spaces, with storable bunks, and spaces for personal storage, as well as their own individual interior themes. The habitat was designed for a half-dozen people, which gave her plenty of space. Around the common room were spaces and connections to set up work stations, a kitchen, the lavatory and a shared dining space.

Angie didn’t sit on her hands. She made trips, filling the airlock with crates from the sled, then cycling through when she could only squeeze inside. All the furnishings, the food supplies and everything else she needed was in those crates. She worked for six hours, well into her first ‘night’ before succumbing to exhaustion. She crawled out of the suit like a newborn out of a womb, dripping with sweat, and barely plugged in the suit to recharge before she collapsed on a foam mattress in one of the alcoves.

According to her glasses, she had slept for the first twelve hours and spent upwards of sixty percent of that time in R.E.M. sleep. She didn’t remember the dreams, except that she was chased across dark, twisted landscapes. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, her dreams weren’t that far from the reality that had brought her to this point.

“What have you done?” Angie said in a whisper, and even that was shocking. She hadn’t spoken to anyone since leaving the Veil.

She cleared her throat and sipped cool water from a pre-filled pouch. A scutter rose up above one of the crates, it’s frilly front sensors waving as it tasted the air. Dim blue eyes glowed.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” she said to the scutter.

It whirred and spun around, a slivery segmented backside visible before it disappeared behind the crate. That was her company here.

There was so much to do. She needed the rest of the supplies, and she needed to put the place in some sort of order. There was no telling how long McMurty would leave her exiled down here on the ice. Somewhere among the crates should be communications gear. Once she got that set up, the tower erected outside and dishes aligned, she should be able to establish a connection to the monitoring stations, and through them to the ship. Later, if the Veil put the communications network into orbit, she’d be able to connect that way too. If she wanted to talk to anyone back on the ship.

Just thinking about it made her stomach churn. When she had believed Coveney, she had thought that at least some of the crew, maybe even most of the crew, were still behind her. Now? The mutineers had made their move at night, which had given at least the impression that most of the crew was asleep. Was that even true? Or was it simply a convenient excuse, a fiction? Maybe word had spread through the crew beforehand. Just stay in your berth, we’ll take care of it.

Angie pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. Maybe it was true, maybe not. It didn’t matter. She dropped her hands into her lap. Right now communications equipment was the least of her concerns. She needed to get everything else sorted out first. She needed a full inventory of everything that was on the sled. There were still some crates outside. The sled itself was designed to be taken apart, and the parts used to create tools, smaller sleds, and furniture.

Once she was settled in, then maybe she would open communications. Not right now.

 7

For the next day, Angie worked to turn the habitat into a home. She left the main body of the habitat transparent, leaving only the alcoves opaque and private. The stark icy lake bed outside had its own beauty. It was night when she had landed, but Pluto’s first sunrise was coming the next day. She suited up for the event and went out onto the ice to watch.

The light wasn’t there and then the bright point of the Sun appeared at the horizon as if a match had been struck in the distance. It was brilliant, tiny, but bright. Her helmet automatically corrected to shield her eyes. The light filled the landscape like magic. Sharp-edged shadows, lurking beneath the starlight, became dark pools highlighting each fold and wrinkle in the landscape. The light lit the far side of the lake bed crater and splashed across the habitat, bringing out the bright safety orange color, dusted with a faint sparkling frost that had slowly settled on the fabric. The radio tower, raised but still unused, thrust upward into the light at the upper edge of the crater behind the habitat. Dark power lines snaked across the ground from the tower to the habitat generator.

Her new home looked isolated. Lonely. And strange. In the light the frozen lake looked even more odd than when she had first stumbled across it. The ice was flat, perfectly flat as far as her eye could tell, as if someone had run a Zamboni across it to make it ready for a hockey game. The shape was crater-like, mostly circular, but sloping down to the lake surface, the sides cracked and split in the tiers that she had noticed when she first stumbled across the crater.

Like a cake, that was falling into the center.

But what could have caused something like that to happen? It didn’t look like a standard impact crater. And if liquid had welled up from the interior, bubbling up to the surface or spewing out into the atmosphere like the geysers they’d already seen, then there would have been a slumped mound, not a crater.

This looked melted.

Angie studied the surface. Almost as if a heat source had been applied from above. What if there was a heat source above the surface? The frozen nitrogen would vaporize and escape. Depending on the temperatures in question the water and ammonia might have also escaped. With the loss of material, the ground around the melted lake would have slumped downward, fracturing in braking as they did to create the tiers around the lake. And when the heat was gone, any remaining liquid would have cooled and settled down into a smooth lake that froze.

It was as good a hypothesis as any, except that she didn’t have any explanation for a possible heat source.

Well, there was one possibility.

The aliens that had visited Titan had carved out pits and lines to create their map of their journeys. It was only detailed down to the stars that they had visited, and said nothing about what planets or other orbiting bodies they might have explored. It was that very reason that the Diaspora Group had alerted all of the colonies to be on the alert for signs of the ancient visitors. There’d even been those rumors that McMurty had spread, suggesting that the reason she had delayed colonization was because the aliens had an active base on Pluto.

What if this was one sign?

That was probably too much of a leap. She wasn’t a geologist, climatologist, or physicist. Her specialty was in management, not that anyone could tell from her current situation. Otherwise she was a generalist, but in the years out from Earth she had learned everything that she could about the Veil and the proposed base.

There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this formation that didn’t invoke aliens from beyond the solar system. But it was tempting.

As a first test, she could simply check the ice and see what it was made of, and take a look at the layers. She wasn’t a specialist, but she could at least determine the compositions and relative thicknesses. That would be a start, and what else did she have to keep her mind occupied? The habitat was functioning, even her hydroponic trays were seeded. Studying the lake would give her something to do, for now. And the day on Pluto lasted as long as its month, over six days on Earth. She had to do something to fill the time before the next night.

8

The habitat system didn’t have the full databases that the Veil carried, but it did have enough information to help Angie get the drill set up and extract a core from the ice. She set the rig up out near the center of the lake after taking careful measurements to pin-point the spot and mark it on the map.

The framework for the drill rose up above the ice. It took her another day to get everything set up. It would have gone faster with another pair of hands, but she was on her own with this. Working in the suit was hot, awkward work. The one saving grace was the lower gravity. Without it, raising the tower alone might have proved much more difficult. As it was, she managed to get it up and the anchor lines driven into the ice. Everything was set.

Angie called up her heads-up controls of the drill. The overlay popped up status displays as she connected to the drill systems.

Online. All systems ready.

“Activate.” Her voice sounded loud in her helmet. She wasn’t talking to herself yet, at least. That meant that she didn’t hear other voices all day long. Even hearing herself speak was a bit of a surprise.

The drill spun up and moved smoothly downward. Everything was functioning the way it should. The drill was fine and tipped with laser guides. The drill itself was five meters long, assembled, and self-propelled. It would drill down around the core sample, before crawling back up out to deliver the sample. Then it could go back down into the shaft and collect the next sample. There was a twenty kilometer safety guideline attached in case the drill malfunctioned. That was the maximum limit that she could drill but she didn’t expect to get down far at all right now. One core sample, to begin with, and then she’d consider whether or not she wanted more.

The drill head reached the ice and fine vaporized material rose up around the drill. In the near vacuum it didn’t make much noise, but she heard an extremely faint, extremely high-pitched whining noise. The drill or her own imagination?

What difference did it make? The drill was doing its job. With each centimeter it sank into the ice, her excitement grew. This was the reason she had wanted to come out here. To explore, to understand this world. Tyson Lake, that’s what she would name this place, assuming she eventually made contact with anyone else again. Tyson’s writings and shows had inspired her from a young age. Growing up she’d sat with her father and watched all of those old shows. Her father was one of those people that was fascinated with space. During the day he spent his time working for the postal service, but he was always fascinated with space exploration. They watched countless hours of shows and space footage. Her great regret before this was that he hadn’t lived long enough to see her join the Diaspora Group and eventually get selected to lead this mission.

Although now she was glad that he wasn’t seeing what had happened.

An alert popped up on her heads-up. The drill was encountering resistance, a harder material just over three meters down, that the drill wasn’t penetrating. The automatic safeguards had backed off from the material before friction increased the temperature enough to damage the core sample.

She pulled out the displays into a virtual interface floating at arms’ length in front of her. She used the controls to trigger the drill to retract back up the shaft. A rock? There were other instruments that she could put on the drill and send down to test the material, and other drill heads. For now she’d take the core sample she had and be satisfied with it. She’d already spent enough time today anyway. There wasn’t any rush.

9

Two weeks passed and Angie hadn’t solved the mystery beneath Tyson lake. She’d drilled six more core samples now, all stored safely outside the habitat in the preservation sheaths. Each was a fascinating record of Pluto’s climate. The upper third of the core samples showed layers of nitrogen ice in varying thicknesses, with thinner layers of hydrocarbon dust in between each. It marked the seasonal changes on Pluto. This was why she had wanted to wait to establish the base. Pluto was a living, breathing world where ice caps migrated from one pole to another over the course of the seasons. It swung around with Charon while the audience of lesser moons circled them both. Pluto-Charon, the binary dwarf planet was as fascinating and as full of mystery as any of the other worlds.

This mystery was perplexing. Whatever was beneath the ice, it was essentially the same distance down at three of her drill sites, but she’d noticed a couple centimeters of drop off with the second and third core sample. From there she had moved further out, a meter at a time, and the core samples went a little deeper each time. After four in a line running north, she did two  more on the same line going south. It showed the same gradually increasing depth before she hit the hard layer.

Whatever was down there was curved. Not much. It wasn’t that much of a drop, but the curve was the same on each side. After some calculations she had determined that the high point, assuming no variation, wasn’t far from her first drill site near the center of the lake. She hadn’t pin-pointed the center, but when she did map it out she found she was less than a half-meter off and that point corresponded to the peak of the curve.

Back in the habitat, Angie sent holographic displays floating around her. The scutters perched on the crates around her workstation, watching her with glowing blue eyes. She’d never known scutters on the Veil to watch people. Maybe they did, lurking behind panels. It was eerie, but when she connected to the command channel all their systems reported green, in stand-bye. With only one person living in the habitat to clean up after, the scutters didn’t have much work to do. They were apparently programmed to make themselves visible and available for direction when they ran out of things to do.

“You don’t have to watch me,” she said. She bit her fingernail on her index finger and spit it out toward the scutters.

The central scutter scurried forward. It was a mechanical trilobite. The waving antenna, the legs, and the segmented body. Clearly an example of biologically-inspired technology. It’s busy front legs picked up the fingernail and the traces of saliva. Both disappeared into the machine. It spun on its tail and ran smoothly back up onto the crate. Then it turned around and watched her some more.

She was apparently their sole source of purpose. They watched her to clean up after her.

“I should reprogram the lot of you,” Angie said. “Maybe you could help me out on the ice.”

Nice idea, if she knew a thing about reprogramming scutters. What would they make of the object beneath the ice?

The shape was suggestive of something artificial. A green line linked the points measured by the depths of her drilling. It was a smooth line that rose in a gradual arc. The whole thing was shallow and consistent. She spun the line, duplicating it over and over at ten degree marks in a pale green.

A glowing saucer-shape emerged.

A flying saucer?

Impossible to say. Maybe only the smooth top of a bubble, frozen beneath the ice, that had filled with something harder than the nitrogen ice that she had dug up. It wasn’t water ice. Those layers were easily identifiable and the drill didn’t have any trouble cutting through them.

Every probe that she had used to gather a sample of the material had failed. It was hard, whatever it was down there. Metallic?

Maybe what had melted the crater had then settled down into the space that remained. The lake had frozen over it and left a smooth surface. If it had stayed there, then the years of nitrogen freezing and evaporating had gradually covered up the object in ever deeper layers. Each year the hydrocarbon dust kept a portion of the nitrogen beneath from returning to a gas and escaping. So layer upon layer, the lake had filled in over the original melted lake. Enough years and the whole thing would have filled in.

That scenario sounded unlikely.

Angie looked over at the scutters. “Any thoughts?”

The scutters’ waved their antennae but didn’t offer any suggestions. She would have been shocked if they had. She sighed.

This mystery, it was too big for her. She didn’t have the tools that she needed. She couldn’t just keep drilling into the lake until she had riddled it with more holes than Swiss cheese. She needed other’s help to come down and map it out properly, before she did any more damage than she had already done.

Maybe then she would get answers.

Help, however, meant talking to the Veil and the mutineers. They might simply dismiss her claims as the desperate attempt to get back on board. But if they’d listen to the evidence, then they wouldn’t have any choice. They’d have to come down here and investigate.

It was time to activate the radio.

The system was ready. It had been ready for more than a week while she worked. She had gotten it ready along with the rest of the habitat. Angie took a deep breath, and pulled up the menu. A few blinks and the system was online and transmitting.

That easy, and that hard.

“Veil command, come in. This is ” Angie swallowed and said, “Tyson lake base. Come in, please.”

The route trace showed acknowledgments from the automated monitoring stations within range, and from the Veil’s systems. They were still there. And receiving the signal as far as she could tell.

A woman’s voice came on, her tone amused. “Tyson Lake? That’s nice, Dr. Tran. We’ve been wondering how you were doing, since you weren’t answering our signals.”

Who was that? The voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “I, uh, hadn’t activated the radio yet.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. Excuse me, who is this?”

“Maybe it’s better if I show you.”

Angie’s system reported a holographic signal coming in. She stood up. The scutters disappeared over their crate and scurried out of sight. The place was fine. Neat. She didn’t keep a messy place, but that didn’t stop her from looking around to make sure she hadn’t left her underwear out.

A woman appeared near the main table at the center of the habitat. Not much taller than Angie, with dark waves of hair, bright red lips and a devastating smile. Her hand was on her hip as she surveyed the habitat. She wore a tailored version of the standard black Diaspora workall, one that had a little more style too it, and a rainbow shimmer in the dark fabric. Her feet were bare, toenails and fingernails both a dark shimmering red that matched her lipstick.

Terra Blackstone. Which was absolutely, completely impossible. She was back on Luna, running the whole Diaspora Group’s efforts. Any signal from there was going to take hours to get back and forth but Blackstone’s hologram was indisputably checking the place out. Her eyes came back to meet Angie’s gaze.

“Surprised?”

“You can’t really be Blackstone, the signal —”

Blackstone waved a hand. “I know. Speed of light and all that, it takes too long to reach way out here. Good thing I’ve got something better now. An instantaneous communications network. I’ve got your crew back on the Veil working on an initiator, long-story short, you need that to open communications yourself. We can use the system to tap into any existing communications network but you can’t call out without it. We’re doing the same thing at the other colonies. Soon we’ll have a real-time communications network spanning all of our colonies.”

Angie’s nerves sang. She shivered inside. “You know what happened here? On the Veil?”

Blackstone nodded. “Oh yes. As soon as they sent their signal, I opened real-time communications. It sounds like the situation could have been handled better.”

A deep shame burned in Angie’s cheeks. She dropped her eyes. “I —”

“Made some mistakes.” Blackstone’s tone softened. “Not without good reasons.”

Angie dared to lift her head.

Blackstone smiled. “Don’t look so glum. I’m not about to turn control over the Veil to anyone that seized control illegally and exiled one of their own to the surface alone. They counted on being able to state their demands, but once I received their transmission I used our initiator to take control of the Veil’s systems. Nothing they could do about that. I’ve been in control, getting things in shape while we were trying to figure out what to do next. I was about to send a mission down to retrieve you. I think your vacation has gone on long enough.”

“My vacation?”

Blackstone shrugged. “That’s what I’m calling it. Once I took control of the ship, most of the crew came forward to back you. The malcontents are re-thinking their position. They aren’t all wrong. You do need to establish a permanent base. True, we don’t know everything that might happen with Pluto’s environment but you’ll have to adapt. That’s what every settlement has to do. The faster you establish a strong presence, the more likely you are to be able to adapt to whatever comes.”

“You’re right,” Angie said. Blackstone was right. After weeks alone on the surface, Angie was beginning to understand this world more than ever. “I think I was afraid to get started. Pluto was like a blank canvas for my dreams. They did me a favor, McMurty, Lee and Coveney, in forcing me down here. I had to make a start. I put boots on the ground I got to see this place up close. I’m absolutely ready to take it to the next step. Thank you for having confidence in me.”

Blackstone raised a finger. “Confidence, yes, but you’re going to need to regain the confidence of your crew. We’ve got too many worlds now for me to spend this much time in one place. Thanks to work being done now on Proteus, we’re soon going to have android bodies in each colony. Our holographic bodies will take on solid forms, operated remotely by telepresence. We’re going to have regular meetings with all colony leaders, a sort of Solar Congress. With the evidence of starfarers visiting the system, we need to get organized.”

Aliens! “Dr. Blackstone! That sounds great, really. I didn’t place the call because I was lonely. I wanted to share with the crew the work I’ve been doing.”

Angie pulled up the core sample data, and the graph of the depths. “I don’t know what it is that’s down there. Maybe it’s natural, but this whole lake is strange. We need to get more people down here, and find out what this is.”

Blackstone studied the displayed holograms. Her smile broadened. “Excellent work. You weren’t idle down here, that’s for sure. It sounds like you might have a potential site for your base after all. Something nearby, for easy access to Tyson Lake?”

“I think that’d be a good idea. But not too close, just in case. And I’d like to be able to see Charon.”

Blackstone winked. “Smart thinking.”

One of the scutters poked its head up over the crate, watching them. Blackstone noticed, then turned back to Angie.

“Dr. Tran, I’m returning control of the Veil to you. Get your colony established. Find out what’s under that lake. Establish a future here and get that initiator online. Got it?”

Angie nodded. “I’ve got it. Thank you.”

Blackstone faded away. Angie took a moment and looked around the habitat. She’d have to share it soon. Most of the crew could focus on the base, but she was going to wait here until a relief team could take over the investigation of the site.

Veil,” Angie said. “Are you ready to get started? We have a lot of work to do.”

Pluto-Charon was still hers. Two worlds of mystery and promise to explore, and build a new future. She had a second chance.

12,134 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 10th weekly short story release, and the 10th Planetary Bodies story. I can’t wait for New Horizons to reach Pluto-Charon. Even now it’s on the way, taking initial pictures of the binary pair. Maybe it’ll change things about how I wrote this story but I couldn’t be happier. I’m looking forward to seeing the pictures — the same way I’ve been enjoying Dawn’s images of Ceres.

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 Caressing Charon, a companion story to this one that was published in Fiction River: Moonscapes.

Caressing Charon in Fiction River: Moonscapes

I’m thrilled to have a new story, “Caressing Charon” out in Fiction River: Moonscapes.

Fiction River Moonscapes

We all look up at the moon and wonder. And maybe dream. For centuries, the moon filled our imaginations. Eleven professional writers took those dreams and set original stories on moons scattered all over the galaxy. Yet, as the dreams of centuries, every story holds a human touch. From a mythical man fulfilling a childhood wish to a fantastic addition to Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s bestselling Retrieval Artist series, this volume of Fiction River allows you to travel to eleven different moons without leaving the comfort of home. 

Fiction River is an original fiction anthology series. Modeled on successful anthology series of the past, from Orbit to Universe to Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine, the goal of Fiction River is to provide a forum for “original ground-breaking fiction of all genres.” 

Find it at these retailers, available in paperback and e-book editions:

Amazon
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