When the first images from New Horizons became available a few years ago, I was immediately smitten with the bizarre features of Pluto and Charon. The geography of these distant worlds was both familiar and strange, and I think that added a layer of wonder that continues to fuel any author in the midst of a science fiction brainstorm.
I revisited some of these images over the last two days as I prepare to outline a short story that I hope to work on this summer. However, this won’t be my first writing project inspired by New Horizons.
I originally wrote “An Eon-old, Icy Tomb” in autumn of 2016. The plot of this flash fiction piece unfolds on the surface of Pluto. “An Eon-old, Icy Tomb” appeared with Pale Ghosts Magazine later that year. Unfortunately, Pale Ghosts Magazine appears to no longer exist. However, I’ve included all 1,225 words of the original submission below.
Colina slid across the surface of a frozen nitrogen lake, kicking up a haze of dust and ice. The gravity was not strong enough to pull him completely to the surface, but his momentum dragged him forward, scrapping his suit against several icy ridges. One sharp edge punctured his suit just below the right shoulder. The pressurized interior of the suit erupted through this opening, and Colina could see a gaseous jet of steam violently deflecting off the ice beneath him.
Hiller slowed his long strides just enough to bend down and wrap his arms around Colina. Regaining their footing, both men continued their retreat. In such low gravity, their movement resembled a long, awkward skip. Colina pressed a gloved hand over the puncture in his suit, hoping to stop the pressure and oxygen from escaping too fast.
Colina and Hiller were two of the three crewmembers of Agnosta. The Agnosta had launched from Earth over a decade before, with each of the crewmembers kept in stasis for the journey to Pluto.
A century earlier, New Horizons successfully reached Pluto, sending tantalizing photographs and data about the dwarf planet back to Earth. These images and findings were eagerly released to the media, with one significant exception. New Horizons had photographed a mysterious object at the foot of the Wright Mons – a massive cryovolcano to the southwest of the Norgay Montes. The predominant theory was that this cryovolcano brought the mysterious object to the surface from within the pressurized interior of the dwarf planet. The object was believed to be a spacecraft of unknown origin.
Subsequent probes attempted to study the craft with mixed success. When a surface rover failed to negotiate the rugged terrain to the south of Sputnik Planum, plans were laid for the Agnosta mission.
After landing near the Wright Mons on a rocky outcropping between the Norgay Montes and Cthulhu Regio, the crew had spent two days preparing research equipment. On the third day, Hiller and Colina left the lander for their mysterious target. Yamamoto, the mission commander, stayed behind, monitoring the progress of her crew. However, the careful walk from the lander across the frozen nitrogen lake did not unfold as expected.
A first tremor created noticeable cracks on the icy lake surface not long after the pair had reached the foot of the cryovolcano.
Despite this ominous development, Hiller and Colina continued to their destination and spent several hours studying the craft. Chisels were employed to remove icy masses from the bizarre fuselage. Measurements and photographs were recorded. One occupant, frozen in place where one might expect to find a pilot, was oddly familiar in appearance. Cameras mounted on Hiller and Colina’s suits sent footage back to Yamamoto. The mission commander found the inscriptions on the outside of the craft to be fascinating. Although the language was alien, there was no doubt that a certain pattern on the craft seemed to show a solar system – a star encircled by eight planets. An accompanying design seemed to indicate that the craft had originated on the third planet and traveled beyond the eighth. Yamamoto, Hiller, and Colina were still processing this implication when the occasional tremors suddenly turned into an eruption.
Rushing down the slope as quickly as possible, Colina had repeatedly stumbled, finally falling and damaging his suit once reaching the lake. The Wright Mons released a fury of ice, rock, and nitrogen.
The nitrogen was the real concern.
On the surface of Pluto, nitrogen was volatile. The low pressure boiled some of the nitrogen into a gas, creating a hazy blue fog. Incredibly low temperatures froze some of the nitrogen, resurfacing the lake. Unfortunately, a considerable portion of the nitrogen stayed a liquid wave. This wave gained on the desperately skipping Agnosta crewmen.
The lake shook violently, opening a massive chasm in front of Colina. Unable to stop, Colina tumbled into this chasm ahead of a rush of liquid nitrogen. Hiller threw himself onto the surface of the lake and reached down into the chasm.
“Jump!” Hiller shouted. His voice came to Colina’s ears laced with static.
The blue fog blanketed the chasm. Hiller could no longer see Colina, but he could hear the man’s fading cries.
Suddenly, Hiller felt Colina grab both of his hands.
“I’ve got you!” Hiller called.
Having heard their desperate shouts on her transmitter, Yamamoto quickly donned a suit and, with a specialized ice axe in hand, rushed out to save her crew. The fog was impossibly thick, and she could not see the front of the nitrogen wave. Chunks of ice and snow fell to the ground slowly but in such density that little was visible to her.
“I’ve got him!” Hiller called over the transmitter. “We’re a hundred meters from the lander but I’m pulling him out.”
Hiller twisted his body to lift Colina from the chasm but was hardly able to move. The chasm was nearly filled with nitrogen, and Hiller knew that Colina was submerged in the liquid. He pulled again to no avail.
Splashing through nitrogen, Yamamoto could see Hiller’s form on the surface of the lake. She called out to him.
“My arms!” Hiller shouted back. “I’m stuck!”
Hiller’s arms had frozen in the chasm.
Yamamoto rushed forward, swinging the axe down into the chasm with all the force she could muster. The nitrogen was too deep now, and she knew the chasm was nearly frozen solid. She wouldn’t be able to hack Hiller’s arms out of the ice in time.
“Pull on me!” Hiller cried.
Yamamoto grabbed Hiller around the chest and pulled back. Hiller strained with his back and legs. With a rush of movement, Yamamoto and Hiller tumbled backward. Hiller’s screams deafened the Agnosta commander.
Hiller had freed his arms, but the ice had ripped off his gloves. His hands and wrists were exposed to the freezing, near-vacuum of Pluto.
His hands immediately discolored and swelled. Yamamoto scrambled in the freezing slush to lift Hiller to his feet, but his suit completely depressurized in seconds. He gagged and choked as his blood began to boil in the thin atmosphere.
Hiller fell away from Yamamoto, collapsing down into the slush in agony. Yamamoto could only save herself now. She turned to begin striding toward the lander.
However, her feet did not move. The slush from the eruption was now above her ankles, and she realized that she would join Colina, Hiller, and, most likely, the Agnosta lander in becoming a part of the frozen nitrogen lake. She briefly envisioned her crew and lander being regurgitated by the Wright Mons eons in the future, as the ice of the lake was forced down, partially melted, pressurized, and erupted through the cryovolcano.
She suspected that had happened with the mysterious spacecraft that the Agnosta had come to study. The mysterious spacecraft that had traveled from Earth millions of years ago to this same point, for purposes only to be imagined, and crewed by a race of previously unknown – but obviously very intelligent – theropods, only to be trapped on the surface of this same lake.
Yamamoto imagined space-faring dinosaurs escaping the Earth sixty-six million years earlier in order to avoid the Chicxulub asteroid.
As the nitrogen slush slowly consumed her, she wondered what – if anything – might one day come along next, only to inevitably join her in this icy tomb.