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Our journey begins at the far end of our solar system on Pluto the past and future planet, you might say, where astronauts start dying and their colleagues investigate the incidents around . . .


by Robin Wayne Bailey

The smooth, nitrogen/methane surface of Kenyata Plain glittered under the headlights of James Dayton’s ice sled as he raced alone across the solemn, frozen expanse with Tombaugh Station at his back. His thoughts weren’t on the station, though. He fixed his gaze ahead. In the distance, the Burney Mountains loomed sharp as razors against a star-flecked sky, and at his nine o’clock, half of Charon arced above the horizon, perpetually unmoving, never climbing, tidally locked in its orbit with Pluto.

He tried not to look at those sights for too long. It was easy for a man to lose his mind out here. More than one had done so, and James Dayton did not want to flirt with madness. He jerked his attention back to the green and gold indicators on his console, checked his GPS coordinates, noted the temperature readouts of his environmental suit—all that kept him warm and alive. Yet, after a moment, he looked outward again.

Like flying an aircraft back on Earth, he thought. Look at the horizon; look at the gauges; back and forth, always watchful, but never look too long at either. He missed flying. It was the only thing about Earth he missed.

He seldom thought of Earth anymore. His home, such as it was, was here at Tombaugh Station. Nobody came to Pluto on a round-trip ticket. It was still strictly one-way. No matter—James Dayton had been the first to sign up.

The GPS indicator on his console chimed and flashed. He cursed himself for letting his thoughts wander and for sliding a half-kilometer off course. Even as he corrected, a voice spoke through his com-set. “Are you napping out there, James? I just got tracking back online here, and you’re off your mark.”

“You sound like air traffic control,” Dayton shot back, recognizing Kate Beck, on the other end of the com at Work Unit Three. “Always blame the pilot. It took you six seconds to notice the deviation after I corrected course. Pretty shitty ATC, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t,” she responded. “I asked you to marry me once, but you declined. Since then, you’re lucky I haven’t run you over a crater, and don’t think I haven’t considered it.” She paused. In a quieter, more serious voice, she asked, “Are you all right out there?”

He hesitated, unsure of how to answer. He had been off his game lately, distracted and unfocused. This wasn’t a place that forgave you for losing your focus. “Are you all right in there?” he said, answering her question with a question.

“Sure, I’m just fine here alone in the dark.” She poured on the sarcasm. Kate Beck always had a smart mouth. “Well, not really alone, I guess, but Doctor Atsuka doesn’t look so good. He’s kind of pale and not too conversational.” She paused again, and then came back, serious once more. ”I’m getting some of the other systems back online.”

Back on course, Dayton twisted the throttle to increase his speed. “Are you showing any other sleds are in the area?”

“Negative,” she answered. “All the traffic is out at the Burney where it should be. Everybody’s working.”

Dayton thought to himself as he gazed toward the horizon again. Tadeo Atsuka, head of Data Analytics and Imaging, had been on duty at Work Unit Three. Now, he was dead, the third death in three months. Death was an occupational hazard on Pluto, but usually among the newcomers. Among the Old-timers, the ones who had come down with Tombaugh One, accidents didn’t happen.

The work unit looked like a metal shed—plain and windowless. In the field beyond it, a trio of ice movers stood, giant spidery machines that cut and sliced immense blocks of nitrogen/methane from the surface and transported them to the Burney site. They were powered down, and Dayton wondered why they were not in operation.

As he parked close to Kate Beck’s sled, he unplugged his heating unit from his vehicle’s battery pack and retracted the power umbilical. A lighted readout appeared briefly on the inside of his faceplate to inform him of the power shift. His environmental suit’s internal batteries contained enough juice to keep him alive for two hours in minus three hundred eighty degrees, but he never relied just on his internal power longer than necessary. He was too careful for that.

His cleated boots bit into the crisp surface as he stepped down from the sled and crossed the short distance to the work unit’s airlock. Stopping at a red panel mounted on the wall, he pressed it. After a moment, the outer door unsealed and opened, and he stepped inside a tubular chamber. When the outer door resealed, an inner door opened.

Kate Beck, enclosed in her own environmental suit, tablet computer in hand, looked around to greet him. The lighting was still very dim. “Keep your helmet on,” she warned over the com-set. “I’ve repaired the heating systems and air generators, but they haven’t been online long enough to reach optimum levels.” She went back to work on her tablet. The way her fingers moved over it, she might have been stroking a pet.

The inside of Work Unit Three was a maze of quantum computers, communications and tracking equipment, 3-D printers, satellite monitors and imaging stations. Tadeo Atsuka still stood over one of the consoles, his hand on the back of a chair, his face turned toward the airlock as if to greet Dayton. Unfortunately, his suit was unzipped and he wore no helmet. He was frozen solid.

“It looks like a catastrophic power failure,” Kate Beck reported. “All the power was down and the airlock wide open when I came to pick him up.”

“That’s not supposed to happen,” Dayton answered, fighting a tide of emotion. Tadeo was an old friend from back in the Corporate shipyards on Deimos when Tombaugh One was being built. They had come out together. Dayton cursed the torrent of memories. Tadeo had baked cookies with his rations every Christmas long after Christmas ceased to have any meaning to the crew.

Dayton studied the smaller man’s frozen face, the familiar smile still in place, dark eyes twinkling, full of tiny ice crystals. Tadeo hadn’t even had time to look surprised.

“The systems are supposed to be redundant,” Dayton muttered to himself.

Kate Beck heard him over the com-set and waved her tablet angrily. “You think I don’t know that, Commander? “ She only used his rank anymore when she got upset, and Beck didn’t get upset easily. Beck was also an Old-timer, Dayton’s executive officer on the journey out, and Tadeo had been her friend, too.

“Sorry, Kate,” he said. “This one’s got me. Got us both, I guess.” He tried to lighten the mood with a feeble comment, tapping her suit where her name was printed. “Do you write that on your underwear, too?”

The glow of her tablet screen reflected an eerie effect on her features as she sighed and turned away. “I’ve given you every opportunity to find out, James.”

Dayton remembered his heating unit and looked around for a working battery socket to plug into. He glanced for a moment at the power shift readout on his faceplate—always careful!—and then, trailing his thin umbilical, he began moving around the shed. Many of the consoles were still black, shut down by the sudden rush of cold. He looked at the computer nearest Tadeo’s hand. “I wonder what he was working on.”

“Same as all of us,” Beck answered. “The Burney is scheduled to go online in seven days. He’s been something of a mad scientist about it, working long shifts alone, checking and double-checking every detail.” She hesitated, looking thoughtful. Then her voice cracked. “He joked to me once that it would see the face of God. I laughed, but then he repeated it. He said the Burney would do that.”

Inside his suit, Dayton nodded to himself. Tadeo was obsessive. Men and women only came out to Pluto for three reasons. Either they were running from something, or they thought of themselves as pioneer-adventurers, or because sheer scientific curiosity drove them. Corporate did their best to weed out the runners. The adventurers usually weeded out themselves. Tadeo had been at the forefront of the last group.

He walked around Tadeo Atsuka again, and stared for a long moment into those frozen eyes. That look, he knew, would haunt him for nights to come. It’s almost as if he’s seeing the face of God right now. Dayton flinched from the thought. He wasn’t a religious man at all.

Yet Tadeo was smiling, almost mocking him.

“Go back to the station,” Dayton told Kate Beck. “Inform Corporate. Tell them that we’ve lost a giant.”

Kate Beck powered off her tablet and pushed the device into a pocket on her thigh. Then she unplugged her suit and let the umbilical retract around her waist. At the airlock, she paused and looked back into the shed. Despite a handful of glowing monitors, the interior was still mostly dark. “Eighteen years,” she said with strange wistfulness. “Now we’ve lost Robinson, Tucker, and Tadeo.” She shook her head. “I don’t get it, James. I just don’t get it.”

He couldn’t see her face clearly, yet he sensed that she was crying. The Old-timers, those who came out on the first mission to establish Tombaugh Station, had always shared a tight bond. They knew they were special, a unique breed, and later, when Tombaugh Two and Tombaugh Three arrived nine years apart to expand the base, the newcomers knew it, too. To them, the Old-timers were heroes and legends.

“I seem to have run out of black humor,” she continued, rambling. “Do you want me to take him back?”

“I’ll take him,” Dayton said.

He waited until Kate Beck was gone and the airlock resealed. Then he pulled up a chair from one of the consoles and sat down to grieve and to share a few last moments with an old friend. Thanks to Kate, all the power systems slowly came back to life. He tapped the side of his helmet, activating his faceplate readouts, and noted the climbing temperatures and elevating air concentrations inside the shed. They were almost normal. Still, he kept his suit on and plugged in. Always careful.

After a time, he got up, rummaged around and found a stack of thermal blankets in a storage locker. He wrapped Tadeo carefully and secured the wrappings as best he could with the power umbilical from Tadeo’s environmental suit. As he did so, the quantum computers flashed back online, and various monitors around the shed began to shine with images of deep-space objects. Dayton recognized Andromeda on one of the screens and, on another, the very peculiar galaxy called Centaurus A. On still another, a dark red cluster of nebulae unfamiliar to Dayton—maybe something entirely new.

Dayton unplugged his suit and retracted his umbilical. Then, after padding the storage compartment of his sled with more blankets, he carried Tadeo outside and laid him gently down. In Pluto’s weak gravity, the doctor weighed very little. “Last roundup, Cookie,” Dayton murmured. The Old-timers, especially Tadeo, were all fond of cowboy metaphors.

With Tadeo carefully cradled, Dayton straightened and glanced to his nine o’clock. The dark horizon coruscated with light—intense green and red, gold and stark silver scattering strangely on Pluto’s tenuous summer atmosphere. It looked like a crazy aurora borealis, but with no magnetic field on Pluto, he knew it was no such thing. It was only the work crews firing the polishing lasers, putting the last smoothing touches on the Burney’s gigantic ice mirror. He smiled to himself, although it was a painful smile. “Would you like to take a look?” he said to Tadeo. Then he nodded and forced a smile. “I knew you would.”

Plugging his suit into the sled’s battery pack, he turned on his running lights, twisted the throttle and headed toward the glow, which got brighter and more dramatic as he approached. The outlines of leviathan ice movers rose up as if to block his path, seeming alien on their eight mechanical legs, control cabins gleaming like eyes. He drove his sled with greater care now, watching his GPS, to avoid the ice pits from which the diggers had gouged great chunks.

Still, he found it hard not to let his mind wander. Tadeo dead. And Robinson before him, a suicide, just tired of it all. Then Tucker, crushed at the work site under massive ice when a mover suddenly lost power and dropped its load. All Old-timers and all friends—gone. He had lost people before, but these deaths hurt.

At the top of a shallow summit, James Dayton stopped and turned off his running lights. Once before, he had parked on this same spot with Tadeo as they searched together for the right place to erect the Burney. Now, it made the perfect observation point to watch the construction. Dayton thought of himself as a hard and jaded man, but what he saw when he looked down upon the work site took his breath away every time.

The Venetia Burney Deep Space Cassegrain Telescope, named after the eleven-year-old child who had given Pluto its name in 1931, soared upward from the heart of Kenyata Plain, its immense disc five miles in diameter, made entirely from methane and nitrogen ice. It loomed upward, dominating the planetscape, all of its beams and girders, gears and motors, and nuts and bolts 3-D printed on the site from Pluto’s own materials.

The light show was the result of lasers smoothing the gigantic ice mirrors to micro-meter precision as they fused layer after layer of synthetic mercury, capable of withstanding temperatures as low as minus five hundred degrees, to the ice. Then the mirrors would be finished.

James Dayton knew that he stood in the shadow of Mankind’s greatest achievement. Compared to the Burney, everything else, including Tombaugh Station, felt small.

The lasers lit up the night with mesmerizing fire. Dayton watched until his eyes ached, then he jerked his attention to other details. The ice movers stood in stark silhouettes, and the vehicles and men at work around the site seemed like ants and less than ants.

Yet, those men were giants, too, for they had crossed the three point fifty-seven billion miles and given their lives to establish Tombaugh Station and build the Burney.

“I wish you could see this again, Tadeo,” Dayton said. He remembered the images that had popped up on the monitors back at Work Unit Three, especially the unfamiliar cluster of nebulae, and wondered what the Burney would eventually see when it went online.

A voice over his com-set interrupted his reverie. “Commander Dayton, Tombaugh Station,” the voice said. “Please say your location. We’re not getting a tracking reading from your sled. You’ve been out a long time, and we’re a bit concerned.”

Dayton frowned. He toggled a switch on his sled’s dashboard with no result. His GPS was dead. “I’m ninety-three degrees from Tombaugh Station, one hundred and sixty-three miles out overlooking Site Zero,” he answered. “Heading back now, and don’t worry. I know my way home.” He gazed toward the Burney one more time, drinking in the wonder of it, and on some level secret even from himself, he felt an immense pride.

“I wish you could see it, Tadeo,” he repeated, looking into the back of the sled at the wrapped body. He thought again of Tadeo’s eyes full of ice crystals or full of something. What was it about his eyes? Inside his helmet, Dayton shook his head to clear it, causing the readouts on his faceplate to flicker. He told himself again that Tadeo’s eyes would haunt him.

He let go a deep sigh as he started the sled and turned away from the crazy light show and the Burney Telescope. Maybe it was all finally getting to him. Maybe it was time to have a talk with Corporate about stepping aside and turning over command to one of the younger commanders. After all, three ships had made the journey to the Ninth Planet. Like as not, as Pluto on its orbital course moved farther away from Earth, there wouldn’t be a fourth ship for more than two hundred years.

His headlights and running lights shimmered on the cold ground as he glided back toward Tombaugh Station. Taking his time, mindful of Tadeo’s comfort, he navigated by the mountain peaks and crater rims, lit by Charon permanently on the horizon and by the splendid bands of stars above. He looked toward Sol, a small point of pale white light straight ahead currently at altitude thirty degrees.

He didn’t miss Earth with all its fractious governments perpetually at each other’s throats with their forever wars and endless politics and every dollar gone for weapons. They could never have given Mankind the stars. Governments lacked vision, and their only ambition was to maintain power. He was glad to be free of it, glad to live for a future even if it meant living in a tin can or in an environmental suit. If the Burney Telescope had been Tadeo’s vision, Tombaugh Station had been his. More than any place had ever been, here was home.

Something moved suddenly across his headlight beams. Dayton jerked back on the throttle and hit the brakes. The ice sled skidded and nearly pitched over on its side before righting itself. Dayton opened the door and got halfway out, uncertain as he glared upward at the monstrous black tarantula that blocked his path. Its eight ponderous legs moved it as it came toward him, gigantic rotating saw blades dropping from its underbelly.

Dayton dove back into his ice sled. Fish-tailing over the ice, he steered away from the monster machine. In the distance, he saw the silhouette of Work Unit Three. Only two of the ice movers remained parked beside it. He knew damned well where the third one was.

What he didn’t know was who controlled it or why.

As he flew toward the shed, he touched his com-set. “Mayday, mayday! Tombaugh Station! Commander James Dayton! Come in!” No response. He repeated his emergency hail. Nothing. He glanced at his dashboard and toggled the communications switch only to see its indicator light fade and die. Just like his tracking system!

The large ice movers were capable of considerable speed, and his pursuer handled the big machine like an expert. Dayton abandoned any thought of sheltering at the work unit. He shot past it instead. The ice mover shot through it, leaving the shed in wreckage.

A cold chill ran down Dayton’s neck. Only it was not a chill of fear. He felt cold! He double-checked his suit’s umbilical, making sure he had plugged it securely into the sled’s battery pack. The connection was snug. Yet, he was getting no heat!

“Bastard!” he muttered. “You’ve hacked my controls!

He detached the umbilical, and his suit’s internal batteries immediately kicked in. He had warmth for two hours. He didn’t expect the mover to give him that long. He jerked hard on the ice sled’s yoke, spinning in a complete three-sixty until his sled pointed back at the big spider.

In the back, Tadeo thumped against the side of the compartment, and the covering over his head dislodged. Dayton dared to glance backward long enough to meet Tadeo’s frozen gaze. What is wrong with his eyes?

He twisted the throttle hard again. The ice sled shot forward, straight for the mover. The machines were fast, but slow to turn. One of the great legs stomped the ground right next to him—a near miss! The cutting blades whirred silently over his head as he raced between the legs. A fool’s play, but one that paid off!

Still, he was in a bad spot. Tombaugh Station was too far away in one direction and the Burney site too far away in another. If he headed toward either, the mover would overtake him, and he was out of tricks.

He did have a little breathing room, though, and he took advantage of it. Leaning over the yoke, he shot toward the ruin that had been Work Unit Three. Farther back, the mover charged after him. Dayton flung himself out of the sled and ran for one of the remaining ice movers. The cleats on his boots slowed him down, but still he pushed himself and slammed his suited fist against a flat red control panel on one of the mover’s front legs.

A lift rig dropped from the mover’s belly. Too slow, Dayton thought on the edge of panic. Too slow! Before the rig even touched the ground, Dayton jumped upward, caught the rig’s thin rail and scrambled aboard. He slammed another control on the rig, and the lift reversed itself, climbing upward, as the attacker closed in.

A dark interior awaited him. The ice mover sat completely powered down. Groping, he found the pilot’s seat and began stabbing controls. Indicator lights flashed on. At least the batteries weren’t dead. Dayton plugged his suit into the console unit, an unbreakable habit, and then leaned over the guidance computer. He typed in a short command, and his mover lurched forward only to stumble as a grinding vibration shivered through the cockpit.

Warning lights pulsed across all his screens. Dayton typed another short command. Outside views, fore and aft, popped up on a pair of monitors. The enemy mover struck him. One of its cutting blades came down, scarring his machine’s hindmost right leg, and his mover shivered again. Unable to turn quickly enough and confront his attacker head on, Dayton reversed his mover and slammed straight backward into his attacker. The impact knocked him out of his seat, but it caught his attacker completely off-guard. The enemy machine stumbled.

Resuming his seat, Dayton typed commands and sped forward, gaining what distance he could. In his monitors, he watched sparks ignite from its injured limb and knew that it could crumple at any time. Still, he lurched forward, pulling every bit of power his machine had to give. At least he had a functioning GPS again. He switched on its small tracking screen.

The Left Eye of Hades, one of the deepest craters on Pluto, marked the southern boundary of Kenyata Plain. At best speed, Dayton headed for it. His aft monitor revealed his pursuer, all menace, eight legs churning and cutting blades poised for destruction.

The smooth Kenyata Plain turned rocky with impact debris as he neared the crater. His onboard computer, automatically alert for treacherous terrain that could endanger the craft, abruptly overrode his commands and decreased his speed. Dayton cursed. Although he had handled an ice mover before, he was no expert. He turned his machine clumsily and readied his own cutting blades. For a moment, he thought of calling Tombaugh Station for help, but there wasn’t time and help would never reach him.

The enemy mover slammed into him headfirst. His machine shuddered, and again warning lights danced across his console. His attacker backed up a step and then lunged forward again, but this time, Dayton anticipated the attack and maneuvered to side-step. His mover shook, and sparks erupted from the front left leg, but this time he struck back, ramming directly into the side of his attacker and sawing through his enemy’s mid-ship left leg.

Both machines damaged, they squared off. Like two fighters sizing each other up, they circled each other, feinted and backed away. Then, an indicator light faded on Dayton’s console, and his heating unit went out.

Dayton raged. “Computer, shut down!” he ordered out loud as he pounded the command into the keyboard. Whoever was trying to kill him was good, but he wasn’t going to get hacked again. He didn’t know how they were doing that! He pushed the keyboard back into the console and, at the touch of a button, manual controls sprang up from the arms of his chair. Clenching his teeth, he gripped the padded levers and brought up the outside cameras again.

His foe was neither fore nor aft. He cursed, shouting, as the enemy mover broadsided him. He felt, rather than heard, the whine of the saw blades against his fuselage. His onboard computer flared to life again and tried to wrest control from what it assumed was an incompetent pilot, causing Dayton to fight two battles, against his opponent’s machine and his own. On the edge of angry panic, he twisted his right control forward and jerked his left control back simultaneously.

The grind of metal shivered through his mover as he slammed against the other machine. He ignored it and pushed both controls forward. In his fore camera, he saw the other mover now, and he saw the Eye of Hades right behind it. With all the power left in his machine, he shoved his attacker over the crater’s edge. Its eight legs scrambled for purchase on the broken ice, and then it fell.

For a long time, Dayton sat trembling and sweating in his environmental suit. Then, one by one, he turned his mover’s systems on again, made sure he had heat once more, and trudged back toward the remains of Work Unit Three to his sled and Tadeo’s body.

After a time, he picked up the mover’s com-set. “Tombaugh Station, Dayton here.” The com-set crackled. “Never mind where I am,” Dayton snapped. “I’m on my way home. Ask Doctor Kenyata and Executive Officer Kate Beck to meet me in medical as soon as I get back.”

Elise Kenyata, a small black woman whose hair had gone iron gray since her days on the first voyage outward, regarded Dayton with a grim expression. She had been a geo-planetologist of great fame once, but now she was a medical officer. Everything changes, Dayton thought as he waited for her response to his questions.

They stood together in a morgue room that had been turned into a freezer locker and a laboratory. “What you want has never been tried before,” she lectured him. She looked toward Tadeo Atsuka’s body on an autopsy table. “Nor do I believe Tadeo ever considered this application for his technology.” She adjusted a large optical instrument above the examining table and swung a heavy metal arm down to position it directly above Tadeo’s face. “Still, he was a genius in the field of imaging, and for dear Tadeo’s sake, I’ve done my best.” She patted Tadeo’s rigid hand with obvious affection, and then turned on a computer next to the table. “It may take some minutes.”

Amid a semicircular array of quantum computers, they watched the screens together. “From the moment I looked into his eyes at the work station, I felt something was weird. His eyes were strange, reflective. I felt I could see something in them if I just looked hard enough.” He wiped a hand over his face as he tried to explain himself. “Of course, I could just be going crazy and wasting your time.”

“You never waste my time, dear,” Elise Kenyata answered. “If your theory is correct, he may have frozen so instantaneously that his retinas or the rods and cones in his eyes may retain some fragment of the last image he ever saw.” She shook her head and rubbed her chin at the same time. “This technology that he created to look outward and show us the stars might also look inward and show us that image. I’ve tinkered and adapted his programs a little, but it would be revolutionary—although naturally the applications would be limited.”

Dayton didn’t respond. He watched the screens and waited. Something slowly began to take shape on the primary monitor. A few moments later, the computers began to enhance that shape with contrasts and saturations, adding definitions. Each new digital layer enhanced the previous image, and after an hour, something indistinct became sharp and clear.

Kate Beck, her hand on the airlock panel, her name printed on her environmental suit, looked directly back at them from the screens, just as she had looked at Tadeo in his final moment of life.

Kenyata gasped. Dayton felt no surprise, only a keen and stabbing regret.

“Why would she do it?” Kenyata whispered. “Why?”

Dayton hugged the doctor, another Old-timer and longtime friend, and he thought of Robinson, who was Tadeo’s protégé, and Tucker, who had headed the construction of the Burney, all of them friends and all of them important to the telescope’s completion. He thought of Kate Beck, too, almost a lover once, who had sent a single short message to his private com-box in the moments before her death at the crater.

I’m sorry, James. The Burney is too powerful. Tadeo said it would see the face of God. No one should ever look at the face of God, James. No one.

He kissed Kenyata on the top of her head and said his final goodbye to Tadeo Atsuka. It would be hard to pick up the pieces of his daily routine, but the Burney would be online in a few days, and things would settle down.

He thought about that and laughed privately.

Except for the atmosphere in winter, nothing ever settled down on Pluto. It was easy for a man or woman to lose their mind out here. More than one had done so.

* * *

Robin Wayne Bailey is the author of numerous novels, including the bestselling Dragonkin series, the Frost saga, Shadowdance and the Fritz Leiber-inspired Swords Against The Shadowland. He’s written over one hundred short stories, many of which are included in his two collections, Turn Left To Tomorrow and The Fantastikon: Tales Of Wonder. He is a former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and was a 2008 Nebula Award nominee. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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