Sunday, July 19, 2015

Macy Minnot Visits Charon

After some debate, Newt and two other volunteers took Elephant out of orbit and landed close to the equator. Newt stepped down to the surface, the fifth human being to set foot on Pluto, saying casually, ‘Well, here we are,’ and the three of them bounced around for an hour and set several drones tracking away across the frosty plain, then took off and caught up with Out of Eden as the shuttle went into orbit around Charon.

The dark surface of the smaller component of the binary system was divided between terrain cut by cobweb grooves and terrain pitted like the skin of a cantaloupe, all of it painted by broad, bright swathes of crystalline water ice and dusted with ammonium hydrate frosts in the shadows of crater rims: deep beneath Charon’s surface was a shallow ocean of ammonia-rich water that here and there squeezed up through subsurface cracks, erupted in cryogeysers that deposited swathes of fresh frost across the dark surface, marking it in tiger stripes.

The Free Outers agreed that Charon was a place where human beings could live, roofing over troughs and grooves, tunnelling down to the zone of liquid water. Everyone took turns to descend to the surface. Macy went down with Newt, following him out across a lightly cratered plain, the two of them bouncing along in especially insulated pressure suits to the site of the first probe to have landed on Charon, some eighty years ago. An instrument platform slung between three pairs of fat mesh wheels, it stood at the end of a wandering track where its little fission pack had finally run out of energy. Stranded in a charcoal desert struck with little craters whose floors glimmered with pale frost.  The close horizon circling around. The sun a brilliant star that even here, some 5.5 billion kilometres distant, so far away it took light more than five hours to span the distance, gave as much illumination as the full Moon, on Earth.  Pluto’s half-disc hung in the starry black sky, dim and grey in the faint light, capped white at the poles. The two dwarf planets were tidally locked face to face as they circled their common centre, Pluto waxing from full to gibbous to full again every six days.

Macy told Newt that it was a magnificent view, but she couldn’t imagine living here. ‘It’s going to get very cold and dark in winter.  And it will be hard to reach anywhere else.’

‘The new motor will make it easier than it used to be,’ Newt said. ‘Besides, it won’t be midwinter for more than a hundred years. And if we built habitats here, it will always be summer inside them.’

‘It’s so far away from anywhere else. Just this pair of frozen balls waltzing around each other and a couple of tiny chunks of tarry ice dancing attendance . . . ’

‘Is this your homesickness?’

‘This is something else. I feel like I’m a ghost in a stranger’s house.’

‘Right now, it is what it is,’ Newt said. ‘Sure, it’s empty and unmarked.  But so were Saturn’s moons when the pioneers arrived.’

‘Pioneers,’ Macy said. ‘There’s a lonely little word.’

‘That’s what we are, like it or not.’

The expedition explored Charon for ten days. They located tracts of carbonaceous material deposited by impacts with Kuiper Belt objects, and seeded them with vacuum organisms. They launched a satellite that would in time provide detailed topographical and geological maps. And then they began the long voyage back to Uranus. Everyone was bound close by their shared experience, and Macy felt that she was an integral part of the little band of adventurers now. She would never forget Earth, and she did not think that she could ever come to think of the stark and frigid moonscapes as any kind of home. But she was no longer a stranger, here in the outer dark.

From Gardens of the Sun (2009)


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