News From Pluto
'If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top, but that’s what is actually there.' Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator
He could not go up to the boy and ask him where he lived, lift him and carry him -- he was so small -- to his home. Nor could he scold the child's parents for having sent him out on this errand without proper shoes or winter clothes. He could not even take up the buckets and have the child lead him to his home. For each of these possibilities demanded that he be able to speak to the boy, and this he could not do.
Although it was fairly flat compared to Iapetus, and lacked impressively large features like Tethys’s Ithica Chasma, or Rhea’s two great multi-ringed impact basins, Dione’s moonscapes were nevertheless highly differentiated. Satellite surveys and a century of exploration had not yet exhausted them; gypsy prospectors like Karyl could make a living from searching out volcanic deposits of phosphates and nitrates and sulphates, veins of breciated carbonaceous chondrite material from cometary impacts, and the remains of stony or iron meteorites.
It was a lonely life, sure, and often frustrating, with long dry spells when strike after strike uncovered nothing useful. But like all gamblers, the occasional reward drove him ever onward across Dione’s cratered plains and smooth plains, through the troughs and labyrinthine badlands. Sometimes, especially late in the afternoon, with low sunlight mingling with Saturn’s pastel glow and the moonscape curving away on every side glowing like beaten bronze and everything casting two shadows, one short and one long, like the hands of an old-fashioned clock, Karyl’s heart lifted and turned on a flood of happiness, as if he was the emperor of all he surveyed, the only witness to Dione’s pure, bleak, uncanny beauty.
Confluence - a long, narrow, man-made world, half fertile river valley, half crater-strewn desert. A world served by countless machines, inhabited by by ten thousand bloodlines who worship their absent creators.
This is the home of Yama, destined to become a clerk until the discovery of his singular ancestry. For Yama appears to be the last remaining sion of the Builders, able to control the secret machineries of the world.
Pursued by enemies who want to make use of his powers, Yama voyages down the length of the world to search for answers to the mysteries of his origin, and discover if he is to be its saviour, or its nemesis.
‘I’m not a hunter,’ Summer said, ‘but isn’t a crossbow an unusual choice of weapon?’
‘It’s a very pure form of hunting – you only get the chance of one shot, so you must make absolutely sure that it is the kill-shot. You say you are not a hunter, but isn’t that why you are here?’
Dirk Merrit was amused, and seemed to believe that he was in complete control.
Summer said, ‘Maybe you could show me the crossbow. The one you used to kill the cougar.’
Both Denise and Dirk Merrit looked at her. Then the man turned and walked around the central fireplace to a set of tall glass-fronted cabinets. He opened a door, lifted out a crossbow, and carried it back to where Summer and Denise stood. It was bigger than Summer had expected, modern and very definitely lethal, with a pistol grip and a skeletal stock. Dirk Merrit rested it on his forearm, explained that the bow part was called the prod and the prod was attached to the table or deck, that both the prod and the deck were made out of carbon-fibre composite, the weapon had a draw weight of one hundred fifty pounds and loosed a twenty-inch arrow at a velocity of two hundred feet per second.
‘You can attach a telescopic sight, but I never use one. The lethal range is less than a hundred yards, and I prefer to get as close as possible. I admit to being something of a purist. For instance, I use a goatsfoot lever rather than a powered winder to draw the string.’
Dirk Merrit explained that the arrow generally killed someone not by shock but by massive haemorrhage, so it was necessary for the marksman to have a good working knowledge of the anatomy of his prey, and to be able to think in three dimensions when placing his shot.
‘You might say that it is not so much a shot as a lethal incision.’
Summer said, ‘Someone?’
Dirk Merrit stared at her and she stared right back. The air between them seemed to hum. On the TV behind him, the Mad Max warrior was hacking his way through tangles of creepers that were more or less the same colour as Dirk Merit’s blood-capped eyes.
Summer said, ‘You said “someone”, not “something”.’
‘Mmmm. Did you know that it’s forbidden by Papal edict to use the crossbow against Christians?’
‘Are you saying that you only shoot Muslims, Mr Merrit?’
‘If I did, I’d hardly be likely to tell you, would I? Even in the current political climate.’
His smile was back in place, but he seemed wary now, no longer the master of his domain.
I am older than the space age, although not by much. I was only a toddler when Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, was too young to take any notice of the news about Yuri Gagarin's path-breaking orbital flight four years later. But I have a very clear memory of seeing, on the black-and-white television set the teacher brought into the classroom of Selsley Primary School for the occasion, images of the Moon's surface transmitted by the robot craft Surveyor 1 after its soft landing on the Ocean of Storms. That was on June 2, 1966. A little over three years later I was woken by my mother in the middle of a summer night to see Neil Armstrong make his historic first step. I remember the images captured by Pioneer 10 as it sped through Jupiter's system, Viking 1's first glimpse of Mars's rock-strewn surface, the softly tinted picture of a frozen beach sent from Titan by the little Huygens lander. And a few days ago I watched on the same screen that I'm now typing this, via NASA TV's internet channel, the presentation of the first high resolution images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft. Less than sixty years after Sputnik the first era of solar system exploration is over . . .More over at Strange Horizons.
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.
It seems that Seeger probably did not try to cut through cables with an axe, but he did recount what had happened with the crestfallen conclusion: “I thought he had so much promise.” Others, by contrast, knew what time it was. In the folk magazine Sing Out!, the critic Paul Nelson compared the two musicians and announced his decision to leave one behind. “Rose-coloured glasses or a magnifying glass?” he wrote. “A nice guy who has subjugated his art through his continued insistence on a world that never was and never can be, or an angry, passionate poet who demands his art to be all?” He said of Newport: “It was a sad parting of the ways for many, myself included.” But then came the slam-dunk resolution: “I choose Dylan. I choose art.”