Giselle Brown leapt and found herself soaring into the air. She gazed out over a lake of frozen hydrocarbons, black as tar, then into the starry sky where one star, like a torch seen at the end of a tunnel, outshone all the others – the Sun.
As she reached the apex of her jump, twenty-five feet above the ground, she gazed in awe, as she always did, at the huge crescent of Charon, hanging in the dark sky, before she began to fall, gently, back to the icy surface. She glanced at her chronometer and smiled. Nearly ten seconds, her highest leap yet.
“Giselle. Can you come back; we need you.” The voice of commander Sandy Bjornstrom came in her helmet.
She felt frustration. “Why, what’s up?”
“Just come back, please – now.” The channel went silent.
She walked across to the rover, feeling her boots crunch on the frigid ground. Around her there was no sign of civilization, just boulders and ice and unswimmable lakes, languishing at minus 230 degrees Centigrade. Somewhere over the horizon lay the lights of the station and its bristling array of antennae and dishes.
They’d been sent out here, a ten-year trip, to investigate a phenomenon. A signal had been detected. A bizarre series of pulses that would start with one, then two, then three, and so on. Up to between eleven and seventeen. Then it would start all over again from one. There had been endless debate, argument and analysis, but there seemed to be no pattern to the maximum number of pulses reached. One thing was certain though; the signal emanated from somewhere on – or in – the dwarf-planet, Pluto.
Out of her suit, sipping scalding-hot coffee, she sat in the whiteness of the rec room.
Sandy bounced in. Tall, thin, flicking his parted blond hair from a pale forehead. “Klaus found something interesting. Very interesting.” He hesitated, a deep furrow appearing above his eyes.
A screen flickered into life. “Radar data. Look.” An amorphous blob appeared to be moving in a kind of amphitheatre.
“What is it?”
A network of graphics appeared around the shape, rounding it into something disc-like, but with protrusions in places. “It’s something underneath us, something deep in the ocean.”
“What, how big?”
“Klaus estimates … roughly ten miles in diameter.”
“What! What the hell is it?”
“We only just got the data … from the balloon. It could be anything. An area of warmer fluid, a gigantic rock … or some kind of … floating city, even.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
Sandy gave a wry smile. “Early days.”
“What, you think they’ll want us to go down there?”
“Probably. But I’ve already made the decision. Erik and Klaus are prepping the drill. It’ll take two weeks, then they’ll send the sub down.”
“If there’s anything intelligent down there, d’you think they’ll know we’re here?”
“Unlikely, I’d have thought. If there is, they’re sealed off down there. Till we drill into their ocean, that is. It’s probably nothing … but then there is that damned signal. It’s coming from somewhere down there.”
An intercom sounded. Klaus’s voice breathless and excited. “You’re not going to believe this!”
“What?” they exclaimed in unison.
“The signal just reached nineteen!”
“What, are you sure?”
“Yes, I just double-checked the data!”
Disbelieving, Giselle and Sandy stared at each other. In twelve years, since first detected, the pulses had never gone beyond seventeen before, not once. Until now.
Pluto, wasn’t he the god of the Underworld? With shaking hands, Giselle put her coffee cup down onto the white Formica table.
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