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Pluto's Heart
 


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Pluto's Heart


  Pluto’s Heart

  By Alex Morgan

  Published by JMS Books LLC

  Visit jms-books.com for more information.

  Copyright 2019 Alex Morgan

  ISBN 9781634869553

  Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

  Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

  All rights reserved.

  WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

  No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

  This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Published in the United States of America.

  * * * *

  Pluto’s Heart

  By Alex Morgan

  The first thing Brian noticed was the foul taste in his dry mouth, as if a dog has emptied his bowels in it. He smacked his lips and sucked in air to get rid of the vile sensation. He realized he was lying down and tried to sit up, but his body responded sluggishly.

  What?

  After a few seconds of struggling, he managed to get his arms to move and raise his shoulders, but his forehead bumped against a hard surface.

  “Ow! What the hell?” Brian muttered in a hoarse voice. He tried to see what he hit but his eyelids felt as if they were glued shut. “Why can’t I open my eyes?”

  He fell back onto the soft cushions beneath him and rubbed his eyes with his lethargic hands. When he managed to peel them open, he peered up at a Plexiglas pane inches from his nose.

  As if sensing him staring and straining to rise, it swung upward with an electronic hum. Lifting his head, Brian looked around in confusion for a second until recognition set in.

  “Shit,” he mumbled and flopped back.

  “Hello, Mr. Beauchamp,” a computer-generated voice said.

  “Fuck you.”

  “We will arrive at Pluto in forty-seven hours, forty-five minutes,” the computer continued. “That provides you sufficient time to recover from the effects of your suspended animation.”

  “How long have I been asleep?”

  “Four months, four days, six hours and thirty-five minutes.”

  Brian sat up again and scanned his surroundings. Every centimeter of the small spacecraft was crammed with electronic systems and mechanical apparatus, all designed to transport a single passenger across the solar system.

  Preferably delivering him alive in and in one piece.

  “Do you require liquid refreshment?” the computer asked.

  “Beer. Burger. Fries.”

  “I’m sorry, Mr. Beauchamp. There are no alcoholic beverages available on board and solid food is not permitted for the first twenty-four hours after regaining consciousness.”

  Brian sighed in surrender and then realized he could smell his rank breath.

  “Orange juice,” he said. Anything to get the taste out of his mouth.

  A second later, a half-liter aluminum can popped out of a panel in the wall next to him. Brian opened it and guzzled the cold tangy liquid in quick gulps.

  “Another one, please.” He had not realized the extent of his thirst. Did I just say please to the computer?

  The cramped area of the spacecraft looked as if it was only three square meters with the pathway just wide enough for him to walk from one side to the other. Monitors displayed the status of the ship.

  “So, what am I supposed to do for the next two days in this walk-in closet?” Brian had not expected an answer but the computer responded, startling him.

  “The Company requires you to exercise to regain your strength.”

  Brian noticed a stationary bike in a gap in the machinery with restraints to keep him from floating away in zero gravity. He groaned and began removing the straps around his waist that kept him in the sleeping bay. Free of the fetters, Brian drifted away from the cushions and pulled himself across the small capsule, grasping handrails to move about the ship.

  He remembered he was naked, since clothing was not allowed for hibernation sleep.

  Oh, well. No one’s here to see this.

  He made it to a computer terminal and activated it.

  “As if I need to be reminded of the reason I’ve been sent to the edge of the solar system,” he mumbled. “Sent? More like exiled.”

  He read through the instructions the Company had given him concerning the terraforming plans for Pluto. The pay was outstanding, considering the distance and the perils of working on a small planet with little gravity and mostly nitrogen ice. Although deemed a dwarf planet by the scientific community in the early twenty-first century, Pluto, considered the underdog of the solar system, was adored by everyone else on Earth, who lovingly referred to it as the ninth planet.

  Why is the Company trying to make that ice ball into something other than a subject for scientific research and a jumping-off place for deep space probes? Brian believed it futile and outrageously expensive to put a permanently-manned outpost on Pluto.

  But it’s their dime, not mine.

  The planet had a lone occupant. Zack Kirkland, for the past three years. The Company sent him out here with the sole purpose of establishing a Company presence on Pluto and, in a sense, staking a claim to it, by commencing terraforming operations.

  What was it like to be alone for three years? Is he still mad at me? He knows I’m coming, so how will he react when he sees me?

  It would take years before the Company could legally own any land on Pluto, but for the time being, no one else had the money and resources to consider establishing an outpost.

  No one else is crazy enough.

  He glanced out the round window, about ten centimeters across, at his reflection, from which only his bright eyes set in his dark skin stared back. The planet loomed ahead of him. The ‘heart’, the feature discovered by the New Horizons space probe over two hundred years ago, dominated the scene.

  How far have we come in that time? How far haven’t we come? Brian wondered, his mood turning sour. Back then, they thought we would have faster-than-light speed travel by now.

  He chuckled without humor. “We still can’t go from one planet to its next-door neighbor without hibernation sleep. Where are our warp speed, hyper drives and jump gates? Where are all those alien worlds out there ready for us to exploit? We’re stuck exploiting and ruining the planets and asteroids in our own solar system.”

  Brian turned back to the computer and caught up on what had happened on Earth, the moon, Mars, Ganymede, Europa, and Titan while he’d been asleep. Astronomers had discovered signals from several known solar systems around distant stars that could indicate intelligent life.

  There certainly isn’t any in our solar system. If the aliens were smart, they’d have figured out that out long ago and stayed away.

  The systems where the signals originated were at least six light years away, but even with current technology, it would take almost twenty years to reach the nearest planet. Hibernation sleep science had not advanced far enough to keep humans in suspended animation for that long.

  Just as well. If they
’d figured it out, I probably be stuck on a ship to a place even more hellish than this. But it could be worse. I could be stuck back on Earth.

  He read through the status reports of the terraforming efforts on Pluto, and its single resident, Zack.

  “That’s got to suck,” Brian whispered. What could have he have accomplished by himself? Despite the low gravity and plethora of supplies delivered by drones almost monthly, the Company had determined that Zack had not performed to their expectations and needed assistance. An extra body, even at these wages, was a small price to pay for the potential benefits of colonizing Pluto, something no other corporation, group, country, or government had managed to achieve.

  And I’m supposed to be the one to get things back on track? Or is this my punishment?

  “In one hour, the breaking jets will fire and put the landing drone into an orbit around Pluto.” The computer brought Brian out of his thoughts.

  “Already? I thought we weren’t landing for another day and a half.”

  “Yes, Mr. Beauchamp. The jets will decrease velocity so we can achieve a low-altitude orbit. We will circle the planet until the capsule can locate the beacon on the surface and triangulate the optimal landing site. Our estimated touchdown is thirty-one hours, six minutes. I will give you a five-minute warning prior to the firing of the breaking jets to allow you ample opportunity to secure yourself in the sleep bay to avoid possible injury.”

  Fifty-five minutes later when the alert sounded, Brian grumbled as he climbed back into the pod where he’d spent the last four months. He had barely connected the straps to keep him in place when the spacecraft lurched as if it had been hit with a giant baseball bat. There was a deafening roar.

  “What the fuck was that?” Brian shouted over the cacophony.

  “The breaking jets have ignited and are slowing our forward velocity.” The noise made the computer’s voice difficult to hear.

  From his vantage point in the sleep bay, Brian could no longer see Pluto out of the window. He saw nothing but stars.

  “Have we missed the planet?” Brian’s voice rose in panic.

  “Negative, Mr. Beauchamp, we are altering our trajectory to achieve orbit.”

  “How long will the jets be firing?” Brian shouted, putting his hands over his ears.

  “Approximately twenty-one minutes, forty-eight—”

  “All right! I get it!” He clapped his hands over his ears and closed his eyes to wait it out. The shaking seemed to stop sooner than he expected. He opened his eyes and looked around.

  “That didn’t last long,” he said.

  “You have been asleep for four hours, three minutes, and twenty-two seconds.”

  “I fell asleep? How did…? No, don’t answer that.”

  * * * *

  Brian spent the next day preparing for landing, the most dangerous part of the journey.

  Except for facing Zack.

  Not a word from him in over three years. He never told me why he suddenly transferred out here. I had to learn it from somebody else.

  He reviewed the landing procedures although he could recite them by heart. The heavy payload on the ship meant touchdown would not be gentle. The planet’s low gravity allowed for heavy cargo, which the Company decided was more cost-efficient than paying for landing boosters. Large bags would inflate to soften the blow, since parachutes were useless in the almost nonexistent atmosphere. With any luck, the onboard equipment used for the journey would survive the impact and continue to be of some value.

  “Prepare for landing,” the computer said at last.

  Brian had already donned his spacesuit and strapped himself into a gap in the equipment. If the spacecraft broke apart and pressure and temperature control were lost, Brian could survive. The suit made him too large to fit into the sleep bay and even though it was probably the safest place to be in case of a crash, he wouldn’t be able to escape and would freeze to death in minutes.

  From his station, Brian could see the surface features of the planet looming closer. The thickness of the window distorted Pluto’s features and Brian had no indication of altitude or how close they were to touch down.

  “Brace for impact,” the computer said through an earpiece in his helmet.

  “That close already?”

  The spacecraft touched down without warning, and the capsule jolted so hard, Brian almost broke free of his restraints. His knees buckled with the sudden stop, but he managed to stay on his feet. The power flickered out, leaving Brian in total darkness. The lights came back on and the crashing stopped. His stomach rose into his throat.

  We’re airborne again, he realized and braced for another impact. When it happened, the crash was not as violent as the first. The craft bounced twice more before coming to rest. Brian waited until he was certain they had stopped and the airbags deflated before removing his restraints.

  “Mr. Beauchamp, the spacecraft is ready for depressurization. You may push the red button to the right of the hatch door when you are prepared to exit. Please be reminded that once the door has been opened, the spacecraft cannot be re-pressurized.”

  “I knew this was a one-way trip,” Brian muttered. He sucked in a deep breath and punched the button.

  A loud hissing noise filled the small area as the pressure released and the atmosphere raced out. The space suit stiffened around Brian. He discovered he’d been holding his breath and let it out.

  Brian peered out at the vast wasteland beyond the threshold.

  “What time is it here?”

  “There has not been a measure of time on Pluto, but the planet takes six hundred and thirty-nine Earth days to complete one rotation.”

  “It’s brighter than I expected, being several billion miles from the sun.”

  “This section of the planet remains in constant light due to the angle of its axis.”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah. And there is another section that is always dark,” Brian said. “I do remember some of my training.” He stepped out of the capsule and tested the surface before putting his full weight on his feet. Although the ground was nitrogen ice, it supported him as if it was granite.

  Emerging from the spacecraft, he stood and scanned the area which spread out featureless for miles in every direction, like rolling sand dunes carved from stone. A thin blue line of sky hugged the horizon and then darkened to navy even with the sun almost directly overhead. A range of low mountains rose in the distance.

  Welcome to Hell frozen over.

  Brian walked around the spacecraft, keeping a hand on it as if he would float away if he let go. If the triangulation was correct, even with the bouncing, the outpost should be close by. Certainly nothing on the landscape was large enough to hide it.

  He spotted the structure in the distance, but was it a quarter mile away or four miles? The featureless plain made it difficult to determine. He needed to get there without any delay to conserve his oxygen reserves. He gave the spaceship one last pat and headed toward the building.

  Pluto’s low gravity, even less than Earth’s moon, made traversing the distance easier than he expected. He had lived on the moon and on Titan for several years while training and working for the Company, so he had become used to almost-weightless situations.

  But here it’s a cinch! He laughed as his strides were longer than he had ever made.

  It took almost fifteen minutes to reach the building, but Brian wasn’t fatigued or out of breath. The structure was a featureless square building with no windows or any other aspect that would identify it as a dwelling.

  The remnants of delivery drones lay scattered around the area. A huge array of satellite dishes, pointed in different directions for transmitting and receiving signals, covered the roof. Just beyond the building, solar panels aimed at the sun occupied an area the size of a football field.

  How much energy does Zack need? Probably has to run his blow dryer, power his coffee maker, and keep the Zinfandel cool.

  Brian circled the building until he locate
d the airlock that would allow him entry. He pressed the button next to the portal and the door slid out of sight into the wall, revealing a one square meter chamber with another door opposite.

  Good thing the Company doesn’t change the set up on any of the buildings. He stepped inside. It’s almost like coming home.

  He froze as a thought hit him. Home.

  Where the hell is that anymore? I’ve been from one side of this fucking solar system to the other and I have no idea where the fuck I belong.

  Brian brought himself up straight.

  No. Stop. I won’t go there.

  He punched the button on the wall next to the inner door and the outer one closed behind him. A dim light came on and, with the loud hissing noise, air pressurized the small space.

  “Please do not remove your helmet or space suit,” a disembodied voice said from somewhere inside. “Pressure and temperature are not yet at standard levels.” The door in front of him slid back, like the outside panel, revealing a second, similar chamber. Brian stepped forward and the process repeated. A third portal opened.

  “Atmospheric pressure and standard temperature have been established,” the computer said. “You may now safely remove your helmet and space suit.”

  “Finally,” he muttered. It took him almost five minutes to remove his suit down to the nylon overalls he wore underneath. He scanned the interior of the building. It appeared to be more machine shop than scientific outpost. Almost every square meter of the space was occupied with machinery and scientific equipment. A narrow path wound between the mountains of apparatus, just wide enough for him to pass through. Brian took a tentative step forward and his foot falls seemed to echo.

  A noise from somewhere inside grabbed his attention and he made his way toward the sound. An opening appeared before him as he stepped around a stack of containers. A small living space, about three meters by four meters, sat among the piles. It had a low bed, an exercise station, and a kitchenette. A chamber jutted out from the wall into the room and Brian could see a toilet and shower inside.

  A lone figure sat at a table, his back to Brian, hunched over a piece of scientific equipment.

 
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