The surface of Pluto is covered in ices. Methane ices, nitrogen ices, and carbon dioxide ices mostly, but also a scattering of exotics like oxygen that, warmed only a few degrees Kelvin, sublime into gases. The waste heat of our vacuum suits was enough to do the trick. With every step the ground exploded underfoot and billowed up overhead. Ken and I had to keep moving if we wanted to see at all.
Behind us, like Sodom burning, was the giant updraft caused by the Bonestell melting a crater into the ice. I didn't look back—it would have turned my heart to stone. "What now?" I said tonelessly.
"Keep walking," Ken said.
"Is there a point to this?" I asked after a while.
"Yes. It's called basic research."
"You got something better to do?"
"Other than dying?" I laughed, maybe a little shrilly. "No, nothing at all."
We loped along, scanning the land before us. Pluto was surprisingly hilly for such a tiny planet—almost as small as its partner-moon Charon, and by some definitions a planetesimal rather than a full world. It was, I supposed, basely possible we'd chance upon something worth finding before our oxygen ran out. Though I couldn't imagine what.
"Check it out." Ken gestured at a discolored streak that moved with imperfect straightness toward the horizon. "Melted." And then, "Let's follow it."
We did, in long, low bounds. "Think they'll ever find us?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah, start at the crater, follow our trail. Even if they mothball NASA like that idiot in Washington wants, somebody a hundred or even a thousand years from now won't have any trouble …"
We topped a ridge and stopped to take in the view.
Far below us, at the end of the melted trace, was a wheeled tangle of machinery. It took a moment to realize that parts of it were actually vacuum suits, and then a few seconds more to count the limbs. Six each.
"Looks like we weren't the first after all," Ken said. "Not the first to land, and not even the first marooned here."
"Not by a long shot," I said. This close to absolute zero, it takes forever for things to disintegrate. The alien machinery was in rough shape. The universe was a younger place when it arrived. I checked my air. "We've still got ten minutes. Just barely time enough."
"To get down there." I started downslope. My heart was singing. Against all odds, we'd stumbled into something worth finding. "I don't know about you, but I want to die with my brothers."
© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.