The Plutonian Conundrum

“It is with great sadness that we have to inform you that the relief team that was supposed to take your place on Pluto has been crashed into by an asteroid. They had almost navigated through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter successfully when the accident happened. No survivors remain. I repeat. No survivors remain. We have been working very hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong, but as of yet we have not been able to come up with any answers. Those were brave men and women, and they shall be forever remembered.

It took us 3 years to plan that mission and any subsequent team will require a further 3 years to reach Pluto. And after the failure of this mission, it will take us some time to diagnose what went wrong and correct our mistakes. Thus in the foreseeable future, no relief team will be sent to Pluto. This has been a very unfortunate turn of events but no one could have foreseen this. We will be here to guide you through the rest of your stay and in the meantime working overtime to come up with a solution.

May the Lord give us strength to soldier through the bad times.”

The transmission ended with a click. They sat there, dumbfounded. They had just been sentenced to die 4.28 to 7.5 billion miles (depending on where Earth and Pluto were in their orbits) from home.

 

Michael McCormick was born to Irish American parents on 30th November 2014 in Wichita, Kansas; also known as “The Air Capital of the World.” He had a fairly uninteresting childhood till the age of 11. On 12th December 2025, his life changed as he saw the Mars One spacecraft carrying Todd Duffee and Chaitanya Shankar explode and go up in flames 3 minutes after lift off.  He was instantly fascinated. Not by the death and carnage. What caught his imagination was why anybody would want to undertake such a mission. He didn’t know them personally, but Todd Duffee and Chaitanya Shankar had always come across as intelligent, perceptive men in interviews. Then why had they just agreed to go on a one way mission to their death in Mars? The mission had been so poorly planned that it could have failed at any stage after lift off.

The idea fascinated him. He started gathering as much information as he could. He tried to ask his parents, neighbours, teachers, classmates, relatives. Nobody seemed to know the answer. He decided the only way he could find an answer was by becoming an astronaut himself. One thing led to another and here he was, 23 years later, waiting to die a long and painful death with Isabelle Clough.

 

Despite her quirky name, Isabelle Esperanza was born Isabelle Clough on 4 December 2014 to white, middle class parents with no Spanish or Latin blood in them. They had decided to spice up their life by naming their only daughter something exotic. From a young age, she had shown herself to be exceptionally bright. This was surprising since both her parents were extraordinarily average. Nobody in their family had ever shown a hint of above average intelligence. This made Isabelle’s IQ of 178 all the more surprising. By the time she turned 9, they realised that it was prudent to feign ignorance rather than to make a pretence of knowledge in front of her.

As she grew older, Isabelle kept challenging herself. Physical fitness was important to her true. She believed that the mind and body both should be in balance. She became a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It was in college that she realised that the only way she could continuously challenge herself was by becoming an astronaut. The idea thrilled her and gave her ambling life a purpose. One thing led to another and here she was, 15 years later, waiting to die a long and painful death with Michael McCormick.

 

They had both been selected to make up the team that would attempt to land on Pluto. It would be the first attempt of such kind. The main stumbling block in every previous planned mission to Pluto had been that it took one 11-12 years to reach Pluto. Even a year of stay along with travel time meant that the mission duration would be between 23-25 years. This was fine for unmanned missions. But if you wanted to send people on a 25 year return trip from Earth to Pluto, you would have to pack 25 years’ worth of supplies. Enough food to last 25 years. If you could somehow stuff 25 years’ worth of food into a spaceship, you had to make sure it didn’t go stale after 24 years. Spacesuits that would work for 25 years. Repair kit to repair a multitude of things because nothing lasts for 25 years. A waste disposal system that would work for 25 years. Everything had to be accommodated, without exceeding the payload limit.

However, recent advances in technology had made it possible for travel time to be cut to 3 years. Food technology had also progressed to such an extent that it would be possible to store food for up to 10 years if required, in a hypo-hydrated form. The idea of a manned mission to Pluto had first been broached in the IAS (International Agency of matters pertaining to Space, the body which had replaced the various national space agencies like NASA, ISRO etc) in 2033. After 5 year of feasibility studies, the project was green lit. It took the IAS another 5 years to build the spacecraft and plan the mission. All the astronauts had been chosen after a rigorous selection process. The first team consisting of Michael and Isabelle would be departing Earth in 2043 and were scheduled to reach Pluto in 2046. Once they reached there, they would setup an outpost and conduct studies for 2 years. A relief team would arrive in 2048 to take up their place and Michael and Isabelle would begin their long journey home. They would be required to refuel from the relief team’s spaceship. This was decided after the team planning the mission realized that the first team would be carrying a lot of extra payload that consisted of supplies required to set up an outpost. Thus they could only carry a limited amount of fuel. The second team, free from such constraints, would carry the extra fuel for them. Only, Michael and Isabelle had just been told that the relief team had crashed. Nobody would be arriving at Pluto anytime soon. More importantly, nobody would be leaving Pluto any time soon.

 

They just sat there. Over the course of about a year, they would slowly die. They would die on a lonely frozen planet billions of miles away from their home. They were so stunned by the reality of their impending death that they had barely given a thought to the deaths of Eden and Mikaela, who had made up the relief team. Sympathy could wait. Self-empathy couldn’t. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other since the message had stopped playing. Due to the distance of Pluto from Earth, it took even radio communications 3 to 4 hours to reach. The relief team had been just 4 months away from Pluto when a micrometeoroid had damaged their spaceship. In 4 months they would have begun the journey home.

They had gone over the question multiple times- what would be the first thing they did after going back? Michael had been clear from the very beginning that he would be going to Big Joe’s, a burger joint in his hometown, and eat at least 7 of their Big Stomper burgers. Isabelle had kept on dallying before finally deciding that she would go to a spa. Michael had scoffed at her choice but grudgingly accepted that a spa wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. They had spent hours and days describing to each other all the things they were going to do when they got back home- the places they would visit, the people they would meet etc. When two people are locked together in a confined space for 5 years, all pretence is stripped away. Isabelle had grown to realize that Michael was in essence a space cowboy- gallant, cocky, affable but compassionate. Michael had realized that Isabelle was like an Olympian- constantly pushing herself to be the best, only when the goal is achieved, a period of hollow soul searching follows. They had grown to accept in each other. They didn’t like or dislike each other. They had grown to know each other far too much for that. They accepted each other at face value.

 

They both got up early next day, unable to sleep at night. The topic of their impending death was not discussed. Both of them acted like everything was fine as they went about their daily tasks. Michael would take a Franticmeter outside their spaceship to take daily samples of the atmosphere. The recently created device derived its name from the frantic tic-tic-tic-tic sound it made. Isabelle’s task was to study the samples she got and send the preliminary results on a daily basis back to the Command Centre at Earth. They had a hurried lunch together where they managed to avoid talking to each other. They hadn’t talked to each other since listening to the radio message. Michael was the first to break.

Over dinner later at night, he finally asked Isabelle “So what do we do now?”

“I have no idea” she replied.

“There is something they could do. They could send an unmanned probe carrying enough fuel or. . .”

“It will take any spaceship, whether manned or unmanned, at least 2 years to reach us. If there was any way the IAS could help us, they would. By my estimates, the relief team died over a week ago based on their flight path. The IAS have had over a week to find out a solution but have not been able to come up with anything. The sooner we accept the fact that nobody is coming to help us, the better it is.”

She knew she had been unnecessarily brusque but it was required. She had to be realistic and go ahead with the fairly logical assumption that they were not going to be saved by anybody. It was necessary for their survival that she kill all his hope.

“Thank you” Michael said softly to Isabelle. He had known the truth deep down but had refused to confront it. “So where do we go now?”

 

To maximize their chances of survival, two things needed to be done- they had to stay alive for as long as possible and they had to start thinking of ways to get back home on their own. They decided to start rationing all their supplies. They had enough food for exactly 4 months. The payload had been kept to a minimum on their journey and the relief team would have bought the supplies needed for the return journey. The food could last a year if they cut down from 3 meals a day to 1 each. They had realized early on that eating food was meant to be treated as a chore. Close to 5 years of eating packed reheated sterile food had robbed their taste buds of their senses.

They had decreased the oxygen level in their spaceship to 98% of its normal value. They would be decreasing it by 2% everyday till they reached 50%. They hoped their body would be able to adjust to it. The RTG (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) responsible had a half-life of around 88 years, so at least they wouldn’t die of a shortage of power. There was still a risk that once the cabin pressure started decreasing as they kept reducing the oxygen level, the RTG could start malfunctioning, although they believed the cask would still prevent any radioactive material from leaking. So that was one more thing they wouldn’t die of- exposure to radioactivity.

As they would be eating less food, they would have to cut down on the energy they would be using. Michael’s daily trips to the outside had been limited to 2 a week. Science could wait. They were not on the hunt for extra-terrestrial life. The primary mission had been to confirm the Pluto’s age and to gather data about objects further in the Kuiper Belt and the scattered disc. At over 45 astronomical units away from earth, space did not seem that interesting anymore.

 

Almost immediately after Neptune had been discovered in 1846 by Urbain Le Verrie and John Couch Adams independently, the hunt for the 9th planet in our solar system started. The existence of such a planet seemed likely because it would be able to explain the variations and discrepancies in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus. The concept of Planet X had been used to explain each and every anomaly beyond Neptune. As time passed by, the expectations increased day by day. It was presumed that the planet would be of an enormous size, because of its supposed ability to affect the orbits of two planets like Neptune and Uranus. This mysterious Planet X, a term coined by Percival Lowell, was finally discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and named Pluto, in keeping with the nomenclature of the other planets, all of which had been named after Greek and Roman deities. However, Pluto failed to live up to its titanic name. Its initial mass, based on a combination of observations and guesswork, was estimated to be roughly equal to Earth’s. As the years passed, its mass was constantly revised downward, with the present accepted value being that it is about 1/500th of that of Earth. It was obvious soon after its discovery that Pluto was not the famed Planet X. In 1990s, it was finally discovered during a fly-by mission by Voyager 2 that a slight miscalculation in Neptune’s orbit had led to the supposed irregularities in Uranus’ orbit.

Pluto had been unable to explain anything. It had just led to more questions and doubts. Its low mass, highly elliptical orbit and distance from the Sun meant that it should not be able to exist, at least not as a planet. The discovery of other KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects) had led to renewed protests against Pluto’s status as a planet. It had failed to serve its purpose. Eris, another KBO, was estimated to be slightly bigger than Pluto with a more circular orbit. Why did Pluto deserve to be a planet and Eris did not? Pluto’s reign as a planet was near its end and finally in 2006, it was stripped of its planetary status. A 76 year life as a planet had been turbulent from the beginning and ended as it had begun, mired in controversy.

 

The IAS arranged for both their families to be transported to their base in Hawaii so that Michael and Isabelle could talk to their families on a daily basis. As it took radio communications 3-4 hours to reach from Pluto to Earth and vice versa, live communication was not possible. They had to send their recordings and wait for 7-8 hours for a response.

The first recording that Michael sent home was an 18 minute audio clip of him crying. Try as he would, he just could not summon up the words to express himself. He would never be seeing his family again. He would never be seeing his beautiful wife again. He would never be seeing his beautiful children again. He could not handle the reality and would gently weep every time he heard his children’s voice. It took him 2 weeks to record a coherent response for his family- “I miss you.” Earlier when his family would take their monthly trip to Hawaii to communicate with him, he would keep their messages for a few days and then delete them. Now he kept every single message as a cherished and prized possession. His family started carrying around video cameras with them all the time. They would capture their daily lives on the cameras, making as many video and audio recordings as possible. They would then upload them daily. He constantly wanted to know what they were doing and asked questions about their lives. The first 2 months, Michael lived and breathed for this communication. Every “Good night Daddy” would help him forget his predicament and brighten his mood. Then the crushing despair would follow, when he would remember that he would never be seeing their faces again.

Isabelle had seen Michael slowly lose his grip on reality as his communications with his family had increased. The more he talked to them, the more he wanted to talk to them. He forgot all else and would listen to those recordings on loop, hours on end, sometimes not eating for days. She decided the best way to prevent this happening to her was to limit communications with her husband to once a day. He would send her 15 minute audio clips daily and a 30 minute AV clip every week. They had never thought of having kids and Isabelle was glad of her decision. She would have never been able to survive knowing that she would never see her child again. Her husband Daniel would try to take her mind off her troubles and make her laugh. He had bought a “1001 Yo Mama Jokes” book and would tell her 2 every day. However lame the jokes would be, Isabelle would laugh till she cried at each one of them. She preferred to just listen to her husband’s recordings rather than send her own. She had nothing to convey except gloom and melancholy. Her husband understood her and didn’t push her. She was grateful for it. Try as she might, she would still succumb to the overwhelming sadness sometimes and cry.

Sometimes they would talk to each other’s families. Michael realized that both he and Daniel were ardent Boxing fans. Sometimes he would spend hours trying to explain why he thought Manny Pacquaio had been a better boxer than Floyd Mayweather Jr. Daniel was very patient with him and enjoyed these conversations. Isabelle had told him how hard Michael was finding it to cope with everything. Likewise, Isabelle loved interacting with Michael’s children. The middle one, a girl of 8 named Laura, was very bright and a joy to talk to. Their families became their support systems for the first few months, when coping with the grief was more important than planning for their impending death.

 

2 months passed before they could think about trying to escape rather than survival.

They had to do something. The initial part of their plan was to get adjusted to the fact that they were alone and would be so for a long, long time. Now they had to start thinking about escaping rather than just surviving.  Michael was the first to come up with a possible solution.

“The Voyager 4” he blurted out at dinner one night.

“What about . . .” Isabelle stopped speaking as she realized what he was saying.

The Voyager 4 was an interstellar probe designed to study objects in the Scattered Disc, also known as Scattered Disc Objects (SDOs). It had been launched 2 months after they had reached Pluto. Because of its greater velocity and their nearly 2 year long stay, the probe was probably near Pluto. Since it was an unmanned probe, its trajectory could possibly be altered. And since it was supposed to be travelling at least 75 AUs, it should be holding enough fuel to fulfil their needs.

As soon as they proposed the idea to the IAS, it was shot down. They were informed that Voyager 4 had already passed them 3 months ago and since then it had already become harder to maintain contact with Voyager 4 because of its distance from Earth. Even the updated Deep Space Network, used to support spacecraft missions, would not allow for a connection long or strong enough to recalibrate the probe.

Dejected, Michael asked central command “Is there was any other way to get fuel from Voyager 4, without having to change its trajectory?”

“Michael if there was a way to do it, we would do it. Contact with the probe has become increasingly harder due to the distance. The maximum clean recordings we can get our 45 minutes long, and the probe has not even covered 50 AUs. The inner limit of the Scattered Disc is over 100 AUs. We just do not have the technology right now to be able to help you. I’m sorry Michael, but we have considered all the possibilities and right now, there is nothing we can do to help you”

 

This time Michael had been ready for the bad news. He had planned everything with the worst case scenario in his mind. Dejection cannot hurt you when all hope is dead. He had come to accept the fact that within the next 10-12 months, he was going to die soon.

One day Isabelle found him sitting in front of the centre console, just looking out from the glass. Pluto’s moon Charon and the Sun could both be seen. The sun looked very small from Pluto, barely bigger than a star. As she tried to quietly slip out, Michael spoke without turning to look at her “Isn’t it so easy to forget that our Sun is just a star, and not a particularly impressive one at that?”

This was the first time he had said anything meta-physical to her. She realized that he was wondering aloud rather than actually asking the question.

She went and sat down next to him. He kept staring out of the window. She felt like he wanted to rant and get something out of his system. She allowed him to continue.

He had started thinking more and more about these things. There is nothing like the fear of death to make you think about life.

“We are so small, so arbitrary, so pointless, so conceited. First we were stupid enough to ridicule the fact that Earth could be round. Then we were conceited enough to believe that the Earth could be the centre of the Universe. What do we know? We know nothing. There’s Earth. And as you go away from Earth, you come across Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. What do we know about these planets except their chemical compositions? That Jupiter has a big red spot? Then you go further away from the Earth and you see Pluto, the disgraced former planet that we are stuck on. You keep going further and you are in the Kuiper Belt, a collection of bodies that are locked in resonance with Neptune’s orbit. We wanted water and we found lots of it here. Most of the KBOs are composed of ice- a mixture of hydrocarbons, ammonia and water. But it’s of no use to us. The temperature is too low to sustain life. Life as we know cannot survive at -200 degrees Celsius. Then we keep going further away and we enter the Scattered Disc, the belt where most periodic comets originate. Why? We don’t know. So many things we don’t know, and we have just covered about 100 AU. To put that into perspective, the distance between the Earth and the Sun is 1 AU. We have covered 100 times the distance, and we still haven’t covered 1% of the Solar system. We barely even know anything about the Oort Cloud, which extends from 2000 to 50,000 AU.

And this is only taking into account the knowledge we have about the Solar System, our ‘home’. We are located in the Orion-Cygnus arm of the Milky way. What does that mean? We decided to name everything we see, so that it feels familiar to us. There are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way. They say our position in the galaxy is an important factor in the evolution of life. It has provided Earth long periods of stability so that we could evolve. The Milky way is part of a local Galactic group, which is part of the Virgo Supercluster which is part of the Observable Universe. Why is it called the Observable Universe? Because since our Universe was created 13.8 billion years ago, we can only see those objects and areas from which light and other radiations have had time to reach us. Just imagine the magnitude of that sentence. Light and other radiations have had 13.8 billion to travel and we can still see only a small part of the Universe! What is one more day waiting for our end, compared to 13.8 billion years? The more time passes, the more of the Universe we will be able to observe. The radius of our Observable Universe is 46 billion light years. What is the significance of 2 people on one dwarf planet revolving around one star among 200 billion?”

 

4 months after the relief teams had crashed, and around the time they would have landed on Pluto, both of them had settled into a routine. Their bodies had initially adjusted to the decrease in the level of oxygen, but of late, they had started feeling its effects. A trip to the upper deck where all the supplies were held would leave them feeling tired and out of breath.

The IAS had supplied them with cards and a few board games to keep their mind active during the journey from Earth to Pluto. They had completely forgotten about them since reaching Pluto. Isabelle inadvertently found them while looking for some supplies. She had taken the board games to Michael, whose face had lit up on seeing them.

They would play 2 games of Uno and a 30 minute game of Monopoly daily. Scrabble proved to be too controversial when Isabelle insisted that XW was a word but couldn’t prove it. They decided to avoid playing that. The childish games went a long way towards helping them release some tension and distracting their minds. Both Michael and Isabelle were proud people who hated losing. Both would do everything to win, and sometimes would even resort to cheating. For about 45 minutes every day, they would forget everything else and concentrate solely on winning these games.

As the days passed by, they grew more and more accepting of the fact that they would die within the next 6-8 months. The food left was barely enough to last them 6 months, and they had already restricted themselves to one meal a day. The lack of Oxygen had started proving more troublesome as they would feel lethargic every day. Instead of going to the surface 2 times a week to collect data, Michael had cut his trips down to once a week and then once in 2 weeks.

 

Every spaceship is provided with a Golden Record, which contains information about Earth in case it is ever found by other intelligent life forms. It contains greetings in over a 100 languages, a welcome message from important people like the Secretary General of the UN, President of the United States, Bono of U2 etc. It also contains AV clips of various countries and their customs and an audio clip titled ‘Sounds of Earth’ which contains sounds of animals, people, nature etc.

6 months after the relief team had crashed Isabelle and Michael asked the IAS if they could overwrite the Golden Record and upload clips of their own. Initially the IAS declined them permission but once Michael’s wife Rosetta threatened them with a lawsuit, they relented.

Michael started making videos of himself. He would make one every day, trying to perfect it. He would go back and forth constantly over the wordings of his greetings. He had requested the famous musician Steven Wilson, now 80, to record a message and send it to him. His wife had personally gone to Steven Wilson’s home in England. He had graciously accepted their request and even added an impromptu recording of one of his songs, “Arriving somewhere but not here.”

He also added clips of his family- his daughters Laura and Ariella playing together, his son Saul playing his first little league game, a clip from their wedding tape. He had also put in some music that he liked by Pink Floyd, Eagles, ZZ Top, Buddy Miller, Porcupine Tree, Metallica and Megadeth. The aliens needed to hear the solo in “Tornado of Souls.”

Isabelle had gone in a different direction. She had asked Daniel to send them all their videos. She had sifted through over 35 hours of video recordings and finally managed to edit it into a story around 78 minutes long. It had all their best memories, from their marriage, to their vacation in Italy to the Incan statues in Peru. She had added videos of Daniel trying to break dance and Michael trying to do his best Matthew McConaughey impression.

She had also dedicated some of her recordings to speaking about Earth’s history. She had wanted to do a better job than the IAS who had taken a US-centric approach while making their video. She had gone in details about the great wars, religion, art, music, civilizations. She had included only one song in her section- Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap.

It took them close to 4 months to finish their project. By the end of it, they were completely drained, both physically and emotionally. Every walk was starting to take a lot of effort. They knew the end was near.

 

On 22nd November 2048, Isabelle Esperanza died.

She had suggested a plan to Michael. The propulsion system in their spaceship had liquid oxygen which was used as an oxidizer for liquid Hydrogen, the main fuel. They would have to go outside the spaceship, detach the Oxygen cylinder and carry it to the spaceship. They would worry about how to get it into the main system later.

They had played a game of Blackjack to decide who would go outside. Isabelle had lost. She suited up in her spacesuit and got ready to go out. The main complication was going to be detaching the cylinder from the rest of the propulsion system. Even if a single drop of it fell on her spacesuit, it would get contaminated and she would not be able to come back inside.

She set out resolutely, taking deep breaths to prepare for her arduous trek. She reached the back of the shuttle in 17 minutes. She rested for some time to allow her body to recover. Then she set about trying to detach the cylinder. After a long time and a close shave, she managed to detach the cylinder cleanly. She would have to hurry up as she did not have much oxygen left. She started the walk back to the front gate.

She could feel her energy slowly receding. Eventually, she found her way back to the entrance. She kept the oxygen cylinder in the bay.

Then she went out again as the bay closed behind her.

Michael started shouting at her frantically through the radio communication “What the hell are you doing Izzie you’ll die out there!”

She calmly walked for about 50 metres and then turned towards the spaceship and sat down. Michael was still shouting at her incoherently.

“Listen Michael, I have thought about this long and hard. We do not have enough oxygen to survive longer. If only one of us were to live in the space shuttle, the residual oxygen along with that from the propulsion system would allow that person to live for close to 2 years. The longer we are able to live, the better chance we have of surviving. I couldn’t ask you to do this for me, it would have been unfair. Live long and prosper!”

With those final words, she took off her helmet.

Michael watched dumbstruck as her body struggled for oxygen. He saw her seizing as the nitrogen and methane poisoned her system. He saw her keel over and then she stopped seizing.

On 22nd November 2048, Isabelle Esperanza died.

Her sacrifice had been in vain. Their spaceship used hydrogen peroxide as an oxidizer instead of Oxygen.

 

The days after Isabelle’s death had been hazy for Michael. He gave up all hope and started playing their Golden Record all the time. He stopped taking readings. He hadn’t even been able to muster up enough courage to go out and retrieve her body. He had decreased his communications with his family and gone inside a shell. He had been having suicidal thoughts lately.

Death would be welcome now.

 

5 weeks after her death, on 30th December 2048, Michael received a distress call. The call was from the Pioneer 18.

Michael knew his days were numbered. The oxygen levels had dropped dangerously low- they were only 25% of their original level. Every breath was painful. A simple task like going to the command centre had become a struggle for him. He decided to shift permanently to the command centre. With a lot of effort, he dragged the mattress from his bed to the command centre. He could not make more than one trip daily. And then on 30th December 2048 he received a distress call from the Pioneer 18.

Pioneer 18 was the spaceship carrying the relief team.

“Mayday! *static* mayday! This is a distress signal from the Pioneer 18. We have been struck by a micrometeoroid. We are losing cabin pressure quickly. We are preparing to evacuate in our pods but will lose all connectivity when we do that. Our co-ordinates are Apehlion 82 Perihelion 43.8767. I repeat. Our co-ordinates are Apehlion 82 Perihelion 43.8767. If there are any spaceships nearby, please respond!”

This was then followed by intermittent static mixed with words which couldn’t be heard. This went on for nearly 18 seconds after which the message again burst back to life, this time in a woman’s voice.

“At a distance ahead of Neptune, there comes a point where the orbits of Neptune, Pluto and Eris overlap. At this point, there is so much orbital resonance that the radiographic waves break the continuum, allowing for faster than speed of light escape velocities for *static* beyond.”

Michael was stunned and his mind was overflowing with questions. How had he received a message from Voyager 18 eleven months after its explosion? Who was the woman who spoke at the end when Voyager 18 only had 2 men? And was she seriously trying to imply what he thought she was?

The mental effort had drained him. He needed to forward the message to the central command on Earth. They would know what it meant.

In the final few moments of his life, the message had given his life some purpose. For the first time in months he had been consumed by the thought of something other than death. He needed to know the answer before he died.

But he could feel himself slipping slowly. Each breath made him wheeze considerably and he had started spitting out blood. He needed to conserve his strength.

He decided to play the Golden Record one last time to help him. He decided to play Buddy Miller.

When I gave you my heart, it was not what you wanted.

Now they all say your name, and the pictures are haunted.

Does my love burn your finger, did my love way you down?

Was a promise too much to keep around?”

He had started listening to the song in college, when a particularly nasty ex had broken up with him. He had found the perfect blend of sarcasm and venom instantly appealing. He had never liked Americana Country but Buddy Miller had a soul about him that made even the simplest of songs special and likable.

And then he looked out of the window, for the last time.

Isabelle’s body had vanished.

It hit him like a sledgehammer. His mind could not believe what it was seeing. Here on a lonely planet, Five billion miles from any other human, Isabelle’s body had just disappeared.

He was coughing up too much blood. He had to send a message quickly to Earth. They should know what had happened. He tried to compose a message as quickly and as cleanly he could, without coughing too much. He played back the message to check if it was intelligible and then sent it the Central Command.

He had to stay alive, he had to hear the answer. He was coughing a lot of blood with every breath. He needed to be alive for just 7 hours till he got the response. He couldn’t die without knowing what had happened.

He needed to think. Thinking would keep his mind off the crushing pain. Where could she have gone? There were only too possibilities- she had either walked away herself or been taken away by somebody else. Given that she had died over 5 weeks ago and not moved since, the first possibility could be ruled out. But the other possibility was even harder to comprehend. It meant that somebody had come and taken her dead body away.

What if his mind was playing tricks on him? Oxygen deprivation could lead to hallucinations. But this didn’t feel like a hallucination. He could think and see and observe reasonably well and had had no indications before this to doubt his senses. The self-doubt of the previous few months needed to be dispelled. He had to trust himself.

The pain wouldn’t allow him to think. He had to stay alive. In the final few moments of his life, something meaningful had happened to make all this pain worth it. He had to shut out the pain.

He could feel the world slowly going dark. Buddy Miller’s voice was coming from farther and farther away. His thoughts were too incoherent and organizing them would take too much effort. He decided to sing the chorus with Buddy to keep himself awake.

Its just me in the night and I’m so broken hearted.

I just wait in the darkness my dearly departed.

Does my love burn your finger, did my love way you down?

Was a promise too much to keep around?”

Michael McCormick died on 30th December 2048, 6 hours 53 minutes after sending the message. He never got back a response from the Central Command on Earth because they never received his message. 24 years later when the next manned mission landed on Pluto, they never found the Golden Record or Isabelle Esperanza’s body.

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3 thoughts on “The Plutonian Conundrum

    1. Thank you for the appreciation 🙂 one reason was that I did not (and still do not) understand much about serialization of a story. And I personally prefer reading a continuous post rather than jumping from one to another. However, I have gotten a lot of feedback saying that maybe i should have broken this down in multiple posts. Food for thought for future long stories 🙂

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