a Science Fiction Novelette-in-Verse by Mary Alexandra Agner

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

cover image by Denis Moskowitz O Susannah
the sun so hot I froze to death

The impact of one single drop of water
depressing down the surface of the lake
of hydrogen and harder metals (now
condensed into the Solar System) starts
to spread out waves of life, their frequency
a constant push with changing amplitude:
the ripples bifurcate and recombine
at Luna, Mars, the Galilean moons,
the ever-outward eyes undaunted by
the size and scale and scope. Life finds a way.

One traveling crest now passes through the thin
imaginary line called Neptune's orbit—
demesne and seat of methane weather fame
which caused creation of a word to tame
it ("green" or "blue" too small a spectrum range)—
although the planet's mass and giant sweep
were millions of kilometers away
to starboard (or to port, depending on
the system of coordinates you choose).
So, too, it had passed the rings of Uranus,

chaotic limbs built from collected stone
that overturned to snub the Sun when slapped
while in the process of formation, far
removed, without a single view of green
pearlescent storms that deepen into emerald,
without the fine wash through magnetic fields,
the sprouts of roots tucked deep inside the cores
of gaseous giants, localized inside
their spinning bodies. Nearest to the crest:
the velvet interplay of star and dust.

The crest, at thirty AU from the star
that holds the Earth (an ordinary shade
of blue), resolves into a ship that's crewed
by three to build a base on Pluto, mine
the Kuiper Belt: a far-flung field of rocky
sheep, rich with organic compound fleece,
fenced in by Pluto's gravity, the beck
and call of Neptune's resonance—now ripe
for prospectors to mine and melt the ice
and haul the nitrogen, the element

constituents of molecules, to Earth,
or Neptune, nearer, traded for their use
as fuel to move between the satellites
or raw ingredients for building up
an atmosphere to heat an empty moon
and add the pressure needed by the small
lifeforms that thrive within extremes to green
the rock from emptiness to garden, house
humanity, as pulse by pulse and crest
by crest they meet the solar domain's edge.

Inside the ship, more traveling waves converge:
Edy Sanchez, the judge who tracks the claims
of prospectors to mine within the Belt,
a jury for disputes—no sheriff though;
an engineer to transform ship to station
and keep their systems fit, who tinkers day
and night with code and robots: Helena Hughes;
one scientist for Pluto's quirks, Charlotte
Ankti, to catch Kuiper ecology
in models, before humanity sets in.

Five weeks they wander through the common rooms
(the other rooms, deflated tents, are stowed),
the ship's small heart, and keep their workrooms closed.
Then, doors half-closed, ajar, they start to chat,
Charlotte more quiet than the other two
who talk up storms that batter through her silence.
They're curious about each other's pasts,
for details on just how their "world" is run
(although their training covered that), worried
about landing, the ship-to-station change.

(Helena) Once you've decided which body is best,
Charlotte, we'll lower the ship from its orbit,
losing momentum to match its rotation:
the crampons will come from the ship's underside,
first striking the ice to cut our momentum,
and leaving long grooves as we spiral around it,
then burrowing down to form our foundation.
Charon or Pluto? Which have you chosen?

(Charlotte) Charon's water makes it likely.
Latest spectrographic readings:
ice from pole to pole, but water
unpolluted, just needs melting.
Pluto has alluring weather
and mystique: the dead and dying
claim it in mythology.
More exciting, less survival.
Extra readings would be better.

(Helena) But shouldn't we choose the more favorable place?
Where conditions are best for our life and survival?
Your method's a mess, not at all scientific
if your logic will let you choose Pluto instead.
Who cares about ghosts while we're still in the flesh?
Could you make a hypothesis, test it with data,
if the data came crawling and bit your left foot?

(Edy) I'm sure that's not how Charlotte meant it.
I doubt she'd omit
one step from the scientific method.
Give her a chance. Heaven forbid
we treat each other, and ourselves,
fairly, equally, impartially. Myself,
I'd prefer to set down on Charon.
Pluto's too gloomy, barren
in mythology, overtones of failure, and well,
death. Charlotte, what do you see in that hell?

(Charlotte) Rock and ice reacting with each
other, moving in a cycle
still unknown by humans, twitching
in response to light and distance.
Afternoon on Earth is hottest
after noon is past, the sunlight
warms the atmosphere, but heating
up takes time. So heating Pluto
to its hottest happens after
perihelion (when the body
comes the closest to the sun):
geysers, fireworks of methane
ice and nitrogen releasing
into atmosphere, escaping.
Now. The reason we're researching:
watch the dead return to life.

(Helena) Obsessed are you now? With ghosts and the dead?
I'll bet you can quote me the constant for thermal
expansion of vampires too. How useless.

Charlotte sucks in breath and bites her lip
as Edy's laughter stings and draws out tears
like carbonation through her nose. What tale
could beautify a frozen rock or wake
an intellectual excitement up?
Edy comes and sits beside her, takes
her hand and tries to hold her; Charlotte balks,
relents, and lets her keep her hand, but looks
away. She cringes into Edy as Helena
approaches—worried, maybe?—leaning in.

(Edy) Oh, Charlotte, dear, Helena was joking!
You're an easy one to upset if a small poke
hurts that much.
Maybe we're all a touch
emotionally claustrophobic
and need to interconnect, to prick
our fingers, smear the blood,
and swear. Well, maybe that idea's a dud.
How about a heart-to-heart discussion?
I think we could use one.

(Helena) Is this the right time for such a discussion?
With our scientist leaping from logic to loonies?
Charlotte, are you ready to bare us your soul?
You might need it later to bargain with Hades
once we've made it to Pluto, or will it be Charon?

Charlotte breathes in those frozen words to use
as blocks to build protective icy walls
around her. Bells ring out within the ship.
Helena leaps across the room and types,
a pecking fury, problem-picking, panicked.
Edy and Charlotte reach for the restraints
to strap in, this proximity alarm
an old friend from their training back on Earth.
They give Helena time to diagnose
the problem, let them know if they can help.

As Helena types, the sirens stop; four screens
blare on in static squares. She fiddles more:
the picture's snow but through the speakers comes
a voice, a male's, but out of breath, repeats,
"...you hear me? Give me all your valuables..."

(Helena) Edy, my dear, this sounds like a muddle,
but your sort of muddle. What should I say?

Before she answers, Edy's fingers fly
across her palmtop keys. She's left behind
this crisis, data-digging, world reduced
to passwords and a blinking screen until
the ship's description, armament, appears.

(Edy) Start with his name and his ship's
registration. From that we'll know if he's equipped
to mine or just to make a mess.
He does sound only like a pest.

(Helena) This is Regolith's Child on its way out to Pluto.
We're hearing your hail, but only in pieces.
Resend again or open a link on the 4-9-9-channel.

The screens of static disappear, replaced
by segments of a face: a man's, with skin
untanned by years under a spaceship's lights
instead of sunshine through an atmosphere.
He focuses on them and starts to grin.

(Unknown Miner) A gaggle of gals this far from civilization?
Alone, lonely, lurching out to Pluto. Wild
space, the emptiness'll get ya. An escort's
just the thing you need: me
to travel with you. How's that sound?

(Helena) Sir, could you tell us your name and the name
of your ship? And the ship's registration? And where
you are going? And under whose aegis you travel?

(Unknown Miner) Harvey Lausenheimer at your service
and my steady Venus' Light 6-8-12.
What's all the fuss for? Why
should I share with you
what's my business? Mining the Kuiper Belt
is my right, I've got a permit.
Keep your nosy bits to yourself.

Another flash of data lights up Edy's
palmtop, a list of dates and names for which
she types a password, right hand covering
the left one as it types. A moment's pause
and Helena begins to speak, but Edy says:

(Edy) My name is Edy Sanchez and I'm the Representative, the legal body
of the Global Congress out on Pluto. I oversee
the miners and their leases. It is my right
to know your name and number, so please don't fight
with the procedure.
What's your lease number?

(Harvey Lausenheimer) Well,
you see,
I'm still waiting to get my lease.
All those committees, all those forms—
I guess they're taking their time. Can't wait,
myself, I need the trade:
ice for dough.

(Edy) My records show that Venus' Light has not applied
for any KBO leases. Why have you lied?

(Harvey) Listen, lady, you're out of touch.
Maybe you need to call and double-check
with your bosses. Out here, ice is King,
not cash. I've got some of my latest run
still sealed away, could find its way
to you, if you were interested
in keeping quiet for a while.

(Edy) Mr. Lausenheimer, I see Michael, your son,
has taken loans out for college. A runner,
studying chemistry? For trying to wine-and-dine
me, the Global Congress will exact a stiff fine.
I could freeze the credit
on your son's account, edit
him out of the list for next year's funds.
Admit you're financially outgunned
and reapply for a lease.

(Harvey) My son? You leave him alone
and transfer to my ship some water
Then I'll ignore the question
of guns, who's got 'em, and who don't,
and who's an itchy trigger finger.

Edy blanches when she hears his tone.
Helena's fingers are dancing, though, a piece
of code in yellow blocks has lit her board.
While cueing off of Edy, Helena's right
hand hovers over relays blinking red
and off. She slowly moves the other hand,
to keep her concentration steady, flips
the switches that will target and then lock
on Lausenheimer's ship. Charlotte sees
Helena's intent and helps the homing-in.

(Edy) Excuse me, Mr. Lausenheimer, do you have a Miner
made by Daewoo on board? I'm sure you must, they manufacture
all the Miners made, a monopoly sanctioned by the Global
Congress just for times like this. All Miners have a cell
without which the remaining parts won't work. Useless,
really. And all those cells
are linked by e\&m waves to this pendant
in my hand. Unless you can invent
some reason that will stay my hand
you mining days are over. Kaput. Canned.

(Harvey) Destroy
my Miner? Mine
after I'd worked so many years,
hours from my wife and kids, hauling
fish from frozen water, net by net?
You're fleecing me as surely as the foreman, forcing me
to steal to live.

(Edy) Threatening a Representative
is something the Global Congress doesn't forgive,
a severe offense. Do you surrender then
and submit yourself to trial and to ten
years' service? That is the only choice
to keep your Miner working. Cat got your voice?

(Harvey) Whatever you do to my machine,
Devlin'll fix it. He'll fix you
now that I'll tell him you're coming.
He's got enough surprises
to tip you from this high
seat you've proclaimed you've got.
You'll regret you threatened me.

The screens go blank. So Edy presses down
the button on her pendant, moving off
to make some notes on her computer pad.
Helena slaps her hand on Charlotte's hand
and stops the blinking lights, then scans her screen
to double-check that Venus' Light has left.
She codes an increase to the minimum
kilometers between them and a ship
of unknown name and number which sets off
proximity alarms, based on their last

encounter. Charlotte slowly takes her seat
while Helena types some final thing and drops
into her chair, expels a sigh, and droops.
Then Edy joins them, putting up her feet,
to burrow in the pillows on the couch.

(Edy) I can't think straight just yet.
I did it!
We're no longer beset,
so where were we?
Oh, chatting and threatening to drag our personal debris
into the light. Baring souls and such.
In this sort of thing, I go by touch.

What should I say about me? My beginnings
are my mother, flying, so it's only fitting
I start with her, my environment,
the set scene, how she taught me to be self-confident.
My mother represents Chile in the Global
Congress, on a plane, constantly mobile,
curling over the curve of the Earth, contralto
voice telling stories to some doubtful
man to help him understand the needs
of her people. And she did more than meet my needs,
she sung to me—sometimes through the phone—
each night before I went to bed, never quite alone,
with her vast household of advisors and aides
to tickle my baby feet, to put my hair in braids,
all the time talking history and music and art
and politics, quoting Neruda, Allende. I started
diagnosing injustice at eight, quoting congressional law
about oppression to get my bed time moved, a seesaw
argument between my mom and me. She always listened,
she often laughed, she was the first to defend
my right to argue my case, she knew just the right book
to send me to. And what she gave, I took,
because to everyone else, I was the Senator's daughter,
a friend if they thought
they'd gain, an enemy
if my mother's policy
kept them from choice positions as she equaled out
the economics of our country. So my route
was home school to Santiago College to law school
and then the courtroom duels
where I won cases, then judged cases.
Like my mother, I haven't been allowed a space
for lovers or friends.

Will you two be my friends?
It sounds so odd to ask, in the middle
of our muddle,
half way to the frozen outer system,
but I would like to have some,
more than just the large lost flock of Kuiper sheep
I'll be in charge of keeping.
Maybe you'll laugh at me for crying,
but I have to know, to try
to find some way past the silence,
traveling so far from my mother's singing.

Oh, and why Pluto? Don't they always ask,
the reporters and those who interviewed us for the task?
I may not have your mind,
Charlotte, or your way with metal, Helena, but you'll find
I know loneliness.
I know the loneliness
of cold dark space, of infinite drawn-out movement,
how even the right intent
means little to the pull of gravity
which sets you in a cage to pretend you're free.

And Helena comes to sit beside her and puts
her arms around Edy's shoulders and pulls
her close, rocking gently as she cries.
Helena gently lays a kiss down on
the long Chilean strands of hair. She hums.
Charlotte watches them, her hands feel large
and awkward in the moment, empty without
someone to fill them with, refusing to think:
Susannah, deeper than night, colder than ice.
Edy's hiccups cut her tears in two.

Charlotte moves to join them, reaching out
to touch, to say soft things they'll hear, the sounds
that make things better. Stops. What can she say?
And Helena looks at Charlotte moving near,
her face is tender, poised, protective, too.
Charlotte can see the quip begin, the purse
of lips, the color flooding through Helena's cheeks
to pick out joking words to set her down.
So Charlotte leaves, to check her instruments
and doesn't see the worry on Helena's face.

Helena rocks with Edy's sobs, her hands
in time to Edy's breathing, kneading, soft,
and slows her crying with a deepening touch.
The heat between the skin of palm and skin
of shoulder reddens into flush and sweat.
Edy lifts her head from Helena's breasts
and blue eyes watch brown eyes as breaths go by.
Another breath and trust transforms to heat
and water wiped by warm hands sliding down
from cheeks to chin to arching neck, speckled

with slight pink blush. Edy sighs as Helena
traces out her nipples through her shirt.
A single question moves between the two.
Each slowly works their hands under the clothes
the other wears: Edy's fingers climb
the slope of Helena's ribcage, hummingbird-
pumping, as she slides a thumb under
a breast. Helena sucks in air and touches
her lips to Edy's lips. Everything stops.
They open their eyes, just inches apart, let go

into the other's mouth. Helena pushes
Edy over, onto her back, the couch
too thin, one knee on and one leg off,
still kissing and thrusting her hand down her pants to spread
her lips, her hand still pressing, now shifting.
Edy wiggling wider and raising her crotch
to envelope the finger, the fingers, that stroke her. One moan,
duet, they shudder in the other's arms.
Pulses come down and they switch positions. Again.
Next door: their noise, and Charlotte's memories.

The beeping of the spectrograph wakes Charlotte,
impressions of her keyboard keys now trace
designs across her cheeks; she fell asleep
again while watching Pluto intertwine
with Charon, two white spots around a point
unseen except as lines of force, scribbled
like chalk over the blackboard made of space,
a mesh of gravity that spins them, clean
and unconfusing diagrams that show
relationships between two nearby bodies.

(Edy) Charlotte, are you still
in there, hard at work? Had your fill
of models, could use some breakfast, eh?
The last of the real eggs
are being scrambled, boiled, and coddled
now. Come out of your skull
long enough to let us know which body
your educated, scientific choice decrees.
We've got a bet on.
Come on!
Oh good, dragging
you to breakfast is loads easier than settling
miner disputes. I think.
I hope there's just some trick
I'll learn. As judge, all plaintiffs
come to me, but without a sheriff
I've got to make laws stick
without a strong arm, only my wits.

(Helena) Edy, my dear, wit isn't your strong suit.
Surrender and kissing and...there you are Charlotte!
Coming out from your cave? I've got all my ears
on to hear what you've chosen. Have you dallied with Pluto?
Given in to the water that's frozen on Charon?
What's the big hold-up? You're too indecisive!

(Edy) Helena, behave!
Let her eat. And save
your teasing for the afternoon, look
how asleep she is! She took
a nap at her console again, another
week of watching Pluto draw closer.
So, first, food,
to put us all in a better mood.

They eat and chatter. Even Charlotte makes
small talk about the range of tests she's put
the spectrograph and all her models through,
a small change here, between the toast and jam.
Helena shares that she's been testing too:
the landing gear and crampons. She's devised
two landing routes. Edy says she's split
her time between an update on the Belt
and reading agricultural journals
to build their farms. And plus, she's read the news.

(Helena) Is there word of our friends hiding out in the cold?
Except for that loony who threatened to hurt us,
we haven't got proof that this group does exist.
If they do, what will happen? We must have a plan.

(Edy) I've been searching, both on the net
and the GC database. Mr. Lausenheimer's debts
were large and this Devlin
is listed as the their owner.
I don't know what terms of collection
Devlin might hold over Harvey.
His threat's the oddity:
I can't find biography
or relations, just some financial history.
And nothing recent.
If Devlin's got a ship, maybe it was lent
by someone else? Or worse, commandeered,
the incident unreported out of fear?
The Belt's past claims and current stakes
are tangled, some are fakes,
some go back more than fifty years.
I think, my dears,
this group is real.
We need a plan, unless we plan to kneel?

(Helena) Of course not, we'll get to the bottom of this.
We'll come up with something to combat their threats.
I've had an idea in the back of my mind
that's bubbling away, but not yet quite ripe
to share with you both. A good place to start
is knowing the place that we'll have for our home
so we'll plan to defend it accordingly. Charlotte?

(Charlotte) Charon's what I choose. There's water,
which we'll need, the one side facing
Pluto all the time; an easy
study: atmosphere reviving
needs a midwife for the dead.
Pirates are another problem,
icy plain and station offer
little means to guard us. Treasure-
less, I wonder what they're after.
Do they care for rock and frost,
past untrammeled lives of Solar
System sisters lacking all but
sunlight gently washing bodies?

(Edy) Charlotte, you'll have your chance
to study things before the miners dance
off with all the raw ingredients.

(Helena) Pluto and Charon are banned to them all
'til the Congress gets word that your work is all done,
and your history's built out of ice observation.
Take care it won't melt! Or your dead and your dying
move beyond the recall of your frost mathematics.

(Edy) Oh, Helena, stop. Your teasing
is tiring—
Hey, I win! I win the bet! You owe
me something, Helena, no
joking to get out of it.
I guess I'll think a little bit
on what I'll have you do. But we should be there soon.
How long 'til we land on the moon?

(Helena) Whenever we're ready, we're close. I'll just need
to check on my models to test them again.
Then we'll all need to run through emergency measures
and make sure we're clear on just what we all do.
So start on the manuals, breakfast is over!

(Edy) No, no, we're not finished,
it's time for Charlotte to dish
out her past over the remainder of the eggs
and streaks of jam and dregs
of orange juice. Tell us what you hate
about space traveling, why you won't relate
your past. We need the honesty
if we're to spend the next twenty
months together, maybe more if they renew
our contracts. How will we make do
with only formalities?

(Charlotte) Twenty months is long enough for
sharing. Can't you wait? Impatient
for some facts to stab me later?
Privacy's important to me.
Plus, you know enough about me.

(Helena) What are you hiding behind that reluctance?

(Edy) Helena, please, not another fight.
It's all right
if Charlotte is slow to trust.
Friendship takes time. Just tell us
what you can, Charlotte, that's only fair.
Our curiousity comes from our care.

(Charlotte) Windows took the most adjustment,
letting in the chill and darkness,
rarely facing brighter bodies,
neither telescope nor peri-,
undirected eyes that let in
empty empty Solar System.
Home before this one, the nightfall
orderly but overflowing:
cacti point the way to clusters,
constellations drawn by human
hands, the dance of Galileo's
moons around the balls of gases
named for gods. The velvet offsets
hue and shine on sacred mountains,
populated canyon townships
lit by stimulated
sodium. Out West, we take
serious the universe.
Family? The normal motley
lot of mothers, fathers, aunties
not by birth but inclination,
many playmates for the children,
crowds to block the sunset, taller
heads that mountain out the starlight.
Learned: desire to stand up straighter.
Quietness I found in college,
filling dewars, spinning abler
eyes to watch what can't be hidden
other than by other bodies
swinging through their silent orbits,
making models with computers,
playing make-believe with other
atmospheres and chemistries,
math to mark out understandings.
Long enough inside a model
made me want to touch another
sky, a methane climate, feeling
chemical reactions slipping
past my fingertips. But Pluto's
new for me, I've studied Triton;
Pluto's what I've never seen,
Earthbound, naked-eye: the largest
"smallest world," the end's beginning
of the inner solar system,
menhir, entrance, King of all
dead misunderstood, Kuiper Belt.

(Edy) Did you have lovers, Charlotte, before?
You haven't said a thing on that score.

(Helena) Edy! Really! Isn't that teasing?
That's best left to me, you haven't the touch.

(Edy) Someone you left? There wasn't anyone
to send you off, to hug. You just waited until we were done.

(Charlotte) No one. Nothing not already
over, done, beyond repairing.
What about the woman crying,
hugging you? Was she your mother?

(Edy) Of course. How could I leave her?
How could she do anything other
than let me go? I still miss
her, write her almost every day, kiss
the screen when we call; sometimes she sings
to me, just a few bars. It shouldn't sting,
I know I'm not a child, don't want to be one.
But what do you mean, "over and done"?

(Helena) My lover's gone too, a thing mostly ended.
As long as there's light to bounce off of metal
and brains that can puzzle emotion and meaning,
will anything past truly close in an end?

She reaches out to Charlotte, tries to touch
her wrist in sympathy. But Charlotte moves
her arm just slightly out of range. A joke?
Another chance to laugh at private things,
to melt the ice protecting what she feels?
Some reference to a private talk (or more)
the other two had shared some day or night
they thought she wasn't up?—as though she felt
the cold she built around herself because
she wanted to, instead of loneliness.

(Helena) My story must wait just a little bit
longer. Once safe on the surface with pressure
and water and time for the mulling of grief.

(Charlotte) Dead. She died.
She killed herself.
Note said I prefered some body
cold and misty, white albedo,
rather than her loving, laughter,
lost my chance to have another
ten years like we had. Maybe
more. I'll never know. Susannah.

She slides her wrist right through the puddled tears
to gently touch Helena's fingertips.
And Edy reaches out her hand until
they meet, all three hands resting lightly on
each other in a quiet, easy calm.
Then one six-handed squeeze and they each stand
to practice safety rituals just one
last time, one final model run to land;
the spiral pattern drawn by gravity
as bodies come together, clearly marked.

The spaceship that aspires to be a station
continues moving ever closer down
the well of Pluto's moon until it catches
the surface ice of Charon. Meter down
by meter toward the surface slips the ship;
the crampons lowering themselves like claws
to score the ice and slow the ship to stop.
The women blur, strapped in against the change
in motion, roller coaster ride from ink
and void to scree and ice and opening:

a sky, with Pluto hanging overhead:
bright side absorbing sunlight, sublimation
that makes a current: drifting gas to ice
to refreeze on the colder side. A jolt
that cuts the tria, steals their breath, defies
their belt's protection and the motion through
ten weeks and forty AU and the growth
of friendship stopped. Stopped. Stopped. The turns
the satellite may take: next to nothing.
The cuts, the only sign they ever moved.

Then Helena's up to check the ship for green
and steady lights, to reassure herself
the crampons are locked in and boring down
to pass the crust and grab the moon to keep
them snug. First Edy moans but then she moves
to check the status of their tents and stock.
Up in the dome, and breathless, Charlotte sees
what Pluto's like this close, just twenty thousand
kilometers away. She bites her lip
to taste the atmosphere she'll never breathe.

(Helena) Everything's good on my end, on my ends.
Ladies, yourselves? And our eggs and our tents
and our just-melt-the-ice-in-this-place-to-have-water?
The crampons are on their way down to secure us,
we haven't a puncture, I think we're all set.

(Charlotte) Found the right place, that's for certain.
Pluto's glowing brighter, larger
than the Moon. The pumps are heating,
melting ice, preliminary
readings good. The tents unfolding?

(Edy) I've run the diagnostics twice,
they don't complain, the purchase on the ice
seems good. The hinges still read warm
so I'd like to go ahead and put them out. Nothing's torn.
We should have greenhouses and extra rooms
quite soon.
Unless you let me know,
we're good to go
and I'll press the button
for the tents. Then I guess we're done.

Or only started, as they run about
to fix the Number Six pump when it stalls
and finish sealing up the greenhouse glass
or waiting to confirm the counterweights.
Adrenaline still dancing, they don suits
and step outside. A midnight sky revolves,
horizons foreground all the stars like sleet
that glistens, soundless, just beyond their reach.
The landscape: one white hill covered in dust,
whose composition brims with carbons, fades

to one white hill with dust. Rotating through
the compass points almost the same each time.
Edy laughs and spins while Helena mistakes
the forest for the metal tree she's planted.
Charlotte stands stock still, her face turned up.

(Charlotte) Brighter than my thoughts of Hades.
Misty spots of insolation
churning into weather furthest
from the sun. Behind the numbers,
models carefully constructed,
what will Pluto tell me? Footsteps
made against her will while walking
back with Orpheus. And geysers:
stern reminders they no longer
care what happens to the living.

(Edy) I think it's time for lunch
or dinner, I don't remember much
since breakfast and spinning like a top
until we stopped,
breath cut off in one sudden moment.
I still feel bent.

(Helena) Regolith's Child is doing okay,
superb, truth be told. So going inside
for warmth and some tea sounds like a good plan.
You've both been quite generous telling your tales.
I think now it's my turn, to show you that I, too,
have a stake in our bargain, no matter my sharp tongue.

They tramp up to the station, worm inside
the warmth, appreciate the steam as Helena
"puts on the kettle," brings the leaves, the loose
black tea she's never shared before,
dispenses it to insulated cups.

(Helena) Well, where should I start? Beginnings are small,
tiny things that are seen best by hindsight, I guess.
So we make anniversaries, dates that hold meanings
we proclaim as beginnings. I won't say which day
in summer we started—that silliest season
of romance and games, when everyone's traipsing
through hillside and forest to kiss and to giggle.
We weren't original, no one is, really.
Not me and not David. Some parts of me miss him,
his brown hair that hung right down into his eyes,
with gelled spiky ends that cut into a smile
not spiky at all. All those years ago, David
was just a young student, and I wasn't by then.
A few extra years can make you a teacher.
When classes were over and he'd stayed behind
to ask little questions about the exam,
we ended up soldering circuits in lab.
What show-offs, we two! But I didn't feel old
and he didn't act young. The whole summer was like that,
the hours of passion. The best part? My research
stayed right on its course, there were always the hours
for both. Just no sleeping. I guess love can do that.
In the March term, he didn't take one of my classes,
and after commencement he choose as advisor
a colleague of mine. No conflict of interest.
He kissed me in public, though, after defending.
I no longer cared. But the deans did, and also
his mentor. So, I lost my job in a scandal.
He got one in Brisbane and I went behind him,
to cook and to clean. And I hated it daily.
I loved him, though. Old as I was, I felt stuck.
In a few months I knew that it just wasn't right to be
bound by four walls, only living through him.
A surprise: an affair with his new boss! No scandal
but a reason for me to break off. So I left
and I moved up to England, to Ipswitch, the home
of the Congress selection committee and found
a firm who cared more for robotics than scandal.
But I missed him, still miss him, still miss those young kisses.
There's a time to look outward and forward, to move
and to change. And I did that, am doing that. Left him
behind, left my old heart with him, my Earth heart
stayed there. And my new heart, my Pluto heart, grew
all the larger, more room on the inside to fit
both of you, now that David is gone. Time for more tea?

Charlotte reaches out as Edy does,
but not for tea, for touching. Steam in curls
like rings around their fingers. Edy leans
to Helena and Charlotte stiffens, then stalks out,
their closeness just too much for her. They stand
halfway to go with her and stop. Are they
intruders? Or is she? The tea leaves settle
out, precipitate alone without
the water's heat. Then, Edy says she needs
to finish work and walks the other way.

She sorts through all her "paperwork," the last
annoying details and legalities
before she opens up the Leasing Board—
but that takes days. The radio broadcasts,
she practices for hours. They can hear
her voice in greenhouses and corridors
resounding off the walls, her pacing marks
a common time. She must convey the laws
as simply and as justly as she can.
And forcibly. She must be the law.

She sits a little while at her desk,
her fingers idly flipping on and off
the microphone, remembering the case
she stared both counsels down, in rage, their smirks
that said no punishment she meted out
would actually occur, because they knew
the right police to bribe. She felt, then saw
the bailiffs edging to the bench, the true
sheriffs in the courtroom, not herself.
She shakes her head and clears her throat, begins:

(Edy) Welcome to the KBO Leasing Board.
The Global Congress has made Wards
out of the Belt. The new map
accompanies this transmission; tap
the icy-Pluto symbol to view it, tap the colored
Wards to magnify their properties. The words
show current ownership and prior claims,
the numbered fields frame
the objects available for mining. The right-of-ways
are marked with yellow strips; please stay
within their bounds when traveling the Belt.
All stakes must be registered; all ore, melt-
waters, and gases must be confirmed
by instruments and GC-approved tests performed
at the Leasing Board, located on Charon.
To set up your account, log on
to the Board's site and follow the steps after
"New Account." If you have questions, please refer
to the FAQ or send a message to the address listed.
For further assistance
with registration,
or equipment failure, visit the Board at its Charon address.
Signed this day, May 23rd, 2190, by Edy Sanchez.

She slumps down in her chair, her left hand light
against the now-off switch. Announcement made,
her job reduces down to waiting. Eyes
begin to close. Her lids lowered too long,
she dreams the first ship spirals Charon-ward.
A newbie prospector? A miner, claim
existing prior to the new laws, mad?
How badly will her voice shake in reply
to answer their incoming hail? The sound
of pirates laughing jolts her out of sleep.

Her body stiffened from the short nap, Edy
uncurls and stretches as the creaks from bones
make echoes in her office. What's the time?
She needs to let the others know that they
are open now for business. Are they out?

(Charlotte) Edy! Back from all your talking
to the walls? You need some sleeping,
now you look like Pluto's night side:
pale, unquiet without geysers.
I've been watching all the weather,
cycles between solid methane,
wafting atmospheric methane,
nitrogen influencing
rates of flux and transportation.

(Edy) Yes, I'm done for the moment,
another minute
and I would have screamed,
I think. I never would have dreamed
that piecing out the announcement would drain
me as much as writing the laws themselves. What a pain!
And you? You say your observations
are going well? Is Helena having as much fun?

(Charlotte) Bleary-eyed and half-asleep, she
crawls into the kitchen midnight,
later, eats what she calls breakfast,
running models on her handheld.
Still her cheerful self, still asking
where the cat has hid my tongue,
why I won't do calculations
in the buff. She never answers
what she's working on; the solder
smell betrays machining secrets.
Wants to know of pirate planning.

(Edy) All my data trackers are still out.
I have some doubt
that we can hold them off ourselves.
Shall we call for cavalry? Until I've delved
far enough into the GC database, slow
work even with a legal permit, we've no
ammo. I'll send a short note
to my GC contact. Maybe we could make an electronic moat
to keep us safe? I'll talk
to Helena, see if she can caulk
together some machine to solve our problems.
I need more sleep, less mayhem.

But Helena's busy, lab door closed, no voice
responds to Edy's call, her knock, bare fists
against the door. She pauses, hearing thuds
and swearing through the door. Helena's there
but won't come out. She leaves the door alone,
decides she needs some sleep before she deals
with crazy Helena, pads back to her room.
In bed, her keyboard on her knees, she jots
a note and sends it Earthward, slides the case
down past her legs and falls straight into sleep.

Charlotte's begun to send out satellites
with cameras, in some overlapping paths,
to paint the face of Charon: pockmarked holes
that tell the cosmic scrape received back when
the Outer Solar System was a rough
and tumble place. They take their data, run
it through some automated subroutines,
reconstitute the ones and zeros back
to art: each later crater making dust
out of the ones it swallows, haloes, whole.

She's taking pictures overhead as well:
of Pluto's continents of nitrogen
that freeze out into sculptures where the light
is low and cannot reach, but swirl like storms
in Earthly tropics, forming atmosphere,
where photons exchange energy, escape.
That's what the theory says; all she concludes
is that she needs more time to get a sense
of how it cycles. Charon, underneath
her feet, has kept her crater-counting: jaunts

to measure shadows, building up the tale
that Charon tells about the early Belt,
about how many Charon-sized (or more
petite, perhaps?) inhabitants had ruled
and warred, while further in the larger lords
reclined, put on their gaseous finery.
But Edy notices the frenzied work
could cover many things and worries that
Charlotte's Charon obsession is a front:
she's always staring up at Pluto's disk.

One local noon, they hear a hail and rush
to Edy's office, watching while she fits
and starts, reviewing this and that procedure.
She turns to Helena, asks her if she'd scan
the ship and send her the results. She nods.

(Edy) Welcome to the KBO Leasing
Board. To whom am I speaking?

(Helena) They're coming in quickly, whoever they are.
Can you hear me in there? They're moving quite fast.

(Edy) I say, this is the Leasing Board.
Are you here about a specific Ward?
Do you need to register?
Please answer!

(Helena) Edy, they're finally orbiting Charon.
Their pace is now stately and much more sedate,
but my screen is now showing a second ship coming.
Have you heard anything beyond their first hail?

(Charlotte) Miners found us, now attempting
stealth maneuvers to confuse us.
Stealing metals, ices? Are they
thieving Pluto's treasures? Taking
knowledge of my dead and grieving?

(Miner May) My name is Lincoln May, my ship
is Out of Breath 10-6-4-2.
Some weeks ago I filed a form
for mining rights to Ward 2-5.
That still available? I've got
a backup if need be.

(Edy) Hello, Lincoln May!
I'm relieved to hear you say
you've come just for Ward 2-5.
One moment while I make your claim live...
I need to verify your identification,
could you send over some?
There! Is that showing green on your map?
Just double-tap
the ward to make it update.
Next time would you please decelerate
a little sooner? Thanks. Do you need
me to review equipment issues, sample checks, deeds?

(Helena) The other ship's gaining and looping the station.
I can't get a fix on their make or ID.
Have you heard just a word from that ship that's still here?

(Miner May) I think I'm good, Ms. Leasing Board.
I'll see you soon, I hope, to check
the fruits of my first haul. At least,
my minerals and rocks.

(Miner Chang) Are you all done yet over there?
I hope this is the line to speak
to someone from the Leasing Board.
My name is Lucy Chang, my ship
is Routine Roundup 10.

(Edy) Hello, Lucy Chang! Your name
and ID came
across just fine. How can I help you?
Registration, equipment, trouble with your new
Or legal doubts?

(Miner Chang) I want to stake a claim to Ward
eighteen dash nine. Is that one still
available? It's listed free,
uncharted on these maps.

(Edy) One moment while I re-assign
the Ward to you. Okay, eighteen dash nine
is now registered in your name.
Is that the only reason that you came?

(Miner Chang) That's pretty much the case. I'm off
for nitrogen and water—wish
me luck! I'll need it out in Ward
eighteen, with all the pirates there.
Thanks, Leasing Board.

(Edy) Pirates, Miner Chang?
Surely you must mean some gang
out joyriding. Miner Chang? Miner?
She must have cut the line.
Except for her comment, that wasn't as bad
as I expected, easing into being sheriff has
its good points, too.
I should let Helena and Charlotte know I'm through.

So Edy hurries back onto the bridge
to tell the others what the miner said.
The room is empty, though; Helena now
secluded, Charlotte's office door is closed.
She slowly turns back to her own research,
investigates the 18th Ward for past
incriminating details, anything
recorded of its history at all.
One small report in New Financial Times:
a spaceship stolen somewhere in the Belt,

the owners picked up by the GC cops
inside their lifeboat; address lists a place
on Earth; the prosecution of the theft
was never followed through and yet the loss
resulted in the owners' bankruptcy.
She leaves an e-note for the others, warns
about what she's discovered, frets until
she hears the door to Helena's lab unstick,
a shove and then a small squeak stopped as door
and floor unmeet. Then footsteps down the hall.

(Helena) Come out from your caves, I'm all finished up!
Have you made me a cake? Or at least poured the brandy?
Not that we have brandy, but the thought is what counts.
Where are you all? Lying sleeping in bed?
Oh, should I check? If they've run off together,
which room would they choose? Edy's, I bet.

(Edy) Helena, are you back from the dead,
done with keeping me and Charlotte out? You could have said
something before you disappeared.
What secrets? This whole thing's too weird.

(Charlotte) She's not been to Pluto. Darling
dead by time and space devoured,
calling out through methane,
nitrogen. They settle, waiting
for my comprehension. Knowing
Pluto means I'll know their living
thoughts and reasons for their dying.

(Edy) Uh, Charlotte?
You've been spending just as much time
as Helena alone in your office. It's not a crime
to visit with us, tell us what theories
you've got about Pluto; they seem to sieze
you in the middle of the night,
observatory dome revolving with the light
of the atmosphere up there.
But we do care
about you, friendship's not a chore.
You aren't alone anymore.

(Charlotte) Pictures have come back from Pluto,
spectrum shows what we'd expected:
same results as Earth-bound data,
nothing new, except a finer
grain: some carbon compound clutters
data, doped inside the ices
like germanium in semi-
conductors. Samples would distinguish
speculation, chemistry. I
need to plant my feet on Pluto,
anemometers to measure
wind velocity for models
(decades-long for good results),
place my weather stations grid-like.
Now I must go to the surface.

(Helena) You can't go to Pluto, those pirates are problems.
Didn't you read all those warnings from Edy?

(Edy) Charlotte, just wait a little longer,
until we hear from Miner Chang or our defenses are stronger.
A few weeks from now is our three month anniversary.
Let's have a party!
And if there's been no sign,
no further developments of the pirates' design,
you can go
to Pluto
then. Please wait.
It's not as if, well, you'll be late.

(Charlotte) Charon can be occupying.
Plus, I'll need some time for learning
how the spacesuits and the gecko
boots are used. That's weeks of planning.

(Edy) Helena, now that you're back,
tell us what needle and what haystack
you've been pursuing.
Why lock yourself in?

(Helena) I wanted to help: an electrical moat
that goes 'round the station to keep us protected.
And now is a good time to worry the problem
those pirates present, our brains in one place.

Hey, Charlotte, where are you going? You don't
even care what happens to us, just the gas
and the ice on that meaningless planet up there.
We could both die and you wouldn't notice.

And Charlotte stops, and stiffens, turns to them,
her tears spot-lit under fluorescent lights.
She rushes Helena, a low scream leaking out
her throat. For all the force with which she comes,
she crumples into Helena, brittle ice
shattered. She's mumbling how it's cold, she cares,
she cares, she didn't kill her, won't kill them.
And slowly Helena puts her arms around
her, says it was a joke, she jokes too much,

but that she means this here and now. One heap
when Edy joins them, puts her arms around
the tangled limbs and tears and rocks them both.
When Charlotte's crying's done, she pulls apart
their arms, retreats to silence, shuts her door.

(Helena) Not one word of thanks! The most wretched of creatures
and we're stuck with her pain and without any gratitude.
Although, to be honest, I wouldn't be her
for a million of—well, for a million of anything.
Most of the time, you can see how she's trying,
and watch as that pain flits behind what she says.
And the weakness just cries, make a joke! Make her laugh!
But it never works out just the way I intend, eh?

The moat didn't work, so instead I made fish.
Electronic piranhas, we'll see what they do
when the time comes for pirates to swoop out of nowhere
and descend on our castle and steal all our treasure.

(Edy) I think
that I could use that drink
you were rambling on about
earlier. I've no doubt
Charlotte's the most competent scientist for the job.
No heartthrob,
but her intensity is sexy anyway.
Where's the brandy?

So Charlotte spends her time inside a suit,
adjusting to the quarters, Charon's bright
albedo, miners coming in and out
to log their samples with the Board, new Wards
a wager which they try to win, and wave
to Charlotte, fumbling with the "pocket" flaps
that seal and hold the water ice she chips
from craters, testing that the pockets keep
her samples at the programmed temperature.
Her latest find: ammonia ice: a sheet

of amber, trace amounts of sulfur, smooths
stratigraphy and craters' history.
The craters that remain, she plays in, learns
to find her Charon-feet with improved shoes
that walk the way a gecko does: small hairs
unroll against a surface, ice or glass
it doesn't matter, on a scale where van
der Waals' attractive force wins out against
a larger thing like gravity. So Charlotte
climbs up and hangs under the crater lips.

At last, the decorations Edy's scrounged
from scraps and saved from the recycling bin
have overgrown the metal walls and struts
to make a cheerful, colored atmosphere.
And Charlotte's rigged a cake out of their stores
and fluffed the top and sides with icing not
unlike the the color of the struggling air
on Pluto, which she stares at all the time.
Helena comes in last, a bottle tucked
beneath each arm, but also with gold hats

for each of them to wear, a row of stars
soldered to the rim of one, a fountain's worth
of tinsel tassels sprouting from the next.
For Charlotte there's a hat with glowing globes
and dark spots just like Pluto. Helena breaks
the bottles' necks and opens up champagne.
They raise their hats, their glasses, voices loud
in thanks for journey done, the station down,
the Wards and leases divvied up and mined,
the beauty of the universe explained.

It's Edy, on her third full glass of wine
who, singing a Chilean gaucho song,
attempts to make them dance. She pulls up Helena
and sways her to the rhythm of her voice,
a beat that only Edy seems to hear.
There's laughter, even Charlotte, giggling, starts
to stand, to dance this silly dance, but sinks
back to the floor alone. But Edy sees
and drags her to her feet, begins a verse
sforzando, almost shouting, taking Charlotte

within her arms. Some moments pass and Charlotte
relaxes, takes her hands from Edy's neck
and circles them around her waist. Her eye-
brows up, Helena refrains from commenting
and notices that Charlotte's good at dancing.
She tosses down the liquid in her glass
and throws her hat up, bottle-searching through
the cushions ringed around the dancing space.
Uncorked, she tips one to her lips and misses
Edy's kisses, she misses lips to kiss.

She watches Charlotte lean on Edy's chest,
the flush of alcohol a brightening rouge
that traces 'cross her cheeks and to her ears.
She smiles, eyelids settling down when Edy
brushes lips against her eartip, jerks
away, the singing caught in Edy's throat.
And Charlotte stares as though she sees the room,
Helena, Edy, for the first. She wraps
her arms around herself, can feel her heart
alone and lonely, beating with desire

for Edy's fingers trailing down her throat
detouring past her nipples, kissing her,
her breathing in her ears until she climaxes.
Ashamed, she looks away, she knows that they
can tell, that they will laugh. But Helena joins
them, takes her hand and Edy's hand and sings
a simple song—a circle 'round the rosies?—
a lighter song and spins them in a ring
collapsing down as fingers travel arms
to shoulders, necks, and throats and both hold Charlotte

tight between them, warm and needing too.
Her hand on Edy's cheek, Helena kisses
Charlotte, lips at first then slides her tongue
between them. Edy moans as Helena's hand
moves down to breasts and Charlotte scoops the soft
of Helena's breasts and shifts aside her shirt
to taste their contours with her tongue.
Edy's hand on Charlotte's throat stroked down
to stomach, pubic hair, her fingers brush
the strands this way and that, she presses harder

til Charlotte's pelvis arches in response,
the while kissing Helena, tongue in tongue
in tongue in, moans, and forces Helena's hand
to stroke her clit, to spread her lips and smear
her wetness so she slides herself up further
on her fingers. Helena too begins to gasp
as Charlotte's tongue has reached her clit and licks
a spreading warmth. A growing pressure builds
their orgasms to Moon-pulled ocean tides,
not cold or ice or dead, until they sleep.

Charlotte promises herself, again,
like every morning just before her eyes
come open: don't go looking for Susannah.
Her promises held through the teasing, times
of sudden quiet when the other two
made love, bolstered by Helena's touch
that time she gently took her hand. Stranded
by self-promises that retreated when
they kissed her warm between them: lost control
and fell apart to icy white and blank,

the gate of Pluto, dark and cold, above.
The pull of Pluto almost tangible,
a pressure on her heart to leave her ribs,
reminder that she no longer deserved
a heart, because she promised it ten years
ago, for every day that followed, to
Susannah. Without heart, she'd die, no blood,
no oxygen to cells, no breath, no thought,
no math or modeling. And she had touched
two other living bodies in the act

of love, her promises all broken now.
And yet, what if she could be forgiven?
If she could find a place as bleak as where
Susannah wrote her note, would Charlotte find
the way to look up, see her standing there?
The pull of Pluto tangible in dim
fluorescent lights of morning flickering,
like Pluto's sublimating breath of souls,
a frozen hell, as different and as far
from blue Earth as the humans go, but ghosts

can travel anywhere. A sharp breath held
while Charlotte wonders, would Susannah leave
to follow her, arrive on Pluto first,
in fact, and wait? That would explain the sight
of faces in the clouds, the way she'd seen
the white before her eyes when she lay down
to sleep. It may be that she'd raise her voice,
a first, and yell out all the pain she'd held
and only said by suicide, or lead
her off a cliff to Hades' icy depths.

The other women sighing, still asleep,
as Charlotte slips across the room, her glide
as silent as the one she follows: ghost
as clear and curious as person passed
away. The docking bay has only room
for two small-ships and suits for six. She slides
her feet into her gecko boots and tugs
the suit around her shoulders, pulling flaps
that seal the suit, adjusts the pockets' weight
to fit her balance and stability.

She glances at barometers, but leaves
the instruments behind. She needs a kind
of understanding without numbers, one
deduced from all the data sifted by
her intuition. Numbers are the box
inside of which imagination needs
to fit, her own five senses: catalyst.
The winking lights inside the suit are green,
the same jade as Susannah's eyes once were.
She runs the last few meters to the ship.

(Charlotte) Course was plotted but they plodded,
waiting for the airy pirates'
non-appearance and the party.
Heard you calling all these fortnights.
They're important too, were willing
to pretend they liked me, liked me,
flew so far with me so moody,
never dampened my excitement,
even took my hands and kissed them,
filled them up with skin as dark as
yours, my new moon, rich and haunting.
Moves too slowly, engines rumbling
fast as lights are greening, pushing
us to Hell. My Pluto, quiet,
close to Charon but uncertain
how to share its secrets, seasons
cycling, repetition doesn't
mean communication happens.

The small-ship leaves the station's premises,
propels itself to Pluto, looming red
and dead, enshrouded in a methane cloak.
Its mountains and its ice plateaus resolve
as Charlotte closes 20 thousand klicks.
She sheds ship's altitude so she can see
through hydrodynamically-escaping gas,
the atmosphere's top-hat is lifting off.
The white becomes a pink, then back to white,
and on her left a dark red patch, a smeared

organic compound, rich, the culprit who
defied her spectrograph on Charon, laps—
or seems to lap—a mottled mountain's foot.
She steers to port and slows the thrusters, sets
the ship, herself, on Pluto, finally.
One final check of gear and suit. She jumps
the ramp and hits the surface hard, the ice
so slick she stumbles, finds herself on hands
and knees and bouncing in the gravity.
She holds her face-plate to the ice and stares

at ice, at clear sheets spread like winter Earth
across a sidewalk, blizzard-built then left,
and darkened with opacity. Red lights
unlike the rusted patch she's kneeling in
blink on inside her suit, reminding her
to move to minimize the area
in contact with the surface. Shaving off
some ice, she puts it in a pocket, seals
the sample, labels it with GPS
coordinates, the local time and date.

She does the same thing for the red around
her body. Only now does she look up,
her suit's alarm slowly increasing, fog
so thick that Sol is not a brighter patch
of sky, Susannah shining near the peak.
No triple-armed saguaro cactus limbs
that reach for risen stars, all things are smooth
and sloped, not one sharp turn: the northern peak,
the switchback trail, the grasping hands the mist
unfurls, the soundless weather, heartbeat loud.

Charlotte begins to climb the mountain, arms
outstretched, the sublimating nitrogen
surrounding first her legs and then her neck
in its attempt at atmosphere, escape.
Her gecko boots unroll and roll their hairs
against the slope. Her crouching thighs complain:
ascent becomes more vertical, the boots
don't have her inner ear that's screaming death
in sybilants as she tips over: find
some other way! That plateau there would work!

She stands up, levers off her knees, is shoved
against an outcrop: geysers of pale gas
explode, make columns that delineate
the living and the dead: Susannah waves
from just beyond the jets. The shower plops,
the drops that lack escape velocity
are caught by Charlotte's outstretched pair of hands,
both cupped as though for rain. She cannot hear
them fall but feels the tremors through her suit.
The intense cold diffusing through to skin

to slow her muscles, all that lets her know
this Pluto is the real one, not a model.
There is no substitute for human touch.
She wonders how deep down she'd have to go
to hit real rock. And what the view from up
above will be! A plain, her ship for scale,
perhaps a line of geysers mark the north
horizon, dark side atmosphere like low-
land mist condensing into patchy frost.
She scrapes another sample: methane ice!

(Charlotte) Gecko-ing across a wasteland.
Dark patch. Silts between my fingers.
Opening the sample pouch one-
handed, what a pain. An odor?
Wish that I could smell this, methane
mixed with dirt. Not sand, not cholla.
Nothing green or living. Smelling
hell. This hoarfrost patch is different.
Sample pouch and me left-handed.
Wonder what the terminator
interface looks like: abruptly
falling like a gas step-function?
Dies off logarhythmically?
Want to go and look? Standing
on the local noon: a tourist
trap, attraction, scientific
plan: good place and time for leaving
weather stations. Just too fickle.
Never liked to follow, holding
out your arms, your hands are shaking,
head is shaking no. I'm learning
more each day, I hope I'm learning
what it was I should have known.
How could I have guessed the meaning?
Tell me so I'll understand you.
Leaving me again? I'll follow.

The static on her suit-com crackles live,
requesting that she open up a line,
respond. She flips the com to off and sees
Susannah washed out by the landing lights
of two small-ships that set down near the peak.

(Edy) Helena, are you awake?
I can't find a trace
of Charlotte. She's gone,
left without a sign
of how or where.
I'm a little scared.

(Helena) Edy, what are you saying, so loud
and so early? I can't make you out for the noise
in my head. Did we drink last night? A lot? And if so,
that would explain this Blue Ridge of bottles
we've color-coordinated here by my feet.
What? What's that? What about Charlotte?
No, she couldn't have left without leaving a trail.
She's taken a suit, or a small-ship at least.
Let's look in the hangar and see what's gone missing.

(Edy) Yes, a small-ship's missing.
I guess she's gone speeding
off to Pluto, now that there's been no sight
or sound of the pirates these last weeks. All right,
let's call her. Let her know
we know
she's left and find out
where she is. She's been pouting
since we asked her to stay.
You call, okay?

(Helena) But I'm not the voice that she wants to hear.
As much as she likes you, it's not your voice either.
If I were to call, she'd cut the connection
and keep it turned off. Though she's probably fine,
it's not the right thing to have our main scientist
flitting about without supervision.
You do it, okay? She'll listen to you.

(Edy) She likes you now!
All those kisses! Wow!

Charlotte, it's Edy, on the main suit
channel. Can you hear me? Are you en route
to Pluto or have you landed? Where are you?
Give us some clue
so we can keep tabs on... Well, so we won't worry.
After last night, things are good, but also topsy-turvy.

They wait a little, giving Charlotte time
to answer them, but nothing comes across
except the crackle of the carrier wave.
The speaker flares to life: the pounding hooves
of horses, then a trumpet, then a man:

(Devlin) Well, neighbors, I've come to introduce myself—
to kick you out—
hope you haven't settled in.
I had to settle Ward 18
before I came by to darken your doorstep.
Harvey gave me the head's up, pretty faces
Charon-planted to warm up the Kuiper Belt.
I'd like to see, so answer on video.

Edy and Helena exchange one glance and run
in opposite directions: lab for Helena,
the bridge for Edy, taking out her palm
computer as she runs and wondering
what GC image she'll project with hair
unwashed and clothes from yesterday still on
(with wrinkles, too). And then she wonders why
she's just assumed she'll answer him the way
he's asked her to. While a delay might make
him angry, they could use the scramble time.

So Edy stops before the bridge to comb
her hair and change her clothes. She hopes Helena
will use these extra minutes readying
the fish, whatever they're supposed to do.
And tidy outside, scared inside, she clears
Helena's screens, directs them to the ship
for study. Magnifying shows a fleet.
Or maybe fear's a multiplier: three
makes no armada. Swallowing a gasp,
she notes the models of the ships: quite old.

(Edy) This is the Global Congress Leasing Board
for the Kuiper Belt Environs. I am the judge and jury when untoward
events occur that impact mining, miners, ore.
Who are you and what have you come here for?

(Devlin) Ah, no pretty faces. I respect
your choice to jump right in it:
give me a cut
of your profits before
they head back to Earth, signed, sealed,
written in a document with all your fancy titles
for believability. No swindling here, no leaning,
just acknowledge I'm in charge out here.
The law is my law.

(Edy) I told Mr. Lausenheimer and I'll tell
you now: threatening me doesn't end up well.
He no longer has a Miner, no means
to make a living. It seems
you'd like to go the same road:
up a creek, no paddle, sinking boat.

(Harvey Lausenheimer) Ah, here I am,
prospecting fine, new Miner
found out in Ward 18, little lady
wasn't big enough to hold onto it.
Devlin takes care of his own.

(Devlin) Well, Rep, you and what army
to scour the outer Wards for my Miner? Mistake
number one: you didn't think ahead
and we have: no Miners here.

(Edy) You think distance
matters? Physics
says it will take time,
but it'll still happen. Stymied?
Perhaps we could make an agreement
for you and your people that there's less sent
on to the GC, meaning you could keep more?
For people with your history and store
of experience, we could change the rates
if you will trade knowledge of the current state
of the Belt.
Isn't that better dealt?

(Devlin) That's your second
mistake, second chance too.
How can you know which one is mine?
I've called your bluff. Your deal
is interesting but I have an ace
and so I'll raise. Listen here:

(Charlotte) Edy, is that you? I found her,
almost figured Pluto's secrets
out to understand her actions.
Geysers and then lights too brightly
shining, people's arms restricting.
Seen her? Has she gone to Charon?

(Helena) Piranhas, away! You're good to go, Edy,
just give him a minute to find out his problem
and then he'll agree to whatever you please.

(Edy) Helena, I'm not sure you heard
the words
that Charlotte spoke. Could you come up
to the bridge and blow up
things from here?
I need you near.

(Helena) I'm coming, I'm coming. What's this about Charlotte?
Have you found her at last? Did she come back from Pluto?

(Edy) She came, and I'll show you just
how I know: they've kidnapped her, disgusting
filthy, underhanded pirate crew!
I'm of a mind to
blast them from the sky, assuming we had weapons.
We're just the paragons
of virtue and justice. With only our wits
for swords and knives. And maybe your fish?

(Helena) My fish are all gone, out hunting alone.
We'll see what this Devlin man says once they've bitten.
Is he waiting to hear you respond about Charlotte?
Stall him a little to give them some time
to scent on his blood and begin to devour.

(Edy) But what happens if your fish
eat Charlotte? How does she escape being a tasty dish?

Mr. Devlin, could you put Charlotte on again?
I'd like to know that she's okay. Is she within
your ship? Thank you for bringing her
back to us. And then I'll need to confer
with my partners about your offer.

(Devlin) You're stalling! Admit
the upper hand is mine!
Your partner's too crazy to come to the phone,
we've locked her up for the greater good.
(Not that red switch—that's life support!
What do you mean the diagnostic said to turn it off?)
I guess you'll get your extra time
to plot and plan your useless plots and plans.
(What happened
to the lights? Well, get them back!
The heat's gone too?)
I've got to roust my engineer.

(Helena) First blood to my fishes! They're off with the scent!
The others will home in and pick off the flesh,
until there's just bone. Those pirates will learn
how large are our teeth! They've much to regret.

(Edy) That's good, I guess, but what
about Charlotte?

(Charlotte) Left again, another lonely
madness, months of mathematics
not so beautiful as you.
Wish you'd said something before you
left, I might have changed my mind, I'd
learned to listen, hadn't I?
Ten years was a good long time.
Second time is harder, hardest.
Climbed the mountain, almost falling
right into your arms, and lost you,
gone in one bright flash. Another
like those red lights flashing over
top the door, no sirens screaming.
Coming back? Perhaps you're wanting
in? Just let me fiddle, palmtop
should be good enough to jigger
this old heap. The door is thinking
I should be locked in, but summing
keeps it busy, lets me open
it for you. Susannah, colder
still than Pluto, let me warm you.

(Devlin) Ah, Rep, you've spunk. Dastardly
ingenious virus that you've infected us with,
but my engineer's a pro
and she'll inoculate my ship
and re-inject yours with a strain dissimilar
enough to give you one slow cold death.

At this, Helena drops down into her seat,
a look of concentration on her face,
and checks the whereabouts of all her fish.
The school has swarmed to one point on the ship
that Devlin calls his own: the clear weak spot.
But looking closely she can she the pikes
this other engineer has built to block piranha.
She tells some fish to scent for openings
around other communications ports
and sneakily she splits her school in two:

one half, she tweaks their "DNA" and juts
their lower jaw much further out and grows
their teeth to longer length; the second half,
she tilts their swimming bladders 'round a bit.
The first she sends to bite into the pikes
and separate the spear points from the spears.
The others, thinner, sideways-slip between
the pounding pikes and penetrate the hull.
Then Helena reprograms what they smell as blood
to raise their frenzied fury further still.

And Devlin's laughing through the open line
as Edy frets, unraveling a hem.
A murmur in the background stops the sound
and even Helena glances at the line
as Devlin's laugh becomes a growing howl.

(Head Engineer) Devlin, stop bawling! Loud
enough to wake the dead and hard enough
to think, what with these fish devouring
the support systems. I'm rigging up some clotting
agents to staunch the blood and blind
these machine-virus hybrids attacking us.

Helena, amazed that Devlin's left the line
turned on this whole time, checks her fish and tunes
their love of blood to register the life
support, refines what's "bleeding" and what's not,
depending on the data she receives.

(Head Engineer) Ah, too slow, the blood-scent's stuck
to life support itself. The only way
to clear them out now
is to shut down the ship. Stop,
Devlin, we need to hide and dock.

(Edy) Mr. Devlin, I'm still waiting to hear
your answer to my offer. I think it's fair
to trade your knowledge for a smaller cut
as tax. Perhaps you could stop strutting
and, maybe, hon,
we could get to the details of the negotiations?

She winks at Helena, who answers back in kind
and then begins to scramble underneath
the electronics scattered all about
her workstation. She smiles back at Edy,
uncovering a small box with a button.
She syncs it to her main controls and types
a new set of instructions, taps return,
and waits some moments, Devlin sputtering
then quiet through the open line, until
the red lights blink and blink and then turn green.

The sirens alternating off and on
have forced Charlotte's concentration down
to smallest space: Susannah sits beside
her, gesturing to ask about her suit,
so Charlotte starts to open pockets, says:

(Charlotte) Methane cycle's what's important:
crystallizes into third state,
unpredicted: cloaks itself in
other compounds, bursts to pieces
only when the insolation
reaches it, instead of outer
molecules. Solo patches
rare. You want to see? It's pretty
fun to watch the ice subliming.
Wait a second, need a helmet.

So Charlotte's fastened on her spacesuit helm
and opened up a pocket full of ice
that's held at Pluto temperatures to keep
it pristine 'til she has it in her lab,
as pirate-miner-drafted-guard stops by
to check his quarry, finds the unlocked cage,
but bird still there and talking to herself.
As he comes closer, Charlotte notices
and, worried for Susannah, flings the ice
straight at his face. The cold begins to burn

but it's the methane gas that he inhales
that suffocates him. Charlotte grabs Susannah
and picks their way around the body. Hands
still clasped, she follows as Susannah makes
her way around the corner, wearing gas
like blustry cloaks of gossamer. Alarms
keep sounding, footsteps running just beyond
the corridor they're in. They pass unseen.
The temperature keeps dropping as they move
through lower levels of the ship, her suit

keeps warning her it's running low on fuel
to hold her body at the standard T
and P. The glow around Susannah grows
and Charlotte's smile begins to hurt her face.
She clanks into the wall; Susannah's stopped.

(Charlotte) Stopped? Oh, you've found a doorway.
Shall we go exploring? Always
liked to walk, impatient, painting
starlit cactus portals reaching
up like Pluto's geysers while I
caught and stored the heavens heaving.
Wandered far this time without me.
Once I lost you at Mt. Lemmon,
hidden, huddled at the summit,
saying, teary-faced but stubborn,
that you'd found the perfect landscape.
True, it sold for forty thousand.
Don't cry now, I've come to fetch you.
Time to give the lie to Hades:
follow me, I won't look backwards
all the time it takes for learning
how I should have known to listen.

(Devlin) I guess you have the day
but not the battle, this war
isn't over. While we've got power
and your crazy scientist as hostage,
I'll leave you with a couple parting shots.
The law is mine,
so's the heavy artillery.

Helena jumps up and hits the magnify
which shows a figure falling from the base
of Devlin's ship. In Charon's gravity,
the fall is small, but just in case, she thrusts
the small black-buttoned box to Edy's hands.

(Helena) I'm off to the hangar, I'm taking a ship.
That's Charlotte out there, she's found a way out
and I've got to go get her, you don't fly that well.
The moment you see me fly out from the station,
press hard on that button and don't be afraid.
And don't be surprised, that Devlin will bargain.
We're more than he bargained for. Fleece him as much as you can.

So Edy listens to the panicked noise
from Devlin's bridge until he cuts the line.
She watches as the ship accelerates,
he doesn't seem to notice that he's lost
a passenger. She does begin to note
his ship is threatening the station, swooping
and closing within firing range for ships
as old as his. She frets until their ship
debarks the station, speeding toward the pirates.
She mashes down the button hard and rocks

a little when she hears the sound of guns,
the 1812-with-cannons symphony,
and sees the missiles cleanly miss the ships
but close. She takes three steps and opens up
the line to Devlin. Now she knows they've won.

(Edy) Devlin, that's your finale.
Turn your ships around. We won't miss with a second volley.
We believe in clemency
and my policy
is that my previous offer stands.
Perhaps you should even land.

(Global Congress Officer Whitehall) The Representative is right.
You should stand down your weapons now.
My name is Melanie Whitehall
and I am here to lead the force
which will police the Kuiper Belt.
I'm sorry that we're late, Edy.
My sergeant's on his way to you,
Darius Devlin. Set your ship
beside the station and let him
and his party come aboard.
And Edy, I'll be by to talk
to you, once you've regained your group,
about those missiles that your ship
has fired, since it's not equipped
with weapons. Or it wasn't when
you left. What has been going on?

And Edy slumps down to the floor and cries
as Devlin says surrender, lands his ship
on ice. No argument. She rises to
her knees and slaps the outside cameras
to life. Where's Helena? Where's Charlotte? Nothing.
She punches switches with her fist, to find
the small-ship's status and trajectory.
The blurring script says that the ship has docked
and only then does she begin to hear
the pull-slide-pull of Helena with Charlotte.

(Helena) We're back in one piece. Well, mostly, I think.
And a fine job you did with those loathsome old pirates.
I liked how your voice rang out loud with the missiles.

(Charlotte) Put me down! You're squeezing me too
hard. I know you didn't miss me.

(Helena) I missed you, it's true! You don't know what we did,
what we went through to find you and get you back here.
And your leg isn't holding you up at the moment,
so I am. Stop wiggling now. Then Edy
and I can set your cold self in this chair.

(Edy) Uh, Helena, about those missiles...
GC Command seems to be full
of questions about where they came from.
You didn't do anything, um,
horrible to get them, did you?
Although, I could be counsel for you.
I'm the best
this far west.

(Helena) I just used whatever was lying around.
And oodles of time on the lengthy trip here.
I needed some project to offset the boredom.
And plus it's their fault for leaving us open
to such an attack. Let's worry it later.

(Charlotte) Should get back to work. My samples
melting messy in my pockets.
Had a new thought for my model:
terminator as step-function.
Want to know if it's a good one.
One of you will fly me over,
later, to the ship on Pluto?
Weather station probes in storage
need to be unpacked and tested.
After binding up my ankle.

(Edy) Charlotte, what about Susannah?
Aren't you going to do, uh,
anything about her?
Otherwise, why go running to Pluto for her?

(Charlotte) Out there picking probe locations,
searching for the panoramic
Pluto landscapes for her paintings.
Did I tell you that she painted?
Starscapes, sometimes, when neglected.
My neglect, which made her lonely.
Listening's my new job, second
chance at loving, hearing Pluto
and Susannah sharing secrets.

(Edy) Charlotte, are you sure
she's wandering on Pluto, not some blur
of memory you need to see? This whole ordeal
exhausted you, your zeal
for Pluto, long hours in the lab
opened past wounds whose scabs
were not fully done.
Are you sure she's the one?

(Helena) It's true we've not seen her, but I'm willing to trust
she's benign if she says so. We all have our ghosts.
This one might be useful. Or good company.

With that, she puts a hand on Charlotte's arm
and squeezes, just to say she cares. Edy,
relieved to see them honest and no fight
intended, brewing, any other verb,
dissolves to tears again and hugs them both.
She kisses them, one cheek to either side,
her lips between, and wishes they could meet
like this always, although she'd miss the pinch
of Charlotte's mouth when Helena makes a joke.
A good look tells her Helena might have more

in store for her next time she tries to rib
at Charlotte, sparkles set within her eyes
speak well for sparring later. Trickle-tears
are crawling down Helena's face, are caught,
concave, within her smile. Charlotte leans
to press them both, their skin reminding her
of old love, young love yet to happen, love
unfading. With Susannah's help, she'll know
the total that there is to know of death,
of Pluto, private metaphor and models,

eventually equations for the paths
that Charon took and Pluto took to twine
themselves around each other, make a point
of gravity that takes all three of them
(the resonance of Neptune and their pasts),
a center lodged outside of each of them.
With Edy's and Helena's patience, she will plot
celestial mechanics for them forward,
the stark white lines of chalk against the board
as bodies orbit. Life will find a way.
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