The icepack cracked suddenly, reminder of the megatons of frozen nitrogen doing its inexorable slow march across Tombaugh Regio. The lander from Pluto Expedition VI stood safely on the granite-hard shelf of water ice overlooking the glaciers, its ultra-bright spotlights shining on a lone figure making its way over tumbled chunks of ice painted pink under a thick layer of Plutonian tholins.
“Garcia, you’re just about there,” a suit radio crackled. Ahead of Dr. Lisa Garcia (PhD Astrogeology), was the Enigma. Pyramidal, ancient, utterly alien. It stood 100 or so meters above the plane, pitted with countless micrometeorite impacts; gray like Charon hanging enormous in the blue-tinged sky. She was making for the entrance.
In her suit she could her the hydraulics murmuring, pumping heated fluids to her extremities, ensuring that she wouldn’t freeze solid traipsing around in -240 degrees. “Garcia, the stack of icerock that Expedition V left is to your right about 12 meters. That was the limit of their excursion before the light show.” The light show. Expedition V got within spitting distance of the Enigma before it began to emanate bright pulses of intense white light. The team decided to stop and return to a failsafe location when an oxygen tank ruptured on the lander. The mission commander assumed the two were related and they retreated all the way back to Triton station.
Expedition VI was going to get inside the Enigma.
“Garcia, the infrared map shows the area immediately to northwest of you is completely dead. Take that path.” She turned left and brought up her HUD display, asking the computer to highlight any zone that had thermal activity. As best as they could figure, the Enigma once had a network of sensors around it, but over the ages they appeared to have failed. Expedition V was unlucky enough to find a working one. There was plenty of speculation as to why the pyramid needed an alarm system, but there was no way to see inside it. One Pseudo-8 android was dropped near the Enigma’s base and it managed to image the entire western face of the structure up close until it inexplicably failed. Garcia could see its frozen grimace on the telephoto camera; she hoped that she would look slightly less grotesque if put in the same position.
She trudged on until she was standing within the massive overhanging portal they called the entrance. It was like an ancient cathedral back on Earth, the door hidden in inset layers deepening away into darkness. The small sled she had been pulling along behind her was rummaged through, and a row of floodlights was produced. She snapped the bright orange legs together and powered it on, throwing the receding arches into stark relief. Her suit camera was recording the scene, sending the images back to the lander; a wolf whistle broke the silence. “Goddamn! Look at that!” it was Dr. Allen, the mission’s token Texan and MD. “D’ya think that whatever made this was human-sized, ‘cause I sure as shit don’t.”
Garcia reattached the sled and walked deeper into the archway, the ground sloping slightly downward. Her helmet lights showed that gray material, like concrete or stone, formed the surface she walked on. “I can see about 10 meters ahead of me but beyond that is pitch black” she reported on her radio. She turned toward the wall and picked up her pace. In her suit she could feel the crunch of her boots on the floor and looked for evidence of seams or designs, but saw nothing but bland featurelessness. At the base of the inner arches she stopped and reviewed the infrared cam but there were no fluctuations in temperature. The arches soared up beyond the dim illumination of the floodlights behind her and she looked closely at the walls. “Guys, I am seeing some fainting indentations here that look like crenellations or…” she stopped speaking. The markings were very familiar…similar to waveform patterns with regular spikes and troughs like what you would see on an audio equalizer’s display.
“Guys, there are definitely patterns inscribed on the arches.” Back at the lander the team began analyzing the images. “Garcia, we’re feeding the images into the computer to see if we can make anything of them. In the meantime, we want you to continue down as far as you can go.” She was excited by this small discovery, but down in the dark she knew there were bigger mysteries with the possibly of even bigger solutions.
She turned around and retrieved from the sled a small robot with six wheels. Powering it on it gave a connection beep on her suit radio and two LED lights fired up. On her HUD she could see the robot’s eye view of the ground. Directing it with a touchpad on her wrist, she sent the little robot rolling down into the blackness. “The first visitor to the front door won’t be me” she mused. “Base, I have a cam-bot on its way down right now, I don’t want any surprises beyond the minimum necessary.” The video feed showed the same basic gray surface flashing by, proximity sensors not registering anything near enough to see.
For several minutes the cam-bot rolled its way down, the slope extremely gentle but obvious. Garcia’s helmet began to beep, the ‘bot’s proximity detector indicated it was getting close to something solid. Using her control pad she oriented the camera and lights to look up, and saw a wall of reflective blue, or black, or…she couldn’t really tell. The lights from the robot seemed to penetrate it like it were made of ice. She directed it to roll right up to the wall’s surface. Suddenly the image went black and the tiny point of light that she could see off in the distance extinguished.
“Guys, the cam-bot just died. I’m not receiving any additional telemetry…it looks like I’m going to have to walk down there myself.” Dr. Allen broke in, “Ya’ll be careful down there, remember ain’t nothing worth dying for…yet.” She walked back to the floodlights, detached them from the stand, and brought them back. She reattached them to her sled, pushing it in front of her like a shopping cart, its length gave her some small comfort as a barrier to the unknown. Steeling her nerve, she looked down into the maw of alien darkness. Garcia then took a long sip of water from the tube in her helmet and radioed back to base, “Here goes nothing,” and began her long walk.
[to be continued]