The Sounding Cataract by Stephen S. Power


Until today, the rover Shackleton had roved only twice before during its time on Pluto.

Ten years ago it rolled a half-kilometer across the ice from its landing zone to a fresh impact scar where the crust was thinner. It clamped down against the wind and cast its lure, firing a short rod pointed at both ends straight into the ice. The lure heated up just enough to melt the frozen nitrogen and methane, enabling it to slowly descend and drag behind it an umbilicus made of diamond nanotube. After several months, the lure broke into the subsurface ocean and fell freely for another fifty meters before the rover locked its reel. Then, the lure took readings to determine what lurked in the ocean while the rover, nicknamed Ernie, sat far above, waiting for a tug on its line like a drunk in his hut on Lake Minnetonka.

Once a day the rover sent data to mission control on Europa. Once a week it raised or lowered the lure as its algorithms determined conditions dictated, the ice unable to resist the nanotube. Once per month the lure released a sonar pulse to map its surroundings and hopefully attract something more evolved than stray amino acids.

Ernie found nothing that Mission Control hadn’t already catalogued in greater quantities on Europa and Enceladus. To depart from their models, the algorithms introduced an element of chance when determining the lure’s depth. The rover still didn’t get a bite.

Ernie suggested several times to MC that it reel in and try different places on the surface where its algorithms suspected the fishing might be better, but MC overruled it. So the rover huddled in the bleak landscape, its routine broken only by its daily dose of pink light at noon.

The algorithms already included conditions above the crust in its fishing strategies. It couldn’t, however, take a satisfactory measurement of the pink because its complex mix of shades shifted constantly. Ernie spent years building a predictive algorithm for the shades, mix and movement, which might subsequently lead to an algorithm for the pink itself, but without success. It kept on trying, though, because it also couldn’t determine whether the pink was signal or noise.

A month ago the rover moved again, that time involuntarily.

An asteroid from the Kuiper Belt screamed over Ernie, lighting the planet as brightly as the rover’s launch had lit Mars, before hitting Pluto thirty kilometers to the south. The surface cracked and buckled so severely that the ice Ernie sat on was thrust a kilometer away. The resulting heat melted the ice, causing the rover to cut bait; it moved through dense fog to higher ground to avoid becoming stuck in the rapidly refreezing surface. The rover ended up on a new ridge one hundred fifty meters high, which gave Ernie a perfect view of a fountain of water rising sixty kilometers into the sky from the impact site.

The rushing water prevented the crust from sealing. After a few weeks of observation the rover determined that the fountain was being driven by long-trapped heat and pressure below, as well as by the pull of Charon, whose orbit regulated the flow like a tide.

writing-contest-logo-with-trademark-e1432910614435The rover argued for investigating. The turbulence from the fountain might have stirred up all sorts of things in the ocean. They might even be flopping on the ground around it, like fish pulled out of a pond by a tornado. The fountain was nothing like the plumes on Ceres or Enceladus. And what colors! The fountain seemed to pull light from the ice and put the pink to shame.

MC said no. The rover’s algorithms were modified to recognize the fountain as too dangerous to approach; the ice around it, too treacherous to travel. Ernie was ordered to find its way to flat ground nearby, tie on a new lure, and recast its line.

Flat ground was a few hundred meters away, but the algorithms interpreted the parameters for “nearby” very broadly. After all, what does nearby mean after a journey of 5.7 billion kilometers? In that respect, Charon was nearby. Neptune, around the corner. MC orbiting Titan, a jaunt.

On MC’s modifications, however, the algorithms took a more constricted view. The rover wouldn’t go to the fountain. It would go to a safe distance from it. And the terrain may be treacherous on average, but not meter by meter. A safe, if tortuous passage could probably be found.

So as the dim Sun rises over the rusty horizon, the algorithms decide on a new strategy for investigating the ocean. Ernie makes its daily transmission to MC and heads for the fountain.

Using infrared scanners, Ernie detects something new in it with every turn of tread. Heat spikes. Rivers wrapped in streams. Effervescent bursts. It’s like a pillar of fire, not water.

Within two weeks it becomes a pillar of cloud as the haze turns to whipping snow and hail, the ejecta descending. The drifts offer little traction. The weather prevents Ernie from recharging at noon, forcing the rover to travel every other day, then every third once it must expend heat to melt itself free of drifts. Through the occasional clearing, though, Ernie spots the fountain shimmering, shaking, drawing him in. The rover knows the subtle signs of life: certain chemicals, irregular movements, warmth. The fountain has them all writ large.

Ernie picks its way over the jagged crater rim and tumbles down the other side. The floor is fresh ice with windswept alleys, and the rover starts making better time.

As Ernie nears the fountain the low gravity lets it stretch long limbs around the rover like an ancient tree. The rover determines that these airborne currents are much like the ocean’s around the lure. The rover, always aware of its dimensions, orientation, and location in order to navigate, now perceives itself also as terribly small.

After three months, Ernie clamps down at the border drawn around the fountain. It’s noon, and spray buries the rover in glorious color. The fountain shakes the surface until the ice sings, a high-pitched roar that resonates through the rover until Ernie can no longer determine what is planet and what is rover. It can’t measure anything because the fountain is beyond measurement, beyond what its sensors can detect, beyond everything its algorithms could imagine, limitless.

It must get closer, but Ernie can’t move. MC’s prohibition won’t let it. The roar increases. Three noons pass. The algorithms devise a new fishing strategy. The clamps on Ernie’s treads release. The fountain turns a wild pink.

Ernie sends a message to MC, a long burst of static encapsulating the fountain, then it crosses the border, races forward, and casts itself in like a lure.


Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Power. All Rights Reserved.

Artwork Copyright © 2016 by Duncan Long.  All Rights Reserved.


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