An Eon-old, Icy Tomb

This flash fiction piece was originally published by Pale Ghosts Magazine. I wanted to share this story again on the anniversary of Pluto’s discovery in 1930.

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Colina slid across the surface of a frozen nitrogen lake, kicking up a haze of dust and ice. The gravity was not strong enough to pull him completely to the surface, but his momentum dragged him forward, scrapping his suit against several icy ridges. One sharp edge punctured his suit just below the right shoulder. The pressurized interior of the suit erupted through this opening, and Colina could see a gaseous jet of steam violently deflecting off the ice beneath him.

Hiller slowed his long strides just enough to bend down and wrap his arms around Colina. Regaining their footing, both men continued their retreat. In such low gravity, their movement resembled a long, awkward skip. Colina pressed a gloved hand over the puncture in his suit, hoping to stop the pressure and oxygen from escaping too fast.

Colina and Hiller were two of the three crewmembers of the Agnosta mission. The Agnosta had launched from Earth over a decade before, with each of the crewmembers kept in stasis for the journey to Pluto.

A century earlier, New Horizons successfully reached Pluto, sending tantalizing photographs and data about the dwarf planet back to Earth. These images and findings were eagerly released to the media, with one significant exception. New Horizons had photographed a mysterious object at the foot of the Wright Mons – a massive cryovolcano to the southwest of the Norgay Montes. The predominant theory was that this cryovolcano brought the mysterious object to the surface from within the pressurized interior of the dwarf planet. The object was believed to be a spacecraft of unknown origin.

Subsequent probes attempted to study the craft with mixed success. When a surface rover failed to negotiate the rugged terrain to the south of Sputnik Planum, plans were laid for the Agnosta mission.

After landing near the Wright Mons on a rocky outcropping between the Norgay Montes and Cthulhu Regio, the crew had spent two days preparing research equipment. On the third day, Hiller and Colina left the lander for their mysterious target. Yamamoto, the mission commander, stayed behind, monitoring the progress of her crew. The careful walk from the lander across the frozen nitrogen lake went as expected.

The first tremor created noticeable cracks on the icy lake surface not long after the pair had reached the foot of the cryovolcano.

Despite this ominous development, Hiller and Colina continued to their destination and spent several hours studying the craft. Chisels were used to remove icy masses from the bizarre fuselage. Measurements and photographs were taken. One occupant, frozen in place where one might expect to find a pilot, was oddly familiar in appearance. Cameras mounted on Hiller and Colina’s suits sent footage back to Yamamoto. The mission commander found the inscriptions on the outside of the craft to be fascinating. Although the language was alien, there was no doubt that a certain pattern on the craft seemed to show a solar system – a star encircled by eight planets. An accompanying design seemed to indicate that the craft had originated on the third planet and traveled beyond the eighth. Yamamoto, Hiller, and Colina were still processing this implication when the occasional tremors suddenly turned into an eruption.

Rushing down the slope as quickly as possible, Colina had repeatedly stumbled, finally falling and damaging his suit once reaching the lake. The Wright Mons released a fury of ice, rock, and nitrogen.

The nitrogen was the real concern.

On the surface of Pluto, nitrogen was volatile. The low pressure boiled some of the nitrogen into a gas, creating a hazy blue fog. The incredibly low temperatures froze some of the nitrogen, resurfacing the lake. Unfortunately, a considerable portion of the nitrogen stayed a liquid wave. This wave gained on the desperately skipping Agnosta crewmen.

The lake shook violently, opening a massive chasm in front of Colina. Unable to stop, Colina tumbled into this chasm ahead of a rush of liquid nitrogen. Hiller threw himself onto the surface of the lake and reached down into the chasm.

“Jump!” Hiller shouted. His voice came to Colina’s ears laced with static.

The blue fog blanketed the chasm. Hiller could no longer see Colina, but he could hear the man’s fading cries.

Suddenly, Hiller felt Colina grab both of his hands.

“I’ve got you!” Hiller called.

Having heard their desperate shouts on her transmitter, Yamamoto quickly donned a suit and, with a specialized ice axe in hand, rushed out to save her crew. The fog was impossibly thick, and she could not see the front of the nitrogen wave. Chunks of ice and snow fell to the ground slowly, but in such density that little was visible to her.

“I’ve got him!” Hiller called over the transmitter. “We’re a hundred meters from the lander but I’m pulling him out.”

Hiller twisted his body to lift Colina from the chasm but was hardly able to move. The chasm was nearly filled with nitrogen, and Hiller knew that Colina was submerged in the liquid. Hiller pulled again to no avail.

Splashing through nitrogen, Yamamoto could see Hiller’s form on the surface of the lake. She called out to him.

“My arms!” Hiller shouted back. “I’m stuck!”

Hiller’s arms had frozen in the chasm.

Yamamoto rushed forward, swinging the axe down into the chasm with all the force she could muster. The nitrogen was too deep now, and she knew the chasm was nearly frozen solid. She wouldn’t be able to hack Hiller’s arms out of the ice in time.

“Pull on me!” Hiller cried.

Yamamoto grabbed Hiller around the chest and pulled back. Hiller strained with his back and legs. With a rush of movement, Yamamoto and Hiller tumbled backward. Hiller’s screams deafened the Agnosta commander.

Hiller had freed his arms, but the ice had ripped off his gloves. His hands and wrists were exposed to the freezing, near-vacuum of Pluto.

His hands immediately discolored and swelled. Yamamoto scrambled in the freezing slush to lift Hiller to his feet, but his suit completely depressurized in seconds. He gagged and choked as his blood began to boil in the thin atmosphere.

Hiller fell away from Yamamoto, collapsing down into the slush in agony. Yamamoto could only save herself now. She turned to begin striding toward the lander.

Her feet did not move. The slush from the eruption was now above her ankles, and she realized that she would join Colina, Hiller, and, most likely, the Agnosta lander in becoming a part of the frozen nitrogen lake. She briefly envisioned her crew and lander being regurgitated by the Wright Mons eons in the future, as the ice of the lake was forced down, partially melted, pressurized, and forced through the cryovolcano.

Surely, that’s what had happened with the mysterious spacecraft that the Agnosta had come to study. The mysterious spacecraft that had traveled from Earth millions of years ago to this same point, for purposes only to be imagined, and crewed by a race of previously unknown, but obviously very intelligent, theropods, only to be trapped on the surface of this same lake.

Yamamoto imagined space-faring dinosaurs escaping the Earth sixty-five million years earlier in order to avoid the Chicxulub asteroid.

As the nitrogen slush slowly consumed her, she wondered what, if anything, might one day come along next, only to inevitably join her in this icy tomb.

The Indigo Skies on Proxima b

A future day dawns over human settlers on Proxima Centauri b.

Indigo skies swirl beyond the Melanippe Montes
Juxtaposed with a ruddy glow – twilight is appearing
A tangerine ember on the horizon haunts
Dying obsidian shadows – Proxima is dawning

Marigold beams leap over the vast Ocyrhoe Mare
Soothing the ancient basalt lee – the Sisters are dancing
Gathering warmth generates wind for all to share
Ice breaks on the Chariclo Sea – b is quickly rousing

Oily, ebony foliage responds to morning
Leaves twist and contort rapidly – human engineering
An early riser is leery of star flaring
Handles tungsten covers wisely – radiation shielding

Tedious tasks are performed in a constant gloom
Proxima wanders the heavens – the Sisters are watching
Each sibling shines a route through the dark, endless tomb
Where both light and time are woven – four years in the making

 

 

Joshua Scully writes speculative fiction and can be found @jojascully.

A Grave Discovery on Christmas Eve

Not everyone gets to spend Christmas Eve patiently anticipating St. Nick.

“I’m not paying for your opinion,” Charles Penn growled, “I’m paying for you to dig.”

Jacob McKean scowled but thrust his spade back down into the earth.

With the night concealing their illicit deed, both men shamelessly removed dirt from the grave. Charles Penn feared the cold ground of the graveyard may present a challenge, but the first few days of winter had proven merciful – the earth had not yet frozen. Only one lantern illuminated their clandestine endeavor, but the soft glow of the moon allowed each man to see the bottom of the deepening hole.

Madeline Penn had rested in her grave for only three short weeks before her husband decided upon this nefarious exhumation. There was no doubt to Jacob McKean that Penn was painfully eager to see his wife – albeit for apparently devious reasons.

“Only another foot or so,” Penn offered between heavy breaths. His comment sought to reassure his tired upper body more so than his hired help.

“Climbing out of here isn’t going to be so easy,” McKean grunted.

Charles Penn was aware that his associate was becoming more sober by the minute. If McKean fully regained his senses, he would undoubtedly ask many, many more questions. Penn had purposefully plied the younger man with whiskey several hours earlier at a nearby tavern. The alcohol had made McKean much more agreeable and eager to earn a few coins despite the holiday.

“We are almost finished,” Penn encouraged again.

McKean didn’t respond. He only wearily sighed and kept digging. 

“Trust me,” Penn continued, “I am sure that the necklace my wife was buried with will collect a small fortune. Your share will be worth your labor and more.”

“I hope,” McKean groaned. “Those couple shillings would have otherwise never got me tonight.”

Of course, there was no necklace. The Penns owned very little of value. If the family had possessed such a prized item, the piece would have been sold and not buried. Charles Penn was left with three small children to care for at home after the fever took his wife. Any opportunity for extra financial support would have been readily seized.

Charles Penn had another motive for his Christmas Eve exploits. This reason was potentially far more sinister than that of an ordinary grave robber. Although Penn kept his observations to himself, he was certainly pleased the grave appeared undisturbed. That eased his nerves somewhat.

A hollow thud announced McKean’s spade striking an object at the bottom of the grave. This was no rock or hardened clump of soil.

“The coffin!” Penn shouted with relief. He immediately recoiled, fearing his proclamation was too loud.

“Sounds to be the lid,” McKean replied. He dropped down onto his knees and raked the remaining soil away with his hands. 

“I’ll dig around the coffin,” Penn said as McKean returned to his feet. “Can you climb out and retrieve my sack?”

Jacob McKean glared at his temporary employer. Charles Penn was a rotund man and climbing out of the grave would undoubtedly be a challenge for him.

Penn carefully dug a trench around the coffin, providing a place for the two men to stand. McKean scurried and scrambled up one side of the grave and momentarily disappeared before descending back into the hole with Penn’s mysterious sack. McKean dropped the sack down on the coffin.

“Merry Christmas,” McKean scoffed.

“My apologies,” Penn offered with a weak smile, “but we’ll also need the lantern.”

McKean sighed and shook his head. He clamored back up one side of the grave and carefully returned into the grave with the lantern.

“Would you be kind enough to hold the lantern?” Penn asked.

McKean nodded and held the lantern over the coffin. Penn finished the trench, wiped a sleeve over his forehead, and lowered the sack down next to his feet. He opened the sack and carefully removed an iron pry bar, hammer, and pistol.

McKean immediately stepped back upon seeing the pistol, suspecting that a double-cross was afoot. He was very surprised when Penn calmly handed him the firearm.

“Just in case there is any trouble,” the widower explained.

Charles Penn positioned the pry bar under the coffin lid and carefully hammered the bar inward. He repeated this process numerous times. McKean moved with the lantern to illuminate wherever Penn was hammering. The stout man worked slowly but with great precision. After carefully dislodging the nails, Penn returned to his sack and crouched down into the trench as low as possible.

“Now, be ready for anything,” Penn warned in a whisper.

McKean looked upward, supposing that Penn suspected someone was approaching the grave. Only a patchwork of stars, a pale moon, and the looming spire of St. Dymphna’s Church were visible, but he cautiously pointed the pistol toward the opening above anyway.

“No,” Penn said sharply. “Down here.” The older man pushed the iron bar under the coffin lid. The bar easily slid inside. “I’m going to lift the lid on the count of three.”

McKean steadied the pistol at the coffin, grateful that he was no longer seeing double.

“One.”

McKean took a deep breath.

“Two.”

McKean raised the lantern as high as his left arm would allow.

“Three!” Penn shouted. With one forceful motion, Charles Penn thrust his body forward and the wooden lid flipped off the coffin and tumbled against the legs and feet and his associate.

Neither man said a word. Both took a long, silent minute to assess the contents of the pine tomb.

The sides of the coffin and underside of the lid were gouged with deep, rough marks. There were also a few small, dark stains visible.

The bottom of the coffin appeared to have similar marks, but this could not be discerned for certain because most of the bottom wooden panels was missing.

There was no body – only a circular, jagged hole in the bottom of the coffin.

Charles Penn leaned over the coffin and lowered one end of the iron pry bar into this hole, which extended into the cold earth beneath.

There was no obvious bottom. The decaying remains of Madeline Penn had not merely slipped through inferior wood or poor craftsmanship into the muddy recess of the grave.

McKean lowered the lantern toward the hole. The golden light illuminated an apparent tunnel extending below the coffin.

Charles Penn hadn’t suspected this particular outcome, but he wasn’t necessarily surprised either. His children had come to him each of the last several days explaining that their mother had visited them at various places and times. She wasn’t quite herself, but each of the children had been mostly pleased to see her.

Penn initially wrote this off as nothing more than young hearts pining for their lost mother. However, one of the children from the neighboring farm went missing soon after his children reported the first ghostly encounter. The father of that child had also claimed to see the undead Madeline Penn scurrying about on her hands and feet as if she were some type of animal.

“Where the hell does this go?” McKean asked. 

Charles Penn carefully read the face of Jacob McKean in the dim light. He understood that McKean hadn’t the slightest idea of what the pair had found.

Santa Thomas Nast.jpg
Thomas Nast’s Merry Old Santa Claus – 1881. 

Penn next thought of his children, each snug in their beds just a few miles from the graveyard and, that very moment, under the watchful eye of his sister. His children were anticipating a visit from St. Nicholas that night, and he suspected many of the neighboring children were as well. He imagined a fiendishly resurrected Madeline descending the crumbling masonry of a chimney or two in place of the jolly, old saint.

“Grave robbers,” Penn said dutifully after mulling over the circumstances and possibilities. “The rascals have beaten us.”

“The thieves took the entire body?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Disgusting.”

“However, I don’t doubt this tunnel does lead somewhere,” Penn speculated. “Perhaps even to the scoundrels’ lair.”

A cold, dank gust of air lifted out of the tunnel.

“Definitely,” McKean replied.

Penn was silent for a moment and then made a fateful offer.

“Mr. McKean, how would you like to earn an additional five guineas?”

Pietro_Pajetta_-_Der_Hass_-_1896.jpeg
Pietro Pajetta – Der Hass – 1896

 

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Joshua Scully writes speculative fiction and can be found @jojascully.