by Robert Kostuck

The chronometer reads seventy-two hours into a one hundred fifty-three hour Plutonian day—six o’clock in the morning Luna time. Our sailboat Moth anchored one hundred ninety-four kilometers roughly SSE from the edge of the mountains. I close the field guide I fell asleep reading, perform morning ablutions, exercise, and sip coffee. Automatically glance up at a plastic urn on the storage rack, imagine our daughter Robin’s ashes shifting in weak gravity.

We work ten hours on and take ten hours off.  From the stern a fine haze is visible around the peaks of al-Idrisi Montes. Above us the government’s tidally-locked weather and radio satellite glints silver and gold.

Out here the nitrogen convection cells turn more slowly (plus and plus millions of years) and tholins are almost non-existent. The sublimation pits are deep, more numerous, and arranged in sweeping lines; many have slumped in on themselves.

In the past four and a half days—one month in standard Luna time—we’ve dropped a half dozen claim markers, all unlikely to produce enough white ice to make extraction worthwhile. Recharging our single seeker therm back at Port Challenger was cost prohibitive; but we draw on our wildcat foot-eye experience—me on Triton and Europa, Lucia on Ceres and Callisto—both of us on Earth and Mars—walking over the carbon monoxide-tinted nitrogen ice cells looking for indications of buried white ice. Chunks hammered or blasted out, coated with a ceramic seal, and attached to the three-, seven-, and eleven-person stellar probe ships. The UN funds a handful of yearly launches from Port Valeria on Titania; a solar system lottery provides people willing to travel into Spatium Incognita. A huge lode of white ice would increase those launches four-fold.

Two kilometers away Chance and Luck pull a graphene sledge over the billowed surface of Sputnik Planitia. Lucia balances on the rear runners and guides the dogs with a simple remote control—start stop, fast slow, left right—along a French curve of collapsed sublimation pits. When the airlock hatch makes that clanking sound, I add three spoonfuls of sugar to her coffee and pinch our breakfast pods to release the steam.

“I dreamed about Lightning Ridge,” I say.

“Those were the days.” Lucia flaps open a napkin. “Black opals for the picking.”

“The smell of gum trees, the kangaroos, goannas, and flying foxes—the birds!”

“Just another cold world.” She sets down her fork, moves her cup a fraction of a centimeter. “I can feel it through the hull. Every year we’re farther from the sun. It never ends.”

“Two years—”

“I can still picture the IV needle jabbing her arm.” I turn my back to her, scrub clean pans in the sink. “Now we know more about sepsis then we ever wanted to. We’re experts.”

“I feel honored to carry this burden of our daughter’s death. When I’m ready to let go I’ll let you know.”

Wrinkled food pods, bitter coffee, grains of spilt salt.

Lucia buries herself under crumpled blankets, pulls the privacy curtain across the side of the bunk.

I hook our robot sled dogs Chance and Luck to the charger, pull up a tablet map, and hoist the sails. Weak solar radiation pushes us forward.  Take the rudder, tack to starboard. The graphene hull glides over smooth, rock hard nitrogen. Turn to a dog-eared page in A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia and stare at a color plate: Pale Yellow, Mangrove, Scarlet, Hooded, Pink, Flame, Rose. Robin, robin, robin. Robin.






The surface ice sublimates and replenishes Pluto’s ongoing loss of atmospheric nitrogen. A quarter of a million elongated sublimation pits cover Sputnik Planitia, most about two hundred meters wide and three to five hundred meters long. Never mapped, we crisscross the convection cells and occasionally find the remains of abandoned mines. Ramps blasted out to allow excavator access, jagged heaps of blue ice tailings, hand-made markers where cave-ins cover the bodies of unlucky or unskilled prospectors.

An anomaly: a deep, tholin-encrusted gap between two cells over three hundred kilometers from al-Idrisi Montes. I review my decision not to recharge the seeker therm, never expecting this. I lower the climbing net and wait two minutes for it to stick to the vertical side of the gap. The dogs enter sleep mode to conserve energy. A dwarf planet with a fifty-meter deep rift—nothing on a universal scale, but images of Mars’ Valles Marineris and Earth’s Grand Canyon fill my mind. That’s unproductive negative thinking.

The walls and wide base of the rift are reddish-brown. I switch on the helmet light and scratch the floor with a small pick. In places the tholin layer is one centimeter thick. I do the math and come up with an original formation date of just under one and a quarter million years. I activate a marker, climb out and pull up the net.

The rift runs from north to southeast, with an oblique angle where three convection cells meet. I follow the rift, activate and drop markers at the north end, the angle, the southeast end and ten places in-between. Returning to my starting place, the sledge odometer reads sixteen point two kilometers. I estimate two hundred meters across at the narrowest point, enough for several one ton excavators.

I glance at the radio weather satellite and carry my unspoken thoughts back to a more than tolerant wife.






Back on the boat I set a course and shift to automatic pilot for the three hundred kilometer trek to the outpost on Coleta de Dados. A slight bump as we reach and maintain a cruising speed of twenty-two knots.

“As the nitrogen sublimes, the convection cells contract. The rift widening over millennia—what’s that famous one on Earth? There must be more!”

“Gold fever, opal fever, diamond fever, iridium fever,” says Lucia. “They never touched you. Now this, this white ice fever, here on the frontier—”

“The Age of Discovery, The Age of Exploration,” I say. “Whatever the current expression is—we’ll never go, but we can help by supplying the necessary water. It’s going for six hundred fifty a kilo right now, more than yttrium, magnesium, or iridium.”

She adjusts the radio volume. Band one is a recorded update on weather changes, band two is shipping and travel information from Port Challenger. Band three is solar system news and contemporary pop music. The news is a repeat of an earlier broadcast.

“Two months ago we were on Ganymede.” She turns off the radio. “Once again, just getting by. Supplying a fickle jewelry market with tiger iron, serpentine, and hematite—”

“And two months from now we’ll be in the middle of the Kuiper Belt,” I say. “Staking claims on even bigger white ice deposits—”

“I want to go to Sicily.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s on Earth. It’s where I was born.”

“Sure. A vacation. We’ve earned it.”

“You’re not listening. I can’t do this anymore. I’m finished.”

“We’re in our mid-forties, fairly well-established. People who matter know our work.” In my mind I see two dots of silence in an expanse of silent blue ice.

The hull hisses, charge lights blink on Chance and Luck’s collars. I heat tea and dim the cabin; we switch on small battery lamps.

“What are you reading?” I say.

“Laura Terracina. Sixteenth century poetry. You?”

“Does this bother you?” I hold up A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia.

“Not at all. You have your dream world, I have mine.”

Seven Luna hours pass slowly. Lucia falls asleep before we reach the outpost. I switch off the reading lamp and cover her with a blanket.






Shinchū has scar tissue along her bare right arm and one side of her face. I never asked and she never said; but they look like sulfur burns you get on Io if you don’t maintain the splash shield on your harvester. She’s more than happy with a union pension and a solitary job on Coleta de Dados—tiny (dirty, low grade, undrinkable) water ice islands in the frozen Sputnik Planitia sea.

“Saw your marker signals,” she says. “Preliminary paperwork’s all ready. Either you found something or you snapped. My money’s on you cracking up. Out here it’s not like the inner satellites where cheap drinks and easy women are just over the horizon. What is it?”

“I’m a married man,” I say.

“I wouldn’t know. I switch on my go-to girl Alice when the silence gets too much. I mean the claim. What do you reckon?”

“Tens of thousands of tons, maybe more. Pure and untainted by methane or carbon monoxide. A one centimeter tholin blanket over the entire site.”

“That’s a first.”

“Possibly the one and only.”

I scroll through a set of documents. The claim is measured in relation to the north pole, and includes a one-half kilometer buffer on either side of the claim. My claim. Our claim.

“Print and sign your name here—here—and here—and I’ll date stamp it,” says Shinchū. “What will you call her?”

I scroll to the top of the document, type in: Robin’s Rift.






Lucia and I moor the Moth at Coleta de Dados and catch the weekly shuttle to Port Challenger. Our motel has room service and limited free hot water. We eat food cooked in a kitchen, shower, and sleep straight through the first night. It feels luxurious after weeks in the back of beyond.

The next Luna day I visit the assay office near the port proper. There are no complications. The clerk mails me electronic documents and presents me with an actual paper deed sealed in clear plastic.

Later, I stop at Persephone Mills Ltd. Pallets of ceramic-coated ice blocks on the loading dock, a row of empty ore carriers hover above the tarmac. The office is quiet and the receptionist offers me a doughnut from a box.

“You’re the first person to walk through that door in two weeks,” he says.

“I need to arrange for some heavy equipment, first,” I say. “It’s a big job.”

“Nothing on the calendar except the annual equinox—when you miners usually bring in the ice.”

“That’s just when lazy people use visible sublimated gases to identify active pits. I have something else.”

I explain the possibilities and he takes it in stride; brings up a see-through monitor screen in mid-air and checks dates and times.

“Wide open,” he says. “Just let us know when you begin.”

Next stop is the rental place, everything from a pick axe to a three-ton excavator.

“See how dead it is around here?” The service technician prints out a price list, writes her name at the bottom of the page. “They’ve got me down to three days a week. You need skilled operators? I’m the best and I need the money.”

Back at the motel Lucia stares at the dim Sun from the bubble balcony, sips a mixed drink of alcohol, raspberries, and mint leaves.

“Take an earned rest,” she says.

“Too much to do,” I say.

“Let’s sell the claim and move back to Earth. We can use the money to buy a vineyard, an olive orchard, a fishing boat—one that goes on water instead of ice. I’ll teach you to speak Italian. You can meet my family—we could settle down—”

“How many of those have you had?”

“Three. You need to catch up.” Lucia drops her empty glass in the in-room recycler, pulls up a net screen, and follows a scrolling message with a shaky finger. “Ha! Perfect.” She sways to the music stream, holds out both hands. “Dance with me.”

“An oldies station? Those songs can’t be old—I listened to them when I was a teenager.”

A teenager again, I kick at her instep, bend her arm the wrong way, drag my feet across the floor. After a few minutes she stops laughing and pulls away.

“It’s been weeks.” She perches at the edge of the bed and removes her blouse. “Since Ganymede.”

I sit next to her, squeeze her hand. Minutes pass. Nothing happens.

“My grandfather worked at a vineyard.” She wriggles away and wraps herself in a motel blanket, moves to a chair in a tiny corner of a tiny room. “He was un creatore barile—bottaio—he made wine barrels—what’s the English word?”

“A cooper,” I say.

“In his life he was a shepherd, a fisherman, a stone mason, a musician, a shopkeeper—everything he turned to, he did well. He accepted what life threw at him. He taught me when the grapes were ready for harvesting, the names of birds, how clouds foretell the next day’s weather. You see, Sicily is the most beautiful place in the solar system. A man could do quite well there. I’m boring you?”

“I convinced them to give me credit.” I cover my yawn. “The excavator drop is one Luna week from today.”

“We’re returning?”

“After things get going, we can—”

“Madre di Dio, William! You brought her with us?”

“I couldn’t leave her on the boat.” I pick up the plastic urn.

“I’m not drunk.”

“I believe you.”

“When will you let go of the memory and embrace the pain?” She looks out the balcony window at a universe full of starlight.






The return shuttle and Shinchū’s optimistic burnt face. The Moth gently rocks against the dock at Coleta de Dados.

“I need you to stay and direct things from here,” I tell Lucia. “We can bounce messages off the satellite. I’ll leave you with Chance and Luck. You good with that?”

“You like card games?” says Shinchū. “I’ll activate Alice and we can play three-handed ombre.”

“Sure,” says Lucia. “Whatever.”

I packed everything I could think of in Port Challenger. Fifteen minutes later I catch the echo of a solar flare and leave the little harbor at thirty plus knots. Several hours later I drop anchor and drill a half dozen holes through the tholin layer with the now-recharged seeker therm. The samples come up at ninety-nine point nine-five, plus or minus point zero one. Only manufactured water ice is more pure.

I set out landing markers at the angled portion of the rift; swallow a sleeping draught and set the timer for fifteen hours.

Next day a signal precedes the equipment delivery. The excavator carriers use a flexible wing sail structure—they remind me of flying foxes. The ten-person crew includes a mechanic, a cook, and a scribe. The scribe records the actual work and downloads it to the solar net in real time.

“I need images and audio of you” He angles the recorder so our tiny Sun is behind me.

I boast about the magnitude of the claim and mention the possible increase in shuttle probe launches.

“How does that work?” he says, prompting.

“The lion’s share of a probe’s payload is fuel and water. Known space is crisscrossed with water ice. ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. Meaning, yes, water; but yes also to ammonia, methane, or hydrocarbon dilution. Unusable for humans. Pure white ice—” and I ramble on, grinning, not sure what I’m saying.

Typically only assay office clerks bother to watch these reports. They cross reference original coordinates and if an excavator strays from a claim they immediately notify the crew. Unusual but not surprising, a major planetary news network picks up the story and images. I’m good for one minute of system-wide air time.

I take turns running a one-ton excavator, help fill floating ore cars with manageable crystal cubes. I access the solar net—within four days a substantial sum of money flows from Persephone Mills Ltd. to the equipment rental company. After that numbers fill my First Interplanetary bank account. My calls to Coleta de Dados are brief and to the point.

Two weeks into the dig my happy, paid, and half-drunk mining crew returns to Port Challenger. Their replacements will arrive later that Luna day with fuel cells and strong backs.

I spend the time cleaning the Moth’s cabin, finally notice a gap on the shelf where my daughter’s urn should rest. My radio message is terse and contained.

“Best if you’re here in person,” says Shinchū.

Sailing back I circle through six hours of anger, confusion, distrust, and sadness.

The port hull scrapes the side of the dock; I press my palm against the outpost airlock.

“That was fast.” Shinchū finishes dressing and pulls a bed sheet over a naked go-to Alice, snaps two self-heating coffee pouches.

“When?” I say.

“Week ago.”

“There was a gray, plastic container—”

“Lucia charged up the dogs and broke out the sledge.” She waves at a window facing the sea of blue ice, punctured with hundreds of thousands of sublimation pits. “Came back without the container. Said all things come to an end. Booked a one-way to Earth via Mimas. Said you wouldn’t bother to follow.”

“Which direction did she go? On the ice, I mean.”

“What will you do next, William? Sedna? Eris? Comets in the Oort Cloud? Oh, your wife wanted you to have this.”

I turn to a dog-eared page in A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia and stare at a color plate: Pale Yellow, Mangrove, Scarlet, Hooded, Pink, Flame, Rose.

Robin, robin, robin. Robin.

Robert Kostuck’s fiction, essays, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in the anthologies Everywhere Stories, Vols. II and III, Manifest West Vol. VI, and DoveTales Vols. IV—VII; and many print and online journals including Concho River Review, Louisiana Literature, Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Southwest Review, High Desert Journal, Zone 3, Saint Ann’s Review, and Bryant Literary Review.