In 2012 we went back to the moon.
In 2023 we went on to Mars.
In 2060 the first human stepped onto Titan.
By the 2090s we had colonized most of the solar system, with cities and outposts on nearly every rock big enough to hold them. That is, most of the solar system.
Pluto had often been overlooked on lists of interesting places to explore, due to the fact that it was really not very interesting. A tiny rockball 40 AUs out, cold as hell, and with no obvious material benefit from colonization was not high on the list of most space agencies. Hell, it wasn't even a planet anymore, after the controversial 2006 decision by the IAU. With the advent of antimatter propulsion in the 2110s, Pluto was simply too boring for the spaceliner companies to charter expeditions to. The massive Europan deuterium refineries and the Mars Terraforming Effort, they were more interesting. Until December 19, 2122.
On December 19, 2122 at 19:01:47 hours Earth Meridian Time, an object approximately 100±50 metres wide crashed into Pluto at a velocity of 100 km/s, Sun-Relative. Analysis of information from the Phoebe Radio Telescope Array revealed that the object had been emitting 8 Gigawatts of electromagnetic energy, concentrated in the six-millimeter band before impact. The visible-light flash of the explosion that occurred at impact was visible all the way to Jupiter. And all of a sudden, humanity's collective interest focused on that single small celestial body. Which is where I stepped in.
I felt the nitrogen snow under me crunch as my nuclear-powered landing pod Sir Arthur Charles Clarke gently settled on a flat snow-plain, not ten kilometres from the impact site. The hydrox engines had slowed our descent rate from a kilometre per second down to zero, all the while using up merely a quarter of our hydrox reserves. Thank god for sentient AI. After a lengthy period of checking whether all the systems were intact, I managed to put on my spacesuit (or plutosuit?) and hop in the rover to investigate.
From the outside, the Clarke was a rough cylinder, about as tall as it was wide, with a rounded section on top. Underneath were the fuel tanks and a powerful hydrox engine that could provide the thrust to both land and go back into orbit to rendezvous with the orbiting shuttle. The whole setup was about five metres tall. The six landing legs were slim titanium-carbon rods that stretched out from the bottom of the Clarke , each one actually colder than the surrounding snow, for if they were hotter, they would have melted down through the snow like the Kepler Europa Probe and, as the snow refroze over them, would have gotten irrevocably stuck. All power for the craft was generated by a single cold fusion reactor, a forty-kilowatt unit from Callisto Fusors, Inc. In total, the Clarke weighed in at three metric tonnes, but only 177 kilos on Pluto.
As I set off in the fuel cell-powered rover, I was struck by an amazing sensation of just how different Pluto is from every other planet or moon in the solar system. I've cloudsurfed the Venusian polar tornado, free-falled down the Valles Marineris and tried iceteroid-hopping in Saturn's rings, but nothing, nothing, could have prepared me for Pluto. The first amazing thing about it is it's moon, Charon. It sits there in the sky, like someone's nailed it there. It's so close you can actually make out surface features, yet it never moves. Ever. It's a really disconcerting feeling, especially after going to Mars, where Phobos and Deimos whiz overhead so fast at times you can actually see them moving. And it's cold. Very cold. Out here on the edge of the solar system, the atmosphere freezes onto the land at aphelion. It's so cold I can even feel it seeping through my heavily insulated boots when I put my foot down. And it's smooth. After billions of years of the atmosphere freezing on and then evaporating off, the surface has been eroded down to such a level that the tallest mountain on Pluto, Somnius Mons, although it is four kilometres high, the slope is so shallow that it is practically indistinguishable from flat ground. Pluto is the true Alien World.
A few minutes later I came to the crash site. It was incredible. The crater itself was over a kilometre wide in itself, and must have been two hundred metres deep. It was the only perturbation in a sea of perfect flatness for hundreds of kilometres around. The slope at the edge of the crater was too steep, so I decided to activate 'hopper mode' on the rover. Two small hydrox thrusters on the bottom of the chassis fired, gently propelling me into the air-wait, there is no air, it's all vacuum-and another fired, propelling me forward over the huge crater. A minute later, I landed with a soft jolt near the centre of the crater. And that was when I saw it.
“Pluto Shuttle, do you copy? Over.”
“Pluto Lander, this is Shuttle, reading you loud and clear. Over.”
“Shuttle, this is Lander, I have landed in the centre of the crater. Over.”
“Lander, this is Shuttle. Continue. Over.”
“There seems to be a small spherical structure in the centre, about five metres across. Over.”
“There appear to be thousands of fragments surrounding the structure, I estimate of the same material as the spherical structure. Over.”
“Ship computer estimates with 94% probability that said fragments are parts of larger body that broke up on impact. Over.”
“O-K on that, Shuttle. I am now moving closer to the structure. Over.”
“Copy that. Over.”
I walked forward towards the sphere. I laid my hand on it, and-
“Lander, this is Shuttle. We are detecting massive radio emissions from the object. Evacuate now!”
“Lander, Shuttle. MAJOR SEISMIC EVENT DETECTED AT YOUR LOCATION. EVAC NOW!”
“Lander, Shuttle. Do you copy, Lander?”
“Lander, do you copy? I repeat do you-”