Winner of the 2009 WSFA Small Press Award
The Absence of Stars: Part One
by Greg Siewert
A hand gripped commander Trevor Kimberly's shoulder and shook him violently
awake. "Pluto is gone."
"What?" Trevor asked as he removed his eyeshades and squinted in the blazing
sunlight that shone through the canopy of the shuttle's cockpit.
"Pluto is gone," the voice repeated. It was Gretchen. Still holding his shoulder, she
spoke in a slow, deliberate, and forceful manner. "Pluto is gone!"
"I didn't take it," he replied.
Gretchen's face registered no awareness of the joke. She appeared drawn and her
eyebrows were deeply furrowed.
"Okay, what's Pluto?"
"Pluto, the ex-planet."
"Where'd it go?"
With that, Gretchen vanished from the cockpit. Trevor's scheduled sleep period
had been delayed because the protocol written for his space walk was wrong,
causing him to spend an extra hour and a half replacing the optics package for the
station's on-board observatory. He was only an hour into his sleep and his fatigue
amplified his bewilderment.
Reluctantly, he unclipped his sleeping bag from the commander's chair. He had his
choice of bunks on the space station, but he preferred to sleep in the shuttle.
Following Gretchen's path, he made his way through the weightless atmosphere of
the shuttle and into the International Space Station, where he'd been living and
working for about 48 hours.
Most of the rest of the crew was crowded around a video monitor in the service
module. The screen showed a field of stars. Gretchen pointed at it: "That's the
Webb telescope's view of Pluto.
"Where am I looking?" asked Trevor.
Myrtle, a systems engineer, used her forefinger to trace a small circle of empty
black space on the screen. "Here."
"I don't see anything."
Nikolai rolled his eyes. "Keen observation. We will make an astronomer of you
yet!" Nikolai was the chief science officer and a close friend of Trevor and
"Okay seriously, what the hell is going on?" The crew wasn't above the occasional
prank, but the looks on their faces made that seem unlikely.
Nikolai and Gretchen merely shrugged, but Myrtle spoke in her usual, slightly-bored monotone. "Yesterday morning at 13:25 GMT, students at the Lowell
observatory in Flagstaff were going to calculate Pluto's rotation by observing
fluctuations in its light intensity. Unfortunately, it was missing."
He made his way for the phone. "Who's on CAPCOM?"
He picked up the phone and held down the send button. "Houston, this is Space
Station Alpha, Commander Kimberly speaking."
"This is Edward at Houston center. How are you this evening, Commander
"Good, just fine, Edward, thanks. Look, have you guys heard anything about Pluto
being uh . . ." he stole a glance at the crew to check for smirks and finding none he
continued, ". . . missing."
"That's affirmative Trevor. Pluto is whereabouts unknown."
"Yes sir. It's gone."
"Anybody know where it went?"
"No. In fact, we're all a bit perplexed. The only working theory so far is that an
unknown object blew past it and was big enough to pull it from its orbit and we
just haven't found it yet."
"Alright, thanks. Let me know if any other orbiting bodies vanish."
"Will do, Alpha. You have a good evening."