Author: Mike McMaster
“South.” said the captain.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” complained his crew. “There are no magnetic poles here, so there is no North or South.”
“When you travel and everything cools and then chills and then bites into your very bones, when the sun sinks from view and doesn’t come back up, and every step moves you back in time through undisturbed, unchanging, frozen eternity then, ah then, you are far, far South. Scott knew it, and it cost him his life. Shackleton knew it, and he had to claw his way back in an open boat and across unclimbed mountains. South.”
The crew were right, of course. The Luna Nova was rushing low over the Moon’s surface on a polar orbit, and any compass would have been swinging wildly as the lunar magnetic field was weak and unfocussed, with no strong Pole to draw the needle-point.
“South,” said the captain, “is not a direction. It is a temperature.”
Right on cue, the laser-thermometer chimed “Surface temperature minus 220 degrees.”
“That’s about the temperature of little Charon. All the way out there, the chilly boatman sailing round Pluto. Not bad, but not cold enough for us. Not close enough.”
Below them, the grey moonscape changed and craters slide into view. Ancient craters named in arrogance after mere human astronomers. Faustini. Shoemaker. Haworth. How can a crater that has seen a billion years be named for a fleeting eyeblink of a creature? Might as well name men after mayflies.
“Surface temperature minus 224 degrees.”
“Ah – that could be Uranus. Clouds of frozen ammonia and methane roll blue as a winter sea. Ice-giant. Frozen god of the sky. We are getting closer. ”
Now a new darkness slides into view. A crater within a crater. A primeval impact digging into the Moon’s crust right at the pole, casting a shadow deeper than any earth-bound trench. Here was dark even when life on earth was crawling from the slime. This dark has outlived glaciers and mountains, outlived every species on the neighbouring planet. It has never known sunlight.
“Surface temperature minus 228 degrees.”
“Ah.” The captain sighed. “Mark that. We have found it, and next orbit we’ll pop down and have a little look. We’ve visited every planet and moon from Earth to Pluto, and in the end, the coldest place in the Solar System has waited an eternity for us, just next door.”