Five Billion Kilometers Closer to Heaven by Joshua Scully

When John Jurrjens finally sat down at the table, his knees felt brittle, and his extremities were numb. During the previous sixteen hours, he had painstakingly replaced the elevator motor, repaired damage done to the elevator shed by a recent ice floe, bored a four foot hole into the surface, and made some repairs to the deteriorating survey equipment.

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Without a doubt, John was emotionally and physically exhausted when his wife sat a container of broth in front of him. He thought back to the hole he had made and filled on the surface. Two of the drill augers were ruined during the project. When the second one broke in the rigid ice, he had lost his temper, stepped down into the swallow recess he had cut into the surface, and violently attacked the frozen walls with an ice axe. Once the hole was filled, he hammered a couple rovers back into functionality. This had helped him release some of his anger and frustration before going back down to the dormitory.

John didn’t say anything to his family as he drank the broth. He noticed that neither his wife nor his two sons were drinking, although each had a steaming container on the table. He must have worked up an appetite that the others had not yet regained.
“Will you take us to the surface?” his older son asked from across the table.
John searched for his wife’s eyes, but she kept her gaze down.

“The last eruption was worse than I thought,” John finally answered, “and I’m not sure that going back to the surface right now would be a good idea.”

The older boy buried his face in his hands. The younger child, seated next to his brother, looked down at his container and started to cry

There were a few minutes of silence, aside from the younger boy’s sobs, before anyone spoke again.

Finishing the broth, John thought that he might also start to cry. He was certain he could feel that sorrowful pressure building up in his eyes.

“Okay,” he finally said, “let’s go up.”

His two boys carefully dressed themselves with his wife’s help. Suits were fastened into place, helmets were sealed, special boots were strapped on feet, oxygen cylinders were connected, and radio transmitters were tested.

“Can you hear me?” his younger son asked through the transmitter from the other side of the dormitory.

“Yes, I can.”

His wife didn’t want to go to the surface yet. He didn’t really want to go back up either, but he knew that his sons had most likely been waiting the entire day to see the result of his labor.

Before leaving the dormitory, the older boy picked up a hammer from the work room and a scrap piece of ice-damaged aluminum that had been part of the elevator shed.

Once in the elevator, John let the younger boy push the large black button. The door sealed, the new motor hummed to life, and the car started the long crawl upward.

When the door opened again, a mottled landscape of creamy white with black patches was revealed.

John stepped out first, and his sons followed. Charon hung low in the black sky, surrounded by thousands of white stars. Crunching through methane frost, the boys could see that their father had not lied. A recent cryovolcanic eruption had been especially forceful, disturbing the area surrounding the elevator shed entrance. Newly formed chaos terrain, a patchwork of white, black, red, and ruddy orange, stretched off toward the horizon.

The boys stopped momentarily to observe the sun, which shined only a dim light through Pluto’s hazy atmosphere. John marched the boys onward a few more meters.

Eventually, the trio came to a circular depression in the ice. This was the hole John had bored earlier that day.

“This is it,” John said in a voice hardly more than a whisper. He wasn’t even certain that the sound had been captured by the transmitter.

The boys stood still for a moment, with the younger of the two occasionally looking back toward the sun.

“Will she get to heaven from here?” the younger boy’s voice crackled across the transmitter’s speaker.

“Yes,” John said after a pause, “if anything, we might actually be closer to heaven out here.”

He and his sons stood over five billion kilometers from Earth. John wanted to comfort his sons by saying that their family was actually five billion kilometers closer to heaven, but frowned when he remembered Pluto was the ruler of the underworld.

“She always told me how warm the sun was on Earth,” the younger boy said, “I hope she is finally warm again now.”

The irony in his younger son’s statement cut through John Jurrjens as he looked down at the depression in the ice. The body of his daughter was wedged four feet down into this freezing hole, which he later filled with ice and snow. His wife thought that burial on the surface was the right decision, especially since there had been no recent communication from Earth.

His older son dropped down to his knees and placed the scrap aluminum over the jumbled ice crystals that filled the hole. The boy used the hammer to carefully pound the aluminum into the ice. He could see that his older son had fashioned the scrap aluminum into a cross.

John stood with his sons on the ice near the grave. He lifted his gaze out passed Charon, the ferryman of the dead, and toward where he imaged Earth must be careening through space.

He looked down to the cross one last time. Five billion kilometers closer to heaven or not, he knew God would not forget about the Jurrjens family. John put an arm around each boy and prepared to turn his sons toward the elevator shed.

Until he made contact with Earth again, he didn’t want either child on the surface for too long. He only had one auger left.

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  • Caleb

    Great premise. I love the slow reveal of the story’s true conflict.

    • Joshua

      Thanks Caleb!