Igor Stretton, a general in the armed forces of the Eurasian Confederation, had been sentenced to death by firing squad for high treason. By a strike of luck the Eurasian authorities had discovered that Stretton and a few other military officers had been planning a coup d’etat for months. Of course, he was immediately arrested.
The jury just needed twenty minutes to find him guilty of all charges and the judges gave him the death penalty for his participation in the conspiracy. The subsequent appeal was to no avail, as he was convicted again.
While awaiting his execution, Stretton was moved to Franz Josef Land. There he was guarded by a couple of dozen soldiers. Escape was as good as impossible, since the guards had the instruction to shoot the prisoner if he would attempt to escape. For several months Igor Stretton was held at the Archipelago.
At the end of his sixth month at the polar prison camp, a visitor for the condemned arrived. The visitor was no one less than the Eurasian high commissioner for justice himself, George Ziegler. Ziegler met Stretton in his cell.
“So you have come to give me my last meal?” the former general cynically asked. To his surprise the high commissioner was shaking his head.
“No, you won’t be executed. Not today, not tomorrow. Never.” “Why is that?” “The Secretary-General of the Confederation has decided to commute your death sentence.” Stretton sighted and said with a sarcastic undertone.
“I suppose I will have to spend the rest of my days here at Franz Josef Land? Maybe it will be better just to shoot me.” Mr Ziegler surprised the prisoner again.
“No, you won’t spend the rest of your days here. In fact, you won’t spend your days on Earth.” Stretton was now in complete shock.
“What the heck are you telling me?” Ziegler sighted and said without emotions.
“The Confederal government has decided that you will be banished to Pluto.” “Why Pluto?” “Because it’s far away from the Earth and the rest of the inner Solar System,” Ziegler replied. “Of course, it will be a one-way mission. You will be sent there with a rocket which will have only enough fuel to make to Pluto.”
“Unless I am wrong, Pluto is currently uninhabited. Hence I would be alone there, wouldn’t I?” “You won’t be alone, be you will accompanied with a dozen other convicts. People who have been sentenced under our three-strike laws, they will assist you during your banishment.”
“They have to obey me?” Ziegler nodded. “Yes, that’s the point. You’ll be the leader of the prison colony. I know Pluto isn’t quite Eurasia, but you are free to rule the colony as you see fit as long as you stay there. And don’t be disappointed, we will send you new prisoners every few years.”
Igor Stretton started to laughter. He wouldn’t be punished but rewarded for his crimes. Power was the only thing he cared about, no matter where.
“When will I leave?” he asked the high commissioner. “You will fly to Cayenne this night and in three days from now, you will be launched into space.”
Sixteen hours later Igor Stretton landed at Cayenne, from which he was brought to Kourou by bus. At the space center he saw the Ariane 8 rocket which would launch him into space. He was told that the upper stage would bring him to Pluto, while the lower stages would return to Earth for reuse.
“The spacecraft is fully automated, so there is nothing you need to do,” explained the chief engineer to him. “We have sent a suppliant mission to Pluto three months ago and that will be waiting for you once you arrive at the dwarf planet.”
“How could such small upper stage take me to Pluto?” asked the former general. “It’s a fusion rocket. That allows a much higher payload compared to chemical rockets. However, due to the high costs of fusion rockets we only use it for the upper stage,” the engineer replied.
The journey to Pluto was boring and Igor Stretton spent most of his time sleeping. The other people on board followed his example. The crew did not talk much to each other and the only one who did talk a bit was Stretton, who used his voice to command his fellows.
When their spacecraft finally landed at the dwarf planet, there was a great sense of relief among the crew. The former general used the occasion to give a short speech.
“My dear fellows. Today is a great moment, because we are the first humans to land at Pluto. And this fact implies that we are the people who have come the farthest from the Earth.
“Though no one of you has volunteered to go to Pluto, I want you not to consider yourselves as prisoners, but as citizens of the Republic of Pluto. Yes, we will establish the free and sovereign Republic of Pluto.
“Pluto is our new fatherland and we should proud to be Plutonians. I will take up the noble task to set up a functional government. Together with you I will lay the foundations of a new powerful civilization.”
The next day Stretton was elected as president of Pluto, though no foreign government recognized this. In fact he did not take any efforts to inform other nations of his election or the fact that he had proclaimed an independent state.
One of the first decisions Stretton made as president was to organize an expedition across the dwarf planet. He appointed himself as leader of this mission, after all as a former soldier he had the most experience with exploring foreign terrain.
The thin atmosphere which was mainly composed of nitrogen, meant that the banished people had to wear spacesuits during their expedition. Their main objective was to find the most suitable place to establish their main base. Fortunately they had two vehicles at their disposal. In those vehicles they could do without their spacesuits.
At the third day of the expedition Stretton and his men arrived at a crater. But at the bottom of the crater there was something unusual. One of the people, a man called Henderson, shouted:
“What’s that?” while he pointed towards the center of the crater. Stretton looked at the structure and after a few moments of consideration, he said.
“It’s definitely something unnatural. I would say it is a human-made artifact, if I did not know for sure that we are the first people on Pluto. We need to investigate it.”
And without consulting the others, Igor Stretton started to descend to the bottom of the crater. The edge was not very steep as is the case with many craters. Nevertheless the others were much more hesitant to descend than their president. But they had no choice but to follow him.
Once every one was standing at the bottom of the crater, Stretton started his investigation of the object. He walk around the structure, looking for an entrance. But he did not find any.
It was striking that the building had no windows and consisted of perfect rectangular elements, which precluded a natural origin.
“This building is designed by intelligent beings, no doubt about that,” concluded the former general. “Mr president, but what function has it?” “I don’t know, Bakhuizen. We have to find out what its function is, or more accurately what its function was.”
Another man, Ivan Kolmogorov, said, albeit very quietly.
“If it hasn’t been built by humans, it has been built by an alien civilization.” “Of course, that’s the only logical conclusion – unless we take time travel seriously,” Stretton said, clearly stressing he did not believe in time travel.
“Maybe they, the aliens I mean, are still here,” Jack Henderson said. “I don’t think so,” the former general said. “If they were still here, we would have come so close to it as we are now. It’s clearly abandoned.”
“Or they have hidden themselves inside Pluto,” Henderson countered. “I seriously doubt that. It’s very unlikely that if the aliens were still here, they would have allowed us to land on this dwarf planet.
“I hope you will understand that those aliens aren’t from Pluto. There’s no evidence that life could have evolved on this world. Hence they had to come from somewhere else and that means they have been capable of spaceflight. Which implies they were technologically advanced.
“Therefore it’s safe to assume that they are able to detect any approaching, unnatural object. It would be very unlikely that they would allow such close encounter. So I conclude that those aliens aren’t here anymore.”
“Mr president, how much time do you think has passed since the aliens have left this place?” “That’s the important question, Bakhuizen. I don’t know and I don’t have the means to figure out.” Then Henderson said:
“Maybe we should report this to Earth?” Igor Stretton was hesitating in his answer.
“I don’t know, to be honest. Yes, terrestrial scientists could investigate this object far better than we could ever do. On the other hand, we could question whether anyone has sufficient expertise to draw any valid conclusions.”
“What are going to do now?” Kolmogorov asked. “First, we should find out if this is the only object of this kind here or whether there are similar objects around Pluto. That would be an important clue about the purpose of this structure.”
“Couldn’t it be just a piece of alien art?” “That’s well possible, Henderson. But then the question is why they would place a work of art on a dwarf planet, if there is no other evidence of their presence.”
However, during the next few weeks of their expedition Stretton and his men did not find any other object which was unquestionable evidence of alien visitors. Nevertheless the exiled former general decided to locate his base camp in close proximity of the alien structure.
On a regular base Stretton visited the structure. He made several sketches of the object. Some of his fellows thought that their had gone mad, but that was not the case. Stretton was completely sane, but the mystery was too great to resist.
But what Igor Stretton did not know was that the structure was only ten years old and had been put there by his own government in order to distract any exiled Eurasian from homesickness.