By the time the Pluto landing was scheduled, people were tired of planetfall stories. The first human on the moon may have taken a giant step for mankind, as he claimed; but in the half-century following, each succeeding stage in the
exploration of the solar system became more boring than the last. The technology was foolproof, the risks minimal, and most of the discoveries -- while epoch-making for all the sciences -- were too complex and recondite to be
dramatized for the man in the street, or in front of his Tri-V screen.
They even stopped giving the various expeditions fancy names, like that first Project Apollo to the moon, or Operation Ares, the Mars landing. They actually let one of the crewmen of the spacecraft -- a radio operator named Carnovsky -- name the Pluto jaunt, and he called it "Operation Yuggoth," frivolously enough, after the name for the planet used in pulp fiction by some obscure author of the last century.
Of course, the media dutifully carried the same stale old textbook research about how Pluto, the last planet to be discovered and the last to experience human visitation, was merely a tiny chunk of frozen gunk over three and a half
billion miles from Earth that took 248 earth years to circle the sun, and how if the sun was the size of a pumpkin (which it is not, so it was hard to sense the comparison) Pluto would be a pea about two miles away, and how it was
probably once a moon of Neptune that broke away into a very irregular orbit and thus possibly didn't qualify as a real planet at all.
The whole upshot seemed to be that here was another airless, lifeless, frozen world like all the others not on our sunward side -- in which latter case they were airless, lifeless, sizzling worlds.
After the invention of the long-predicted nuclear fission drive, even such vast distances were minimized; the trip would have taken only two weeks from Earth, and from the deep space station beyond Mars it wouldn't last that long.
No one except scientists expressed any disappointment that remoteness did forbid live Tri-V transmission, and they'd just have to wait for the films. The fact that a brief on-the-scene radio report was scheduled to be relayed via
several earthside beams even drew complaints from a few music buffs.
We had all seen pictures of the ship before (or ones just like it): a pair of huge metal globes connected by a narrow passage, never destined to touch the surface of any world -- the little chemical-fuel scouts did all the real exploring.
Altogether, it was shaping up as a megabore.
The broadcast promised to be even more tedious than the buildup. Arriving in orbit over Pluto, the spacecraft reported no glimpse of the planet's
topography, due to a cloud of frozen mist -- which, however, analyzed as not too dense for the scouts to penetrate. There was a lot of delay while the first scout was prepared and launched, carrying the radioman Carnovsky, who had dreamed up the Operation Yuggoth tag, and five other crewmen.
Carnovsky gave a running account as the small rocket approached the surface and grounded. First he spoke of milky, churning mists hovering over the vast icefields, half-discerned under their high-power searchlights. Then, with mounting excitement, the crackling interplanetary transmission reported a lifting and clearing of the fog. Next came a gasp of awe and that incoherent babbling which was traced in part later to garbled, half-remembered quotations
from the pulp writer who had fantasized so long ago about dark Yuggoth.
Had Carnovsky gone mad? Did he somehow kill his fellow crewmen on the scout, after planting a time-bomb on the spacecraft before they left it? In any event, no further transmission was ever received from either vessel after the
hysterical voice from the scout abruptly broke off.
This is how the broadcast ended: "Mists are clearing -- something big towering up dead ahead -- is it a mountain range? No, the shapes are too regular. My God! It can't be! It's a city! Great tiers of terraced towers built of black
stone -- rivers of pitch that flow under cyclopean bridges, a dark world of fungoid gardens and windowless cities -- an unknown world of fungous life -- forbidden Yuggoth!
"Is that something moving over the ice? How is it possible in this cold? But there are many of them, heading this way. The Outer Ones, the Outer Ones! Living fungi, like great clumsy crabs with membranous wings and squirming knots
of tentacles for heads!
"They're coming. They're getting close! I --"
That was all; except that those few on Earth -- those who were not watching the variety shows on their Tri-V's but who were outside for some reason and looking at that sector of the sky where Pluto was located -- experienced the startling sight of a bursting pinpoint of light as, over three and a half billion miles away, the atomic fuel of the spacecraft bloomed into an apocalyptic nova, writing finis to the ill-fated expedition, and to Operation Yuggoth.
But scientists don't discourage easily. They admit that Pluto may hold some surmised danger -- though certainly not connected with Carnovsky's
hallucinations -- and it may be best to stay away while unmanned probes gather more data.
Now, though, they're all excited about the plan to send a manned ship to a newly-discovered, unimaginably remote tenth planet that hasn't even been named
The new project, for some reason, has been dubbed "Operation Shaggai."
Created: October 21, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004