Strange IndiaStrange India

Tess and Gemma have been camped out on their tartan picnic blanket for days already and they plan on staying until the very end … of the concert or the world, whichever happens first. Smart money is on the latter. The way those lads are going at their bass lines and anthems up on stage, they’re in this until the lights go out for good.

Night is coming soon. The fireflies are out, blinking in electric blue. The Plutonian sunset is apocalyptic but pretty, with blood-red rays flooding the outdoor amphitheatre and the crowds gathered around it in scarlet hues.

“Good evening, ladies.”

“Drinks for the table … um, or blanket?”

The Tiernan boys stop by Tess and Gemma’s spot on their way back from the concession stands. Danny carries a pyramid of cups, filled to the brim with purple-dyed spirits. It’s a local drink, squeezed out from a native plant that their ancestors likened to something called agave, except this plant grows with fuchsia roots and a heart that has to be split open with an axe. No wonder, since it spent millennia buried in ice before the Great Thaw. The hangover feels like an anvil dipped in hot lightning.

“Bring it on,” Gemma says, bravely, scrambling up to her knees to claim the tip-top of Danny’s pyramid. Tess abstains.

“Are you sure?” Atticus tempts her further. But she’s stubborn about it, answering with the same conventional wisdom they’ve all heard a thousand times before: “That stuff will take years off your life.”

Years off my life? Really, Tess?” Gemma replies with mild sarcasm, while spinning her twisty, psychedelic straw through ice.

They descend into laughter at this, even Tess, because the idea that any of them have ‘years’ left is as absurd as, well, attending a music festival on the eve of humankind’s final demise.

But what else are they supposed to do? Sit at home with the doors locked, eyes shut and hands over their ears, waiting for the end to come? That’s just not how Homo sapiens roll. Or rock and roll, as the case may be.

Anyway, the species has had a good run. Literally, running and leap-frogging through the Solar System like Goldilocks leapt from bed to bed — too hot, too many poisonous gases, too hot again — all while the ageing Sun up there just kept growing rounder and redder. Tonight, it’s a ripe tomato in the sky, ready to burst. And so big that everyone in Persephone’s Meadow can see, by naked eye, the solar flares erupting off its surface.

Those powerful flares will scorch them all to ash by the next sunrise. But they have about an Earth week’s worth of night to enjoy before then, so that’s something.

“Get ready to be proper lost souls in the underworld,” Tess warns, nodding towards the dimming horizon. There’s daylight left but not much. In twilight, the red-giant Sun turns the blue-moss meadow that same shade of violet that fills Gemma’s cup.

“Let’s make some noise, Pluto!” the lead singer of the aptly named The Grateful Dead Suns calls out to his congregation.

Gemma sets her cup down on cyan grass, to give a rousing finger-whistle. The high-pitched trill echoes across the field, mixing with others. Applause and hollers come from all corners, drowning out the music briefly. Even Tess is caught up in it, clapping her hands together above her head, “Woo!”

The energy at Plutopalooza can’t be defeated. Not by dying Sun, eerie eventide or impending night. Not by anything.

They dance with the boys. They dance with each other. They sing until their throats are hoarse and jump around until their legs give out. The sisters finally collapse back onto their quilt, giggling like children, gazing up at distant stars, sharing Gemma’s dwindling drink while reminiscing about good times.

In the meantime, the Sun sets and the meadow goes black.

“We’re still with you!” Tess calls out, hands around her mouth, while Gemma strikes a lighter and lifts it high. A guitar riff answers out of the darkness. By flickering lighter-candle, the sisters exchange grins and whistles, and cheers break out all around them. The whole place clamours for another song. And then another.

They say the band played ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as the Titanic sank. And if these descendants of the Last Earthers knew the song, maybe they’d play it too. Instead, The Grateful Dead Suns choose a familiar ballad that would’ve made their namesakes proud.

It’s a song of goodnights between friends and warm farewells, melancholy but hopeful. The band beckons and the crowd sings along, verse after verse, chorus after chorus. Those voices rise, filling the field, the atmosphere and spilling out over the edges of the dwarf planet, even after everything else goes silent.

The scout cruiser off the Alpha Centauri system isn’t expecting to find life out here. Given the state of this Sun, their astrobiologists wrote the whole system off as uninhabitable centuries ago. The captain thinks his navigator is crazy when she tells him they need to check out the source of this strange but wondrous noise coming — and it just keeps coming — from a little speck of rock out in the middle of nowhere.

So small, it could never be called a planet.

When the cruiser turns on its lights, twin bow lanterns flood Persephone’s Meadow with golden glow. The ship comes in from the direction of Pluto’s largest moon, which is a little too on-the-nose for those tipsy Plutopaloozians, still dancing their final night away.

“Charon’s ferry?” Tess expects, thinking it’s come out of myth to take them down to Hades. Forgetting, for a moment, that Hades is Pluto and Pluto is Hades. That’s her sister’s drink talking.

“Maybe,” Gemma concedes with a wise little smirk, optimistic about everything except their hangovers tomorrow. She gives a friendly wave to the newcomers, adding, “I think this ferry’s headed the other way.”

The story behind the story

Table of Contents

Gretchen Tessmer reveals the inspiration behind Plutopalooza.

As promised in one of my previous ‘story behind the story’ write-ups, I’m here to talk about Pluto, the Little-Planet-That-Was, a casualty of size bias, a cautionary tale for those of us who believed certain grade-school facts to be immoveable, and a crying shame besides.

No, I’m still not over it. Thanks for asking.

Yes, yes, I understand. We change, we grow, we fix old mistakes as we go along. Maybe it was too small to be a planet in the first place. I get it. Thank goodness Clyde W. Tombaugh didn’t live to see the Day of Demotion. But poor Pluto. To be cast aside like an old shoe, to be removed from the team roster for the crime of being ‘too little’. The IAU didn’t give us much warning either. One day, it’s all “Pluto, you’re so precious and cute, I could just carry you around in my pocket” and next, it’s “Here’s your pint-sized hat, what’s your hurry?”

For. Shame.

Anyway, I love Pluto, and I’ve been wanting to write a Pluto-centric story for ages. Over the summer, as I was looking at the year’s line-up for Lollapalooza, an idea sparked in my head for a music festival at the literal end of the Solar System. The rest just flowed from there.

For your curiosity, the song that The Grateful Dead Suns play at the end of their set list is ‘And We Bid You Goodnight’ because it’s very appropriate for this sort of situation, one of my all-time favourites and would sound amazing echoing out into the wilds of deep space. Yes, I know that’s scientifically impossible. But just imagine.

If I was zipping along in the next galaxy over, I might follow those voices over to Plutopalooza, too. In fact … get us some drinks. I’ll meet you there.

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