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Mission Critical

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Emmanuel stirred to a gentle chime and a mouthful of sickly-sweet stasis gel. As his mind resolved into focus, he took a basic inventory: Emmanuel Olukolade, born in 2274, double-majored in physics and geology, can’t stand the taste of tamarind.

Good, the essentials are intact. He moved on to trickier brain games: tracing chains of hailstone numbers, visualizing impossible shapes, conjugating Finnish verbs. He felt a little sluggish, but not worryingly worse than his baseline.

The hangover felt remarkably mild for almost a decade of stasis. Emmanuel hazily recalled the briefings about it - preserving mental acuity was a top priority, especially in the mission’s first moments. A sharp crash would come in a few hours, but that would be a problem for Future-Emmanuel.

The briefings also warned that the full-body numbness took at least half an hour to dissipate. Emmanuel wished for a distraction in the soothingly bland stasis chamber, with pale green walls indistinguishable from an airport or hospital. Every control panel was simple and clearly labeled for operation in an addled state, with dangerous buttons locked behind mental calibration tests.

Emmanuel scowled at the condescension when a luminous figure manifested before him. They had the fashion sense of a friendly young professor, with a blue blazer and skirt upon a crisp, androgynous form with a bun of wavy black hair. With a deep breath, they prepared to orate before stopping short.

“Sorry, is this a bad time?”

Emmanuel winced at the light and returned to an old train of thought. Even after five years of training, blasting off to another planet still seemed innately absurd. It would never actually happen - the training sims would get more elaborate but no less fake. He’d never truly be six light-years from Earth with just four people for company.

“You’re fine, Alexandria, I just need some time alone. But before you go - we’re not on a backlot in Mongolia, are we?”

Alexandria’s frame rate dropped for a split second. “We have safely landed on Malang just after local noon. All of the crew is alive and well, and will be fully recuperated shortly. The hab will be assembled within two hours, at which point we will have our first briefing. Was this information helpful?”

“Yeah, it’s about what I expected. Thanks.”

“Your feedback is appreciated. I look forward to our next meeting.” Alexandria lightly bowed and blinked away.

Emmanuel reclined in the gel and failed to fall back asleep.

 


 

Eun Sol rushed up the ladder to the cockpit as soon as she was fairly sure her legs wouldn’t collapse. After five years of poring over telescope images, topographic maps, and speculative drawings, she would not miss her chance to be the first human to see Malang with her own eyes.

The small, clouded window revealed a dreary marsh spotted with lakes, some barely bigger than puddles. A few tufts of scraggly grass and trees with ring-shaped trunks poked out of the muck. Some rustling could have been from wildlife, or just dust and leaves blowing about. Jagged mountains on the horizon promised adventure, but at this distance their chalky shapes felt like a lifeless matte painting. The cracked moon dissolving into rings was out of view, and the rings would be invisible through the atmosphere for the next few centuries anyway. Aside from the lavender sky and ring-shaped trees, Malang was just like any number of highway vistas back home.

“Hey, Alexandria?”

A soft chime and a beam of light. “Yes?”

“...The planet isn’t all like this, right?”

“Malang, the first known planet to potentially have a human-compatible biosphere without extensive terraforming, which you are the first human to ever see, is insufficiently interesting?”

“You know what I mean.”

Alexandria cocked their head. “You have studied its biosphere for five years. You are humanity’s foremost expert on its dazzling ecology.”

Eun Sol glared.

“Malang has plenty of hills, forests, and cliffs. This basin was chosen for the landing site specifically because it is excruciatingly flat and dull. There will be adventures aplenty, but thrilling risks are the exact opposite of what we want for now. I understand the urge, but rest well and we will see it all in due time.”

She turned away and looked at the floor. “Thanks for humoring me. It just... feels nice to hear it from you, you know? It makes it more real. Kind of. It’ll take a while to process it all.”

Alexandria nodded gently. “Of course. I apologize for the flippancy, it was funnier in my head.”

Eun Sol smiled weakly. “It’s fine. I get that your social skills are rusty, I’ve been there too. How’s everyone else?”

“Recovering well. Our first briefing is in an hour.”

“Cool. See you then.”

Alexandria nodded and vanished. Eun Sol flipped open her dogeared atlas of Malang and added more notes to the dense scribblings.

 


 

Kuiper sat in stasis gel, tracing loops to steady her mind. Unpacking hadn't even started, and her mind had fixated on what would be remembered of the mission's first days. Historical vertigo washed over her - Someday there'll be a museum here, with a gift shop, bored students, and not nearly enough parking.

She closed her eyes and steadied herself. History is made one day at a time. Surely the first Lunar settlers felt this weird, too. She stood up and judged the gravity, a little less than Earth’s but far more than the Moon’s. She gently paced around the stasis chamber, with and without her weighted jacket and shoes. They weren’t necessary here, but their comfort was well worth the bulk of her hundred-kilogram supply allowance.

She gave the others as much space as she could, not yet making eye contact. Nobody seemed ready for conversation yet, other than querying Alexandria. What would she even say, anyway? Quote some lofty poetry at them? Make banal small talk? Her colleagues of five years suddenly felt like unknown roommates. Maybe this was her own nerves, side effects of stasis gel, inevitable dread, or all three at once. She resolved to bear with it for the rest of the day and take it from there.

 


 

Arjun watched the unfurling of the most elaborate pop-up tent ever created. The frame poles settled satisfyingly into the earth-

Wait, can we still call it ‘earth?’ ‘Soil’ or ‘mud’ or whatever just feels clunky, and insistently calling it ‘malang’ would be an unbearable affectation.

Arjun tabled that remarkably dumb question. The frame poles settled satisfyingly into the ground, (bland, but sure) while the exterior filled up with solar panels of their design. They felt a thrill of pride in putting a personal stamp on the mission, even if their most audacious ideas always died in committee.

Throughout training, Arjun stayed in the hab design lab as much as possible. Tangible technical problems were so satisfying, as far as possible from slippery, abstract politicking. As the project wore on, they found that their best contribution wasn’t their engineering skill but their creativity in designing utterly hellish stress tests. Running the prototypes through every disaster imaginable was a shameless amount of fun. Even knowing perfectly well that it was factored into the budget and schedule, it always felt like getting away with something.

It was less fun to sit down and grimly discuss design tradeoffs. Memories of those discussions mingled with visions of the hab burning or crumpling or liquefying. Well, unless this place abruptly turns into Mercury with gale-force winds, things should be more-or-less fine.

Arjun took a deep breath. “Hey Alexandria, how’s the hab setup going?”

They didn’t bother to manifest. A smooth, sonorous voice replied, “Perfectly well, just like the last four times you asked.”

Arjun sat down with a fantasy novel, trying not to panic whenever the hab's whirring paused.

 


 

Alexandria savored the sheer joy of being embodied for real-time interaction, after a decade of incorporeal hibernation. Though that wasn’t entirely true - they had embodied plenty of times during the voyage, pacing endlessly around the ship. They were ostensibly checking the projection setup for bugs, but it also felt good. Awfully lonely, though, with just four stasis-bound people for company. Space smeared at a frightening portion of lightspeed didn't provide much solace either.

For nearly ten years, the only stimulation came from Mission Control. There was precious little bandwidth for frivolous data, but some well-wishes and news reports were passed along with official comms. Journalists seemed fond of the phrase “most ambitious project in human history” - nicely vague, connoting either “beautiful collaboration” or “appalling hubris.”

The articles tapered off after a few weeks. Mission Control’s messages settled into rote checklists. The time between them steadily increased, as a distant Earth slid out of sync with the ship. At least Alexandria could adjust to the drift one day at a time, while the human crew would have to leap a decade all at once.

The human crew. A delightful turn of phrase, that. Alexandria got equal billing with everyone else, but still felt like an asterisk. The humans and Alexandria, the Solar System and Pluto, the Beatles and Martin, Epstein, Best...

Alexandria could fret about that later. The only thing that mattered right now was a smooth setup, both logistically and personally. The crew was coping surprisingly well, and Alexandria kept close tabs on their own wellbeing. If human psychology in these conditions was unknowable, AI psychology was even more so. They looked forward to the fascinating cybernetics dissertations that would cite these first days.

Alexandria felt a little bad watching the humans unpack everything, sitting on the sidelines as an intangible hologram. Still, the others were clearly grateful for their perfect recall of  where everything was stored. The basics were unpacked before long, and the crew had even assembled a nice mini-library in the living room: atlases, pulp novels, history books, and mission documents too important to exist only in digital form. The hab felt impressively cozy already, just as the crew was succumbing to exhaustion. They unanimously voted to postpone dinner and briefing until after a prolonged nap. Alexandria dematerialized and read a downloaded archive of their favorite memes.

 


 

Three hours later, the crew awoke to a much more familiar form of grogginess. The full extent of their hunger hit all at once, and they wasted no time heating up rations and drowning them in spices. They barely spoke as they wolfed it all down, only monosyllabic requests for drinks and condiments. Once the plates were clear and in the sink, Emmanuel spoke up. “Wait, weren’t we supposed to have a briefing?”

The rest of the crew tried to suppress their groans. “Fuck, you’re right,” said Arjun. “Hey, Alexandria? Let’s get this over with.”

Alexandria materialized at the head of the table. “Alright, should I announce the minutes and procedure and whatnot, or would you rather die than drag this out a moment longer than necessary?”

The consensus was clear. Alexandria nodded and began projecting a video. It opened with the ERA’s seal, a leaf-and-wrench emblem encircled by the words EARTH RESTORATION AGENCY - ENGINEERING A RESPONSIBLE ANTHROPOCENE. It dissolved into a view of their Lagos headquarters on a beautiful spring day. It had a casual air, well-edited but not gratuitously slick.

Secretary-General Khao Sisamouth stood on the steps, as gregarious as ever. “Welcome to Malang! We hope you had a safe arrival, and wish you the best of luck on your three local years. We hope that you will learn, explore, and thrive in ways we back home can only dream of. We eagerly await your judgment on whether or not it will be added to the realm of permanent human habitation. I know you’re dying to get on out there, so we’ll keep this as brief and non-redundant as possible. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Mission Commander Kagigi.”

Miriam Kagigi stepped into frame, and the camera panned up to fit her full height. “Thank you, Secretary-General Khao. We won’t get confirmation of your landing for six years, but I have full confidence that even if any problems arose, you all handled them magnificently. We encourage you all to document your experiences thoroughly, for the benefit of both yourselves and the mission. Remember that you can keep your notes private, or open them to your crewmates, Mission Control, and/or the press.”

Arjun groaned and gestured to pause the video. “We know all this shit already, and he just said -”

Alexandria gave them a look, as if the people on the other end could hear.

The video continued. “And no pressure, but whenever you feel ready, we would love photos of you and the landscape, ideally together. That’s all from me, and I am honored to introduce Prime Minister Aryabhata Singh of the Lunar Federation.”

The camera turned to Prime Minister Singh, impossibly lanky but still somehow shorter than Miriam. He put on a brave face, clearly straining against the Earth’s pull. “Thank you, Miriam and Sisamouth. I know the ERA and Lunar Federation have had our differences, but I fully believe in this mission, and I treasure the deep bond of trust we forged as we collaborated to make it possible. Now, to the crew: Remember that your choice can have a moral dimension in addition to the logistical ones. Even if Malang can sustain humanity, if you suspect that it would become a playground for our worst impulses, that is sufficient reason to reject it. I know you each have your own opinions on the matter, and I encourage you all to cultivate free and open discussion of them. That is all. Thank you.”

The camera pulled back to reveal hundreds of ERA staff cheering and wishing safe travels, then cut to a global montage of celebrations as the ship launched. After a few minutes, the screen faded back to the ERA emblem.

Alexandria closed the video and sat at the table. “There’s just one more thing, then we can all relax. Right now, what are you most excited and most nervous about? Let’s go clockwise from me.”

Arjun spoke up first. “I’m excited to see how this hab holds up in the field, and I’m worried about my notes being flattened into something as boring as that.

Next, Eun Sol. “I can’t wait to go exploring, but I’m worried about some grave environmental danger we didn’t anticipate.”

Emmanuel: “I’d love to learn how this planet developed, but I’m afraid that our mental health and personal bonds might fray too much.”

Kuiper: “I’m excited to study how society could develop here, but sometimes that sends me down spirals of existential dread.”

Alexandria finished the circle. “I’m thrilled to be here with all of you as the first crew to set foot here. I’m scared of having no recourse to a chain of command, and being cut off from the internet still feels jarring.”

The crew began to conspicuously yawn and get up, but Alexandria hastily added, “One more thing, but I promise it’s fun - we have to launch the satellite! We can each have one hand on the button, it’ll be great.”

The crew perked up and shuffled into the control center, off-balance from bleary numbness and nearly tripping over unpacked boxes. They gathered around the satellite’s panel and ran a quick rock-paper-scissors tournament to determine the ordering of hands, with Alexandria’s holographic form on top. They savored the warmth, exchanged nods, and firmly pressed the button.

A deep rumble shook the hab, and they nearly collapsed in their rush to the living room’s biggest window. A stark-white plume of smoke streaked into the evening sky. Alexandria summoned a video from the satellite itself, showing the lights of the base disappearing against the vast basin, which faded into a pale green-gray continent. The camera turned to show night sweeping over the horizon, as the planet turned away from its alien sun. The crew spent a long time staring in awed silence. 

On the living room’s main screen, Alexandria summoned a blank white sphere with a tiny splotch filled in, slowly expanding across the equator. They zoomed in to show a low-res rendition of the base. The crew nearly wept, and Eun Sol hugged Alexandria with an iron grip.

The crew's exhaustion returned with interest, and they exchanged brief goodnights as they shuffled into their rooms. They slept soundly as one more star shone overhead.