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Mission Critical

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As far back as he could remember, Emmanuel lived surrounded by atlases. They covered the coffee table, bulged out of bookshelves, and lay perpetually spread open on his parents’ desks, covering every era of every mapped planet. The biggest shelf was devoted entirely to Lagos, tracking a millennium of sprawling growth. Those were the most annotated, with cross-referenced notes Emmanuel barely understood, and once he outgrew the children's shelf they were a joy to idly page through.

Emmanuel never quite understood what his parents did with so many atlases, but it seemed very important. They constantly had long, intense conversations with architects and historians and city planners. He carried portable volumes around Lagos once he was old enough to wander alone, aligning them with the buildings he saw every day.

As he understood more of both the city and the maps, he delved into older and older neighborhoods. He was well-aware of the boom of the 2170s, when the world’s first space elevator was finished in Gabon and propelled Lagos to its still-held title of World’s Largest City. But now he could understand how this new layer was built, and what it had displaced. The new buildings looked like they had every brick and tile scrutinized for weeks. They evoked older styles only in the most perfectly fine-tuned ways. He found their inspirations in winding alleys - strange, cramped towers with centuries of wear and tear.

Some steep hills displayed centuries of structures as a civilizational fossil record. They looked so much like the layered canyons Emmanuel saw on road trips, and he knew that learning about one would inevitably reveal secrets of the other. Layers of stone, extracted to build layers of cities.

 


 

When Emmanuel was thirteen, his cousin Opey scored an engineering job at the Gabon elevator and invited the family down for a tour. On the train ride down, Emmanuel watched Lagos taper off - downtown spires to residential towers to suburban parks to industrial warehouses to wilderness. The billboards for restaurants and tourist attractions gave way to bright murals of ingenuity and exploration. Then he saw a filament reaching far into the sky.

Emmanuel was used to impossibly tall buildings, but this was unlike anything in Lagos. He thought about the people who coined “Skyscraper,” and how shocked they must have been by glass-and-steel intrusions upon the heavens. This was no less unsettling, but in a completely different way - so thin and frail, surely bound to collapse at the slightest gust. It pierced through the clouds, a disorienting reminder that they were physical objects and not a flat backdrop. It felt as impossibly arrogant as the Tower of Babel, and yet it held a transfixing power. Emmanuel only snapped out of it when the spaceport’s clamor drowned out his thoughts entirely.

The family stepped out into a maze of signs in ten languages and conversations in fifty. Steel and concrete labs loomed around them, woven together with a web of trams and breezeways. The signage of a dozen aerospace firms shone in every direction. The mood was different from an airport - the only travelers were a few staggeringly wealthy socialites in hoodies and dark glasses, impatiently waiting for their trip to Mars. Everyone else was here on business, whether discussing obtuse points of Lunar politics or working to make FTL drives slightly less impossible.

After Emmanuel’s parents triple-checked the meeting time and place, Opey finally burst from a side door, clutching an armful of mechanical components that had left oily smears on his pale green jumpsuit. He began to wave, then remembered why he shouldn’t and lunged to grab a cooling fan. As soon as he caught his breath, he spoke in rapid-fire patter. “Sorry, had to climb out of a very big and very greasy engine chamber! I gotta go drop these off and change, but it shouldn’t take more than two minutes! So great to see you guys, how’s Lagos been? I love it here, and oh no that’s starting to leak a lot I’ll be right back.”

Opey sprinted back through the door. Emmanuel had lost track of the elevator, and craned his neck to spot it. He only saw the false positives of contrails.

Finally, Opey reopened the door and nearly slammed into a group of scientists arguing about terraforming. As soon as they passed by, he emerged in rumpled red-and-white checkered shorts and a T-shirt with the logo of an aerospace startup. He hugged Emmanuel first, hoisting him up and spinning twice. “I haven’t seen you since you were six and you’re so tall now! Ready to see the elevator?”

Emmanuel nodded, despite himself.

Opey began striding through the crowds to another unmarked side door, barely noticing whether or not anyone could keep up. “I called in every favor to get you guys a spot, normally the public waiting list is three years at least. We can skip the museum, or at least save it for afterwards. It’s not that great, but maybe I’m just biased since I’ve had to give at least fifty tours through the darn thing. Here’s my favorite bit, though - once the elevator was finished and Lagos grew like crazy, a reporter with a bad grasp of geography called it ‘The Saharan Tokyo,’ which spawned a meme of calling Tokyo ‘The Mongolian Lagos.’ Some folks around here still say that, but I think it stopped being funny after the first fifty years.”

As he spoke, he led them through tight backrooms, hangars, and lab hallways, some of which had a frightening density of warning signs. “Are we even allowed to be back here?” wondered Emmanuel.

“Wrong question entirely!” declared Opey, spinning around and gesturing triumphantly. “Does my power to do this derive from my employee badge? My seniority here? The favors I cashed in? Radiating a sense of competence? My charisma and stunning good looks?” He flashed a smile and ran a hand through his floppy braids.

Emmanuel had no idea whether or not the questions were rhetorical. “Uhh... all of the above, I guess?”

Opey clapped in delight. “Absolutely! And at the same time, it doesn’t matter. You will see Earth from beyond the atmosphere for the first time. In a decade, will you remember that, or that I may or may not be using a very creative reading of the rules here?”

Emmanuel burst out laughing and gave him a high-five. “I think I get it? But I also really, really don’t.”

Opey’s eyes lit up. “That’s the spirit! You’ll be a scientist in no time. Now come on, we’re almost there!” With great fanfare, he swiped his ID card and opened a meter-thick double door.

Here was the filament’s anchor to the world. A column of chrome and steel, at least twenty meters wide, hummed deep enough to rattle Emmanuel’s entire skeleton. A profusion of cables, some almost a meter thick, poured out of it into sockets all along the walls and floor. It stood in the middle of an immense hangar, with the entire far wall a seamless window onto the endless lab campuses. A dense lattice of walkways and fluorescent lights hung overhead with frantic activity at all levels. The space was dotted with plush couches and ottomans, placed awkwardly among the cable bundles. Each one held a gaggle of technicians fixated on readouts across at least three devices each. None of them looked like they had slept in twenty hours.

Opey snapped into the role of a chipper tour guide as he began gesturing and walking backwards. “And here we are! There’s a nicer entryway for VIPs two floors down, but this is where the magic happens. As the first elevator of the three, it’s pretty clunky compared to the Borneo and Colombia models. There’s a long, long list of improvements we’d love to make, but half of them would require shutting it down for at least four months which is, y’know, really bad.”

Opey paused to scan the room for anyone who looked annoyed at the interruption, but nobody seemed to register their presence whatsoever.

“The higher-ups want us to bring it up to par, and they’ll never, ever approve a shutdown longer than 48 hours, and even that’s like pulling teeth. We tinker on the margins, overstate our results without directly lying, and preserve the fiction. Honestly, we have no idea if our bosses are in on the joke. There’s a lot of money riding on that if we ever find out, though.”

Emmanuel laughed along with his family, but he had completely tuned out the words. He could only focus on the deep mechanical thrumming, slowly shifting frequency. Whenever he thought he detected a pattern, it would change, if only by a fraction of a second.

Opey wrapped up his explanation, and Emmanuel suddenly found himself right next to the colossal engine. “Alrighty, I’d better cut myself off before I end up giving you a whole astrophysics PhD. Who’s ready to see space?”

Emmanuel’s whole body was numb as he stepped through a discreet door in the engine. Inside the vibrations were much more muted, and he could start to focus on the sleek chamber of glass and brushed steel. It was about the size of his bedroom, and out the window he could only see a dense tangle of cables, gears, and pistons. They slowly powered on as the car began to rise.

As soon as Emmanuel came to grips with the ascension, blinding sunlight streamed in. His eyes adjusted to see a sprawl of lab campuses slowly receding until they looked like toy blocks, then fully concealed by the car’s floor. He could see the slow buildup on the path to Lagos, and then saw the widest horizon of his life.

The full scope began to sink in. This was unlike any vista from a plane or skyscraper. There were no deafening gales of wind, no whirring sounds from the car. It was moving far faster than before, but Emmanuel never noticed any acceleration. He was suddenly gripped with the fear that the car would rocket into space untethered.

Emmanuel turned to look at the cable, barely thicker than a sheet of paper, and was not reassured. Nearly everything else was hidden by clouds. As the car rose above them, Emmanuel saw the Moon clearer than ever before. Its craters almost had noticeable depth, and the spiderweb of lights could be distinguished into urban clusters - New Svalbard, Chang'e City, the conspicuously-unlit Tranquility Park.

The Moon looked at least twice the size Emmanuel remembered, and as he ran the numbers on whether or not that was even possible, he felt the car slowing down. Well, if we launch into space now, at least a satellite might notice and call for help. As it rolled to a stop, Opey spoke again. “Sorry, this is far as we can go without people asking too many questions, and we can only stay here for ten minutes at most. Such a disappointment, am I right?”

Nobody answered. Below was the western coast of Africa, as distant and picture-perfect as an atlas, with Lagos as its crown jewel. The first tinges of dusk rolled in from the east across the continent. Or rather, the Earth rolled toward night, as Emmanuel became abruptly aware of the planet’s rotation. He felt lightheaded and tried to calculate how much gravity was diminished at this height, the first number dissipating from his mind before he could think of the second. After a few false starts, he gave up and focused on the impossible tableau. Disbelief and terror still dominated his mind, with a flood of sheer awe creating an emotional mix he had never felt before.

The ride back down was still magnificent, but Emmanuel’s mind was filled with conflicting fragments. He was still reeling long after they had disembarked, Opey had showered them in gifts, and they had all hugged goodbye. On the train back home, a single thought emerged with relentless repetition: When can I go back?