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Mission Critical

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The crew awoke to a soft morning light in the hab while the real sun had barely risen. They had been briefed on this - the hab’s days would gradually stretch from twenty-four hours to Malang’s twenty-eight, but it would be a long, jarring process. Mission Control advised to keep stringent daily routines on hab time, even if it felt ludicrous to eat breakfast at midnight or lunch at dawn. They had nodded along at the briefing, but nothing quite prepared them for the feeling that their brains and time itself were simultaneously broken.

Emmanuel closed the living room’s blinds, then fumbled with the stove to rehydrate some canned shakshuka. He sat on the couch to eat it and summoned the satellite map. The original splotch had become a thick colorful band around the equator. About eighty kilometers to the east, the gray-green basin became a coastline of narrow fjords, then a deep turquoise sea covering a third of the planet's diameter. It gave way to a fiery golden jungle canopy, then a maze of deep tectonic gouges and sparse forests, then back to the basin. He turned on the topographic layer, and was surprised at the sheer depth of the sea so close to the shore. He turned on the annotation layer and saw dozens of tags in dense, shorthand Korean with plenty of pictograms.

Eun Sol emerged from her room and warmed up the rest of the shakshuka. She sat next to Emmanuel, bleary-eyed and jittery, glancing at her phone between bites. After a minute of silence, he gently asked, “How much did you sleep?”

“Well... from about 2 to 3, then 3:30 to 4:10, then I decided to just give up trying and focus on this.” She gestured to the screen. “I started writing a program to detect especially weird geological features, but right now it’s a kludgy shitshow.”

Emmanuel smiled. “I barely passed my intro-to-programming class, but I’d love to take a look later.”

Arjun shuffled in, eating a toasted block of uncooked ramen dipped in hot sauce. They zoomed in on the map’s canyon trenches and began drawing arrows. “So you see, we need to send scouts up north to dispel the fog of war, then build a forward base at this chokepoint-”

Eun Sol cut in. “But then our western flank is undefended! We at least need an anti-aircraft turret on this plateau.” She began sketching it on her phone’s screen.

“What mobility capacity are we up against?” asked Emmanuel. “This southern valley is tight, it could only fit a narrow column of tanks but plenty of infantry.”

As they discussed tactics, a volley of enemy battalions broke apart every plan. Kuiper walked in, drawing on her phone with glee. The imaginary battle raged on for half an hour, with daring maneuvers and backstabbing galore.

As it drew to a close, Arjun stepped up to the screen. “I hung out with the satellite design team a lot, and check this out-” They outlined a swath of the map and tapped through a series of menus. “You can export it as a map for pretty much any strategy game ever made. Wanna play Oblast Strike Tactics: Malang Edition tonight? Ooh - Alexandria, do you want to get in on this?”

Alexandria appeared with a peaked cap, epaulettes, and two dozen medals on their blazer. “Since our last skirmish, I have ruled the leaderboards for four months and helped design the ‘Despotic’ AI setting.”

Eun Sol stared in awe. “Holy shit, you’re PrideOfMakedon?”

Alexandria beamed. “The very same. Now, this is fun and all, but I don’t think we were sent here just to make an OST map pack.”

The crew looked sheepish and avoided eye contact.

Alexandria burst out laughing. “What, did you forget that we’re on another planet? Come on, let’s suit up.”

 


 

The exploration suits looked like business-casual hazmat suits, or a hybrid of riot cop and HVAC worker. They consisted of insulated jumpsuits with modular latches for a variety of gloves, boots, backpacks, and helmets. Despite training in them hundreds of times, getting dressed took ten minutes of fumbling, swearing, and accidentally hooking two suits together.

Finally, the crew assembled in the cramped airlock. Kuiper dramatically read from her phone. “Eight degrees celsius, feels like five with wind chill. Atmosphere is 68% nitrogen, 19% oxygen, 8% noble gases, 5% miscellaneous. All ready to embark?”

The crew nervously nodded. Vents along the walls began to intensely whir, swapping the familiar air for the alien. Three layers of doors slid open with a grinding groan. The basin looked blander than the speculative renderings, giving no distractions from contemplating the alien biosphere. A gust of cold, salty air whirled inside, with an almost-palpable presence. The sky’s purple tinge was pale and washed-out in the sunrise, with a few stars faintly visible. The bare trees cast long, stark shadows as the wind whistled through the rings in their trunks.

Eun Sol turned to the others. “We only have one shot at this. What should our first words be before we step out?” Her voice had a subtle hollow echo in the air.

They thought in silence for a moment. Emmanuel asked, “If we copied ‘one small step,’ would that be poetic or just lazy?”

“Lazy,” everyone replied.

“Yeah, I also thought about ‘Hello, World!’ but that’s worse.”

Kuiper slapped her forehead. “Shit, I brought some poetry books for exactly this reason, but they’re all back in my room and I am not cycling the airlock all over again.”

Arjun offered, “How about ‘First!’”

Eun Sol tapped the soil with her toe.

The others stared in horror as she said, “Hey, Alexandria?”

A beam and a flash. “Yes?”

“Let the record show that our statement upon making landfall is, and I quote, ‘First!’”

Alexandria gave a grinning thumbs-up and vanished.

Kuiper turned on her. “Eun Sol, if you release that to the press, I swear to God-”

Eun Sol tackled her to the ground as they both broke out laughing. Kuiper got the upper hand and pinned her, then stopped and turned to the others. “Can you help us up? This mud’s freezing."

Arjun and Emmanuel tentatively stepped onto the half-frozen soil, and hauled up the crewmates as soon as they were sure of their footing. Everyone took a moment to catch their breath and reorient themselves. Eun Sol asked, “Okay, what’s the actual agenda here?”

Kuiper checked her phone. “Just get feel for the terrain, take some soil and vegetation samples, make sure this isn’t secretly a murderous hellworld.”

Arjun walked over to the nearest tree, nearly losing their footing in puddles much deeper than expected. They ensured the soil was relatively firm and scraped their boots against the trunk. “Shit, will this ever get less muddy?”

“We’re near the end of the cold-and-wet season,” answered Eun Sol. “Next up is cold-and-dry, then hot-and-dry, then hot-and-wet. That one’s the real killer.”

“I’m just excited to use the buggy,” said Arjun, carefully chiseling bark into a sample pouch. “What’s the point of exploring a new planet if you can’t do doughnuts on it?”

Emmanuel rolled his eyes and drilled a narrow shaft into the soil near the tree. “Wow, these roots sink deep,” he said to Arjun, “And the soil gets rock-hard about two meters down. I’m amazed that anything at all grows there, but it looks thriving. Eun Sol, what do you make of it?”

Eun Sol had wandered a fair distance away, eyes glued to the horizon but writing intently on her phone. Emmanuel repeated the question on the suit’s radio channel.

She nearly dropped her phone in surprise, then fumbled for the radio controls. “Oh! Sorry, I’ll come over for a look. I was looking for a pattern in the tree grouping - they’re mostly in clusters of five at least a hundred meters apart, but I don’t think it’s statistically significant yet. Also, I found some neat worms!” She walked back over, deftly avoiding the most waterlogged ground.

“By the way, I was wondering,” said Arjun with a sly smile, “does it make sense to call the ground here ‘earth?’ Is that semantically legitimate?”

Eun Sol recoiled in horror. “Christ no!”

“Not even in the lowercase-e colloquial sense?”

“Let’s establish a precedent,” offered Emmanuel. “Hey Kuiper, what do you call the soil on the Moon?”

“Is this the setup to a joke?” she asked, carefully walking over.

“No, we’re honestly curious. Arjun asked if the word ‘earth’ could apply to the soil here. Eun Sol is appalled at it, I have no idea, and I wanted to see what terminology the Moon uses.”

“That’s actually a whole culture-war thing,” she explained. “Most people are fine with ‘earth,’ but some high-and-mighty people never say it to distance themselves from the filthy, backwards mainland. Some of them say ‘regolith’ because they’re also pretentious pricks. Honestly, I fucking hated the whole debate and I do not want to relitigate it here.”

“I don’t think we have to force the issue,” said Emmanuel. “We can call it earth or soil or regolith or even just the ground, and we’ll naturally develop our own vocabulary that feels right, just like with everything else.”

The rest of the crew agreed, but a stalemate hung in the air.

“Are we done with this?” asked Kuiper. “There’s something else I just remembered to check.”

The crew exchanged glances and nodded. “Good. Hey Alexandria, how are you holding up?”

Alexandria’s familiar chime played over the radio, and they spoke with a slightly crackling voice. “Being out in the field is pretty weird, but about what I expected from training. Most of me is still back at base, so don’t expect my full wit and intellect from this little fork.”

Kuiper held up her phone, showing a simplified rendering of Alexandria. “Noted. I’ll walk away from the hab at a steady pace and give you a series of benchmark tests, some familiar, some new. Ready?”

Alexandria gave a thumbs-up. Kuiper started walking and chatting with Alexandria, using plenty of abstract concepts and ambiguous sentence structures. Every hundred meters, she asked them for the prime factorization of a random ten-digit number. Alexandria’s depiction became progressively less detailed and animated, then a series of static poses, then a single icon. Just as Kuiper was wrapping up the conversation and tallying the results, she tripped and fell face-first into an enormous puddle.

“I’m fine! We’re both fine!” she yelled as the others ran over. “I thought the sun would dry this out more, and nothing here weighs what it’s supposed to.”

“Maybe this is our cue to wrap up,” said Emmanuel, hoisting her arm. “We’ve gotten plenty of samples, and we should clean off these suits ASAP.”

“Fine by me,” said Arjun. Eun Sol looked a bit disappointed, but didn’t object.

 


 

Back in the airlock, the hab’s air felt heavy and bland. Removing the suits was fairly easy, but not completely without snags and swearing. The waterlogged jumpsuits were hauled into the washing machine, with the boots and helmets carefully lined up by the door. The crew agreed to rest on their own for a while, then reconvene for dinner and debriefing.

Arjun took their samples to the greenhouse’s carefully-separated sections of Earth- and Malang-style air and soil, planting seeds from both planets in each. They returned to check on the pots at least every half-hour, as if the soil would yield magic beans.

Eun Sol sat in the living room, scrutinizing the planetary map and adding even more annotations. The equator was in much sharper resolution now, with far more topographic detail, but the surrounding basin was just as stubbornly flat and gray-green.

Emmanuel laid out his stone and soil samples on his workbench, in descending order of how interesting they seemed. As he prepared some microscope slides, his will to work flatlined and he figured a nap would serve him much better than drearily pushing on.

Kuiper ran through an exhaustive workout routine, both with and without her weighted clothes. She finished by tossing a few objects of different weights through a small basketball hoop, succeeding about half the time. She took a long shower, then entered the living room to find everyone setting up their laptops. “Perfect!” said Arjun. “Ready for Oblast Strike Tactics, everyone vs. Alexandria?”

“...Shouldn’t we have dinner first?”

“We can just make some canned soup or whatever - the gazpacho is actually pretty good. Anyway, I’m the Kola Technocracy.”

Kuiper booted up her computer and beamed. “Alright, then I guess I’ll be the Omsk Garrison.”

The battle raged through the jagged canyons and into the golden jungle. Battalions were routed to the grainy blankness at the edge of the world. Whole mountains were leveled or strip-mined, as the war turned to scorched-earth attrition. At long last, Alexandria’s Tunguska Protectorate won a brutal Pyrrhic victory with one dwindling mountaintop encampment.

The hab’s clock read midnight as the lopsided treaties were finally signed, but Malang’s sun was still in the final moments of setting. The crew watched out the window in awe as the deep fuchsia-maroon sky faded to black. The constellations were jarringly different, the Moon was too dull and dim without city lights, but the footprint-covered plain felt a little less alien.