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Mission Critical

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The sky split open after the first day of exploration. Thirty seconds of drizzling gave way to a day-long deluge. The rain drummed intently on the roof of the hab, never leaking through but getting ominously close. Winding, curvy lightning bolts carved the sky as thunder bellowed across the plain. The storm receded slowly and in parts, with deep pink clouds threatening to encroach again at any moment. 

The downpour turned the basin into a soaked, swampy nursery. As soon as it tapered off, the puddles sprang to life with neon green-and-blue lily pads, each hosting a swarm of shimmering dragonflies. As they migrated and fed, they nearly blotted out the sky with an armada of silver-and-cobalt wings. At dawn and dusk they refracted the sun into chromatic chaos. A few lizards and amphibians preyed on them, and happily basked in the absence of megafauna.

Venturing outside was completely out of the question. Any footstep would either crush a fragile ecosystem or get stuck in a mire. The crew's awe at the ecosystem threatened to curdle into frustrated cabin fever. Even after two days, once the plants had withered and the creatures receded into hibernation, the basin was too flooded to walk on but too shallow to safely use a hovercraft.

By day five, the land had dried enough that a careful navigator equipped with snowshoes could walk relatively easily. After some tentative laps around the hab’s perimeter, Eun Sol embarked on a solo journey at dawn. She insisted that she did her best work alone, but would invite the crew along if she found anything of note.

The crew watched her depart into the sunrise while the hab’s clock read late afternoon. Even with a clear formula to chart the relative lengths of days, time inside and outside the hab felt decoupled completely at random. The interstellar jet lag made the establishment of rigid routines immensely difficult, and unpacking was still a work-in-progress. It wasn’t just listlessness - filling up the hab with the clutter and decor of daily life felt like an ugly intrusion upon a beautifully sterile showroom.

Still, that feeling dissipated a little more each day. The earthy, humid smell of the greenhouse percolated into the kitchen and living room. The walls held both decorations from home and the crew’s sketches of the landscape. Much more of the planetary map was filled out, revealing shimmering island chains, lush river deltas, and canyons lined with immense crystals. Annotations blotted out almost all of it, requiring two more map layers to hold them all. Travel routes were elaborately planned for as soon as the buggy became usable.

Yet even with all-new continents, playing strategy games nonstop was beginning to lose its luster. Cabin fever was becoming intolerable. Even the terabytes of Earth media brought along seemed uniformly tedious. After hours of boredom, the crew finally opened Mission Control’s list of suggested group stimulation activities. Most of them sounded unbearable, or needed far more setup and energy than they could muster now. That left one option - hosting a radio show for an imagined public.

 


 

Alexandria sat at the head of the kitchen table, wearing bulky headphones and dark sunglasses. They cleared their throat and announced, “Welcome to Radio MLNG, coming to you live, give or take six years, from Malang, the galaxy’s most eligible exoplanet! In the studio today, we’ve got Arjun Khalsa-Bajrachara, Phạm Kuiper, Emmanuel Olukolade, and, calling in from the field, Yang Eun Sol. Now, Arjun, you won the coin toss, what do you have for us today?” 

Arjun beamed.  “I present the thrilling sequel to ‘what should we call the soil’-”

Eun Sol’s voice crackled in from the speakerphone. “Arjun, I know you can’t see me, but just imagine me rolling up my sleeves menacingly.”

“Noted. What should be the demonym for this place? Malangya? Malangese? Malangi? Malangian? Malangite?”

Kuiper thought about it for a moment. “‘Malangya’ sounds best, but I could be persuaded otherwise.”

The soft squelching of Eun Sol’s footsteps paused. “I’m not quite sure, but ‘Malangian’ is spectacularly bad.”

Alexandria chimed in. “I love how we’re not giving a damn about any cohesive grammatical tradition here. That said, I love the feel of ‘Malangite’ but with the emphasis at the start.”

Emmanuel tapped a pen against the table for a few seconds, and said, “I submit a write-in ballot for ‘Malangyor.’”

Kuiper perked up. “If we can do that, then I want ‘Malangka.’”

Arjun summoned a blank text file. “Alright, this is getting out of hand. Take ten minutes to submit anything you want, and we’ll make some ballots.” 

The list of proposals swiftly became a page long: Malangya, Malangese, Malangi, Malangian, Malangite, Malangyor, Malangeshi, Malangka, Malya, Malaa, Malanguan, Malangois, Malange, Malangean, Malangesh, Malangyot, Malanx, Malangə, and many more. The ten-minute timer became twenty, then thirty.

Once the ideas finally trailed off, Arjun took the floor again. “Beautiful work here. But how should we go from here? If we make a tournament bracket, how would we seed it? If we do ranked-choice ballots, that gets incredibly clunky.”

Emmanuel crunched some numbers on his phone. “I thought about doing a round-robin process, but that is a horrifying number of permutations.”

Arjun lit up. “How should we choose the selection process? Ranked-choice voting, from among those three?”

Kuiper cocked her head. “If we don’t do the bracket, will we do multiple rounds of voting requiring a certain threshold to proceed? I know some neat statistical models that might help.”

Alexandria leaned in, utterly enthralled. “We haven’t heard from Eun Sol in a hot minute. Hey, Eun Sol, would you like to weigh in on this?”

Her voice came through, after a few seconds, crackling slightly more. “I haven’t been listening for a while. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but this barren plain is infinitely more interesting than any of you.”

The rest of the crew laughed and groaned. As soon as they steadied themselves, Alexandria chimed in, “She’s completely right! This is just brutally unlistenable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Say, aren’t we past due for dinner? Don’t touch that dial, we’ll be back in a few!” They played some auto-generated easy-listening music into the mic, mildly preferable to silence.

 


 

Making dinner was only slightly more appealing than voting on voting methods. The greenhouse plants wouldn’t yield a useful crop for another few days. The biomatter printer was disappointing too - the preserved samples from Earth became meats that were superficially decent but inevitably sad and spongy. There was surely a way to finesse local ingredients into something delicious, but the results of Arjun and Eun Sol’s tinkering thus far ranged from underwhelming to utterly noxious. With careful budgeting, the stored rations could theoretically last the entire mission, but the thought of that currently sounded worse than starvation.

They weren’t bad. An army of chefs and nutritionists had obsessed over them for years, but that was the problem - unsettlingly perfect calibration in every bite. The shakshuka, for instance, always had eggs at the perfect consistency in the optimal balance with tomatoes. There was never the satisfaction of achieving that balance through well-honed culinary skill, after so many diversely underwhelming attempts. The desserts were always calculated indulgences, satisfying but never straying unacceptably far from ideal nutritional indices. Naturally, everyone on the crew filled all their leftover kilograms of personal storage with as much beloved junk food as they could.

The best solution they had found so far was artfully-committed food crimes. Swapping packets of spices and sauce. Frying instead of baking, or vice-versa. They produced some delicious hybrids, but some of the experiments were vile, and it felt terrible to waste food or leave unusable odds and ends.

Tonight’s dinner was lightly-spiced ramen noodles, strawberry jam, and beef-mushroom bourekas. It was a surprisingly good sweet-savory mix, and certainly better than last night’s punishingly salty seafood. Eun Sol unpacked her field rations, and joined in the banter with her protein bars and dried fruit. Alexandria mimed eating filet mignon and sipping a 2142 vintage of Bordeaux. The crew finished, rinsed their plates, and relaxed with a round of poker. They were making some motions towards resting in their rooms when Emmanuel spoke up. “Hey, here’s a radio question that’s probably a bit less awful for all involved: Who do you want to play you in the movie about this mission? I'd like Isaiah Oyelowo.”

The others theatrically groaned but played along. Kuiper pointed out, “Our knowledge of movie stars is a decade out of date. Should we cast them as we remember them, or guess which child stars would probably be best?”

Emmanuel nodded. “...Good point. I guess just cast actors as you remember them, child stars are always a crapshoot.”

Kuiper asked Alexandria, “Could you play yourself with perfect fidelity? Store every remark and gesture and be the North Star of the whole show?”

“Theoretically, but that would take up so much memory and I have better things to spend it on.”

Arjun’s answer required no pondering. “Faisal Singh is the only actor I trust to capture me accurately.”

Kuiper gave them a knowing glance. “Look, just because you had a formative crush on them-”

“True, but irrelevant. But hey, I copied their style a lot growing up, so we’d come full-circle!”

“...They’ll be in their sixties by the time we get back.”

“Then just digitally puppeteer some aged-down homunculus of them, I don’t care.”

Eun Sol finally broke her silence. “Come on, not _ven the   ERA has the budget f_r them.”

Arjun scoffed. “Alright, then who’d you choose?”

“You seem  more l_ke a Sushant KV. As for   me, I’d go for Natasha Choi. She’s a great up-and-comer in the fringe Busan theat__ scene. I hope she’s  doing well now, she deser_es it.”

Kuiper finally had her answer. “I want to be portrayed as a fluorescent cartoon bear, which no other characters think is weird at all.”

Alexandria lit up and leaned in. “Fascinating. Could you elaborate on that?”

“Whenever the director is asked about it, they either dodge the question or give an improvised, rambling artistic rationale.”

“_n tha_   case, I’ll b_ my fursona too.  I have some ref sheets on my compu_er...”

Kuiper slammed the table. “Dammit, Eun Sol, this isn’t my fursona, this is pointed commentary on the absurdity of rounding off historical figures to current celebrities!” 

“Whatev_r,  furry.”

“You just said you have a fursona too. Where do you get off using that tone of voice?”

“Oh   no, I’m n_t a furry, I _ust made it as    commen_ary on h_manity’s desire  to merge with an idealized, d_fanged vision   of natu_e.”

Kuiper rolled her eyes. Arjun, Emmanuel, and Alexandria sat on the edge of their seats.

“As fun   _s this argument is, I should

pro_ably giv_  a field report be_ore  I get co_pletely indeci_herable, right?”

“Please,” said everyone.

“I’m about six kil_meters west of th_

Hab. By   and large it’s more _f the same, but the grou_d has

gotten a bit           driernow.Thereare some exp_sed boulders, _nd I chipped off so__ samples for Emman_el. T_e trees are a bit   shorter and younger, appea_ing in bigger cl_sters but spaced _urther a

 

part.”

Alexandria tried adjusting the frequency and settings, but nothing seemed to work. “Eun Sol, you’re breaking up a lot. Maybe it’d be better to text us?”

The crew’s phones lay silent for a minute, then received a rapid-fire volley of chimes.

Eun Sol: ground’s a bit soggier now, but w/o any lakes or puddles

Eun Sol: some diff types of trees now, gonna get clippings for arjun

Eun Sol: huh, much more soaked thrsdghSG

Eun Sol: GDSL4WB;Sda3

The radio link filled with wet squelching, staticky feedback, and hyperventilating. After a moment of fumbling, Eun Sol's suit camera showed a grainy, compressed sinkhole at a few frames per minute.

 


 

The crew ran to suit up and grab supplies. The freezing puddles were no match for their adrenaline, but it wore off a few hundred meters from the hab. They settled in for a long slog, conserving their energy for Eun Sol’s rescue. Emmanuel took charge of navigation, Arjun hauled extraction and first-aid gear, and Kuiper ran comms.

Kuiper: Are you in stable condition?

Eun Sol: doing alright, i think

Eun Sol: after the initial shock i’m pretty okay

Eun Sol: got a bunch of food and water + climbing pegs

Eun Sol: don’t think they’ll stick well in this mud but i’ll hold off on that until you get here anyway

Kuiper: Any concussive head trauma? Suit/rebreather ruptures? Broken bones?

Eun Sol: pretty sure my head and bones are fine. @Alexandria, any problems w/ my suit?

Alexandria [Mobile Fork]: No problems detected in Eun Sol’s suit or rebreather. Medical benchmarks suggest possible bruising or spraining. [Note: I have roughly 5% of my full processing power in this iteration. Further scrutiny may be necessary.]

Eun Sol: i can stand up and walk in place w/o too much trouble

Eun Sol: the aching is fading but i won’t push myself

Kuiper: Very glad to hear it. We’ll be there within half an hour.

The crew hiked in silence. They took a winding route, staying well clear of anything that looked dangerously soaked. A few puddles held wilted lily pads reduced to bleached pastels. Each one was half-eaten by broods of larval dragonflies, growing into their gleaming silver coats. The air was punishingly humid, too cold and heavy to properly form into gusts. Once the ground seemed reasonably dry, they paused to catch their breath and rehydrate. Kuiper flipped open her phone for a checkup.

Kuiper: We’re about halfway there. How are you holding up?

Eun Sol: feeling p good now

Eun Sol: i’ve had a lot of time to focus on the sinkhole

Eun Sol: it seems... weirdly geometric?

Eun Sol: i’m sure @Emmanuel will have a lot of rock nerd opinions on it

Eun Sol: [img]

Emmanuel: Huh, looks like the Giant’s Causeway, but that is *not* basalt.

Emmanuel: It looks pretty precarious, though - not sure if I could take a sample without collapsing the whole thing.

Eun Sol: yeahh about that

Eun Sol: might wanna hurry, it’s been p creaky for a *while*

Emmanuel: Is there any danger of a cave-in??

Eun Sol: i don’t think so, i can stand clear

Eun Sol: or at least not get totally suffocated, i’ve got a good air tank

Kuiper: Excellent. We’ll be there ASAP.

The crew kept on hiking. By now they could track Eun Sol’s footprints, still reassuringly fresh. Eun Sol stayed on the line, talking about nothing in particular, trying to keep her mind and pulse settled. It was hard to separate the sounds of creaking rocks and static, and the crew flinched with a spike of panic at each one. They joined in rhythmic breathing exercises and set a steady marching pace, building a calming routine. It worked well until a cacophonous crash and squealing feedback shattered it.

Kuiper: Are you okay???

Eun Sol: i’m fine, i was well clear of it, just rattled

Eun Sol: it opened up into a tunnel...

A long silence, well beyond even the most prolonged transmission delay.

The radio link sprang to life.

“WH A T TH_     FU_K __A T

THE _UCK WHAT        THE 

FUCKWHA_ T_E 

FUC K”

Kuiper: What’s going on?!? Are you in danger?? @Alexandria is she okay?

Alexandria [Mobile Fork]: No problems detected in Eun Sol’s suit or rebreather. Medical benchmarks give no indication of injuries sustained in the last ten minutes. [Note: I have roughly 5% of my full processing power in this iteration. Further scrutiny may be necessary.]

“Yeah, no shit,” muttered Kuiper. Eun Sol hyperventilated for an alarmingly long time, then turned off the radio.

The crew moved inexorably onward. Panic had cooled into leaden dread. The radio silence broke only once the sinkhole was in view.

Eun Sol: we’re ending the mission right fucking now.