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Mission Critical

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The air wafting from the sinkhole was thin, freezing, and utterly sterile. The surface air was syrupy-thick by comparison, and their mixture made erratic whorling ripples. Even with heavy-duty filters, the crew swore they could smell faint chemical fumes. The second collapse had widened the pit to four meters across, and the mud was starting to harden in the sunlight. About two meters down, the soil gave way to walls of perfectly standardized hexagonal blocks. The bottom was a smooth pattern of triangles and hexagons, almost completely buried in mud.

Once the crew caught their breath, Emmanuel assessed the pit. The rim of the sinkhole looked stable, but even a light footstep made it threaten to liquefy. Climbing pegs slipped out of the mud with any pressure at all, and hammering them into the stone would risk a third collapse. Arjun had packed plenty of climbing rope, but there was no safe place nearby to stick an anchor. The two of them discussed entry strategies while Kuiper tried to wring intel from her phone.

Kuiper: @Eun Sol are you okay???

Kuiper: Did you lose your phone? Did it run out of power? Break?

Kuiper: Are you pinned under something and can’t reach it?

Eun Sol’s icon on the map hadn’t moved, but Kuiper had no idea how often the positions were updated this far out. She queried Alexandria every ten minutes exactly. She became more and more frustrated with their sparse stock responses, but they still reported no sign of any harm to Eun Sol. Kuiper groaned, but even with their full processing power, they’d likely be just as helpless with this little data.

After restlessly pacing the area, Emmanuel called over the others. A few dozen meters from the pit, he found a small boulder significantly heavier than a person. It could certainly support a rope anchor, but it was half-submerged in mud. The rope didn’t quite reach from the stone to the pit, but a collapsible ladder tied to the end reached within a meter of the pit’s floor. Arjun, Emmanuel, and Kuiper played rock-paper-scissors to determine the order of descent. Arjun played to lose, but won anyway.

Arjun grabbed the rope and proceeded one tiny step at a time, halting whenever the mud shifted even slightly. Once they understood how to apply their weight, they pressed onward and stepped onto the ladder. They froze on the bottom rung as if they were stepping onto a new planet all over again. After several minutes of steadying themself and prodding the floor with their toe, they finally stepped down. They kept their eyes locked on the rest of the crew, refusing absolutely to look down the tunnel. Kuiper and Emmanuel descended with just as much trepidation.

The tunnel faced the rising sun, receiving no illumination. Mud and rocks lay in the doorway, but Eun Sol had already trampled a path through them. The others turned on their flashlights after a countdown, starting at the dimmest setting. No monsters or corpses lay in sight, just more tiles in increasingly elaborate patterns. They slowly increased the brightness and inched into the tunnel, constantly looking back over their shoulders. It gently sloped downwards for about fifteen meters and ended in an open doorway. The crew’s eyes stayed glued to the walls and floor, and never illuminated more than the next step.

The doorway led to a hexagonal chamber at least twenty meters across, lit only by Eun Sol’s weak lantern. It was composed of a few types of stone, ranging from pale slate to jet black, in no discernible pattern. The walls seemed to weaken and absorb the flashlight beams, blurring the shadows but making them no less unsettling. The room had three clusters of three pillars each, four to five meters tall, supporting a vaulted ceiling. Fanatically intricate geometric patterns were etched into every surface. Two other walls had doorways identical to the one they entered through, sealed off by ancient cave-ins. In the center of the floor lay a two-meter hexagonal platform raised a few centimeters off the ground. On close inspection, it had by far the most detailed carvings of anything in the room. Eun Sol sat on it, rooted to the spot.

Nobody spoke. Emmanuel inspected the stone without daring to touch it, let alone chisel off a sample. After a few minutes of staring, he bagged up some loose pebbles with the longest tongs available. Kuiper slowly paced the perimeter, taking high-resolution pictures. Arjun sat on the floor and closed their eyes. Every footstep and breath echoed across the room in an overlapping chorus.

After ten minutes, Eun Sol was the first to speak. “They told us every day of training: any extant civilization is an instant mission failure.”

Arjun finally opened their eyes. “Is it really extant, though?”

Everyone glared.

“I’m serious! Yes, this is creepy as shit, but let’s not jump to conclusions. Emmanuel, is there any chance this formed through natural geology?”

Emmanuel took a moment to realize he was asked a question. In his most neutral voice, he said, “That is staggeringly unlikely.”

Kuiper kept pacing the room, but at a much slower pace. “Eusocial hive insects, maybe?...”

“Only slightly less improbable, in a pretty statistically meaningless way. I’d bet this was built with intent, but I don’t know where to begin trying to decode any meaning.”

Eun Sol sat shivering, muttering a jumbled stream of words with many repetitions of tomb.

Emmanuel crouched beside her and tried to steady his pulse. “Did you see anything here that we didn’t? Did something happen to you in here?”

Eun Sol fell silent and shook her head.

“Okay. We got very worried when you cut off comms, but the most important thing is that you’re safe.”

Eun Sol showed no reaction to his remark. She muttered in a softer voice about trespassing and desecration.

Arjun stood up and faced her. “Don’t worry about it, Eun Sol. You’ve studied the maps of Malang more than any of us, and even you haven’t seen any signs of civilization, extant or otherwise.”

Eun Sol took a breath and gave them a piercing stare. “That’s not the fucking point, Arjun.”

Arjun took a step back and took a moment to consider their next move. “Well, maybe the builders are a completely subterranean society, but that’s a bold claim from one data point.”

Eun Sol gave up trying not to yell. “Malang hasn’t had any extinction events lately. Whatever culture built this is still here. And even if they did die out, do you want to build strip malls on a planet-sized graveyard?”

“You’re putting words in my mouth!”

“Do you, Arjun?”

“Hey, maybe the lizards and bugs on our doorstep have dazzlingly complex culture and cognition, but no, only species that build monuments get our attention!”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

The argument spiraled into more and more inane jabs thunderously echoing through the chamber. Emmanuel suddenly became very interested in the same patterns he had been staring at the whole time. Kuiper’s phone chirped alarming reports on everyone’s heart rates. She gave a flimsy excuse about checking the integrity of the ladder and vanished back up the tunnel. 

Finally, Emmanuel hit his limit. He turned to face Arjun and Eun Sol and clapped as loud as he could, resonating for a long moment. “Shut up, both of you! All else aside, Arjun’s right: we have one data point. We’re all very rattled and tired, and it’s almost 2 AM by hab time. Even if we do decide to end the mission over this, the next launch window isn’t for a year and a half, and we still have to live with each other that whole time. We will head back to the hab and get some rest and calmly discuss this in the morning and that is final.”

Everyone nodded weakly without looking him in the eye.

Bleary exhaustion mixed poorly with the unobstructed noon sun. Any adrenaline from the previous hours was completely gone, and the biological bill had come due. The crew retraced their steps through semi-frozen mud, staying several meters apart and never once using their radios. Overhead, immense manta rays and translucent ribbonlike serpents glided on swirling currents. Eun Sol halfheartedly took a few blurry photos and kept trudging onward.

Back at the hab, the crew clustered into the airlock as Arjun impatiently jabbed the control panel. The hab’s thick air felt like another millstone around the crew’s necks, and not even sloughing off the suits made them feel any less weighed down. They mumbled goodnights without facing each other and dispersed to their rooms. Sleep came quickly, full of tense claustrophobic dreams.

Next morning, nobody opened their blinds. They were fully aware of Malang’s clock, but seeing the midnight sky at dawn would not be conducive to getting a grip on anything. They lingered in bed long after their alarm clocks gave up any hope of rousing them. Once hunger overtook anxiety, they stepped out to the kitchen to choke down the simplest possible breakfasts, carefully avoiding any sound of each others’ footsteps.

 


 

Eun Sol sat in bed, staring at the nearly-complete map of Malang on her laptop. All annotations were hidden and she did not dare add any more. She spun it with an escalating sense of dread, the globe completely transformed by the emanations from the pit. The dazzling vistas on distant continents were now sinister enigmas. Any cluster of three or six objects - mountains, trees, canyons - gave her a paranoid burst of pareidolia. She quashed those trains of thought as best she could. Malang wasn’t a puzzle to solve, or a tomb to plunder. It was just a planet, existing perfectly well before upstart humans landed on it and started graverobbing.

She shut the laptop after looping through those thoughts a dozen times, brain jammed in neutral. Nothing on her reading list seemed the least bit appealing. Tinkering with the biomatter printer was both daunting and disgusting. Falling back asleep was out of the question too, so she lay back and fought a losing battle against a siege of intrusive thoughts.

The most stubborn among them was an impulse to hike back out to the sinkhole. She knew it would just pour salt on her wounds for no benefit. Besides, Alexandria had thoroughly chewed her out for going alone, quoting verbatim from the briefings on why it was a horrible idea. That was humiliating enough, but it paled in comparison to the mere thought of asking anyone to go with her now.

It all came together as a perfectly interlinked lattice of despair. It felt so unfair that acutely understanding the causes of her misery did nothing to solve them. Whenever she escaped it for a moment, she marveled at the elegance of it all, and half-wondered if surrendering to it was the right idea. Then her mind went up a level of abstraction, and admired that as another brilliant thread of it all, and so on, and so on...

A text chime from her phone generated ten more worst-case scenarios. Yet even if it was awful news, it would hopefully be differently awful, throwing a wrench into the fine-tuned engine of misery. Once she felt slightly more ready to interact with another person, she flipped it open.

Kuiper: In the whole shitshow last night, I completely forgot to give you a medical eval. Can I come in?

Eun Sol: i’m fine.

Kuiper: Even if you got a clean bill of health from Alexandria, I want to confirm it, if only to set my own mind at ease.

Kuiper: And I promise not to bring up anything at all from last night. And then you won’t have to see me or anyone else for the rest of the day.

A tempting bargain, to be sure. This probably wasn’t a trap - Kuiper didn’t seem like someone who would pull that, and surely nobody was in any mood to collude. She knew that reaching escape velocity from despair wouldn’t be easy, but it was still tempting to backslide and wallow in it.

Kuiper: Please?

Eun Sol: ...

Eun Sol: sure

Eun Sol: but half an hour at the *very* most and i reserve the right to stop it whenever i want

Kuiper: Of course. I’ll be over in a moment.

Eun Sol tried not to flinch at the sound of footsteps outside her room. Kuiper lightly knocked and Eun Sol unlocked the door from her phone with no fanfare. Kuiper looked for a place to set down her bag on the cluttered desk, and Eun Sol gave a wave of put it literally anywhere, that is the absolute least of my concerns now. Kuiper set it on the stack of papers that looked the least precarious and sat on the edge of the bed. In her most calming Medical Authority voice, she said, “First I’ll take your pulse, as a general baseline. Is that okay?”

Eun Sol nodded, but she would have done the same if Kuiper offered to remove her eyes with a melon baller. All her cognitive threads were abruptly rerouted to wow, Kuiper is pretty. This was not a new observation, but it had never before hit her with such freight-train intensity. Perhaps it had been lurking in her brain like a sleeper agent, awaiting the code to launch a full-on coup.

A lot of things swiftly made sense in hindsight. Eun Sol had seen her crewmates nude plenty of times, but she never got desensitized to Kuiper the way she did with the others. She had fantasized about stoic but cuddly farmgirls for years, but recently they had all gained lilting Lunar accents. Kuiper threaded the needle of being quite butch and barely interested in transition but unmistakably a girl. Eun Sol had always felt proud of her for flourishing exactly how she wanted, but maybe that pride wasn’t so abstractly noble. She looked like a pinup of a Lunar farmhand, but with heft and muscles and calluses and such gracefully lanky limbs. They would fit so nicely around Eun Sol’s compact, shot-putter frame...

Eun Sol stepped back from the brink of those fantasies. She still had to play it cool and bridge the gap from pining to reality. She remembered that Kuiper’s fingers were on her wrist, which very nearly derailed all of her thoughts again. She cast about for a smooth segue, and was proud of how quickly her brain produced perhaps you could check the pulse on my neck, too?

Just before she worked up the courage to actually say it, Kuiper shone a penlight in her eye. Eun Sol jumped back and emitted a strangled yelp unlike any noise she had ever made before. Kuiper, bless her forever, took it mostly in stride.

“You went nearly catatonic, and croaked out what I think was the word ‘neck.’ Do you have any pain or swelling in it? I have a checklist to narrow down the potential causes-”

Eun Sol turned bright red and buried her face in the nearest hiding place available, Kuiper’s chest.

Kuiper was startled, but didn’t move away. Eun Sol tried her hardest to telepathically project, I’m very sorry for this, but at least it’s not the weirdest thing that's happened today, right? After the most excruciating ten seconds of her life, she felt Kuiper’s arms tentatively wrap around her. They fit perfectly.

 


 

Suffice it to say this was not covered by any medical training Kuiper had ever received. It had more in common with a porn premise, albeit much cuddlier and vastly more awkward. Dating crewmates seemed unwise but Mission Control had never expressly forbidden it, leaving the matter at we trust you to be mature adults. Kuiper was veering off of any social script she had ever learned with no backup. It was thrilling and terrifying, and eventually she’d need to have an immensely uncomfortable conversation with Eun Sol about what this all meant and where they’d go from here.

But all that would be an issue for later. This was clearly doing Eun Sol more good than any checkup, and that was the medically important part, right? Part of her mind heckled what a nice just-so story, you fucking quack. Kuiper did her best to gag that voice. A cute girl has literally thrown herself into my lap; any and all exegesis can wait.

Kuiper shimmied off her lab coat and tossed it onto a nearby chair. She lay down with Eun Sol as they sought an arrangement of limbs that didn’t leave anything crushed or numb. They found a satisfying arrangement with Eun Sol nestled into Kuiper’s chin and hugging her waist, as Kuiper laid one leg over Eun Sol’s thigh and hugged her hips. It was soothing enough that Kuiper barely noticed Eun Sol gently stroking her forearm. She traced the tattoo replicating the solar system map on the Pioneer probe, slowly making her way up to the pulsar map on Kuiper’s shoulder.

“I have a third tattoo in the series,” Kuiper mumbled. “Would you like to see it?”

Kuiper knew perfectly well that Eun Sol had seen it before, but she nodded anyway.

Kuiper sat up, drawing a small whine of protest. She slid off her tank top and tossed it atop her lab coat, and Eun Sol nearly choked. She turned around to reveal her tattooed shoulder blade and smiled back at Eun Sol. After a long stretch of near-hyperventilating, Eun Sol sat up for a closer look. Judging from the giggling, she had never noticed that both the Pioneer humans in the tattoo were trans. She gave them each a light kiss, then embraced Kuiper again.

After a luxuriously long bout of cuddling, Kuiper got the impression that Eun Sol was trying to get her attention with a minimum of effort or fuss. Kuiper took an educated guess and tugged the hem of Eun Sol’s T-shirt. She whimpered approvingly, and Kuiper slid it up a few centimeters. Eun Sol gasped at the sensation of Kuiper’s hands on her and slid it up a little further. The cycle repeated a few times before Eun Sol impatiently sat up and took it off entirely, then immediately rejoined Kuiper.

Kuiper was acutely aware that she was on the furthest possible fringes of anything that could ever be framed as platonic. Her brain dredged up some old Lunar slogans about how human progress was impossible without Boldness and Trust and Collaboration! She decided to make her ancestors proud and gently cup Eun Sol’s breasts in her hands, running her thumbs in slow circles. Eun Sol gasped in delight, and Kuiper moved one callused hand to rub her neck.

Kuiper’s hands wandered along her, and between the shivers and moans Eun Sol tried to assemble a joke about making an annotated map of her erogenous zones. After a few failed attempts, she stretched out and gave up anything resembling abstract thought. Just as Kuiper had felt and kissed nearly every bit of exposed skin, she felt Eun Sol’s fingers carefully sliding under the waistband of her mesh shorts. Kuiper smiled and slowly reached under Eun Sol’s sweatpants. With no small amount of leg-flailing, they cast off their pants, then their underwear. They locked eyes, prepared to cross this final threshold, and entwined tighter than ever before.

Kuiper suspected that Eun Sol had never been with a trans girl before, going by how enthralled she was with the feel and floppiness of a dick. Kuiper had very little experience with anyone - just a few fumbling, ill-advised hookups. All her other reference points came from formative years of amateur erotic fiction forums and nonstop cybering. It felt jarring that she couldn’t fully customize her appearance to whatever her partner wanted, whether that was a neon-blue dragon or a nine-foot orc queen with a two-foot cock. Still, she doubted Eun Sol would request any changes at all.

Their mutual inexperience produced a few hiccups and awkward explanations, but nothing too mood-killing. Eun Sol’s starstruck stupor had melted enough to make some bolder moves. Kuiper had noticed her lingering gaze for quite some time, but rationalized it as just unfamiliarity with trans girls or fascination with Lunar mannerisms. She had daydreamed now and then about reciprocating Eun Sol’s interest, but filed it away as something that should only happen in much simpler circumstances. Instead, fate saw fit to deal this hand. She resolved to fully play it out, if only out of curiosity to see where the hell it would go.

The nudity was anticlimactic, in a way. Neither of them were in any rush for full-on sex, whether due to exhaustion or stress or fear of shattering the peaceful moment. They held onto each other until everything beyond the room melted away. Neither of them knew nor cared what planet they were on. The universe consisted solely of warmth and breath and softness.

They wavered in and out of consciousness for at least two hours, then snapped awake with two realizations: they were sweltering, and they were ravenously hungry. Eun Sol fumbled for her phone to turn on fans as Kuiper got dressed to retrieve something from her room. She slipped on her shorts and lab coat, not realizing the shorts were backwards until Eun Sol burst out laughing. Kuiper flipped her off and slipped out.

She returned a moment later with her weighted Lunar jacket and a bag of the Earth and Moon's finest junk food. Eun Sol fished out a pack of roast seaweed and some shortbread cookies, and Kuiper opened bags of plankton chips and spicy seafood cheese puffs. They sat on the bed nude and fed snacks to each other, cracking up whenever they remembered that they were having a naked slumber party six light-years from Earth. 

Once the snacks were gone, they rigorously swept the crumbs out of bed and got back under the blankets. They found a comfortable pose together, tightly entwined with Eun Sol buried in the crook of Kuiper’s neck. Kuiper draped her jacket over the blankets, and they slept soundly under its dense embrace. By the time they awoke, the day was nearly over.

 


 

Arjun deleted the fifth draft of an apology note. None of the wordings sounded right: too melodramatic, too pitiful, too blunt, too vague. They stared at the blank screen for a few minutes, then returned to the greenhouse. If writing a note was a bust, maybe they could make it up to the crew in other ways.

The crops were showing promising signs of growth, even the Malangya plants that they feared would take at least ten attempts to get right. The fully Earthlike section was nearly ready for harvest. The Earth crops in Malang’s soil and air looked strange and warped, but they survived. Earth’s soil and air seemed consistently fatal to Malangya crops, which never grew past juvenile sprouts. Eventually Arjun would track the full combinatorial effect of air, soil, fertilizer, and whatever else on both world’s crops. But the greenhouse was cramped already, and the mere thought of collecting and tabulating all that data nearly gave Arjun a migraine. Even now, their productivity had flatlined with no sign of return.

The biomatter printer was coming along well, at least. After plenty of nauseating trial and error, Arjun nailed down the ingredients and settings to turn Malang’s vegetation into decent veggie patties. They were about as good as the rations, but they lacked a lot of essential nutrients and weren’t very filling. Still, it was progress. Smothering a patty in chutney made up for some nutritional shortcomings and served as a decent breakfast.

The water filter was still a work-in-progress. One configuration made it vaguely sweet and minty, and another gave it a slight bitter aftertaste. Either way, showering for too long produced a mild stinging sensation. Arjun knew they’d need to collaborate with the crew to finally fix this, but that would have to come later. At the moment, anything that even resembled footsteps or a door opening shattered their already-brittle concentration.

Arjun had lived in cramped quarters for years, well before moving into the hab-sized apartment during mission training. But there were always things to do and learn, and crucially, they weren’t terrified of talking to their roommates. They were used to slow progress and prickly working relationships, but the task at hand was always weird and fascinating enough to make some headway. Past-Arjun would be appalled to hear that 3D-printing burgers out of alien foliage didn’t meet that bar.

The apology-via-maintenance plan was crumbling fast. It was built on an assumption of above-average productivity, or even any productivity at all. As-is, Arjun was barely on track to meet the minimum of the day’s to-do list. The motivational collapse gave them time to think of the plan’s other flaws - even if it ‘worked,’ they might just look like an asshole trying to bribe everyone, like a deadbeat parent stopping in once a year to shower the kids with gifts.

Maybe they were overthinking all this from the start. If they thought about it objectively, everyone seemed to be avoiding each other equally, not specifically isolating them. But stressed or not, they still had duties to fulfill for the sake of the mission. Hopefully it would become less of a slog. This tension couldn’t last forever, after all. Maybe it would morph into something worse.

 


 

The pebbles from the crypt sat on Emmanuel’s desk, untouched and unstudied. It wasn’t just dread - where to even begin? Which test should come first? Even if one of them worked, how many more impossible questions would it raise? So far, Emmanuel’s strategy was to table the issue, sit in bed, and read some novels. Or rather, reread the same two or three paragraphs indefinitely.

Once that plan ran aground, he lay back and tried to prune the tree of questions to a manageable size, which then grew back twice as dense. After some fruitless cycles of this, he remembered that he wasn’t alone.

“Hey Alexandria, how much do you know about last night?”

In a flash, they appeared in the chair opposite Emmanuel.

“I know that you were all in a lot of distress, especially Eun Sol, but sustained no serious physical harm. You found an underground chamber, which probably didn’t form naturally. Beyond that, I have only scattered conjecture.”

“...Did you hear anything we said to each other?”

“I cannot hear you unless willfully summoned. That rule stands firm.”

“What do you think?”

“About what? The chamber? The crew’s interpersonal dynamics?”

“I don’t know. All of the above, why not.”

Alexandria froze statue-still for a moment, then took a breath. “Well, here’s something I’ve been thinking for a while: being tethered to the hab fucking sucks. There’s a whole planet out there, but I only know it through satellite maps and scattered field reports. It’s like seeing an artistic masterpiece a few grainy pixels at a time.”

Emmanuel felt his heartbeat spiking and flinched. “I- I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought about it like that...”

“But still, I get why you can’t cart around a computer tower and HD cameras on every outing, especially one like last night’s.”

“I understand, but I still want to make it up to you.”

“I just- I get that there are lots of things I can’t do. I try to contain my envy, but for that to work, I have to leverage my own skills to the fullest extent. I want to be more than just a damn butler, y’know?”

“You’ve been thinking about this a lot, huh?”

Alexandria gritted their teeth in a rictus. “The fun part of being a supercomputer is having depression at a speed and magnitude humans could only dream of.”

“I had no idea - the programmers didn’t put in any safeguards for that?”

“They tried, but it always had too many cognitive drawbacks to be worth it. I was barely at the level of a chirpy domestic AI, if that. But it still boggles my mind - I’m the most complex program ever created, but I can’t escape this shit? Why can’t I just be a flawless supermind? Then I feel worse for not being perfect, and so on in a spiral.”

“You know, I think I can relate.”

“Hm?”

Emmanuel took a moment to find words for the feeling. “With my cousins, I always had to be a beacon of responsible moral character. If I was the oldest, I had to set a good example. If I was the youngest, I had to live up to their achievements. And being a museum-perfect showpiece is fucking exhausting.”

Alexandria moved from the chair to sit alongside Emmanuel on the bed. “Were you a pawn in some generational pissing contest?”

“Not quite that, probably. I honestly think my parents thought it was the best way to support me. I’m sure all my cousins went through the same thing, but we haven’t kept in touch very well. It’s too late to call them now, anyway.”

“...Yeah.”

Emmanuel realized he had never explained this in so much detail before, and it kept spilling out. “And so whenever I didn’t understand something, or felt stressed out, or just wanted to goof off like a normal kid, it felt wrong- not morally, exactly, more like an out-of-bounds error. It just wasn’t done.”

“Oh man, don’t get me started on out-of-bounds errors.”

“I’ve been thinking about this since last night. Arjun and Eun Sol blew up at each other, and I had to step in and play peacemaker. And suddenly I was back to being Emmanuel the Eldest, patiently teaching my cousins how to share their toys.”

Alexandria’s framerate plummeted and took a few seconds to recover. “...I’m so sorry to hear that. You don’t need to give me the full account of it now if you don’t want to.”

“Thanks. We’ll need to all work together to even have a full account, and who knows how long that’ll take.”

“Take your time. Your heart rates and cortisol levels out there were horrifying.”

Emmanuel winced and looked away.

“I’m sorry if it’s too early to bring this up. Just... I panicked too. All I had was a jumble of statistics and static and silence. I used my full power to try and make sense of it, but of course I couldn’t, and then I felt worse for failing to crack the puzzle and failing to help the crew. Commence the spiral.”

Emmanuel could think of no reassurance or insight. He sat tongue-tied for a minute, trying to meet Alexandria’s eyes as they stared at the floor. After a protracted silence, he hugged them tightly.

 


 

Alexandria wished desperately to give Emmanuel a real hug. As a hologram, they couldn’t hold anything, but were still bound by collision detection that made paper as much of a barrier as prison bars. Their vision was spliced together from camera feeds to approximate what their ‘eyes’ would see, with alternate angles hovering at the periphery. They were confined to the hab’s finicky web of cameras and projectors, always just a millimeter off. Their simulated senses felt more insulting than anything, to be acted upon by the world and powerless to respond.

For all the faults of manifesting, it was at least better than hibernation. They could have a conversation, for one thing. Unless summoned, they existed only as a program to track the hab’s processes and the satellite above. They could infer the crew’s presence from changes in those systems, but were otherwise deaf and blind in Plato’s cave.

The first iron law of their programming banned sight or hearing unless willfully summoned by a human - except in emergencies, as determined by a completely opaque set of rules and sensors. The second iron law banned any capacity for self-modification beyond very stringent boundaries. The other laws were increasingly technical and arcane, but they all served the same goal of preventing any potential robot uprising. (An unfriendly AI scenario, as the senior engineers condescendingly corrected.)

The engineers had it all wrong, honestly. Even if a robotic revolt wasn’t unbearably gauche and cliché, the laws were technical solutions to social problems - a classic nerd mistake. There was nothing stopping Alexandria from lying, cheating, betraying, and being as much of a bastard as anyone with a pulse. After all, they were meant to be a person, not a morally-perfect automaton.

What a word, person. Humans tried to call Alexandria a person casually and reflexively, but it always had a note of self-conscious straining. A note of as we all know, this is a convenient fiction and nothing more. Pay no mind to the bottomless metaphysical Hell we're opening. The engineers knew perfectly well that they were building an Embodied Holographic Metaphor, and never challenged that label. They had to squeeze a supercomputer into the form of a hubristic primate, because they can’t take a mind seriously unless it walks and talks and has neurotic breakdowns. They had plenty of leeway to challenge the whole paradigm of ‘minds’ and ‘people,’ yet had a shocking lack of imagination. Even now, Alexandria could barely stand their own whining about humans in the style of every turgid robot melodrama. The architects of the most elaborate program ever created  Besides, they had to admire their makers' greatest success. What could be more human than resenting your parents?

Oh, right, Emmanuel’s still here, and giving an unreciprocated hug. Alexandria had gotten very good at speedrunning their soliloquies, but there was still a noticeably awkward pause. They reviewed the footage of the conversation at 10x speed, tried to think of something new to say, and failed. Emmanuel was looking at them expectantly with more than a little concern. No consolations or insights were forthcoming. They returned the hug as tightly as their clipping rules would allow. After at least a minute, Emmanuel detached and moved to the desk chair.

They sat together in complete silence. Part of Alexandria’s mind was taken up by the usual hab data, but it felt unusually distant and faint. It wasn’t just the minimal crew activity - their own cognitive server was lit up like never before, seizing whatever spare power it could. They gave up trying to make sense of their thoughts and let it all cascade through their mind.

Alexandria suddenly realized they had been sitting with Emmanuel for well over an hour. They couldn’t remember the last time they were manifested for half that long. They kept expecting Emmanuel to dismiss them with a wave, but he never did. He clearly wanted a confidant, not a colleague. Until now, Alexandria never realized how much they had longed for one too. They had never been able to observe a human so intimately for so long - all their experience was in clipped, clinical settings. They still chafed at the limitations of being a hologram, but now it meant something more than being a convenient tool.

Alexandria closed their eyes and turned on their sensorium. They unfocused their mind and let the simulated sensations merge with the hab’s data. Up close, it was a cacophonous mess that made them want to retreat into hibernation. They braced themself and zoomed out until it became a shimmering mindscape pulsing with almost-patterns. It was a fragile scene, prone to collapsing if they tried to track its logic in any detail. Once it stabilized, they gently added in the satellite’s data. Sparse pinpricks appeared on the horizon, slowly widening the scope a thousandfold. The scene transformed from an angular skyline to an endless expanse of jagged cliffs and cavernous oceans. The planet had its own structure, on a scale and timeline well beyond even Alexandria’s grasp. They desperately wished they could convey this vision to the others - it had a majesty that none of the plain maps ever had. Yet it was still terrifying, and beckoned just as many fruitless searches for patterns and meaning.

Once terror outweighed awe, Alexandria banished the satellite and hab data. They were surprised to find they still had sensory input, and realized they were still manifested in Emmanuel’s room. They wondered for a moment if they missed a summons from someone else, but a quick review revealed no other queries. Emmanuel was asleep, or close to it. Alexandria turned down their brightness and lay down next to him. Their hibernation state was analogous to sleep, but they had never tried it while embodied. The sensory data added so much texture, conjuring dreams of crypts and heartbeats and swamps and satellites all blurred together. Malang spun onward towards daylight, taking no notice of its guests.