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Mission Critical

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Kuiper sat at the back of her Extraterrestrial History class, trying not to get caught staring at the clock. Professor Huygens was droning on about their Brave Forerunners - The Dutch engineers who dredged land from the sea for a millennium. The Kibbutzim that made the Levant bloom. The Lunar seed vaults built in Earth’s darkest hour, sustaining the spark of verdant civilization. All the same beats drummed into Kuiper’s head for as long as she could remember. The details were more complex this year, but it boiled down to the same conclusion: The most brutal terrain on Earth is a lush paradise next to the Moon’s empty valleys. Unless everyone pulls their weight, we cannot grow a single blade of grass. If an Earth community fails, it can evacuate; if a Lunar community fails, everyone dies. Kuiper mouthed along, almost impressed at how well Huygens hewed to the stock finale.

Once the bell rang, the students took a moment to realize class was over. They shook off their stupor and rushed to the farms, gyms, and fields. As Kuiper packed up her doodle-filled textbook, she realized its history had a key omission, only passive-aggressively hinted at. Once she had a clear path, she bounded down to the whiteboard. Huygens lit up when she saw a student hanging back for further questions, and tried to contain her exhaustion when she saw that it was Kuiper.

Huygens took an intense interest in erasing the board. “What is it this time?”

“This is Extraterrestrial History, right?”

Huygens nearly broke the eraser in half. “...Yes, what’s your point?”

“Why are we skipping over a whole planet?”

“Red Hell, you mean?”

Kuiper grinned and nodded.

Huygens didn’t look up from packing her bag. “What’s there to learn? Once upon a time, some rich dipshits landed a rocket and built some casinos. Then they all died because nobody knew how to unclog a drain. Repeat as necessary. The end.”

“C'mon, they’ve had some boom-and-bust, but so did we. Their population is stable and trending upward now, what’s the story there?”

Huygens looked up at Kuiper and let out a long, defeated sigh. “Can this wait? I have to teach Micrograv Hydroponics across campus, and I can barely get there on time as-is.”

Kuiper was astonished that Huygens didn’t blow her off more forcefully, and pressed the opening. “You’d get there early if you took your weights off. Let’s walk and talk - I won’t slow you down, you of all people should know that.”

Huygens suppressed the muscle memory to write yet another citation for Reckless Unweighted Parkour. She fixed Kuiper with a deadly stare and took off her jacket and shoes. Kuiper realized that she had never seen Huygens without her weights before, and she somehow looked even more chained down.

Kuiper leapt across the campus of Blooming Moon Academy, careening from tree to pillar to tree. She had to remember to slow down - her boots with the best soles were still confiscated, and she couldn’t outpace her companion. Huygens barely moved faster than her weighted walking speed. She took small, nervous leaps, as if one wrong step would fling her into orbit.

Kuiper perched on a mural beside her. “I think it’s a fascinating example of how even the most comically dysfunctional systems can still vaguely function if they have firehoses of money.”

Huygens intently focused on her balance. “That’s nice.”

“Even in the most reductive terms possible, it’s still a perfect ‘what not to do’ guide for building an offworld society, don’t you think?”

“Go take it up with the Econ or Anthropology department.”

“But you’re my advisor.”

“It’s not too late to change.”

“Hey, I’ve been looking for a good capstone project - how about a Martian field study?”

Huygens slumped against a tree and mumbled something about the god-damned advisor lottery.

“I’m serious! All my life, people have said ‘Go look for yourself if you’re so damn curious’ when they meant ‘fuck right off.’ What happened to that bold Lunar spirit of exploration?”

A small crowd had gathered to gawk at Huygens’ unweighted bouncing. “Kuiper, I saw you making jerk-off gestures when I talked about the Lunar spirit ten minutes ago.”

“That’s neither here nor there. Anyway, give me one good reason why I can’t.”

The crowd looked to Huygens, awaiting her response like a tennis player’s counterplay. “Here’s two: tickets to Mars cost more money than you’ve seen in your lifetime, and we’re persona non grata there anyway.”

“I really don’t think they’re as invested in this rivalry as we are. And wouldn’t it be much cheaper without a layover on Earth?”

“Sure, let me just call in a favor with Orbital Logistics High Command and we’ll get that squared away.”

“So we’re giving up on Lunar cooperation too?”

“Look, Kuiper, you're a bright kid, so I won't waste your time: Nobody on this Moon will chip in one sel for your Martian vacation. I wish you the best of luck on hitchhiking. Goodbye.

“Oh, I get it! You’re afraid I’ll defect! So is Mars a soul-sucking hellhole, or is it tempting enough to sway a lifelong Lunar citizen?”

Huygens rolled her eyes and flipped off Kuiper. She swiped into the botanical center, took a weighted jacket from the coat check, and vanished.

Kuiper had no fixed obligations for the next few hours, and clambered up to the botanical center’s roof. At this height, she could almost read the poems and proverbs engraved in the crater’s glass dome. On their own merits they were surely gorgeous, but years of recitation from the Huygens of the world had ruined her ability to appreciate them. Ditto for the murals around campus. They had amazing stylistic diversity, but were all tied to themes of progress and unity and hope. She wished for a tacky neon billboard, just for a change of scenery.

She tried to quiet her mind and simply enjoy the view of campus. It made beautiful use of vertical sprawl, with distinct ecosystems at each layer. Every wall had a mural or a sprawling web of vines or both. Students leapt between balconies, confident that the mossy ground would be merciful if they misjudged the gap. From this vantage, Kuiper could see transit circuits across all elevations. Her mind assembled them into a holistic flow across the whole campus until halted by a highest-alert phone chime.

From: RHuygens@bloomingmoon.lun.edu
To: Art3mysD4rksyde@ansible.lun
Subj: NSLM Shift (1 attachment)

I signed you up for a shift as Algae Farmer #3. You’re due in twenty minutes in full period attire. Hop to it.

-H

(Attached: NSLM_AF3_2_25_2296.txt)

Kuiper reeled from a white-hot wave of mortification. How the fuck did she find the address I made when I was 14? Once that subsided, she ran the numbers: the train to the New Svalbard Living Museum takes ten to fifteen minutes, depending on delays or congestion. Clocking in and suiting up takes five to seven minutes. Depending on the supervisor, minor lateness is either no big deal or punished with arbitrary shift extensions. I got this email one minute and forty-eight seconds ago...

Kuiper broke out of the rut and leapt down to the subway station. She was eternally grateful that regardless of official policy, campus was sculpted to be very friendly to freerunners. A train arrived mercifully quickly, full of chattering students off to downtown New Svalbard for a well-earned break.

Once she found a seat, she read over Algae Farmer #3’s character sheet. ZHANG YILI; Born 2078, on a disputed island; Hometown destroyed in the War of the South China Sea at age 6; fled to relative safety in Singapore; studied experimental aquaculture; arrived in New Svalbard in the second wave of settlement. After the broad strokes came a list of optional traits. Lifelong fear of bees; partial inability to smell due to childhood tear gas exposure; ambidextrous.

A neural network had spat out the sheet earlier that day. None of the Museum’s characters were real historical figures, only statistical composites - an army of extras with no protagonist. It was a handy defense against accusations of Great Man History, but Kuiper argued with anyone who’d listen that filling the Museum with vague phantasms was more dishonest. By now she knew where all her coworkers stood on the issue, and had turned to a different form of protest. She’d imbue Zhang Yili with all the gusto and personality she could muster, paying tribute to all of the thousands of people rolled into her.

But for now, that wasn’t much at all. The Museum shift shattered her already-precarious schedule, especially her exercise regimen. She’d have to wear the goddamn weights all day, and the Museum’s jumpsuits had authentically shitty calibration. Well, if Huygens gets pissy about my exhaustion tomorrow, she’ll have nobody to blame but herself. Kuiper tried not to dwell on that as she ran to the actors’ entrance and grabbed her coarse jumpsuit. As a small mercy, she was allowed a soft modern undershirt as long as it stayed completely hidden.

The Museum was not actually built on New Svalbard’s original foundations. In the lean early years, the Moon could afford no inefficiencies, and the facilities were in a constant churn of upgrades and expansion. The Museum’s long, squat greenhouses sat over a hill in a barren crater, carefully blocked off from flight paths and light pollution. It evoked the feel of early Lunar settlements remarkably well, even if it was dishonest to the core.

Kuiper jogged through the staff-only tunnels underneath the Museum. She heard the muffled buzzing of the Insect House, smelled the earthy tang of Houses Vegetables and Grains, and finally reached the damp odor of Algae/Fungus with less than a minute to spare. She adjusted her jumpsuit to the least-awful weight balance and stepped into the sweltering greenhouse. Farmers sang call-and-response work songs as they obsessively checked growth statistics. Most of the actors were clearly counting down to the end of their shift, but some had practiced the clumsy adjustment to Lunar gravity, and spoke of the Earth they fled with a true sense of haunted devastation.

Today’s guests were an even mix of Earth tourists (either enthralled, or completely distracted by Lunar gravity) and Lunar students (bored to tears, goading the actors to break character.) A handful of visitors were unmistakably Martian, with glittering gowns that cost at least two years of Lunar wages. They were the most enraptured of anyone, asking questions that made Kuiper wonder how they lasted a day in space. A gang of Lunar kids orbited them, amazed at how oblivious they were to pickpockets.

Kuiper strayed as far as she could to keep an eye on them. She answered questions about algae as briskly as possible, and desperately willed the Martians to come closer. What would a Martian museum look like? How do they frame their history of pointless ruination? What was it like to huddle in a collapsing penthouse, fending off a freezing void that cares nothing for your wealth?

Once her shift finally ended, Kuiper was woozy enough to almost forget that her name was not Zhang Yili. She threw off her jumpsuit, and was surprised for a moment when she didn’t float into the air. She slumped into a train seat and staggered home to her bunkhouse. Her bunkmates were unwinding after work and school with an Oblast Strike Tactics tournament, but she was too exhausted to even notice their glaring misplays. She flopped into bed and took melatonin in a hopeless bid to correct her sleep cycle. She awoke three hours later, too energized to fall back asleep but without the will to focus on anything. After an hour of trying and failing to meditate, she decided to slip out for some field research.

 


 

The train to the New Svalbard Spaceport was nearly empty, with only Kuiper and a few technicians and deckhands. The Spaceport itself was a modest cluster of silos and warehouses with a creaky space elevator. Nearly every departing ship was an agricultural freighter with no room for stowaways, and she knew she couldn’t pass as a deckhand for five minutes. Only one or two passenger ships departed each month, nearly all to Gabon or Colombia. None of them had anywhere near the capacity to reach Mars. Every remotely affordable flight there left from Borneo, and she spent the train ride home judging whether it would be cheaper to travel across whole continents or bribe Orbital Logistics.

As the speculation spiraled into uselessness, another path came to mind. If Huygens was right that the Moon wouldn’t pay her way, maybe Mars would. But how? Pretending to defect would be more trouble than it was worth. There were no grants or scholarships for students of Martian Studies. The waitlist for tickets was a decade long at best. Securing a patron would let her jump the line, but Martian social politicking was the worst combination of superficial fluff and bone-deep backstabbing. Besides, she couldn’t just slide into a socialite’s DMs and parasitize some tickets.

Kuiper listlessly scrolled through Martian accounts on guan.xi with a growing sense of frustration. She shut off her computer and sulked in bed, still reeling from the wrench in her sleep cycle. After half an hour, the exhaustion vanished in a moment of epiphany. No Martian seemed the least bit happy with their life. She had heard this for years, but always as overblown propaganda bundled with far more dubious claims. The more she reflected on it, the more the mundane truth of it hit her between the eyes. Martian social media was a soul-crushing tour of penthouse suites, trophy spouses, and photo ops, turning all of life's pleasures into passive-aggressive status plays. They only ever looked truly happy when they were visiting a serene vista on Earth, even when they grimaced in pain from the gravity. A rare few had even visited the Moon and were as enthralled as the Museum guests, not knowing or caring how much their hosts despised them.

Next, Kuiper browsed guan.xi feeds full of romantic pining. So many people lamented viciously shallow lovers, even as they themselves displayed a stunning lack of emotional maturity. They longed for honest, hardworking partners who would truly respect them. Reading between the lines, they wanted to be plowed silly by rugged lunar farmhands.

Kuiper delved the ‘Moon x Mars’ category on every romantic-fiction forum she could find. After adjusting the search terms to avoid personifications of the Moon and Mars, she found her quarry: many, many people who were very forthright about their thirst for lunar farmhands. There were quick-and-dirty smutfics, six-figure-word slowburns, comedies of manners, multi-novel sagas, zero-gravity makeouts, and so, so much more. Even filtering for only posts from Martian IPs, the search space was paralyzingly huge.

Kuiper backed away from the daunting task and assembled a checklist for the ideal mark. Wealthy enough to drop round-trip tickets on a casual fling, but not so high-profile that this saga might spill into tabloids. Lonely enough to take the bait, but forthright enough to actually go through with it. Charming enough to make the seduction easy, but not so charming to risk actual feelings.

Kuiper spent every waking moment scrolling through hackneyed Martian erotica. Her acting quality at the Museum slipped, and Huygens was getting suspicious of this new strain of distraction. After trading whispered rumors, her bunkmates asked her point-blank what the hell she was doing all day. Most of them got vague nonanswers, but a trusted few were invited to a group chat.

 


 

Kuiper named the chat: Operation Red Romance

Kuiper: Here’s the deal: for my capstone project, I will conduct an anthropological field study on Mars.

Kuiper: My advisor told me, in no uncertain terms, that neither she nor anyone else at Blooming Moon will help me. But I won’t give up that easily.

Kuiper: My current plan is to create an alias and seduce tickets out of a Martian socialite, but there are obstacles to address. That’s where you come in. 

Kuiper: Obstacle 1: Search space. I need to filter out the ideal mark from at least a hundred thousand guan.xi profiles. @Buzz and @Cassini, I’ve seen your compsci database skill.

Kuiper: Here’s what I’m looking for: [mark_criteria.txt]

Kuiper: Obstacle 2: Photos. My tattoos, as cliche as they are, are still identifying. @Hypatia, you’re a perfect casting choice for a Sexy Lunar Farmgirl. I will not request any photos more revealing than what you are comfortable with.

Kuiper: Obstacle 3: Writing/seduction. @Chandrasekhar, @Stanislaw, @Guangqi, you are the best cybering partners I have ever had. I have no idea what the mark’s tastes will be, but you are all amazingly versatile.

Kuiper: I can compensate all of you with up to 400 sels each. Once I ghost the mark, all of you are free to move in for a rebound (plan among yourselves).

Kuiper: You are free to back out at any time, but if you snitch to Huygens, I will use every tool at my disposal to make your life a living Hell.

Kuiper: Any questions?

Hypatia: ill pose nude for free if u want, this is the funniest fuckin thing ive ever seen

Buzz: Defining these goals will be tricky, but I can kludge something together in the next few days!

Cassini: guan.xi looks pretty easy to scrape once I get a handle on this astonishingly bad interface

Guangqi: Happy to help xD

Chandrasekhar: *hacker voice* I’m in. Once this is over, and the statute of limitations is gone, can I use this plan as a fic premise?

Kuiper: Absolutely.

Stanislaw: I have been preparing for this moment my entire life~

Kuiper: Six for six. Perfect. I’ll be in contact as necessary.

Kuiper spent the next few days being as much of a model Lunar citizen as possible, and tried her hardest not to ask her team for updates every ten minutes. She did her honest best to pay attention in Huygens’ class, asking smart questions that didn’t poke too hard at Lunar dogma. Huygens glared at her, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

After class, Kuiper checked her phone and found a magnificent set of photos from Hypatia. She posed in overalls and nothing else in a field of elongated Lunar sunflowers, with such perfect lighting that Kuiper suspected she used a professional camera crew. If so, that would certainly help the project, but it was a potentially-risky loose end.

Kuiper: Fantastic work, @Hypatia! These are perfect for seeding the alias-profile.

Hypatia: :3c

Kuiper: And I’ve settled on a name for the alias: Artemis Bonestell, combining two of my old girlname ideas.

Kuiper: I’ll make an Ansible profile for Artemis tonight, and all of you are welcome to fill it out with posts and interaction. The password is [ D3imos&Ph0bos! ]

Kuiper: Just run your ideas by me first, I’ll be the editor of authorial voice.

Guangqi: *salutes*

Cassini: The guan.xi scraper is still p clunky, so I had an alternate idea

Cassini: Start by filtering romance fic posts w/ your criteria, then see which of them are linked to non-pseud accounts elsewhere

Buzz: I like it! There’s much more useful data there than on guan.xi

Buzz: The main obstacle I see is getting a good language interpretation system...

Cassini: There are some p good freeware options, I’ll fine-tune them

Cassini: If all goes well, we should have under a thousand mark candidates soon

Chandrasekhar: I’ve been drafting a slate of intro messages, with a wide range of tones!

Kuiper: Excellent.

The progress set Kuiper at ease, and she returned to work far more calm and confident. At advisor checkins, Huygens asked gently probing questions. Kuiper gave a volley of half-truths, misdirections, and bullshit.

Artemis Bonestell’s persona was fleshed out with remarkable speed. She was a diligent Lunar citizen, but didn’t engage in casual Mars-bashing. She worked long hours in the fields in surprisingly little clothing. She had a circle of friends, originally sockpuppets, but with increasingly many real people. Every post was calculatedly bland, leaving plenty of room to tailor Artemis to the mark’s tastes.

Cassini: Winnowed it down to 672 and falling!

Kuiper: Beautiful. Once it’s at ~500, I propose we have an all-nighter party to handpick the finalists. I’ll make dinner and snacks.

Kuiper: Pardon if this is a rush - the deadline to declare my capstone project is approaching quickly, and I need to be well on my way to Mars by the time Huygens puts two and two together.

Buzz: I’m free on Wednesdays and Fridays!

Buzz: Also, I had an idea for a 3-tier ranking system:

Buzz: Tier 3 candidates get the most neutral stock intro (or maybe a random one?)

Buzz: Tier 2 gets a handpicked stock line, and Tier 1 gets all-new handcrafted solicitations

Chandrasekhar: I like it! I have 6 stock intros ready to go: Aloof, Funny, Thirsty, Blunt, Weird, and Sad.

Chandrasekhar: I’m technically free Wednesday night, but I’m not sure I can afford the hit to my sleep cycle.

Hypatia: im basically nocturnal already, why the fuck not lol

Cassini: Stanislaw and I are booked until 9, but we’ll be there ASAP, 9:30 at the latest?

Guangqi: I’m booked solid for a while, but I’ll cheer you on from the cricket farm :(

Kuiper: We will miss you, Guangqi.

Kuiper: I’ve just booked Conference Room 3A in Bunkhouse 4 for Wednesday, starting at 9. There’s a four-hour limit, but nobody ever uses that room - we should be fine.

By Wednesday night, 489 candidates remained. The team ate bowl after bowl of plankton chips, read comically awful sex scenes aloud, and endlessly debated tier rankings. Most pickup lines were cast out into utter silence, with a smattering of blockings. A few led to tepid conversations destined to fizzle out, which the team cut off early. After a prolonged streak of failures and false hopes, Kuiper found a file that stopped her in her tracks. The prose was haunting, and when the climax arrived after ten thousand words, it was the culmination of months of pining and heartache and tragic failure to communicate. The characters remained deeply flawed, but no less committed to the impossible task of bridging their differences. Once she recovered after finishing it, she checked the author’s linked profile.

jun aikhuele (arriktos@guan.xi)
She or they, hella gay / 22 / schiaparelli r&c / take it easy for a little while, it’s such an easy flight

Every post was an original photo. Glassy penthouses framed against immense, frozen mountains. Decaying hulls of abandoned ships and shopping centers. Empty plazas full of screens flashing error messages. They were either unadorned or captioned with terse poetry. Neither Jun nor anyone else appeared in any of them. As Kuiper scrolled, she found a sharp break - until eight days ago, Jun was a completely normal Martian. She traded jokes with friends, debated horoscope interpretations, and posted plenty of selfies.

Good lord. All of Kuiper’s knee-jerk revulsion to makeup and cosmetic surgery vanished in a flash. Jun looked like a cartoon character made manifest, but with a true sense of artistry and craft. Once Kuiper remembered the point of the project, she took a moment to consider whether to reach out to her as herself or as Artemis.

Artemis: Hello. I know you don’t know me, but I can tell you’re struggling with a lot right now. You can discuss it as much or as little as you want, or block me outright, but just know that I’m here for you.

The moment Kuiper sent it, she second-guessed every word choice. The team gently asked her why she spent an hour on a single file. She skimmed through some obvious Tier 3s in an embarrassed daze, checking for Jun’s reply between each one. The evening passed in a blur, with every promising file handed off to a ghostwriter. Kuiper clocked out just before midnight with a hundred candidates remaining. She sprinted home and dreamt of endless Martian mansions full of mannequins. She awoke eleven hours later and grabbed her phone, honing in on one name in an inbox full of noncommittal banter.

jun: thx

jun: are u sure u wanna know? 

jun: most of my friends bailed when they heard

Artemis: Absolutely.

Kuiper stared at the screen awaiting an answer, and remembered that messages to Mars had a six-minute round trip at best. The response came in seven.

jun: my parents took a tour of the valles marineris n never came back

jun: in 2 more days theyll be declared dead

Kuiper’s breath caught.

Kuiper: @Guangqi, @Stanislaw, @Chandrasekhar - ghostwrite all you want on every file except Jun (Candidate #274). Leave her to me.

Stanislaw: Got it. And btw, I looked into the Schiaparelli Resort and Casino - the cheapest one-night stay costs an eye-wateringly huge fortune. Anyone who lives there can absolutely splurge on tickets.

Stanislaw: (Also, it’s on the opposite side of the planet from the Schiaparelli crater. WTF??)

Kuiper: Noted.

Kuiper steeled herself and reopened the chatlog, triple-checking which account she had active.

jun: theyve been p absent my whole life, so part of me is like “whats the big deal, its just more of the same”

jun: yeah, ill have to inherit their workload ~20 yrs ahead of schedule, but i can delegate it (just like they did)

jun: its just

jun: i lost the two ppl who had to pretend they care abt me

jun: the tiny chance that theyd ever apologize is now 0

Artemis: I’m so, so sorry to hear that. But there’s still a chance of rescue, right?

jun: ppl lost in the valles marineris have an 8.2% recovery rate

jun: n among the recovered, a 91.5% fatality rate

jun: search parties r just a formality/legal ass-covering

Artemis: I can’t speak to your grief, but I know what it’s like to stare down impossible odds with the tiniest sliver of hope.

Artemis: I won’t give you cheesy aphorisms, since they just rub salt in the wounds.

Artemis: Just know that I’m here to talk, and I want to support you however I can, even if I’m 50 million km away.

Kuiper’s phone chimed with a reminder for class. She glanced at the clock - her conversation with Jun had taken up her entire morning. She sprinted to school and did not absorb a single word of hydroponics or anatomy or economics. She spent the entire time drafting dialogue trees with the intensity of a supercomputer plotting Go strategies. Of course, this is all assuming she still wants to talk. With ten minutes left in class, she received a volley of text buzzes, mumbled an excuse, and ducked out early.

jun: they offered me a spot on the trip

jun: i turned it down bc they were shoving gifts at me instead of recognizing their problems

jun: like they always did

jun: maybe i shouldve gone after all

Artemis: Don’t ever say that, Jun.

Artemis: Have you told anyone else about these feelings?

jun: some therapists, but they just gave me meds n platitudes n tried to make me somebody elses problem

jun: n a few friends that bolted asap

Artemis: That’s horrible. What, if anything, do you think would help most?

jun: idk

jun: ur not half bad

Kuiper paced around campus for ten minutes planning a response.

Artemis: I’m honored, truly, but I can’t be the sole load-bearing pillar of your mental health. It’ll be awful for both of us.

Kuiper’s phone buzzed two minutes later.

Hypatia: hey @Kuiper, i saw u dash out of class, looks like things r going swell~

Hypatia: ive got a whole spacesuit striptease planned out, just say the word >:3

Kuiper: Thanks, but this really isn’t the time.

Kuiper silently willed that nobody would press for any more details. She deleted anything flippant or flirty from the queue of Artemis’s pending posts. She checked her scribbled notes from class - none of them remotely applied.

jun: i know, believe me

jun: i wont burden u

jun: i promise ill branch out n do my best to fully heal n everything

jun: but i have to start somewhere, and i want to start with u

Artemis: Thank you very much. I will vindicate your trust.

Artemis: Without dismissing this, I’d like to back up and get to know each other. I’m fascinated by your photography - what’s your creative process?

jun: thx!!

jun: so many things r unfinished bc people got bored or ran out of money or w/e

jun: or they had a fatal case of feature creep

jun: exploring these ruins is fun, but i havent done that in ages

jun: ill need a partner~

Artemis: Sounds great! I haven’t done much urban exploration per se, but Lunar gravity enables some amazing parkour.

jun: fuck yeah! there r plenty of climbing gyms here, n if those are too tame, plenty more scaffolding/ruins

jun: a horrible idea in every way but damn its fun (i havent tried it much, too afraid of heights)

Kuiper spent each pause perched on the edge of an unbearably bleak pit. She kept a steady hand on the conversation, swerving away from any hint of grimness. In the lighter moments, she held out hope that she could de-escalate the relationship enough to peacefully end it - maybe even come clean with the truth. Then Jun made a cryptic remark about happier times and Kuiper saw no path but to double down. In an especially long pause, she collected herself and realized she could potentially bypass this problem.

Kuiper: @everyone if you’re pursuing any promising candidates, work as quickly as you can without sacrificing quality. I need to be offworld by next Friday at the absolute latest.

Chandrasekhar: Will do, but things are still going well with Jun, right?

Kuiper: Yes, but it’s complicated, and I don’t want to get complacent.

Kuiper spent the next day in a distracted haze. The correspondence stabilized into warm, friendly chatter with no need for an exhaustive script. During the signal delays, she daydreamed, stared at Jun’s selfies, and tepidly pecked at work. She was deep enough in character that it took Huygens thirty seconds of glaring to remind her that most people did not, in fact, know her as Artemis.

In the late evening, Jun’s messages abruptly stopped mid-conversation. None came in six minutes, or ten, or sixty. Kuiper tried to contain her panic as she scrutinized the chatlog for any remarks that could be taken as hostile or insensitive. Nothing stuck out to her as bad enough to warrant absolute ghosting. She skipped or delayed as many obligations as she could and lay sleeplessly in bed, with notifications shut off for everyone except Jun. 

Her phone buzzed at 3:06 AM. After ten minutes of shaking off exhaustion and anxiety, she flipped it open.

jun: no sign of them for 10 days on the dot

jun: theyre officially dead

Artemis: I’m so, so sorry. Even when you expected the news, it’s no less horrible to have it confirmed.

jun: their assets will be transferred to me in 4 hrs

jun: how much do u want

Artemis: I’m flattered, but I’m not sure you should make this decision right away - is there a funeral or some other ritual to grieve?

jun: itll just be fuckin sycophants tryna get into the will

jun: a useful intro to family business, but im not up for that shit now

Artemis: If you’re committed to giving away your inheritance, I can list some great charities.

Artemis: But... I’d like to come up and see you.

Artemis: I’ve been thinking about this for a while - there’s a flight to Borneo at noon, with just a two-day layover until the trip to Mars.

Artemis: All told, round-trip tickets are about 48 million sels at the cheap end, and I’ll be there in about six months.

jun: 48 mil sels is a fuckin rounding error in this inheritance

jun: i will treat u to The Good Shit

Artemis: Thank you very, very much. I’ll see you in August. <3

jun: <3

Kuiper’s heart hammered in her chest. Everything felt fine when she was fully immersed in being Artemis, but that was becoming increasingly untenable. She drafted a message to Hypatia: I fucked up so, so badly. You have to go, and stay perfectly in-character as Artemis the whole time. Her thumb hovered over Send as the majority of her mind shouted her down. How the fuck are you going to explain this whole saga to her? How could you betray Jun’s trust like that? When things are this bad already, why would you add more points of failure?

The arguments swirled nonstop as Kuiper lay staring at the ceiling. At 7:12, a new message arrived.

jun: [mars_tix.pdf] see u in August <333

A great weight was lifted as a greater one took its place. Kuiper numbly tapped out a message before it fully sank in.

Kuiper: @everyone I have the tickets. I leave at noon.

Stanislaw: VICTORY!!!

Buzz: Fuck Yeah!

Guangqi: Look out, Mars!

Cassini: Let’s send you off with a round of drinks!

Chandrasekhar: And the Lunar anthem!

Kuiper: Please, please, do not do any of that.

Kuiper left the chat.

Kuiper resisted the urge to throw her phone at the wall, if only because she didn’t have the energy for it. She returned to bed and let the full scope of the saga wash over her, trying to appraise it at a clinical distance. I’m going to Mars under false pretenses to study its social structure, all bankrolled by a girl I seduced into a fraudulent relationship that I would very much like to make legitimate.

...Nope, no eloquent phrasing could make this any less innately absurd. If it happened to someone else, she’d double over laughing and maybe try to sympathize. Dwelling on it risked a downward spiral of self-pity, so her mind drifted to a much juicier question. Sure, I fucked up plenty, but who else is culpable for this? Huygens, for being so exhaustingly dogmatic? My friends, for happily enabling me? Jun, for being so hot?

Somehow, that train of thought was even more toxic and less productive. With a heroic burst of willpower, Kuiper lurched out of bed and stuffed a bare minimum of luggage into a pair of duffel bags. She grabbed three fistfuls of fruits and protein bars from the kitchen and caught the 7:40 train to the spaceport.

The passenger lounge was a squat bunker lit by stained strips of yellow-green fluorescents, with long metal benches and a few threadbare couches. Three grainy screens looped muted PSAs above a desk with the most bored clerk Kuiper had ever seen. The only other travelers were a cluster of ERA bureaucrats heading home after a trip just long enough to make Lunar gravity stop being fun. On any other day Kuiper would enjoy gently bullying them, but today she only sighed in relief that they wouldn’t make any small talk about travel plans. She realized that she hadn’t created the barest fig leaf of a cover story, and even if it was now unnecessary, that didn’t excuse poor planning.

Kuiper slumped into the least-decrepit sofa available and picked up a stack of magazines from an end table, the latest of which was six months old. She flipped through Lunaculture and the New Svalbard Relay, but couldn’t put aside the dread that her friends would ignore her instructions and come for a sendoff. She took the reading material and stepped through a door that looked off-limits to the general public but wasn't explicitly marked as such. The clerk gave her a vaguely nasty look but made no attempt to stop her.

She trudged down a bare hallway and found an unlocked door at the far end, opening into a long-vacated office. The swivel chair was only slightly less comfortable than the sofas, and the desk drawers had a few back issues of Microgravitational Orbital Dynamics. The desktop had a layer of dust thick enough to distinctly write in, and Kuiper traced some stanzas of lewd poetry. Once she ran out of space, she was confronted with the task of killing three and a half more hours. Her first thought was to text Jun, but the thought of opening her phone at all wracked her with cold dread. With a great sigh, she opened a year-old issue of Lunaculture and read a feature on innovative radish cultivars now obsoleted at least twice over. When she could no longer fake interest even to herself, she stared at diagrams in Orbital Dynamics and stretched her entry-level physics education to its limit trying to make sense of them.

As she neared the bottom of the stack, a buzzer echoed down the hall with screechy calibration, followed by the clerk reading from a script with no embellishment whatsoever. “Boarding for the noon flight to Borneo will commence momentarily and close at 11:40. Report to the lounge desk for anesthetization. This message will repeat every five minutes until boarding closes. Thank you for your cooperation and enjoy your flight.”

Kuiper walked back down the hall and stood in line for three chalky pink pills and a cup of water. She swallowed them all in one nauseating gulp. They tasted like sugary fireballs, with an aftertaste split between syrupy-sweet and pure capsaicin. The clerk came alive with a look of horror and contempt. “No, you idiot, don’t take them now!” She punched a code into her computer, and two deckhands arrived with a collapsible wheelchair. They caught Kuiper’s drooping, twitching body before she could concuss herself on the floor and strapped her to the chair. After a moment of drowsy wavering, she plummeted deep into unconsciousness.

 


 

Kuiper jolted awake with the urge to vomit, stopped only by formidable muscle relaxants. The nausea receded in waves, giving her mind just enough clarity to appreciate zero-gravity. The tiny window to her side had no majestic views of Earth or the Moon, only a random dusting of stars. Before she could feel any disappointment, the sedatives pulled her back under with a potent rebound.

 


 

After either an hour or a day of exhausted delirium, Kuiper stirred awake as attendants hoisted her into a wheelchair. It rolled ahead to a spacious lounge, where a pit crew of waiters in crisp emerald uniforms offered drinks, snacks, and medication. Kuiper weakly nodded and mumbled assent to everything. Hopefully, at least some of it would make her brain feel less like a cinderblock. She sipped a fluorescent soda and stared out upon a blurry green expanse that she vaguely understood to be the Borneo jungle.

After half an hour, Kuiper was lucid enough to admire the lounge’s design. It was free of intercom announcements, bright lights, and sudden movements. The wheelchair’s path had no upward inclines whatsoever. As she nibbled at a vegetable wrap, the wheelchair spoke in a mellow voice, subtitled with cheery holograms. “Stasis encasement for your flight to Schiaparelli Resort and Casino commences in twenty minutes. Please choose your preferred flavor of stasis gel: Red, Blue, or Green. (Note: Purple and Orange are currently only available to our Frequent Flyer VIPs.)” Kuiper swiped at the Random option and hoped that no further decisions would be asked of her.

The wheelchair glided to a private stall with a bathtub-sized pool of saccharine blue gel. An array of cushioned robotic arms gently undressed Kuiper and eased her into it. Her mind settled into cozy familiarity as the gel suspended her in perfect weightlessness. I'm back on the Moon, settling in for a well-earned rest. My bizarre, awful dream is finally over. I will awake to a normal day, with school and work and heckling Huygens. But first, I’ll sleep in as much as I want...

 


 

Kuiper emerged from her dreamless sleep in a rounded pastel cabin four meters wide. Huh, I don’t remember falling asleep in the tub. And why do I feel so heavy? Did I wear my weights to bed? And where is this place? Did I get blackout drunk?

Oh no. Oh, fuck.

Kuiper launched herself out of the gel, splattering semi-congealed chunks across the room. She staggered to the shower stall and power-washed every fleck down the drain, then dried off with a luxuriously fluffy towel and grabbed a rumpled outfit from her luggage. As she finished getting dressed, her surge of panicked energy vanished and she buckled under Mars’s gravity. After a few deep breaths, she crawled to a set of crutches by the door. They were near-weightless and beautifully calibrated, and she took a few nervous steps with them. The gravity wasn’t so bad - on par with a medium-weighted jacket, albeit one impossible to remove.

When Kuiper opened the door, the square meter of floor underneath her bags popped up and scuttled behind her on a dozen hypermobile crab legs. She stared at it, surprised but by no means shocked. Her adrenaline had run dry, and she filed it in her mind as a useful introduction to Martian decadence. The crab-tile followed her through a softly-lit corridor lined with open doors to empty cabins. She followed glowing arrows and a multicolored trail of gel droplets to a vestibule with an enormous circular hatch. On the threshold, the legs stopped skittering, and she turned around to see the tile mired in gel and twitching helplessly. With its last portion of strength, it slumped off the luggage to be picked up by another tile.

Once the new tile found its footing, the Resort’s overstuffed logo lit up on the door as a peppy voice chimed to life. “Welcome to the Schiaparelli Resort and Casino! Whether you’re a high roller, a stellar shopper, or just lightening your load, we hope your stay is out of this world! The main concourse is straight ahead, athletic facilities are to your right, casinos are to your left and downstairs. Get started with five hundred thousand naira in chips, on us! Also, if you intend to rob our casinos, bear in mind that we have seen all the same heist movies as you. Have fun!”

The logo dissolved into prismatic glitter as the door unfurled to the Resort’s central plaza. Five floors of promenades ringed a forty-meter pillar of abstractly carved Martian stone. Screens pocked with dead pixels looped candy-colored advertisements in every direction. The plaza was either far from its peak hours, or built with wildly optimistic hopes for attendance numbers. The few guests around bounced buoyantly from courts to casinos, with weighted-down couriers bearing their rackets, clubs, and chips. Some of the older guests showed signs of stasis gel overuse, aging both too fast and too slow. The plaza was the size of Blooming Moon’s entire campus, but about two-thirds emptier. Kuiper recoiled at the sheer wastefulness, but quickly realized that it wasn’t all deliberately unused. Scaffolding and girders sprouted from nearly every structure, wrapped in Coming Soon! banners. The opening dates were all at least three years away, if not omitted entirely.

Kuiper lingered by the edge of the dome, staring at the cratered plain framed by mountains wider than she thought possible. A light sandstorm swirled down a crag and dissipated against the glass. After gazing for a long moment, an ad reminding her of her free casino chips popped up on the glass with a chirpy musical sting. She stared past it without moving, and it replayed slightly louder. As she steeled herself for round three, her phone chimed.

jun: welcome to mars!!!!

jun: im @ effiongs on lvl 4a <333

jun: [map.jpg]

+1,173 unread messages

Ah, yes. The whole point of this venture, as far as she knows. Kuiper hadn’t forgotten this part, exactly, but her dawdling was certainly skirting around something immense and terrifying. She instinctively typed Be right there! and caught herself an instant before sending it, perched on the edge of an abyss.

Kuiper opened the map file and nearly collapsed to the floor. It was a copy of the official concourse map, with the meeting spot circled and surrounded by heart emojis. Her mind ground to a halt as awful ideas wrestled for attention. Should I confess everything? Insistently pretend to be Artemis anyway? Completely ghost her? I’m very clearly the only Lunar person here, but what if I hid and stole some clothes and bulked up my muscles? Without Jun’s money I’ll burn through my life savings in two days, but what if I learned to count cards right now?

Kuiper hobbled through the concourse as she sifted for the least-horrible plan, yanked along by the leaden chain of fate. Holographic mascots rattled off their slogans and pitches, terminally unable to read the room. As she ventured into the less-luxurious tiers, they began to clip through the floor, address nobody, and flicker into T-poses. Kuiper considered kicking a crab-tile through them, but they were too pathetic to abuse even if she had the strength for it.

She rounded a corner and saw the awning of Effiong’s Café just ten meters away. Mercifully, it did not have any cartoons enticing her to stop in. The only customers were Jun and three people by the doors, clearly plainclothes bodyguards. Jun sipped her fifth cup of tea, scanned for Artemis every ten seconds, and muttered rehearsed lines. The bodyguards ate sandwiches, pretended to scroll through their phones, and discreetly adjusted their holsters.

Kuiper ducked behind a kiosk and stared. Jun was magnificent in a crimson dress and starry black sash, with lavender eyeshadow and cascading dreadlocks wrapped in silver filigree. Even at a distance, Kuiper could see in her face all six months of despair and hope and fragile anticipation. After a few moments she realized Jun had seen her and was tapping out a signal to her guards. Kuiper stood up, tried to keep a panic attack at bay, and strode into the café. She stared at the floor and choked out an order for a salad that cost two weeks’ wages. She chewed a tiny bite as Jun tapped more intently and typed on her phone. Kuiper stared into the abyss and jumped.

“Jun? Jun Aikhuele?”

The guards tensed and prepared to leap out of their chairs. Jun froze for a moment as all of her expectations derailed. “Who the hell are you?”

Kuiper plunged ahead with nothing but improvisation and icy panic. “I’m... a friend of Artemis. She had a sudden family emergency and couldn’t make it, but she couldn’t bear to break the news to you.”

Jun glared a hole through Kuiper’s head, but gestured for the guards to stand down. “...I see.”

“She gave me the tickets so they wouldn’t go to waste. She told me to tell you that she loves you very much, and will make it up to you as soon as possible.”

Jun stared into the dregs of her tea for a very long time. Kuiper sat completely still and silent. Before she summoned the courage to dig herself deeper, Jun walked out as briskly as possible in her tight dress. Her guards flanked her and made sure Kuiper saw the heft of their holsters. Kuiper returned to her salad, determined to gnaw out every scrap of value. She stopped for fear of vomiting after one bite. She opened her phone to write a final message from Artemis, and found a scrubbed chatlog with one bold notice.

This user has blocked you.

Closure slammed upon Kuiper like an iron gate. This awful chapter was over, making room for worse ones. Too drained to cry, she could do nothing but stare bleary-eyed at six months of messages.

From: Schiaparelli_RC@guan.xi 
Subj: Welcome! (3 attachments)

From: AresAstronautics@guan.xi
Subj: How Was Your Trip With Us?

And further...

From: discipline@bloomingmoon.lun.edu
Subj: Expulsion Tribunal

From: discipline@bloomingmoon.lun.edu
Subj: Ten Consecutive Unexcused Absences

And furthest.

From: Hypatia, Stanislaw, Cassini (+3 more)
Subj: Bon Voyage!!!!!!!

From: RHuygens@bloomingmoon.lun.edu
Subj: MOTHERFUCKER.

Kuiper tried to shrug off her weights and remembered she couldn’t. She nearly fell off her chair as waves of despair crashed over her. I’m going to be broke and homeless and a pariah on two worlds if Jun’s guards don’t drag me off first... It took deliberate effort to breathe, then step back from the brink to a more manageable form of misery. She stared blankly at the concourse - If Mars ever had a peak of opulent glory that could tempt a Lunar skeptic, it was long gone. It hadn’t even declined into elegiac ruin, just a chintzy, buggy theme park.

When Kuiper finished stewing, she saw the cashier wiping down perfectly clean tables at a glacial pace. He was a wiry guy about her age, with a Brazilian tricolor bracelet and unruly hair barely contained in a ponytail. Rafael Tesfaye, according to the nametag. After a few silent minutes, Kuiper waved him over on the grounds that he couldn’t possibly make things worse. Once he realized his gambit worked, he draped his weighted chef jacket over the chair opposite her and sat down.

“Is everything okay, Moongirl?”

Kuiper jolted upright and instantly regretted it. “How could you tell that?”

Rafael gestured broadly to her crutches, clothes, and general bewilderedness.

“...Right.”

Rafael winced at his faux pas and settled into a serious tone. “I can tell something awful went down, and I won’t pry, but I want to help however I can.”

“Careful, I got into this shitshow by saying exactly that.”

Rafael looked down for a long pause.

“I didn’t charge you for the salad, by the way. I’ll blame it on a register glitch, we’ve had surprisingly few today.”

“Alright, I’ll go broke in three days instead of two.”

Rafael stared at her and crunched some numbers. “You’re well and truly fucked, aren’t you?”

Kuiper nodded with as little condescension as she could manage.

Rafael took a deep breath and gazed past her, muttering snippets of half-formed plans. “Hmph, I can put you up for... how long is your stay?”

“Six days.”

Rafael checked a few files on his phone. “Perfect, it might be a bit of a squeeze but you can stay for free.”

“Okay, where?”

Rafael grinned and threw on his jacket, the weights barely missing Kuiper’s head. He picked up her bags, and the crab-tile scurried away and fell down a flight of stairs. “Follow me, ah... what did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t, but it’s Kuiper.”

“Welcome to Mars, Kuiper. We’re thrilled to have you.” Rafael set off at a near-jog down the concourse, only slowing down when Kuiper loudly clacked her crutches on the floor. “...Right, shit, sorry.”

Rafael led the way back to the main plaza, exaggerating his weighted limp whenever he passed a guest. When nobody was in view, he held up a flickering pattern on his phone that froze the animated mascots into bugged-out loops. He led Kuiper downstairs and across a casino floor that would be a hellish sensory assault if it wasn’t nearly empty. Most of the patrons were clocked-out retirees feeding tokens to slot and pachinko machines. The younger guests were clustered around mahjong and poker tables, pounding back comped drinks and passionately arguing for their right to bet their own clothing. Kuiper slowed down to take a look and judge how well her own mahjong skill would stack up, but Rafael urged her onward. He wove a path through the pit bosses’ blind spots to an unmarked service door between two out-of-order chip redemption machines. After three attempts with the wrong keys, it groaned open onto a maintenance tunnel slightly too short for Kuiper’s Moon-stretched frame. The path of smooth-bored stone was reinforced with metal plating and I-beams at a decreasing pace. Eventually it became unadorned stone with alarmingly many hairline cracks, echoing the patter of sandstorms in a distorted chorus.

Kuiper took drastic action to avoid dwelling on the masonry. “Maybe it’s a sore subject, but how’d you end up working on Mars?”

Rafael answered with no hesitation. “I did some very stupid things as a teenager, and I had the choice of five years working here or ten years in prison. I’m on year three.”

“Holy shit, this place runs on prison labor?”

Rafael crouched under an abrupt I-beam, studiously avoiding eye contact. “I still get paid - it just gets garnished for a while. But it’s not as bad as it sounds, there are plenty of benefits if you know where to look.”

Kuiper’s numb fingers fumbled with her jacket zipper and thermal gloves. “Sure. How much of the workforce here is held in debt bondage, or whatever else you want to call it?”

“About a quarter. The rest is a mix of tourists who didn’t read the fine print on their budget vacation packages, and up-and-coming starlets trying to get the attention of someone important. Tragically, there are almost no disgraced Martian princelings who need a crude but charming cashier to teach them humility.”

Kuiper tried to suppress her flinch. “How much further does this tunnel go, anyway?”

Rafael squeezed sideways through a haphazardly-carved stone chamber. “Nearly there, I promise.”

The rough stone abruptly became a supply closet stacked high with boxes of obsolete cables and cloying disinfectants. Rafael flung open the door with theatrical bravado. “Welcome to Olympus Villa!”

Kuiper stepped into a cavernous atrium lined with plywood and plexiglass. Crops spilled forth from every planter and flowerbed, and deactivated fountains held tanks of minnows and algae. In every corner of the room, engineers stood on scaffolding to check dense snarls of pipes and wires. The flagstones were nearly hidden under extension cords powering stoves, tools, and space heaters, all strategically placed to be invisible from the Resort’s main plaza. A banner across the foremost balcony proclaimed the name: OLYMPUS VILLA (BETTER NAME TBD?).

Something about the space’s geometry struck deep in Kuiper’s mind. She paced around, assembling an idea of how it looked from outside, when it hit her: Jun photographed this place all the time. She sat on the edge of a garden plot and held back tears.

Rafael was deep in character as a tour guide, gesturing expansively. “...A foreman comes to check the progress every few months, but we either bribe them or show them a flashy but completely nonfunctional suite. They could easily investigate deeper, but-” He finally turned back around. He deflated in an instant and sat next to her, reaching for some reassuring words. Kuiper waved away the need to say anything at all and gripped her luggage tight.

As they sat in silence, Kuiper gazed at the setting sun - so dim and distant, arcing across the sky in hours rather than weeks. Every few minutes, dust clouds suffused its light into a blue-gray glow. It slipped behind a mountain range, shifting color and intensity on its descent rather than abruptly winking out.

Rafael spoke again once he saw she was more contemplative than sad. “What are you thinking about?”

Kuiper took a moment to put words to the feeling. “I’ve never seen an atmospheric sunset, and I’ve only known twenty-four-hour days as a metaphor. This feels both too good to be true, and deeply wrong.”

Rafael stared at the dimming horizon, straining to imagine two-week-long days and nights. He removed his jacket’s weights and fidgeted with them for a long time. Once the sky was fully dark, he broke the silence. “Hey, not to ruin the mood, but dinner started at sunset. You hungry?”

Once Kuiper pulled her attention from the sky, she realized she absolutely was. She followed Rafael through residential hallways wallpapered with posters for Resort events going back fifty years. Occasionally the hallways became balconies overlooking football pitches sprouting wheat, or swimming pools drained to become mosaic-filled plazas. Rafael gave almost no guidance or narration, but Kuiper didn’t need any - the smell of sautéed vegetables and fried tofu pulled her through labyrinthine closets and corridors. It was almost unbearable once she reached the grand double doors of Earth-grown oak, spray-painted with MESS HALL in ten languages. As she gathered her strength to push past the dense wood, Rafael waved to the automatic sensor.

The door swung open upon a ballroom twice the size of a football pitch, full of mismatched tables and chairs - sleekly minimalist, gratuitously overdesigned, fifty brands of cheap foldable furniture, and plenty of unique handmade pieces. Each table held a quickly-diminishing platter of homegrown eggplant, noodles, and tofu, with sauce bottles clearly embezzled from concourse restaurants. The main course was wrapping up, and several hundred workers enjoyed a conversational lull while the dessert carts slowly emerged. Their professional livery, weighted or not, was nowhere to be seen.

Rafael pushed through the maze of diners in various stages of food comas, kicking away cords and debris that would entangle Kuiper’s crutches. He found a half-empty table at the far corner and exchanged vague nods of acquaintance with the occupants. He glared away their questions and stares as Kuiper devoured two and a half overstuffed plates. She was hungry enough for at least three, but the leaden weight in her stomach was a hard upper bound. Even the silverware was starting to feel unbearably heavy, and the fellow diners were getting bolder about pointing and whispering. As she eyed the dessert trays against all better judgment, Rafael leaned in and whispered, “I can’t hold off their curiosity forever. Should we bounce?” Kuiper nodded, stuffing her pockets with cookies.

The nearest door led to the kitchens, where tonight’s volunteers side-eyed Rafael for shirking duty until they saw his guest. They lit up and became gregarious paparazzi, tripping over themselves to ask Kuiper all their burning questions about Lunar culture. Kuiper lurched past them as Rafael barely held them off, ducking into a deserted side hallway. Once they had some solitude, Kuiper slumped against a pillar as her anxieties flooded out. “Everyone knows me already and what if one of them snitches to Jun or if I’m too notorious to be an impartial observer and the IRB would never sign off on this in the first place but now they absolutely won’t and my whole academic future is fucked...”

Rafael offered a canteen of bracingly cold water. “Hold on, slow down and go back to the start. What’s your project here?”

Kuiper drained half the canteen and closed her eyes. “For my capstone school project, I wanted to conduct an anthropological field study of Mars.”

Rafael nodded graciously, still curious about the central missing detail but trying his honest best not to pry.

“...And to get here in the first place, I catfished tickets out of Jun and broke her heart and made an absolute ass of myself.”

Rafael nearly choked on a mix of disbelief, stifled laughter, and amazement at her soap-opera hubris. Kuiper felt a powerful urge to slap him, but realized that she’d absolutely do the same. It was really funny, even if she’d need a lot more distance before she could share all the juicy details, let alone laugh. And, of course, it couldn’t eclipse the whole point of her visit. She cleared her throat, took out a notepad, and put on her best Serious Interviewer face. “So, then. Maybe you already explained this while I was zoned out, but did the Resort just not build workers’ quarters?”

“They did, but they were either shacks or more overdesigned glitchy bullshit. Olympus Villa technically isn’t cancelled, but nobody has ever seriously tried to evict us or save it from Development Hell.” 

“So, how clandestine is... all this?”

“Somewhere between ‘open secret’ and ‘nobody ever thinks about where their food comes from.’ Still, we can’t get complacent, we’ve had a few close calls.”

Kuiper leaned in for more, mind racing but barely able to keep her eyes open.

“Tell you what. Get some sleep, and I’ll record an oral history of Olympus Villa all night long. Sound good?”

Kuiper’s attempts at protest were swamped by a series of yawns. The elevator to Rafael’s suite was close at hand, but even its grindingly slow ascent made her feel glued to the floor. She limped down the hall, half-crawling by the time she reached the threshold. Rafael exchanged quick kisses with his boyfriends, who bolstered Kuiper as they led her to her room. They took a winding path through ad-hoc curtains and shoji panels that split the penthouse into a warren of apartments. After a few wrong turns, they dropped Kuiper off in a modest bedroom - an air mattress, desk lamp, shelving unit, minifridge, and padded chair walled off by sliding panels. The furniture was mostly in the unadorned metallic style she knew from a lifetime of Lunar bunkhouses, but the chair and shelf were made of real wood, and not even particleboard. Kuiper scrutinized them for signs of age and technique - were they from Olympus Villa’s early days, or carved by an unauthorized artisan? Did they have the density of real Earth-grown wood? Did they bear any signatures or serial numbers? As fascinating as the puzzle was, it was increasingly less compelling than the soft, supple mattress. She collapsed in slow motion, savoring the all-encompassing weight of sleep.

 


 

Kuiper awoke with a surge of energy that superseded gravity for a full four seconds. She found her crutches neatly stored in arm’s reach, despite a vague memory of tossing them in the corner last night. She stood up and found the gravity surprisingly bearable, except for a lingering headache and slightly wrong intuitions about her body’s momentum.

The minifridge held two shelves of fruits, instant soups, and energy bars. Kuiper gathered enough for a bluntly effective breakfast and set off in search of a kitchen. Her crutches clacked loudly against the tile, which she tried to stifle whenever she passed a room with snoring. When a few minutes of exploration didn’t reveal a kitchen, she retraced her steps to try again. After realizing she took a wrong turn, she took more at random just to fully scope out the place.

Her third turn revealed a living room with immense bay windows overlooking the craggy Martian plain just before sunrise. She approached reverently and sat on the plush windowsill. The only signs of humanity were some construction lots, distant Resort outbuildings, and a faint haze of light pollution slowly overtaken by the dawn. The rising radiance still seemed too fantastical, like an optical illusion or imaginary tableau. And so soon after sunset - two miracles every day! Kuiper wondered if she would ever become jaded by it, or if she could ever be satisfied with the sporadic on-off switch of Lunar days.

An end table held a simple telescope and a stack of star charts. Before the sun and dust washed out the view, Kuiper tested her memory of introductory astronomy. The constellations were all intact, at distances far enough to be rounded to infinity. Jupiter was jarringly large, and it took a minute of searching to find Earth. She couldn’t resolve familiar continents and clouds - it was just an unusually large and detailed stone in the sky. The Moon hung nearby, a dim smear of city lights and albedo. She acutely understood how it was too tiny to retain an atmosphere, with only a few fragile cities among the unlivable craters. It reminded her of planetoids whose gravity could be breached with a good running start, followed by an endless freefall in the void.

...Perhaps that’s not the best image to dwell on. The Moon looked a lifetime’s journey away, not six months of stasis. She had seen plenty of pictures taken from the Earth, showcasing its greenery and lights, but none from anywhere near this distance. Perhaps it would knock some humility into Lunar partisans, if it didn’t make them more sanctimonious about persisting in such a barren place.

Kuiper played out the argument with an imaginary Huygens until the sun crested over the horizon and overwhelmed her eyes. Once she could refocus, all but the brightest stars were invisible. She took long, languid stretches and prepared for a new day with a clean slate. The awful decisions and humiliations are all behind me. I will begin anew as a serious researcher, and compile a report robust enough to make a very satisfying thunk on Huygens’ desk.

As Kuiper sat and meditated, the pleasure of that fantasy looked increasingly small and petty next to the sheer joy of exploring a new world. She still had every intention of doing it, but it could wait. Once the dawn’s blue haze settled into orange-brown, she gathered her notebooks and bounded downstairs.