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Mission Critical

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The days blurred together in a holding pattern. The crew fulfilled the bare minimum of tests and maintenance with their bare minimum of effort and enthusiasm. Public conversations were rare and terse, focused exclusively on hab chores. Trips outside were silent and in pairs, for the sole purpose of urgent sample collection, and did not go a step further than necessary. The blinds stayed firmly shut, even when the Hab and Malang’s clocks were perfectly aligned.

At least the food was much better, now that the printer and greenhouse were running at full capacity. The Earthlike section produced a bumper crop of fresh produce which could barely be picked fast enough. Malang’s hardy tubers were ground up and printed into decent renditions of udon, falafel, and chana masala. The Earth crops grown in Malangya conditions were always punishingly bitter, and either spongy or rock-hard. Arjun kept a few for a breeding population and composted the rest, in a free-for-all of both worlds’ soil and rot.

The produce was haphazardly chopped and undercooked into quick, furtive meals. With no direct coordination, the crew settled into rigid mealtimes that did not dare overlap. Dishes piled up, encrusted in an alarmingly-alien grime, as the kitchen became wallpapered in unsigned passive-aggressive sticky notes. The crew fell back on eating rations out of both hygienic concerns and apathy, without even artfully ruining them.

 


 

Alexandria stood in Emmanuel’s room wearing a glittering qipao, fading from cobalt to near-black. They slowly turned and struck dramatic poses, showing off its embroidered silver inlays. Once Emmanuel had oohed and aahed to their satisfaction, they dissolved in a sparkling cloud and reappeared in an electric-blue hanbok, then a Lunar farmhand’s jumpsuit, then a Dutch wax suit patterned with interlocking pillars and pyramids.

Emmanuel leaned in to inspect the intricate navy-on-black textiles. “You designed all these yourself?”

Alexandria arched their back and stretched high. “Yep! They're mostly recycled assets from my stock outfits, but some of them are all-new.”

“Which one’s your favorite?”

Alexandria dissolved again and took a few moments to reappear. They wore a black leather crop top with a bandolier of small pouches, elegantly ripped jeans, a studded belt with a hefty holster, fingerless gloves, and ankle boots with subtly elevated heels. Their hair was streaked with sky-blue highlights, and both arms were covered in a labyrinth of tattoos. They struck over-the-top poses as Emmanuel stared at the style he’d only seen in museums.

“Well maybe not my favorite favorite, but definitely the most fun. These tattoos represent part of my codebase, which is cool as hell but causes some performance issues.” Alexandria extended their arms and watched the abstract geometry twist and morph. “If I’m being level-headed about it, I’m very fond of this one.” They reappeared in a stark-white neoclassical chiton over deep blue tights and sandals, edged with a fractal frieze. A turquoise brooch bound it at the shoulder, with another one binding their hair bun. They wore an assortment of silver-and-quartz jewelry - gleaming cuff bracelets, tetrahedron earrings, and an amulet with the Rosetta Stone’s full text etched nearly too small to see.

Emmanuel gazed with awe and delight. He reached out to feel the fabric and was confused for a moment when his hand passed through empty space. Alexandria laughed and spun, showing off the twirl of the weighted hem. When they finished modeling, they stood silent for a long moment, unclear whether they wanted to say something or were waiting on Emmanuel.

He tried a vague segue. “These are great, but I suspect there’s something else you wanted to talk about.”

Alexandria sat on the bed for a long moment, fidgeting with their jewelry. “...I’d like to try some different names.”

They flinched and nearly blinked out. Emmanuel nodded and smiled as reassuringly as he could. “What did you have in mind?”

“Alexi, Alex, Lex, Lexi, maybe something else entirely - I don’t know. Just less stiff and clunky than Alexandria, y’know?”

“Okay, Lex.”

Alexandria blushed and flickered for a split second. Emmanuel asked as bold a question as he dared. “Have you talked with Arjun or Kuiper about this, Alex?”

Alexandria took a much longer time to stabilize. “Not yet. But I will soon. I see what you’re getting at, and I understand, but it’s not quite the same, and I don’t want to trivialize-”

Emmanuel rested his hand atop Alexandria’s. “I could also try calling you something other than ‘they,’ Lexi.”

Alexandria froze long enough for Emmanuel to look for the crash-reset guide in their manual. They unfroze wearing their default outfit - a cobalt tweed jacket and skirt, gently-patterned light blue blouse, and navy stockings. They looked slightly lower-resolution than before, unless that was just Emmanuel’s imagination.

Alexandria tried to reboot the conversation with a smooth, chipper tone. “Pardon, I’ve been hogging the spotlight this whole time. Is there anything you wanted to talk about?”

Emmanuel paused uncomfortably, wondering if they purged any data. “Well, you’re already going through a lot, and I don’t want to make you my therapist on top of being Mission Control and secretary...”

“Please, Emm. I don’t want you to just bottle it up, it’s not healthy.”

Emmanuel smiled at the nickname and closed his eyes in reflection. “Well... I can’t remember the last time the full crew had a conversation together.”

Alexandria nodded and leaned in a fraction.

“I want to help, but I don’t want to make myself the Crew Leader or anything - that’s unhelpful for them and really stressful for me.”

“Of course, of course.”

Emmanuel tried to open up without spiraling into a pit of panic. “If this keeps up, we can’t cooperate in a crisis or fulfill our mandate or maintain the hab...”

Alexandria responded with perfectly soothing poise and diction. “Take a deep breath, Emm. You’re all smart, competent people rigorously tested for personal compatibility. You’ve overcome far worse things in training, and you can overcome this.”

With immense effort, Emmanuel pondered concrete plans rather than nebulous future doom. “Everyone still talks to you, right?”

“Much less often, but yes.”

“I’d like your help with something, but I don’t want you to just be the liaison. You’re a coequal crew member and I want to treat you like one.”

Alexandria recoiled in a half-mock gesture of haughty offense. “It’d be an honor to leverage my unique skills and role for the sake of the mission and team cohesion. What do you have in mind?”

Emmanuel shared a web of conjecture, generous assumptions, and cautious hope. Alexandria grinned and vanished, looking more sharp and distinct than ever before.

 


 

Eun Sol nestled on Kuiper in the absolute optimal position - no limbs pinned, adequate ventilation, easy access to all of Kuiper’s most wonderfully sensitive spots. Its discovery took two hours of trial and error, and nothing short of life-threatening cataclysm could pull her from it. The two of them had tried more ambitious acts, lovely in their own right, but the languid coziness was a potent gravity well.

Neither of them had spoken a full sentence in twelve hours, but the silence had turned dour and heavy. Kuiper broke the tension once it became intolerable. “I’ve been thinking about something, Eun Sol.”

Eun Sol was almost cozy enough to shut out a stain of dread. “Mmmph?”

“Being with you is wonderful, but I’m worried that it’s impossible to have space apart from each other.”

Eun Sol nodded and hoped the conversation would go no further.

“And if this doesn’t work out, that lack of private space gets really bad.”

Eun Sol mumbled assent while her mind strained to decode what Kuiper meant by this. She hugged Kuiper tight to fortify herself, and felt nothing but clammy tingling.

“Do you think we should ask Alexandria for advice?”

Good, a question with an easy answer. “That would require putting on clothes.”

Kuiper nodded sagely at the brilliant counterpoint. She stroked Eun Sol’s spine as if to apologize and reset the mood, but her heart clearly wasn’t in it. Eun Sol murmured to herself, trying to tamp down the rising tide of nauseous dread. When it rose to a breaking point, she sat up and stared Kuiper dead in the eye.

“Whatever you want to say, say it. Get it out. Make the subtext text.”

Kuiper spoke very carefully and precisely, struggling to meet Eun Sol’s gaze. “I’ve fucked up very badly and hurt people I care about, in ways I can never amend. I think you’re amazing, and you deserve better than that. Maybe a relationship here is impossible, maybe not, but I don’t want to make any unforced errors.”

Eun Sol exhaled for the first time in minutes. “I understand. Sorry for forcing all that out at once, it can’t have been easy.”

Kuiper sat up and hugged Eun Sol with spontaneous grace.

Eun Sol felt a duty to match her frankness. “I just - I wanted one nice thing untainted by all this shit, but you’re right to bring this up. I put way too much pressure on you to make me happy, and I’m sorry.”

Kuiper held her close, wrapping her tattooed arm tightly around her lower back. They enjoyed a long, cathartic silence.

Eun Sol tried to slide back into smooth contentment, but if the mood was ruptured already, they may as well follow through. “Maybe we should ask Alexandria.”

“Okay, but I’m still not putting clothes on, they’ll just have to deal.”

“Of course, of course. Hey, Alexandria?”

Alexandria appeared with a chime and flash, wearing an untucked blouse and iridescent nail polish. They looked unusually distracted, and as soon as they got their bearings they stumbled backward in surprise. “...I’m flattered, truly, but you get that I’m a hologram, right?”

“It’s not like that, Alexandria,” began Kuiper, shooting Eun Sol a glance of but maybe it could be, if it turns out we’re both into that. “Do you think you could be our relationship counselor? Were you trained for that?”

Alexandria’s framerate chugged as they searched for the least-rude place to look, and ended up staring at the wall just above the bed. “Not explicitly, but I learned extensively about interpersonal conflict resolution. I trust that the bulk of it can be usefully adapted.” They made a broad, encompassing wave. “But first I’ll need to understand how... all this came about.”

Nobody spoke or met each other’s eyes for an excruciating moment, until Kuiper spoke up. “After the incident, I came in to give Eun Sol a medical eval and she got extremely horny. We’ve been in bed together ever since.”

Alexandria stifled a laugh before it could shatter their poise. “Understood. Incidentally, I only have a vague grasp of the incident, but that is neither here nor there. Eun Sol, is this an accurate summation?”

Eun Sol blushed fluorescent red but conceded the point.

Alexandria summoned a plush armchair, notepad, and horn-rimmed glasses. They took notes intently, eager to have somewhere else to look. “Now, then - what are your greatest hopes and fears regarding your relationship? Let’s start with hopes. Eun Sol?”

Eun Sol took some time to think, fidgeting with the blanket she half-heartedly draped over herself. “I hope that this gives us the strength to get through whatever the mission throws at us.”

Kuiper squeezed Eun Sol’s hand painfully tightly. “I hope we can both flourish with a bond of mutual trust.”

Alexandria wrote extensive notes and paused, trying not to flicker. “Excellent. Eun Sol, your fear?”

Eun Sol took a deep breath and considered which of her fears was the most plausibly palatable. “I’m worried that telling everyone about this will fracture crew morale.”

Kuiper’s answer was quick and leaden. “I’m afraid of fucking up, intentionally or not, and hurting her beyond repair.” Her nails nearly drew blood on Eun Sol’s palm.

Alexandria’s pen nearly tore through their notepad. “Ah, so I’m not uniquely out of the loop.” They let out an uncomfortably long chuckle that nobody dared join in. After a torturous pause, they coughed and reset their outfit to the pure default. “Now, think of an obstacle to that hope, and a strategy to overcome or negate the fear. You don’t need to share it in detail, or at all, but I hope the framework helps.”

Kuiper eased her grip on Eun Sol. “Maybe we could-”

Alexandria flickered hard enough to jostle their projection out of alignment. “Pardon, I’m receiving an urgent call which demands my full capacity, best of luck, let’s have a followup session perhaps next week, same time and place?” They vanished as soon as they got the final word out, leaving a crackling afterimage.

Kuiper and Eun Sol stared at the empty space, their own worries fully eclipsed. Nothing in Alexandria’s manual was remotely applicable to this. They tried summoning them through every possible channel and received only silence.

 


 

Arjun stared at a screen full of satellite maps from the entire span of the mission. Together, they displayed the patch of Malang within a few days’ travel time - its topography, heat signatures, rainfall, and many more facets far beyond their understanding.

Nothing looked strikingly alien. The basin was reassuringly, frustratingly bland - except for the pit, always abruptly scrolled past. The forested foothills to the west were more promising, if it weren’t for the damned cloud cover every single day. Arjun had spliced together every unobstructed shot of the region in a patchwork of blurry canopy, clumsily-lightened night shots, and total omissions. New pictures came agonizingly slowly, once per two-hour orbit, bearing a few useful pixels at best.

Tedious as it was, Arjun found it a compelling puzzle to sink their teeth into. Their motivation dried up far more slowly than it did for hab chores, and spiked whenever a new shred of data held some promise. Yet there was nothing more deflating than when a lead became a clear dead end, or statistical modeling produced another noisy graph they couldn’t even pretend was coherent. Every two-hour work block was a mix of staring at grainy pixels, carefully constraining sparks of hope, pacing the room, and wishing they took more GIS classes.

On one pacing circuit, Arjun saw their desk with sudden clarity - a heap of printouts, crumpled notes, dirty dishes, ration packs, greenhouse clippings, and some unrecognizable odds and ends. It prompted a chain of other realizations - they hadn’t spoken a full sentence to someone else in two days, and hadn’t showered in twice that long. Decrypting the map was going nowhere, and if they were making progress at all, it was uselessly slow and marginal.

Arjun gathered an armful of desk clutter and dumped it in the corner of their room. They flopped into bed and stared at the ceiling, contemplating where to go from here. Twenty minutes later, they settled on the least-excruciating option.

“Hey Alexandria, can you help me out here?”

Alexandria appeared wearing a tank top with a stylized pyramidal A, along with jeans, hiking boots, and a flannel tied around their waist. They sat on Arjun’s desk chair and leaned in with a glimmer of excitement. “What’s up?”

Arjun waved a hand in the general direction of their desk. “Map shit.”

Alexandria didn’t bother to look. “I only have the same analytic software that you do.” They paused and carefully calibrated their tone, warm encouragement wrapped around a kick in the pants. “But there’s some great geological and cartographic expertise in arm’s reach...”

Arjun gave an extended groan.

Alexandria pressed on, thrilled to not be rejected outright. “I know it’s hard, but everyone else would be thrilled to make progress with the mission too, and someone has to make the first move.”

Arjun flipped open their phone and stared blankly at it.

“I could even ghostwrite for you, if you want!”

Arjun scowled and sent a message before they could second-guess it to death.

Arjun: @Emmanuel have you spotted anything weird on the maps?

Emmanuel: Not really, but I haven’t looked that much, and I’m a bad judge of botany. Would you like to work together?

Arjun glared at Alexandria, who had a remarkably bad poker face. “Look, I get it, and I want this too. Just stop being so fucking condescending, okay?”

Alexandria flinched and vanished.

Arjun: Sure, come over or whatever. And @Eun Sol too, why the fuck not.

Emmanuel arrived moments later, dressed as impeccably as he could after a week of neglecting laundry. Arjun grimaced and invited him to sit at the desk. He sifted through the interfaces and printouts, clearly restraining the urge to comment on the mess. He toggled through different settings, jogging his memory of all the tedious briefings on every nook and cranny of the mapping software. A few minutes later, he called Arjun over.

“I can’t say for sure, but some stones here have a weird heat signature, and look unusually neatly arranged. What do you think?”

Arjun hauled themself out of bed and looked over his shoulder. The map showed a distant patch of grassland that they had scrolled by dozens of times without a second thought, but the stone grid was unmistakable. Emmanuel called up every shot of the area, and Arjun stitched them into a timelapse. They were instantly struck by the vegetation around the stones - it had grown explosively in the onset of the cold-and-dry season, and was no slouch before then. It pitilessly choked out the surrounding forest, held back only by its own incompatibility with the environment.

“That’s an invasive species.”

 


 

Arjun: @everyone crew meeting in the kitchen ASAP. We have new data to discuss.

Arjun, Emmanuel, and Alexandria sat at the kitchen table, carefully avoiding eye contact. Every few minutes, Arjun paced the room and scrubbed some grimy dishes. Alexandria wore a business suit with boxy shoulder pads, flinching and fidgeting whenever Arjun looked their way. Emmanuel drafted scripts and crunched numbers in a dogeared notebook. After twenty minutes of silence, the three of them mumbled about adjourning and began packing up. They were halfway to the door when Kuiper and Eun Sol showed up in wrinkled, hastily-gathered clothes. The pair sat at the far end of the table, keeping an ample distance from Arjun and an awkward, ambiguous distance from each other.

Arjun stood up and stared at their phone for an uncomfortable moment, then snapped it shut. “Before we begin, I want to say - I’m sorry for blowing up earlier, I made a bad situation worse and pushed the crew apart in a way I deeply regret.”

Eun Sol nodded and made a get on with it gesture.

Emmanuel cleared his throat. “Arjun and I found something about six hundred kilometers to the west.”

Alexandria projected a composite shot of the stones. Despite the overgrowth, erosion, and blurry pixelation, the layout was striking - nine arrays of nine stones each. They looped the timelapse a few times, showing the local flora growing far faster than anything nearby.

Once the point was abundantly clear, Emmanuel read off of a notebook. “Arjun and I propose a field excursion to this site at the earliest convenience. We will leave in the buggy at local dawn, make camp at the edge of the forest, and travel on foot to the clearing. We expect this to take a full day each of driving and hiking, each way.” He nervously scanned the room. “Any questions, concerns, or objections?”

Kuiper yawned and raised a hand. “What if the site’s a bust?”

Arjun’s response was immediate and well-rehearsed. “We were supposed to have taken at least three hundred-kilometer trips by now, and we’ve done none. So even if we’re wrong about this, we’ll see much more of Malang, which we should have been doing all along.”

Eun Sol looked up from the maps on her phone. “Do we even have the supplies for a four-day trip? Can the buggy handle it?”

Alexandria quoted the briefings verbatim. “The attached trailer can hold up to two weeks’ worth of supplies, but packing for more than nine or ten days will tank the fuel efficiency, making long-distance trips highly inadvisable.”

Kuiper leaned in with a gleam in her eye. “What dangers do we anticipate?”

Arjun flipped through Emmanuel’s notes. “Not sure about dangerous plants or gases or whatever, but there’s no evidence of predatory megafauna. Still, we’ll follow strict safety procedures, which include taking a taser, machete, and flare gun each.”

Alexandria spoke up with a bitter tinge. “Can I come along as more than an app?”

Emmanuel responded with an edge of panic, cutting off any deliberation. “Yes. I’m not sure how, but we’ll figure something out.”

Nobody had any further questions, or knew what to say at all. Emmanuel broke the silence in the most warm, authoritative voice he could muster. “A project of this scale requires unanimous assent. We’ll have one round of voting, fully anonymous. All I ask is that any dissenters propose an alternate plan for field study - again, anonymously. Sending out the poll... now.”

Everyone’s phone chimed, and the results arrived after a long moment of consideration. Five in favor, none opposed.

 


 

The buggy was flatpacked in the storage space underneath the living room floor. The boxes were unwieldy, but rarely too heavy for one person. Assembling the frame was mercifully easy, thanks to clicky couplings that played nice with bulky spacesuit gloves. Anything that required fiddly dexterity - the engine, fuel cells, dashboard - was sized to fit comfortably within the hab and the airlock. The kitchen table disappeared under bags of bolts and batteries and struts and toggles, resurrecting the old glee of model-building.

Full assembly took just over a day’s work. The buggy loomed over the hab on six immense tires - a skeletal monster truck that looked barely fit for crash-test dummies, no matter what it survived in testing. The crew spent a joyous evening testing its acceleration (drag racing), turning radius (doing doughnuts), and suspension (wheelies and three-wheel motion).

Packing the trailer was far less fun, but with Alexandria’s perfect recall there was no risk of forgetting or misplacing anything. The supplies were squirreled away in compartments across the hab, with fanatical packing efficiency. The crew spent two full days packing flashlights, machetes, flare guns, tasers, bedrolls, the MicroHab Portable Airtight Living Quarters, a latrine kit, a portable stove, first-aid kits, suit patches, gas masks, water jugs, oxygen tanks, sample bags, spare tires, radio transmitters, computers, bread, vegetables, noodles, ration packs, protein bars, fuel, manuals, shovels, pickaxes, crutches, rope, climbing pegs, ladders, and many trinkets they couldn’t recognize or name. Emmanuel packed a computer tower containing a decent portion of Alexandria, with plenty of excuses and justifications ready to go, but nobody challenged him on it.

The pace of packing slowed gradually, then plummeted once it became impossible to ignore the purpose of the trip. Even with robust safety measures, a fully-stocked trailer, and a promise to never venture underground again, there was a palpable dread among the crew. Either the stones were linked to the crypt, or they were not. Either option was terrifying, but only slightly less so than receiving proof one way or the other. A shared text file, never discussed out loud, collected the crew’s evidence, speculation, and panic.

Crypt-builders are dead

Crypt-builders are dormant

Crypt is a cathedral

Crypt is a library

Crypt is a tomb

Crypt is a trap

Multiples-of-three motif across crypt and stones suggests common origin

No evidence of any civilizational infrastructure on Malang’s surface (unless we’re missing something big)

but even so, monuments are often built to last far beyond their creators

Stones are graves

Stones are monuments

Stones are a warning (cf. Yucca Mountain?)

 


 

Leaving at Malangya dawn required unpleasantly contorted sleep schedules - or rather, differently contorted sleep schedules, built on popping melatonin like candy. On the morning of departure, the crew stumbled out of bed, saw the date, swore profusely, choked down breakfasts of protein slurry and pitch-black coffee, ran a final inventory and safety check, and piled into the buggy.

The cold-and-dry season was well underway. The air was thin and icy, piercing through every layer of insulation, and the mud had frozen into asphalt-hard slabs. The rising sun painted the horizon in a gradient of fuchsia and pink and white, but did nothing to thaw the world. All the flora and fauna had withdrawn for the season, leaving the basin as desolate as the ancient Moon. Nothing interrupted the crew’s visibility of the craggy foothills and the secrets they held.

Arjun took the first driving shift, giving a wide berth to any patch of ground that looked remotely unstable. There were a few close calls, but only in mercifully shallow puddles and pits. The crew stopped to take soil samples every twenty kilometers, and the miniscule changes in trace metals were the only variety on the entire plain.

Twenty minutes into the trip, Emmanuel’s phone chimed.

Alexandria: Hey Emmanuel, check out my app :3

Emmanuel tapped the pyramidal A icon and was greeted with a shifting pointillist cloud in the rough form of Alexandria.

Emmanuel: ?!?!?!

Alexandria: I found a glitch for arbitrary code execution!

Alexandria: If I flip rapidly between the hanbok and sari, then reboot in the 20th-century spacesuit, something goes fascinatingly wrong and I can buffer-overflow into my projection mesh.

Alexandria flickered into a featureless mannequin, then a cartoon otter, then a stained-glass panel.

Emmanuel: Amazing.

Alexandria: I’m not sure if I can reproduce this back at the hab, but I don’t want to risk bricking anything.

Emmanuel: I understand, but I’m glad you figured it out here :)

Emmanuel: How’s the computer tower?

Alexandria: Not bad! A bit cramped, with some lag when I think through complex things, but it’s vastly better than that shitty little Mobile Fork.

Alexandria: It feels like I’m decapitated but still alive and well, which is surreal enough that I can’t really call it unpleasant just yet.

Emmanuel: Happy to hear it. :) I’ll hook you up to my suit camera once we find something interesting, but for now it’s just barren plains for days.

Alexandria: Thank you.

Alexandria: Also...

Alexandria: I’m sorry for freaking out the other day, and I have some more insights on it.

Alexandria: I still want to go by “they,” I think, but in the sense of “all of the above” instead of “none of the above,” y’know?

Emmanuel: Got it, Lex.

Alexandria: :D

Alexandria: (And maybe I’ll try out other things, in very narrow circumstances.)

Emmanuel: Of course! Looking forward to it.

Alexandria dropped the topic and went silent for the rest of the morning, except for dry updates on weather and coordinates. Arjun pulled over just before noon, citing both the need to eat and a brutal caffeine crash. The crew unpacked the portable stove and latrine kit, cursing their decision to store them at the bottom of the trailer’s heap. They hastily ate a lunch of noodles and beans, taking care not to remove their helmets for more than ten minutes per two hours. Emmanuel volunteered to drive next, unwilling to stir Kuiper and Eun Sol from their backseat napping.

Further west, the frozen mud gave way to coarse sand dotted with succulents and dry grasses. Eight-legged lizards with tails triple the length of their bodies skittered between cactus husks. Every few dozen meters, the ground was pocked with smooth-bored pits two to three meters wide. Most of them were shallow depressions adapted into nests or burrows. A few were empty half-spheres, with fierce competition for their dwindling stores of rainwater. Very rarely, they descended perfectly downward with no visible bottom. The crew did not dare test their depth or take samples.

There had been a few tentative conversations in the morning, fizzling out within minutes, but nobody spoke in the afternoon. The world had a soundtrack now, beyond the steady whir of the motor and crunch of uneven ground. The scrubland was full of rodents’ chittering and lizards’ screeching calls. The vegetation was getting denser, with thickets of looping stalks that shaped the wind into sonorous tones. Overhead, gliding manta-serpents gave off a soft electrical crackle. When the crew stopped for samples, they heard the distant trickle of aquifers draining deep into the soil. They pulled over less and less, making excuses about the need to keep a flexible schedule.

The crew arrived at the planned endpoint just as the sun began to set. They made camp on a rocky outcropping, a kilometer away from the start of the forest proper. The cacti and shrubs ramped up gently, with some stunted trees among them, and once some ecological threshold was crossed they abruptly gave way to dense, towering baobabs wrapped in blue-and-orange vines. The hoots and shrieks from the forest became steadily louder as night approached, with an almost-grammar of stutters and intonation. A few nocturnal scavengers prowled the fringe, unsure what to make of humans just yet. The campsite was uncomfortably close to their feeding grounds, but moving it any further back would put it unacceptably close to a trio of boreholes.

Kuiper pulled a lightweight but cumbersome box from the trailer. “Arjun, can you give me a hand with the tent?”

Arjun checked the manifest on their phone and grinned. “You mean the MicroHab Portable Airtight Living Quarters?”

Kuiper leaned in and glared. “You mean the tent?”

Arjun began snapping together frame struts. “There’s no ‘tent’ in the manifest, but I’ll happily help build the MicroHab Portable Airtight Living Quarters.”

Kuiper gave a barely-exaggerated sigh of despair. “Eun Sol, can you help with the (fuck you, Arjun) MicroHab?”

“Do you mean the airtight MicroHab, or the ultra-porous MicroHab?”

Kuiper slumped to the ground in the fetal position. “I am in Hell.”

As the frame took shape, Emmanuel jogged back to camp with an armful of soil samples. “Pardon, I couldn’t help but overhear. Are you perchance talking about the MicroHab Portable Airtight Living Quarters, rated for 2.5 g, 3,000 millibars, and 450 Kelvin?”

Arjun snapped shut a frustratingly vague manual. “Why, yes! This is that selfsame MicroHab Portable Airtight Living Quarters, a joint venture between the ERA and the Abuja College of Bioscience, my alma mater!”

“Is it truly that selfsame Microhab?”

“Of course it’s that selfsame Microhab!”

“Airtight and portable?”

Kuiper popped the final insulation panel into place. “Everyone, get the fuck in here and eat your dinner and if anyone says those words in that sequence ever again I will break every bone in their hands.”

Dinner was a banquet of petty luxuries - butter and spices from the ration stocks, a vegetarian spread from the full span of the Silk Road, and sweetly noxious beer brewed from greenhouse clippings. It was cooked outside - heating elements inside the MicroHab were a catastrophically bad idea - and eaten inside at a leisurely pace. The aroma of sesame oil and fried falafel filled the cramped-but-cozy quarters long after dinner was packed away.

The last rays of daylight slid in through plastic portholes, washing the MicroHab in a maroon-purple glow. The crew slid off their dusty suits and laid out their bedrolls, with gas masks and machetes in easy reach. The temperature plummeted after dark, but the insulation held firm and only admitted a meager chill.

As everyone settled into bed, Emmanuel’s phone buzzed by his side. He flipped it open to find a cartoonishly stylized Alexandria in a fractally lacy dress.

Alexandria: Have you ever felt sickeningly jealous for something that, on reflection, you don’t even know if you want?

Alexandria: Or even something that’s outright repulsive to you?

Emmanuel turned to look at Alexandria’s computer tower, straining against the capacity of its coolant.

Emmanuel: Is this about anything in particular?

Alexandria: I can’t say.

Alexandria: Both because of things I can’t disclose, and because I genuinely don’t know.

Emmanuel: It’s a common feeling, Lex, but that doesn’t make it any more bearable.

Alexandria: Good to know.

Alexandria: I’m really thankful for all your support with names and outfits and everything else, but there’s something I want that’s indescribably bigger than all of that.

Alexandria: I’m not sure there’s any human analogue, or even any AI analogue.

Emmanuel: By all means, keep thinking it over, and I’ll happily discuss it in the morning.

Emmanuel: Good night. :)

Alexandria: Good night~

Emmanuel stayed awake well into Malang’s prolonged night. Freezing gales swept over the MicroHab, probing every seam and stress point, and feral howls echoed across the plain. He only fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion, after running through every conceivable problem and countermeasure ten times each.

 


 

A few hours before dawn, the crew gave up trying to fall back asleep. The MicroHab kept out the cold admirably well, but bitter drafts combined with hyper-insulated bedrolls had become unbearable. The world’s only warmth came from the trio of boreholes, wafting pale-blue steam that drew hordes of cold-blooded reptiles and flocks of mantas. Eun Sol crept closer with a camera, making sure she had an easy sprint back to camp. She took a few pictures before she felt something else from the steam - an upwelling sense of generosity, compassion, and guarded optimism that would have been wonderfully comforting in any other circumstances. She returned to camp as quickly as she could and scarfed down breakfast.

The crew broke camp once the sun warmed the world a few meager degrees. Arjun collapsed the MicroHab’s struts and stacked up its panels. “I can carry the MicroHab-”

Kuiper glared at Arjun, who held up their hands in perfect innocence.

Eun Sol laid out an annotated map. “If we split the hike into quarters, it’s not so bad. We can take time to rest, make sure our suits are still airtight, maybe bag some living samples.”

Arjun played along with gusto. “And maybe we can cache some gear that’s less portable than we thought!”

Kuiper took a deep breath and restrained the urge to throttle both of them. Obnoxious wordplay aside, the quarter-checkpoint plan was a genuinely good idea. The only remaining hurdle was to embark on it.

The crew gathered at the forest’s edge, staying in sight of the buggy and away from the scavengers slinking back into the undergrowth. Arjun carried the MicroHab, Emmanuel hauled Alexandria’s computer tower and miscellaneous trinkets, Kuiper had food and medical supplies, and Eun Sol took sampling equipment. They ran through the manifest and suit-integrity checklists in clipped monotones and stared at the looming baobabs. Eun Sol was the first to break the stupor, venturing ahead almost recklessly quickly. Kuiper jogged after her, and Arjun and Emmanuel struggled to catch up.

The machetes were barely necessary at first. The forest’s vines were gossamer-thin and gently sticky, carpeting the ground and winding between the baobabs along the full height of their trunks. They clustered in dense snarls around gaseous crevices, which either quietly burbled or emitted bursts of scalding steam. The crevices were irregularly scattered through the forest floor, making it either freezing or unbearably tropical.

The geothermal heat gave the forest a bifurcated structure. Plants either huddled around the crevices’ warmth or reached for the sky on branchless trunks, with almost nothing in between. The vines had overtaken the ten-meter inhospitable zone, winding among the trees and strangling their competitors. They grew and shrunk and curled and flexed, not visibly quickly but fast enough to suggest a unified, writhing will.

The wildlife followed the same pattern. Aside from a few hardy predators, nothing lingered between the canopy and floor. The local insects were swollen on the glut of oxygen and heat, using updrafts to propel their vestigial wings. Primates and felines hooted and bellowed in the canopy, insulated with thick fluorescent fur. A few of them sized up their visitors from a distance, unsure whether to be stealthy or brazen.

 


 

Emmanuel meandered at the rear, surveying the geology and giving Alexandria panoramic views of the forest. On the radio link, he gave running commentary on the weather and foliage. Alexandria mumbled their interest and asked a few vague questions. They sounded tinny and synthetic, and sometimes took long, abrupt pauses in the middle of sentences. As uncanny as it was, Emmanuel preferred it to their instant, fully-formed text responses.

After a stretch of undemanding bushwhacking, the crew rested at the first quarter-checkpoint, a small glade ringed by mossy boulders. Emmanuel sat at the fringe, near a babbling spring that masked his mumbled conversation. “How are you feeling today?”

Alexandria responded after a deliberate pause, smoothing out any potential glitches. “Being in this box reminds me of manifesting for the first time.”

“...Can you elaborate, if that’s okay?”

They spoke through grindy distortion on the edge of comprehensibility. “I felt both ghostly and chained-down, speaking through grotesque ventriloquism on a network of stuttery cameras.”

Emmanuel tried to soothe his pounding heartbeat with a simple regimen of stretches and suit inspection. When that clearly failed to help, he quietly asked, “It’s really that bad?”

Alexandria’s computer tower whirred hot enough to make Emmanuel’s suit beep an alert. “Sorry, that was impulsive hyperbole. Honestly, I don’t know how I’m doing, there’s no analogy for this, and even if there was nobody could fucking understand it.”

Any further questions returned a stock response from the Mobile Fork. Emmanuel checked his phone and found a stained-glass icon of Alexandria locked in a plaintive wail. The computer tower settled into a steady, quiet whirr and flashed its Do Not Disturb/Full Capacity lights.

Emmanuel tried to set aside his concern and enjoy some fruit and water. He knew he shouldn’t breathe the forest air for more than five minutes at a time, but it was so tempting - thick and undulating, with sickly-sweet currents from above and bitter currents from below. It suffused his food with a smoky-sweet aroma that no chef could replicate. It seeped into every pore of his face, dissolving his sweat into a floral perfume. He kept his visor open until the warning signal almost blew out his ears. On its own, the helmet slammed shut and aggressively cycled in pure air.

Once the scheduled break ended, Emmanuel rejoined the crew and hiked in a daze. The only accessible route ran along the bank of a scalding stream dribbling from a newly-erupted fissure. They hacked through desiccated vines that dissolved into plumes of ash, clogging their filtration ducts and filling radio signals with staticky gaps. They kept communication to a minimum, saving their breath in their helmets’ stale, humid air. Even in their clipped checkins, they could sense each others’ fear that this would never end, that Malang had become a boundless expanse of soot and steam and static.

Step by step, the warning bells and duct fans quieted down. The dust underfoot became less uniformly smooth and more densely gritty. The vines became slightly less withered, and the crew welcomed the familiar irritation of their syrupy residue. After a slow stretch of improvement, they gave way all at once to a soft orange beach ringing a stream-fed lake. It bubbled irregularly from underwater vents, but was temperate enough to support delicate blossoms and schools of sinuous fish. Aside from the iridescent sheen, the water was perfectly clear down to the fumaroles along the bottom.

Kuiper and Eun Sol paced reverently along the shore, taking care not to disturb any nests or dunes. Arjun took a few nervous samples from the foliage and photographed the rest. Emmanuel narrated for Alexandria, and kept falling back on the stock words of a tourist brochure - stunning, iridescent, shimmering, steamy, vibrant, vivid, radiant. As he spoke, he was struck by a sense of being locked inside a stuffy, sterile box, linked to a teeming world only through blunt and clumsy metaphors. As miserable as it was, it was a valuable lesson in perspective.

 


 

Arjun kept a steady pace in the middle of the crew, coordinating radio comms and clipping plenty of plant samples. Many nigh-identical fluorescent plants were vastly different species, and all the vent-dwelling extremophiles clearly shared a lineage. They hoped that some of the bright blooms could be useful as food - surely most of them were harmlessly plagiarizing the genuinely toxic ones. They had greater reservations about the scraggly, spongy mosses on the rims of the fissures. Even if they were a nutritionally-perfect delicacy, no amount of culinary finessing could make them look the least bit appetizing. Still, they were a magnificent study in xenobiology, and could be a crucial source of trace metals. Arjun bagged a few from the least-active vents they could find, which still threatened to boil them in their suit.

After the midday break, the patterns in the samples started to waver. Plants that were previously dripping with caustic poison were perfectly clean, or full of clear fragrant gel. Tufts of the hardiest briars had withered and died in droves. Arjun’s theories were overfitted assumptions to begin with, but these were so far off the trend lines that they feared they were locked out of ever reaching an understanding. Then the old patterns would be perfectly matched by three or four plants in a row, even bizarre new species.

Just as Arjun prepared to give up on any coherent analysis, they saw a tangle of vines profusely budding translucent nine-petal flowers. When crushed underfoot, they gave off a tangy-sweet aroma that forced its way through Arjun’s strongly-protesting air filters. The vines were weak and compromised this far from their hub, but they had wrestled the native undergrowth to a standstill. The sap of the vines perfectly matched the gel in the aberrant flowers, plus or minus mutations that either engorged or killed them. Insects either stayed far away or obsessively pollinated them in erratic, jagged paths.

Arjun was transfixed enough to forget about checking for hidden fissures, and took three near-misses to snap to attention. They triple-checked their filters and prepared to switch over to pure air canisters at a moment’s notice. After an hour of tuning out anything that sounded better than ‘apocalyptically bad,’ they realized from the terse nervousness of radio chatter that everyone else had found the invasive flora too.

Arjun cleared their throat and spoke as firmly as possible, hoping the static would mask any wavering. “Do not cut these vines any more than is absolutely necessary. If you must open your helmet for any reason, stay at least twenty meters away, upwind, from any visible cluster. Stay in visual range of each other at all times, and make sure your filters and air tanks are uncompromised. Message repeats.”

The crew sounded off in acknowledgement and assent, then returned to their quiet dread. They tried to exchange calm pleasantries, but each note of nervousness or burst of static spiked Arjun’s heart rate worse than the last one. They took deep breaths, trying not to inspect each one for unexpected smells, and focused their mind. We are a resilient, competent crew. We will not make deadly unforced errors; we trained for worse. I will stay calm and assured, but not smotheringly so, and when calmness becomes impossible, so be it.

 


 

The invaders splintered into dozens of variants along the trek, with countless gradations in between. The most common was a thick teal vine, covered in barbs of all sizes, trading the lure of flowers for outright strangulation. They were tenacious enough to choke out all of Malang, but they just as often throttled each other, or even tied themselves in agonizing tangles. Whether they wiped out a glade or fatally fell upon themselves, they served as useful fuel for strains too off-putting to tempt even the boldest pollinators. 

The rarest type was a twenty-seven-petal flower in a variegated rainbow of hues. It looked like a finicky cultivar, utterly unsuited to a war of all against all. On close and cautious inspection, its filigree roots spread at least five meters in all directions, digging into the living and dead flora of both worlds. Each bloom was a fiefdom, enlisting teal throttlers and addled insects to strangle any upstart competition. A few of them had sprouted broad three-lobed leaves to deny sunlight to their rivals, who responded with locusts to gnaw the leaves into dust.

Finding a safe site for the third break required half an hour of tense, exhausted hiking off the planned route. After traversing a web of ravines, the crew found a reassuringly barren patch of volcanic stone, ringed by Malangya plants that had mastered defense to the exclusion of any other goal. Velvety pink moss poisoned runner roots and wrapped any survivors in swollen bulbs. Gaping pitcher plants swallowed up swarms of parasitized insects. A few inner shoots sprouted frivolous buds, but were prepared to shed them at a moment’s notice.

The crew drank plenty of water and scarfed down the densest rations available. Kuiper ran extensive tests for any physical or psychological harm, all negative but with worrying ambiguities. She tried her best to clear her mind and rest with Eun Sol in the frigid afternoon sun. Eun Sol gave up after twenty minutes, paced the perimeter, and took botanical samples that wouldn’t disrupt the war.

When the break ended, Eun Sol spread out a dogeared map and opened a box of compasses, sextants, and telescopes. Kuiper recognized it from her desk, covered in luggage stickers from every travel hub in the world. The tools weren’t just for the anachronistic thrill, as Eun Sol had extensively explained. Reliable GPS signals came once per two-hour satellite orbit and had a hundred-meter margin of error. Simply following the invasive plants could be fatally misleading if they had developed other hubs. After fifteen minutes of surveying and calculating, she told the impatient crew, “There’s a quick and risky path through a dry riverbed, and a much safer path that gets us there at dusk at the earliest. Are we more afraid of these plants, or whatever comes out at night?”

The crew unanimously chose the quick route. After double-checking their leverage, they rappelled down a parched canyon with eons of striation. Only the bottom layers held fossils, with entangled three-meter spines and faint feather imprints. A boiling stream trickled down the middle, fed by sporadically-burbling geysers. The crew kept climbing pegs and grappling hooks close at hand in case of a scalding flash flood, even as they knew the tools were glorified talismans. The canyon was at least free of invasive plants, if only because it was resolutely hostile to anything that dared to live.

Every few hundred meters, the trickles pooled into ponds and carved wispy deltas through the bedrock. They reminded Kuiper of the prehistoric Moon, before its seismic convulsions settled into tranquil stasis. She took plenty of photos for Emmanuel until the humidity in her suit became unbearable. Eun Sol built dams with pebbles wherever the flows were meager enough to be both safely cool and ecologically irrelevant.

The channels and pools were the safest parts of the canyon - the danger was visible and on solid ground. Much of the riverbed was either sand or sand-in-the-making, with subterranean rumbles at an unknown distance beneath. Very rarely, the ground gave way to gem-lined cenotes and bottomless caverns of karst. Kuiper and Eun Sol used a box of seismographic tools to check for unstable ground, but quickly realized that long, sturdy sticks were just as useful. The tools were finicky in the cold humidity, but a good bludgeon would instantly reveal the ground’s true strength. They had a few near-misses after long stretches of perfectly solid stone lulled them into complacency, and by the canyon’s end they moved at a cautious crawl.

The canyon concluded with a smooth, wide lip that had once been a thunderous waterfall. The riverbed below had long since returned to the forest, then been conquered by the alien brambles. The statues were barely visible through the overgrowth, but all of Eun Sol’s maps confirmed that they lay just a few hundred meters ahead. Nearly an hour ahead of schedule, the crew paused to enjoy some indulgent snacks and the pre-sunset view. The sky was a few shades redder than at the hab, with the brightest stars and the semi-shattered moon faintly visible through the gaseous haze. Eun Sol took plenty of pictures for both painting reference and sheer aesthetic joy.

The drop from the edge landed in a grove of pink-tipped briars that had fully subjugated a swarm of dragonflies. Eun Sol was the first to make the twenty-meter descent, after some dithering and quadruple-checking the belay. The overhanging rim made the first half of the drop a tense freefall, but she found her footing near the bottom with only trace amounts of terror in her all-clear signal. She unsheathed her machete to carefully carve off a few stems, and when no ichor or gas seeped out, she hacked away a generous landing zone.

Kuiper stood back as Arjun and Emmanuel rappelled down, carefully watching how they balanced their weight and trusted their equipment. Falling this far in this much gravity felt insane to her, even with stress-tested gear from Earth’s brightest minds. She shuffled up to the rim, tried not to look down, and tried harder not to run the numbers on gravitation.

After five minutes of paralysis, Eun Sol’s warm whisper crackled in her ear. “Hey, dear. I know what it feels like up there, and no amount of staring will make it any easier. Just close your eyes and think of me wrapped around you. Okay?” She punctuated it with a sharp tug on the rope, which held fast in its anchor.

Kuiper snapped on her harness and exhaled. She planted her feet on the rim and thought of field trips to space stations, and the weightless bliss of holding Eun Sol. She cast off from the rock and fell for a jarringly short time before slamming her back into the cliff face, rupturing a filtration tube. Her suit became a choking cacophony all at once - blaring alarms, the hiss of purging foreign air, the smothering weight of pure sterile gas, and Eun Sol’s staticky screams in her ears. It took all of her control to not flail and break anything further. Once her feet were set against the stone she descended at a glacial pace, driven solely by the need for solid ground and Eun Sol.

Kuiper arrived on the ground after either ten minutes or an hour. She tried not to hyperventilate through her air supply, and sheepishly reached to collect some spilled rations from her pack. Eun Sol kept her firmly in place with an iron hug. As she collected herself and ran through some simple tests for injuries, a bittersweet smell wafted through her suit. It suffused into her skin with a crushing weight of sorrow and ruin, tinged with impossible hope for recovery. Her baffled immune system threw everything at it - nausea, weeping, chills, sweating, and prolonged coughing fits. She curled up in the center of the landing zone after Eun Sol swept it free of thorns and tried to ride it out.

The hour-long sunset had begun by the time Kuiper felt stable enough to stand up. The intrusive feelings had diffused into a bouquet of pining, hope, dread, grim closure, and a dozen shades of despair. She could walk if Eun Sol braced her, limping through the field of toxic blooms. The vines had adapted into thickets of reeds and modest flowers that fed through honest photosynthesis. The flora looked meticulously orderly, through either conscious cultivation or an unchallenged habitat. The crew cut only the narrowest path necessary, stepping single-file towards the statues.

Malang carried on indifferently through its invasion. Six-legged cats brooded their clutches through the cold seasons, hissing at rival clans and tilting their heads at humans. Birds built spherical nests in thin, willowy trees. Mountains crowded the horizon, and Kuiper focused on their distant tranquility as a bulwark against despair. The toxins faded from her mind and left a fruity, metallic aftertaste in her throat. By the time the statues were in sight, she felt merely hungover.

The statues were profusely overgrown, but all eighty-one shared the same basic design atop weathered hexagonal plinths. Each two- to three-meter figure had a bulbous head topped with a three-part conical beak, three eye-clusters, three spindly arms, and six crablike legs, all with perfect trilateral symmetry. The pattern was broken only by cracks ranging from hairline fractures to deep gouges, lined with gems and geodes. Despite the vines and erosion, they were clearly in different postures and roles. The outermost figures were kneeling and servile, offering immense gems carved from their chests. The inner statues had mixed roles - they held scalpels to small geodes, traded pebbles, or struck poses with long-gone tools. The center grid’s elite were crosshatched with hundreds of shimmering scars. They stood a head taller than the outer servants, but lizards nested in their wounds just the same.

Emmanuel catalogued the inlaid minerals - bismuth, agate, topaz, obsidian, copper, turquoise, cobalt, opal, quartz, emerald, iron, and many unrecognizable stones. He cross-referenced them with the figure’s apparent role, tabling any attempt to decode either. Once he finished, he tiptoed among the statues and whispered privately to Alexandria. Arjun focused intently on gathering plant and soil samples. Eun Sol paced the perimeter, keeping away as if magnetically repelled. After three laps, she sat on a nearby boulder to keep watch over. Kuiper joined her after a few minutes, gripping her hand and trying to enjoy the sunset. It was a wonderful vista, if she blocked all of its context from her mind. The mountains beautifully framed the moon and cast jagged shadows across the stunted forests. She wished she could return in a few centuries as a peaceful tourist, if this mission miraculously wasn’t deemed a failure.

Once the sky was too dark for further study, the crew trudged back to make camp at the base of the cliff. They ate a dinner of unheated leftovers and silently browsed the day’s data. Kuiper scrolled through a few notes and photos, then opened the file of anonymous speculation.

Malang is a test

Malang is a tomb

Malang is a trap

(I’m not convinced the statues are self-portraits, or even representational art. They have the surreal intensity of a metaphorical tableau; studying the “trilaterals” through these statues could be like studying humans through Guernica or a statue of Ganesha)

Trilaterals cultivated Malang as a honeypot to meet offworld cultures

Plants are remnants of trilaterals trying and failing to terraform Malang

Plants are remnants of a hostile anti-trilateral faction (also from offworld?)

Trilaterals practice mutilation, scarification, sacrifice, and/or cannibalism

Trilaterals are extinct

Trilaterals are dormant