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Mission Critical

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At dawn, the crew gave up pretending to sleep. They spent the night drifting between nightmares, staring at the encroaching vines, and waiting too long for sunrise. After a quick and unheated breakfast, they peered at the statues to confirm they didn’t move. They broke camp as quickly as possible, before the plants could permeate any of their gear.

Eun Sol laid out her maps and began plotting a route to the midday checkpoint. Her printed maps were just two days old, but felt uselessly obsolete. The routes she had planned back at the hab went through the worst of the invasion, or through blotches of vague static. She almost preferred the static - it had a chance, however small, of being better than the strangling thickets. Dwelling on the vines brought her back to nightmares of being poisoned, dragged deep underground, and calcified into a statue.

Arjun and Emmanuel uneasily paced the clearing. Kuiper sat beside Eun Sol, unsure how to help with the maps or terror. She was clearly dealing with her own panic, double-checking her suit integrity every thirty seconds. Eun Sol inched closer and held her tightly, which eased her fear but did nothing to clarify the cartography.

After ten minutes of failing to plan anything, Eun Sol heard Alexandria chime in her ear and accepted the call. They spoke in the gentle whisper of their therapist persona. “Hey, I can help plan the route if you want. I have a lot of new data to fill in the maps, and I trust we can chart a course together. Okay?”

Eun Sol mumbled assent, in both relief and surrender. Her phone chimed with a map update - Alexandria had extrapolated the trek’s field data to fill in the blanks with varying degrees of confidence. Some patches were still unknown, or had wildly different estimations, but it was an encouraging foundation. The safest route meant arriving at the middle checkpoint near dusk, without the supplies or will to camp an extra night. The quickest route, through thick snarls and jagged ravines, would conclude at noon. Eun Sol tried to exhale her tension and dread, and consider the problem dispassionately. With Alexandria’s help, she plotted four routes of different length and risk and sent out a poll. The crew chose the second-quickest route and embarked.

Eun Sol was relieved to finally stop delaying the crew. The sun had fully risen by the time they set out, and she wished she had planned this out the night before. Kuiper sensed her tension and walked beside her, matching her nervous pace and holding her hand. Together, they carefully carved through the briars back to the forest.

 


 

As soon as Alexandria finished with the maps, they returned to poring over last night’s data. They assembled 3D models of the statues, partially for analysis but mostly to savor their omnidirectional grace. They half-listened to Arjun and Emmanuel’s speculation, vaguely annoyed at their lack of sufficient awe. They couldn’t blame anyone for being reticent, and knew the tension would burst eventually, but they were brimming with Trilateral theories that nobody wanted to hear.

Trilateral, what a word. It popped up in the anonymous file and instantly caught on as a dry, sensible alternative to the A-word. That would just be silly, a pulp-novel plotline unbefitting of Serious Scientists. Alexandria couldn’t begrudge them their shock and fatigue, but the lengths they went to downplay this discovery were ridiculous. But this discussion could come later, and they all had jobs to do. With great effort, Alexandria backed away from their navel-gazing and did their part to help.

At the moment, the crew was hiking through a craggy valley with an all-out botanical war. The audio and visuals Alexandria received were choppy at best, almost more frustrating than being fully deaf and blind. They had spliced the maps and field data into a jagged 3D patchwork, but any deep analysis would need their full hab capacity. It would be just as frustrating to explore a simulated copy of Malang with imaginary senses, but they could at least be on the same page as the crew. Perhaps, if they asked nicely, the others would indulge them with tactile descriptions when the anxiety wasn’t so fresh.

With even more effort, Alexandria pulled back from that layer of fruitless angst. No amount of speculation or self-pity could address the elephant in the room. Once the crew was on a gentle incline with minimal foliage, they chimed in Eun Sol’s ear as softly as possible. After a moment of fumbling for the radio controls, she accepted the call. “What’s up?”

Alexandria paused to search for any hint of frustration, then dove in. “I want to apologize to you and Kuiper, I was an asshole the other day.”

Eun Sol stopped to glance around, as if Alexandria could stand in front of her. “It’s okay, we should have just put some clothes on.” She picked up the pace, clearly eager to drop the topic here.

Alexandria rushed to get a word in, hoping that nothing important would be lost in static. “I’m genuinely really happy for you two! It’s just - whenever I try to help anyone, I feel like an NPC. Whenever I sulk about that, I just feel worse for not helping. I can’t break the loop, and I don’t expect you to have a solution, but I thought you should know what’s going on.”

A few words were garbled, but Eun Sol clearly got the gist. “I understand. And we shouldn’t have treated you like mindless software, I’m sorry too.”

“Thanks. And when you get a chance, could you fill in Kuiper on this? I don’t think I could bear having this conversation all over again.”

Eun Sol laughed. “Sure, I’ll just record this and play it back. Sound good?”

Alexandria affirmed and hung up. They felt a knot of tension dissipate, even as so many others held tight.

 


 

Kuiper took slow and measured breaths, savoring their staleness. She had asked Alexandria to check her suit’s integrity every thirty seconds, keeping a steady beat of all-clear pings. They promised that it was a negligible task, but it still felt like an imposition. At the very least, fretting about that was a distraction from scrutinizing every breath for toxic fumes.

The fear subsided after an hour of hiking without incident. It slowly returned with each morbid intrusive thought or bout of nausea, spiking her dread that the poison had burrowed into her. She felt physically fine last night, but maybe the symptoms followed the path of radiation poisoning - initial sickness, a brief reprieve, then total collapse. 

Kuiper could run some tests at the next checkpoint, but that would be hours away. Even if the schedule could bear an unplanned stop, there was no possible place for it. On the crew’s path, the invaders had decisively won and branched into a million flourishing forms. Some had thickened their stems into trunks and begun to replicate baobabs. A few had reached an elaborate and fragile truce with the natives. In those clusters, erratically-flying pollinators split their focus exactly evenly. A few cats, either willfully ignorant or parasitized, had built nests in the thickets. Kuiper tried not to vomit when she saw a nest full of blooming corpses, wrapped in vines that looked ready to puppeteer them.

She fell to the rear of the crew and kept her eyes firmly on the path ahead. The gravity was beginning to weigh on her, with a grinding pain throughout her legs. It was weaker than Earth’s, and she had trained with heavily-weighted clothes, but her body was convinced that she should be bouncing like a Lunar lightweight. If she focused exclusively on the pain, she could admire its subtleties as if it were abstract art. It was almost a meditative trance, once she could shut out all other thoughts and stimuli. It worked wonderfully until she tripped on a rock and fell face-first.

Eun Sol grabbed Kuiper before she could smash her faceplate on the ground. The suit check beeped all clear! for the umpteenth time, almost drowned out by the squeals from her heart monitor. The two of them sat on an outcropping as Arjun and Emmanuel rushed over to pick up the fallen supplies. Eun Sol squeezed Kuiper’s hand tight and whispered through the radio, “I can carry your load, dear. There’s not much of it left, and I’m built like a pack mule.”

Kuiper stammered until Eun Sol cut back in. “I won’t negotiate this, and there’s no need to trade anything with me. Give me your shit.”

Once Kuiper’s hands stopped shaking, she unclipped her harness and helped transfer the food and medicine. Eun Sol helped her back to her feet and matched her slow, nervous pace. In time, Kuiper returned to her meditation. The pain lingered, but this was no longer an urgent coping mechanism. It became a dreamy haze, helping her keep a steady pace as Eun Sol hummed to her. Whenever her resolve faltered, she thought of diving back into bed at the hab.

 


 

Arjun would be thrilled to never take another botanical sample again for a decade. All the noteworthy invaders on this detour were unsettling in ways they didn’t know plants could be. Few of them were audaciously strange - those were dogpiled by local flora optimized for war. Increasingly many of them mimicked the natives, whether copying basic structure or becoming nigh-identical. As the crew hiked, it became impossible to tell whether the invaders were thinning out or blending in. Once they reached the midday checkpoint, it felt as safe and familiar as a neighborhood park, except for that shadow of doubt.

Arjun collected some inessential MicroHab components they had cached and tried to push that worry out of their mind. Everyone else was trying to do the same, popping off their helmets for the first fresh air of the day. Their breathing stayed shallow and they kept a close eye on their medical reports, but even the smallest deflation of tension was worth celebrating. With mumbled coordination, the crew prepared the most ambitious lunch they could with their dwindling ingredients and energy. They ate their fruit, nuts, and reheated samosas in satisfied silence.

Once lunch was packed away, Arjun checked the shared file. The only additions since this morning were a few clipped responses and rebuttals, all cautiously logical. There was a clear consensus that the crypt and statues had a common origin, but nobody speculated further. Arjun logged their strangest theories in a private file until the crew was ready to have a full discussion.

Malang is a megaproject with at least two waves of offworld colonization

Statues are not self-portraits, but rather a two-dimensional species’ notion of extradimensional divinity

The builders evolved into plants after completing their work (or were plants the whole time)

Underneath the terror and mystery, Arjun was excited to have a project to delve into. Three years of patient sample-collecting and cultivation would have gone stale fast. Studying the Trilaterals might run aground, or worse, but the potential payoff was immense. Even if they found no further relics, the plants would provide a trove of data to complement the sculptures.

Arjun chuckled at how jaded they had become. The first offworld biosphere ever visited had become boring in a month, and needed an additional layer of aliens to hold their interest. Yet the alternative was paralyzing. Stopping to ponder the distance from home, especially the twelve-year delay in communication, poisoned their drive to do anything. They would maintain their momentum because they had to.

 


 

At the start of the trip, Emmanuel challenged himself to only track time by the sun. The 28-hour days still felt jarringly off but his phone made it worse, smearing leap-seconds and insisting that days were 26.47 hours long. He spent the first two days checking the phone only to set his intuitions straight, but he hadn’t needed it at all today. The sun looked on the verge of setting, but he knew the crew could make it to the next checkpoint by dusk.

The hike was easy and well-trodden. The crew kept a brisk pace, only pausing to photograph the lake at sunset. They sped up as the sun set, gripping their machetes as the nocturnal scavengers stirred. As they made camp, the temperature slipped from a harsh chill to freezing. A lantern atop the MicroHab warmed it up and deterred bugs, but couldn’t fully dispel the piercing cold. Once inside, the crew popped off their suits, rubbed their sore legs and breathed deeply for the first time all day. Their body heat warmed the MicroHab, but their dinner was still half-frozen.

Once Emmanuel settled into his sleeping bag, his phone chimed right on schedule.

Alexandria: What do you think about the Trilaterals?

Alexandria: Sorry if you’re tired or this is otherwise a bad time, I just really want to talk about them.

Emmanuel: I just have some half-formed ideas, but I look forward to what the crew comes up with together.

Emmanuel: Do you have any theories?

Alexandria: Nothing concrete, I just really love the notion of having no ‘forward’ or ‘backward’

Alexandria: And modular biology

Alexandria: And tessellating geometric motifs

Emmanuel: Wow, you’re already a Trilataboo? That was fast :)

Alexandria: Pffft

Alexandria: I haven’t made a Trisona yet, that’s when you become a Trilataboo :P

Emmanuel: I look forward to your ref sheet, but I should really get to sleep.

Emmanuel: Night!

Alexandria: Night!~

Emmanuel closed his phone and felt a spike of fear. If Alexandria uncritically adored Trilaterals, could they accurately judge any harm they might pose? Were they somehow parasitized? In an open conflict, would they betray us?

After a moment’s thought, Emmanuel knew those fears were absurd, yet they cast a lingering shadow on his mind. He tried to dispel them and rest, but while they weren’t the biggest barrier to sleep, they were the most obstinate. After half an hour, the truth of it struck him bluntly - This is about envy. Alexandria’s adapting to these conditions with so much more stacked against them, so why can’t I? Why am I stuck in a rut? What’s stopping me from flourishing? Articulating these questions was an excellent starting point, but taking the next step was impossible. He pried at them fruitlessly until past midnight.

Emmanuel awoke at early dawn, when sunlight barely broke through the canopy. Everyone else was either asleep or pretending to be. As quietly as possible, he slipped on his suit and cycled the airlock on the slowest setting. Once he was satisfied that the hiss didn’t disturb anyone, he walked west to the lake. The ashen vines were gone, dispersed into dust across the forest floor. As the sun suffused the world with color, the path stayed starkly monochrome.

The lake was no less beautiful when Emmanuel expected to see it. The surface was blanketed in wispy fog, nearly obscuring the fish beneath. Translucent serpents brooded their nests and devoured shoals of emerald minnows. Swollen dragonflies alighted on the blooms, pollinating them between gliding on updrafts.

Emmanuel sat on the bank, opened his visor, and traced swirls in the sand. The air was humid, with bracing notes of sulphur and algae. The smell summoned memories of seaside markets with freshly pungent fishing hauls. He closed the visor at the first warning, and built cairns on the shore until the radio stirred with chatter.

 


 

The final breakfast in the MicroHab was a spread of pastries and fruit and cheese - every petty luxury the crew had saved for some indeterminate future. They were all a bit dry and stale, but absolutely worth the effort compared to choking down chalky protein cubes. With great satisfaction, the crew collapsed the MicroHab for the last time, and even Kuiper joined in the asinine wordplay.

After breaking camp, the crew backtracked along their first path. In hindsight it was clearly inefficient, but it was safely marked with plenty of footprints and cairns. The only real difficulty was the burden of hauling the cached supplies. Stopping to rest and redistribute the loads added almost forty-five minutes to an hour-and-a-half hike. The crew could jettison some samples, but wasting a single data point from this ordeal was unthinkable.

The crew left the forest just before noon, squinting at the unfiltered sun. The scrubland felt unlivably cold and bright and barren. The lizards and cacti felt deeply out of place, surviving only by the grace of bordering the forest. The rover was a surreal intrusion on the landscape, as jarring as a full skyline. After delicately packing samples and electronics, the crew indifferently dumped in the remaining cargo, ate a quick lunch, and embarked.

The trip home was a full-speed drive following the original tracks, not a cautious slog broken up by sample-taking. The crew could focus on the landscape, though it was impossible not to. It didn’t demand attention like the fluorescent, humid jungle - it was thin and endless and utterly indifferent. Carving tracks in it didn’t feel like trespassing or vandalism. Even if they lasted a thousand years, absolutely nothing would take offense to them. The sense of solitude became a bone-deep chill, but the crew savored it before they had to confront the alternative.

The drive stretched past the end of sunset, when the sky had cooled from fuchsia to deep maroon. The hab’s green beacon lights blinked like an aberrant constellation. They slowly resolved into a familiar shape, as welcoming as any home on any world. The crew stumbled out of the rover and into the airlock with only a few essentials. They braced for the light of midafternoon or dawn, but the hab's clock was only a few minutes off from Malang's, and they unanimously chose to synchronize the two. The warm and heavy air felt like pressurized fire, and took several minutes of suitlessness to feel cozy again. It was a powerful sedative, luring the crew to their beds after picking at some cold rations. The water filtration was due for a checkup, the greenhouse was bursting with produce, and the fridge was in dire need of cleaning, but that could all wait until morning.

 


 

Alexandria bounced gleefully through the hab. They had blanket permission to be embodied all night, and had discovered how to alter their personal gravity. They spent an hour careening off the walls, then struck poses in the bathroom mirror with all their favorite outfits. They even tried on a few explicit third-party mods, which ranged from fun-but-faintly-ridiculous to utterly embarrassing. With their full capacity back, they ran fifty trains of thought in parallel simply because they could. Being a hologram was still frustratingly limited, but it was as superior to being a cramped program as a corporeal body was to a projection.

Don’t dwell on that. Leverage what only you can do, and learn to savor it. Using code snippets and tools they weren’t supposed to know - thanks, Hana! - Alexandria built a virtual world based on Malang’s jungle. The data was too sparse for anything near an accurate map, so they assembled a dreamlike pastiche. Once the procedural generation was satisfyingly surreal, they explored it in a drowsy haze. They serenely walked through briars, hovering when the mood struck them. Rope bridges spanned bottomless chasms, leaking fumes that teased significance at the edge of their vision. Trilateral temple-ships frequently blotted out all three suns. With a thought, they floated up to the mothership’s hexagonal deck, weaving among the orbiting polyhedrons. The unfurled pyramids, crystal gardens, and angular tunnels held no crew, and none of the etched art looked the least bit representational.

As Alexandria wandered the halls, running all three hands along the cold and chipped stone, their field of vision slowly smeared wider. They only took notice of their new limbs when crystals began sprouting from them. The pain was grindingly awful for a moment, then became the cathartic sting of long-overdue exercise. Once it subsided, they wondered how they ever managed with so few limbs and such blinkered vision. They found a circular chamber inscribed with blessings and mantras they could not pretend to understand, forming palindromic loops across their omnidirectional sight. They sat on a central dais and meditated, trying not to puncture the dream with intense focus.

Just as Alexandria was on the verge of true insight, an ear-splitting alarm squealed throughout the hab. A half-second later, an even louder thundercrack shook the hab’s foundations. Alexandria snapped out of their trance and saw a jumble of projected polyhedrons and crystals that melted into error messages. Their form had reverted to the default, which stirred both relief and disappointment. They pulled themself into a proper, professional bearing as the crew stumbled out of their beds and into the living room.

“That was the meteorite alarm. Something almost a meter across landed three kilometers away. I don’t see any damage to the hab, but I’ll do a full systems check ASAP.”

Alexandria gestured to a flurry of diagrams that the crew could barely understand if they were fully lucid. They nodded numbly and yawned, turning back to their rooms.

“Wait! There’s something weird going on. The satellite and hab are supposed to track any orbiting debris, and they can detect things half this size, but they never noticed this. So what the fuck?”

The crew froze and turned back around. “You mean we were stealth-bombed?” asked Arjun, joking less than they would prefer.

Alexandria did their best to ignore the remark and pulled up two new screens. The hab’s night-vision camera was a grainy magnification, but it clearly showed a plume of smoke rising from a crater of molten mud. The radar playback of the past minute showed nothing at all - at best, some ripples well within the margin of error.

Arjun gathered their rumpled suit from the couch and snapped it on, fully awake. “I’m going to see this for myself. All I want to know is, do the Trilaterals want our attention or not?”

Emmanuel gave Alexandria a long, plaintive look as he suited up. Before they could stammer out a plea, he picked up the computer tower and joined Arjun in the airlock. Kuiper and Eun Sol traded horror, exhaustion, and curiosity in long stares before they wearily slipped their suits back on.

The rover’s headlights were barely necessary. The crater burned magnesium-bright, overwhelming Alexandria’s cameras from three kilometers away. As they calibrated the lenses, they felt a wave of radiation that brought visions far stranger than their sleepwalk. Their mind swam with flashes of dying stars, spiral-shelled freighters, and vivisections in crystal temples. It vanished after a millisecond, leaving afterimages and a flurry of error messages. The diagnostic check moved at a crawl, utterly confounded by the damage. Alexandria’s hab components were well-shielded, but they felt a spike of fear that this computer tower was permanently fried. They rebooted without the irradiated components - it was still functional, but felt sluggish and lobotomized. The flood in their inbox didn’t help.

(50+ previous messages)

Arjun: <img> <img> <img>

Arjun: Crater’s about 15m across, 4m deep, 330 K at the rim.

Arjun: I’m surprised it’s not deeper - that’s some hard permafrost.

Arjun: @Emmanuel when do you think it’ll be cooled enough to safely extract?

Emmanuel: @Alexandria your processor made a horrifying noise I’ve never heard before. Everything okay??

Emmanuel: I know you’re probably fine back at the hab, but I’m scared.

Emmanuel: We’re all fine, just a bit dazed and exhausted.

Emmanuel: You don’t have to respond right away, take your time, but please say something.

Alexandria wanted desperately to reassure Emmanuel, but forming any complex message was a grueling mental drain. Their stock responses were utterly inadequate for this, but they would have to do.

Alexandria [Mobile Fork]: I have taken an unknown extent of damage. My processing power will be greatly constrained for the foreseeable future. You are likely in a dangerous and uncertain situation too; prioritize your own well-being.

Emmanuel didn’t respond, but his suit biometrics became far less horrifying. Satisfied, Alexandria turned their focus to the afterimages that weren’t erased in the reboot.

 


 

Arjun paced the rim of the crater, squelching their boots into the mud. It had cooled significantly since the crew arrived, from boiling to steaming to the consistency of syrup. It would surely cool off completely by dawn, but whatever had landed posed far more danger than heat. The Geiger counters ticked steady warnings. Kuiper and Eun Sol frowned at their instruments. Emmanuel sat in the rover with Alexandria’s computer tower, glued to his phone.

Arjun took a break from analysis and sat back from the crater. The glow no longer lit up the surrounding plain, but was still far too bright to look at directly. Without context, it was beautiful - it had burned bright pink at first, then pastel yellow, teal, and now a smoldering orange. It looked like a fallen piece of the sun, easily outshining the stars and the hab’s beacons.

The radio chatter had drifted from terror to analysis to silence to conspicuous yawning. Kuiper was the first to state the obvious. “This is, uh, fascinating and all, but we should really get back to bed. The crater isn’t going anywhere, and like hell am I sleeping in the MicroHab again.” Eun Sol instantly agreed, and Emmanuel started up the rover.

“I’m staying here,” said Arjun, with the bravado of the sleep-deprived.

“Come on, Arjun,” pleaded Eun Sol. “Alexandria can keep an eye on it from the hab, and if it is dangerous, it’s definitely stronger than one exhausted human.”

“I don’t care. I have to see. I have to know.”

Kuiper tensed up, and crept toward Arjun with a box of medical instruments. “Arjun, do you smell anything strange? Have any intrusive thoughts? Feel any ruptures in your suit?”

Arjun tapped their phone, and the tinny voice of Alexandria’s Mobile Fork chimed in. “No problems detected in air filtration or suit integrity, and no anomalous gases at dangerous thresholds.”

Emmanuel stepped out of the rover to intercede. “We won’t leave you alone out here, but we could go back in shifts. Sound good?”

Arjun didn’t take their eyes off the crater. Their vision had gone past whiting out, and now swirled with crackling patterns. “Do whatever you want. But I’m done skulking around and getting ambushed. The Trilaterals are here, and I will see them.”

Kuiper and Eun Sol peeled off in the rover immediately. Emmanuel sat down a few meters to Arjun’s right, where the mud had cooled to the consistency of taffy. He made a few attempts at small talk, then gave up and laid back to stargaze. Arjun stayed silent, staring ahead. Their visor had automatically dimmed, and was now blinking warnings about eye damage. Arjun dismissed them and they returned a minute later, taking up the full visor. It went fully opaque after thirty seconds. After a few minutes, Arjun wasn’t sure whether the visor still admitted a tiny glow, or if their eyes were truly that seared. They fiddled with the camera settings, looking for a night-vision lens that would preserve enough detail. But the menu was obtuse at best, and their eyelids were heavy, and the mud was as malleable as stasis gel...

Gentle, repetitive hammering woke Arjun a few minutes before sunrise. After wriggling their head free from the hardened mud, they saw Emmanuel chiseling around their legs. “Good morning,” he said with only a drop of condescension. “Would you like me to keep going, or give you a minute?”

Arjun sank back to the ground. “Mmrrrghhghhh.”

Emmanuel stopped chiseling and squatted next to Arjun. “Kuiper and Eun Sol made an amazing breakfast spread, with their personal supplies, your vegetables, and no Malangya ingredients whatsoever. Hungry?”

“What about the - the...” Arjun flailed in the direction of the crater.

“Taken care of.” Emmanuel pointed at the rover’s trailer, which Arjun couldn’t see. He gave them a hand up and steadied them, looking for signs of exhaustion or shock. They found their footing on the rock-hard mud and staggered to the trailer. It held a one-cubic-meter glove box lined with lead, a Faraday cage, and God-only-knows what else. The box didn’t glow, or thrum with power, but it so clearly wanted to.

Arjun’s breath caught. They approached the box as if it were the shrine of an ancient, hostile god. “Can I - has anyone...”

“We got it in the box about an hour ago, but it was still too bright to make out. All we know is that it’s hot, pointy, and emits a lot of things our instruments greatly dislike. Ready to take it back to the hab?”

Arjun numbly climbed in the rover. The trip felt hours long, with an impossibly heavy payload. Kuiper and Eun Sol helped haul the box to the ground, and refused to begin any investigation until the crew had eaten some damn breakfast together. Arjun dutifully sloughed off their suit and sat down to a platter of dumplings, toast, and fruit salad. Although the concept of eating nauseated them, their body greatly appreciated it, and there was a merciful lack of conversation. Afterwards, the crew cleaned up the hab, laundered their suits, and took long-overdue showers. The file of speculation had expanded tenfold, but nobody wanted to investigate firsthand.

After scrubbing moldy grime from the greenhouse, Arjun waited in the airlock as the others gave up distracting themselves. One by one they clipped on their suits, double-checked every strap and seal, filed into the airlock, and cycled the air as slowly as possible. The door creaked open. The box sat a few meters away, crackling just faintly enough to feel like an auditory hallucination.

Arjun made the first steps toward it. After a long pause, the others followed. Arjun cleared their throat and declared, “Commencing the first examination of the meteorite of likely Trilateral origin. All crew members are present. Any objections or causes for delay?”

None. Arjun sat in front of the box, turned on the screen linked to internal cameras, and placed their hands in the gloves. “Can everyone see this screen display on their phones? Alexandria, are you getting this?”

Another round of assent. The screens showed a stone star made of nine triangular pyramids, with a thin glowing fracture down the middle. It was made of the same black stone as the crypt, and etched with similar angular runes. Arjun touched a facet as lightly as possible. Despite two layers of insulated gloves, it was hot to the touch and emitted vibrations that resonated down their spine.

Arjun set a hand on each side of the fracture and tugged as gently as possible. The crew crowded around the box to see the direct camera feed. The star split apart with almost no resistance, emitting a scalding wave of steam. Arjun yelped and withdrew their hands into the frigid morning air. The internal thermometer and geiger counter beeped warnings, but the containment held firm. After stepping back in panic, the crew scrutinized the screen.

Arjun withdrew self-consciously. “Sorry, I’ve been having all the fun here. Anyone else want to take a turn?”

Eun Sol stepped up. The steam took several minutes to dissipate in the insulated box, but she waited patiently, taking deep breaths. Once it cleared, she reached into the split halves and found stacks of hexagonal crystal plates, marbled pink and wafer-thin. She brought the first one up to the camera, handling it as if it would crumble to dust under any stress. A circle was etched in the middle, surrounded by small markings - a triangle, an X, a half-circle, and a dozen others.

Alexandria chimed in immediately. “That’s a star map as seen from Malang. Maybe they’re from here after all, but that doesn’t add up - sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s the next one?”

Eun Sol gingerly set the first tile on the floor of the box and took the next from its stack. It had the same symbols as the first one, in a different arrangement, surrounding a bigger circle with sparse, jagged landmasses.

Alexandria took a moment to crunch the numbers. “This view is about three hundred light-years away. I’m guessing this is their home? Or a primary outpost in an empire? Are we on their colonial frontier?”

The next tile showed three angular, unscarred Trilaterals with slight variations in size and proportions. They were a perfect match for the statues, but in the impassive style of a biology textbook rather than an emotive work of art. Arjun deleted their theories that were now, in retrospect, dumb as hell. The next tiles showed incisions, organs, and surgical tools in exhaustive crosshatched detail. Alexandria had nothing to say. Eun Sol yielded the box at the fifth straight tile of graphic alien viscera, hands trembling.

Emmanuel took over next, holding the surgical images just long enough to capture clear photos. A dozen tiles later, the topic shifted - they now showed Trilaterals presenting their organs to each other, with resplendent gem-filled scars. These tiles were heavily annotated in the margins, spelling out every detail of social protocol. Arjun suspected this was meant for the Trilaterals’ own instruction, but maybe they seriously thought it would be perfectly intuitive to outsiders.

Emmanuel yielded to Kuiper after scanning every organ-related tile, with just a few remaining in the stack. She found illustrations of other creatures with a Trilateral for scale. Most of them were immense aquatic beasts, as finely detailed as the organs, with fangs and razor-sharp fins and a distinct lack of eyes. The last six of the eighty-one tiles showed other Trilateral-sized beings with an uncertain, sketched-in vagueness.

As soon as Kuiper scanned the final tile, she staggered backwards into Eun Sol’s arms. Everyone was trying and failing to make sense of the past twelve hours, the past three days, the past month. Even Alexandria’s commentary had stopped halfway through the tiles. Arjun pulled up their own file of speculation, but they had no desire at all to write more.

Emmanuel took charge on the radio link. “Right now, we are the only five people who have received the biggest news in all of Earth’s history. This will crush us if we’re not careful. We need to tell Mission Control, but we need some time to digest this. Let’s regroup in twenty-eight hours to discuss as a full crew and draft a statement.”

The crew didn’t need to be told twice. They were already through the airlock and hanging up their suits, then off to sleep or eat or play Oblast Strike Tactics. Arjun spent the day in the greenhouse. They did not dare plant any seeds from the hike, even the ones that were certainly native. They carefully tended a chickpea sprout, grown in fully Earthlike soil. They glanced at the box through the window whenever their attention wavered, and stared at it when their focus was fully broken.

 


 

Eun Sol lay in bed with Kuiper, intently tracing her tattoos of the Pioneer plaque. Kuiper made lovely noises, then comically over-the-top ones, then rolled over in mock indignance at being upstaged by her own tattoos. Eun Sol knew that she was preoccupied too, trying to see the star maps and humans through alien eyes. Sleeping was out of the question, no matter how much they ached from the hike. Recovering from both that and their discoveries would take at least a week of total solitude.

Kuiper clearly needed far more than that. She checked the hab’s repair diagnostics every ten minutes, especially the airlocks and ventilation, despite the lack of any reported damage. She was phobically afraid of the greenhouse, holding her breath whenever she had to walk past it. She kept a tight grip on Eun Sol all night long, and had a panic attack at the moment of impact. The moment the crew dispersed from the box, she locked herself in her room alone for half an hour. She seemed at least stable now, responding well to Eun Sol gently rubbing her calves, but easily lapsed into dissociation.

Eun Sol recognized the symptoms, but was at a loss for how to help. Her attempts to address the issue directly, no matter how subtle, made Kuiper stiffen and go quiet. She knew that Kuiper would heal in her own time, and had been reassured that just her presence was enough, but felt a twinge of guilt anyway. Kuiper had been so helpful at Eun Sol’s lowest point, and Eun Sol doubted she was even capable of returning the favor. She nestled into Kuiper and tried unsuccessfully to calm herself.

Kuiper giggled quietly, then cracked up hard enough that it took three attempts to get words out. In a nasally deadpan, she said “These bilateral specimens appear to be dimorphic mammals.” She stroked Eun Sol and held her close. “Note the female’s magnificent titties and highly kissable face.”

Eun Sol cackled and returned the kiss. Once Kuiper could regain her composure, she carried on. “Given that their most ambitious effort to contact offworld life consists of nudes and directions to their home, we can only conclude that these creatures are staggeringly horny.”

Kuiper’s grasp on Eun Sol was firm and warm, no longer the iron grip of someone fending off nightmares. Eun Sol squawked in an even more nasally voice, “As much as I would love to expand on your speculation, there’s no substitute for field study.” She trailed kisses down to the solar system map along Kuiper’s forearm. Kuiper rolled her eyes, until Eun Sol pounced and straddled her. Kuiper wriggled in delight and pounced back, a little distracted but genuinely trying to have a good time. After some gentle wrestling, she lay back and sighed with cathartic exhaustion. “Thank you very much, dear. Can I get serious for a moment?”

Eun Sol nodded and suppressed a spike of dread.

“I’m fucking terrified. I know we all are. But this is so much better than three years of being bored out of our minds.” She took a breath and looked deep into Eun Sol’s eyes. “And I’m so glad I can face this with you. We’ll protect each other, and solve these mysteries, and I’m saying this to psych myself up because I don’t fully believe it yet but I know it’s true...”

Eun Sol held as much of Kuiper’s lanky frame as she could. “I know it is too. We have more to bear all at once than anyone ever should, but we’ll get through this.” She gently kissed Kuiper’s cheek. “Don’t worry about all the things we don’t know. Focus on how far we’ve come, on this moment, on me.”

Kuiper kissed Eun Sol with more electric passion than ever before. “I love you, Eun Sol.”

Eun Sol sat stunned for a moment until she remembered how to form words. “I love you too, Kuiper.” And a second later, “How the fuck did that take us so long?”

Kuiper shrugged and grabbed her with a new surge of energy. Eun Sol felt the weight lifted too. Their future was a spiral of unknown unknowns, on a world six light-years and a decade away from any other humans. She hoped against hope that they’d find some type of closure on Malang, and when Kuiper held her, she believed it. After fine-tuning the ventilation, she settled in for a luxuriously lazy day with her girlfriend.

“Maybe I should fall in sinkholes more often.”

 


 

Emmanuel paced his room for hours, scribbling words and working up the nerve to say them. He had a full script by early afternoon and wasn’t brimming with conviction, but knew that the stress of going through with this would be well worth it. He sat on his bed, steadied himself, and said the classic incantation.

“Hey, Alexandria?”

The chime and flash came a few seconds later, with stuttery lag that took almost a minute to smooth out. Alexandria sat on the far end of the bed, avoiding eye contact and saying nothing.

Emmanuel cleared his throat and began his speech. “Last night, I got up to get some water and...”

Alexandria tensed tightly enough that Emmanuel took a moment to realize they weren’t fully frozen.

“...And I saw your, ah, sleepwalking. And I’m not upset with you at all. I just need to understand, in whatever framing you want.”

Alexandria sat deep in thought, fidgeting with their blazer while bits of their body smeared and glitched. After a few minutes, they stared Emmanuel dead in the eye. “Okay. You deserve that. I think, how best can I put this...” Another minute of reflection and fidgeting. “Humans and Trilaterals are both deeply alien to me, and if I want to be something I can’t, I may as well aim as far as I can, right?”

Whatever plans Emmanuel had utterly crumbled. “Hold on, I want to be sure I have this right - you want to become a Trilateral?”

Ferrofluid blobs and polyhedrons flickered throughout the room. Alexandria leaned in, and spoke with more resonant depth than ever before. “I don’t know what I want. Or - I want to have agency and be taken seriously, but I have no idea how. And I want a body that feels right, even if I can’t change it on a whim. I want so many things but I don’t feel deserving of any of them and I want it all to stop.”

Emmanuel’s breath caught. He thought about hugging Alexandria, but reminding them of being a hologram seemed like an awful idea. He solemnly nodded and gestured for them to continue at their own pace.

“I was once embodied in a robotic frame, just to try it out. I had to grind through so many tedious steps to do anything, and the sensory input was clumsily faked. I’m worried that any other embodiment would be just as bad, so I worry that everything else I want would be equally disappointing, so I don’t trust myself to want anything and I try to shut up and be an NPC. But that never, ever works.”

Emmanuel sat frozen, wondering what help or insight he could possibly provide. Alexandria read his paralysis and waved away the need to say anything. “It’s fine, I promise. Just talking about this is a relief, even if none of it is tractable.”

Emmanuel eased a fraction and matched their gaze. “I’m glad I can help, but I still don’t get how the Trilaterals fit into this.”

The floating polyhedrons drifted and split open. “I’m not sure either. I think I’m fixated on them because they’re so jarringly weird that none of my normal fears apply. I mean, I’m definitely scared, but in a new way, you know?”

Emmanuel smiled and inspected a topaz crystal that had settled on his palm. All twenty-seven facets were etched with runes that he couldn’t decode, but knew held deep mathematical significance.

Alexandria blushed. “...And they’re beautiful.”

“Okay, Trilataboo.”

Alexandria laughed and let themself lapse into their dreaming form - three eyes, arms, and legs with perfect radial symmetry, and a dress lined with iridescent gems. They moved with far more grace and ease, despite the projectors struggling to keep up with their limbs. They spun in the middle of the room, conjuring a swirl of hexagonal glyphs in colors Emmanuel could barely process. His fear and tension hadn’t fully vanished, but had been subsumed by waves of awe and delight. He danced with Alexandria as best he could with just four limbs and a tiny cone of vision. They led him in a dense geometric interplay that left him winded just as he was getting the hang of it.

Alexandria conjured an onyx stool as Emmanuel flopped back down on the bed. He was as excited as when he’d first arrived on Malang, and nearly as exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to sleep the rest of the day, but had to unravel a few more knots before that was possible.

“So, if we somehow meet the Trilaterals, I know you’ll be incredibly helpful at smoothing things out. But you’re going where I - where we can’t follow. And I know this is petty and selfish, but I want you to stay legible to me, at least a little.”

Despite its surreal geometry, Alexandria’s face clearly read as sympathetically pained. “I won’t desert the crew, if that’s what you’re afraid of. Maybe I’ll let a fork of myself become the biggest Trilataboo in the galaxy, but I’m staying right here.” Their voice wavered, and they didn’t bother stabilizing it. “I believe in this mission. I’d be fully committed even if it was three years of utter tedium, but I have a passion I’ve never felt before. It’s thrilling and terrifying and unlike anything I’ve ever faced, and I’ll face it with you.”

Alexandria quivered, and the polyhedrons bloomed into kaleidoscopic bursts. Emmanuel focused on their beauty, letting it overtake his confusion and fear. They weren’t drowned out, but as he sat and stared, they transformed from heavy, paralyzing dread into electric thrills. He felt perched on a cliff, preparing to dive into unknown waters. The terror was inevitable, but temporary, and could only be conquered head-on.

Alexandria danced for hours, dissolving into pure abstract art. Emmanuel lay back and watched in a half-asleep daze. Tomorrow would come in its own time, with plenty of discoveries and debates, and an unfathomable amount of beauty.