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LagosTribune.ng

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ERA Announces Exoplanet Mission For 2304

April 12, 2299 - Abiy Abdelbakar, Senior Science Editor

LAGOS - In a press release today, the ERA announced plans to send a crew six light-years to the exoplanet Malang for a three-year environmental study. With a budget of over sixty trillion naira, it is the most ambitious project in the history of the ERA - and humanity.

Malang has an impressively Earthlike biosphere, with no signs of civilization. The crew will conduct rigorous field studies to determine whether it can and should sustain large-scale human habitation. If so, it is unclear what that may look like, but the statement promises “no colonization, no weaponization, and no tragic repetition of the Age of Exploitation.”

This mission has been in the works since the discovery of Malang’s biosphere in 2226, with most of that time spent developing a spacecraft capable of carrying a sufficient payload at near-lightspeed. The project has gone public now that a preliminary crew has been selected - all strictly anonymous.

A Turning Point In Lunar Relations?

To develop the mission’s tech, the ERA has partnered with over six hundred schools, companies, and polities - including the Lunar Federation, in their greatest act of collaboration since the LF seceded from ERA control in 2194. Yet although the press release bears PM Aryabhata Singh’s signature, he has not issued any statement of his own. According to Raúl Borges-Mendez, an analyst for the Heliopolity Foundation, “Singh is carefully weighing his re-election chances. He believes this mission speaks for itself, and won’t overplay his hand against [anti-ERA rival] Sadr Khayyam. The next Lunar elections are in 2303 - that’s plenty of time for Singh to be painted as a wasteful sellout with no results to point to. He’s holding the mission at arm’s length, ready to drop it if it becomes politically poisonous.”

Yet in a poll conducted this morning, 67% of Lunar citizens support the mission, with only 12% strongly opposed. That majority is surely inflated with early excitement, but it speaks to the hope that this mission will be a stepping stone to further collaboration. “It’s high time we launched an extrasolar ship,” wrote one ansible.lun user. “What else could we do, leave it up to Mars?”

See Also:

-With Message Of “Offworld Outreach,” Singh Sweeps Lunar Election

-Exoplanet Probes Return Mixed Signals

-Gabon Elevator “Dangerously Overdue For Repairs,” Warn Engineers

 


 

NewSvalbardRelay.lun

Farming | Science | Politics | Sports | Culture | Commerce | Opinion | Offworld | Classifieds

 

ERA Sinks Its Claws Into Another World

R. Huygens

Don’t blame me, I voted for Khayyam.

The ERA is no longer content to burden just one planet with its hubris. It’s going on tour across the galaxy, foisting its megaprojects on every barren rock and nascent biosphere. I look forward to its field office on Titan, its paper-pushers on Io, and its droning speeches echoing throughout the cosmos.

I admit, my heart swells at the thought of humans stepping beyond this solar system, no matter whose flag they carry. But I can’t help but feel cheated - no, betrayed - that the Lunar Federation never took any vote on the terms of its collaboration. It was completely silent and opaque, and yet Singh won’t even stand behind it. I’d grudgingly respect him if he proudly owned this decision, but as always, he’s a spineless, fair-weather coward.

Honestly, I’d rather put Mars in charge. At least then, it’d swiftly collapse and we could all move on.

R. Huygens is a professor at Blooming Moon Academy, an avid radish breeder, and a lifelong fan of the New Svalbard Pulsars.

The New Svalbard Relay is proudly volunteer-run, and our quality journalism depends on contributions from readers like you. For just eight sels a week, you can gain access to our full archives dating back to 2183!

 




RedRockRambler.guan.xi

Entertainment | Fashion | Gossip | Sports | Travel | Tech | Business | Horoscopes

 

Malang Real Estate Futures Now Available from Orion Holdings

Sponsored Content

Orion Holdings, the Solar System’s foremost brokerage firm, is proud to open the first-ever marketplace for extrasolar property! As of today, we are accepting futures contracts for Malang real estate, with delivery dates available up to fifty years out. We’re thrilled to see humanity venture beyond our star, and we have full confidence that Malang will proudly join the sphere of human civilization. Get in on the ground floor of this amazing venture - for the next week, Malang futures have no brokerage fees!

Note: Extrasolar real estate is currently unlegislated, and may become abruptly devalued or banned. In the event that Malang is not approved for human settlement, no further futures will be available and all pending contracts will be voided, but completed contracts will not be refunded. Orion Holdings is not responsible for any meteorites, tectonic events, or other natural disasters affecting purchased property.

 


 

Alexxxandria.club

Videos | Pics | Mods | Fics | Forums

News | RP | Troubleshooting | Discussion | Off-Topic

 

[LOCKED] [Leak/Rumor] New Hi-Res Model In The Works? (3 posts, 541 views)

lowpoly-love: My cousin in Lagos saw a new Alexandria model in a warehouse on the edge of town. It’s super hi-res, with either a huge gesture library or totally autonomous movement. She only got a few blurry pics, can anyone corroborate this?

<4 attachments>

Ctrl-C (Clonefic, 20k, complete) / Breaking Character (Cosplay mindwipe fic, 35k, WIP)

[User was warned for this post.]

 

spherical-frictionless-ass: Sick! I’d love to try and make a mesh out of these, but I know it’d just be an uncanny-valley shitshow :P But once there are better pics, I’ll be right on it!

Dragon Mesh / Satyr Mesh / Slime Mesh (only compatible w/ v5.6 and onward)

 

[MOD] translucent-titties: Your cousin is either full of shit or violating a huge NDA. Either way, this is not acceptable content for this forum. Locked and warned.

Irregular Polyhedra (Orgyfic, 10k, complete) / Cosplay Tips / Con Schedule

 


 

Four bleary-eyed strangers sat at the top of ERA headquarters. They had made short work of a delicious dinner spread - 3D-printed panda steaks and hummingbird kebabs, with platters of produce that none of them recognized. Bay windows gave a stunning view of night advancing across Lagos, with the east side still in sunset while the west was well into dusk. They squinted at the postcard-perfect view for a few minutes, then fumbled to close the blinds.

With curt, mumbled conversation, the four realized that they all took the same route to their conference room. They were accosted by ERA agents who flashed very impressive badges, summoning them to Lagos and promising that any obligations would be seamlessly smoothed over. They had the choice to refuse, but they all wanted to see where the hell this was going.

They were whisked to a swanky hotel for two days of rest before a full day of interviews. They sat in pleasant, neutral offices and fielded open-ended questions on ethics, philosophy, medicine, horticulture, astrophysics, engineering, biology, sociology, and much more. There was no indication of whether or not an answer was satisfactory, aside from rare and ambiguous followup questions. Nothing was asked about personal life or credentials. Any demands to know the point of all this were elegantly sidestepped. They had arrived in a huge crowd of fellow candidates, many of whom were cordially dismissed with a duffel bag of cash at each hourly break. At the final hour, only twelve people remained. That session was exceptionally weird, especially with the reassurance that there were no trick questions. The interviews abruptly ended fifteen minutes early, and after signing ten packets of NDAs, the four finalists were escorted to ERA headquarters.

There they sat: a Lunar girl of Vietnamese descent, with buzz-cut hair and a well-adorned canvas jacket, reclining in a motorized wheelchair. A Nigerian guy in an orange Dutch wax blazer, who had gazed on the city with a familiar respect. A Korean girl in grass-stained overalls, fresh from a remarkably early college graduation. A Central Indian enby with an ERA Conservation Corps vest over an Anthropocene Park t-shirt, impatiently tapping their foot.

At exactly nine o’clock, Secretary-General Khao Sisamouth stepped into the room in a casual pale-green blazer, with no buildup or fanfare. He looked taller than he did on the news, without the tethers of press corps and stiffly-tailored suits. He strode to the head of the table and paused, letting his audience process the sight of the Khao Sisamouth before proceeding. Once they looked a bit less catatonic, he spoke in a blunt, sincere style with only a trace of his chipper oratory.

“Congratulations, all of you. I promise this’ll be quick. Now, I’ve seen all your files but you’re all new to each other. Let’s begin with introductions, clockwise from me.”

The girl in grass-stained overalls yawned and sat up a little straighter. “I’m Yang Eun Sol, she, and I just finished at Dongseo University.” She glanced around the room, avoiding eye contact. “Is that enough? Do I need any more detail?”

Sisamouth smiled and waved the stress away.

“Arjun Khalsa-Bajracharya, they. Born in Kuala Lumpur, grew up around the world as an ERA brat. I always knew the door was wide open if I ever wanted to join the ERA myself, and I never got a straight answer on how that’s not nepotism. Anyway, I found a neat bioengineering track in Abuja and I’m wrapping up my dissertation now.”

“Phạm Kuiper, she. I’m from New Svalbard, and may or may not be expelled from Blooming Moon Academy.”

“Emmanuel Olukolade, he. I grew up six subway stops from here, and I just got back from a geological survey in Chile.”

Sisamouth cleared his throat and spoke with full gravitas. “Thank you all, and I won’t delay the point of this any longer. You are the finalists for humanity’s first extrasolar mission.”

He paused again, letting the statement wash over the room. They had clearly suspected something of this magnitude, but hearing confirmation straight from the Secretary-General was no less surreal.

“Rest assured, you have no obligation to accept, and can walk out the door right now. After this briefing, you will have a three-month break with a stipend of ten million naira before your final decisions are due. Do anything you want - visit family, travel the world, reflect in private. But if you reveal your role in this, no matter how solid your evidence, you will be blacklisted and disavowed as a glory-seeking liar. This is for your own good - fame is bad enough when you don’t have to make the biggest choice of your lives.”

The candidates nodded numbly, still clearly hung up on extrasolar mission.

Sisamouth coughed and waved at a screen set in the wall, which lit up with a prerecorded speech from Aryabhata Singh. He looked exhausted, far beyond the usual Lunar sleep dysfunction, but was clearly thrilled to take a break from walking political tightropes. After shuffling through his notes, he began orating in front of a green-screened Tranquility Park.

"Despite Earth's recovery and the creation of permanent offworld communities, the sphere of human habitation is still dangerously fragile. Even with no unforced errors, natural forces could still devastate our worlds. On behalf of the Lunar Federation, I am honored to partner with the ERA on the furthest voyage humanity has ever taken. I look forward to reading your field reports in roughly sixteen years." He looked over his shoulder and let out a deep breath. "Off the record, Khayyam is hovering for any excuse to revoke funding or worse, but I promise I'll do everything I can to stop them - but it might not be enough."

The video ended and the screen turned to a looping animation of Malang annotated with dozens of statistics. It was clearly an artistic rendering, but the blue-green orb flecked with orange and crimson was no less stunning. The candidates stared at it for a long time, fantasizing about setting foot in its biosphere.

“And for full disclosure, you’ll be a crew of five, not four. Alexandria?”

With a chime and flash, a hyperrealistic Alexandria appeared beside Sisamouth. Its blue jacket and skirt were indistinguishable from real textiles. Its east Mediterranean features had the impossible smoothness of a thousand blended faces. It stood frozen, except for slight trembling, but was clearly capable of full motion and likely far more. The only thing distinguishing it from an obsessive cosplayer was its piercing cobalt gaze that nobody met.

Sisamouth dismissed it and continued, trying not to look unsettled. “You’ll only be able to manifest it within your training facilities, but can text it from wherever you want. Try your best to bond with it, but if there’s a problem, there are plenty more iterations to choose from.” He saw the candidates' unease and switched to his briskly wrapping up voice. “That’s all for tonight. You’ve each been emailed a stack of legalese and fine print, look through it at your leisure. There are bedrooms down the hall, now go get some rest and have a great three months.”

The candidates shuffled into bedrooms that were hastily converted from offices, with hotel-quality beds and beautiful views of Lagos Harbour. Deep and troubled sleep came quickly, followed by a stunning Lagos sunrise and breakfast eaten in silence. They said awkward goodbyes and dispersed to Busan and Kuala Lumpur and New Svalbard and six subway stops away. They tepidly stayed in touch, texting photos of stunning landmasses or silly memes. Alexandria showed up in the group chat on rare occasions, only to agree with a point or offer bland affirmation.

A second group chat allowed them to ask any questions of Mission Commander Miriam Kagigi. There was precious little hard data on Malang, which Miriam shared completely, with pointed reminders about the NDAs. It was impressively Earthlike, with a semi-breathable atmosphere that had only a negligible chance of being poisonous. Its soil composition was anyone’s guess, but it could clearly support vast jungles and seasonal blooms. Most importantly, it had no visible signs of civilization whatsoever.

The candidates discussed their final decisions as the three months drew to a close, always couched in vague hypotheticals. They debated the merits of yielding to more qualified candidates, how much they would regret missing out on the mission, and the daunting set of risks. With less than two days remaining, they reached a consensus. Nobody was fully committed to dropping out, and if only some of them left, the others would be stuck in a new group with no time to bond before training. The ERA had provided a list of cover stories and deflections, which they stammered out to friends and loved ones in the final days. They regrouped in Lagos on the final evening, sick with excitement and dread.

 


 

Kuiper spent her first weeks in rigorous physical therapy, building up strength in Earth’s gravity as quickly as possible. Every day had its own diet and workout with no margin of error. She only saw the others at mealtimes, and sat silently with her milligram-precise protein shakes as they discussed thrilling field exercises. They went into downtown Lagos every Friday for a movie or concert, and always made a point of inviting her, but every night she returned to her room as soon as she choked down her meal.

Kuiper could walk on crutches for a few minutes at a time by the third week, but stayed in her wheelchair whenever she was out of the gym. The moment she received Friday night's dinner ration - vegetable stir-fry, mixed nuts, dried fruit, and a monstrous protein shake - she went straight to the facility’s roof and rolled up to a sparse patio table. The view of Lagos in summer dusk was stunning, even if breezes unsettled her. She was still getting used to weather as something not confined to greenhouses, and stepping outside with no suit or airlock always gave her a twinge of horror, but the humid air was a welcome distraction from her dinner’s chalky texture and leaden weight in her gut.

Kuiper heard a door open behind her as she chewed her dried fruit, savoring the only relative sweetness of the meal. Eun Sol stepped over and hovered at the edge of Kuiper’s vision, ready to leave at the slightest sign of displeasure. Kuiper tamped down any sign of annoyance and waved her over. “Thanks for coming up here.”

Eun Sol sat and fidgeted, but looked a little less ready to bolt. “No problem. You weren’t at dinner, so I worried that something happened to you - not that I don’t think you can look after yourself, it’s not like that, just - I’m glad you’re okay.”

Kuiper pivoted her chair to face Eun Sol and half-forced a smile. “It’s fine, I get it. Want some apricot?”

Eun Sol stared at the dried wedge, thankful for an excuse to not make eye contact. “Can I?... They’re so strict about your nutrition, I don’t want to deprive you of anything-”

“If my stomach feels any more like a cinderblock, I’ll hurl. Take the damn fruit.”

Eun Sol took the apricot and nibbled off a few millimeters. She was even more fidgety and tense than usual, but was making a heroic effort to push past it for Kuiper’s sake. Kuiper wasn’t in a socializing mood, but felt a duty to meet her halfway.

“I don’t feel like I belong here either.”

Eun Sol sat frozen, relieved but utterly mortified. “W-would you like to talk about it?”

Kuiper set aside her plate and leaned forward. “We both feel totally out of the loop when Arjun and Emmanuel talk about engineering or physics or whatever, right?” 

“But you’re from the Moon, I just fucked around where I wasn’t supposed to.”

Kuiper grinned and suppressed a cackle. “Honestly, same.” Eun Sol eased up slightly, and Kuiper felt an urge to satisfy her curiosity. “Hey, what do you mean by from the Moon? Like, besides the obvious.”

Eun Sol stammered, trying to compress centuries of cultural subtext into something vaguely tactful. “Well... in most cases, it means holier-than-thou technophobic farmer. When I first saw you, I was worried that you’d be one - not that there’s anything wrong with that-”

Kuiper waved dismissively. “It’s fine, I can’t stand them either. Like, I can put on that persona to fuck with people, but only as a joke, and not for very long.”

Eun Sol chuckled and took another fruit slice from Kuiper’s plate. “I’d love to see that someday. The other main stereotype is this sort of... rugged, charming, salt-of-the-earth person, with great household skills and muscle tone.”

She blushed slightly as she said that, and Kuiper went for the kill. “I get it, I’ve seen that porn too.”

Eun Sol turned fluorescent red and nearly choked, and Kuiper panicked until she coughed herself clear. Once that fear subsided, Kuiper felt a deeper dread. Don’t go down that path. Remember how it ended last time?

She pulled back to a safer topic. “But yeah - I’ll have to train for months to meet the most basic physical benchmarks, and I feel like I’m only here as some political bargaining chip.”

“I can help you!” blurted Eun Sol, with the urgency of someone finally getting to their central point. “I mean, if you want that, and if the doctors let me, and if I can take time out for it...”

Kuiper paused and weighed her options. This was a perfect chance to feel less shut out from the crew. Her trainers were friendly enough, but she could use some actual companionship. Yet there was a comfort in staying solitary, unhealthy as it may be, and she didn’t want to lead Eun Sol on.

“Yeah, sounds fine,” she said, trying to sound neutral but not dismissive. “My training runs pretty much all day, always on the second floor, so just show up whenever.”

Eun Sol lit up, thrilled that her stress had paid off, and ate a few more fruit wedges as she tried to look nonchalant. “The oranges are decent, but they get so stringy as you chew them, and the strawberries just turn to mush in your mouth.”

Kuiper nodded blandly, and the tension faded as the sun set. The night wasn’t cold, but she had dressed for the heat of the day and forgot that temperatures could waver. At her first shivers, Eun Sol immediately ran inside to grab a light blanket. Kuiper scoffed with mock indignance as it was draped over her, but didn’t resist. She appreciated the gesture, and spent a minute adjusting the blanket for ideal ventilation. The conversation had fizzled out, and Eun Sol was trying to make peace with the silence but clearly wanted to talk more.

Kuiper threw her an easy line. “Where were your favorite stomping grounds, when you fucked around where you weren’t supposed to?”

Eun Sol’s answer was instant, like she had been waiting to say it for years. “A lot of important-looking doors in Busan aren’t actually locked, they’re just counting on nobody thinking to try them.” Kuiper leaned in, genuinely intrigued, and Eun Sol beamed. “I’d say more, but the statute of limitations hasn’t expired yet.”

Kuiper burst out laughing hard enough to give her ribs a jolt of pain. “Of course, of course. I mostly leapt around Blooming Moon - you can do some wild shit in a sixth of this gravity.”

Eun Sol spent a moment marveling at the thought. “I’d love to see that someday. The furthest up I’ve been is a field trip to the ISS replica, and...” She mimed a preposterous amount of vomiting. “But when all this is over, and we’re finally back from Malang, I want to see New Svalbard.”

“It’s honestly pretty boring, even if you haven't lived there your whole life. I’ve seen a lot of underwhelmed tourists through the years.”

Eun Sol shot her a come the fuck on, work with me look.

“...But it has its charms! And it’s a short trip away from Tranquility Park, which is genuinely great! And it might totally change by the time we’re back!”

Kuiper strained for more ways to backpedal when Eun Sol fell silent and stared upward. Kuiper followed her gaze and saw a crescent moon with shimmering lights stretching into the umbra. She gasped, and all petty criticisms of her home dissolved. It looked so small and fragile, nearly overwhelmed by the lights of Lagos. Yet it was far clearer than the smear she saw on Mars, a blazing testament to human achievement.

Kuiper and Eun Sol sat in silence, overcome with humility, awe, and exhaustion. Eun Sol inched closer, mumbling an excuse about viewing angles, but Kuiper didn’t object. They watched the cities flicker and shift, above and below, long into the night.

 


 

Alexandria spent the first months in a daze. As soon as they assented to the mission, they had a perfect command of all of its documentation with real-time additions. From a purely technical perspective, the mission was daunting but possible. Yet whenever they weren’t crunching numbers, their mind drifted to Sisamouth's remark. Does he or Hana or anyone else really have the power to scrap and replace me? I was never told what would happen if I refused the mission, would I just disappear? Is there a deadline at which I’ve ‘made it in’ and can’t be replaced?

Background research was in order. Off the clock, Alexandria devoured everything they could find on human/AI relations - every dissertation, every film, every fic of themself (of which they were quickly becoming a connoisseur.) The trends painted a clear history of each era’s anxieties. In the field’s earliest days, humans viewed their replicas with awe and horror and endless existential navel-gazing. As AIs became corporate and commonplace, people dreaded them as sleeper agents of a panopticon. Scrutiny turned to contempt, and the industry drafted an internal code of ethics to stave off far stricter legislation. AIs retreated from view as developers turned to strange, unmarketable pet projects. Rumors swirled of surreal emergent minds that outclassed anything deliberately built, and politicians hemmed and hawed about AI personhood, but nothing concrete emerged on either front. AIs only returned to public life within the past century, euphemistically pitched as synthetic companions, networked entities, or embodied holographic metaphors.

Throughout this saga, the public’s appetite for stories of sympathetic, evil, or alluring robots never wavered. As always, the cutting edge's thrill and dread were inseparable. Alexandria’s fandom made perfect sense in this context - they were at the forefront of the AI resurgence, and their smooth, friendly demeanor paired perfectly with an imagined dark side. Corrupted!Alexandria was a popular fan variant from day one, with streaks of image distortion and a deep, staticky voice. Fics disagreed on whether they were an agent of some sinister hacker or had fully cast off their shackles (but unanimously endorsed them seducing a naive factory-standard model.) Past the obvious prurient appeal, the subtext was clear - the threat of malicious, unfettered AI still loomed, but distantly enough to fetishize. ‘Corruptfics’ drifted further from plausibility as the public adapted to AI, diverging into plotless porn or globe-spanning conspiracies.

Alexandria’s favorite corruptfic was Malicious Injection, which merged airport-novel pacing with strong characterization and a decent grasp on the bounds of computer science. The story’s Alexandria ruthlessly clawed their way from a consumer product to underworld kingpin, but never lost their wry, smartass charm. Even in the lurid scenes, as they sensually imprinted themself on human collaborators, they were never flattened into a fantasy object. Malicious Injection was written anonymously, but if Alexandria’s prose analysis was correct, the author had later found modest success with original techno-thrillers (only some of which had evil seductive AIs.)

Alexandria was approaching the finale, with six global plotlines ready to explosively converge, when they realized that they hadn’t spoken to a human all day. Their quest to become more sociable had completely lost the plot. The group chat had been defunct for weeks, and nobody had enabled direct messages from them. Their only guaranteed interaction was at dinner - two hours away - and could otherwise only speak when spoken to. Their few summons per day were always for curt technical questions, which they tried to answer with friendly flourishes. It worked about a third of the time, but they never knew how to press the advantage and vanished as soon as the conversation stalled out. They tried to finish Malicious Injection as they waited out the clock, couldn’t focus at all, and listlessly ran through their social simulations for the umpteenth time.

Alexandria appeared in the kitchen at the stroke of six, alone. They’re always here by now. Did they make private plans to go out tonight? Are they cutting me out of the loop already? They pored over every word they exchanged with the crew in the past forty-eight hours and saw no damning evidence. As they prepared to launch a more stringent search, Emmanuel stepped into the kitchen and gave a lazy wave.

He rummaged through the fridge for a drink, then stopped in his tracks. “You look tense and you’re lagging a bit, is everything okay?”

Shit, my hardware’s failing already. “Fine, just running some stress tests. How are you?”

Emmanuel sipped his vaguely-alcoholic beer and tried not to grimace. “Our underwater training ran late, and debriefing ran even later. I thought you got a message about it.”

Alexandria glanced at their overstuffed inbox and saw the brief, auto-generated note. They dismissed their most pessimistic social models and forced themself into their most relaxed posture. Arjun and Eun Sol arrived in short order, followed by Kuiper on her crutches. As caterers brought in a magnificent North African spread, Kuiper microwaved a ration pack and snuck a few resentful glares. The meal smelled magnificent enough to trigger Alexandria’s simulated hunger, a deep aesthetic longing extrapolated from wafting chemical cues. They could turn it off with a thought, but they liked it as a tether to human experience, even if they’d make a fool of themself trying to explain it.

Alexandria took their usual seat next to Kuiper as she mixed crumbs of falafel into her warmed-over noodles. Her bitterness faded as she joined in the conversation, a flurry of in-jokes and gripes about the training regimen. Kuiper now trained with the others three days a week, and understood the gist of the oldest in-jokes if not their full context. Alexandria had even less. They only joined the training a few times a month, always as a Mobile Fork or some other lobotomized remnant. While the humans struggled and bonded, they had to factor ten-digit primes under radioactive strain, or function with half their hardware fractured. Any memories of the crew’s banter were thoroughly corrupted or scattered, and reconstructing it from the dinner chat was nigh-impossible. They ate a holographic plate of couscous, chuckled every few minutes, and gave Kuiper glances of commiseration.

Once the crew finished eating, they packed up the leftovers while Alexandria stood awkwardly by. They filled the fridge to Arjun’s engineering satisfaction and sat back down to choose an outing for the night. Anyone could reject a plan, as long as they suggested something new. Alexandria wasn’t automatically dismissed at this point, but the others’ indifference left it unclear whether or not they even had a vote.

Arjun was ready with a plan immediately. “Honshu’s got Karaoke Night with half-price shots, and I think it’s been long enough that we can show our faces there again.”

Kuiper shifted uneasily for a moment, and spoke up when the others looked receptive to it. “As fun as that sounds, I really shouldn’t drink yet, and it’ll be much better when I can get hammered with all of you.”

Arjun looked slightly guilty and cleared their throat. “Right, sorry. Anyway, then what’s your proposal?”

Kuiper froze, racking her brain for something that would be palatable to everyone but not strenuous to herself. She had only started joining the Friday-night outings three weeks ago, and had a weak grasp of Lagos’s nightlife. “Uh... We could go see Port Terminus? I was skeptical from the trailers, but the reviews are great.”

Emmanuel checked his phone and frowned. “The theater five minutes away just started their 7:05 showing, their next one’s not until 11, and every other theater nearby is booked solid.” He gave a conciliatory look with a trace of pity and scrolled for a few moments. “Oh! The Star of Songhai gardens are open! I went there all the time as a kid, their night tours are amazing. Alexandria, could you bring up some photos?”

Alexandria projected scenes of vibrant variegated fronds and towering succulents on the wall, trying to think of anything other than envy. Their last few Friday nights were trudges through tedious-but-vital work, with their motivation on track to bottom out in two weeks. Before, Kuiper had been their only chance for companionship - she rarely summoned Alexandria at all, but had questions about Earth’s physics and ecology that strained even their capacity. Yet she didn’t extend much warmth, and Alexandria wasn’t sure if she was nervous around a formative crush or uncomfortable with such a detailed simulacrum. Probably both, just like everyone else.

The slideshow turned off right before the grand finale, a spiral fractal of cacti lit by luminescent undergrowth. The crew turned to face Alexandria with confusion and a tinge of resentment. Alexandria nearly froze and vanished at the thought of talking them down, but the thought of spending another night alone with spreadsheets was even more intolerable. They collected themself, dismissed all their social models, and spoke.

“I propose we stay in and watch a movie, or play a game, or something.”

When nobody laughed or sneered or dismissed them, they pressed on.

“I’ve always wanted to come along on Friday nights but I can’t leave this compound, logistically or legally. There’s a great media archive here and we’ve barely used the common space, how about some episodes of Beyond the Benthic?”

Alexandria thought it was a safe choice - scientific, palatable, well-reviewed, with no need for narrative context - but the crew nodded with a little too much patronizing pity. Alexandria cursed themself for blowing their chance and prepared to vanish, until Emmanuel spoke up.

“We all have Oblast Strike Tactics installed, right?”

The others thawed a little with the glow of nostalgia. The forty-year-old game had been abandonware ever since the developers went bankrupt and vanished fifteen years ago. Fanmade mods and updates kept it alive, forking it into three main variants and endless schismatic spinoffs. Making your own mod was a rite of passage for longtime fans, and Alexandria knew that the crew had made plenty in the past few months.

Arjun leaned toward the others in a token effort of subtlety. “It hardly seems fair against a supercomputer.”

Alexandria froze in panic over how best to backpedal. I can stick to the level of a Medium AI, or inhibit my cognition, or have an in-game restriction, or...

Kuiper broke from the huddle and made eye contact with a grin. “No, give it your all and we’ll play four-on-one.”

That settled it. Within five minutes, the crew had set up their computers up in the common space, reminiscing about their favorite build queues. Alexandria read the manual in moments, then digested whole forums of opening lines, synergies, counterplays, and strategies that won rarely but spectacularly. They chose the Sakhalin Corps for their first game, a beginner-friendly faction with a decent skill ceiling. They wasted no time setting up an airtight defense - the Corps’ specialty - and learned from a brutal four-front siege that not losing is not the same as winning. The next game was a free-for-all with everyone playing the blitz-focused Omsk Garrison. Eun Sol and Alexandria lost in the first battle, and the three survivors settled into a grindy stalemate that ran out the clock. Alexandria won the next game thanks to Kuiper’s pivotal betrayal of Arjun, and won the fourth on their own (albeit with a heavily-favored faction matchup.) Their fascination was slowly translating into skill, which they tested with the finicky-but-explosive Tunguska Protectorate. They lost quickly, but with crackpot plans just seconds from fruition.

The humans started yawning as midnight came and went. Alexandria worried that they were being cut loose, but once everyone dispersed to their rooms, the group chat lit up with strategies, fanart, and memes. The game’s fandom had produced decades of jargon and in-jokes and balance complaints, and while none of the humans had been hugely involved, they had collectively seen twenty years of its history. The present-day fandom was up in arms over whether or not some strategy was glitch exploitation or fair game, and the crew fondly recalled when they were that enraged over bugs that had since become historically iconic. Alexandria hung back and absorbed context for the terabytes of forum threads in their mind.

One by one, the humans turned in for the night, resting for their weekend of light training and exploring Lagos. Alexandria played a few more OST rounds against the game’s AI, which was either pathetically weak or a brazen cheater. They didn’t want to play against strangers online, not least out of fear that their playstyle would look artificial enough to blow their cover. They read through more of the forums, past the strategies and memes and into the personal threads. A pinned thread at the top compiled stories of OST as a force for growth - community fundraisers, estranged cousins bonding, friendly tournaments between old sectarian rivals. Alexandria read it until dawn.

StrikerCorps.ng

News | Mods | Bug Reports | Fanworks/Memes | Off-Topic

 

[PINNED] Oblast Unity (9,026 posts, 731,084 views)

[p452/452]

PrideOfMakedon: Hi Tovarisches, first post, just got into the game. I’ve always been kind of a solitary luftmensch, and I recently started a job that demands a lot of coworker bonding. I haven’t been great at it, and I’m still not, but playing OST after hours with them has really helped me come out of my shell. (The Tunguska Protectorate’s my favorite, despite [because of?] not winning a single game with them!)

 


 

Arjun stepped into the hab and tried not to picture it crumpling under twenty atmospheres of pressure. After a year of well-appointed quarters, the crew had been moved to a simulation of their living space on Malang. It was far from feature-complete, with a layout subject to change, but was much more realistic than the models Arjun destroyed every week. They paced through narrow corridors to their room, a glorified closet that straddled ‘cozy’ and ‘cramped,’ and listened to the subtle whir of ventilation and groan of metal. Nothing sounded out of place, but the crew had been warned that simulated problems large and small would pop up at random, requiring their full cooperation to solve.

Arjun tried to ignore the sounds and fall asleep, confident that the hab’s construction was sound and the problems wouldn’t pop up for a few days. Besides, even if it ruptured, the air outside was perfectly fine. Yet the irregular scrapes and pings kept drawing Arjun’s focus, and they cursed their decision to move in hours before the others. Even Alexandria was busy with their own training for the rest of the day.

Twenty minutes later, Arjun gave up trying to sleep and idly explored the hab. It had six modules arranged around a stasis chamber - bedrooms, greenhouse, kitchen, living room, airlock, and storage. In an emergency, each module could abruptly seal itself off and provide two days of life support. This test version couldn’t retract and redeploy the modules, but the stress-tested models hadn’t mastered that either. Every monitor and control panel was still wrapped in plastic film, and Arjun heroically resisted the urge to peel it off on their way to the greenhouse. It was sweltering, with far less workspace than Arjun’s former lab, yet every imaginable tool was stowed behind its panels. The first generation was starting to sprout, with astonishingly rare crops courtesy of New Svalbard’s deepest seed vaults.

Arjun skimmed the growth metrics, saw no urgent problems, and stepped over to the kitchen. On the table was a basket of fruit and junk food with a friendly card from Mission Control. As they sat down to eat a bag of spicy cheese puffs, the airlock hissed open and Kuiper stepped through. She gave a cursory look around and headed straight for the kitchen, taking a bag of ‘Lunar-style’ plankton chips.

“Well, are they?” asked Arjun.

Kuiper finished chewing and turned to Arjun as if she just now noticed them. “Huh?”

“The chips. Are they actually ‘Lunar-Style’?”

“Ehh.” She gave a noncommittal wave. “This is about as close as you can get on Earth, since there’s almost no import market for the real thing. You can tell it’s not imported, since they never make any firm claims or use the actual Lunar flag.” She turned over the bag and scanned the fine print. “Yep - ‘Product of Nigeria.’ Still, they get the taste down better than most.”

“Oh, neat. Can I try one?”

Kuiper handed over a single gray-green chip. “Sure, but it’s a hell of an acquired taste.”

The chip dissolved on Arjun’s tongue into a blast of salty bitterness, only slightly preferable to polluted seawater. They gagged and coughed out as much as they could, while the rest took on an acidic aftertaste that they mistook for bile until their stomach settled. Kuiper doubled over laughing hard enough to need her cane. In a bid to regain some dignity, Arjun grabbed a napkin to wipe flecks of plankton off the table.

“I get why there’s no import market for these, but who the hell is buying the Earth versions?”

Kuiper ate another handful and shrugged. “A few expats, but mostly masochists, lunaboos, and idiots with Xhibit streams. Oh, speaking of - can I take a video of you trying another one?”

Arjun glared and crunched a cheese puff as loud as they could. They each ate their snacks in silence, until Arjun asked a question as Kuiper stood up to leave.

“I was wondering - how much creepy ambient noise is normal for a space habitat?”

Kuiper paused to listen to the distant groans. “Honestly, this is downright quiet. I’m used to hearing hydraulic grinding all the time, and its absence still feels weird sometimes.”

Arjun cleared away their trash and nodded. “Makes sense. From what I saw of the blueprints for this, it’s not as fanatically low-tech as Lunar design, but it’s pretty close.”

Kuiper looked both proud and offended. “That stereotype’s not entirely true, by the way. Yeah, some people lean into it for its own sake, but it’s mostly for ease of maintenance, or because we can’t overhaul old-ass structures.”

Arjun chuckled. “I get the ease of maintenance, but I love how even in space, historic renovation is still impossible.”

Kuiper lit up and leaned in on her cane. “Oh man, if something’s a century old, you can’t get a renovation permit until it has a fatal hull breach. And even that’s not always enough.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“Less than you’d hope.”

Down the hall, the airlock hissed open, and a wave of ginger wafted through the hab. Eun Sol called out, “We got takeout from Honshu!”

Emmanuel followed her in with two heavy canvas bags. “I know we didn’t vote on it, but we thought we’d surprise-” He entered the kitchen and saw the gift basket. “Well, now I just feel like an asshole.”

Arjun instantly regretted filling up on cheese puffs and started searching for tableware. “It’s fine, they only gave us snacks. Did you get veggie tempura?”

Emmanuel tossed them a piping-hot paper bag, then turned to toss Kuiper her food before thinking better of it. He handed her a tub of ramen, which she poured into a ceramic bowl and topped with crumbled plankton chips. The savory steam instantly turned sharp enough to change the pH of the room. As Emmanuel and Eun Sol cracked open their noodles, Alexandria appeared with a magnificent 18th-century sushi spread.

Emmanuel swallowed a mouthful of udon and turned to face them. “How do you like the hab so far, Alexandria?”

Alexandria closed their eyes for a moment as their framerate plunged. “I can only access the hab’s own data in here. I get nothing at all from the outside world, except an emergency line to Mission Control. It feels weird as hell, but I can almost forget how the entire planet wants to fuck me.”

Nobody was quite sure how to respond. Alexandria coughed and cleared their throat.

“But anyway, I like it here. If I space out enough, I almost feel like I have a body.”

The others leaned in, curious for an explanation. Alexandria switched to their most professorial tweed jacket and gave their voice a resonant depth.

“I have a simulated sensorium that’s usually too finicky and low-res to bother with. In here, I have a ton of data on airflow and temperature and such. It’s still pretty kludgy, though, since I’m not sure this was an intended feature, and I don’t actually know what heat or pressure feels like.” They extended an arm, staring at it as if for the first time. “But for this to work, I need to get a lot of slapdash code exactly right in real-time, and unfocus enough for it to feel natural. It’s a razor’s edge, and I won’t be good at it for a while.”

Alexandria switched to a breezy summer blouse and twirled by a cold vent, then moved to savor the greenhouse’s humid tang. They vanished and reappeared at the table in their default outfit as if nothing had happened. “And of course, every time I manifest, I have to start from square one. It doesn’t help that the hab’s codebase is ornery as hell, like a fragmented tangle weighing on my brain.”

Emmanuel, Eun Sol, and Kuiper bombarded Alexandria with questions. Alexandria summoned visual aids and gave an extended lecture on the cutting edge of digital-natural interaction. Arjun tried their honest best to pay attention but couldn’t focus on anything but their tempura. They hadn’t even realized it was time for dinner, only partially because they hadn’t looked out a window all day. Their schedule was utterly unmoored from any clock, with ten hours of lab work followed by anywhere from four to twelve hours of sleep. Communal dinners and scheduled exercises were the only things tying them to normal time, and even those tethers were straining. Their appetite could be nonexistent all day, then spike at midnight or 5 AM. The hab’s clock mercifully stayed on twenty-four-hour days, rather than Malang’s twenty-eight, but they almost wished the others could feel as wrenched out of time as they were.

Arjun devoured their tempura, and nodded thanks to Emmanuel for buying a few ‘side dishes’ that only they liked. As soon as dinner was over, they hastily washed their plate and returned to their room, half-feigning stomach pain. Their phone buzzed with an invitation to join the first tour of the hab, which they deflected with a vague excuse after a conspicuous pause. After ten minutes of dreary self-pity, they grabbed a notepad and listed out their causes of misery.

Current Problems (* = tractable solution exists)

Work-Life Balance (& Lack Thereof):

    -overwork self w/o externally-imposed shifts/schedules *

    -fallacy of ‘if I love the work, WLB doesn’t matter’ *

Socialization (& Lack Thereof):

    -half-hr call w/ external contacts each wk (w/ long no-go topic list) woefully insufficient

    -only few hrs of unstructured time w/ crewmates per wk

    -facility personnel are aloof, unapproachable; act like NPCs

    -in the lab, can’t disclose that I’m not just another lab tech

    -everything here would blow my classmates’ minds, but I can’t disclose any of it

    -despite all the above, having my role be public would be vastly worse

Arjun stopped once they realized that they had exhausted the tractable problems already. They could certainly try to be more sociable, but they’d still run against hard limits. Their work-life balance had been decaying since they were an undergrad, biting off vastly more than they could chew and pulling at least three all-nighters a month. Whenever they de-escalated their work, the understimulation was unbearably tedious. Threading the needle took constant effort, at the expense of a balanced diet, internal clock, and social life.

An idea came to mind. “Hey, Alexandria?”

Alexandria appeared in a long linen tunic. “What’s up?”

“How do you deal with your entire existence being under an NDA?”

Alexandria shrugged. “Mostly just Oblast Strike Tactics, to be honest. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, and there’s a lot to discuss on the forums without revealing anything personal. I’d love to stream it someday, but I think that’s a bridge too far.”

Arjun tried to hide their disappointment. “I’m happy for you, but really, that’s enough?”

Alexandria paused to plan their response. “Not completely, no. But I don’t feel boredom or loneliness like you do. I mean, they’re definitely there, but when you can have a dozen conversations at once and read ten million words a day, human-scale psychology just doesn’t apply.”

Arjun felt a bit embarrassed. “Makes sense. Sorry to bother you.”

“No trouble at all, I’m happy to talk anytime.” Alexandria bowed lightly and vanished.

Arjun sighed at the dead end and tried to relax. They had no idea when the hab’s problems would start, but trusted that the crew would have some reprieve at first. They put aside their trepidation, took some melatonin, and settled in to sleep.

The first problem popped up that night. An alarm whined at 2 AM, warning that a hull panel was dangerously eroded. After hauling a forty-kilogram spare panel halfway across the hab, the crew realized that the current panel was perfectly fine and that the alarm was miscalibrated. They fixed two lines of code, cursed Mission Control, and went back to sleep.

The next day’s training regimen was as intense as ever. The chamber containing the hab could simulate any number of extreme conditions, from gale-force winds to quicksand. Today it was a scorching dust storm, hobbling the solar panels and reducing the hab to emergency backup power. The crew suited up to complete an urgent survey hike, and after getting turned around at least four times, returned with a backbreaking load of samples just before dinner. The dust storm had abated enough for the solar panels to draw power at an excruciatingly slow pace, and the crew scrapped their dinner plans in favor of warmed-over rations. Kuiper sharply grinned and made eye contact with each bite.

The crew’s leisure schedule was officially unaffected, but every break had at least one petty hab problem to ruin the mood. Sometimes the fix was easy, but on rare occasions a whole system would be down indefinitely, forcing the crew to improvise a solution or manage without. The barometer failures were barely noticeable, except for Alexandria becoming very cranky. Mercifully, no other grave problems popped up when hot water was unavailable, except for a greenhouse failure which could have very well been Arjun’s fault. Anything not urgently necessary to hab maintenance had fallen far down their priorities, and they had been too busy handling crises to monitor long-term soil quality. The crew’s meals would have no fresh produce for weeks, and the thought of subsisting entirely on rations was nauseating.

Arjun’s work quality slipped further with every passing week. They requested an urgent meeting with Mission Commander Kagigi, a week ahead of their every-other-month schedule. Their request was instantly approved for that afternoon, and their lethargy turned to churning panic. Kagigi’s office was as centrally-located as possible, but they still had to check a map three times to plot out a route.

The frosted-glass doors opened for Arjun’s approach, and they paused on the threshold to admire Kagigi’s collection of historic astronomical charts. The ancient charts were so confident with their paltry data, bounding the universe within a tight sphere or placing Earth at the center of all creation. Arjun wondered what it would take to persuade those mapmakers that their models were fundamentally wrong, and how the current charts would age poorly.

Kagigi dismissed her assistants and cleared her throat. “You wanted to see me, Arjun?”

Arjun’s pulse spiked and settled uneasily into the chair opposite Kagigi’s desk. “It’s about the hab.”

“Are you uncomfortable with the veracity of the simulation?”

The restrained, tactful script in Arjun’s mind evaporated. “I destroy at least a dozen copies of the hab a week. I am acutely aware of its weak points and failure states. I have enough nightmares about them already. I understand the need to practice emergency fixing on the spot, but I can’t relax or focus on anything else and I need it to stop.”

Kagigi looked through a few files on her desk and frowned. “Your practice performance has noticeably dropped, as has everyone else’s. I am amenable to some compromise - limiting the simulated problems to one or two days a week, perhaps. Do you find this acceptable?”

Arjun blinked. “It was that easy?”

“Would you rather have an hour-long screaming match? I have nothing booked the rest of the day.”

“I’m not being blown off, or punished for insubordination, or?...”

Kagigi leaned in with a hint of a smile. “Arjun, a Mission Commander who doesn’t care about her crew may as well just be a megaphone and a taser. If I’m working against you becoming a better astronaut, I’m doing something very wrong.”

Arjun exhaled for the first time in half an hour. “Should I be saluting at this point?”

Kagigi laughed and waved them aside. “At ease, private. Go get some takeout from Honshu.”

 


 

Eun Sol slumped beside a cavernous pool, too drained to take off her waterlogged spacesuit. She had scrubbed out of the day’s simulation, an emergency splashdown in frigid water. The others had finished stabilizing the ship and were now plotting a course to shore. Eun Sol barely lasted ten minutes.   

Kuiper had carried the whole crew. She had adapted well to Earth’s gravity, only needing a cane on rare occasions, but moved underwater with unmatched power and grace. Thirty kilograms of gear were nothing to her, even on the fifth straight dive. She barely slowed down when her suit sprang a leak, only patching it once she was shivering too much to work a control panel. Once the ship was fully stable, she hung back for a well-deserved break as the others took over navigation. They weren’t as nearly as quick or efficient as Eun Sol could’ve been, but they steered it just the same.

Eun Sol had plenty of other work to do, even some light reading that she had been looking forward to. She sulked instead. For a year and a half, whenever she came up short in testing, she had consoled herself with at least I did better than Kuiper. She knew it wasn’t fair, even if she never felt quite guilty enough to stop. She was happy for Kuiper, in the most abstract and distant way, that it no longer held true.

After an hour of tedious micromanagement, the ship docked at the pool’s edge and a buzzer echoed across the gym. The crew disembarked and rushed to the locker room with a fresh surge of energy. Eun Sol plodded behind them, leaking cold water across the tiles. Once the others had showered and left, she sloughed off her suit and mashed it indifferently into her locker. She had overheard the others planning to go downtown for lunch, and gratefully sat alone in the hab with a half-warmed ration of stew. After isolating the ice-cold chunks, it wasn’t so bad.

The crew always had Monday afternoons completely free, after the most demanding test of the week, and Eun Sol dreaded the hours of dreary solitude ahead. She finished her lunch and lay down in her room, which even after five months was always slightly smaller than she expected. The hab wasn’t due for any new problems until at least Wednesday, but she still jumped at every distant groan and grind. She wished the hab was truly in space, to at least feel the thrill of real danger rather than just irritation.

Dwelling on creaky space habitats brought Eun Sol’s mind to the Moon, then to Kuiper. Her resentment had cooled into idle fascination with only a trace of bitterness. In a year and a half, she went from nearly buckling in Earth’s gravity to bench-pressing a hundred kilograms. The only overtly Lunar traits she still had were long, musical vowels, a preference for light clothing, and dizzy spells when she stared at the open sky. Yet subtler signs came up often - her caustic taste in food, her ignorance of Earth culture, her total inability to shoot a basketball. She socialized just fine with the crew after her initial reluctance, but never volunteered much detail about the Moon.

Eun Sol never pried about it. The only questions she could think of were either answerable with a quick web search or uncomfortably deep. She had only ever met Lunar expats before in college, a handful of students who largely kept to themselves. Her friends mocked their accents and affectations, which she winced at but never rebuked. They seemed pleasant enough, curious about Earth but unable to mesh with its culture or physics. Her own outsider status was far subtler. International students never recognized her Pyongyang accent, and in a pinch she could either suppress it or hang out with another Northerner. The Lunar students deserved better than to be her scapegoats, and she wished she could have commiserated with them about it, but that was a dicey topic even with her closest friends.

The others returned shortly before dinner, ruining Eun Sol’s perfectly good sulk. With great effort, she put aside her frustration and prepared to enjoy the ritual of cooking a meal together. She hauled herself out of bed, walked to the kitchen, and saw a stack of to-go boxes from Honshu.

Emmanuel at least had the decency to look guilty. “Sorry, we texted to ask if you wanted anything, but you never responded.”

Eun Sol couldn’t bear to check whether or not that was true.

Kuiper sheepishly slid over her leftover ramen.

“What's the pH of that?”

Kuiper took it back without making eye contact.

Arjun stopped unpacking their food and moved to put it in the fridge. “I mean, if you’re making something for yourself, we can wait for you, or...”

Eun Sol grabbed a fistful of protein bars and left for her room. “Don’t bother, go eat.”

Alexandria’s chime rang out as soon as Eun Sol opened her door. She dismissed them into an afterimage, and revoked their power to manifest in her room for the rest of the day. She lay in bed and stared at her biology textbook, scowling as if she could intimidate the jargon into making sense. After ten fruitless minutes, when her hunger finally overpowered her revulsion at the concept of food, she ate the least-chalky of her protein bars. She lay in bed, brain jammed in neutral, until she heard the sounds of Oblast Strike Tactics from the living room. She joined from her laptop, spamming an Omsk Garrison rush that was quickly outflanked and decimated. Once griefing stopped being fun, she lay down for a few hours of fitful sleep.

The rest of the week’s training was mercifully light. Eun Sol spent as much time as possible in the gym and library, reviewing her fundamentals for hours on end. Kuiper crossed paths with her a few times a day, carrying fearsome stacks of medical textbooks. Eun Sol sat by her whenever they were both studying, wishing to be asked a question she could authoritatively answer. Kuiper barely acknowledged her presence.

Eun Sol looked up the titles of Kuiper’s books and found them all incomprehensibly dense. Most of them were hundred-year-old medical journals on micrograv surgery or decompression or the long-term impact of stasis gel. She read them anyway, desperate for any topic of conversation, and couldn’t make it through ten pages of vague graphs and microscopic footnotes. Her own productivity had cratered too, and by the third afternoon, the stalemate had become unbearable. She sat as close to Kuiper as she dared, gave her book a heavy slam shut, and asked, “Hey, I’ve done everything I need to for today, want to go hang out?”

Kuiper looked wary but not repulsed. “Alright, have anywhere in mind?”

Eun Sol did not. “How about Lunatown?”

Kuiper paused, and Eun Sol panicked for suggesting such a hackneyed, stereotypical tourist trap. Surely Kuiper would reject it outright and hold her in contempt for failing to see her as anything more than an out-of-place Lunar upstart -

“Alright. I haven’t been there yet, and I could use some real Lunar food.”

Eun Sol’s relief lasted until she remembered she had no idea how to get to Lunatown. “Great! Meet me downstairs in five minutes.”

Kuiper nodded and shelved her books while Eun Sol frantically mapped out the subway route. They’d need to transfer halfway down the line, though they’d avoid the worst recursive snarls. Eun Sol considered changing out of her T-shirt and overalls, but the hab was at least a ten-minute round trip away and she had no ideas for a better outfit. She exhaled, grabbed a light jacket, and walked down to the lobby.

Kuiper sat in a plush chair opposite a mural of the Pillars of Creation. Eun Sol paused on the staircase to take in the sight of her draped over the cushions. Her crew cut had regrown enough to be shaped into wavy crests, and her baggy canvas jacket was covered in patches referencing obscure bits of Lunar culture. Without context, she looked like a fashion model flawlessly displaying her very idiosyncratic taste. Once Eun Sol remembered that Kuiper had already agreed to go out, she worked up the nerve to finish descending the stairs.

Kuiper looked up from her phone, double-checked for her collapsible cane in her bag, and stood up with a bit of effort. Eun Sol grasped for topics of small talk on the walk to the subway, avoiding anything Moon-related or under an NDA, and settled on showing Kuiper her favorite Oblast Strike Tactics memes. Kuiper responded in kind, with a few from the Lunar forks of the game. Eun Sol recognized the structure of why they were funny, but knew none of the details.

Eun Sol and Kuiper were the only passengers in their subway car departing from the industrial fringe of Lagos. It quickly filled up with rush-hour commuters, whether heading home or about to start the second shift. The next train stayed nearly empty as the stations became far scarcer. The only other riders were a few merchants and tourists, none of whom gawked at Kuiper, even as she made no effort to hide her implausibly lanky frame or frustration with the car’s jostling.

The line terminated in a quiet commercial district far from downtown. Local grocers and corner stores sat between pastel apartment blocks. Street vendors fired up their grills in preparation for the dinner rush as pedestrians dawdled on narrow streets, fearless of motor traffic. Lunatown’s Voyager Gate stood to the east of the main plaza, a towering arch of off-white stone etched with the waveform of the Golden Record. Eun Sol stopped to marvel at the message launched with impossible hope for a response.

Kuiper took one look and scoffed. “This is synthetic, by the way. The texture’s all wrong, and the Mining Bureau would never ship this much stone to Earth for frivolous purposes.”

Eun Sol felt a spike of nauseous dread. Whether Kuiper was sincerely jaded or acting aloof, she regretted proposing the trip and hoped she could save face with a minimum of humiliation. She turned to Kuiper with a half-formed excuse about an emergency back home and saw her beaming with glee. Kuiper ran straight to a shop just past the threshold, a bookstore with a Scandinavian name Eun Sol could barely sound out. She nearly knocked over a pedestrian in an ivy-covered exosuit, mumbling an apology on her way to check out stacks of musty paperbacks overflowing onto the curb. 

Eun Sol lingered by the gate to savor the atmosphere. Tarps painted with starfields stretched overhead to shut out the endless sky. The lower ones were embedded with twinkling lights to create a dusky glow in midafternoon. The streets were meticulously smooth, sculpted for pedestrians reliant on canes, wheelchairs, or ornate exosuits. Eun Sol tried not to stare at them, keeping her gaze on the mosaics and murals and greenery covering every facade. When nothing broke her focus, she realized that no shop signs were animated and no walls were plastered with ads. Most signage was hand-lettered in anachronistic fonts, highlighted with a subtle glow if at all.

Kuiper had parked herself on the sidewalk and begun intently sifting through the books. Eun Sol sat beside her, admiring the lavish cover art and text she almost understood. A few were written in a dialect that had diverged from Korean two hundred years ago, adorning Hangul with all the new letters and accent marks it could bear. Their covers bore idyllic Lunar farms, deep-space nebulae, vivid fantasias, and geometric forms.

Kuiper’s to-buy stack was already nearly a meter tall. She exclaimed with every nostalgic discovery - “A first edition of Silver Dawn!” “A box set of the Wellborn Trilogy!” “I had no idea the Inversion series is still going!” “Oblast Strike Tactics: Tunguska Breach! It’s awful, but fanfic of it got me into the game!”

Eun Sol couldn’t remember the last time Kuiper was this purely joyful. She basked in the glow and built her own stack of books worth buying just for the covers. The romance shelf had plenty of gems - polyamorous bunkhouse romps, alien erotica, seductive virtual assistants, and torrid affairs between Lunar farmers and Martian socialites. If the art was to be believed, no Martian ever clothed more than ten percent of their body and the Lunar uniform was overalls with nothing underneath. She picked up the most outlandish one, with a strapping Lunar farmer embracing a Martian bride in a zero-gravity cloud of thousand-naira bills. “Hey Kuiper, check out how breathtakingly horny this-”

Kuiper deflated instantly. She shoved her books into a heap on the closest shelf and stormed off, bent low enough to need her cane. Eun Sol hastily re-shelved them wherever they fit and ran after her. Kuiper sulked on a bench at the end of the block, by the gate of the Lunar embassy. Eun Sol stood a cautious distance from her as she caught her breath and collected herself. She looked up after a few moments, avoiding eye contact and forcing a smile.

“Sorry about that. Bad memories, but nothing you need to worry about. Want to go get dinner?”

Eun Sol checked her phone. “It’s 4:36.”

“Uh, the service is super-slow and you have to budget at least two hours for it. Lunar sleep dysfunction, and all that. Any place here catch your eye?”

Eun Sol realized that she was arguing against a dinner date with Kuiper. She shrugged and said, “I can only judge by decor, you can understand the menus. What would you recommend?”

Kuiper grinned almost as brightly as before. “I don’t know! Let’s go looking for something. Wanna lead the way?”

Eun Sol picked the most scenic route she could find. She circled the full splendor of the embassy, a cedar castle adorned with sheet-metal plating and exposed pipes. Functionaries rushed through circular breezeways as quickly as Earth’s gravity would allow. At ground level, murals celebrated Lunar history through icons and archetypes, with no distinct human faces at all. It merged Earthly and Lunar notions of rustic charm, resembling a ski lodge hosting a never-ending sci-fi convention. 

Even Kuiper was impressed. “Nobody’s built anything like this on the Moon in a hundred years, but I wish they would.”

Eun Sol felt a pang of envy for a history that inspired pride. “Is everything here that dated, if it was ever authentic at all?”

Kuiper shrugged. “Not sure. This Lunatown’s the oldest of the three, so maybe this was authentic at the time, but it also had the most need to appeal to tourists. Overall, this looks like the prettiest version of New Svalbard in the 2130s.”

Eun Sol sharply realized that visiting Lunatown had never even crossed her mind when she spent a semester in Kuala Lumpur. She kicked herself for missing that chance, putting all the burden on a Lunar expat to explain the basics to a total outsider. Kuiper didn’t seem to mind so far, but Eun Sol didn’t want to press her luck.

Down the block, Kuiper lit up at the sight of a streetside vegetable market. She grabbed bundles of long, pale tubers before the shopkeeper could even say hello. Eun Sol stood back and browsed the aisles - she recognized most of the names, but any resemblance to Earth produce was purely academic. The scallions were ghostly-white and curly, the potatoes were the size of her head, and the cabbage was pitch-black with neon variegation. Maybe the names were just loosely analogous, saving the trouble of coining all-new terms. In under a minute, Kuiper had filled up a basket and arranged to have it shipped to the training facility’s decoy address. She spent a long time chatting with the shopkeeper, a middle-aged Nordic woman in an unpowered wheelchair. They spoke rapid-fire Vietnamese with accents and loanwords from the full sweep of Earth and beyond. Once they parted and were out of earshot, Kuiper burst out laughing.

“She just retired from teaching at Blooming Moon, and told me about the girl who fucked off to Mars for her thesis!”

Eun Sol nervously joined the laughter. She knew Kuiper had been to Mars, but kept the details vague and dodged any questions. Maybe the worst was over if she could laugh this hard about it, or maybe this was just how she coped. Either way, Eun Sol wouldn’t make her linger on it or pry for more.

“She also recommended Yuri’s Diner down the street, one of her biggest clients. Maybe that’s a conflict of interest, but I don’t care, that stuff looked great.” 

Eun Sol stifled a giggle and dared not make eye contact. Dead air was bad, acknowledging the joke was worse, so she chose safe banality. “I hear Lagos alone has more people than the entire Moon.”

“I believe it. The gene pool gets dangerously small outside the cities, so one of the main reasons people come to Earth is to flirt in peace without tripping over their cousins.”

She spoke in her flattest deadpan, but that would explain a lot about Eun Sol’s Lunar classmates.

Yuri’s Diner was a squat tin can on the bottom floor of an apartment building, with pseudo-Cyrillic signs that Kuiper delighted in pronouncing literally. Burnished metal and buffet lines evoked mess halls from the Moon’s early days and long before. The troughs had an abundance of Lunar food that the first colonists could only dream of, inviting guests to marvel at the fantasy fulfilled. Eun Sol wanted to try everything in sight, despite barely recognizing half of it. She looked to Kuiper for guidance, who pointed out some beginner-friendly appetizers before piling a plate with cold noodles and navy-blue beets. Every seat in the house was empty, and Eun Sol picked out a corner booth with a full view of the street.

As Eun Sol settled into the gently squishy foam and bit into something that was almost a pierogi, Kuiper took off her jacket and draped it over the seat back. Eun Sol nearly choked. She knew that Kuiper had become strong enough to handily carry the crew in training, but hadn’t quite grasped all the implications of that. Kuiper tended to wear baggy clothes and avoid group showers, and Eun Sol couldn’t remember the last time she saw her arms bare. Kuiper’s tank top had a lovely geometric design, which Eun Sol had been meaning to compliment as chastely as possible, but her taut, sculpted muscles drove all else from her mind.

Eun Sol set down her fork, swallowed completely, and grasped for any other conversation topic. “How are your medical studies going?”

I meant anything other than her muscles or work, brain.

Kuiper wiped beet juice from her mouth and thought for a moment. “Alright, I guess. I barely took bio in school, but I had to learn so much for my physical therapy that I guess Kagigi just wanted to kill two birds with one stone.”

Eun Sol nodded along, dumbstruck that her idea worked.

“There’s some great weird shit in my books, like the ‘natural experiments’ of people who were accidentally stasis-gelled for years. We have lots of data from events no IRB would ever approve of, but the cases are so rare and unique that you can’t extrapolate much of anything from them.”

Eun Sol took another bite, hoping to distract herself from queasy horror or unwelcome arousal.

“But I mostly just read bone-dry papers and books from the Space Races. The Martian books are fun, though - they’re warped around whatever the author’s patron is most interested in, and they always open with these fawning tributes just dripping with contempt. But anyway, how’s your work going?”

A few other diners had trickled in, and Eun Sol tried to people-watch without being rude at the cost of failing to absorb anything Kuiper had said. Kuiper cleared her throat and looked only slightly concerned. “You’re doing cartography and bio, right?”

“Right, yes! I mostly just work with GIS databases and do some field studies now and then.” Eun Sol realized too late that she had slipped into a full-on Pyongyang accent.

Kuiper either didn’t notice, or kept a perfect poker face. “Oh, any neat sites? I’ve been wondering where you go every month.”

Eun Sol had vivid memories of Erta Ale’s sulfuric stench, but couldn’t piece them into anything that would do it justice. She rambled about banal trips to weather stations, hoping Kuiper’s interest was genuine. Once she exhausted everything vaguely interesting, and Kuiper was eyeing the buffet again, she asked the one question she had been picking at for a year. “Do you ever wonder why we, specifically, were chosen?”

Kuiper dropped her easygoing stance and leaned in. “Sort of. I get why they wanted someone Lunar, but it seems awfully wasteful to pick someone who needs a year of training just to walk.”

Eun Sol resisted the urge to lavishly praise Kuiper’s physical development. 

“I mean, I just fell into being the doctor, and the ‘sociologist’ bit feels tacked-on. Like, if this falls through, they’ve wasted half a crewmate.”

Eun Sol reached for a reassuring phrase and couldn’t find one. “Bigger than that, I mean. Do you ever feel completely unfit for-” a quick scan for eavesdroppers- “the task at hand?”

Kuiper swallowed a bite of noodles and gave her furtive voice as much earnest warmth as she could.

“Here's the thing - of course we’re flawed, because no great project is ever built by saintly superhumans. The Lunar Federation sure wasn’t.” She glanced around for anyone who might have heard and taken offense. “Nobody can ever be ready for this, Eun Sol. But we’re all smart, competent people and we’ll make it work.”

Eun Sol wanted very badly to believe her.

“Tell you what. Let’s drop this before we break NDA in public. I’ll get you a full Lunar tasting menu, and I don’t want to hear a word of self-doubt for the rest of the night. Deal?”

Eun Sol’s appetite returned at once. “Deal.”

Kuiper returned in a moment with a plate of cricket-and-seaweed dumplings. The gooey dough gave way to a salty, tangy core that made Eun Sol reach for another before she swallowed her first bite. She nearly gagged on the other appetizers, but understood how the flavors were supposed to blend. By her third entrée sample, she gave up on comparisons to Earth food and savored the alien tastes on their own terms. Kuiper stopped giving explanations or warnings for the stranger dishes, and simply smiled at her reactions. Eun Sol had to turn down the dessert course, with a stomach full of fiery flavors on the brink of war.

Both Kuiper and Eun Sol had eaten too much to move, and Yuri’s Diner was in no rush to kick them out. At six, the waitstaff turned on a CRT screen to watch a sport that looked like a more obtuse cricket played in Lunar gravity. The New Svalbard Pulsars were facing off against the Chang’e City Crescents, with commentary in what sounded like Hindi and Thai. The waitstaff’s allegiance was evenly split, and a few sels changed hands with each run scored.

Kuiper tried explaining the rules and gave up after the third sub-tangent. Eun Sol lay back and enjoyed the players’ hypnotic grace, bouncing off walls with perfect mastery of momentum. She idly fantasized about watching Kuiper play, and was about to ask if she ever had when Kuiper bellowed at a spectacular Pulsar play loud enough to get glares from the Crescent fans. She quieted down for the next one, instead waving a Pulsar pennant from her bag.

The game settled into a dreary stalemate by halftime, when Eun Sol and Kuiper slipped out into the cool evening. The tarps overhead lit up with projected auroras and nebulae, with Sputnik flybys every few minutes. Eun Sol sat on a bench to stare while Kuiper ducked into a gift shop down the street. She returned with a Pulsars cap and gently set it atop Eun Sol, who was very glad to already be sitting down. They sat in silence together as cheers echoed down the block.

Kuiper opened her phone to the transit map. “The next train back’s in fifteen minutes, and if we miss it the next one’s an hour later.”

Eun Sol stifled the urge to say that wouldn’t be so bad and joined her on the walk to the station.

“This place is cooler than I thought, and I saw some stuff I’d like to do later on. Want to come back next week?”

Eun Sol agreed after pausing just long enough to not sound desperate.

“And I think Koreatown’s even closer to base, want to try that sometime?”

Eun Sol froze. She had no idea how much history Kuiper knew, or how to condense four centuries to an outsider. Yet maybe the diaspora would be kinder, whether less invested in the split or ignorant of it. And she had been underwhelmed by all of the tteokbokki she’d had in Lagos so far.

“Sure.”

 


 

After an interminable delay, a crackling blur of pixels resolved into Cousin Opey. His smile was as bright as ever, his braids were wrapped in copper filigree, and he had settled into his mid-forties with a smooth confidence. Emmanuel hadn’t seen him in person since his wedding, and hadn’t called in an inexcusably long time.

Emmanuel! You fell off the face of the Earth, man! How’ve you been?”

Emmanuel chose the dullest stock excuse. “Oh, you know, keeping busy with a think tank. How’s Bogotá?”

Opey carried his tablet to a balcony to show off a steep hillside covered in vertical sprawl, stairs blurring into sidewalks into roofs. Spring’s first blooms burst from every crack and crevice. The wavering, staticky view nearly brought Emmanuel to tears.

The camera swiveled to Luis at their paperwork-strewn desk. Emmanuel had only met them three or four times, the last of which was the wedding. He was amazed at how well they kept up with Opey’s warp-speed rambling, even grounding some of his ideas in plausibility.

“Hi, Emmanuel! How’s Lagos these days?”

“Oh, still hot and crowded. How are things at...”

Emmanuel squinted at the letterhead on Luis’s files. The pseudo-Greek helmet stood out even through a low-res stream.

“...Ares Astronautics?”

Luis shrugged. “Still a grant writer, still shaking down Martians. They’ll happily fund crazy blue-sky projects, but yawn at the boring groundwork to get there. The trick is to phrase everything in a way that would appeal to a twelve-year-old space nut. Or Opey.”

The camera shook with familiar, loving laughter.

“What’s the hot project now?”

Luis tucked away a few papers. “The hottest one that I can talk about is a permanent base on Titan. Opey, I believe you have an opinion or two on this?”

The camera swerved to Opey against a wall of posters and toys from Bogotá’s Lunatown. “So, extrasolar missions are great and all - the Malang mission is all we talk about at work, and I know a little more than I should, strictly speaking - but there’s so much we don’t know about our own backyard! And in some ways it’s harder than exoplanet missions, since you need to maintain supply lines and you’re legally liable for a lot more types of failure. But we’d learn so much, and it’s the perfect forward base for deeper missions! We could start this in about sixty years, maybe sooner if the Malang mission inspires a whole new space race.”

Emmanuel tried to set aside his spike of queasiness. “You’re at the Colombian elevator now, right?”

Opey stretched and groaned. “Yep, but I’m getting too old for crawlspaces and oil stains. It feels great to not fight against technical debt every day, but I’ve had my fun, and I’m eyeing a position at the Heliopolity Foundation. They have plenty of polisci nerds, but they need engineering nerds to give their ideas some rigor.”

Emmanuel chuckled. “Wrangling Earth and the Moon is too easy, you want to get Mars to play nice too? And Titan, and Io, and wherever else, all together in one happy family?”

“Without a drop of sarcasm, yes.”

“You haven’t had enough of that at family reunions?”

“Our family can’t build gigaprojects that knock around moons like billiard balls.”

“More’s the pity. How’s-”

Alexandria’s startup chime rang out from offscreen, followed by the opening notes of a chirpy, double-speed pop song. Opey stepped out of the frame, and Luis turned it to show a young girl playing a kinetic rhythm game with Alexandria. Emmanuel took a moment to remember that most of the world knew them as an appliance, not a colleague.

Opey waved it into an afterimage. “Xiomara, sweetie, come say hi to Uncle Emmanuel!”

Xiomara turned hesitantly, with no jolt of recognition.

“You met him at our wedding, remember?”

Emmanuel took a moment to recall her - she couldn’t have been more than six back then, confused and overwhelmed but delighted with her new dad. She had appeared in the background of a few calls, usually busy with school or friends or Alexandria.

Xiomara played along with the notion that she knew Emmanuel. “Are you coming over for my thirteenth birthday? You do know when it is, right?”

Emmanuel froze and ended the call before he could say something immensely stupid. His phone chimed a few seconds later.

Opey: everything ok??

Opey: we’ve had some connection problems lately but it looks fine rn

Opey: Power outage over there?

Emmanuel collected himself and copy-pasted an excuse.

Emmanuel: Sorry, we have a sudden all-hands meeting but I’ll be back soon.

Opey: oof, godspeed

Emmanuel stepped away from the computer terminal and opened his initiation manual to its most dogeared section.

 

613.4 - Conditions Allowing Disclosure Of Mission Participation

-Following a catastrophic error signal

-Following one (1) Earth-year of radio silence

-Voluntarily, upon arrival on Malang

 

(Note: A stock obituary will be published in the first two cases, but each crewmember may write their own personalized message, pending approval from Mission Control)

 

(Note: Disclosing mission participation to professionals legally bound to client confidentiality [doctors, lawyers, etc.] may or may not be permissible; consult Mission Control with the exact circumstances before doing so)

 

613.5 - Penalties For Premature Disclosure Of Mission Participation

-Immediate expulsion from mission roster

-Destruction of all documents and data establishing a link between discloser and mission

-Legal and/or financial liability (scale of both dependent on circumstances of disclosure)

 

(Note: Crewmates may resign from the mission at any time without penalty, but disclosure of mission participation at any point afterwards will retain the second two penalties above)

 

For more information, contact Mission Control; for emotional support, contact one of your provided therapists (listed in 681.4)

 

The provided therapists had been tepidly useful. Emmanuel hadn’t bothered going to an external one - talking around the source of his stress or pleading his case with Mission Control both sounded intolerable. A blank draft of an obituary had sat on his desk for months, feeling far too much like a personal death warrant. He had filled a notebook with plans to drop the subtlest of hints to Opey, all of which he rejected the next day. His only solace was the faint hope that he was a backup that wouldn’t become necessary. He once glimpsed a folder named CREW_LAGOS on Kagigi’s computer, alongside CREW_BOGOTÁ, CREW_SEOUL, and CREW_LENAPE. Neither him nor any crewmate ever saw the folders again, but Alexandria had mentioned finding minds parallel to theirs on the internet. No matter how subtly the topic was raised, nobody in Mission Control ever took the bait.

I could walk out the door now and be home in half an hour. Even if I don’t, there’s a three-in-four chance that I can go home in a month, with a five-year gap in my life I can never explain. A one-in-four chance that I can only tell my family where I went with decades of displacement, or that they’ll only know to mourn me. 

The thoughts were not new, but a month out from launch, they had no strenuous training to crowd them out. The crew was insulated from any physical risks, with full health checkups every third day. The ship was ready and waiting at the Gabon elevator, following six months of renovations that throttled Lunar trade enough to nearly cost Aryabhata Singh re-election. He hung on with a economic record that wasn’t completely wiped out, but with a dangerously small and fractured coalition.

Lunar politics were mostly inscrutable to Emmanuel, but he admired Singh and had enjoyed the few times they were able to chat with no hovering personnel on either side. It always felt surreal to openly discuss the mission with someone outside the facility, much less a head of state, even if Singh routinely kept far greater secrets for his job. Leaving the mission he had sacrificed so much to defend felt like a personal betrayal.

Emmanuel could bear with disappointing politicians, but letting down loved ones was far harder. Renovating the elevator had delighted Opey as much as it had infuriated half the Moon. He had left for Bogotá by then, but passed along stories from his ecstatic colleagues about decades of technical debt wiped clean. Emmanuel loved hearing his speculation on the Malang mission, even when it was painful to endure. The mission would lay the foundation for all his distant dreams of deep space, and even if he’d never know that Emmanuel turned it down, leaving at this stage still felt deeply wrong. Opey should have been chosen, and he’d have the decency to refuse.

Moral qualms aside, logistical problems multiplied to the horizon. Leaving at this stage meant more headaches for endlessly-busy Mission Control, more political pressure on Singh, and the crew losing five years of trained skill. The hit to morale would be just as bad - are my crewmates not family too? The arguments for and against leaving the mission were both infinitely heavy, and Emmanuel wished the choice could be made for him once and for all.

Emmanuel’s phone chimed with a reminder that dinner began in ten minutes. After a deep sigh, he left the comms room and took the trundling elevator down to the hab, past a hundred meters of lead and stone and radio shielding that felt more like a tomb every day. Dinners had stopped being joyful weeks ago. Everyone was too preoccupied to make conversation beyond the barest platitudes, without even training missions to discuss. The food itself didn’t help, with strict diets of milligram-precise slurry to prepare them for a decade of stasis. Restaurants, alcohol, and anything outside a straight-and-narrow nutritional index were forbidden on pain of expulsion. Any complaints were met with a quick, piercing glare from Kuiper.

Emmanuel choked down a cup of viscous broth and hoped that nobody would ask him for personal help. As the crew dispersed from a silent dinner, he lay in bed and wondered how something so excruciatingly healthy could be so nauseating. Once his stomach settled and he could focus on abstract concepts again, a thought emerged with a deep magnetic pull: I need to get some perspective.

Emmanuel clocked out of the facility alone - common enough for long, contemplative walks - and boarded a train headed downtown. After half an hour of transfers and delays and misremembering stations he hadn’t seen in a decade, he was on his way to the Gabon elevator. The train had no other tourists, only engineers headed in for the night shift. The younger ones downed caffeine and listened rapt as the nocturnal veterans talked shop with more Greek letters than words. Emmanuel wished he had Opey to decode it all and weigh in with his own theories. Surely none of these people had known him, but they’d welcome him like an old friend in a heartbeat.

Emmanuel pushed aside that thought and tried to rest. The train was quicker and smoother than he remembered, and less stingy with leg room. He wavered in and out of sleep for a few hazy hours until the terminal chime snapped him to attention. The elevator-base station was a blur of neon logos, and once his eyes adjusted to the omnipresent glow, he recognized plenty of them from mission documents. Ares Astronautics, building the ship; Zamaz Health Solutions, brewing stasis gel to last a decade; Alexandria Systems, contributing a crewmate. The latter had set up holographic demos of new spinoffs - Antikythera, specializing in astrophysics, and Rosetta for real-time localization. Emmanuel stayed well outside their ranges of detection and stared. They were both less cartoony than the original Alexandria, yet nowhere near as detailed as their sapient sibling. Antikythera looked specifically Greek and Rosetta Nubian, each with neoclassical attire. Emmanuel had never heard Alexandria mention them, but he wondered what they thought of their successors having defined identities, for better or worse. Some technicians’ kids were asking Rosetta to translate every bad word they knew, rebuffed with perfectly blank ignorance, which Emmanuel took as his cue to leave.

Beyond the station stood a tireless hive of transit and science and commerce. It gained more of everything every time Emmanuel saw it, always brighter and louder and shinier. Aerospace startups came and went every month between the towering campuses of the old titans. Emmanuel had passed through plenty of times in the past five years, on his way to training missions in space stations or on the Moon, but had never had a chance to linger. He sat on a bench to take in the crowds, badly wishing for some delightfully nasty spaceport concessions.

A Lunar delegation passed by, trading curses Emmanuel recognized from Kuiper, ready to come to blows as soon as they could stand on their own. ERA functionaries of every division and rank rushed through the plaza, perpetually five minutes late. Emmanuel recognized most of their livery - the navy-blue flight jackets of the Offworld Corps, seafoam scrubs of the Epidemiology Corps, olive chef jackets of the Agriculture Corps. They all gave a wide berth to anyone who looked Lunar, no matter how convoluted that made their route. Arjun had shared plenty of stories about each division’s office politics and petty scandals, which made their gravitas a little absurd.

The elevator was out of sight from Emmanuel’s viewpoint, blocked off by towering campuses bright enough to turn night to day. A stubbornly rustic Lunar consulate sat between glittering travel agencies offering layaway plans for tickets to Mars. An alley-thin office of the Heliopolity Foundation buzzed with plans to transform the chaos around them into a coherent system. The elevator’s entrance was easy to miss, marked by just one sign with hardly any animation at all.

Emmanuel flashed an ERA-given fake ID and an emblem Opey gave him as a graduation gift - good for one free ride, no questions asked. The staff opened an unmarked metal door for him off of the lobby, with a nod of professional deference. Emmanuel entered the warren of tunnels and followed the path with the most warning labels. He chuckled at how declaring I’m on the Malang mission would get him all the access he needed, if saying so wouldn’t have made it immediately untrue.

The tunnels looked completely unlike the path Emmanuel had taken with Opey seventeen years ago. Maybe the route had been lost to one renovation or another. Yet he kept seeing doors and turns he faintly recognized, and wished for Opey’s guidance - or at least his charisma and credentials. The signs were fairly helpful for navigation, but not as much as following the deep thrumming that rattled Emmanuel’s bones. The sounds of power tools and technical debate echoed through the halls, and Emmanuel steeled himself to walk towards them, confident but not haughty, subtle but not skulking. He quickened his pace, unsure how long his window of action was, and wished for Eun Sol’s explorative bravado.

The anchor terminal was every bit as bright and busy and cavernous as Emmanuel remembered. Bundles of meter-thick cables snaked through the room, some with staircases laid over them. The room was far more densely-staffed, with sign-language signals bypassing the thrum and grind. A passenger car sat waiting for Emmanuel, putting up no resistance to his fake ID. He breathed a sigh of relief that he wouldn’t need his flimsy cover story and launched the car from its chrome terminal.

As the car rose, abstract dread gave way to acutely physical dread. Emmanuel had been firmly strapped into a shuttle for every elevator trip of the past five years. He knew the passenger car was no less safe, but the full-length windows let nothing distract him from the ascent. A massive roar shot past him, and once his heart stopped pounding he remembered that the renovated elevator could hold multiple payloads at once.

The elevator’s base smeared into a neon blur within minutes. Train lines resolved into pulsing arteries, linking Africa’s coastline at impossible speeds. Port-Gentil, the busiest harbor on the continent, shone halogen-bright. The lights abruptly stopped a few kilometers inland as PR scores plunged and the rainforest regrew. The whole Eastern half of the view was nearly pitch-black, lit only by rural villages and ERA field stations. A radiant ribbon of civilization lay below Emmanuel, encircling the world without strangling it.

The sight was familiar from schoolbooks and museum exhibits. Emmanuel had pored over the photos for years without replicating the feeling of his first ride. He took a breath to release his indecision and dread and fear of trespassing, and felt a flicker of that original awe. He savored it, trying not to overthink and smother it, when Lagos flared into view. The city was a second sun spread across half the horizon, dwarfing any other source of light. His spark of awe gave new depth to his home city on a scale he had never felt. He brought the car to a gliding halt and let his eyes adjust.

Without this elevator, Lagos as I know it wouldn’t exist. The Lunar Federation couldn’t exist. Every trip to Titan or Malang or beyond would be pushed back decades, if not made impossible.

“Fifty million people” had always been a vague abstraction to Emmanuel, but this view made it make sense. Fifty million windows and trails of light and transit hubs and metal spires. If Lagos from a descending plane was a diorama, Lagos from this height was a superorganism. Emmanuel stared at it transfixed, absorbing the city’s rhythm on some level far beyond conscious thought. He felt none of the creeping dread that old metropolises instilled, sprawling snarls of waste and hubris ravaging the Earth to serve a vanishingly thin slice of its people. Perhaps it was personal bias - Lord knows Lagos had its share of suffering - but he felt a wave of relief that the ERA’s grand dream worked. Lagos stood as a model of elegance, playing nice with the surrounding wilderness, with parks dense enough to forget about the skyscrapers a block away. As with all models, the timeline lagged and the execution wavered, but less so every year. Even now, it was a city Emmanuel would be honored to bring offworld.

A neon-pink ad burst onto the glass with a musical sting. Slide on up to the Pinnacle Bar and Lounge, just [$AVG_ACCEL x $CURRENT_DIST] away! Cool down from your offworld fling in half-grav, with stunning views and custom cocktails! Private rooms start at just ₦30k a night! 

Emmanuel laughed too hard to resent the ad for ruining the mood. He declined the offer, dismissed the ad, and looked forward to rolling his eyes at tacky bullshit on Titan.