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ERA Announces Exoplanet Mission For 2405
April 12, 2399 - Alero Kaluuya, 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 2326, 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 the greatest act of collaboration since the LF voted for autonomy in 2194. Yet although the press release bears Prime Minister Aryabhata Singh’s signature, he has not issued any statement of his own. According to Raúl Borges-Mendez, a polisci professor at Bogotá School of Law, “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] Song Khayyam. The next Lunar elections are in 2404 - 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 this morning, 67% of Lunar citizens support the mission, with only 12% strongly disapproving. 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?”
-With Message Of “Offworld Outreach,” Singh Sweeps Lunar Election
-Exoplanet Probes Return Mixed Signals
-Gabon Elevator “Severely Overdue For Repairs,” Say Engineers
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ERA Sinks Its Claws Into Another World
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 collapse in a few years and we could move on.
R. Huygens is a professor at Blooming Moon Academy, an avid radish breeder, and a lifelong fan of the New Svalbard Quasars.
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Malang Real Estate Futures Now Available from Orion Holdings
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!
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[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?
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 in a conference room 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 - the east side was at 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 here. 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 close-cropped 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 close respect. A Korean girl in grass-stained overalls, fresh from a remarkably early college graduation. A Central Indian enby with a vintage ERA jacket over a brand-new 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’ve never met 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 and I’m wrapping up my dissertation now.”
“Phạm Kuiper, she, from New Svalbard I did some renegade anthropology, 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 his 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 that 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.
“And for full disclosure, you’ll be a crew of five, not four. Alexandria?”
With a chime and flash, a copy of Alexandria appeared beside Sisamouth. Its blue jacket and skirt were uniquely tailored and indistinguishable from real textiles. Its east Mediterranean features were photorealistic, with the impossible smoothness of a thousand blended faces. It stood frozen, except for some slight trembling, but was clearly capable of fully articulated motion. It silently scanned the room with piercing cobalt eyes that nobody looked into.
Sisamouth dismissed it and continued, trying not to look unsettled. “You’ll only be able to manifest it within specific ERA 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 getting increasingly antsy, 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. Secretary-General Khao popped in on the few occasions his schedule allowed it, and Prime Minister Singh sent a few prerecorded messages. He looked exhausted, far beyond the usual Lunar sleep dysfunction, but was clearly thrilled to take a break from walking political tightropes. 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. (more tk?) Most importantly, it had no visible signs of civilization whatsoever.
As the three months drew to a close, the candidates discussed their final decisions in private, always couched in vague hypotheticals. They discussed 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, nearly sick with anticipation 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.
By the end of the third week, Kuiper could walk on crutches for a few minutes at a time, but stayed in her wheelchair whenever she was out of the gym. The moment she received the night’s dinner ration - vegetable stir fry, mixed nuts, and 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 the warm breezes unsettled her. She was still getting used to the notion of weather, and stepping outside with no suit or airlock always gave a twinge of horror, but they were welcome distractions from her dinner’s chalky texture and leaden weight in her gut.
Kuiper heard a door open behind her as she chewed the 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 a huge set 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 the 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 with you.”
“It’s honestly pretty boring, once you get used to being on the Moon. 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, and received new revisions and files in real-time. From a purely technical perspective, the trip to Malang was daunting but possible. Yet whenever they weren’t crunching immense numbers, their mind drifted to what Sisamouth had said. 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 academic study, every film, every fic of themself (of which they were quickly becoming a connoisseur.) Working backwards from the trends and tropes, they assembled a 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 commonplace, people dreaded them as sleeper agents of a panopticon, or fickle spirits lurking in every trinket. As scrutiny turned to contempt, the embattled field created 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 in 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. People projected their dreams and fears onto their creations, in an ancient tradition reinvented for each era. Alexandria’s fandom made perfect sense in this context - they were at the forefront of the AI resurgence, and consumers loved their smooth, friendly demeanor while fantasizing about a hidden 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 felt distant enough to safely fetishize. As the public acclimated to AI, ‘corruptfics’ drifted further from plausibility - either 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 reached 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 the caterers brought in a magnificent North African spread, Kuiper microwaved a ration pack and tried not to glare resentfully. 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 the humans’ 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 knew the team’s training schedule but only took part 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 about some game-breaking bug or cheap strategy, and the crew fondly recalled when they were that enraged over glitches that have since become historically iconic. Alexandria hung back and absorbed context for the terabytes of forum threads in their mind, making them a little less inscrutable.
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 into the personal threads. A pinned thread at the top compiled stories of OST as a force for positive growth - community fundraisers, estranged cousins bonding, friendly tournaments between old sectarian rivals. Alexandria read it until dawn.
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[PINNED] Oblast Unity (9,026 posts, 731,084 views)
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!)
*MORE OF THIS CHAPTER COMING SOON*