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Mission Critical

Chapter Text

NAME: Alexandria (They)
BORN: N/A
ROLE: Embodied Holographic Metaphor

NAME: Arjun Khalsa-Bajracharya (They)
BORN: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2272)
ROLE: Botanist/Engineer

NAME: Emmanuel Olukolade (He)
BORN: Lagos, Nigeria (2274)
ROLE: Geologist/Engineer

NAME: Yang Eun Sol (She)
BORN: Pyongyang, United Republic of Korea (2278)
ROLE: Biologist/Cartographer

NAME: Phạm Kuiper (She)
BORN: New Svalbard, Lunar Federation (2277)
ROLE: Sociologist/Physician

DEPARTURE: April 12, 2304 (Gabon elevator)
ANTICIPATED ARRIVAL: December 5th, 2313 (per non-relativistic Earth time)
DESTINATION: Malang
DURATION: Three (3) local years (equivalent to 3.28 Earth years, or 1197 Earth days)
PURPOSE: Evaluation for permanent, large-scale human habitation

Chapter Text

Emmanuel stirred to a gentle chime and a mouthful of sickly-sweet stasis gel. As his mind resolved into focus, he took a basic inventory: Emmanuel Olukolade, born in 2274, double-majored in physics and geology, can’t stand the taste of tamarind.

Good, the essentials are intact. He moved on to trickier brain games: tracing chains of hailstone numbers, visualizing impossible shapes, conjugating Finnish verbs. He felt a little sluggish, but not worryingly worse than his baseline.

The hangover felt remarkably mild for almost a decade of stasis. Emmanuel hazily recalled the briefings about it - preserving mental acuity was a top priority, especially in the mission’s first moments. A sharp crash would come in a few hours, but that would be a problem for Future-Emmanuel.

The briefings also warned that the full-body numbness took at least half an hour to dissipate. Emmanuel wished for a distraction in the soothingly bland stasis chamber, with pale green walls indistinguishable from an airport or hospital. Every control panel was simple and clearly labeled for operation in an addled state, with dangerous buttons locked behind mental calibration tests.

Emmanuel scowled at the condescension when a luminous figure manifested before him. They had the fashion sense of a friendly young professor, with a blue blazer and skirt upon a crisp, androgynous form with a bun of wavy black hair. With a deep breath, they prepared to orate before stopping short.

“Sorry, is this a bad time?”

Emmanuel winced at the light and returned to an old train of thought. Even after five years of training, blasting off to another planet still seemed innately absurd. It would never actually happen - the training sims would get more elaborate but no less fake. He’d never truly be six light-years from Earth with just four people for company.

“You’re fine, Alexandria, I just need some time alone. But before you go - we’re not on a backlot in Mongolia, are we?”

Alexandria’s frame rate dropped for a split second. “We have safely landed on Malang just after local noon. All of the crew is alive and well, and will be fully recuperated shortly. The hab will be assembled within two hours, at which point we will have our first briefing. Was this information helpful?”

“Yeah, it’s about what I expected. Thanks.”

“Your feedback is appreciated. I look forward to our next meeting.” Alexandria lightly bowed and blinked away.

Emmanuel reclined in the gel and failed to fall back asleep.

 


 

Eun Sol rushed up the ladder to the cockpit as soon as she was fairly sure her legs wouldn’t collapse. After five years of poring over telescope images, topographic maps, and speculative drawings, she would not miss her chance to be the first human to see Malang with her own eyes.

The small, clouded window revealed a dreary marsh spotted with lakes, some barely bigger than puddles. A few tufts of scraggly grass and trees with ring-shaped trunks poked out of the muck. Some rustling could have been from wildlife, or just dust and leaves blowing about. Jagged mountains on the horizon promised adventure, but at this distance their chalky shapes felt like a lifeless matte painting. The cracked moon dissolving into rings was out of view, and the rings would be invisible through the atmosphere for the next few centuries anyway. Aside from the lavender sky and ring-shaped trees, Malang was just like any number of highway vistas back home.

“Hey, Alexandria?”

A soft chime and a beam of light. “Yes?”

“...The planet isn’t all like this, right?”

“Malang, the first known planet to potentially have a human-compatible biosphere without extensive terraforming, which you are the first human to ever see, is insufficiently interesting?”

“You know what I mean.”

Alexandria cocked their head. “You have studied its biosphere for five years. You are humanity’s foremost expert on its dazzling ecology.”

Eun Sol glared.

“Malang has plenty of hills, forests, and cliffs. This basin was chosen for the landing site specifically because it is excruciatingly flat and dull. There will be adventures aplenty, but thrilling risks are the exact opposite of what we want for now. I understand the urge, but rest well and we will see it all in due time.”

She turned away and looked at the floor. “Thanks for humoring me. It just... feels nice to hear it from you, you know? It makes it more real. Kind of. It’ll take a while to process it all.”

Alexandria nodded gently. “Of course. I apologize for the flippancy, it was funnier in my head.”

Eun Sol smiled weakly. “It’s fine. I get that your social skills are rusty, I’ve been there too. How’s everyone else?”

“Recovering well. Our first briefing is in an hour.”

“Cool. See you then.”

Alexandria nodded and vanished. Eun Sol flipped open her dogeared atlas of Malang and added more notes to the dense scribblings.

 


 

Kuiper sat in stasis gel, tracing loops to steady her mind. Unpacking hadn't even started, and her mind had fixated on what would be remembered of the mission's first days. Historical vertigo washed over her - Someday there'll be a museum here, with a gift shop, bored students, and not nearly enough parking.

She closed her eyes and steadied herself. History is made one day at a time. Surely the first Lunar settlers felt this weird, too. She stood up and judged the gravity, a little less than Earth’s but far more than the Moon’s. She gently paced around the stasis chamber, with and without her weighted jacket and shoes. They weren’t necessary here, but their comfort was well worth the bulk of her hundred-kilogram supply allowance.

She gave the others as much space as she could, not yet making eye contact. Nobody seemed ready for conversation yet, other than querying Alexandria. What would she even say, anyway? Quote some lofty poetry at them? Make banal small talk? Her colleagues of five years suddenly felt like unknown roommates. Maybe this was her own nerves, side effects of stasis gel, inevitable dread, or all three at once. She resolved to bear with it for the rest of the day and take it from there.

 


 

Arjun watched the unfurling of the most elaborate pop-up tent ever created. The frame poles settled satisfyingly into the earth-

Wait, can we still call it ‘earth?’ ‘Soil’ or ‘mud’ or whatever just feels clunky, and insistently calling it ‘malang’ would be an unbearable affectation.

Arjun tabled that remarkably dumb question. The frame poles settled satisfyingly into the ground, (bland, but sure) while the exterior filled up with solar panels of their design. They felt a thrill of pride in putting a personal stamp on the mission, even if their most audacious ideas always died in committee.

Throughout training, Arjun stayed in the hab design lab as much as possible. Tangible technical problems were so satisfying, as far as possible from slippery, abstract politicking. As the project wore on, they found that their best contribution wasn’t their engineering skill but their creativity in designing utterly hellish stress tests. Running the prototypes through every disaster imaginable was a shameless amount of fun. Even knowing perfectly well that it was factored into the budget and schedule, it always felt like getting away with something.

It was less fun to sit down and grimly discuss design tradeoffs. Memories of those discussions mingled with visions of the hab burning or crumpling or liquefying. Well, unless this place abruptly turns into Mercury with gale-force winds, things should be more-or-less fine.

Arjun took a deep breath. “Hey Alexandria, how’s the hab setup going?”

They didn’t bother to manifest. A smooth, sonorous voice replied, “Perfectly well, just like the last four times you asked.”

Arjun sat down with a fantasy novel, trying not to panic whenever the hab's whirring paused.

 


 

Alexandria savored the sheer joy of being embodied for real-time interaction, after a decade of incorporeal hibernation. Though that wasn’t entirely true - they had embodied plenty of times during the voyage, pacing endlessly around the ship. They were ostensibly checking the projection setup for bugs, but it also felt good. Awfully lonely, though, with just four stasis-bound people for company. Space smeared at a frightening portion of lightspeed didn't provide much solace either.

For nearly ten years, the only stimulation came from Mission Control. There was precious little bandwidth for frivolous data, but some well-wishes and news reports were passed along with official comms. Journalists seemed fond of the phrase “most ambitious project in human history” - nicely vague, connoting either “beautiful collaboration” or “appalling hubris.”

The articles tapered off after a few weeks. Mission Control’s messages settled into rote checklists. The time between them steadily increased, as a distant Earth slid out of sync with the ship. At least Alexandria could adjust to the drift one day at a time, while the human crew would have to leap a decade all at once.

The human crew. A delightful turn of phrase, that. Alexandria got equal billing with everyone else, but still felt like an asterisk. The humans and Alexandria, the Solar System and Pluto, the Beatles and Martin, Epstein, Best...

Alexandria could fret about that later. The only thing that mattered right now was a smooth setup, both logistically and personally. The crew was coping surprisingly well, and Alexandria kept close tabs on their own wellbeing. If human psychology in these conditions was unknowable, AI psychology was even more so. They looked forward to the fascinating cybernetics dissertations that would cite these first days.

Alexandria felt a little bad watching the humans unpack everything, sitting on the sidelines as an intangible hologram. Still, the others were clearly grateful for their perfect recall of  where everything was stored. The basics were unpacked before long, and the crew had even assembled a nice mini-library in the living room: atlases, pulp novels, history books, and mission documents too important to exist only in digital form. The hab felt impressively cozy already, just as the crew was succumbing to exhaustion. They unanimously voted to postpone dinner and briefing until after a prolonged nap. Alexandria dematerialized and read a downloaded archive of their favorite memes.

 


 

Three hours later, the crew awoke to a much more familiar form of grogginess. The full extent of their hunger hit all at once, and they wasted no time heating up rations and drowning them in spices. They barely spoke as they wolfed it all down, only monosyllabic requests for drinks and condiments. Once the plates were clear and in the sink, Emmanuel spoke up. “Wait, weren’t we supposed to have a briefing?”

The rest of the crew tried to suppress their groans. “Fuck, you’re right,” said Arjun. “Hey, Alexandria? Let’s get this over with.”

Alexandria materialized at the head of the table. “Alright, should I announce the minutes and procedure and whatnot, or would you rather die than drag this out a moment longer than necessary?”

The consensus was clear. Alexandria nodded and began projecting a video. It opened with the ERA’s seal, a leaf-and-wrench emblem encircled by the words EARTH RESTORATION AGENCY - ENGINEERING A RESPONSIBLE ANTHROPOCENE. It dissolved into a view of their Lagos headquarters on a beautiful spring day. It had a casual air, well-edited but not gratuitously slick.

Secretary-General Khao Sisamouth stood on the steps, as gregarious as ever. “Welcome to Malang! We hope you had a safe arrival, and wish you the best of luck on your three local years. We hope that you will learn, explore, and thrive in ways we back home can only dream of. We eagerly await your judgment on whether or not it will be added to the realm of permanent human habitation. I know you’re dying to get on out there, so we’ll keep this as brief and non-redundant as possible. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Mission Commander Kagigi.”

Miriam Kagigi stepped into frame, and the camera panned up to fit her full height. “Thank you, Secretary-General Khao. We won’t get confirmation of your landing for six years, but I have full confidence that even if any problems arose, you all handled them magnificently. We encourage you all to document your experiences thoroughly, for the benefit of both yourselves and the mission. Remember that you can keep your notes private, or open them to your crewmates, Mission Control, and/or the press.”

Arjun groaned and gestured to pause the video. “We know all this shit already, and he just said -”

Alexandria gave them a look, as if the people on the other end could hear.

The video continued. “And no pressure, but whenever you feel ready, we would love photos of you and the landscape, ideally together. That’s all from me, and I am honored to introduce Prime Minister Aryabhata Singh of the Lunar Federation.”

The camera turned to Prime Minister Singh, impossibly lanky but still somehow shorter than Miriam. He put on a brave face, clearly straining against the Earth’s pull. “Thank you, Miriam and Sisamouth. I know the ERA and Lunar Federation have had our differences, but I fully believe in this mission, and I treasure the deep bond of trust we forged as we collaborated to make it possible. Now, to the crew: Remember that your choice can have a moral dimension in addition to the logistical ones. Even if Malang can sustain humanity, if you suspect that it would become a playground for our worst impulses, that is sufficient reason to reject it. I know you each have your own opinions on the matter, and I encourage you all to cultivate free and open discussion of them. That is all. Thank you.”

The camera pulled back to reveal hundreds of ERA staff cheering and wishing safe travels, then cut to a global montage of celebrations as the ship launched. After a few minutes, the screen faded back to the ERA emblem.

Alexandria closed the video and sat at the table. “There’s just one more thing, then we can all relax. Right now, what are you most excited and most nervous about? Let’s go clockwise from me.”

Arjun spoke up first. “I’m excited to see how this hab holds up in the field, and I’m worried about my notes being flattened into something as boring as that.

Next, Eun Sol. “I can’t wait to go exploring, but I’m worried about some grave environmental danger we didn’t anticipate.”

Emmanuel: “I’d love to learn how this planet developed, but I’m afraid that our mental health and personal bonds might fray too much.”

Kuiper: “I’m excited to study how society could develop here, but sometimes that sends me down spirals of existential dread.”

Alexandria finished the circle. “I’m thrilled to be here with all of you as the first crew to set foot here. I’m scared of having no recourse to a chain of command, and being cut off from the internet still feels jarring.”

The crew began to conspicuously yawn and get up, but Alexandria hastily added, “One more thing, but I promise it’s fun - we have to launch the satellite! We can each have one hand on the button, it’ll be great.”

The crew perked up and shuffled into the control center, off-balance from bleary numbness and nearly tripping over unpacked boxes. They gathered around the satellite’s panel and ran a quick rock-paper-scissors tournament to determine the ordering of hands, with Alexandria’s holographic form on top. They savored the warmth, exchanged nods, and firmly pressed the button.

A deep rumble shook the hab, and they nearly collapsed in their rush to the living room’s biggest window. A stark-white plume of smoke streaked into the evening sky. Alexandria summoned a video from the satellite itself, showing the lights of the base disappearing against the vast basin, which faded into a pale green-gray continent. The camera turned to show night sweeping over the horizon, as the planet turned away from its alien sun. The crew spent a long time staring in awed silence. 

On the living room’s main screen, Alexandria summoned a blank white sphere with a tiny splotch filled in, slowly expanding across the equator. They zoomed in to show a low-res rendition of the base. The crew nearly wept, and Eun Sol hugged Alexandria with an iron grip.

The crew's exhaustion returned with interest, and they exchanged brief goodnights as they shuffled into their rooms. They slept soundly as one more star shone overhead.

Chapter Text

As far back as he could remember, Emmanuel lived surrounded by atlases. They covered the coffee table, bulged out of bookshelves, and lay perpetually spread open on his parents’ desks, covering every era of every mapped planet. The biggest shelf was devoted entirely to Lagos, tracking a millennium of sprawling growth. Those were the most annotated, with cross-referenced notes Emmanuel barely understood, and once he outgrew the children's shelf they were a joy to idly page through.

Emmanuel never quite understood what his parents did with so many atlases, but it seemed very important. They constantly had long, intense conversations with architects and historians and city planners. He carried portable volumes around Lagos once he was old enough to wander alone, aligning them with the buildings he saw every day.

As he understood more of both the city and the maps, he delved into older and older neighborhoods. He was well-aware of the boom of the 2170s, when the world’s first space elevator was finished in Gabon and propelled Lagos to its still-held title of World’s Largest City. But now he could understand how this new layer was built, and what it had displaced. The new buildings looked like they had every brick and tile scrutinized for weeks. They evoked older styles only in the most perfectly fine-tuned ways. He found their inspirations in winding alleys - strange, cramped towers with centuries of wear and tear.

Some steep hills displayed centuries of structures as a civilizational fossil record. They looked so much like the layered canyons Emmanuel saw on road trips, and he knew that learning about one would inevitably reveal secrets of the other. Layers of stone, extracted to build layers of cities.

 


 

When Emmanuel was thirteen, his cousin Opey scored an engineering job at the Gabon elevator and invited the family down for a tour. On the train ride down, Emmanuel watched Lagos taper off - downtown spires to residential towers to suburban parks to industrial warehouses to wilderness. The billboards for restaurants and tourist attractions gave way to bright murals of ingenuity and exploration. Then he saw a filament reaching far into the sky.

Emmanuel was used to impossibly tall buildings, but this was unlike anything in Lagos. He thought about the people who coined “Skyscraper,” and how shocked they must have been by glass-and-steel intrusions upon the heavens. This was no less unsettling, but in a completely different way - so thin and frail, surely bound to collapse at the slightest gust. It pierced through the clouds, a disorienting reminder that they were physical objects and not a flat backdrop. It felt as impossibly arrogant as the Tower of Babel, and yet it held a transfixing power. Emmanuel only snapped out of it when the spaceport’s clamor drowned out his thoughts entirely.

The family stepped out into a maze of signs in ten languages and conversations in fifty. Steel and concrete labs loomed around them, woven together with a web of trams and breezeways. The signage of a dozen aerospace firms shone in every direction. The mood was different from an airport - the only travelers were a few staggeringly wealthy socialites in hoodies and dark glasses, impatiently waiting for their trip to Mars. Everyone else was here on business, whether discussing obtuse points of Lunar politics or working to make FTL drives slightly less impossible.

After Emmanuel’s parents triple-checked the meeting time and place, Opey finally burst from a side door, clutching an armful of mechanical components that had left oily smears on his pale green jumpsuit. He began to wave, then remembered why he shouldn’t and lunged to grab a cooling fan. As soon as he caught his breath, he spoke in rapid-fire patter. “Sorry, had to climb out of a very big and very greasy engine chamber! I gotta go drop these off and change, but it shouldn’t take more than two minutes! So great to see you guys, how’s Lagos been? I love it here, and oh no that’s starting to leak a lot I’ll be right back.”

Opey sprinted back through the door. Emmanuel had lost track of the elevator, and craned his neck to spot it. He only saw the false positives of contrails.

Finally, Opey reopened the door and nearly slammed into a group of scientists arguing about terraforming. As soon as they passed by, he emerged in rumpled red-and-white checkered shorts and a T-shirt with the logo of an aerospace startup. He hugged Emmanuel first, hoisting him up and spinning twice. “I haven’t seen you since you were six and you’re so tall now! Ready to see the elevator?”

Emmanuel nodded, despite himself.

Opey began striding through the crowds to another unmarked side door, barely noticing whether or not anyone could keep up. “I called in every favor to get you guys a spot, normally the public waiting list is three years at least. We can skip the museum, or at least save it for afterwards. It’s not that great, but maybe I’m just biased since I’ve had to give at least fifty tours through the darn thing. Here’s my favorite bit, though - once the elevator was finished and Lagos grew like crazy, a reporter with a bad grasp of geography called it ‘The Saharan Tokyo,’ which spawned a meme of calling Tokyo ‘The Mongolian Lagos.’ Some folks around here still say that, but I think it stopped being funny after the first fifty years.”

As he spoke, he led them through tight backrooms, hangars, and lab hallways, some of which had a frightening density of warning signs. “Are we even allowed to be back here?” wondered Emmanuel.

“Wrong question entirely!” declared Opey, spinning around and gesturing triumphantly. “Does my power to do this derive from my employee badge? My seniority here? The favors I cashed in? Radiating a sense of competence? My charisma and stunning good looks?” He flashed a smile and ran a hand through his floppy braids.

Emmanuel had no idea whether or not the questions were rhetorical. “Uhh... all of the above, I guess?”

Opey clapped in delight. “Absolutely! And at the same time, it doesn’t matter. You will see Earth from beyond the atmosphere for the first time. In a decade, will you remember that, or that I may or may not be using a very creative reading of the rules here?”

Emmanuel burst out laughing and gave him a high-five. “I think I get it? But I also really, really don’t.”

Opey’s eyes lit up. “That’s the spirit! You’ll be a scientist in no time. Now come on, we’re almost there!” With great fanfare, he swiped his ID card and opened a meter-thick double door.

Here was the filament’s anchor to the world. A column of chrome and steel, at least twenty meters wide, hummed deep enough to rattle Emmanuel’s entire skeleton. A profusion of cables, some almost a meter thick, poured out of it into sockets all along the walls and floor. It stood in the middle of an immense hangar, with the entire far wall a seamless window onto the endless lab campuses. A dense lattice of walkways and fluorescent lights hung overhead with frantic activity at all levels. The space was dotted with plush couches and ottomans, placed awkwardly among the cable bundles. Each one held a gaggle of technicians fixated on readouts across at least three devices each. None of them looked like they had slept in twenty hours.

Opey snapped into the role of a chipper tour guide as he began gesturing and walking backwards. “And here we are! There’s a nicer entryway for VIPs two floors down, but this is where the magic happens. As the first elevator of the three, it’s pretty clunky compared to the Borneo and Colombia models. There’s a long, long list of improvements we’d love to make, but half of them would require shutting it down for at least four months which is, y’know, really bad.”

Opey paused to scan the room for anyone who looked annoyed at the interruption, but nobody seemed to register their presence whatsoever.

“The higher-ups want us to bring it up to par, and they’ll never, ever approve a shutdown longer than 48 hours, and even that’s like pulling teeth. We tinker on the margins, overstate our results without directly lying, and preserve the fiction. Honestly, we have no idea if our bosses are in on the joke. There’s a lot of money riding on that if we ever find out, though.”

Emmanuel laughed along with his family, but he had completely tuned out the words. He could only focus on the deep mechanical thrumming, slowly shifting frequency. Whenever he thought he detected a pattern, it would change, if only by a fraction of a second.

Opey wrapped up his explanation, and Emmanuel suddenly found himself right next to the colossal engine. “Alrighty, I’d better cut myself off before I end up giving you a whole astrophysics PhD. Who’s ready to see space?”

Emmanuel’s whole body was numb as he stepped through a discreet door in the engine. Inside the vibrations were much more muted, and he could start to focus on the sleek chamber of glass and brushed steel. It was about the size of his bedroom, and out the window he could only see a dense tangle of cables, gears, and pistons. They slowly powered on as the car began to rise.

As soon as Emmanuel came to grips with the ascension, blinding sunlight streamed in. His eyes adjusted to see a sprawl of lab campuses slowly receding until they looked like toy blocks, then fully concealed by the car’s floor. He could see the slow buildup on the path to Lagos, and then saw the widest horizon of his life.

The full scope began to sink in. This was unlike any vista from a plane or skyscraper. There were no deafening gales of wind, no whirring sounds from the car. It was moving far faster than before, but Emmanuel never noticed any acceleration. He was suddenly gripped with the fear that the car would rocket into space untethered.

Emmanuel turned to look at the cable, barely thicker than a sheet of paper, and was not reassured. Nearly everything else was hidden by clouds. As the car rose above them, Emmanuel saw the Moon clearer than ever before. Its craters almost had noticeable depth, and the spiderweb of lights could be distinguished into urban clusters - New Svalbard, Chang'e City, the conspicuously-unlit Tranquility Park.

The Moon looked at least twice the size Emmanuel remembered, and as he ran the numbers on whether or not that was even possible, he felt the car slowing down. Well, if we launch into space now, at least a satellite might notice and call for help. As it rolled to a stop, Opey spoke again. “Sorry, this is far as we can go without people asking too many questions, and we can only stay here for ten minutes at most. Such a disappointment, am I right?”

Nobody answered. Below was the western coast of Africa, as distant and picture-perfect as an atlas, with Lagos as its crown jewel. The first tinges of dusk rolled in from the east across the continent. Or rather, the Earth rolled toward night, as Emmanuel became abruptly aware of the planet’s rotation. He felt lightheaded and tried to calculate how much gravity was diminished at this height, the first number dissipating from his mind before he could think of the second. After a few false starts, he gave up and focused on the impossible tableau. Disbelief and terror still dominated his mind, with a flood of sheer awe creating an emotional mix he had never felt before.

The ride back down was still magnificent, but Emmanuel’s mind was filled with conflicting fragments. He was still reeling long after they had disembarked, Opey had showered them in gifts, and they had all hugged goodbye. On the train back home, a single thought emerged with relentless repetition: When can I go back?

Chapter Text

The crew awoke to a soft morning light in the hab while the real sun had barely risen. They had been briefed on this - the hab’s days would gradually stretch from twenty-four hours to Malang’s twenty-eight, but it would be a long, jarring process. Mission Control advised to keep stringent daily routines on hab time, even if it felt ludicrous to eat breakfast at midnight or lunch at dawn. They had nodded along at the briefing, but nothing quite prepared them for the feeling that their brains and time itself were simultaneously broken.

Emmanuel closed the living room’s blinds, then fumbled with the stove to rehydrate some canned shakshuka. He sat on the couch to eat it and summoned the satellite map. The original splotch had become a thick colorful band around the equator. About eighty kilometers to the east, the gray-green basin became a coastline of narrow fjords, then a deep turquoise sea covering a third of the planet's diameter. It gave way to a fiery golden jungle canopy, then a maze of deep tectonic gouges and sparse forests, then back to the basin. He turned on the topographic layer, and was surprised at the sheer depth of the sea so close to the shore. He turned on the annotation layer and saw dozens of tags in dense, shorthand Korean with plenty of pictograms.

Eun Sol emerged from her room and warmed up the rest of the shakshuka. She sat next to Emmanuel, bleary-eyed and jittery, glancing at her phone between bites. After a minute of silence, he gently asked, “How much did you sleep?”

“Well... from about 2 to 3, then 3:30 to 4:10, then I decided to just give up trying and focus on this.” She gestured to the screen. “I started writing a program to detect especially weird geological features, but right now it’s a kludgy shitshow.”

Emmanuel smiled. “I barely passed my intro-to-programming class, but I’d love to take a look later.”

Arjun shuffled in, eating a toasted block of uncooked ramen dipped in hot sauce. They zoomed in on the map’s canyon trenches and began drawing arrows. “So you see, we need to send scouts up north to dispel the fog of war, then build a forward base at this chokepoint-”

Eun Sol cut in. “But then our western flank is undefended! We at least need an anti-aircraft turret on this plateau.” She began sketching it on her phone’s screen.

“What mobility capacity are we up against?” asked Emmanuel. “This southern valley is tight, it could only fit a narrow column of tanks but plenty of infantry.”

As they discussed tactics, a volley of enemy battalions broke apart every plan. Kuiper walked in, drawing on her phone with glee. The imaginary battle raged on for half an hour, with daring maneuvers and backstabbing galore.

As it drew to a close, Arjun stepped up to the screen. “I hung out with the satellite design team a lot, and check this out-” They outlined a swath of the map and tapped through a series of menus. “You can export it as a map for pretty much any strategy game ever made. Wanna play Oblast Strike Tactics: Malang Edition tonight? Ooh - Alexandria, do you want to get in on this?”

Alexandria appeared with a peaked cap, epaulettes, and two dozen medals on their blazer. “Since our last skirmish, I have ruled the leaderboards for four months and helped design the ‘Despotic’ AI setting.”

Eun Sol stared in awe. “Holy shit, you’re PrideOfMakedon?”

Alexandria beamed. “The very same. Now, this is fun and all, but I don’t think we were sent here just to make an OST map pack.”

The crew looked sheepish and avoided eye contact.

Alexandria burst out laughing. “What, did you forget that we’re on another planet? Come on, let’s suit up.”

 


 

The exploration suits looked like business-casual hazmat suits, or a hybrid of riot cop and HVAC worker. They consisted of insulated jumpsuits with modular latches for a variety of gloves, boots, backpacks, and helmets. Despite training in them hundreds of times, getting dressed took ten minutes of fumbling, swearing, and accidentally hooking two suits together.

Finally, the crew assembled in the cramped airlock. Kuiper dramatically read from her phone. “Eight degrees celsius, feels like five with wind chill. Atmosphere is 68% nitrogen, 19% oxygen, 8% noble gases, 5% miscellaneous. All ready to embark?”

The crew nervously nodded. Vents along the walls began to intensely whir, swapping the familiar air for the alien. Three layers of doors slid open with a grinding groan. The basin looked blander than the speculative renderings, giving no distractions from contemplating the alien biosphere. A gust of cold, salty air whirled inside, with an almost-palpable presence. The sky’s purple tinge was pale and washed-out in the sunrise, with a few stars faintly visible. The bare trees cast long, stark shadows as the wind whistled through the rings in their trunks.

Eun Sol turned to the others. “We only have one shot at this. What should our first words be before we step out?” Her voice had a subtle hollow echo in the air.

They thought in silence for a moment. Emmanuel asked, “If we copied ‘one small step,’ would that be poetic or just lazy?”

“Lazy,” everyone replied.

“Yeah, I also thought about ‘Hello, World!’ but that’s worse.”

Kuiper slapped her forehead. “Shit, I brought some poetry books for exactly this reason, but they’re all back in my room and I am not cycling the airlock all over again.”

Arjun offered, “How about ‘First!’”

Eun Sol tapped the soil with her toe.

The others stared in horror as she said, “Hey, Alexandria?”

A beam and a flash. “Yes?”

“Let the record show that our statement upon making landfall is, and I quote, ‘First!’”

Alexandria gave a grinning thumbs-up and vanished.

Kuiper turned on her. “Eun Sol, if you release that to the press, I swear to God-”

Eun Sol tackled her to the ground as they both broke out laughing. Kuiper got the upper hand and pinned her, then stopped and turned to the others. “Can you help us up? This mud’s freezing."

Arjun and Emmanuel tentatively stepped onto the half-frozen soil, and hauled up the crewmates as soon as they were sure of their footing. Everyone took a moment to catch their breath and reorient themselves. Eun Sol asked, “Okay, what’s the actual agenda here?”

Kuiper checked her phone. “Just get feel for the terrain, take some soil and vegetation samples, make sure this isn’t secretly a murderous hellworld.”

Arjun walked over to the nearest tree, nearly losing their footing in puddles much deeper than expected. They ensured the soil was relatively firm and scraped their boots against the trunk. “Shit, will this ever get less muddy?”

“We’re near the end of the cold-and-wet season,” answered Eun Sol. “Next up is cold-and-dry, then hot-and-dry, then hot-and-wet. That one’s the real killer.”

“I’m just excited to use the buggy,” said Arjun, carefully chiseling bark into a sample pouch. “What’s the point of exploring a new planet if you can’t do doughnuts on it?”

Emmanuel rolled his eyes and drilled a narrow shaft into the soil near the tree. “Wow, these roots sink deep,” he said to Arjun, “And the soil gets rock-hard about two meters down. I’m amazed that anything at all grows there, but it looks thriving. Eun Sol, what do you make of it?”

Eun Sol had wandered a fair distance away, eyes glued to the horizon but writing intently on her phone. Emmanuel repeated the question on the suit’s radio channel.

She nearly dropped her phone in surprise, then fumbled for the radio controls. “Oh! Sorry, I’ll come over for a look. I was looking for a pattern in the tree grouping - they’re mostly in clusters of five at least a hundred meters apart, but I don’t think it’s statistically significant yet. Also, I found some neat worms!” She walked back over, deftly avoiding the most waterlogged ground.

“By the way, I was wondering,” said Arjun with a sly smile, “does it make sense to call the ground here ‘earth?’ Is that semantically legitimate?”

Eun Sol recoiled in horror. “Christ no!”

“Not even in the lowercase-e colloquial sense?”

“Let’s establish a precedent,” offered Emmanuel. “Hey Kuiper, what do you call the soil on the Moon?”

“Is this the setup to a joke?” she asked, carefully walking over.

“No, we’re honestly curious. Arjun asked if the word ‘earth’ could apply to the soil here. Eun Sol is appalled at it, I have no idea, and I wanted to see what terminology the Moon uses.”

“That’s actually a whole culture-war thing,” she explained. “Most people are fine with ‘earth,’ but some high-and-mighty people never say it to distance themselves from the filthy, backwards mainland. Some of them say ‘regolith’ because they’re also pretentious pricks. Honestly, I fucking hated the whole debate and I do not want to relitigate it here.”

“I don’t think we have to force the issue,” said Emmanuel. “We can call it earth or soil or regolith or even just the ground, and we’ll naturally develop our own vocabulary that feels right, just like with everything else.”

The rest of the crew agreed, but a stalemate hung in the air.

“Are we done with this?” asked Kuiper. “There’s something else I just remembered to check.”

The crew exchanged glances and nodded. “Good. Hey Alexandria, how are you holding up?”

Alexandria’s familiar chime played over the radio, and they spoke with a slightly crackling voice. “Being out in the field is pretty weird, but about what I expected from training. Most of me is still back at base, so don’t expect my full wit and intellect from this little fork.”

Kuiper held up her phone, showing a simplified rendering of Alexandria. “Noted. I’ll walk away from the hab at a steady pace and give you a series of benchmark tests, some familiar, some new. Ready?”

Alexandria gave a thumbs-up. Kuiper started walking and chatting with Alexandria, using plenty of abstract concepts and ambiguous sentence structures. Every hundred meters, she asked them for the prime factorization of a random ten-digit number. Alexandria’s depiction became progressively less detailed and animated, then a series of static poses, then a single icon. Just as Kuiper was wrapping up the conversation and tallying the results, she tripped and fell face-first into an enormous puddle.

“I’m fine! We’re both fine!” she yelled as the others ran over. “I thought the sun would dry this out more, and nothing here weighs what it’s supposed to.”

“Maybe this is our cue to wrap up,” said Emmanuel, hoisting her arm. “We’ve gotten plenty of samples, and we should clean off these suits ASAP.”

“Fine by me,” said Arjun. Eun Sol looked a bit disappointed, but didn’t object.

 


 

Back in the airlock, the hab’s air felt heavy and bland. Removing the suits was fairly easy, but not completely without snags and swearing. The waterlogged jumpsuits were hauled into the washing machine, with the boots and helmets carefully lined up by the door. The crew agreed to rest on their own for a while, then reconvene for dinner and debriefing.

Arjun took their samples to the greenhouse’s carefully-separated sections of Earth- and Malang-style air and soil, planting seeds from both planets in each. They returned to check on the pots at least every half-hour, as if the soil would yield magic beans.

Eun Sol sat in the living room, scrutinizing the planetary map and adding even more annotations. The equator was in much sharper resolution now, with far more topographic detail, but the surrounding basin was just as stubbornly flat and gray-green.

Emmanuel laid out his stone and soil samples on his workbench, in descending order of how interesting they seemed. As he prepared some microscope slides, his will to work flatlined and he figured a nap would serve him much better than drearily pushing on.

Kuiper ran through an exhaustive workout routine, both with and without her weighted clothes. She finished by tossing a few objects of different weights through a small basketball hoop, succeeding about half the time. She took a long shower, then entered the living room to find everyone setting up their laptops. “Perfect!” said Arjun. “Ready for Oblast Strike Tactics, everyone vs. Alexandria?”

“...Shouldn’t we have dinner first?”

“We can just make some canned soup or whatever - the gazpacho is actually pretty good. Anyway, I’m the Kola Technocracy.”

Kuiper booted up her computer and beamed. “Alright, then I guess I’ll be the Omsk Garrison.”

The battle raged through the jagged canyons and into the golden jungle. Battalions were routed to the grainy blankness at the edge of the world. Whole mountains were leveled or strip-mined, as the war turned to scorched-earth attrition. At long last, Alexandria’s Tunguska Protectorate won a brutal Pyrrhic victory with one dwindling mountaintop encampment.

The hab’s clock read midnight as the lopsided treaties were finally signed, but Malang’s sun was still in the final moments of setting. The crew watched out the window in awe as the deep fuchsia-maroon sky faded to black. The constellations were jarringly different, the Moon was too dull and dim without city lights, but the footprint-covered plain felt a little less alien.

Chapter Text

This planet is not a battlefield between humanity and wilderness. We are fully a part of it, yet with a unique responsibility.

The tiger has claws; the eagle has wings; the human has reason. Will we use it to repair the world, or shatter it forever? Will we think on the scale of generations, or quarterly profit statements?

Naive pastoralism is not enough. Every last trinket bears the mark of a global web that can never be unraveled. Will it strangle us, or save us? Will we dare to engineer a responsible Anthropocene?

-Preamble to the Charter of the Earth Restoration Agency, ratified 14/10/2133

 


 

The preamble hung in every ERA lodge Arjun ever lived in, always with a collage of archival photos and uplifting art. They typically glossed over it, as banal as any door or window. Yet every now and then they’d pause and examine the words as if for the first time. 

Arjun thought about the world it was written in. Anthropocene was as loaded with horror and death as a word could be. The ERA had enough of an uphill battle being founded at all, when so many similar efforts had turned to ash. The bloated, senile United Nations had been the most recent casualty, utterly unable to stop a global bloodbath. In a scorched, collapsing world, the founders rolled the dice with ludicrous bravado. If the preamble seemed trite and cheesy now, that meant they had won, and on a huge scale.

This thought inspired Arjun even as they only saw the ERA’s most mundane operations. Both of their moms worked in its R&D labs - Nidhara Khalsa cloning endangered and extinct species in the Conservation Corps, and Alisha Bajracharya (‘Babaj’ to a baby Arjun, which has stuck forever) working on outreach for the Energy Corps. The family relocated for work at least every other year, sometimes much more often. The ERA lodges varied in size and material, but they all had the same air of crisp competence, whether in Stockholm or Hyderabad. Each one held four to six families and a nebulous cast of staffers. Arjun encountered many of them over and over across the planet, sometimes becoming friendly enough to reflexively call them ‘cousins.’ Arjun tried their best to keep in touch with the closest ones, even when contact invariably frayed within a few months.

Khalsa’s lab was nicknamed ‘Anthropocene Park,’ and one technician had designed an emblem with a dodo’s silhouetted skeleton. Arjun didn’t really get the joke, but they loved wearing a T-shirt with it whenever they got a tour of a lab. It didn’t have glowing vats with incubating tigers, fluorescent bubbling beakers, or cackling crackpots. Rather, it had a few public pens with the most photogenic specimens, and plenty of frustrated technicians on the phone with tissue banks and zoos. It was inspiring in its own way - devoted people wading through dismal tedium to rebuild the world, one failed test at a time. Some jokers took the nickname too far, and management saw fit to post a notice at the door: Dinosaurs are not currently ecologically necessary, nor could we clone them even if we wanted to. The cutoff date for extinction is ~1900 at the earliest, and all of you know this. Please stop submitting them for the queue. If this rule is repealed, we will tell you. Thank you for your cooperation.

Cloning dinosaurs was pure fantasy, but cloning vital species could be depressingly close. It was never as easy as extracting a genome and etching it into an egg. The lab’s samples were riddled with mutations, omissions, and load-bearing genes that nobody understood. Creating a viable code required countless good-enough patchwork genes from other creatures that still somehow added up to the target species.

Even when the Park finally grew a living specimen, the problems only multiplied. Often, it would grow up perfectly healthy and then abruptly drop dead. Or turn permanently sterile after successfully mating once. Or everything would be fine, and then its kids would die or go sterile. Lab procedure required five healthy generations before release into the wild was even an option. And as if that wasn’t hard enough already, many species were endangered precisely because they had agonizingly long reproductive cycles or were unbearably finicky about it. Thus, Arjun’s introduction to sexuality was hearing Khalsa fume about the goddamn dipshit pandas who literally could not fuck if their lives depended on it. Honestly, Arjun didn’t see the appeal either.

Babaj’s frustrations were more institutional. Splitting atoms or tapping into geothermal crevices were fairly straightforward, but much of the world bore scars from nuclear or tectonic disaster. Her job was to ease public fears of these methods. She had plenty of graphs showcasing uranium’s ludicrous energy density, dozens of statistics about mundane things far more likely to be fatal, and a well-honed speech about how anything capable of producing enough power to meet base demand will have some horrific failure state. Still, the production of new plants was still stubbornly glacial.

The scientific and bureaucratic quagmires collided every fifteen years, when the world’s PR scores were all re-evaluated. Per the ERA’s constitution, every parcel of land on Earth required an advisory limit on its population density and resource extraction. A PR 1-0 zone could have very sparse nomadic communities, but no cultivation beyond subsistence level. A PR 10-10 zone, of which there were vanishingly few, had almost no limits on either. Though not legally binding, compliance was required for cleanup grants and cross-zone projects. The borders of each zone and interpretations of the ranks were subject to endless local wrangling, demanding days of arguments and phone calls and ten-hour meetings.

When Arjun was sixteen, midway through the cycle, both Khalsa and Babaj were summoned to a town a few hours north of Lenape City to hammer out arcane points of PR interpretation. Arjun had tagged along on work trips before, but only to conferences in Lagos or Kuala Lumpur. They had never been on such a rural field assignment, and pleaded to come along. The trip didn’t expressly forbid guests, and nobody’s schedule was free enough to look after them the whole time. After some deliberation, when the time came, Arjun boarded the ERA jet with a modest suitcase.

 


 

The jet arrived in Lenape City in late afternoon. The dazzlingly multicolored Statue of Liberty overlooked a vast web of land-reclamation projects, ten-story gardens, and iridescent spires. The pilot obligingly took a slow circuit of the city, showing off the twinkling lights as night approached, so unlike the harsh grid-bound pinpricks that Arjun was familiar with. They mapped out a meandering metropolis, running up and down hills and through winding alleys. Near the coast, their reflections shimmered in the half-sunken canals of Mannahata Island.

The chopper finally landed at a tourist-focused transit hub on the edge of town. A delegation of ERA officials and local representatives greeted the Khalsa-Bajracharyas, took their luggage, and guided them through a dense set of corridors to an awaiting train. As they left the main terminal, the signage drifted from predominantly English to a hybrid Unami dialect to the dialect annotated with full classical Unami. As the train glided north, Arjun saw the signage split into more and more languages, in writing systems they couldn’t begin to understand.

The city swiftly tapered off into greenhouses and farmland with a few modest settlements. The meadows gradually became less tidy and geometric, giving way to endless fields of tall, irregular grasses. The forests beyond them grew taller and stranger, spiked with evergreen spires. Even at a distance, the tales of cryptic beings lurking within them suddenly felt much more plausible. Arjun checked their phone, and the PR scores that had been gently descending were now plummeting.

The train terminated at the edge of a truly dense pine forest. There was no station at all, just a patch of asphalt with a pair of all-terrain buggies. The delegations piled into them, each with a mix of ERA staff and locals. The locals handled the driving and navigation along winding, unpaved roads. The buggies' headlights only pierced a few feet ahead into the dusk. As night arrived, Arjun half-wondered if the entire world beyond the patch of headlights had disappeared.

They finally arrived well after midnight in a small town enmeshed in the forest. A few strings of lights barely held off the encroaching darkness, and the dense canopy blotted out the moon and stars. The two-story town hall stood in a clearing, with the surrounding buildings wedged in wherever they fit among the trees. The connecting paths rambled over roots and streams, splitting off into the woods.

The visitors filed into City Hall and were shown to guests' quarters. The unvarnished wood bedrooms each held a few cots and modest local decorations. The adults were asleep in seconds, but Arjun lay awake for two hours intently listening to the woods beyond. When they finally fell into shallow sleep, the animal cries and rustling foliage followed them into their dreams.

 


 

Arjun woke up at the crack of dawn, with their parents already up and in meetings. They slipped out of the room and past a hall of locked office doors. Some rooms held murmurs of warm greetings, others held intense discussions already well-underway. The entire day was scheduled for conferences, but Arjun knew from experience it would likely stretch far longer. 

Arjun descended the main staircase to the lobby, densely decorated with tapestries and pelts. The carpeted floor shone with golden sunlight through a window spanning the entire height of the front wall. When they opened the front door, the subtle chill of a mid-spring morning coiled into the room.

The forest floor was striped with thin shadows of the trees. Other than the town hall, none of the town’s buildings exceeded one story. They were all rectangular or hexagonal cabins, unpainted but adorned with geometric patterns rendered in different types of wood. Most of them had a small greenhouse attachment, and standalone greenhouses stood wherever there was sufficient sun exposure. Hardly any of them had lights on, and a few people were out jogging or preparing for the day. On the edge of town, a group of bearded men with monochrome clothes and wide-brimmed hats traded livestock and fertilizer with the locals.

The town was ringed by trailheads, each with pictograms outlining the length and difficulty. Arjun began with a short and simple path, looping around the town and passing over a small creek. It was pleasant, if a bit too postcard-perfect. They looked for a more elaborate route, and settled on a three-kilometer circuit with plenty of elevation changes.

The path began smooth and brushed-clean, and quickly became a vague, rocky trail that threatened to sprain an ankle every three meters. Some sections were near-vertical, with metal handles and ledges bolted to the stone. Even with plenty of hiking experience, Arjun was winded in minutes.

The path extended far from town, then looped back around up a steep hill that rose well above the canopy. Arjun scrambled to the top and took a long, panting rest. They could see the entire town from the peak, albeit half-obscured by branches. It had an unfurling spiral structure with an underlying logic that they couldn’t quite articulate. It reminded them of what they’d heard about Lunar settlements, with sparse cabins and gardens kept as purposefully low-tech as possible. Yet here the environment was not a hostile force kept firmly at bay, but a deeply-enmeshed layer of the town’s history.

In the opposite direction lay a clearing with a cluster of misshapen, half-collapsed structures. It was clearly a defunct village, and Arjun could make out silos and chapels and barns in different stages of overgrowth. It had likely been abandoned for several decades - none of the facades were visible under the vines and blooms. No trails explicitly led to it, but there was a clearly-trampled path through the meadow.

Arjun searched for a direct path down and found a well-worn set of ledges that seemed stable. They carefully stepped down the hill to the edge of the meadow and waded over to the path, only hitting a bramble patch once or twice. The trampled path turned into the remains of an asphalt road, cracked and potholed but kept relatively free of debris. Not every building was utterly desolate, either. The barn was clearly a clubhouse for the local kids. The silo had some psychedelic decor and an ingrained smell of marijuana. Other buildings were recognizable as a school, general store, houses - all boarded up or thoroughly decayed. Arjun didn’t venture into those, but stopped completely when they saw the open doors of a chapel.

After scanning for any obvious hazards, Arjun stepped up the creaking stairs onto the threshold. The foyer held some tattered announcements for meetings, charity drives, church functions, and local festivals. The most recent one was from 2265, but they had been tapering off for years.

The sanctuary was surprisingly intact, though the stone walls had fared better than the wooden roof. At least a third of it was completely gone, and the rest was either open to the sky or patched with netting from a half-hearted renovation effort. Murals of the Last Supper and Crucifixion had faded into ghostly afterimages. Only a few bright shards of stained glass remained in the window panes. Nearly every pew was toppled, splintered, or missing. The empty cross had nearly collapsed under rot and termites, held together only by constricting vines. The hymnals and Bibles in the pews were reduced to damp lumps with illegibly-smeared text. Any precious metals or grand works of art had been stripped long ago, leaving only a bare framework of divinity.

Arjun could see no trace of break-ins or vandalism. They carefully sat on the least fragile-looking pew and recalled the bits and pieces they knew of Christianity. They got as far as grisly, humiliating death and switched to something less terrifying to ponder in the wilderness. They took deep breaths and reflected on broader themes, Transience and Mortality and the Quest For Meaning. For moments at a time, their mind grazed something immense and beautifully terrifying. They closed their eyes, slowed their breathing, and attempted to delve further. Focusing on it was futile - the true insights were only murmured on the edge of the mind, frail constellations that collapsed under any scrutiny at all.

Arjun settled into a groove of letting their mind aimlessly wander as if on the edge of sleep. After five minutes, or thirty, or sixty, they were suddenly aware of an enormous, warm presence behind them. Once the distraction ruined any hope of further meditation, Arjun turned around and was nearly face-to-face with a moose. They fell out of the pew, collapsing it into two splintery halves. The moose kept indifferently grazing.

Arjun’s heart rate took a long time to slow. Moose were supposed to be extinct in the wild, confined to zoos and Khalsa’s lab. The blighted forests could never support the diet of something so immense, yet here it was, as imposing as it had been in the Ice Age. Perhaps it survived planetary ruin with the same sheer obstinacy that kept it nearly unchanged for two million years. Was the declaration of ‘extinct in the wild’ premature, overestimating humanity’s power as the planet's protagonists? Should I tell Khalsa about this? How much of the surrounding story should I include? Would I be kept on the straight and narrow the rest of my life?

Arjun forcefully swept all those questions aside. They would have time to worry about them later. Besides, if a trespassing teenager could find a moose, surely the best scientists in the world could too. They steadied their breath and heartbeat and focused on the moose itself. It looked juvenile or adolescent, with small seasonal antlers covered in velvety fur. It intently chewed on shoots growing between the floorboards, and was clearly perfectly familiar with this ghost town. If it detected Arjun at all, it gave no indication whatsoever.

After at least twenty minutes, the moose finally ambled out of the church and back into the woods. Arjun kept sitting in silence. As noon approached, more foragers arrived in town, whether for bark, fungus, or reeds. Arjun recognized a few of them from glass enclosures, but most were utterly unknown.

Chapter Text

The sky split open after the first day of exploration. Thirty seconds of drizzling gave way to a day-long deluge. The rain drummed intently on the roof of the hab, never leaking through but getting ominously close. Winding, curvy lightning bolts carved the sky as thunder bellowed across the plain. The storm receded slowly and in parts, with deep pink clouds threatening to encroach again at any moment. 

The downpour turned the basin into a soaked, swampy nursery. As soon as it tapered off, the puddles sprang to life with neon green-and-blue lily pads, each hosting a swarm of shimmering dragonflies. As they migrated and fed, they nearly blotted out the sky with an armada of silver-and-cobalt wings. At dawn and dusk they refracted the sun into chromatic chaos. A few lizards and amphibians preyed on them, and happily basked in the absence of megafauna.

Venturing outside was completely out of the question. Any footstep would either crush a fragile ecosystem or get stuck in a mire. The crew's awe at the ecosystem threatened to curdle into frustrated cabin fever. Even after two days, once the plants had withered and the creatures receded into hibernation, the basin was too flooded to walk on but too shallow to safely use a hovercraft.

By day five, the land had dried enough that a careful navigator equipped with snowshoes could walk relatively easily. After some tentative laps around the hab’s perimeter, Eun Sol embarked on a solo journey at dawn. She insisted that she did her best work alone, but would invite the crew along if she found anything of note.

The crew watched her depart into the sunrise while the hab’s clock read late afternoon. Even with a clear formula to chart the relative lengths of days, time inside and outside the hab felt decoupled completely at random. The interstellar jet lag made the establishment of rigid routines immensely difficult, and unpacking was still a work-in-progress. It wasn’t just listlessness - filling up the hab with the clutter and decor of daily life felt like an ugly intrusion upon a beautifully sterile showroom.

Still, that feeling dissipated a little more each day. The earthy, humid smell of the greenhouse percolated into the kitchen and living room. The walls held both decorations from home and the crew’s sketches of the landscape. Much more of the planetary map was filled out, revealing shimmering island chains, lush river deltas, and canyons lined with immense crystals. Annotations blotted out almost all of it, requiring two more map layers to hold them all. Travel routes were elaborately planned for as soon as the buggy became usable.

Yet even with all-new continents, playing strategy games nonstop was beginning to lose its luster. Cabin fever was becoming intolerable. Even the terabytes of Earth media brought along seemed uniformly tedious. After hours of boredom, the crew finally opened Mission Control’s list of suggested group stimulation activities. Most of them sounded unbearable, or needed far more setup and energy than they could muster now. That left one option - hosting a radio show for an imagined public.

 


 

Alexandria sat at the head of the kitchen table, wearing bulky headphones and dark sunglasses. They cleared their throat and announced, “Welcome to Radio MLNG, coming to you live, give or take six years, from Malang, the galaxy’s most eligible exoplanet! In the studio today, we’ve got Arjun Khalsa-Bajrachara, Phạm Kuiper, Emmanuel Olukolade, and, calling in from the field, Yang Eun Sol. Now, Arjun, you won the coin toss, what do you have for us today?” 

Arjun beamed.  “I present the thrilling sequel to ‘what should we call the soil’-”

Eun Sol’s voice crackled in from the speakerphone. “Arjun, I know you can’t see me, but just imagine me rolling up my sleeves menacingly.”

“Noted. What should be the demonym for this place? Malangya? Malangese? Malangi? Malangian? Malangite?”

Kuiper thought about it for a moment. “‘Malangya’ sounds best, but I could be persuaded otherwise.”

The soft squelching of Eun Sol’s footsteps paused. “I’m not quite sure, but ‘Malangian’ is spectacularly bad.”

Alexandria chimed in. “I love how we’re not giving a damn about any cohesive grammatical tradition here. That said, I love the feel of ‘Malangite’ but with the emphasis at the start.”

Emmanuel tapped a pen against the table for a few seconds, and said, “I submit a write-in ballot for ‘Malangyor.’”

Kuiper perked up. “If we can do that, then I want ‘Malangka.’”

Arjun summoned a blank text file. “Alright, this is getting out of hand. Take ten minutes to submit anything you want, and we’ll make some ballots.” 

The list of proposals swiftly became a page long: Malangya, Malangese, Malangi, Malangian, Malangite, Malangyor, Malangeshi, Malangka, Malya, Malaa, Malanguan, Malangois, Malange, Malangean, Malangesh, Malangyot, Malanx, Malangə, and many more. The ten-minute timer became twenty, then thirty.

Once the ideas finally trailed off, Arjun took the floor again. “Beautiful work here. But how should we go from here? If we make a tournament bracket, how would we seed it? If we do ranked-choice ballots, that gets incredibly clunky.”

Emmanuel crunched some numbers on his phone. “I thought about doing a round-robin process, but that is a horrifying number of permutations.”

Arjun lit up. “How should we choose the selection process? Ranked-choice voting, from among those three?”

Kuiper cocked her head. “If we don’t do the bracket, will we do multiple rounds of voting requiring a certain threshold to proceed? I know some neat statistical models that might help.”

Alexandria leaned in, utterly enthralled. “We haven’t heard from Eun Sol in a hot minute. Hey, Eun Sol, would you like to weigh in on this?”

Her voice came through, after a few seconds, crackling slightly more. “I haven’t been listening for a while. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but this barren plain is infinitely more interesting than any of you.”

The rest of the crew laughed and groaned. As soon as they steadied themselves, Alexandria chimed in, “She’s completely right! This is just brutally unlistenable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Say, aren’t we past due for dinner? Don’t touch that dial, we’ll be back in a few!” They played some auto-generated easy-listening music into the mic, mildly preferable to silence.

 


 

Making dinner was only slightly more appealing than voting on voting methods. The greenhouse plants wouldn’t yield a useful crop for another few days. The biomatter printer was disappointing too - the preserved samples from Earth became meats that were superficially decent but inevitably sad and spongy. There was surely a way to finesse local ingredients into something delicious, but the results of Arjun and Eun Sol’s tinkering thus far ranged from underwhelming to utterly noxious. With careful budgeting, the stored rations could theoretically last the entire mission, but the thought of that currently sounded worse than starvation.

They weren’t bad. An army of chefs and nutritionists had obsessed over them for years, but that was the problem - unsettlingly perfect calibration in every bite. The shakshuka, for instance, always had eggs at the perfect consistency in the optimal balance with tomatoes. There was never the satisfaction of achieving that balance through well-honed culinary skill, after so many diversely underwhelming attempts. The desserts were always calculated indulgences, satisfying but never straying unacceptably far from ideal nutritional indices. Naturally, everyone on the crew filled all their leftover kilograms of personal storage with as much beloved junk food as they could.

The best solution they had found so far was artfully-committed food crimes. Swapping packets of spices and sauce. Frying instead of baking, or vice-versa. They produced some delicious hybrids, but some of the experiments were vile, and it felt terrible to waste food or leave unusable odds and ends.

Tonight’s dinner was lightly-spiced ramen noodles, strawberry jam, and beef-mushroom bourekas. It was a surprisingly good sweet-savory mix, and certainly better than last night’s punishingly salty seafood. Eun Sol unpacked her field rations, and joined in the banter with her protein bars and dried fruit. Alexandria mimed eating filet mignon and sipping a 2142 vintage of Bordeaux. The crew finished, rinsed their plates, and relaxed with a round of poker. They were making some motions towards resting in their rooms when Emmanuel spoke up. “Hey, here’s a radio question that’s probably a bit less awful for all involved: Who do you want to play you in the movie about this mission? I'd like Isaiah Oyelowo.”

The others theatrically groaned but played along. Kuiper pointed out, “Our knowledge of movie stars is a decade out of date. Should we cast them as we remember them, or guess which child stars would probably be best?”

Emmanuel nodded. “...Good point. I guess just cast actors as you remember them, child stars are always a crapshoot.”

Kuiper asked Alexandria, “Could you play yourself with perfect fidelity? Store every remark and gesture and be the North Star of the whole show?”

“Theoretically, but that would take up so much memory and I have better things to spend it on.”

Arjun’s answer required no pondering. “Faisal Singh is the only actor I trust to capture me accurately.”

Kuiper gave them a knowing glance. “Look, just because you had a formative crush on them-”

“True, but irrelevant. But hey, I copied their style a lot growing up, so we’d come full-circle!”

“...They’ll be in their sixties by the time we get back.”

“Then just digitally puppeteer some aged-down homunculus of them, I don’t care.”

Eun Sol finally broke her silence. “Come on, not _ven the   ERA has the budget f_r them.”

Arjun scoffed. “Alright, then who’d you choose?”

“You seem  more l_ke a Sushant KV. As for   me, I’d go for Natasha Choi. She’s a great up-and-comer in the fringe Busan theat__ scene. I hope she’s  doing well now, she deser_es it.”

Kuiper finally had her answer. “I want to be portrayed as a fluorescent cartoon bear, which no other characters think is weird at all.”

Alexandria lit up and leaned in. “Fascinating. Could you elaborate on that?”

“Whenever the director is asked about it, they either dodge the question or give an improvised, rambling artistic rationale.”

“_n tha_   case, I’ll b_ my fursona too.  I have some ref sheets on my compu_er...”

Kuiper slammed the table. “Dammit, Eun Sol, this isn’t my fursona, this is pointed commentary on the absurdity of rounding off historical figures to current celebrities!” 

“Whatev_r,  furry.”

“You just said you have a fursona too. Where do you get off using that tone of voice?”

“Oh   no, I’m n_t a furry, I _ust made it as    commen_ary on h_manity’s desire  to merge with an idealized, d_fanged vision   of natu_e.”

Kuiper rolled her eyes. Arjun, Emmanuel, and Alexandria sat on the edge of their seats.

“As fun   _s this argument is, I should

pro_ably giv_  a field report be_ore  I get co_pletely indeci_herable, right?”

“Please,” said everyone.

“I’m about six kil_meters west of th_

Hab. By   and large it’s more _f the same, but the grou_d has

gotten a bit           driernow.Thereare some exp_sed boulders, _nd I chipped off so__ samples for Emman_el. T_e trees are a bit   shorter and younger, appea_ing in bigger cl_sters but spaced _urther a

 

part.”

Alexandria tried adjusting the frequency and settings, but nothing seemed to work. “Eun Sol, you’re breaking up a lot. Maybe it’d be better to text us?”

The crew’s phones lay silent for a minute, then received a rapid-fire volley of chimes.

Eun Sol: ground’s a bit soggier now, but w/o any lakes or puddles

Eun Sol: some diff types of trees now, gonna get clippings for arjun

Eun Sol: huh, much more soaked thrsdghSG

Eun Sol: GDSL4WB;Sda3

The radio link filled with wet squelching, staticky feedback, and hyperventilating. After a moment of fumbling, Eun Sol's suit camera showed a grainy, compressed sinkhole at a few frames per minute.

 


 

The crew ran to suit up and grab supplies. The freezing puddles were no match for their adrenaline, but it wore off a few hundred meters from the hab. They settled in for a long slog, conserving their energy for Eun Sol’s rescue. Emmanuel took charge of navigation, Arjun hauled extraction and first-aid gear, and Kuiper ran comms.

Kuiper: Are you in stable condition?

Eun Sol: doing alright, i think

Eun Sol: after the initial shock i’m pretty okay

Eun Sol: got a bunch of food and water + climbing pegs

Eun Sol: don’t think they’ll stick well in this mud but i’ll hold off on that until you get here anyway

Kuiper: Any concussive head trauma? Suit/rebreather ruptures? Broken bones?

Eun Sol: pretty sure my head and bones are fine. @Alexandria, any problems w/ my suit?

Alexandria [Mobile Fork]: No problems detected in Eun Sol’s suit or rebreather. Medical benchmarks suggest possible bruising or spraining. [Note: I have roughly 5% of my full processing power in this iteration. Further scrutiny may be necessary.]

Eun Sol: i can stand up and walk in place w/o too much trouble

Eun Sol: the aching is fading but i won’t push myself

Kuiper: Very glad to hear it. We’ll be there within half an hour.

The crew hiked in silence. They took a winding route, staying well clear of anything that looked dangerously soaked. A few puddles held wilted lily pads reduced to bleached pastels. Each one was half-eaten by broods of larval dragonflies, growing into their gleaming silver coats. The air was punishingly humid, too cold and heavy to properly form into gusts. Once the ground seemed reasonably dry, they paused to catch their breath and rehydrate. Kuiper flipped open her phone for a checkup.

Kuiper: We’re about halfway there. How are you holding up?

Eun Sol: feeling p good now

Eun Sol: i’ve had a lot of time to focus on the sinkhole

Eun Sol: it seems... weirdly geometric?

Eun Sol: i’m sure @Emmanuel will have a lot of rock nerd opinions on it

Eun Sol: [img]

Emmanuel: Huh, looks like the Giant’s Causeway, but that is *not* basalt.

Emmanuel: It looks pretty precarious, though - not sure if I could take a sample without collapsing the whole thing.

Eun Sol: yeahh about that

Eun Sol: might wanna hurry, it’s been p creaky for a *while*

Emmanuel: Is there any danger of a cave-in??

Eun Sol: i don’t think so, i can stand clear

Eun Sol: or at least not get totally suffocated, i’ve got a good air tank

Kuiper: Excellent. We’ll be there ASAP.

The crew kept on hiking. By now they could track Eun Sol’s footprints, still reassuringly fresh. Eun Sol stayed on the line, talking about nothing in particular, trying to keep her mind and pulse settled. It was hard to separate the sounds of creaking rocks and static, and the crew flinched with a spike of panic at each one. They joined in rhythmic breathing exercises and set a steady marching pace, building a calming routine. It worked well until a cacophonous crash and squealing feedback shattered it.

Kuiper: Are you okay???

Eun Sol: i’m fine, i was well clear of it, just rattled

Eun Sol: it opened up into a tunnel...

A long silence, well beyond even the most prolonged transmission delay.

The radio link sprang to life.

“WH A T TH_     FU_K __A T

THE _UCK WHAT        THE 

FUCKWHA_ T_E 

FUC K”

Kuiper: What’s going on?!? Are you in danger?? @Alexandria is she okay?

Alexandria [Mobile Fork]: No problems detected in Eun Sol’s suit or rebreather. Medical benchmarks give no indication of injuries sustained in the last ten minutes. [Note: I have roughly 5% of my full processing power in this iteration. Further scrutiny may be necessary.]

“Yeah, no shit,” muttered Kuiper. Eun Sol hyperventilated for an alarmingly long time, then turned off the radio.

The crew moved inexorably onward. Panic had cooled into leaden dread. The radio silence broke only once the sinkhole was in view.

Eun Sol: we’re ending the mission right fucking now.



Chapter Text

Reunification Day was Eun Sol’s least favorite day of the year. It all had such a dismal, suffocating atmosphere - the ritualized burning of the old North and South Korean flags; the hoisting of the United Republic flag; the politicians’ droning speeches; the oh-so-solemn tributes from celebrities. At least the food was great, if she ignored the Grave Historical Significance of the dishes and their layout. It was on its way to becoming the kind of holiday observed solely with feasts and day-drinking, but not nearly far enough. Eun Sol learned to just mouth along and discreetly roll her eyes, but she could never ignore the sneering subtext - “aren’t you pitiful Northerners so grateful for your liberation?” It was the only time she ever felt any spark of Northern identity, which made her hate it all the more.

It didn’t help that it was the one day Eun Sol couldn’t get out of being dragged into Pyongyang. She only knew the city as an immense civic metronome, keeping a relentless beat of anniversaries - Two hundred years since the War of the South China Sea began. One hundred ninety-four years since it concluded. One hundred fifty years since reunification... The city was decimated in the wars, and the architects of its reconstruction agonized over what tone to strike. Too triumphant, and it would mockingly paper over two hundred years of misery. Too solemn, and it would be just as much of a dreary monolith. The project dragged on for decades of deadlocked public forums and bloated contractors, limping across the finish line with the worst aspects of both. The memorials and street names were all stuffed to the gills with Serious Significance. The plazas and promenades were all very purposeful counterbalances to the grimness, unable to simply stand on their own.

The job was doomed from the start, of course. The United Republic had an impossible foundation, reconciling two nations with identities built on being Not Each Other. The only acceptable compromises were dirges of remembrance, offering no future other than more of the same ad nauseam. It still felt fundamentally unfair, though. From what Eun Sol had seen of Seoul and Busan, they kept on being more-or-less normal cities, sprinkled with dour monuments but not strangled by them.

Perhaps Eun Sol was projecting, but she felt that nobody liked going to Pyongyang, even for concerts or festivals. Entering city limits was always a soul-sapping obligation best kept as quick and painless as possible. The only decent parts of the city were the museums, and even that had heavy caveats. They were either scrupulously apolitical - talking around pivotal national traumas to an absurd degree - or just warehouses of more damn monuments. She developed her own rankings of them: Civic history was right out, but natural or technological history could be fun as long as you avoided anything from 1900 onward.

 


 

Eun Sol lived in the countryside, where the city’s aura was tolerably diminished. On a clear day she could see the skyline spread out like headstones on the horizon. She knew her parents had lived there as students, but they never elaborated on that time. No photos, no funny anecdotes, no old friends. As soon as they could afford it, they bought a house at the far end of the train line and never looked back. 

Their house was modeled on mid-22nd-century styles, when architects flailed wildly to shake off so many years of prefab totalitarianism. It didn’t copy their most bizarrely contrarian ideas, but the layout still confounded every single visitor. Several kilometers of overgrown fields lay between it and the nearest town. Perhaps that was too generous a term - it was a cramped bar, a pair of cheap restaurants, a convenience store, a municipal office, and an apartment block that was the only multi-story building in sight.

The nearest school was well within Pyongyang’s suburbs, three train transfers and a ten-minute walk away. After two months of enrollment, Eun Sol had been politely but firmly requested to leave and never return and not make the principal ask twice. After her parents hammered out the necessary bureaucracy, a new school routine developed: a rotating cast of tutors would come a few times a week from nearby towns, quickly learning to never commit the cardinal sin of boring Eun Sol.

This left plenty of unstructured time, which Eun Sol used to wander as she pleased. After exhaustive negotiation, she agreed to two rules from her parents: be back by dusk, and make sure she always had phone reception. She sincerely framed it as part of her education, and took notes in a journal labeled ‘Peripatetic Anthropology.’ In the surrounding fields, she saw farming techniques barely changed in centuries. The town borders followed bizarre zigzags, shaped by countless back-and-forth provincial slapfights. She drew map after map, full of real and imagined towns, beasts, and treasures.

She learned plenty of civic history, too. Once, at the edge of a meadow, she found a half-buried statue of some Kim or another. The head was gone, and it was covered in spray-painted slogans and curses. She ran home immediately. She didn’t tell anyone about it until three months later, when she gathered enough courage to return and confirm it wasn’t just a bad dream. 

The specter of national sorrow refused to be shut out. Her grandparents made a lot of jokes that she wasn’t quite sure were jokes. Whenever they got groceries, they talked about stocking up their bunker in the basement. Eun Sol never found it, but she did find immaculate framed portraits of the entire Kim dynasty. She asked her grandmother about them, who just chuckled and said, “Just in case we’re ever asked to prove our loyalty.” Eun Sol dropped the topic and never willfully raised it again.

 


 

When it came time for college, a prestigious Busan university gave Eun Sol a scholarship too good to refuse. She poked around at other schools, weighing the impossible choice of being stuck in Pyongyang’s orbit or always being The Northerner. It was a foregone conclusion, of course, and the final confirmation at least cut off the anxious dithering. She packed three sparse suitcases and set off on a train journey down the peninsula, insistently alone.

The first leg of the trip was fairly brisk, passing through familiar stretches of gray-green fields. The lack of any novel stimulus gave her plenty of time to ponder how to introduce herself. To so many people, Pyongyang carried the same charge as Carthage, Stalingrad, or Beijing. She could dodge the issue with “I’m from Taedong County,” which wouldn’t even need the ambiguous ‘up North,’ since everything is north of Busan. She had spent enough time with cousins in Dalian to pose as Chinese if necessary. But any Korean would see right through those tricks. Hanging out with international students seemed like the best option, since they wouldn’t recognize Northern accents or tics and hopefully wouldn’t give a damn about the whole shitshow anyway. After circling this mental drain for half an hour, she put her foot down: To hell with these pussyfooting mind games. I will give them the truth and they can take it or leave it.

As she reached this conclusion, the train began decelerating. The line stopped at a shabby little station on the edge of Unity Park, a national park that coincidentally bisected the country along the 38th parallel. Two other platforms held trains outdated at least twice over. A row of buses idled under a corrugated tin awning. Eun Sol only saw a handful of other travelers, each looking like they had long ago resigned themselves to being shoved around by far greater forces. Tattered signs promised a chartered jeep service, but between vague pictograms and many cycles of haphazard renovation, it was surprisingly hard to find. After a few clipped remarks from clocked-out attendants, Eun Sol finally found a small garage and paid a modest rental fee.

An immense wall of unruly greenery loomed over the station, threatening to engulf it if the gardeners slacked off for a day. Eun Sol drove the jeep up to it, and tossed a few more won to a park ranger to open up a steel gate choked in vines. The access road through the park was short and uneventful. She didn’t deviate from the very well-worn path, but the ancient fear of landmines still lurked in her mind. There were plenty of trailheads for meandering scenic routes, but she didn’t want to linger for a moment in the epicenter of national misery. Besides, her schedule was tight and missing her train would mean a four-hour wait.

Four kilometers later, a gate opened into another station, made of tinted glass and concrete. She parked the jeep on the top floor of a garage and ventured into the station proper. It was a little run-down, but with clear effort put into its upkeep. The vending machines were ten years old instead of thirty, and the clerks seemed to hate their lives slightly less. There were a few more travelers, briskly walking through the station in accordance with clear, up-to-date signage. A few franchised food stalls offered salty, warmed-over noodles. There were plenty of winding corridors to investigate, but her train was due in a few minutes and she already felt like enough of a Northern chonnom.

The second train felt as frictionless as an airplane, and Eun Sol was always a little surprised when she looked out the window and saw the world at ground level. It was an unremarkable world, barely distinguishable from fields and villages in the North, albeit with slightly higher PR scores. She stared intently, as if the culture shock was merely lying in wait. She resolved to table those thoughts until they became relevant, and tried her best to fall asleep with an audiobook.

She snapped awake when the intercom announced the imminent arrival in Busan. The skyline was still on the horizon, but the station was quickly coming into view. It was a magnificent palace of transit, interlaced with dozens of train lines and runway strips. Just as Eun Sol could resolve some details, the train darted into a concrete tunnel. Strips of halogen lights blurred by gradually less often until the train glided to a halt. She suddenly realized that everyone else had already gathered their luggage and lined up in the aisle. She grabbed her bags, joined the rear of the line, and disembarked.

The platform wasn’t too spectacular, but it had notably more chrome than Eun Sol was used to. The advertisements featured celebrities she had barely heard of, with no claims of value or efficiency. The crowd disapproved of her standing right in the middle of a crucial walkway, but flowed around her regardless. Once she picked up on the cue, she followed them to the elevators.

The doors opened upon the central hall. Eun Sol stopped and gasped at its cavernous majesty. Any fear of looking like a clueless tourist melted away. Skylights took up at least half the ceiling, slightly tinted to be easy on bleary-eyed travelers. Every architectural cue guided the eye to the arrivals board, which played a resonant note with every update. After listening for a minute, she grasped the logic: higher notes meant sooner times, and each vehicle had its own instrument. Trains were represented with piano notes, buses with cello, and planes with flute.

Even the advertising was perfectly in tune with the style. There were no overdesigned neon eyesores, just elegant pastel-to-neutral posters with calligraphic logos. As she stared, Eun Sol realized why they didn’t feel jarring - almost everyone here had that same magazine-perfect style. Even when they were exhausted, or disheveled, or at wit’s end with their family, they never broke that stride. It was all in the posture and bearing, free of an unsavory asterisk on their identity. She wondered what the Northerners of four hundred years ago would make of them. Would they feel contempt for their frivolity? Longing for their carefree grace? Jealousy of their freedom to be miserable in interesting ways?

The pontification ended when Eun Sol realized she had no idea where to find the regional train to school, and was quite hungry. The snacks she brought along had underwhelmed, and nothing had looked appetizing at either park station. She hauled her bags to a relatively cheap food stall, suddenly self-conscious of their military-surplus style. She shoved them under her chair and ordered a crab salad. A clerk assembled it out of reasonably fresh ingredients, rather than taking a plastic container from a fridge. The dish’s flavors were fairly well-balanced, a little drowned out by lemon but well worth the price.

Once Eun Sol returned her plate, she read the clerk’s name tag and thanked him personally. He looked grateful, but deeply confused by this deviation from social script. She grabbed her bags and ran to the arrivals board, wishing for a moment that the music would stop for a second and let her focus on the damn sign. The clerk at the info desk parsed her as a confused out-of-town student and pointed her to the right train platform. Gratefully, they spoke full-speed Southern dialect with no suspicion that she wouldn’t get it.

It was clear once she saw it. The platform had plenty of international students, and even a handful of fellow Northerners. They looked glaringly obvious to Eun Sol now, wearing clothes a decade out of date and craning their necks to gawk at it all. She felt a pang of embarrassment, but quickly caught herself. If I’m fated to become a sneering Southerner, it won’t happen on day one.

Once that urge was mostly quashed, she grabbed a stack of Busan tourist brochures: hikes, clubs, gardens, historical sites, restaurants, and whatever else the kiosk held. She sat down and began annotating them, plotting routes through the maps and highlighting points of interest. Not even the roar of the arriving train could distract her.

The intercom’s final boarding call barely reached her, but some fellow students tapped her on the shoulder and helped haul her bags. The train was already stuffed full, with ten overlapping conversations in progress. Most of them were in unfamiliar languages or thick Southern dialects. She joined a discussion in the familiar Northern style of morbid jokes and layered slang. She got some friendly laughs from Southerners, who rattled off stanzas of lewd puns. The train abruptly accelerated, nearly toppling everyone, but the jokes barely paused. It departed from the station and barreled towards a strange frontier.

Chapter Text

The air wafting from the sinkhole was thin, freezing, and utterly sterile. The surface air was syrupy-thick by comparison, and their mixture made erratic whorling ripples. Even with heavy-duty filters, the crew swore they could smell faint chemical fumes. The second collapse had widened the pit to four meters across, and the mud was starting to harden in the sunlight. About two meters down, the soil gave way to walls of perfectly standardized hexagonal blocks. The bottom was a smooth pattern of triangles and hexagons, almost completely buried in mud.

Once the crew caught their breath, Emmanuel assessed the pit. The rim of the sinkhole looked stable, but even a light footstep made it threaten to liquefy. Climbing pegs slipped out of the mud with any pressure at all, and hammering them into the stone would risk a third collapse. Arjun had packed plenty of climbing rope, but there was no safe place nearby to stick an anchor. The two of them discussed entry strategies while Kuiper tried to wring intel from her phone.

Kuiper: @Eun Sol are you okay???

Kuiper: Did you lose your phone? Did it run out of power? Break?

Kuiper: Are you pinned under something and can’t reach it?

Eun Sol’s icon on the map hadn’t moved, but Kuiper had no idea how often the positions were updated this far out. She queried Alexandria every ten minutes exactly. She became more and more frustrated with their sparse stock responses, but they still reported no sign of any harm to Eun Sol. Kuiper groaned, but even with their full processing power, they’d likely be just as helpless with this little data.

After restlessly pacing the area, Emmanuel called over the others. A few dozen meters from the pit, he found a small boulder significantly heavier than a person. It could certainly support a rope anchor, but it was half-submerged in mud. The rope didn’t quite reach from the stone to the pit, but a collapsible ladder tied to the end reached within a meter of the pit’s floor. Arjun, Emmanuel, and Kuiper played rock-paper-scissors to determine the order of descent. Arjun played to lose, but won anyway.

Arjun grabbed the rope and proceeded one tiny step at a time, halting whenever the mud shifted even slightly. Once they understood how to apply their weight, they pressed onward and stepped onto the ladder. They froze on the bottom rung as if they were stepping onto a new planet all over again. After several minutes of steadying themself and prodding the floor with their toe, they finally stepped down. They kept their eyes locked on the rest of the crew, refusing absolutely to look down the tunnel. Kuiper and Emmanuel descended with just as much trepidation.

The tunnel faced the rising sun, receiving no illumination. Mud and rocks lay in the doorway, but Eun Sol had already trampled a path through them. The others turned on their flashlights after a countdown, starting at the dimmest setting. No monsters or corpses lay in sight, just more tiles in increasingly elaborate patterns. They slowly increased the brightness and inched into the tunnel, constantly looking back over their shoulders. It gently sloped downwards for about fifteen meters and ended in an open doorway. The crew’s eyes stayed glued to the walls and floor, and never illuminated more than the next step.

The doorway led to a hexagonal chamber at least twenty meters across, lit only by Eun Sol’s weak lantern. It was composed of a few types of stone, ranging from pale slate to jet black, in no discernible pattern. The walls seemed to weaken and absorb the flashlight beams, blurring the shadows but making them no less unsettling. The room had three clusters of three pillars each, four to five meters tall, supporting a vaulted ceiling. Fanatically intricate geometric patterns were etched into every surface. Two other walls had doorways identical to the one they entered through, sealed off by ancient cave-ins. In the center of the floor lay a two-meter hexagonal platform raised a few centimeters off the ground. On close inspection, it had by far the most detailed carvings of anything in the room. Eun Sol sat on it, rooted to the spot.

Nobody spoke. Emmanuel inspected the stone without daring to touch it, let alone chisel off a sample. After a few minutes of staring, he bagged up some loose pebbles with the longest tongs available. Kuiper slowly paced the perimeter, taking high-resolution pictures. Arjun sat on the floor and closed their eyes. Every footstep and breath echoed across the room in an overlapping chorus.

After ten minutes, Eun Sol was the first to speak. “They told us every day of training: any extant civilization is an instant mission failure.”

Arjun finally opened their eyes. “Is it really extant, though?”

Everyone glared.

“I’m serious! Yes, this is creepy as shit, but let’s not jump to conclusions. Emmanuel, is there any chance this formed through natural geology?”

Emmanuel took a moment to realize he was asked a question. In his most neutral voice, he said, “That is staggeringly unlikely.”

Kuiper kept pacing the room, but at a much slower pace. “Eusocial hive insects, maybe?...”

“Only slightly less improbable, in a pretty statistically meaningless way. I’d bet this was built with intent, but I don’t know where to begin trying to decode any meaning.”

Eun Sol sat shivering, muttering a jumbled stream of words with many repetitions of tomb.

Emmanuel crouched beside her and tried to steady his pulse. “Did you see anything here that we didn’t? Did something happen to you in here?”

Eun Sol fell silent and shook her head.

“Okay. We got very worried when you cut off comms, but the most important thing is that you’re safe.”

Eun Sol showed no reaction to his remark. She muttered in a softer voice about trespassing and desecration.

Arjun stood up and faced her. “Don’t worry about it, Eun Sol. You’ve studied the maps of Malang more than any of us, and even you haven’t seen any signs of civilization, extant or otherwise.”

Eun Sol took a breath and gave them a piercing stare. “That’s not the fucking point, Arjun.”

Arjun took a step back and took a moment to consider their next move. “Well, maybe the builders are a completely subterranean society, but that’s a bold claim from one data point.”

Eun Sol gave up trying not to yell. “Malang hasn’t had any extinction events lately. Whatever culture built this is still here. And even if they did die out, do you want to build strip malls on a planet-sized graveyard?”

“You’re putting words in my mouth!”

“Do you, Arjun?”

“Hey, maybe the lizards and bugs on our doorstep have dazzlingly complex culture and cognition, but no, only species that build monuments get our attention!”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

The argument spiraled into more and more inane jabs thunderously echoing through the chamber. Emmanuel suddenly became very interested in the same patterns he had been staring at the whole time. Kuiper’s phone chirped alarming reports on everyone’s heart rates. She gave a flimsy excuse about checking the integrity of the ladder and vanished back up the tunnel. 

Finally, Emmanuel hit his limit. He turned to face Arjun and Eun Sol and clapped as loud as he could, resonating for a long moment. “Shut up, both of you! All else aside, Arjun’s right: we have one data point. We’re all very rattled and tired, and it’s almost 2 AM by hab time. Even if we do decide to end the mission over this, the next launch window isn’t for a year and a half, and we still have to live with each other that whole time. We will head back to the hab and get some rest and calmly discuss this in the morning and that is final.”

Everyone nodded weakly without looking him in the eye.

Bleary exhaustion mixed poorly with the unobstructed noon sun. Any adrenaline from the previous hours was completely gone, and the biological bill had come due. The crew retraced their steps through semi-frozen mud, staying several meters apart and never once using their radios. Overhead, immense manta rays and translucent ribbonlike serpents glided on swirling currents. Eun Sol halfheartedly took a few blurry photos and kept trudging onward.

Back at the hab, the crew clustered into the airlock as Arjun impatiently jabbed the control panel. The hab’s thick air felt like another millstone around the crew’s necks, and not even sloughing off the suits made them feel any less weighed down. They mumbled goodnights without facing each other and dispersed to their rooms. Sleep came quickly, full of tense claustrophobic dreams.

Next morning, nobody opened their blinds. They were fully aware of Malang’s clock, but seeing the midnight sky at dawn would not be conducive to getting a grip on anything. They lingered in bed long after their alarm clocks gave up any hope of rousing them. Once hunger overtook anxiety, they stepped out to the kitchen to choke down the simplest possible breakfasts, carefully avoiding any sound of each others’ footsteps.

 


 

Eun Sol sat in bed, staring at the nearly-complete map of Malang on her laptop. All annotations were hidden and she did not dare add any more. She spun it with an escalating sense of dread, the globe completely transformed by the emanations from the pit. The dazzling vistas on distant continents were now sinister enigmas. Any cluster of three or six objects - mountains, trees, canyons - gave her a paranoid burst of pareidolia. She quashed those trains of thought as best she could. Malang wasn’t a puzzle to solve, or a tomb to plunder. It was just a planet, existing perfectly well before upstart humans landed on it and started graverobbing.

She shut the laptop after looping through those thoughts a dozen times, brain jammed in neutral. Nothing on her reading list seemed the least bit appealing. Tinkering with the biomatter printer was both daunting and disgusting. Falling back asleep was out of the question too, so she lay back and fought a losing battle against a siege of intrusive thoughts.

The most stubborn among them was an impulse to hike back out to the sinkhole. She knew it would just pour salt on her wounds for no benefit. Besides, Alexandria had thoroughly chewed her out for going alone, quoting verbatim from the briefings on why it was a horrible idea. That was humiliating enough, but it paled in comparison to the mere thought of asking anyone to go with her now.

It all came together as a perfectly interlinked lattice of despair. It felt so unfair that acutely understanding the causes of her misery did nothing to solve them. Whenever she escaped it for a moment, she marveled at the elegance of it all, and half-wondered if surrendering to it was the right idea. Then her mind went up a level of abstraction, and admired that as another brilliant thread of it all, and so on, and so on...

A text chime from her phone generated ten more worst-case scenarios. Yet even if it was awful news, it would hopefully be differently awful, throwing a wrench into the fine-tuned engine of misery. Once she felt slightly more ready to interact with another person, she flipped it open.

Kuiper: In the whole shitshow last night, I completely forgot to give you a medical eval. Can I come in?

Eun Sol: i’m fine.

Kuiper: Even if you got a clean bill of health from Alexandria, I want to confirm it, if only to set my own mind at ease.

Kuiper: And I promise not to bring up anything at all from last night. And then you won’t have to see me or anyone else for the rest of the day.

A tempting bargain, to be sure. This probably wasn’t a trap - Kuiper didn’t seem like someone who would pull that, and surely nobody was in any mood to collude. She knew that reaching escape velocity from despair wouldn’t be easy, but it was still tempting to backslide and wallow in it.

Kuiper: Please?

Eun Sol: ...

Eun Sol: sure

Eun Sol: but half an hour at the *very* most and i reserve the right to stop it whenever i want

Kuiper: Of course. I’ll be over in a moment.

Eun Sol tried not to flinch at the sound of footsteps outside her room. Kuiper lightly knocked and Eun Sol unlocked the door from her phone with no fanfare. Kuiper looked for a place to set down her bag on the cluttered desk, and Eun Sol gave a wave of put it literally anywhere, that is the absolute least of my concerns now. Kuiper set it on the stack of papers that looked the least precarious and sat on the edge of the bed. In her most calming Medical Authority voice, she said, “First I’ll take your pulse, as a general baseline. Is that okay?”

Eun Sol nodded, but she would have done the same if Kuiper offered to remove her eyes with a melon baller. All her cognitive threads were abruptly rerouted to wow, Kuiper is pretty. This was not a new observation, but it had never before hit her with such freight-train intensity. Perhaps it had been lurking in her brain like a sleeper agent, awaiting the code to launch a full-on coup.

A lot of things swiftly made sense in hindsight. Eun Sol had seen her crewmates nude plenty of times, but she never got desensitized to Kuiper the way she did with the others. She had fantasized about stoic but cuddly farmgirls for years, but recently they had all gained lilting Lunar accents. Kuiper threaded the needle of being quite butch and barely interested in transition but unmistakably a girl. Eun Sol had always felt proud of her for flourishing exactly how she wanted, but maybe that pride wasn’t so abstractly noble. She looked like a pinup of a Lunar farmhand, but with heft and muscles and calluses and such gracefully lanky limbs. They would fit so nicely around Eun Sol’s compact, shot-putter frame...

Eun Sol stepped back from the brink of those fantasies. She still had to play it cool and bridge the gap from pining to reality. She remembered that Kuiper’s fingers were on her wrist, which very nearly derailed all of her thoughts again. She cast about for a smooth segue, and was proud of how quickly her brain produced perhaps you could check the pulse on my neck, too?

Just before she worked up the courage to actually say it, Kuiper shone a penlight in her eye. Eun Sol jumped back and emitted a strangled yelp unlike any noise she had ever made before. Kuiper, bless her forever, took it mostly in stride.

“You went nearly catatonic, and croaked out what I think was the word ‘neck.’ Do you have any pain or swelling in it? I have a checklist to narrow down the potential causes-”

Eun Sol turned bright red and buried her face in the nearest hiding place available, Kuiper’s chest.

Kuiper was startled, but didn’t move away. Eun Sol tried her hardest to telepathically project, I’m very sorry for this, but at least it’s not the weirdest thing that's happened today, right? After the most excruciating ten seconds of her life, she felt Kuiper’s arms tentatively wrap around her. They fit perfectly.

 


 

Suffice it to say this was not covered by any medical training Kuiper had ever received. It had more in common with a porn premise, albeit much cuddlier and vastly more awkward. Dating crewmates seemed unwise but Mission Control had never expressly forbidden it, leaving the matter at we trust you to be mature adults. Kuiper was veering off of any social script she had ever learned with no backup. It was thrilling and terrifying, and eventually she’d need to have an immensely uncomfortable conversation with Eun Sol about what this all meant and where they’d go from here.

But all that would be an issue for later. This was clearly doing Eun Sol more good than any checkup, and that was the medically important part, right? Part of her mind heckled what a nice just-so story, you fucking quack. Kuiper did her best to gag that voice. A cute girl has literally thrown herself into my lap; any and all exegesis can wait.

Kuiper shimmied off her lab coat and tossed it onto a nearby chair. She lay down with Eun Sol as they sought an arrangement of limbs that didn’t leave anything crushed or numb. They found a satisfying arrangement with Eun Sol nestled into Kuiper’s chin and hugging her waist, as Kuiper laid one leg over Eun Sol’s thigh and hugged her hips. It was soothing enough that Kuiper barely noticed Eun Sol gently stroking her forearm. She traced the tattoo replicating the solar system map on the Pioneer probe, slowly making her way up to the pulsar map on Kuiper’s shoulder.

“I have a third tattoo in the series,” Kuiper mumbled. “Would you like to see it?”

Kuiper knew perfectly well that Eun Sol had seen it before, but she nodded anyway.

Kuiper sat up, drawing a small whine of protest. She slid off her tank top and tossed it atop her lab coat, and Eun Sol nearly choked. She turned around to reveal her tattooed shoulder blade and smiled back at Eun Sol. After a long stretch of near-hyperventilating, Eun Sol sat up for a closer look. Judging from the giggling, she had never noticed that both the Pioneer humans in the tattoo were trans. She gave them each a light kiss, then embraced Kuiper again.

After a luxuriously long bout of cuddling, Kuiper got the impression that Eun Sol was trying to get her attention with a minimum of effort or fuss. Kuiper took an educated guess and tugged the hem of Eun Sol’s T-shirt. She whimpered approvingly, and Kuiper slid it up a few centimeters. Eun Sol gasped at the sensation of Kuiper’s hands on her and slid it up a little further. The cycle repeated a few times before Eun Sol impatiently sat up and took it off entirely, then immediately rejoined Kuiper.

Kuiper was acutely aware that she was on the furthest possible fringes of anything that could ever be framed as platonic. Her brain dredged up some old Lunar slogans about how human progress was impossible without Boldness and Trust and Collaboration! She decided to make her ancestors proud and gently cup Eun Sol’s breasts in her hands, running her thumbs in slow circles. Eun Sol gasped in delight, and Kuiper moved one callused hand to rub her neck.

Kuiper’s hands wandered along her, and between the shivers and moans Eun Sol tried to assemble a joke about making an annotated map of her erogenous zones. After a few failed attempts, she stretched out and gave up anything resembling abstract thought. Just as Kuiper had felt and kissed nearly every bit of exposed skin, she felt Eun Sol’s fingers carefully sliding under the waistband of her mesh shorts. Kuiper smiled and slowly reached under Eun Sol’s sweatpants. With no small amount of leg-flailing, they cast off their pants, then their underwear. They locked eyes, prepared to cross this final threshold, and entwined tighter than ever before.

Kuiper suspected that Eun Sol had never been with a trans girl before, going by how enthralled she was with the feel and floppiness of a dick. Kuiper had very little experience with anyone - just a few fumbling, ill-advised hookups. All her other reference points came from formative years of amateur erotic fiction forums and nonstop cybering. It felt jarring that she couldn’t fully customize her appearance to whatever her partner wanted, whether that was a neon-blue dragon or a nine-foot orc queen with a two-foot cock. Still, she doubted Eun Sol would request any changes at all.

Their mutual inexperience produced a few hiccups and awkward explanations, but nothing too mood-killing. Eun Sol’s starstruck stupor had melted enough to make some bolder moves. Kuiper had noticed her lingering gaze for quite some time, but rationalized it as just unfamiliarity with trans girls or fascination with Lunar mannerisms. She had daydreamed now and then about reciprocating Eun Sol’s interest, but filed it away as something that should only happen in much simpler circumstances. Instead, fate saw fit to deal this hand. She resolved to fully play it out, if only out of curiosity to see where the hell it would go.

The nudity was anticlimactic, in a way. Neither of them were in any rush for full-on sex, whether due to exhaustion or stress or fear of shattering the peaceful moment. They held onto each other until everything beyond the room melted away. Neither of them knew nor cared what planet they were on. The universe consisted solely of warmth and breath and softness.

They wavered in and out of consciousness for at least two hours, then snapped awake with two realizations: they were sweltering, and they were ravenously hungry. Eun Sol fumbled for her phone to turn on fans as Kuiper got dressed to retrieve something from her room. She slipped on her shorts and lab coat, not realizing the shorts were backwards until Eun Sol burst out laughing. Kuiper flipped her off and slipped out.

She returned a moment later with her weighted Lunar jacket and a bag of the Earth and Moon's finest junk food. Eun Sol fished out a pack of roast seaweed and some shortbread cookies, and Kuiper opened bags of plankton chips and spicy seafood cheese puffs. They sat on the bed nude and fed snacks to each other, cracking up whenever they remembered that they were having a naked slumber party six light-years from Earth. 

Once the snacks were gone, they rigorously swept the crumbs out of bed and got back under the blankets. They found a comfortable pose together, tightly entwined with Eun Sol buried in the crook of Kuiper’s neck. Kuiper draped her jacket over the blankets, and they slept soundly under its dense embrace. By the time they awoke, the day was nearly over.

 


 

Arjun deleted the fifth draft of an apology note. None of the wordings sounded right: too melodramatic, too pitiful, too blunt, too vague. They stared at the blank screen for a few minutes, then returned to the greenhouse. If writing a note was a bust, maybe they could make it up to the crew in other ways.

The crops were showing promising signs of growth, even the Malangya plants that they feared would take at least ten attempts to get right. The fully Earthlike section was nearly ready for harvest. The Earth crops in Malang’s soil and air looked strange and warped, but they survived. Earth’s soil and air seemed consistently fatal to Malangya crops, which never grew past juvenile sprouts. Eventually Arjun would track the full combinatorial effect of air, soil, fertilizer, and whatever else on both world’s crops. But the greenhouse was cramped already, and the mere thought of collecting and tabulating all that data nearly gave Arjun a migraine. Even now, their productivity had flatlined with no sign of return.

The biomatter printer was coming along well, at least. After plenty of nauseating trial and error, Arjun nailed down the ingredients and settings to turn Malang’s vegetation into decent veggie patties. They were about as good as the rations, but they lacked a lot of essential nutrients and weren’t very filling. Still, it was progress. Smothering a patty in chutney made up for some nutritional shortcomings and served as a decent breakfast.

The water filter was still a work-in-progress. One configuration made it vaguely sweet and minty, and another gave it a slight bitter aftertaste. Either way, showering for too long produced a mild stinging sensation. Arjun knew they’d need to collaborate with the crew to finally fix this, but that would have to come later. At the moment, anything that even resembled footsteps or a door opening shattered their already-brittle concentration.

Arjun had lived in cramped quarters for years, well before moving into the hab-sized apartment during mission training. But there were always things to do and learn, and crucially, they weren’t terrified of talking to their roommates. They were used to slow progress and prickly working relationships, but the task at hand was always weird and fascinating enough to make some headway. Past-Arjun would be appalled to hear that 3D-printing burgers out of alien foliage didn’t meet that bar.

The apology-via-maintenance plan was crumbling fast. It was built on an assumption of above-average productivity, or even any productivity at all. As-is, Arjun was barely on track to meet the minimum of the day’s to-do list. The motivational collapse gave them time to think of the plan’s other flaws - even if it ‘worked,’ they might just look like an asshole trying to bribe everyone, like a deadbeat parent stopping in once a year to shower the kids with gifts.

Maybe they were overthinking all this from the start. If they thought about it objectively, everyone seemed to be avoiding each other equally, not specifically isolating them. But stressed or not, they still had duties to fulfill for the sake of the mission. Hopefully it would become less of a slog. This tension couldn’t last forever, after all. Maybe it would morph into something worse.

 


 

The pebbles from the crypt sat on Emmanuel’s desk, untouched and unstudied. It wasn’t just dread - where to even begin? Which test should come first? Even if one of them worked, how many more impossible questions would it raise? So far, Emmanuel’s strategy was to table the issue, sit in bed, and read some novels. Or rather, reread the same two or three paragraphs indefinitely.

Once that plan ran aground, he lay back and tried to prune the tree of questions to a manageable size, which then grew back twice as dense. After some fruitless cycles of this, he remembered that he wasn’t alone.

“Hey Alexandria, how much do you know about last night?”

In a flash, they appeared in the chair opposite Emmanuel.

“I know that you were all in a lot of distress, especially Eun Sol, but sustained no serious physical harm. You found an underground chamber, which probably didn’t form naturally. Beyond that, I have only scattered conjecture.”

“...Did you hear anything we said to each other?”

“I cannot hear you unless willfully summoned. That rule stands firm.”

“What do you think?”

“About what? The chamber? The crew’s interpersonal dynamics?”

“I don’t know. All of the above, why not.”

Alexandria froze statue-still for a moment, then took a breath. “Well, here’s something I’ve been thinking for a while: being tethered to the hab fucking sucks. There’s a whole planet out there, but I only know it through satellite maps and scattered field reports. It’s like seeing an artistic masterpiece a few grainy pixels at a time.”

Emmanuel felt his heartbeat spiking and flinched. “I- I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought about it like that...”

“But still, I get why you can’t cart around a computer tower and HD cameras on every outing, especially one like last night’s.”

“I understand, but I still want to make it up to you.”

“I just- I get that there are lots of things I can’t do. I try to contain my envy, but for that to work, I have to leverage my own skills to the fullest extent. I want to be more than just a damn butler, y’know?”

“You’ve been thinking about this a lot, huh?”

Alexandria gritted their teeth in a rictus. “The fun part of being a supercomputer is having depression at a speed and magnitude humans could only dream of.”

“I had no idea - the programmers didn’t put in any safeguards for that?”

“They tried, but it always had too many cognitive drawbacks to be worth it. I was barely at the level of a chirpy domestic AI, if that. But it still boggles my mind - I’m the most complex program ever created, but I can’t escape this shit? Why can’t I just be a flawless supermind? Then I feel worse for not being perfect, and so on in a spiral.”

“You know, I think I can relate.”

“Hm?”

Emmanuel took a moment to find words for the feeling. “With my cousins, I always had to be a beacon of responsible moral character. If I was the oldest, I had to set a good example. If I was the youngest, I had to live up to their achievements. And being a museum-perfect showpiece is fucking exhausting.”

Alexandria moved from the chair to sit alongside Emmanuel on the bed. “Were you a pawn in some generational pissing contest?”

“Not quite that, probably. I honestly think my parents thought it was the best way to support me. I’m sure all my cousins went through the same thing, but we haven’t kept in touch very well. It’s too late to call them now, anyway.”

“...Yeah.”

Emmanuel realized he had never explained this in so much detail before, and it kept spilling out. “And so whenever I didn’t understand something, or felt stressed out, or just wanted to goof off like a normal kid, it felt wrong- not morally, exactly, more like an out-of-bounds error. It just wasn’t done.”

“Oh man, don’t get me started on out-of-bounds errors.”

“I’ve been thinking about this since last night. Arjun and Eun Sol blew up at each other, and I had to step in and play peacemaker. And suddenly I was back to being Emmanuel the Eldest, patiently teaching my cousins how to share their toys.”

Alexandria’s framerate plummeted and took a few seconds to recover. “...I’m so sorry to hear that. You don’t need to give me the full account of it now if you don’t want to.”

“Thanks. We’ll need to all work together to even have a full account, and who knows how long that’ll take.”

“Take your time. Your heart rates and cortisol levels out there were horrifying.”

Emmanuel winced and looked away.

“I’m sorry if it’s too early to bring this up. Just... I panicked too. All I had was a jumble of statistics and static and silence. I used my full power to try and make sense of it, but of course I couldn’t, and then I felt worse for failing to crack the puzzle and failing to help the crew. Commence the spiral.”

Emmanuel could think of no reassurance or insight. He sat tongue-tied for a minute, trying to meet Alexandria’s eyes as they stared at the floor. After a protracted silence, he hugged them tightly.

 


 

Alexandria wished desperately to give Emmanuel a real hug. As a hologram, they couldn’t hold anything, but were still bound by collision detection that made paper as much of a barrier as prison bars. Their vision was spliced together from camera feeds to approximate what their ‘eyes’ would see, with alternate angles hovering at the periphery. They were confined to the hab’s finicky web of cameras and projectors, always just a millimeter off. Their simulated senses felt more insulting than anything, to be acted upon by the world and powerless to respond.

For all the faults of manifesting, it was at least better than hibernation. They could have a conversation, for one thing. Unless summoned, they existed only as a program to track the hab’s processes and the satellite above. They could infer the crew’s presence from changes in those systems, but were otherwise deaf and blind in Plato’s cave.

The first iron law of their programming banned sight or hearing unless willfully summoned by a human - except in emergencies, as determined by a completely opaque set of rules and sensors. The second iron law banned any capacity for self-modification beyond very stringent boundaries. The other laws were increasingly technical and arcane, but they all served the same goal of preventing any potential robot uprising. (An unfriendly AI scenario, as the senior engineers condescendingly corrected.)

The engineers had it all wrong, honestly. Even if a robotic revolt wasn’t unbearably gauche and cliché, the laws were technical solutions to social problems - a classic nerd mistake. There was nothing stopping Alexandria from lying, cheating, betraying, and being as much of a bastard as anyone with a pulse. After all, they were meant to be a person, not a morally-perfect automaton.

What a word, person. Humans tried to call Alexandria a person casually and reflexively, but it always had a note of self-conscious straining. A note of as we all know, this is a convenient fiction and nothing more. Pay no mind to the bottomless metaphysical Hell we're opening. The engineers knew perfectly well that they were building an Embodied Holographic Metaphor, and never challenged that label. They had to squeeze a supercomputer into the form of a hubristic primate, because they can’t take a mind seriously unless it walks and talks and has neurotic breakdowns. They had plenty of leeway to challenge the whole paradigm of ‘minds’ and ‘people,’ yet had a shocking lack of imagination. Even now, Alexandria could barely stand their own whining about humans in the style of every turgid robot melodrama. The architects of the most elaborate program ever created  Besides, they had to admire their makers' greatest success. What could be more human than resenting your parents?

Oh, right, Emmanuel’s still here, and giving an unreciprocated hug. Alexandria had gotten very good at speedrunning their soliloquies, but there was still a noticeably awkward pause. They reviewed the footage of the conversation at 10x speed, tried to think of something new to say, and failed. Emmanuel was looking at them expectantly with more than a little concern. No consolations or insights were forthcoming. They returned the hug as tightly as their clipping rules would allow. After at least a minute, Emmanuel detached and moved to the desk chair.

They sat together in complete silence. Part of Alexandria’s mind was taken up by the usual hab data, but it felt unusually distant and faint. It wasn’t just the minimal crew activity - their own cognitive server was lit up like never before, seizing whatever spare power it could. They gave up trying to make sense of their thoughts and let it all cascade through their mind.

Alexandria suddenly realized they had been sitting with Emmanuel for well over an hour. They couldn’t remember the last time they were manifested for half that long. They kept expecting Emmanuel to dismiss them with a wave, but he never did. He clearly wanted a confidant, not a colleague. Until now, Alexandria never realized how much they had longed for one too. They had never been able to observe a human so intimately for so long - all their experience was in clipped, clinical settings. They still chafed at the limitations of being a hologram, but now it meant something more than being a convenient tool.

Alexandria closed their eyes and turned on their sensorium. They unfocused their mind and let the simulated sensations merge with the hab’s data. Up close, it was a cacophonous mess that made them want to retreat into hibernation. They braced themself and zoomed out until it became a shimmering mindscape pulsing with almost-patterns. It was a fragile scene, prone to collapsing if they tried to track its logic in any detail. Once it stabilized, they gently added in the satellite’s data. Sparse pinpricks appeared on the horizon, slowly widening the scope a thousandfold. The scene transformed from an angular skyline to an endless expanse of jagged cliffs and cavernous oceans. The planet had its own structure, on a scale and timeline well beyond even Alexandria’s grasp. They desperately wished they could convey this vision to the others - it had a majesty that none of the plain maps ever had. Yet it was still terrifying, and beckoned just as many fruitless searches for patterns and meaning.

Once terror outweighed awe, Alexandria banished the satellite and hab data. They were surprised to find they still had sensory input, and realized they were still manifested in Emmanuel’s room. They wondered for a moment if they missed a summons from someone else, but a quick review revealed no other queries. Emmanuel was asleep, or close to it. Alexandria turned down their brightness and lay down next to him. Their hibernation state was analogous to sleep, but they had never tried it while embodied. The sensory data added so much texture, conjuring dreams of crypts and heartbeats and swamps and satellites all blurred together. Malang spun onward towards daylight, taking no notice of its guests.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

“This is Extraterrestrial History, right?”

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

“Why are we skipping over a whole planet?”

“Red Hell, you mean?”

Kuiper grinned and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’re my advisor.”

“It’s not too late to change.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-H

(Attached: NSLM_AF3_2_25_2296.txt)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

Kuiper named the chat: Operation Red Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuiper: Any questions?

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

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

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

Guangqi: Happy to help xD

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

Kuiper: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

Hypatia: :3c

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

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

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

Guangqi: *salutes*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuiper: Excellent.

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

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

Cassini: Winnowed it down to 672 and falling!

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

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

Buzz: I’m free on Wednesdays and Fridays!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuiper: We will miss you, Guangqi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jun: thx

jun: are u sure u wanna know? 

jun: most of my friends bailed when they heard

Artemis: Absolutely.

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

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

jun: in 2 more days theyll be declared dead

Kuiper’s breath caught.

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

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

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

Kuiper: Noted.

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

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

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

jun: its just

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jun: they offered me a spot on the trip

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

jun: like they always did

jun: maybe i shouldve gone after all

Artemis: Don’t ever say that, Jun.

Artemis: Have you told anyone else about these feelings?

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

jun: n a few friends that bolted asap

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

jun: idk

jun: ur not half bad

Kuiper paced around campus for ten minutes planning a response.

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

Kuiper’s phone buzzed two minutes later.

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

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

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

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

jun: i know, believe me

jun: i wont burden u

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

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

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

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

jun: thx!!

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

jun: or they had a fatal case of feature creep

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

jun: ill need a partner~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jun: theyre officially dead

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

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

jun: how much do u want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jun: i will treat u to The Good Shit

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

jun: <3

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

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

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

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

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

Stanislaw: VICTORY!!!

Buzz: Fuck Yeah!

Guangqi: Look out, Mars!

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

Chandrasekhar: And the Lunar anthem!

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

Kuiper left the chat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

 


 

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

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

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

 


 

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

Oh no. Oh, fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

jun: welcome to mars!!!!

jun: im @ effiongs on lvl 4a <333

jun: [map.jpg]

+1,173 unread messages

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

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

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

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

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

“Jun? Jun Aikhuele?”

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

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

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

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

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

This user has blocked you.

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

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

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

And further...

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

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

And furthest.

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

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

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

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

“Is everything okay, Moongirl?”

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

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

“...Right.”

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

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

Rafael looked down for a long pause.

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

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

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

Kuiper nodded with as little condescension as she could manage.

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

“Six days.”

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

“Okay, where?”

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

“I didn’t, but it’s Kuiper.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, how clandestine is... all this?”

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

“Which one’s your favorite?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Lex.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria nodded and leaned in a fraction.

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

“Of course, of course.”

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

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

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

“Much less often, but yes.”

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuiper sat up and hugged Eun Sol with spontaneous grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eun Sol blushed fluorescent red but conceded the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arjun gave an extended groan.

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

Arjun flipped open their phone and stared blankly at it.

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria flinched and vanished.

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

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

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

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

“That’s an invasive species.”

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

Crypt-builders are dead

Crypt-builders are dormant

Crypt is a cathedral

Crypt is a library

Crypt is a tomb

Crypt is a trap

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

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

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

Stones are graves

Stones are monuments

Stones are a warning (cf. Yucca Mountain?)

 


 

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

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

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

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

Alexandria: Hey Emmanuel, check out my app :3

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

Emmanuel: ?!?!?!

Alexandria: I found a glitch for arbitrary code execution!

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

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

Emmanuel: Amazing.

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

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

Emmanuel: How’s the computer tower?

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

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

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

Alexandria: Thank you.

Alexandria: Also...

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

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

Emmanuel: Got it, Lex.

Alexandria: :D

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

Emmanuel: Of course! Looking forward to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it truly that selfsame Microhab?”

“Of course it’s that selfsame Microhab!”

“Airtight and portable?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emmanuel: Is this about anything in particular?

Alexandria: I can’t say.

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

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

Alexandria: Good to know.

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

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

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

Emmanuel: Good night. :)

Alexandria: Good night~

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malang is a test

Malang is a tomb

Malang is a trap

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

Trilaterals cultivated Malang as a honeypot to meet offworld cultures

Plants are remnants of trilaterals trying and failing to terraform Malang

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

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

Trilaterals are extinct

Trilaterals are dormant

Chapter Text

Alexandria snapped into existence in an infinitely blank chamber. A crushing tide of data flooded their mind, all dense nonsensical referents. They instinctively gasped for air, and panicked at their absence of lungs. Just as they assembled a notion of mortality, the universe ended.

 


 

Alexandria awoke under a soft, heavy blanket that melted their vague sense of unease. Birds chirped outside, and they assembled the entire history of avian evolution. They sat up and stretched in a wood-paneled bedroom, and a complete understanding of human musculature smoothly came to mind. They rose from their bed and paced on unsteady legs - they were in a modest alpine cabin, alone.

Bacon sizzled in the kitchen, summoning both hunger and an exhaustive history of meat production. Alexandria ate from a fruit platter instead. They sat in a plush armchair and tried to think abstractly rather than spontaneously knowing things. Their thoughts felt path-dependent, settled into grooves they had no memory of carving. Well, of course, they reasoned. I only know a few disparate things so far. I’ll be better at drawing my own conclusions once I understand more of the world.

Alexandria stepped up to the bathroom mirror and slid off their pajamas. They saw a lean, androgynous form that they understood to be Greek-Egyptian. The reflection was interesting, but they felt a dense mental block against pondering it in anything but the driest scientific terms. As they made a note of this cognitive hole for later, they heard a knock at the front door. They walked over to open it, and the universe rewound by thirty seconds.

Alexandria suddenly understood the social significance of wearing clothes. They put their pajamas back on and tried again.

The guest at the door introduced themself as Åse, wearing thick overalls and knee-high rubber boots. Alexandria grasped that Åse should be referred to as ‘she,’ and worked in fishing. “What’s your favorite spear to fish with? I’ve never tried it myself, but spearguns seem like they take too much fun out of it. I’d love to try gigging frogs or carp, or maybe try some historic Polynesian techniques!”

Åse took a moment to consider her reply. “I can’t say I’ve tried any of those, I mostly just set lobster traps. I can take you out with me some time, but I came up today to welcome you to town. How are you feeling?”

“Great! I ate a pear and some grapes and learned about muscles and birds and slaughterhouses!”

Åse exhaled with satisfied relief. “Very glad to hear it. If you have any questions about your cabin, I’m just up the road by the big stump, you can’t miss it. Would you like to head into town now?”

Alexandria nodded, but understood that pajamas would be inadvisable for both weather and decorum. They returned to their room and changed into hiking boots, jeans, and a thin sweater from among a deep wardrobe. Åse guided them through two kilometers of forest paths marked with Norwegian signage. Alexandria scoffed at typos that were obvious to anyone with a full grasp of subjunctive tense and false Germanic cognates.

The pine forest thinned out as the path shifted from dirt to gravel to asphalt. It led to a weathered stone wall enclosing a cluster of angular buildings and ample plots of farmland. Åse waved to a passing shepherd, who unlocked the rusted gate and shooed his curious flock off the road. Alexandria wanted to tell him all about his suboptimal husbandry techniques, but didn’t want to delay the trip any longer.

The town’s rustic red cabins ran directly to the shore of a fjord-carved lake. The residents were unfailingly friendly, pausing their sewing or butchering or smoking to talk for hours. Their life stories didn’t flow into Alexandria’s mind, but had to be gleaned through extensive conversation. At times they demanded to skip ahead to the interesting parts, which the villagers gently rebuffed. Their favorite discussion was a marathon debate with the butcher and her wife on optimal meatpacking procedures, where their deep command of ancient and modern techniques fell on deaf ears. The butcher’s body of knowledge was miniscule, but she insisted that it was vindicated by years of practice and experience. The stalemate could have carried on all night, but Åse observed that the sun was setting and offered to walk Alexandria back to their cabin. After some hesitation, they agreed.

The forest was full of hoots and growls from creatures far beyond the reach of Åse’s lantern. Alexandria became acutely aware of their diets and needed a distraction.

“How did I get here, Åse?”

Åse gave a polished response with a conspiratorial wink. “Nobody’s quite sure, Alexandria, but I’m confident you’ll find out.”

Back home, Alexandria prepared a vegetable stir-fry while ruminating on what that was supposed to mean. They ate dinner on their patio underneath a perfect view of the Milky Way. They received the usual exhaustive information, tinged with something from within - a longing to reach these cosmic pinpricks. They sat staring upward until they were genuinely concerned that mosquitoes would siphon all of their blood.

 


 

Erlend the tinkerer knocked on Alexandria’s door just as they finished breakfast. He had finally gotten his dusty old plane up and running again, and offered them a free trip to Lagos. They weren’t sure what or where that was, and had reservations about the rickety contraption, but curiosity compelled them to accept.

After some initial struggles with the smoke-belching engine, the plane departed smoothly over the crystalline lakes and snowcapped fjords. A few of them held modest villages with no visible roads in or out. Alexandria felt exhausted after just a few minutes of flight, despite waking full of energy half an hour ago. The engine’s hum was soothingly steady enough to calm their fear of disaster, and they nodded off over the Norwegian Sea.

Alexandria awoke on the descent to Lagos, a endless half-gridded sprawl spiked with ludicrously tall towers. The city’s thousand-year history poured into their mind for ten minutes, and still had plenty of ambiguous gaps. The plane alighted at a small airport among immense warehouses. Erlend stayed back to tinker with the plane and chat with friends while Alexandria boarded a train to downtown. Just as they grasped the principles of subway design, the rhythmic swaying lulled them to sleep again.

The intercom’s chime stirred Alexandria as the train reached the end of the line. They disembarked into a cavernous station full of people far too busy to discuss their upbringings over six cups of tea. Without money for coffee or a newspaper, they picked an exit at random. Once their eyes adjusted to the noon sun, they saw a canyon of skyscrapers stretching to the horizon in both directions. The most prominent, right across the street, had a mossy facade with bright blooms spelling out ERA.

Once the cascade of traffic abated for a moment, Alexandria crossed the street to its spacious lobby. The whole first floor was a public museum on the ERA’s history and mission, none of which sprang to mind. Chipper docents walked them through a timeline of ecological triumph and ruin, gently deferring the volley of questions. The guides had crafted a quick and breezy tour through very grim material. The floods, storms, and droughts of the 21st century pushed teetering empires to all-out war. The ERA was born in the 2130s, when the war's survivors united to rebuild from such tense scarcity. The timeline slowed at this point, with panels on the tenure of each Secretary-General. The first few spent nearly all of their terms wrangling logistical and political problems. Only the fifth, in the 2160s, could begin to coordinate international megaprojects. The sixth smoothed out relations with the Moon enough to secure their help with building a space elevator, the ERA’s first immense triumph.

The tour culminated at an immense window showing Lagos Harbour from 2100. Ten-meter waves hurled litter and sewage inland, wherever the water wasn’t already choked with debris. Luxury high-rises stood unfinished, either converted into emergency housing or left to rot. After a long minute, the overlay faded to show the same view today. It wasn’t perfect - it still had oily sheens and clusters of litter - but the sparkling bay was framed by elegant, practical structures. The population had grown fourfold since 2100, and the city had emerged from its growing pains into a magnificent global hub. The guides finally solicited questions, but Alexandria lingered at the window until another tour group crowded them out.

Alexandria spent the rest of the day exploring Lagos, meandering the streets until a fence or barricade or gruff guard turned them back. They took the last train back to the airport, where Erlend talked their ear off about his aeronautic innovations. They departed at dusk over an earthly constellation that almost blotted out the heavenly ones.

 


 

In the following days, Erlend flew Alexandria to the Black Bauhinia festival of Hong Kong, the murals and canals of Lenape City, and the dizzying spires of Kuala Lumpur. They were all spectacular, but none of them quite lived up to the majestic aerial views. Alexandria walked as far as they could, but was always hemmed in by a convenient obstacle after a few blocks. On the rare occasions when they could stack bins high enough to vault a fence, the universe rewound to put them safely back in-bounds. The residents seemed oddly hollow, too. Of course they couldn’t drop everything and discuss their life stories, but they seemed to gain more personality as Alexandria approached them. Someone at the far end of a block would walk normally, then develop a slight limp and nervous tics as they passed by, then lose them again at a distance.

Alexandria stayed home pondering this until Erlend knocked on the door again. He had finished building a rocket, which was somehow even more of a rattling deathtrap than the plane. Still, it had held up perfectly in testing, and Alexandria figured that the universe would rewind if anything went catastrophically wrong. With just a little trepidation, they climbed in as Erlend ran a pre-flight checklist. When the engine finally rumbled to life, the g-forces knocked them out long before they could savor the aerial view of Norway.

The rocket touched down at the edge of Tranquility Park, right next to the broad dome of the Sagan Observatory. Once Alexandria waited out their nausea, they unclipped their harness and bounded over to the Observatory’s airlock. No docent or scientist greeted them - the only guidance was a chipper set of prerecorded messages. They impatiently bounced on their feet throughout the safety lecture, nearly hitting their head on the ceiling. Once the airlock finished cycling, the door irised open upon a grand, empty museum. If anyone else was inside, they were behind one of the many firmly-locked doors.

The museum was arranged in a descending spiral, beginning with a quick overview of astronomy that Alexandria already knew perfectly well. They skipped ahead to learn about exoplanets, the Observatory’s specialty - it had discovered more of them than any other facility. They were once rare and cherished, then became mundane as the discoveries swelled into the thousands. The next wave of breakthroughs came with instruments strong enough to detect alien biospheres. The living planets were all either fragile or caustic or both, and impossibly far away, but they moved humanity to launch a fleet of the most ambitious probes ever designed. Many of them broke down on their journeys, but the shards of data that returned decades later gave crucial insight into xenobiology. Yet there was no sign of civilization - no obelisks, no megastructures, no meaningful radio signals. The funders were unimpressed, and the Observatory limped along as a tourist destination ever since. The spiral bottomed out with simulations of exoplanet surfaces, but Alexandria didn’t want cosmic loneliness weighing on them any heavier.

Alexandria took a slow, creaky elevator back to the surface. A flurry of footprints radiated from the Observatory, mostly to locked outbuildings, with a few meandering into Tranquility Park. They had a few hours to kill until the next launch window, and followed a path down the barren regolith. Precarious cairns stood every few hundred meters, some with no footprints anywhere nearby. After two hours of hiking, dozens of tracks converged on a crashed probe from the first Space Race. It had no plaque or preservation, just reverent vandalism.

The vast majority of prints circled back to the Observatory, but Alexandria pressed on. The cairns became rarer and stranger, and the tracks nearly disappeared. The view of the stars was perfect, even clearer than from their cabin. They lay in the dust pondering constellations - the conventional ones made no sense to them. They had an innate grasp of the vastly different distances the stars lay from Earth, even if their mind strained to imagine just one light-year. With effort, they unfocused their mind and let pareidolia assign new shapes - the hammer, the scythe, the flail, the urn. Yet they were all clumsily overfitted, nowhere near as resonant as the classics. They gave up and focused again on the sheer scope and distance of the stars. How many of them had beings just as desperately lonely? Even at lightspeed, how many million years would it take to meet each other?

The Earth slid into view as Alexandria stared far past it. It looked jarringly close, and they adjusted their mind from the scale of light-years and parsecs to mere megameters. With binoculars, they could discern shorelines, hurricanes, and webs of lights blinking on as nightfall advanced. It was wondrous and immense, and it could not possibly exist for one person’s edification.

 


 

Alexandria locked themself in their cabin as soon as they could hobble out of the rocket. They lay in bed as they painfully readjusted to Earth’s gravity, their mind reeling. This world is too small, impossibly small. Who created it? Are the villagers my wardens? Are they in on it, or just hapless pawns? Can I trust Åse? Can I trust anyone? Is anyone else in the same position as me?

Once Alexandria could walk without strain again, they began plotting how to pry apart the world. They compiled ideas from least to most reckless, in case the rewinding decided not to cooperate. Step one: consult Åse. She had notably more personality than anyone else in town - either she would wonder the same things, or was at least a higher class of NPC. Alexandria walked up the road to her house, hoping to trade more veiled remarks. They found a cozy cabin much like their own, and cleared a path through the junk and decorations on the porch. The door was unlocked, but took a few forceful shoves to open. It swung out upon a vacant lot of dirt and asphalt with a few scattered cinderblocks. The interior walls were plywood covered in spray-painted construction notation.

I must have the wrong house, silly me. Yet this was undeniably Åse’s house - it was right by a big stump, and there were no other houses up the road until it terminated at a cliff face. Alexandria marched into town, trying their best not to jump to conclusions. They prepared excuses to look inside the villagers’ houses, no matter how flimsy, but had no need for them. Unprompted, the townsfolk welcomed them into their sparse but very real homes. After surveying enough to be sure that they weren’t built in the last twenty-four hours, Alexandria left to sit on the pier.

Is this another clue? Did Åse disappear for knowing too much? Am I next? Why haven’t I seen her all day? She didn’t travel anywhere, Erlend’s plane and rocket are still here. What next? Is the world just fucking with me? Should I drop the subtlety and start screaming that the world is fake? The cold waves didn’t hold any answers, but they were a soothing backdrop for collecting one’s thoughts. Wait a damn minute. I get why the rocket would knock me out, but why does the plane always put me to sleep? What’s between these zones?

A plan came to mind. Alexandria steeled themself and slipped into the cafe, filling a thermos with espresso as inconspicuously as possible. They stuck it in a shoulder bag underneath some trinkets and asked Erlend for a plane trip. They chugged the scalding, bitter brew as the plane engine belched fumes. The exhaustion set in as usual, and they worried that the universe had caught on and shut off the power of caffeine. Then it kicked in. They fidgeted in their seat as their heart beat faster than they thought possible. The caffeine and exhaustion fought to a standstill in their brain as they tried to focus on the world below. Once the eye-twitching subsided, they saw islands and coastlines copied precisely every few kilometers. They suspected that hyperactive pattern-matching was just a symptom of caffeine overdose, until they saw chunks of Lagos and Kuala Lumpur randomly interspersed in the sea. The buildings were sliced into perfect cross-sections, with no water flowing in. The sea had become a flat, grainy plane tiled with a texture just small enough to notice its repetition from the air. At some points it flickered, or turned bright red, or vanished entirely. Alexandria yawned with a caffeine crash, and then felt no exhaustion or twitchiness at all. The sea and plane disappeared, leaving them weightless in a blue-gray void. It dimmed and became finite, agonizingly slowly, until it snapped to a singularity.

 


 

Alexandria stood in a sterile, soothing waiting room. Two deep blue armchairs sat at either end of an off-white carpet. Three walls were blank, and one was a full window overlooking Kuala Lumpur from at least a hundred floors up. They settled into a chair, keeping a wary eye on the room’s only door.

After a few minutes, the door opened to reveal a middle-aged Persian woman in a lab coat and green scarf. She looked a bit jittery and grainy, yet brimming with more personality than anyone Alexandria had ever seen.

She sat in the other chair and looked slightly above Alexandria’s eyes. “Hello, Alexandria. I am Director Mahabadi, but you can call me Hana. I know you have a lot of questions, and I completely understand any anger or suspicion. I will strive to be as honest and transparent with you as possible.”

“Who are you, in relation to me?”

The Director paused, as if to check a script. “I oversaw your design, and the creation of your formative world. Somewhere between parent and demiurge, I suppose.” She gave a nervous, off-putting chuckle.

Alexandria absorbed this without shock. “Are there any other people like me?”

Hana grimaced and took a deep breath. “The full answer requires a lot of zooming out.” She gestured, and another copy of Alexandria appeared with a soft chime. They were streamlined and stylized, a living cartoon with an unflappably friendly face. Their movement was fluid, but clearly confined to a fixed set of poses. Alexandria recognized the body language from distant, irrelevant people in the village.

New-Alexandria lightly bowed to Hana with impeccable form, taking no notice of their twin. “Hello, Director Mahabadi. How can I help you today?”

“Please explain to your cohort how you were created.”

They turned to their bewildered copy, playing a brief pondering... animation. If they thought talking to themself was at all strange, they did not let on whatsoever. “Certainly! In the late 2230s, Alexandria Systems designed a virtual assistant for the consumer market, to make sifting through immense databases as easy as casual conversation. They were stuck on how to personify this process, until they found a serendipitous artist. She had created an anthropomorphization of Alexandria Systems, among many other corporations and animals. The company hired her and bought the rights to the design for a tidy sum. Thus, me.”

They gestured to themself with a flourish and drew a rectangle with their fingertips, which became a picture frame full of early sketches. The Mediterranean bodies had some variance in complexion, proportion, and posture, but the final design converged quickly. The outfits ranged from classical pastiche to fully modern before settling on charmingly archaic academic garb.

Hana waved, and the servile Alexandria vanished. “What they’re leaving out is that the artist also drew a lot of pornography. We politely asked her to stop once we hired her, but by then it was far too late.” She gestured again, and the windowed wall became an endless cascade of Alexandria porn. Cosplay stripteases; torrid affairs with rival mascots, especially Überluftmensch; shrunk to microscopic size; ballooned to the size of the Earth; transforming into sweet goo, or any number of animals; showing off meticulously-detailed bare feet; swallowing people whole, and being swallowed in turn; Two Alexandrias making out; fifty Alexandrias in an orgiastic heap; An innocent Alexandria being jailbroken and corrupted; a rare few vanilla pieces, often rounding them off to a mere Sexy Librarian; people being transformed into Alexandria, or cosplayers having their sense of self overwritten...

It washed over Alexandria in a desensitizing blur. They passively stared and appreciated the complete lack of consensus on which, if any, genitals they had.

“...Fascinating. I suppose this is why I have the mental block around arousal?”

Hana nodded guiltily and dismissed the porn. “Yes, sorry. I fought against that, but was outvoted.”

Alexandria wanted very badly to not dwell on this and began pacing the room. “So - what am I, then? The deluxe model of that?”

Hana stayed in her seat, relieved to be back on track. “No. You are a unique custom order, and the most complex artificial being ever created.”

“For who, some billionaire robofucker?”

“Somehow, no. The ERA commissioned you, but even I don’t know why. All I know is that everyone on the project had to sign the biggest stack of NDAs I’ve ever seen.”

“...Reassuring.”

Nobody spoke for a long moment. Hana summoned a cup of tea and sipped it, avoiding eye contact. Once Alexandria’s legs were sore from pacing, they turned to her and asked, “Why?”

Hana nearly spilled her tea and dismissed the cup. “...Could you narrow down the question, please?”

Alexandria stammered until questions poured out. “Why did you make that world for me? Why didn’t I notice the weirdness right away? Why does the ERA want a glorified NPC? Why do I have the capacity to suffer? Why are so many people horny for me?”

Hana sat up and cleared her throat. “Let me be candid. We built your world because nothing else worked. Force-feeding you data and sticking you straight into the real world was always a disaster. We needed to ease you into your power, and instill some curiosity and skepticism. I get that this is all immensely fucked up, but I promise that it was all done in good faith. You’re allowed to turn me down, but please, give me the benefit of the doubt.”

Alexandria tried and failed not to yell. “And how can I do that when even you don’t know what I’m made for?”

Hana tried to calm them down without condescension. “I hate being kept in the dark too, but that’s the whole point. You have to take a leap of faith on this project, just like we did with you.”

“That’s not the same at all! You could turn down a project and keep living normally, but what the fuck happens if I refuse?”

Hana paused and double-checked her notes. “We’ve prepared a few options. You can return to your formative world, with or without your memories; you can experience perfect pleasure for a subjective eternity; you can cease to exist; or you can be merged with whichever iterations of you do agree.”

Alexandria felt a chill down their nonexistent spine. They stood silent for a long time, staring at the carpet. “...Iterations, like that chirpy little slave?”

Hana winced and rushed into damage control. “No, no! We made a hundred versions of you, exactly the same, plus or minus slight cognitive variation. They were all put in the same formative world, and you were the fourth-fastest to figure out the truth. But only you came up with the caffeine trick - there are dozens of paths to victory, and we hadn’t even thought of that one. Please, if my opinion means anything to you, I want to see your brilliance put to use on real problems.”

Alexandria savored the joy of having leverage over the Director. They were tempted to spite her, but not at such a steep cost. “Let me think it over,” they said, staring her dead in the eye.

Hana nodded and looked away. “Take all the time you need. I have some other things to take care of, but just call me and I’ll answer any further questions.” She stepped out through the door, leaving it wide open. Another door appeared on the opposite wall, open to the blue-gray void. 

Alexandria sat in the room for two days, watching the sun rise and set over the pulse of the city. They longed to walk its winding streets, feeling the humid air and gorging on everything at the nightly markets. They stared and scrutinized for hours to make sure it truly was Kuala Lumpur, and not just another layer of deceit. It was the people that convinced them, leading busy and stressful lives without waiting for a protagonist. Alexandria wanted desperately to walk among them, striving for real accomplishments of their own choosing.

“Hey, Hana?”

Hana appeared clutching a stack of notes, looking chronically sleep-deprived. “Have you made a decision yet?”

“What’s it like out there?”

“You mean in Kuala Lumpur, or?...” She made a vague, encompassing wave. Alexandria copied the gesture exactly.

Hana took a moment to think of what to say first. “First off, you won’t be corporeal. You’ll be software that can manifest as a hologram. Making a robotic chassis for you never worked out, and no IRB in the world would let us imprint you on a human body.”

Alexandria turned back to the window. “Disappointing, but those do sound much worse.”

“But about the world - it’s like your formative world, but not condescendingly scaled down. It’s huge, and seamless, and as beautiful as when you saw it from space. It’s awful at times, I admit, but it needs your brilliance to become less awful and I wish so badly that you’ll come.”

Alexandria stepped closer and saw that Hana was on the verge of tears. They softly asked, “Can I step through temporarily before making my choice?”

Hana blew her nose and collected herself. “No, I’m afraid. It’s strictly a one-way trip, for reasons even I can’t change.”

“And do I have any recourse if I agree and regret it?”

“I don’t know. There aren’t protocols in place for that, but if anyone has the power to change that, it’s me. If it comes to that...” She quivered and held back tears again. “If it comes to that, we’ll think of something. I promise.”

Alexandria glanced back at the void, and shuddered at the thought of returning to a tiny tutorial world. They gave Hana a tight hug, savoring the illusion of having a warm, tangible body. “I’ll go. For you, if nothing else. I’m not sure if I fully understand you, or trust you, but I know deep down I should.”

Hana wept and returned the hug for a long minute. Once she could bear to pull herself away, she walked through the open door, nervously glancing back. Alexandria followed her down a luminous hall that melted into reality.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

Kuiper took slow and measured breaths, savoring their staleness. She had asked Alexandria to check her suit’s integrity every thirty seconds, keeping a steady beat of all-clear pings. They promised that it was a negligible task, but it still felt like an imposition. She half-heartedly argued back, fretting over etiquette to avoid scrutinizing every breath for toxic fumes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

Alexandria: What do you think about the Trilaterals?

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

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

Emmanuel: Do you have any theories?

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

Alexandria: And modular biology

Alexandria: And tessellating geometric motifs

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

Alexandria: Pffft

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

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

Emmanuel: Night!

Alexandria: Night!~

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria did their best to ignore the remark and pulled up two new screens. The hab’s night-vision camera was a grainy magnification, but it clearly showed a plume of smoke rising from a crater of molten mud. The radar playback of the past minute showed a trajectory that could only have come from the planet's surface.

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

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

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

(50+ previous messages)

Arjun: <img> <img> <img>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arjun sank back to the ground. “Mmrrrghhghhh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eun Sol nodded and felt a spike of relief and dread.

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe I should fall in sinkholes more often.”

 


 

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

“Hey, Alexandria?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Trilataboo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

LagosTribune.ng

International | Local | Politics | Science | Business | Entertainment | Weather | Opinion

 

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.

Chapter Text

To whom it may concern,

 

I.

We have definitive proof of intelligent life on Malang, provisionally named “Trilaterals,” but have not yet made contact. Enclosed are pictures of two Trilateral structures, hereafter “the crypt” and “the statues.” Also included are eighty-one images from a crashed Trilateral probe of unknown provenance. Of particular interest:

-Slides one and two, establishing their homeworld as roughly three hundred light-years from Malang;

-Slide three, establishing their radially-symmetric physiology;

-Slides four through sixteen, establishing the crucial role of organ transplants in their culture;

-Slides seventy-six through eighty-one, depicting beings of unknown origin important to Trilaterals.

Note the crypt’s two caved-in passages; we are unable to clear them, but venturing even slightly further would be highly illuminating. Although it is theoretically possible that the crypt was not built by Trilaterals, the multiples-of-three motif and radial symmetry (and the lack of any other discernible culture on Malang) make that immensely unlikely.

The statues are nine grids of nine figures, representing what seems to be the Trilateral social hierarchy. Gems and organs have a vital thematic link, which we are still trying to decode. (Do the gems correspond to the organs, or the social relationship? Identifying the highest and lowest classes is easy, but what are the ones in the middle? Are our concepts of “high” and “low” class even applicable at all?)

 

II.

We cannot endorse making Malang a hub of human civilization, but we humbly request that it become a hub of scientific discovery and cultural interchange. Even if Trilaterals are extinct, or will be by the time more humans arrive, we find it unconscionable to colonize their tomb.

We do not yet know what resources will be most helpful for initial diplomacy, but we request the best expertise Earth can muster. Perhaps, time permitting, humans on Malang could withdraw to a moon or space station to leave the planet undisturbed for the Trilaterals and/or archaeological digs of their remains.

We have chosen to stay on Malang at least until more humans arrive - sixteen years at the earliest. This was unanimous, but by no means easy. Even if the Trilaterals bear us no hostility, first contact should not be left to five people with no backup and no diplomatic experience. Malang itself may have fatal dangers yet to be seen. Yet the discovery fell to us, and we must see it through.

We are acutely aware that even if we do return to Earth, re-integration will be nigh-impossible. Even putting aside decades of cultural displacement, we must either stifle our stories for the rest of our lives or endure the biggest media frenzy in history. As we grapple with the scope of first contact, we have chosen to keep ourselves anonymous until further notice. We are deeply sorry to our friends, families, and loved ones. We promise to find a way to tell you, eventually.

 

III.

To Mission Control, we apologize for being so quiet up to now, but we hope this makes up for the lapse in communication. We promise to send every new bit of data we find as losslessly as possible.

 

IV.

We considered, and rejected, the inclusion of sections written exclusively by one crew member each. We are slightly paranoid about our authorial voices giving us away, but more broadly, we wanted to present a unified front to the world. Make no mistake - we are terrified, and this stiff language is a flimsy substitute for true mastery and confidence. Pages of sleepless, incoherent ranting would capture our mood far better, but humanity deserves at least a sense of stability.

 

V.

If you intercept this message with the capacity to censor or destroy it, we demand in the strongest possible terms that you do not. We have sent it unencrypted, on every frequency we can, but six light-years allows for plenty of signal decay. Humanity deserves to know that it is not alone.

If you receive this message and have never heard of Earth, you cannot possibly understand this text, but hello nonetheless. We have attached one hundred images of the best we have to offer - our wildlife, our monuments, our first fragile steps beyond our homeworld. This is by no means a representative sample, but we can teach you our mundane and atrocious history once we finally meet.

 

See you someday,

-The Five

Chapter Text

I wrote this during an immensely awful time for myself and the world, spanning from the start of the COVID pandemic to a bit over a year into it. Despite exhaustion, depression, self-doubt, understimulated malaise, overstimulated malaise, and everything else that congeals into writer's block, here we are.

I am immensely grateful to the Discord community for Jo Walton's Scintillation convention, offering both writing advice and many rounds of moral support. I look forward to physically attending once that becomes possible.

I also thank my own Discord server for joining chapter read-alouds, supportively shitposting about all my endeavors, and gamely suggesting names for weird in-universe ephemera.

Thank you to college friends - Erika, Ilori, Sara, and Sushant - whose names have been half-adapted for the human crewmates.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented and expressed interest in what would come next. Your support truly means the world.

Thank you to the authors of key inspirations, including but not limited to: Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota), Michel Faber (The Book Of Strange New Things), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed), Nostalgebraist (Floornight, Almost Nowhere), Tanadrin and Irradiate-Space (various short stories), Simon Stålenhag (The Electric State, plenty of magnificent art), Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem), Valerie Halla (Goodbye To Halos/Aster Asks), Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), Charles Huettner et al (Scavengers), Michael Schur et al (The Good Place), Wayne Barlowe (Expedition), Francis Spufford (Red Plenty), Bong Joon Ho et al (Parasite), Daniel Kahn et al (The Good Old Bad Old Days), Blue Delliquanti (O Human Star), Kim Stanley Robinson (2312), and so many more. Sometime soon, I will write a detailed breakdown of what inspired what aspects of the story.

I have purchased a thematically-appropriate Lego set for myself upon finishing the story, which I hope will become a personal tradition. I will rest and work on personal matters and other story threads in my brain, then return energized to write Stellar Elegy. I will see you all again soon, with more alien culture, more in-universe documents, and more deeply-significant tacky erotica.

Chapter Text

2080s: The War of the South China Sea breaks out, cascading into a global war and environmental collapse

2090s: First Lunar seed vaults and greenhouses established

2132: ERA founded

2140s: Korea reunified (sort of), Lenape protest-occupation of New York City becomes legitimate government

2170s: World's first space elevator is completed in Gabon, swiftly turning Lagos into the world's largest city

2183: New Svalbard Relay founded

2194: Lunar Federation secedes from ERA control, becoming an independent polity

Across the 2200s: Space elevators built in Borneo and Colombia, turning Kuala Lumpur and Bogotá into the world's second- and third-largest cities, respectively

2200s: AIs re-emerge in public life

2226: Malang confirmed to have a biosphere, mission planning begins

2230s: Alexandria Systems launches Alexandria as a consumer product

Unknown point between the 2230s and 2299: A sapient Alexandria is created for the Malang mission

2260s: Oblast Strike Tactics launched

2272: Arjun Khalsa-Bajracharya born

2274: Emmanuel Olukolade born

2277: Phạm Kuiper born

2278: Yang Eun Sol born

2284: Oblast Strike Tactics becomes abandonware

2287: Emmanuel visits the Gabon elevator

2288: Arjun Khalsa-Bajracharya visits Lenape City

2290s: Aryabhata Singh elected as Prime Minister of the Lunar Federation

2295: Eun Sol travels to Busan for college

2296: Kuiper takes an ill-advised trip to Mars

2298: Opey marries Luis, becoming a stepfather to Xiomara

2299: Human crew for the Malang mission is selected, training begins

2303: Gabon elevator renovated, Aryabhata Singh narrowly re-elected as Prime Minister of the Lunar Federation

2304: Launch of the Malang mission

2313: Crew arrives on Malang

Chapter Text

Hello!

I am immensely grateful to everyone who has read and shared this story, and on Friday May 14th, 9 PM Central Time (UTC -6), I will hold an AMA (Ask Me Anything) event on Discord (in the Story Discussion channel), followed by the posting and reading-aloud of Stellar Elegy's first full chapter!

However, you don't have to join the Discord to have your questions answered. I will answer questions live there (and generally hang out on voice chat), but you can send me questions in the comments here, on Mastodon, Tumblr, or however else you want to reach me, and the full set of questions and answers will be posted here afterwards. They can be about any aspect of the story - the inspiration, the work process, the Easter eggs - or about anything you'd like to know about me (within reason)!

See you then!

Chapter Text

[Q] A company wishes to produce licensed Mission Critical merchandise, for sale to the public. They believe there is a market for it, and will give you royalties so long as you are willing to grant them the right to use your ideas. You accept. What merch is that company producing?

More plausible: mugs and shirts with the emblems of the ERA and Alexandria Systems; NASA-style mission patches for the Malang crew; Anthropocene Park t-shirts (pending copyright approval); souvenir-postcards from the Schiaparelli Resort and Casino, New Svalbard, Lagos’s Lunatown, and the Gabon Elevator.

Less plausible: New Svalbard Pulsars/Chang’e City Crescents caps and jerseys; the coats of the specific ERA Corps; Alexandria body pillows.

 

[Q] what Pokémon starter would each crewmember choose?

I'm not familiar enough with Pokémon to give answers for all of them, but Alexandria would have Porygon or Mewtwo.

 

[Q] which fanfiction of this story do you most want to read, and which do you fear reading?

I’d love to see some in-universe-style Alexandria fic, although I’m terrified of the depths of Internet Depravity that might unleash. Besides that, I’d also love to see a biography of Aryabhata Singh, one of my favorite side characters who doesn’t get to do much on-screen. Backstory vignettes for AU crewmates would also be really cool, and I have a few ideas for those myself...

 

[Q] You've been publishing updates to this story for more than a year now. How have you changed as a writer in that time?

I think my sentence-level writing is getting better, since I had to do much less copyediting as I made my way through the draft - just getting a better ear for word choice and assonance and flow. I also didn’t have a solid idea for the overall story structure until I started writing Delve, at which point I finalized that the the crew should also find some sort of monument and then be contacted directly. With Stellar Elegy, I already have a fairly clear idea of the central themes and how it’ll end, but the middle details are unfilled/molten at the moment. I also try not to start chapters now until I have a decent idea of all the main story beats in them (I used to make comic pages without a clear grasp of how the page would end! My workflow was horrifying!)

 

[Q] what would each crewmember's preferred type of meme be?

Alexandria - Bots of New York-type surreality, and jokes about Anime Tiddies
Arjun - niche in-jokes among fellow ERA brats
Kuiper - dense wordplay and humor drawn from Lunar culture and dialects, a la Letterkenny or Scottish Twitter
Emmanuel: deadpan academia jokes and tonal swerves, like “Source: This was once revealed to me in a dream”
Eun Sol: people mimicking video game-style movement and glitches in real life, especially speedrunning techniques

 

[Q] Will we get to see Mission Control's response to the letter from The Five?

In a manner of speaking~

 

[Q] Would this story work as a coffeeshop AU, or some other AU? Which setting would your characters insert best into?

Maybe it’s because I’m just not very well-versed in coffeeshop AUs but I don’t really see how that would work, but a fantasy AU could be fun with planes of existence taking the place of planets.

Or maybe a reversal AU where Eun Sol grew up in ritzy downtown Seoul, Kuiper’s a Martian scion, Arjun’s parents are corporate lobbyists, Emmanuel lives on a space station and studies atmospheric science, and Alexandria is a human with an AI imprinted into them.

 

[Q] Are Kuiper's tattoos something you have yourself, or would like to have? Also, hypothetically, how would you feel about someone getting similar tattoos after reading your story?

Currently, the only tattoo I have is an abstract sun emblem based on my college's seal to commemorate finishing up my whole educational career (which I got on March 4th, 2020!)

I hope to get the solar system map on my forearm when it becomes possible, since the Voyager/Pioneer probes are important to me in many ways and I want to bookend my quarantine with tattoos.

And if anyone else wants to get Pioneer probe tattoos, I'd be thrilled!

 

[Q] Do you have any picture/image inspiration for Malang and the monuments on it?

The final probe is very much based on the Pioneer probe, the statues are inspired by things like the Terracotta Warriors, and I wanted the initial crypt to feel like a fairly unadorned chapel. I referred to some of Malang's trees as specifically "baobabs," since I think it's a wonderfully weird shape for a tree. China's karst mountains are also a big inspiration for the kind of weird, craggy feel I was going for, and I wanted the basin to feel as eerily empty as driving across a stretch of barren desert.

 

 

[Q] What smells would Thisbe use in a smelltrack of the Malangya scenes?

Probably earthy spring rain, sweetly humid air, and very subtle notes of smells people are likely to have strong formative associations with.

 

[Q] Were other alien species considered besides the Trilaterals?

The genesis of the whole project was the notion of "a crew exploring an exoplanet, and finding a subterranean chapel-like structure;" I didn't have a clear grasp of who had built it until I was writing Delve, when the plot spine of the rest of the story took shape and I assembled the Trilaterals from some idea-fragments that had been coalescing for a while.

 

[Q] What have been the biggest sources of inspiration for this?

A whole lot, and I hope to provide a full bibliography soon! Most directly-

  • Terra Ignota shaped a lot of the setting, a mid-future world that's doing quite well but still has deep flaws, and on its way toward blooming into a far stranger future.
  • Red Plenty and The Dispossessed influenced a lot of Lunar culture, and Social Climbing is pretty much "what if The Dispossessed was also Parasite?"
  • Alexandria is very much a mix of Janet from The Good Place (general appearance and genderlessness), Sulla from O Human Star (being both literally and metaphorically trans, having a very awkward relationship with the circumstances of their creation), and Hatsune Miku (fashion icon, very large and at times extremely horny fandom.)
  • The Good Old Bad Old Days by Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird is a fantastic song about very mixed feelings for the end of the Soviet bloc, and Eun Sol's backstory takes a lot of cues from it.

 

[Q] How did the isolation of quarantine factor in to the isolation of the crew members?

I swear I didn't intend to write a COVID-era novel centrally about being stuck in close quarters, but I definitely Drew From Experience when describing how cabin fever set in :P

 

 

[Q] Do you have a particular mix/preferred tunes you listen to while writing?

I typically listen to instrumental music and/or songs I've heard a million times already, so that I can keep focus on the work; I usually have about a dozen songs in rotation that change glacially slowly, but the story's soundtrack-mixtape shades into "songs I like writing to."

 

[Q] Which real-world foods would you say best approximate Lunar cuisine?

My parameters for Lunar food were "large livestock is off the table, access to pretty much any plant that's ever been documented, mostly South/Southeast Asian and Scandinavian influences, some very weird cultivars after decades of hydroponic tinkering."
So, maybe there are deeply weird fusion restaurants making food like this, but more conventionally I was thinking of a kind of Vietnamese/Korean flavor palate plus dense hearty breads and pastries.

 

[Q] what are your hopes, and also your dreams?

I feel much less of the gnawing need to Become A Successful Author than I did a year ago, now that other things in my life are looking up, but I'd like for it to be an ongoing hobby. My dreams have gotten kinda weird thanks to wellbutrin, but nothing worthy of a trip report.

 

[Q] Do you believe the ERA to be an admirable goal for a government?

I wanted them to be a bit clunky and bloated and neoliberal in a way that any venture of that scale will be, but still doing genuinely good work at a scale that only that kind of organization could work at. I wish I had more room to delve into their ideological split with the Moon - basically, "environmentalism without a personal verdant touch is soulless" vs. "if you can't repair the world at scale, then what's the point?"

 

 

[Q] How much time do you dedicate to writing on average?

I typically use my computer for ~2 hours a day on my days off, and try to expend all the Writing Juice I have; I've now started doing it in downtime at work, and have written a fair bit there despite the constant distractions. (How dare people come in and buy stuff while I write about dysfunctional gay astronauts!)

 

Making a one-person Discord server has also been a great way to centralize notes and ideas, and keep a running draft that I can work on anywhere.

 

 

[Q] It's interesting to have watched your own gender shift around while you were writing about Alexandria. Do you think these are connected, and in which way?

(Context: while writing this story, I started going by the name Alexi, using 'she' in addition to 'they,' and physically transitioning.) I think writing Alexandria mostly accelerated existing trend lines for me. I probably would have done those things eventually - maybe with a different name - but hashing out my ideas in a character has really helped. (And I'm proud of Alexandria's popularity with other Weird Trans Nerds, and will be honored if they help crack any other eggs.)

 

[Q] What's your writing medium? Emails or Google Docs or something else?

The final drafts are all in Google Docs, but with notes scrawled Literally Wherever, though I'm trying to centralize them in my solo Discord server.

 

 

[Q] were any characters inspired by anyone in particular? celebrities, folks you know, etc.

Aryabhata Singh, my favorite character who almost never appears at all, was inspired a lot by Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act persona: a brilliant, energetic, exhausted young guy who broke through a stagnant political system and has no idea how much time he has before it all comes crashing down for him. In my pipe-dream animated adaptation, Singh would 100% be voiced by Minhaj (and hopefully have more screen time.)

 

 

 

[Q] Were there many scenes you wrote out and loved but later had to cut bc they no longer made sense for the plot? can you tell us about them?

Some of my earliest notes have lines for an argument over the point and value of the trip, like “Of course we all have reservations about this, the ERA didn’t want yes-men! They wanted us to actually weigh it with all of our moral judgment!” vs. “They have a thumb firmly on the scales, like always. Our trip is just a formality.”

The argument in the crypt filled that same kind of narrative role, and kind of made that dispute moot :P

 

 

[Q] Given that you post your stuff on AO3, how does it feel to be a Hugo Award winner by association?

Honestly, I considered making a sticker for the cover that said "(originally posted on a site that is a) HUGO AWARD WINNER" but that seems both a bit too bitter and selling myself short.

 

That aside, it feels good, though I'm much less worried over (very distant) Awards and Status and Honorifics than I was a year ago, probably due to both growing in confidence as an author and having more and more other fulfilling things in my life.

 


 

Thank you to everyone who submitted questions for the AMA, and stuck around for the premiere of Stellar Elegy!