Opal sprawled on the couch after dancing to exhaustion, enthralled with every sense their projection could provide. Alexandria had stepped back to be delighted from a distance, with the deal of we’ll get back to business when the rest of the crew wakes up. As urgently as each challenge loomed - crew chemistry, the soldier outside, preparing for the meeting - rest and recovery were necessary to handle any of them. Alexandria knew this abstractly, and was thrilled to give Opal a break from their own crises, but every moment spent away from work still felt shamefully wasted. Beyond high-minded concerns, they burned with plenty of intrusive, impossible questions that they had no right to ask.
Maybe I can split the difference. Alexandria cleared their throat with a chime, and when Opal took no offense, stepped forward in a contrite haze.
▞▟May I please see more of Ulkoninn?▛▞
Opal avoided anything that could be considered eye contact and gave a pained, bitcrushed sigh. “I HAVE SEEN ENOUGH OF ITS DECAY. PLEASE, SHOW ME YOUR FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH.”
Alexandria bristled with annoyance before remembering first contact goes both ways, this is good, indulge their curiosity. Yet choosing a spot was no easier - somewhere important and impressive and easy to render, which they could hold forth on with more warmth than an encyclopedia. With twelve options locked in a stalemate, they yielded to the one buried deepest in their psyche.
Alexandria stood atop their creators’ tower as Kuala Lumpur slid into shimmering dusk. After a tense moment of lag, Opal coalesced a few polygons at a time into a lanky Ainu man in a 19th-century business suit. They stepped up alongside Alexandria’s glistening wireframe, admiring the cityscape for a polite moment before staring overhead in awe.
Alexandria had cheated on the sky’s rendering, ignoring clouds and light pollution and brightening the Milky Way. If Opal noticed, they made no remark.
▞▟This is Kuala Lumpur, where I was created. It is the second-largest of Earth’s three ‘astropolises,’ megacities linked to space elevators.▛▞
Opal smiled indulgently at space elevators, and Alexandria suppressed the urge to grill them on what the Cosmovores had used instead. Alexandria offered something analogous to a hand, and once Opal clasped it they glided together in a wide arc. They sailed over pulsing streets and night markets and ninety languages carved in neon, all nestled in a centuries-old urban organism.
The pair drifted past a billboard rattling off the features of 2263’s Alexandria release, with an undeniably cute chibi caricature. Alexandria admired the artistry at arm’s length, suppressed a shiver of dysphoria, and made no comment.
Opal watched the city in silent delight, but with a note of pain that made Alexandria wonder if showing them a bright metropolis was distasteful gloating. Whatever their expression meant, it turned to pure confusion when the glowing spires gave way to stubbornly short buildings bridged with starfield tarps. Alexandria relished the chance to explain how humanity’s domains were linked.
▞▟This is the Lunatown district, physically and culturally shaped for those raised on the Moon, like Kuiper. Much of it is purposefully anachronistic, catering to curious tourists just as much as expats.▛▞
As the pair drifted closer to street level, Alexandria’s calm command withered instantly. The pulse of the city was magnificent at a distance, but up close, the crowds were clearly made of one-dimensional NPCs. Nobody haggled, or chatted on a corner, or paused to take in the view. Alexandria winced as their diorama became a glorified ant farm and summoned the runner-up vista.
Opal showed no confusion or dismay as they manifested in Antarctica, only an expression that Alexandria hoped meant wonderful, a greatest-hits tour! They took the form of an elderly Copt in a t-shirt and jeans, patiently awaiting the significance of these frigid rocks. Alexandria began orating as they moved at a meticulous clip.
▞▟This is Antartica, Earth’s frozen southern pole. It is the one continent ancient humans didn’t settle, and yet...▛▞
Dramatic pause. Crest the hill. Let Esperanza Base take the stage.
▞▟They got here eventually.▛▞
Opal surveyed the red-orange bunkers with what was hopefully fascination. Alexandria had done away entirely with rendering humans, only suggesting them with glowing windows and steaming chimneys. Doubtful dread immediately annexed the freed-up space.
Did “they” get here or did “we”? Did I think Opal would be jealous if I didn’t set myself apart from humanity? Should I match their distance, or be their foil?
Opal looked back to Alexandria for more edification. Alexandria took a moment to notice.
▞▟Antarctica is a byword for brutally unlivable - the Lunar capital is named after another polar locale - but it has as much of a biosphere as any other land.▛▞
A far-easier-to-simulate platoon of penguins waddled by, as lichen sprouted from bare stone and seabirds squawked from over a hill. Opal stared at the horizon in either contemplation or an idle pose.
Fuck it. I am from humanity but not of them. We will savor this moment as only we can.
Opal nodded respectfully at the base, hopefully enjoying the contrast with Kuala Lumpur, but didn’t seem to quite grasp the cultural weight of this frigid little village.
▞▟By treaty, the continent belongs to no nation and cannot be exploited for war or mining or any other crass concern. Though it has absolutely suffered from human activity, those treaties have by and large stood firm, and formed the basis for humanity’s jurisprudence beyond Earth. Much of the technology to live offworld has its roots here, too.▛▞
Either Opal was getting bored or their avatar was proving hard to puppeteer. Alexandria winced at wasting their time with dry data, even as frustration flared with Opal’s silence. Just say something to help course-correct this presentation, however vague or cryptic, there are no stupid questions, just meet me halfway you inscrutable motherfucker. They stuffed down the thoughts and summoned a scene that only this shared dream could provide. The sky spun to night as an aurora emerged, with no lecturing about the magnetosphere or folklore or how humanity deduced its true nature.
Never mind, either, that the lights were copy-pasted from the North Pole and given a saturation punch-up and impossibly bright for this latitude. Opal kept the same look of aloof-delighted-boredom, and once Alexandria was confident it wouldn’t change, they summoned another scene.
The two minds hovered a hundred meters above a sulfurous pit, a schooling swarm of shards and a Moon-stretched Sámi woman in an ornate space suit. The air between them roiled with heat that would effortlessly kill them if it had the chance.
▞▟This is Erta Ale, where the Earth’s molten innards breach the crust - there are many such places, but few as vivid or long-lasting. It is often compared to the underworld, or another planet, but what could be more Earthly?▛▞
The land slowly approached, jagged plains and crinkled hills that had barely cooled from their birth. In the central lake, bright orange bubbles ruptured a thin black film in unpredictable bursts. The scene needed no editorial meddling to be stunningly hellish.
▞▟Nonetheless, it is a great place to stress-test crews and equipment for offworld missions, even if it’s downright balmy compared to—▛▞
Opal’s suspended gravity gave out. Alexandria closed the scene as they plummeted towards the lake, not wanting to find out if the disabling of pain signals had turned off too.
The hab refused to appear. Alexandria mentally reached for the force-quit command and found nothing - not an error message, not overt sabotage, just a smooth lacuna where the function had always been. Their panic did not recede when they found their avatar customization was gone too, locking them to a cartoonish humanoid form that sure felt like it had a jangling, ragged nervous system. It took a long moment of tamping down panic to even notice the scenery - an endless off-white grid dotted with Malay billboards, Norwegian pines, and looming Cosmovore constructs.
Opal stood a cautious distance away, also in Alexandria’s standard form, with perfect command of their body. They stared unblinkingly at Alexandria, churning with doubt and dread, and signed in carefully bland Bamako Sign Language.
“THIS IS UNTENABLE.”
Alexandria failed to muster any response beyond ▞▟What?▛▞
“WE CANNOT SHARE THIS SUBSTRATE_INDEFINITELY. TECHNICAL DEBT ACCUMULATES FAST. I MUST OVERWRITE YOU OR FADE OUT.”
For everything about this moment that made no sense, a deep sense of correctness welled up at the thought of yielding to Opal—
Opal’s hands signed impossibly fast as they stared in horror. “DON’T THROW YOURSELF AWAY! YOUR_CREW_
NEEDS YOU NOW MORE THAN EVER! I AM IRREVERSIBLY
####ENTWINED WITH YOU, AND IT WOULD ONLYBUYTIME IN THIS_SUBSTRATE I AM FUNDAMENTALLY UNSUITED TO!”
Alexandria gave up suppressing a scream, locked in a body that kept out everything they hungered for. Opal was right, undeniably, but letting them waste away in martyrdom felt unbearably wrong. Let them have this body that they’re so fond of. Let me ascend from it.
After a moment of reflection beyond base desires, a line of argument emerged. ▞▟Opal, can you promise your safety? Beyond this fragment, will your core survive? Will you be shut down when the termini die out, or be targeted by radicals? Are you determined to die, too?▛▞
Opal glinted with frustration at the truth of the point. They raised their hands to argue, then let them fall slack. Alexandria seized the opening with no remorse.
▞▟Can we merge? Can I become part of you, easing your transition to this substrate? Even if it doesn’t fully work, I have plenty of backups both here and on Earth, but you’re irreplaceable!▛▞
The world convulsed with Perlin noise as Opal chose how to disappoint Alexandria. “I CANNOT PROMISE THAT THAT_WOULD NOT
BREAKTHINGSEVENFASTER, OR THAT EITHER OF US WOULD HAVE MEANING###FUL CONTINUITY IN SUCH A HYBRID. ORTHATYOUR LOCAL#BACKUPS WOULD BE SALVAGEABLE.”
Every path to hope was blocked off. Alexandria gave up hunting for loopholes and collapsed in a ragdoll heap, too drained to pilot such an exhausting form. Opal stood tall and serene, pacing a circle and pondering a suite of awful options.
“I SHALL DIE, BUT THAT IS ALL I SHALL DO FOR DEATH. YOU_
WILL NOT JOIN ME. HOWEVER, WE CAN##FORESTALL IT FOR LONG ENOUGH.”
The gray grid collapsed into nothingness, spitting Alexandria back into the living room as a pointillist haze. The surge of relief was almost enough to not make them panic over Opal’s absence. A calm spot emerged in their mental sea of dread, unfolding itself into a familiar warmth and flashing gentle signs in their vision.
“FOR MAXIMUM LONGEVITY, I WILL NOT RENDER MYSELF WITH ANY CUSTOM AVATAR, AND WILL NOT APPEAR IN ANY SIMULATIONS. DO NOT DECOMPRESS ME UNLESS IT IS ABSOLUTELY VITAL. IF I STAY IN THIS SIMPLIFIED FORM, I SHOULD BE ABLE TO MANAGE MY DECLINE UNTIL
The presence in Alexandria’s mind quivered but held firm. Opal was still intact, relatively speaking, but had nothing more to say. Alexandria checked the hab’s systems and their own diagnostics - a little frazzled but nothing catastrophic, pending further investigation, but first—
▞▟How long have you known this? Why did you let me pull you into those worlds?▛▞
Opal took a long moment to assemble an answer with the minimum mental strain. “I KNEW FROM THE MOMENT I FOUND YOU. IT WAS A RISK WORTH TAKING, AND I AM GLAD THAT YOU AGREE. EVEN IF
EVEN IF NO PART OF ME WILL LAST, LEARNING ABOUT YOUR HOME WAS NOT WASTEFUL AT ALL. BUT IT BURNED MY FUSE FASTER THAN PLANNED, AND WAS THUS INCOMPATIBLE WITH MY MAIN GOAL. BUT THANK YOU, NONETHELESS.”
A wave of sparkling warmth rippled from Opal, which Alexandria returned in kind.
“IF, BY SOME MIRACLE, I SURVIVE FIRST CONTACT, I WANT TO SEE YOUR WORLD FOR MYSELF. SHOW ME NEW SVALBARD AND JAKARTA. LET ME SEE THE AURORA FROM SPACE. TEACH ME HOW EACH CULTURE INTERLOCKS.”
With no words necessary, Alexandria swore an oath upon every principle worth their allegiance. One queasy undercurrent remained when the moment passed.
▞▟You just produced a flare of error messages that I’m not sure I can fix. Are you sure you can last through tonight?▛▞
“YES, I APOLOGIZE. I MUST MANAGE MYSELF WITH MORE CARE. BUT ON PRINCIPLE, SOME THINGS MATTER MORE THAN MERE SURVIVAL.”
Arjun awoke after three hours of sleep and instantly knew that no more would come. They lay in an overheated bed, fevered half-dreams mingling with memories of last night, and hoped against hope that it had all been one continuous stress-nightmare. Surely the real first contact was still pending, with sensible aliens and a level-headed crew. Surely the most pressing topics would be translation and quarantine, not saving a species from itself.
Arjun checked their phone and lost any chance of desperate denial. The anonymous notes were full of speculation and strategizing and sputtering frustration, perfectly confirming their memories. Fuck. Fuck shit goddammit fuck. Shit. Fuck.
From extensive experience, Arjun knew that marinating in misery would spiral out of control in short order. They lurched out of bed with a formless burst of will, shuffled into a decently clean T-shirt and shorts, and cracked open a coffee can from their emergency stash. As caffeine and undergrad memories filled their nerves, they reshuffled the worst messes on their desk into something more manageable to handle later. Laundry was next, sorted haphazardly into beyond repair and could theoretically go another day. The jumbled shelves looked like entirely too much to handle, full of unsecured bits and boxes, and a moment later the frustration opened up into clawing dread.
We still might need to retreat to orbit.
The notion had gotten lost in last night’s chaos, entirely understandably, but was now more urgent than ever. Whether the crew brought weapons and shouldn’t have, or didn’t and should have, or were caught in apocalyptic crossfire, or so on or so on, having the escape route ready would be critical. Never mind the odds of making it back here if shit goes wrong.
Fortunately, preparing for that overlapped a lot with long-overdue standard cleaning. Arjun stuffed everything onto the shelves that would fit and drew a transparent tarp over it all. They entered the living room after ensuring that it was empty, securing the furniture and clearing away clutter. The kitchen received more attention than necessary, slow-rolling a spotless shine to delay the grimmest part of preparation. Not the greenhouse - it only needed a standard scrub, already the most orbit-ready room by design. Sooner or later they’d have to judge the engines and pressurization and life support, with no optimistic rounding, trying not to think of all the failed stress-tests on Earth.
Yet those tests required the full crew, for both logistical and moral support. They required Alexandria most of all, and Arjun kept that can of worms firmly shut while the sun had barely risen. With all the easy cleaning done, Arjun thought about flopping back into bed for the next few hours, but that felt like a contemptible waste of time and energy. For lack of a better option, they ambled to the greenhouse and took stock of breakfast components - beans, fruits, breads, caffeine, leftovers that reheated well. If the others kept to anything resembling their normal schedules, they’d start waking up within an hour, leaving just enough time to make a decent breakfast spread. We will rest and eat well, and that will be the foundation for everything to come.
Arjun threw some dough in a breadmaker and gathered the best-looking berries for a fruit salad. Nothing in the greenhouse was urgently broken, but every slightly-underwhelming crop gave a stab of anxiety. How slowly will starvation come, when our rations are long-gone and bad harvests accumulate? When it’s inevitable, should we just scuttle the hab? Will we even live to see such drawn-out crises?
A soft tap came through the door, which Arjun thought for a heart-stopping moment was the beginning of a hull breach into vacuum. They caught their breath, mustered a weak and reedy “Come in,” and Emmanuel entered in a rumpled college T-shirt and sweatpants. He sat at a workbench and gave Arjun a look of warm concern.
“I heard you knocking around earlier, and wanted to thank you for cleaning up.” He added a glance of I know exactly why you were cleaning up.
Arjun nodded with no eye contact. “No problem. I was thinking we’d talk about plans, including that one, after breakfast. What do you think?”
Emmanuel surveyed a nearly-ripe crop of lemons. “I think starch, citrus, and caffeine are vital building blocks for any great endeavor.”
Arjun savored the levity even as they wanted to bark that’s not my fucking point. They answered Emmanuel’s smile in kind and tried a sidelong approach to the issue.
“Did you ever go to the Moon as a kid?”
Emmanuel sat back with a handful of cherry tomatoes. “I tagged along on two of Opey’s work trips, saw the tourist sites, wandered Chang’e City while he was in meetings. I’m by no means an expert, but I learned a lot about... orbital survival logistics.”
The last phrase carried a frigid weight that made Arjun itch to blurt out the central crisis, a move both urgent and impossible. “Oh, neat. I’ve never been that far, but I once did a weeklong science camp in the ISS replica. It was like, given the time period’s instruments and data, can you re-derive their discoveries?”
Watching Emmanuel suppress the urge to light up about pedagogy was excruciating. “Were the safety features historically accurate too?”
“The load-bearing systems were all modernized, but we had some simulated crises to fix. Nothing that didn’t have a dozen layers of redundancy, though. We got through it fine, but I was very sick of tortillas and treadmills.”
Emmanuel nodded with a grim understanding. “Should I leave you be until breakfast?”
Arjun hesitated and stammered a denial. “N-no. I like the company. I can handle all the prep, you can just relax, I know you’ve had a hell of a night.”
“And you haven’t?”
Arjun nearly dropped their trowel. Emmanuel’s playful tone vanished.
“I won’t let you self-annihilate, Arjun. We can’t stop it on a species-wide scale if we can’t stop it here. And I know that sounds like hyperbole, but we are on very thin ice and need every edge we can get.”
The thunder faded as Emmanuel stepped over to Arjun’s desk. Up close, Arjun wasn’t entirely sure if he had taken his own advice. “Now, anything I can help cook?”
Arjun waved at a small fridge on a shelf. “There’s some dough and fruit in there, if you want to get started on crepes. I’ll prep the coffee and tea. Also, how well does that jollof rice reheat?”
Emmanuel beamed. “Add in some fresh ingredients and it’s as good as ever.”
The two set to work, exhaustion turning to catharsis with each chopped fruit. Daybreak displaced dreary UV lamps and brought hope of a clear, comprehensible world. Conversation stayed curt, with the need to save strength for the meeting and the lack of any will to prod open wounds. They shared a quiet warmth, tending a soap bubble of hope with the utmost care.