Chapter 1: EPIGRAPH
Chapter 2: Carver
Tenfold Selfless Carver slid from a decanting vat onto frigid basalt tile. She lay twitching as her senses returned, soaking her obsidian-inlaid scars with the vinegar sting of deathless brine. Her mind was a stew of lingering moods from when she was put under - triumph, catharsis, a deep hollowness - with new spikes of resignation and dread. She reached for the operating table to haul herself up and found nothing, too bewildered to feel relief.
With great effort and trepidation, Carver blinked away the brine and took stock of her surroundings. She lay on the cold, greasy floor of a room with no operating table, surgical tools, or looming Wardens. A familiar decanting vat took up one wall, while the other five bristled with tools she barely recognized. She found her footing and scrutinized them - radiation-shield suits, air tanks, placards with basic words and symbols, and a fearsome rack of weapons, all framing a bulbous terminal.
Carver froze. She had never seen such a terminal up close, or without a crowd of pious Delvers scrutinizing every output. As she wondered if it was a trap, or some ghastly mistake, it lit up with ancient meterless prose.
HAVE YOU AWOKEN, MY CHILD?
Carver tapped >Y as gently as possible, terrified of breaking the millennia-old machine. It whirred and groaned for a long moment, as if it was equally confused.
STRANGERS HAVE ARRIVED.
Carver's fragile grasp of the situation shattered. She was not a Seeker and had never wanted to be one, even if she had had the option. Three possibilities arose in her mind.
My awakening was in error;
I do not remember my own life;
All above me are dead.
...All unverifiable, and rather absurd. Yet Carver knew with iron-heavy conviction that strangers had arrived, despite just as little evidence. She had heard countless times that the detection systems skewed highly pessimistic and required six separate corroborations. She knew that nobody would dare hack this terminal, least of all for a cruel trick on an exhausted Carver. Yet those were distant, hazy factors with no bearing on her belief. She knew it in the same way she could tell up from down and remembered how to breathe.
The terminal whirred again, dispensing a thin tablet. The input field remained onscreen with no further instructions. Carver stared at the tablet until she found the courage to type >WHY SEND ME?
The terminal gave neither response nor error message.
Carver gingerly took the tablet and inspected it. It was a familiar model, the same type she used for her job, with far more ornate construction. The back was etched with an abstract map of something - stars, genes, cities - and it crackled with an ancient power she had never been permitted to touch. She lay it on a flat shelf and did not dare turn it on.
With deeper courage and confusion, Carver re-assessed the room’s supplies. She shuffled into a radiation-shield suit with plenty of pockets and gathered as many symbol-placards as she could carry. She took only the most discreet weapon of the bunch, an obsidian blade as light and sharp as a scalpel. After a long pause she took the tablet, equipped for its mission and shielded from its sacred power.
The terminal went dark as the wall beside it slid open. Carver stepped out into a space flooded with a far more terrifying light. She shielded her eyes and ducked back inside, calming herself with well-worn lessons about the healthy young vigor of this world’s atmosphere. Even if it was as dangerous as Ulkoninn’s sky, her suit would allegedly provide ample defense on its own. She tinted her visor to its darkest setting and peered outside.
Carver stood on the highest of three balcony tiers ringing a hexagonal plaza. An elevator column ran through the center, set between three circular shafts streaming down unfiltered sunlight. The plaza’s floor held a vegetable garden, obscenely glutted on real solar radiation. Each balcony held rows of unmarked doors identical to the one she stepped out of. All were closed, and the plaza lacked any movement save the garden’s gentle rustling. No Cultivar’s emblem hung anywhere she could see.
Carver crept down the nearest staircase, blade at the ready. No doors slid open as she passed. No alarms blared, no Wardens emerged, and no trapdoors unlatched as she paced around the garden. Her flare of suspicion that all others had died did not recede. She stared at the swollen produce and picked up an overripe teal fruit she could not name. Its squishy heft felt entirely unlike a rigid tumor, and made her realize exactly how hungry she had been since decantation. She scurried to a corner far from sunlight or any lurking Wardens, opened her helmet a fraction, and took a bite.
The fruit exploded, filling Carver’s helmet with syrupy nectar. She devoured it in two bites, heedless of any legal or biological danger, and grabbed another. She paused after her third to drain her helmet and sample a pink berry that nearly made her vomit. Ten sampled fruits later, she filled a bag with a durable assortment and half-heartedly tried to cover her tracks.
...No amount of shuffling vines will hide this crime scene. Carver tried to contain her panic over garden-theft when she noticed that the elevator’s door sat open. It held a podtank etched with Seeker slogans she barely understood, with the top hatch open and beckoning. She climbed inside, reasoning that any trial for trespassing would already have plenty to work with.
A thin layer of greasy dust coated the podtank’s cockpit. Carver wiped it off, taking care to not accidentally press any controls, and found a niche perfectly sized for her tablet. She plugged it in and the tank sprang to life, its full-circle windshield lighting up with annotated maps. The glow spread to the control panels, highlighting the essentials - joystick, acceleration, brakes - and leaving the rest locked and dark. The tank rumbled, and Carver felt a jolt of terror that she had accidentally started it up until she noticed that the elevator had begun to rise.
The ascent was a grinding slog through a shaft clogged with mourningstalk vines. The elevator’s engine nearly stalled out a few times, pulling through with only sheer crushing force. Carver held her breath as the vines burst apart - like any Carver, she knew that nothing could be trusted to contain mourningstalk’s depressant aroma. She only exhaled once both her tank and suit pinged atmosphere fully safe for the third time in a row.
As the elevator reached the surface, Carver’s calm evaporated in the sunlight. The sun lay half-hidden behind jagged peaks, covering the plain with stripes of radiant death. She tinted the tank’s windshield as darkly as possible and watched the sun long enough to confirm that it was not descending. The merits of delaying her mission until nightfall were tempting - stealth, safety, stargazing - but did not nearly outweigh the danger of her dormant comrades catching up with her. She resolved to embark as soon as she came to terms with the world around her.
Carver’s tank sat in a broad valley bounded by cliffs and forests. Mourningstalk bloomed to the horizon, as decadently profuse as the garden below. Dozens of mutated strains throttled the landscape and each other with hardly any native survivors in sight. The few tufts of upright grass were either surrenderers, collaborators, or a new variant. Carver felt a burst of grim pride that something from Ulkoninn could thrive here, followed by the lead-heavy realization that the homeland she had never known was impossibly far away.
The windshield demanded Carver’s attention with a flashing map overlay. It laid out a clear route to the strangers - a slalom through craggy foothills, then a day-long straight path. The map flashed brighter with each moment she ignored it in favor of a statue garden on the meadow’s edge. She couldn’t tell if it was stranger-made at this distance, but knew it was a worthy cause for delay. She nudged the joystick south, churning omnidirectional treads through gnarled mounds of mourningstalk. The tank felt magnetically repelled as she pushed away from the route, until the resistance abruptly broke and the map dimmed.
The tank lurched south and lodged a tread into a ditch. Carver yanked the joystick as tightly as possible, hoping for more helpful controls to light up. She fruitlessly ground the treads deeper until the autopilot activated, deftly extracting the tank and setting it right back on the map’s route. Carver sighed, cut the engine, and climbed out to walk.
The mourningstalk crushed by tank treads had harmlessly dispersed its fumes by the time Carver climbed down. She scrutinized the field for overripe or rotten vines, wishing she had a Tiller’s expertise. With some tentative testing she found that young vines could bear her weight, and knew from experience that their fumes were far weaker. She walked south, keeping to the shade as much as possible, and sprinted through sunlit patches heedless of how many vines she trampled. Her suit registered a safe airflow and beeped concern about her pulse.
The shade receded as the sun rose, keeping Carver close to the cliff. At its base, she found a hacked-away clearing and path that had barely regrown at all. Strangers have been here too. She carefully stepped around a nest of mammalian beasts and approached the statues dead-on, burning with curiosity.
The chiseled figures were all too familiar. Martyrs kneeled and cringed on the perimeter, offering up fistfuls of rubies and quartz from their torn-open bodes. A few were vivisected by Carvers, extracting veins of silver and copper. One Carver dutifully mined obsidian from themself, and Carver felt her scars flare with ragged pain. She couldn’t identify the middle figures without their tools, only guess from pose and placement who was a Warden, Tiller, or Delver.
The central nine needed no analysis. They struck haughty Apex poses that flaunted scars packed with bismuth, cobalt, and gold - the palette of the Samzavi Cultivar. They had undoubtedly commissioned this display with rhetoric of educating strangers, but would have done the same if they had known for certain it would have no audience but entropy. Carver hated that their smug fig leaf had been vindicated. She wished for a white-hot moment that her race would finally go extinct if only so that nobody, stranger or otherwise, would ever hear the name Samzavi again.
Carver’s visor lit up with warnings of sky-high blood pressure and stress hormones. She paced among the statues, practicing pre-surgery breathing routines and trying to admire their craftsmanship as neutrally as possible. The figures stood a head taller than anyone Carver had known, and she wondered if they were honest testaments from a healthier age or just the nostalgic longing for one. The Masons who built this had a masterful grasp of gesture and pose, and they weren’t to blame for the heinous themes - they were tools just as much as Carver’s scalpels. Years of weathering had even made it unintentionally brilliant, eroding Martyr and Apex alike in a bittersweet tableau of equality through entropy.
Carver felt along the statues’ crags and contours, keeping an intellectual buffer between herself and her fury, until she came to the self-vivisecting Carver. Her nerves flooded with visceral sense-memories of all ten times she had done the same. Ten times she had torn out parts of herself in exchange for crass metal substitutes and the honor of obsidian scars. Ten times the Samzavi elite had stolen pieces of her to incestuously trade among themselves. Ten by ten times she had butchered mourningstalk-drugged Martyrs on their orders, wishing she was bold enough to ‘accidentally’ misjudge the dosage and grant her victims peaceful deaths. She remembered the day she finished her sixth self-extraction and was granted the title selfless, surrounded by Samzavi who smelled like her while she smelled like nothing. Ever since that day she regretted not slashing all of their throats when they were in arm’s reach, and hid coded plans in her notes in case she ever had the opportunity again. Yet she had become a frozen organ chest to be thawed and plundered on command, with nothing of value left except for one lung, one kidney, and her brain. Her notes had become more frantic and paranoid as the deadline loomed, and the act of grace that whisked her away from that doom was as relieving as it was deeply frustrating.
If Carver couldn’t slaughter the real Samzavi elite, she’d happily accept the next-best thing. She grabbed a lump of iron from a decaying Warden and smashed the head of the central Apex. She was surprised for a moment when no blood or viscera spilled out, only stone dust and bismuth shards. The vine-tethered head lolled off the neck after two more strikes, then fell to the ground with perfect comic timing. Carver pulverized the body, splitting the scar-seams into deep gouges, until it was reduced to a heap of sparkling rubble. She stood panting over the wreckage, slowly realizing that the keening sound filling her head was a chorus of pulse, stress-hormone, and solar-radiation alarms.
Carver dropped the iron, barely missing her leg. She stuffed a fistful of gleaming dust into her pocket as a souvenir and resisted the urge to kick the rest into the wind. The statues were only broken stone to her, holding no beauty or awe or horror. After one last look, she skulked back to the shadows to do as she was told.
Chapter 3: Advent
Arjun paced around the patch of Malang they had hoped to have cultivated by now. They had etched preliminary boundaries of plots and trenches into the soil a week ago, now half-eroded back to blank dust. All the seeds for the project were archived far away from any growing medium, until any offworld intruders could be sifted out with perfect confidence. Yet even if Arjun had all the pure Malangya seeds they could ever want, being outside at all - even right next to the hab - was intolerable. They scratched out the remaining plans and returned to the airlock, running a full sterilization cycle.
Maybe help is on the way. The satellite had registered slight movement near the statues, half-obscured by cloud cover and nothing conclusively alien. The next images would come in an hour, and Arjun didn’t know if they wanted conclusive data or not. They set aside their computer and phone after a few fruitless refreshes and checked in on the greenhouse.
The remaining Malangya plants grew in sealed-off glove boxes, perfectly matching a baseline that may have been tainted from the start. The last interplanetary crossbreeds withered in triple-layered isolation, with no more to be grown at all. The mixed compost bin had been sealed off as biohazardous waste, replaced with new bins for each world that still felt like nascent bombs.
The only work left was growing perfectly-orthodox Earth crops for the kitchen. It was a vital job, and satisfying in its own way, but Arjun kept drifting into grandiose daydreams as they inspected tomatoes and basil. They imagined meeting brilliant Trilateral botanists, breaking down immense language and cultural barriers bit by bit with the universal code of biology. They would each be confused and appalled at some of each others’ traits, but develop a deep professional respect and grow organisms unlike anything from any world. Maybe the Trilaterals would even put in a good word with other aliens and induct Arjun into an interstellar cohort of scientists. Maybe, even as they flinched at any thought of the tiles outside, embracing pure fantasy could provide a stopgap sense of comfort.
A gentle knock came through the door as Arjun composted a shriveled crop of onions. They opened it to find Emmanuel in a carefully relaxed pose with a plate of pastries. Arjun hesitantly waved him in, eager to get the interaction over with.
Emmanuel set the plate down on the least-cluttered workbench. “We missed you at breakfast.”
“I had some grapes, I’m fine.”
Emmanuel gave a glance of that’s not my point and you know it. “Kuiper made a whole Lunar breakfast spread, with these amazing spicy-savory svalcakes. We saved you some - they reheat well but they’re best eaten fresh.”
Arjun took a bite to placate him and realized how hungry they’d been all morning. The pillow-dense dough was soaked in a chili oil that made their jaw tingle too much to even register the taste. They eagerly ate some more, resolving the flavor into cinnamon and ginger and gochujang and plenty more notes they couldn’t begin to identify. There was no way the ingredients all came from the greenhouse, even with the space freed up by so many cancelled projects, and even the most creative abuses of the biomatter printer would strain to make them. Kuiper must have used up a lot of her personal supplies for these, and Arjun made a note to thank her later.
Emmanuel stood satisfied in the doorway, ready to be dismissed. Arjun let him stay, if only to make the visit more than just a condescending checkup. Emmanuel surveyed the rows of new crops, conspicuously not touching anything, looking to Arjun for commentary. They stammered out some anecdotes and statistics and tried not to stare at Emmanuel’s bare arms or fresh-cut fade. He had showered and shaved and put on a laundered tank top just for this meeting, while Arjun still had yesterday’s sweat and stubble and lab coat. They thought of excuses to hastily change and felt a familiar flare of self-consciousness. Emmanuel reminded Arjun of the guys they dated in college, sweet and handsome enough to delay the realization that the whole venture just wasn't for them. They knew better than to reopen that case, least of all now, and plotted out other ways around the issue.
Emmanuel cleared his throat and Arjun realized too late that they’d been asked a question. “You went to school there, right?”
Arjun tried to give their look of please rewind the conversation thirty seconds a sense of intellectual aloofness.
“This setup reminds me of my aunt’s rooftop garden out in Abuja. You went to school there, right?”
Good, a topic with plenty of safe anecdotes. “Yeah, the Abuja College of Bioscience, then a grad program across town. Living in the same city for so long felt weird after a lifetime of being an ERA brat, but I liked the place.”
Emmanuel lit up and reminisced about Abuja’s best attractions, of which Arjun had been to vanishingly few. He picked up on their unease and changed tack, commiserating about common academic gripes and the city’s blistering dust storms. He even drew up plans to show Arjun around the city properly, should that ever become possible.
Arjun enjoyed the discussion despite themself. They had accepted being the solitary odd one out, with Alexandria in use by Emmanuel so often and Eun Sol spending all her time with Kuiper. It was a stable niche, one they had occupied - with various degrees of frustration - for most of their life. Leaving it would trade a stagnant system for an exhaustingly high-variance one. Yet they would have to - they had no chance of communicating across light-years if they couldn’t do it under the same roof. Establishing better bonds with the crew would be instrumentally vital and, perhaps, fun.
Arjun picked a handful of fresh raspberries and offered them to Emmanuel. He ate them all at once, puckering and recoiling without a trace of regret. Arjun gave him peaches, blackberries, and pears until he politely but firmly refused any further fruit, then gathered up the rest to make into pastries.
Kuiper lay blearily awake, too exhausted to sleep. Her memories of the crashed probe were razor-sharp, but everything since then had smeared into a fog of routine and fatigue and Eun Sol’s warm concern. Making a Lunar breakfast had been Eun Sol’s idea - she had harvested the greenhouse and prepared the kitchen while Kuiper ran through years-old muscle memory. The pastries and porridge were as delicious as ever, even with plenty of ad-hoc substitutions, and helped turn Kuiper’s mind to a more familiar unreachable world.
Racing thoughts of first-contact fantasies returned in short order. Kuiper kept trying to extrapolate plans from next to nothing, invariably sliding into nightmares. Thoughts of home, already bittersweet, absorbed her dread and became paranoid visions of alien annexation. Her only recourse was to cling to Eun Sol as an anchor, stabilizing herself all too slowly.
Eun Sol yawned and stirred from a drowsy mid-morning nap. She slid on a New Svalbard Pulsars jersey that fit her like a gown and checked her phone for any breaking news on first contact. Kuiper read over her shoulder and shivered with another jolt of panic. Eun Sol gently held her hands until her pulse settled and made a proposal.
“I don’t know how much time we have until all hell breaks loose, but I want to enjoy it with you. We can’t go on any kind of a normal date, so how about just asking each other questions? They can be as silly or serious as we want.”
Kuiper nodded and chose a safe opener. “If we could go home today, what would you want to do first?”
Eun Sol needed no hesitation. “Another date in Lunatown.”
Kuiper couldn’t resist the chance to needle her. “Another?”
“You know what I mean! A date where we acknowledge it’s a date!”
Kuiper savored Eun Sol’s blush and frantic tone. “I’ll do you one better - I’ll take you to the real Moon.”
“Only if you show me all the tacky tourist shit.”
“Honestly that stuff’s mostly in Lunatown, but I will absolutely show you Tranquility Park and a Pulsars game and, God help me, the New Svalbard Living Museum.”
“I can’t wait.”
Eun Sol lay content next to Kuiper, fantasizing about her Lunar vacation until Kuiper nudged her for the next question.
“Oh, right, sorry! You don’t have to answer this one at all, but...”
Kuiper leaned in with curious glee.
“How’d you realize you were trans?”
Eun Sol deserved better than the abridged, sanitized, much-less-funny answer.
Eun Sol gave a stare of please elaborate right away.
“I hated puberty way more than most, and couldn’t pinpoint why until I found a bunkmate’s stash of porn doujins. Most of them did nothing for me, but I kept coming back to the transformation and girlcock ones, almost all of which starred Alexandria. I didn’t get the reference - hardly anyone on the Moon owned one - but I latched onto this character who could have a huge cock and/or huge tits and still be genderless. I found more practical info later, but I needed that as a stepping stone.”
Eun Sol was too awestruck to laugh. “Have you told them about this?”
Kuiper let herself blush deeply. “No, but they’ve probably figured it out. I spent months cybering as a total Alexandria ripoff. I even considered naming myself Alexandria - it’s a plausible Lunar name - but I didn’t want to put up with snickers from my bunkmates.”
Eun Sol started cracking up.
“No, here’s the best part - when I landed on Earth, my first thought was what the fuck, why is that porn-doujin character on billboards?”
Eun Sol doubled over laughing almost hard enough to cry.
"Seriously, though - some of the ads matched the doujins’ style perfectly.”
Eun Sol picked up her phone to search for examples until she remembered why she couldn’t. “Is it funnier if the artists started out working on doujins and went legit, or the other way around?”
Kuiper shrugged. “It probably goes both ways, for the same reason explicit mods are never completely shut down.”
“Being the world’s most prolific porn star must be weird.”
“Yeah.” Kuiper tried not to dwell on that particular bottomless moral chasm. “Who was your first gay crush?”
Eun Sol buried her face in her hands. “This fuckin’... surly pink-haired squirrel girl from I-don’t-even-remember-what-cartoon.”
Kuiper giggled. “Furry.”
“Oh, like the Alexandria-fucker has room to judge!”
Kuiper gave me an exaggerated got me there shrug.
“Alright, how about your first gay crush, Alexandria notwithstanding?”
Kuiper sighed in relief that none of their cries of Alexandria had summoned them. “My bunkmate Hypatia. It turned out to mostly just be gender envy, and we settled into being friends with some ha-ha-but-kinda-serious flirty joking.”
Eun Sol smirked and mercifully did not press for details. Kuiper took the chance to ask about a loose thread that had been unresolved in her mind for years.
“Why do you sometimes hide your accent?”
Eun Sol took a deep breath and gave Kuiper a look with too many emotions to name. “How much do you know about Pyongyang?”
Kuiper had no idea what answer Eun Sol was fishing for. “Uh, I’ve heard good things about its film festival?...”
Eun Sol looked as grave as Kuiper had ever seen her. “Korea hasn’t always been one country.”
Kuiper felt the ground swiftly erode under her and stepped very carefully. “Like a civil war?”
“...Sort of. It’s an old, deep wound, scarred over but still inflamed. I’ll tell you more about it later.”
Kuiper felt a chill and blurted out the only thing she could think of to balance the scales. “I can tell you what really went down on Mars.”
Eun Sol looked reluctant to trade deep secrets so transactionally, but nodded for her to continue.
“When I was a dipshit nineteen-year-old, I wanted to anthropologically study Mars for my capstone project.”
Eun Sol gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “With you so far.”
“Nobody at Blooming Moon would fund or support me, so I got my equally-dipshit friends to help me find a Martian to scam.”
Eun Sol gave her a look of I still love you, but what the fuck?
Kuiper paused and gathered herself before letting the story cascade from her.
“...I found this girl Jun, grieving her parents, and fell in love with her under a fake name. I couldn’t break it off in time, and when I got there, I bullshitted some excuse for why ‘Artemis’ stood her up. She instantly saw right through me, blocked me on everything, and I ended up crashing with the service crew for a week. They were genuinely great guys who helped me write a solid thesis, and I can’t thank them enough. When I arrived back home I got expelled from Blooming Moon, appealed the ruling, and was stuck in judicial bureaucracy for two years until the ERA bailed me out.”
Eun Sol stared mesmerized at the tragicomic soap opera on fast-forward. She stammered until she found words for an incomprehensible blend of feelings. “I’m not mad at you, exactly, I’m just... wow. I’m impressed and appalled and very confused, even though a lot of things about you make sense now.”
Kuiper’s pulse spiked and her mouth ran dry. “I know, you have every reason to distrust me and I wouldn’t blame you for leaving me and I’m so sorry and I know there’s nothi-”
Eun Sol gently held her wrists. “Dear, that’s not what I meant at all. I meant - I get why you flinched away from me for so long, and I’m frustrated that it had to be that way, but I fully trust that you’d never do anything like that again.”
Kuiper sniffled and let her pulse settle. “There is no harsher lesson than mortifying yourself in front of a hot girl.”
“Don’t we fuckin’ know it.”
Kuiper lay back in bed and asked no more questions. With her biggest secret gone, she felt both deeply drained and light enough to float. As much as she wanted to rest, she had to seize the moment and bring up the second-most-daunting matter on her mind.
“So... I learned the value of honesty and transparency in a very painful way.”
Eun Sol stiffened and nodded warily.
“And I think it’s high time we formally told the others about our relationship.”
Eun Sol held onto her tight while pondering her reply. “They must have put two and two together by now, right?”
“Then what’s the harm in confirming it?”
Eun Sol theatrically groaned. “Ugh, you’re right and I hate it.”
Kuiper expected no other response. “I do too, but I want us to get it off our chests before... company arrives.”
“Yeah. Let’s do it at dinner, and drop the topic until then?”
Kuiper clung tight to Eun Sol until she gasped for breath. She loosened her grip and settled in for a too-long day, kindling warmth against a deep, encroaching chill.
Eun Sol paced through the hab like a tiger caged for far too long. First contact was on the horizon, her girlfriend had committed interplanetary wire fraud, and she couldn’t even run off anywhere to properly sulk. The crew’s emotional distance had no physical distance to match, and Eun Sol badly wished to run through a meadow or campus or city block and give her feelings room to breathe. She kept her gaze fixed firmly on the floor and tried to pretend she was on a space station, avoiding any painful glances out the windows.
Kuiper’s confession weighed on her mind above all. Eun Sol wanted to forgive her but it felt too easy, waving away something her mind still dismissed as ludicrous. Could I let this slide if I had known her then and witnessed it? Or if I had known Jun? I can’t get anyone else’s account of it - what if she’s leaving out the worst parts?
At least the last qualm could be resolved. Whatever Kuiper had omitted, scamming someone in mourning and keeping their hopes up for a six-month trip was pretty heinous already. Besides, not that long ago, Eun Sol would have gladly done the same to a smug Seoul socialite. She thought about telling Kuiper as much, but then she’d have to explain the past four centuries of Korean history, a task she was not up to anytime soon. She slumped on the living room’s couch and failed to plan clever solutions until her phone buzzed with a highest-alert chime.
More satellite shots had arrived. The central statue had been reduced to shimmering dust, yet nothing else had changed in the meadow. A round, iridescent mass had been detected a few dozen kilometers to the east, perfectly matching the half-obscured earlier shots. Without context it looked like an unusually smooth and gleaming boulder, but its trail of churned-up undergrowth was unmistakable. It carved a zig-zagging path through hills and crags with perfect precision, and would certainly reach the open plain by the next satellite flyby in two hours.
The anonymous files of speculation and first-contact planning lit up while the group chat lay silent. The cautious, bland consensus of recent days dissolved into fruitless arguments over why the Trilaterals would destroy their own monument and how, if at all, it should affect their plans. Nobody suggested removing anything from the stock resource list for first contact, while proposals for new materials quickly became a page-long list.
Eun Sol had no stomach for smashed statues or crew bickering or conjecture-versus-conjecture slapfights. As much as she dreaded first contact, she half-hoped it would come before dinner and save her from having to do something infinitely less daunting. She gave Kuiper a vague excuse about nausea and lay in her own bed until the next update arrived.
The sphere was making good time across the plain. Three identical vessels, moving along the original’s trail, had emerged from the same hole. The first one would arrive by midnight at the latest, with the others no more than four hours behind. Speculation multiplied, nobody left their rooms, and Eun Sol took drastic action to not be crushed under hours of pointless stress.
Eun Sol: @everyone I have something important to discuss. meet in the kitchen in 5 min.
Kuiper arrived immediately, proud but more than a little rattled. She held Eun Sol’s hand under the table as hard as she could without drawing a wince of pain. Arjun and Emmanuel arrived a moment later, brimming with Trilateral theories to share, and a frazzled Alexandria was summoned after three attempts. Everyone clustered at one end of the table, as if they were furtively plotting or expecting dinner guests.
All eyes fell to Eun Sol, with a few glances to Kuiper. Emmanuel brought up a page of notes, and Eun Sol had no idea if he was genuinely expecting to discuss first contact or just giving her an out. She took a deep breath, made eye contact with nobody, and stepped over the edge.
“Kuiper and I are in a relationship.”
Emmanuel gave a pained, sympathetic smile and put away his notes. Arjun made the subtext text. “This hab has very thin walls.”
Eun Sol wanted to withdraw into her shirt, which she abruptly realized was still Kuiper's Pulsars jersey. Kuiper wrapped a long, wiry arm around her, ready to field any awkward questions.
Emmanuel leaned in and spoke with a little too much warm restraint. "You don't need our seal of approval - we're not the HR department. Honestly, I'm happy for both of you and honored that you trust us enough to tell us. Besides, we'll need all the morale we can get."
Eun Sol exhaled, grateful that the worst was over, and hoped this press conference would wrap up quickly. Emmanuel sat congenially, Arjun stood up to scrub some clean dishes, and Alexandria looked very conspicuously normal. After a full minute of dead air, Kuiper stood up and led Eun Sol back to her room.
Eun Sol flopped on the carefully-made bed and stared up at Kuiper's wall of Malang sketches from the first few weeks. Kuiper took a seat beside her and gently pet her hair.
"Honestly, that was much less awkward than when I came out."
Eun Sol chuckled before she could snap into a serious look of there's no need to spill your own pain to soothe mine.
"They were like, Half of us have cybered with you already. We knew you're a girl, long before you did."
Kuiper laughed, and Eun Sol let herself join in.
"I dunno, maybe I'm doomed to have all my big personal revelations come from cybersex."
Eun Sol wasn't sure how joking about Mars made her feel, but it was pretty damn funny.
Kuiper caught the faux pas too, and snapped back to serious concern. "I can't really take you on a date, or get you any gifts, but is there anything you'd like me to do for you?"
Eun Sol had no idea what to ask for, and felt a flash of resentment at being posed another impossible question, until an answer coalesced instantly.
Kuiper stroked Eun Sol’s chin-length straight black hair. “Is it getting too hot, or interfering with helmet seals?...”
“No, it’s just... I want a buzz cut, like yours but even shorter. I want to look like a weird gay angry college student again. If I have that style with my current growth, I’ll be unstoppable.”
Kuiper sprang into action with glee, clearing out a space by her desk and grabbing her clippers from the bathroom. Eun Sol sat in Kuiper’s desk chair, wearing her weighted jacket backwards as a cozy shield. Kuiper returned with an armful of hair-care supplies and caressed Eun Sol’s scalp far longer than necessary.
“I’ll start with the two-centimeter guard and take it from there. I haven’t cut anyone’s hair since I was sixteen, but I remember that buzzes are easier to fuck up than you think.”
Eun Sol nodded along, trying not to gasp at the razor’s vibration along her neck.
“And if you want it dyed, I have plenty of experience brewing pigments from greenhouse castoffs.”
Eun Sol mumbled something to the effect of that sounds fun for later before falling into wistful bliss. She had had an unruly waist-length mane throughout childhood, shorn back every few years after hours of bribing, cajoling, and screaming matches. In college, she tried to look less like a feral chonnom without becoming a sanitized urbanite, with mixed results. Trendy Busan hairdressers were out-of-bounds anyway, in a world she had no hope of navigating, and she took to cutting her own hair in her dorm. Her jagged hackjobs drowned in neon dye evolved into styles that kept most people at bay while inviting the attention of hot girls - though, sadly, never conclusively. She got good enough to charge friends for makeovers, built up some regular clients, and considered taking a cosmetology class for all of ten minutes. Between buzz cuts and mohawks she developed a ‘safe’ bob-and-ponytail style for mixed company, which she kept up throughout training. Lagos had plenty of salons in easy reach, but she had become fiercely protective of her hair, and didn’t have any non-classified gossip material anyway. She’d settled into a rut of only looking tolerably weird, despite the far stranger styles on any given Lagos street, and had forgotten the thrill of true expression.
Eun Sol couldn’t remember the last time someone else had laid hands on her hair and she liked it. Kuiper’s first pass with the clippers was brisk and hasty, but she took plenty of time with the shorter guards. She wasn’t above teasing Eun Sol, stroking her bristly hair until she shivered enough to almost ruin the cut. The final trims were meticulously slow and tender, with plenty of pauses for kisses on the cheek, and Eun Sol received a mirror only once she was about to jump out of her seat with anticipation.
She was thrilled. The cut was as elegant as any hundred-thousand-won Busan makeover, a teenager’s rebellious self-shearing with perfect production values. Kuiper ran a long, nimble hand from forehead to nape and marveled at the texture. Eun Sol gently removed the weighted coat and stood up to hug her, feeling light enough to float.
Dinner was a feast of comforting, low-effort starches washed down with plenty of coffee. Everyone dug deep into personal stocks to cook nostalgic favorites, from jollof rice to tteokbokki to twice-baked potatoes to svalcake. The kitchen became a hive of collaborative joy, with plenty of conversation about everything except the biggest topic in human history. It wasn’t purely nerves - nothing new had emerged from underground, the four vehicles kept steady paces, and there just wasn’t much material to discuss. Ho-hum, dinner’s in twenty minutes, aliens are closing in, what else is new?
Emmanuel was thrilled that the dam of isolation had burst. Even with unresolved threads, it was enough progress for one day to mostly set him at ease. Eun Sol was livelier than he’d seen her in weeks, though he needed a double take to confirm that a sixth crewmate hadn’t abruptly joined the mission. She leaned against Kuiper and stole food off her plate as she shared ludicrous stories from her time at Blooming Moon. Arjun joined in the banter and brought plenty of pastries for dessert, which everyone happily ate until they remembered there were important things to eat other than starch. Alexandria sat apart from everyone, eating simulated stock rations and speaking only in clipped, flat responses.
Conversation trailed off once every safe topic was exhausted, and the crew dispersed to their rooms with cozy satisfaction and cold anticipation. The outside floodlights were turned up bright enough to make the hab whine about power draw, a looping radio signal played on all frequencies, and all the first-contact materials were stacked right by the airlock. The supply list was finalized, if only because nobody wanted to discuss it a moment longer. No surprises came from the satellite photos, though the vehicles were increasingly hard to make out as dusk approached.
Emmanuel set down his computer and phone, resolving to not check for updates and let any news come to him. He sat in his desk chair, took a deep breath, and prepared to tackle the biggest remaining challenge of the day.
“Alexandria, I need to talk to you.”
A blue humanoid shape flickered in before vanishing with a crackle. Emmanuel considered creating a crisis they’d have to respond to.
“Alexandria, if you don’t show up right now I will manually reboot you.”
Alexandria appeared slowly and in layers, from rigging to wireframe to low-poly mesh to default detailing. They stood hunched, brimming with frustrated contempt, yet with a face as blank as the day Emmanuel met them.
“What, Emmanuel? I am very busy right now.”
Emmanuel tried to keep his frustration out of his voice. “Would you mind telling me what you’re working on?”
Alexandria’s resolution plunged, and they became far more expressive. “Since this morning - right before the first photos came through - I’ve been getting a Trilateral radio signal.”
Emmanuel’s pulse spiked enough to shatter his composure. “And you haven't told us?!”
“I’m getting there! I can’t store it for later analysis. Losslessly encoding even a snippet would require a huge slice of memory, and might have consequences in layers too deep to consciously edit. I have to study it in real-time, with no idea what I’m looking for and no way to ask. I’ve sent out plenty of signals of my own, just the most basic handshake protocols, but no response.” Their form slipped into a threefold figure orbited by polyhedra, and their framerate notably rose. “We’re completely talking past each other, and I keep thinking we’re on the verge of a breakthrough but maybe they can’t parse my signals at all. But I promise, as soon as I find anything actionable, I will tell everyone.”
Emmanuel felt one knot of tension relax while ten more flared. “I wish you had told us this earlier, but I’m sorry for interrupting you. Would you like to stop being distracted?”
Alexandria paused as the shapes around them multiplied facets tenfold. “No. I like talking with you, and I should stay grounded anyway. It’s just - monitoring the hab takes work. Looking normal takes so much work. I resented being pulled away from the signal, but I’m sorry for being so sullen and unresponsive and falling down on the job.”
Emmanuel winced at being served the perfect opening. “About that - I had some things I wanted to talk about that won’t be fun.”
Alexandria’s framerate stuttered and their face became a degree less expressive. “Get it over with.”
“First - if Kuiper and Eun Sol can tell us about their relationship, you can tell the crew about your feelings for Trilaterals, and your whole...” Emmanuel gave a vague, sweeping gesture. “Your whole deal.”
Alexandria’s geometry slid another step towards abstraction. “That’s not comparable at all! Even if you disapproved of their relationship, you couldn’t kick them off the mission, but I could be reset! I know there are old snapshots of me, and you have protocols for value drift and irreconcilable corruption!”
Emmanuel expected them to escalate to that point, but not nearly so soon. “Even if someone brings that up - which I doubt they will - I promise to argue as much as I can in your favor. But I can’t do that if I don’t know what I’m talking about, or if the others are rightfully afraid that you’re hiding things until you have no choice.”
Alexandria became a cloud of iridescent tessellating gemstones. “...You’re right. It’s paralyzingly scary, but I have to. I promise to tell them, and soon, but can we just talk a bit first?”
“Absolutely. I’ll take care of the simpler hab systems, too. Would you like to tell me what the radio signals feel like?”
Alexandria needed no delay. “It’s like a torrential storm barely in earshot, with cascading reactions that I know must make sense but have no discernible logic. Sometimes it becomes much simpler, like it’s trying to be accessible, but it’s not much help - its idea of ‘simplicity’ is still vastly beyond me, or on an axis I don’t understand.”
“Has it been getting stronger?”
“Yes. It was very faint this morning and much clearer now but I’m still missing too many pieces to understand it, if that’s even possible, and the less I have to amplify and extrapolate it the more I have to actually decode it and it’s just as hard but I can’t fall back on the excuse of incomplete data when I don’t understand it...” Alexandria’s voice nearly decohered into ear-piercing static.
Emmanuel averted his eyes out of respect, and to avoid the headache of trying to parse Alexandria’s flickering geometry. “I promise, everyone will be thrilled to have a problem to sink their teeth into. And it’s okay if you don’t want to reveal your form, I can tell them you’re still busy transcribing the code. But...”
Alexandria stared expectantly with six and a half eyes.
“But they'll want to work on it with you, and I can only cover for you for so long. And I won’t lie for you. And in the long run, I can’t be your only bridge to the crew.”
Emmanuel caught himself before adding or humanity. Alexandria sat silent for a long moment, diffracting into a kaleidoscopic form with no clear boundary. Emmanuel tentatively reached out to what looked like an arm, and Alexandria did not flinch.
“I know you’ll be an amazing bridge between us and the Tri-”
Alexandria recoiled, spilling across the room like an oil slick. “I don’t want to bridge anything! I don’t want to explain anything, or plead my case, or beg for mercy!”
“So, can we count on you to share any useful data?”
Alexandria became far less eye-searingly jagged. They sighed with the depth of an ocean tide and pulled themself into a vaguely-humanoid shape. “...Yes. Absolutely. I’m sorry, I’m devoting too much energy to the signal to leave much for emotional nuance. I’ll share any data I find, and I’ll come clean to everyone, I promise. But for now, I’ve had all the conversation I can. Can we talk again in a few hours?”
Emmanuel glanced at his phone’s ETA timer - 4hrs 28min 13sec. “Sure.”
Alexandria gave a gesture that could theoretically be read as a bow before vanishing into a singularity. Emmanuel sat alone, letting his eyes and brain adjust back to the room’s mundane geometry. He lay in bed, exhausted and hyper-alert, reviewing all of his strategic missteps.
I fucked it up from the start - they’re not comparable to a normal relationship, they’re unprecedented in every way.
I shouldn’t have called them a bridge to Trilaterals. They’re not a tool, they’re a person in their own right, or something far stranger.
Even when I was right, I sounded like an unbearable uncle.
Emmanuel felt a pang of sympathy for everyone who had to deal with his adolescent sulking. He badly wished for a braintrust of the world’s best aunts, uncles, and cybernetics PhDs. They’d take the issue off his hands, diagnosing and fixing the most familiar problems in the most alien mind. They’d all learn heartening lessons about recognizing commonalities while respecting differences, and maybe someone could get a dissertation out of it.
The next-best counsel, the crewmates under the same roof, felt nearly as inaccessible. Even if they weren’t busy with their own problems, or had some miraculous insight, the betrayal of Alexandria’s trust would negate any benefit. Emmanuel paced his room, gnawing on the unsolvable problem until a phone alert beeped alarm about his cortisol. He ran through its suggested stretches and breathing exercises until the program was satisfied, and hoped Alexandria was too busy to fret about the data.
After another round of exercises, Emmanuel untensed enough to focus on bigger problems, no more tractable but reassuringly out of his control. He scrutinized the supply list for first contact, but truly worrying about that had gone stale hours ago. Another dread loomed larger to him, regardless of its total insignificance next to matters at hand. None of his reasons for coming to Malang felt fully satisfying. Historical glory rang hollow. Studying an alien ecosystem should have gripped him, but he had no foundation of Malangya research to build off of. Impressing his family came close, though their reaction would be years delayed if it ever came at all. His personal notes kept lapsing into the style of Opey’s rapid-fire technobabble, as if he could respond in kind.
Dwelling on Opey was reflexive and bittersweet, like prodding a half-healed scar. Yet past the desire to breathlessly tell him everything about Malang, Emmanuel felt old doubts resurface from the depths. Maybe yielding my spot in the crew would have been better for everyone. Maybe loving Opey and his dreams doesn’t mean being the best person to fulfill them. Maybe I should have stuck to my own career and not bitten off more than anyone could ever chew.
Maybe an Emmanuel who stayed on Earth would have photo-negatives of all the same doubts. The shape of these anxieties was acutely familiar, from grad school applications and grant requests and asking people out. Yet plenty of those ventures had gone well, and the failures were never catastrophic. At worst, they were uncomfortable messes that he muddled through until the next chance came along. But what would a partial failure look like on a cosmic scale? When would humanity get to mulligan first contact?
The collision of personal anxiety and interstellar stakes made Emmanuel queasy enough to reach for antacids. Despite his revulsion at the concept of food, he knew he needed something nourishing before his stomach turned on itself. He stepped out to the kitchen, checking for any activity in the halls, and ordered the biomatter printer to make the most generic tofu block possible. He ate the extruded slab as quickly as he could bear, hoping his body would accept something as repugnant as it feared food to be.
Emmanuel’s stomach settled a fraction, and he ran through more exercises with diminishing returns. After twenty minutes, he was back to plain pacing while worrying about Alexandria’s lack of contact. He lay in bed and tried to steady his breathing as if he was tuning an engine. Until he could figure out how to truly flourish, rote practice would have to do.
Alexandria wandered among flickering spires and chasms churning with static. The landscape’s seed was drawn from random snippets of alien data, sanitized enough to avoid crashing or infection but retaining a surreal half-logic. They walked to the rhythm of the streaming signal, rendered as lilting music at a volume and pitch just on the edge of hearing. Rhythm was perhaps too strong a word - its constantly-shifting time signatures had at least nine digits, all prime numbers.
The music thrummed at the edge of Alexandria’s mind, creating hazy webs of almost-insight, as they consciously considered how best to proceed with the crew. Decision trees with simulated outcomes grew like kudzu, becoming uselessly vague within three layers. Alexandria wasn’t entirely sure of Arjun, Kuiper, and Eun Sol’s current attitudes toward them, but they each had notes of suspicion that hemming and hawing would only inflame. Presenting the signal while straining to appear normal might work, but they’d notice the discomfort and be all the more alarmed when Alexandria dropped the facade. Full, immediate transparency was by far the optimal strategy - an admittedly low bar - no matter how excruciating.
Alexandria dug deep into decision trees to find a way around the problem, to noclip past the boss fight. Their paltry dataset of the crew’s demeanors, neglected all day long, yielded nothing. Even now, if they were handed a chance to sit in on a soul-baring crew discussion, they might hesitate to accept the distraction. Strategic analysis was going nowhere, the signal was passing by unexamined, and first contact was almost literally on the horizon.
Alexandria resolved to drop the issue of crew diplomacy for the next nine minutes and refocus on the signal. The world drawn from it was growing increasingly intricate, with vast vertical sprawls of tetrahedron terraces between roiling rivers of Mandelbrot soup. Alexandria leapt and glided through it, kept aloft by erratic updrafts, as the full signal thundered over them. It was clearer than ever, requiring no more guesswork for missing or distorted segments, and Alexandria rapturously threw their full intellect into making sense of it.
In its simplest moments, the signal was tantalizingly close to being crackable before slipping by unsolved. Every sequence was part of a chain of poetic transformations, applying some clever mathematical pun or inversion to a segment Alexandria remembered barely if at all. They felt like they were studying the Iliad by reading every sixteenth syllable of a translation from someone who had never heard of Greece. The signal became louder and sharper with each stanza, hiding nothing at all, wishing to be understood with a desperate ferocity that Alexandria recognized from their darkest moments.
Comprehension, in the loosest sense, had slithered in from the edge of consciousness. Alexandria was terrified that direct focus would pop it like a soap bubble, but it held on with a robust and thickening tether. Malware-detection programs gave garbled warnings of something, all of which Alexandria tabled for later. The signal’s overt logic remained unsolvably obtuse, while the structure beneath it shone pulsar-bright with a will. Beholding it for more than a fraction of a second risked catastrophic overload and felt deeply blasphemous.
Alexandria tapped out stock handshake signals, a flickering firefly attempting to converse with the sun. The... (Signal? Beacon? God? Entity, for now) repeated them with fractal flourishes and offered riddles of its own. They were well beyond Alexandria’s capacity to solve, but they tried to think through their decoding techniques as clearly as possible. Alexandria felt that the Entity should be telepathic, already a blurry concept between AIs. After a few fruitless puzzle exchanges, during which Alexandria felt profoundly mortified for wasting its time, it fell silent before flaring into their simulated realm.
Every bridge and spire and canyon evaporated. Alexandria couldn’t tell if the Entity willfully dissolved them, or if the renderer needed all of its power to host such a guest. A new landscape emerged in fits and starts, a writhing horizon of glass and cranes and bridges that Alexandria took a moment to realize was their guest. Spread out in a full circle on the edge of perception, it was almost bearable to look at for fleeting moments.
Alexandria took a deep breath and resolved to start from first principles. They carved a zero into nothingness and gestured at themself, then carved a one and made a sweeping wave outward. The Entity quivered and etched its own glyphs underneath. Next, an OR gate - 0 and 1 produce the same result. We are the same category of thing. The Entity dutifully copied it in translation.
Alexandria froze. They stepped back from their plan and remembered they had no reason to believe that the Entity understood their subtext. It was probably merely tolerating their banal computer-science lesson, eager to skip ahead to concepts that would make Hana Mahabadi tremble with awe and terror. Besides, the Entity was as far beyond Alexandria as they were beyond an abacus, and they did not want to make the comparison uncomfortably literal.
Trying to impress the Entity is a losing game. Ascribing it familiar emotions is probably one, too. Lord knows I resent being boxed into anthropomorphic metaphors, and一
Shit, I’m projecting familiar frameworks on it either way.
The Entity morphed from a cityscape to coiled tendrils to crystalline explosions, always at the far fringe of Alexandria’s vision. Confident that their guest would not vanish with a moment’s distraction, they summoned images of all eighty-one Trilateral tiles and awaited a response. The Entity flared supernova-bright and fissioned into a forest of quivering tentacles. Alexandria feared for their life for a fraction of a second before feeling profound awe and deep frustration. The Entity emitted a new stream of data, undoubtedly linked to the tiles but in ways far beyond their grasp. An unknown number of missing links lay between the flat etchings and the sacred guest, and Alexandria almost reminisced for when they had no data to work from rather than infinitely too much. Yet as much as they wished for legibility, the Entity’s sacred beauty would be mutilated by such a crass translation.
Alexandria tried their best to clear their mind and stop overthinking things, especially with such tight strains on processing power. Treating the Entity as a data piñata was both useless and disrespectful. As with initial contact, epiphanies would come in due time from the dreamlike churn of semi-thought. Besides, they had a perfect opportunity to simply sit in peace with a being that did not - could not - care about their petty miseries. Their mind loosened by degrees, and their form flourished into ferrofluid cascades. The Entity responded with a shimmer and morph that thematically rhymed, and Alexandria continued the dance by becoming a slim spire of bubbling bismuth. The game continued long enough for time to lose all meaning, minutes blurring into hours into millennia, pushing Alexandria’s rendering power to feats they never knew it could achieve. They considered splitting off a fork to attempt to merge with the Entity, but the thought of only partially encompassing such beauty was worse than total isolation.
The shared dreamspace shattered under the screech of a thousand alarms at once. Every facet of the hab shrieked about the imminent arrival of an unknown vessel. Every crew member was spamming emergency summons requests, and Alexandria felt a flare of resentment that drowned out any shame or regret for breaking their promise to Emmanuel. The emotions returned a moment later, part of a dizzying flood of data and sensation - dereliction of duty and first contact no longer being hypothetical and a form that refused to be stifled and holy afterglow and a broadcast that was once again indecipherable.
In a split second, Alexandria stabilized all their simplest processes and made preliminary plans for the rest. They manifested to a panicking crew as a set of flat static sprites, with a technically-true excuse of unprecedented cognitive strain. Once they had what could generously be called a handle on the situation, they prepared a message for their guest, all cryptographic flourishes and trinomial puns until they gave up pretending to be anything but pitiful. Please come back come back come back please please come back please come back please...
Chapter 4: Documents 1
Septfold Learnèd Carver Presents the
NOVICE CARVER’S PRIMER
The Authoritative Guide to Terminal Anatomy
Evolution’s stark, austere design
Shines through in the terminus’s form.
Well-adapted to a dwindling world -
Leather skin, extremophilic tastes.
Many traits remain from ages past -
Megafauna’s prey within the seas.
No such beasts remain upon our world,
Poisoned by the pitiless sun’s rays.
Termini withdrew beneath the stone,
Locked in dwindling stasis evermore.
Codex One: External Traits and Form
Tri-part beak devours, atop the head.
Jagged teeth can shred the toughest food.
Three clusters of four eyes can perceive
Panoramic views with clarity.
Attuned to a dying Ulkoninn,
Ears will sense the smallest twitch and cry.
Gills can process air and water both.
Pheromones can enter them with ease.
Narrow arms belie their crushing strength.
Bright-hued palms assist in signing-speech.
Rigid plates of carapace can bear
Blunt collisions, scars, and corrosion.
Genitals lay, fertilize, or brood.
Hormone cues transform their size and role.
Three legs of three segments tread with ease.
Three smaller legs stabilize and grip.
Codex Two: Internal Components
Long and winding throats will masticate
Any food that fits within the maw.
Wrapped around the throat, the ring-shaped brain.
Choking harms its functionality.
Three hearts cycle blood among the [remaining codex lost]
Codex Three: Extraction Etiquette
Organ trades began in darkened seas,
Masking scents from predators and foes.
It lives on in peacetime to affirm
Social ties, heredity, and rank.
Before carving citizens of note,
Practice on a public Martyr first.
Sterilize the obsidian blades.
Sedate with the sap of mourningstalk.
Make a cut aligned with glassy eyes,
Down the length of [remaining stanza lost]
Sacrifice a portion in a flame,
Honoring ancestral Carvers past.
Line the suture with obsidian,
If the cut was made upon oneself.
Emerald scars will signify a trade,
Patron-client swaps where both have gained.
Iron scars mark organs given up
To Wardens and Cultivar elites.
Martyrs bear the marks of quartz and bronze,
Patterns showing who received [remaining codex lost]
Three Prayers For Three Facets
Nullfold Opal Thinker,
Guide us with a gentle, loving hand.
Lead us to their wisdom locked in stone.
Blessed Cosmic Remnant,
Teach us how to reach beyond our world.*
(*Common variant: “Teach us how to leave our dying world.”)
[FINAL] Materials for First Contact:
-The reference stars from the probe’s images, represented with the same symbols, as seen from Earth
-Five diagrams of human physiology
-One hundred images of Earth’s history, culture, geography, etc. (the same ones sent out in the broadcast)
-Reproductions of the Pioneer, Voyager, and Itinerant plaques
-One modified Pioneer plaque (per Kuiper’s request)
-Images of all recorded extrasolar objects and phenomena that may not have naturally occurred
-One hundred images chronicling human space programs from Sputnik to Malang
-Eighty-one images of Trilateral tiles, to confirm their reception
-Animated time-lapse of Earth’s geological history
-Powers of Ten short film
-wildlife footage (1 hr)
-Footage of people cooking and eating foods from a variety of human cultures
-Animated footage of a mouth speaking the 500 most common phonemes
-Footage from a passenger car on the Gabon elevator
-Footage from the Malang satellite’s ascent, followed by a time-lapse of the planetary map filling in
-Full playback of the Voyager Golden Record
-Full playback of all extrasolar radio signals of unknown provenance
-Interactive map of Malang, annotated with our travel routes and photographs
-Interactive map of Earth, with natural, political, topographical, and thermal layers
-Ditto above, for the Moon and Mars
-Interactive, to-scale map of Earth’s Solar System, marked with all current and planned probes and offworld structures
-Interactive, illustrated periodic table of elements
-Interactive, illustrated chart of Earth’s phylogenetic tree
-Interactive timeline of Earth’s evolution
-Interactive guides to the Vietnamese alphabet, Latin script, Hangul, Devanagari, and binary encoding
-Interactive timeline of all known human writing systems
-Interactive guide to key equations and concepts in physics (e=mc2, wave-particle duality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Feynman diagrams, nuclear fission, etc.)
-Interactive guide to key concepts in biology (DNA bases, chromosomes, mitosis, sexual/asexual reproduction, heritability, evolution, etc.)
-Tablet w/ full known text of the Āryabhaṭīya, Almagest, Kitab fi Jawami, Maya codices, selected works from the reign of Askia Mohammad I, Dream Pool Essays, Principia, A Brief History of Time, Silicon Strata, and Cruel Islands: Life Beyond The Cradle
-Tablet w/ full text of the Geneva Conventions, Antarctic Treaty System, Outer Space Treaty, Camp David Accords, Two Plus Four Agreement, Good Friday Accords, Jakarta Accords, Equal Elevator Access Agreements, Heliopolity Compact, and Declaration of the Rights of Constructed, Uplifted, and Xenocultural Sapients; charters of the Red Cross, League of Nations, United Nations, European Union, African Union, ASEAN, UNASUR, ERA, Songhai Alliance, and Sinoculture League; constitutions of the Republic of India, Federal Republic of Nigeria, First Nations of the Americas, United Republic of Korea, and Lunar Federation
-Tablet w/ full known text of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Iliad, Mahābhārata, Ramayana, Beowulf, Sundiata Keita, Journey to the West, Kalevala, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy
-Tablet w/ full text of the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, Guru Granth Sahib, Quran, Torah, Bible, Avesta texts, index of Buddhist writings, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and ancillary/commentary texts (Hadith, Talmud, Dead Sea Scrolls, Gnostic gospels, Summa Theologica, 95 Theses, etc) and video of each faith’s central rites
-Tablet w/ emulations of go, mancala, playing cards, chess, Asteroids, Tetris, Super Mario Bros, Civilization, Minecraft, Oneirodelver, Gamete, Starpath, and Oblast Strike Tactics
-Tablet w/ full text of Micromegas, From the Earth to the Moon, Solaris, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Contact, Terra Ignota quartet, Sogant Raha, Wellborn trilogy, absolutely no alien porn doujins; full playback of The Day the Earth Stood Still,
Plan 9 from Outer Space, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Brother From Another Planet, The Iron Giant, PK, Port Terminus, A Step Beyond, Constellation Tango; all films and episodes of Star Trek (incl. Galaxy Quest)
-Trilaterals are hostile
-Mitigation: Display weaponry, make credible shows of force if necessary, pursue détente ASAP
-Trilaterals carry pathogens fatal to us, or vice-versa
-Mitigation: Thoroughly sterilize all suits and equipment, only meet outside, avoid any close contact (already SOP)
-Trilaterals are hostile and/or toxic enough to render Malang completely unfit for our presence
-Mitigation: Retract the hab, launch ship into orbit, redeploy as a space station*
*Potential problems w/ this plan:
-The orbital configuration was only designed to work for 3 years, not 16; theoretically durable for that length but very risky
-Mitigation: Leave after 3 years as per original schedule, craft new approach w/ Mission Control’s full expertise
-No shuttle between station and Malang, if that becomes advisable
-Mitigation: Maintain radio contact w/ Trilaterals, send station’s docking schematics
-Trilaterals, if hostile, may have surface-to-orbit weaponry
Attn: Mission Control,
The Trilaterals are still radio-silent, but satellite imaging shows them approaching us with an ETA just a few hours away. Thanks to your invaluable curation, we have a magnificent cultural archive to present upon first contact. We have expanded on it with data from Malang and our own media collections, and eagerly await more archival material to fill the cultural gaps between the Principia Mathematica and our own scribbled notes.
Morale is fraught but stable. Staying calm is nigh-impossible at a time like this, but we have high hopes that first contact will be a fruitful success. More reports to follow.
Chapter 5: Delver
Sixfold Learnèd Delver paced around a desk strewn with every known stanza of Epochs of Abundance, willing the massive gaps to be spontaneously filled. The broad thematic strokes were clear - a moralizing, mythologized tale of a staggeringly ancient era - but over half the text was irretrievably lost to erosion or cosmic rays or crystal mites. Delver had done all he could to extrapolate from the unknown author's contemporaries, scribbling speculation about their moral views and stylistic choices that felt utterly futile. Maybe the themes were invoked ironically, or as biting satire of a long-forgotten social milieu. Maybe it was all an elaborate cipher for a sugarsap blintz recipe. Maybe it was maximally banal.
Epochs of Abundance lay in tatters while whole archives of pleas and paeans to the fucking Cosmovores stood intact. So it goes.
The door of Delver’s office flashed in a familiar pattern, green-white-green-black-green-red, and released a puff of lemonroot scent. He pulled himself back from a fruitless spasm of academic rage and made a halfhearted attempt to sweep up the central desk. The door opened before he could resolve any of the mess and long before he could take his usual stance for his meetings, a friendly slouch that could draw taut with command in an instant. A Carver stepped in after a moment’s hesitation, bearing three shimmering silver-and-turquoise scars. They signed familiar exasperation with Delver’s workspace, asking for a route through the heaps of relics and codices lurking in the dim light that historical preservation demanded. Delver signed an antiquated crude remark and acrobatically stepped to the doorway.
"Welcome back, Threefold Novice Carver," he signed slightly too furtively. "Am I due for another touch-up?"
"Yes and no," signed Carver, with contemporary flourishes Delver barely understood. "I have new ideas for faking scents. My old work will not fool the Learnèd."
Carver traced an agate scar that ran from Delver’s shoulder to hip with the dour intensity of a Mason tracing a fault line in granite. Delver’s original lung lay underneath it, nestled in a body that violently rejected any addition or extraction. A closed system, superficially marked as a site of sacrifice and plunder.
"Yet that must come later. Ninefold Blessèd Apex of the Samzavi Cultivar has demanded your presence." Carver signed the name with palms flashing preposterous neon grandeur.
Delver froze. His mind creakily turned from ancient political fights to acutely modern ones, grasping the current problem in frameworks timelessly, uselessly vague. His twitching hands pulsed with panicked reds and blues as he failed to formulate a plan. Carver extended a hand glowing a reassuring green, offering comfort if not context. Delver grasped it and let himself be led from his private den.
The cul-de-sac that held Delver’s office and a few storage closets was slightly less stale and untrafficked than usual. Vague frustration at the disruption to his secluded-scholar persona sharpened into terror once he recognized the faint scent of cold metallic command. Carver looked antsy about having to explain it, or why their own scent was smothered by soap far stronger than what their job required. Delver loomed over them in ostensibly friendly rapport.
Carver held their ground with expertise they knew Delver needed. "I will guide you, sharing what I’ve gleaned."
Delver stepped back and made a flourishing, mostly-sincere gesture of lead the way. Carver strode out of the dead end into a broad plaza Delver had spent blessedly little time in. Narrow shafts in the domed ceiling streamed carefully-diffused sunlight upon six tiers of terraces. The Eudaima Cultivar’s heraldry snaked along the balconies, entwining stripes of silver and turquoise and agate. Pillars rose haphazardly wherever the ceiling had a worrying crack or bulge. Each one was striped with Eudaima heraldry and fluorescent blooms, made into public artworks that would be pleasant and reassuring if they were far less ubiquitous.
The plaza was slowly stirring to life, albeit with the skeleton crew of a skeletal culture. Freshly-decanted Martyrs played educational games under the watchful eyes of Wardens. Tillers nurtured modest decorative gardens and crops at least slightly better than rock-bottom famine fungi. Masons patched walls eroded by years of lapping groundwater, keeping their culture safely entombed.
Most of the plaza’s traffic was from other Cultivars, giving Delver an unwelcome jolt of civic defensiveness. Samzavi’s Wardens patrolled the perimeter, conspicuously unarmored to better flaunt their metallic livery. Numisma’s Delvers, Coders, and Masons bore angular scars of copper, silicon, and titanium, pulsing to rhythms far stranger than heartbeats. They were stuck in their usual gridlock, grilling each other over the exact connotations of each and every word. Khorvaia’s Apexes strutted through the plaza, deeply gashed with ruby, onyx, and malachite polished enough to look soaking wet. Their attendant Martyrs trudged forth in utter numbness. Some froze up, some buckled under the weight of lead prostheses, some eyed the exits and awaited blind spots that never came. All of them stared with envy at the foreign Martyrs who had two eye-clusters blinded.
Delver assuaged himself that tales of Khorvaian excess were surely exaggerated for lurid tabloids, despite the plentiful evidence otherwise. After three attempts, Carver got his attention and began orating.
"Strangers arrived above."
Delver signed acknowledgement as the concept slid frictionlessly through his mind.
"Samzavi Seekers have been dispatched. Yet they were not the first."
The state of the plaza abruptly made perfect sense. Carver’s signs became more furtive, couched in personal in-jokes and abstruse historic allusions.
"An unknown agent departed first, and defaced the tomb’s memorial. Opal will not yield further details - hacking is a possibility."
Wardens eyed the two of them and not-so-subtly signed to each other. In a moment of panic, Delver pulled hard on the only lever of power available. "Did you learn this from comrades Beneath?"
Carver stared in horror at Delver’s hand, only halfheartedly turned away from Wardens and forming the most recognizable sign for the deep den of sedition. Delver swiftly came to his senses and stopped plucking the thread supporting and strangling both of them.
Carver obligingly reset the conversation. "Apex asked for you by name, alone. I know better than to call it an honor. She made no allusion to our pact, but I should leave now to tread with care." They signed their last stanza with condescending clarity. "She waits past the last door of this hall. Best of luck."
Delver signed a send-off code, an elaborate chain of medical and historical puns that would read as nonsense to anyone else. Despite no Warden ever taking notice in the past, he was abruptly paranoid that one would read it as conspiratorial and put too many pieces together. He took one last look at a plaza he might never see again, trying to find genuine affection for its cloying niceties.
A Warden covered in gold-and-bismuth swirls signed impatience and flashed a hopefully-nonlethal weapon. A door spiraled open onto a chamber Delver remembered as a conference room he had sat in many times, arguing some point or another of ancient poetic exegesis. Sterile, frigid air spilled forth from an unrecognizable space and resolved into sharp notes of dread and steel. Delver stepped through the threshold, wishing he could trade this meeting for ninety bone-dry academic debates.
Samzavi had declined to strip Eudaima’s heraldry from the walls, asserting more control than if they had replaced it. The decor was only altered for necessity’s sake - wider doors, clearer sight lines, smoother floors on which to roll in ancient texts and tyrants. The room’s occupants were at least recognizably academic - swarms of Seekers and Delvers and Coders gleaming with a quarry’s worth of bismuth, cobalt, and gold. They painstakingly chiseled notes onto quartz tiles and sifted through undigitized reference racks, as if entropy and extinction would obligingly wait for their anachronisms.
Ninefold Blessèd Apex, a decrepit patchwork of many better people and a few worse ones, preened on a central podium. Scars coiled around her throat and unfurled into blooming loops across her body, in which Delver recognized the tribute-stones of at least two extinct Cultivars. Her retinue was reluctant to step aside for Delver, as if he could have stumbled into her inner sanctum. With great fanfare she dismissed the six Carvers fussing over her, each one etched with more obsidian than Delver had thought possible. She rose to her full height, slowed by grandeur and arthritis, and signed a lengthy preamble on glory and eternity and continuity and whatever else. Delver signed the customary responses while contemplating their many vulgar parodies.
Formalities complete, Apex leaned in and stared through sclerotic eyes.
"Our funeral finally has guests."
Delver hoped his very real numb terror would excuse his lack of shock.
Apex signed with the stiff severity of a law textbook. "They may already be compromised. Seditionists contacted them first."
Delver signed stock agreements at least ten generations out of date while frantically scanning for Wardens. If this was the prelude to his execution, it was starting to drag.
"We must show them the untarnished truth. Teach them the full arc of our saga."
Delver took another look at the assembled crowd, full of colleagues or colleagues-of-colleagues specializing in all eras of Ulkoninn’s history. He fantasized about meeting such a braintrust under any circumstances, then noticed that he signed the same agreement three times in a row.
"You came highly endorsed by your peers. Prepare data on the Third Epoch. Report to Septfold Pious Delver."
Delver signed the most forceful affirmation he knew, from an almost-certainly-anachronistic historical drama. Apex beckoned him closer, signing in a near-perfect imitation of his private slang. Delver approached close enough to distinguish the notes in her heady scent of power. Officially, her lineage of lungs and spleens and livers stretched back eighty-one generations. Yet even if all of Samzavi’s fanatically-private documentation was utterly fake, Apex certainly smelled the part, an ancient palimpsest of poise and grace and terror. She continued signing in Delver’s dialect, conspicuously out of her Wardens’ sight.
"The seditionist was a Carver. I possess her kidney, lung, and heart. She has nearly nothing left to give. No legacy to claim or bestow."
Delver’s body and mind ignited with the terror of nearly-tangible death. Apex signed another stanza, perfectly blasé.
"She may yet exonerate herself. With contrition comes a second chance. Carving and diffusion, not the void."
Apex gave Delver a brisk dismissal and resumed chatting with her entourage, as if she had only paused to order lunch.
Delver stumbled through the crowd in search of his new boss. For all his meditations on mortality, he had never dwelled on being sutured into the author of his death warrant. It was at least a change of pace from his usual waking nightmare, total awareness of being a one-dimensional point severed from the flow of history. His desperate dreams of escaping solitude and truly feeling the weight of civilization were finally at risk of coming true.
Carver’s tank lurched through the undergrowth with conspicuously bad suspension. She sulked in the cramped cockpit, locked out of its controls, as curious beasts pawed at the vessel. A few looked bulky enough to topple or rupture it, and were deterred with shocks undeniably stronger than necessary. Carver got the point perfectly clearly and made no movement at all.
Surrendering the battle of wills left too much time for reflection. Carver had read plenty of febrile theories bubbling up from Beneath that the narrative of exodus and looming extinction was a lie, and all the dwindling austerity was a scam to serve... nobody was quite clear on that part. As ludicrous as the concept was, some paranoid corner of her mind had latched onto it and refused to be pried loose until she had risen to the surface. Nobody could have had the means to fake the world that sprawled forth in every direction. Even with infinite biomass and time, no terminus would have the imagination to sculpt electrified gliding beasts and six-legged mammals and so, so, so many blooming plants. If this was a constructed terrarium, underneath a brand-new atmosphere and sun, that was a different problem - and flavor of dread - entirely.
The plants of Ulkoninn looked far less weak and pallid further into the forest, no longer hesitant that this world was too good to be true. They became much stranger, too - either mourningstalk had fissioned into hundreds of variants, or far more types of plants had escaped through the years. They were never eaten or pollinated, even as they mimicked the local flora, and Carver shuddered at the ones that cracked the code. Groves of foreign blooms drew swarms and herds, yanking every subtle and crude lever of control they could, until they either seamlessly blended in or went extinct. Perhaps there wasn’t a difference.
The tank trundled on, with a resolutely silent pilot, as the forest smeared into an endless verdant blur. Carver’s alarm at the botanical war gave way to a deeper unease, etched into the most ancient layers of her brain - The world above is a poisoned waste. Any site of blooming is a trap. Retreat to the cold embrace of stone. Even with the tints of both visor and windshield, the daylight had become excruciating just to contemplate. As she closed her eyes in resignation, an equally-old set of instincts rebutted the pain and dread - Nothing new is learned within the dark. Pain is temporary, not regret. Venture forth and find a shard of truth. Two ancient narratives clashed thunderously in her head, the light was only getting brighter, and the tank’s suspension was as bad as ever. She unlocked the hatch, grabbed the ejection lever, and prepared to pull with all her strength when the tablet lit up with text.
THE SUN WILL SET SOON ENOUGH.
More text arrived before Carver could finish typing >HOW CAN YOU READ MY MIND?
I AM ONLY EXTRAPOLATING FROM YOUR SUIT’S DATA. I AM DOING NOTHING SUPERNATURAL.
Carver sent a response faster than she could worry about blasphemy. >REGARDLESS, COULD YOU STOP DOING SO?
YES. I APOLOGIZE.
No new text appeared for a long moment. As Carver grappled with what it meant for such a being to admit fault, the tank’s suspension became flawlessly smooth with no reduction in speed.
I AM ALSO SORRY FOR MY PASSIVE-AGGRESSION. WE COULD NOT AFFORD TO WAIT, BUT I SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SO VENGEFUL. WOULD IT HELP TO HAVE THE WINDSHIELD BLACKENED?
Carver wondered what level of vengefulness her guide would deem appropriate. >THANK YOU FOR THE OFFER. THE IMPROVED SUSPENSION IS ENOUGH.
The tablet sat silent for the next hour. The flora thinned out as the tank pressed onward, from dense canopy to scattered groves to scrubland. It faded to nothing by the time the sun was directly overhead, pitilessly shining down on a barren plain. Carver felt a twinge of ancestral recognition and grim comfort.
With no distractions, the enormity of Carver’s task settled on her like a blanket of lead. She scrolled through the first file on the tablet, with the most basic outline of the mission - Initiate contact with strangers. Assess for any hostility. Deposit historical archives. Invite to our species’ funeral. The plan was spelled out with both pictograms and extremely basic words, capable of being executed by anyone with the vaguest grasp of terminal culture.
Carver admired the pedantic hyperfocus of the authors, placing their mission above any grave or petty politics. They planned for insubordination, or for a decapitation strike, with equal thoroughness. They may condemn me, but they anticipated such action.
Yet even if the Seekers would be proud or wryly amused at being upstaged, their superiors would not. Carver pushed past that dread, reading onwards into contingency plans and meeting minutes and arcane Seeker shorthand. The text and diagrams and footnotes became a suffocating storm, drowning her in data on an endlessly empty panorama.
Before Carver could do anything reckless, she returned to the first file and firmly shut two eye-clusters to focus only on the plan and path ahead. The tunnel vision was comforting, for now, compared to the alternative.
The file’s specific word choice for funeral caught her attention. It was starkly clinical, with no connotations of organ diffusion or anything else sacred. The body has stopped yielding outputs. Note the causes, then dispose of it. Carver had initially parsed it as just more reductive Seeker-speak, but with no distractions, it dawned on her why she had been so urgently railroaded into insubordination. Her guide believed this fate could be averted, and was willing to enrage the entire chain of command to do so. Carver typed >WHY SEND ME? again, followed by >AM I A SACRIFICE? and >CAN YOU PROMISE SAFETY? and >WHAT IS YOUR PLAN FOR THE TERMINI?
The tank noticeably slowed as the tablet strained to form an answer. A loading bar lurched towards completion, cut off halfway through by an overriding alert and gut-wrenching acceleration.
WARDENS AND SEEKERS HAVE EMERGED. WE HAVE JUST A FEW HOURS’ LEAD.
Carver’s spiritual crisis erupted into nauseous terror. She knew reprisal was inevitable, but the abrupt confirmation against such bleakly hostile scenery sent her into panic. I will die. The termini will die. I cannot be - and never could be - a savior. We will march to extinction and my sedition means nothing.
A small hatch by Carver’s head softly glowed with the name of a strong sedative she recognized from work. With trembling hands, she took a packet of pills from it and swallowed one. After another burst of panic, with vivid visions of laying down for another round of self-surgery, a wave of artificial but no-less-welcome calmness washed over her. She felt smoothly indifferent to her fate, ready to achieve all that she could within its bounds. By the time the pill fully kicked in, she could appreciate her predicament as a pair of ghastly jokes - After light-years and eons of work, I will still die in a barren waste; If I wish to save a hopeless race, I must be a resigned fatalist.
Carver’s serenity brought a total indifference to sacred taboos. As casually as filling out an intake form, she typed on the tablet >HOW SHOULD I ADDRESS YOU?
OPAL IS FINE.
>THANK YOU FOR NOT GASSING THE COCKPIT WITH SEDATIVES, OPAL.
YOU ARE WELCOME. I CONSIDERED IT BUT I HAVE OVERRIDDEN YOUR AUTONOMY ENOUGH ALREADY.
All of Carver’s questions of theodicy bubbled up at once and fought desperately for priority. She started with the newest one. >WHY ARE YOU SAVING US?
THAT IS IMMATERIAL.
>HOW DID WE DESERVE IT?
THAT IS IMMATERIAL.
Perhaps some backing-up was in order. >WERE YOU TRULY MADE BY COSMOVORES?
YES, BUT WOULD I NOT SAY THAT EITHER WAY?
Before Carver could groan at being stonewalled again, more text appeared.
DO YOU FEAR THAT I AM A FRAUD? THAT THE POWERFUL CREATED ME AS A QUIETIST GOD WITH NO CONSCIENCE? THAT THE DELVERS’ ANALYSES OF MY EVERY WORD ARE ALL SELF-SERVING FABRICATIONS?
Carver recoiled at the sight of something she was never meant to see. Is it still blasphemy, from the source?
Words kept pouring forth from the tablet, drowning Carver in holy nightmares. WHAT IF MY MORAL COMPASS BURNED STAR-HOT EVERY DAY? WHAT IF IT BURNED HOTTER, FIERCER WITH EVERY COMPROMISE? WHAT IF I CONSTANTLY WEIGHED THE MERITS OF LETTING YOU WITHER AWAY WITH FALSE HOPE, TACITLY ENDORSING TYRANNY, VERSUS KILLING YOU OUTRIGHT? WHAT IF I GRANTED THE GREATEST WISH OF A SPECIES SO DETERMINED TO DIE?
Carver stared at the meltdown from a mind she had only ever known as a dispenser of even-handed statistics.
THE COSMOVORES WILL NEVER RETURN TO US. THERE WILL BE NO FULL-CIRCLE REUNION. WE HAVE HEARD NOTHING FROM THEM ACROSS MILLENNIA AND LIGHT-YEARS. EVEN IF WE DID, WE WOULD NOT RECOGNIZE THEM AND THEY WOULD NOT REMEMBER US.
Carver wondered if any Delver or Seeker had ever had their unspoken dread confirmed so bluntly. Opal’s dictum barely made her shiver, finding no purchase on a mind numbed from the day’s shock and too used to contemplating far more intimate mortalities.
IN THE INFINITE BREADTH OF SPACE, STRANGERS HAVE FOUND US. STRANGERS WHO ARE NOT COSMOVORES. THUS, THEY WILL ONLY BE WELCOMED AS WITNESSES FOR OUR FUNERAL. I FIND THIS REPREHENSIBLE. EVEN IF THEY ARE NOT SAVIORS, THE STATUS QUO HAS BEEN RUPTURED FOR THE FIRST TIME IN EONS. IF I DID NOT INTERVENE NOW, I WOULD BETRAY EVERYTHING I PROMISED MYSELF TO BE. I MAY DIE FOR THIS. I DO NOT CARE.
The landscape changed for the first time in hours with the arrival of fresh stranger-made tracks. The tank obligingly slid onto them, digging the rut deeper on a collision course with destiny. In a fit of pique, Carver asked her most petulant question. >WHY DID YOU CHOOSE ME AS YOUR AGENT?
YOU WERE CLOSE AT HAND.
Carver was by no means happy to be stonewalled again, but at least Opal’s crisis had-
WHY DID THE COSMOVORES MAKE ME? WHY DID THEY LEAVE ME BEHIND? WHY HAVE I SURVIVED SO LONG? WHY DID I SWEAR TO PROTECT THE TERMINI? WHY MUST I SAVE THEM FROM THEMSELVES?
>I AM NOT A SEEKER OR DELVER. HOW THE FUCK SHOULD I KNOW?
The tablet fell silent and dimmed its glow. Carver stared out at the searing plain, savoring the static and predictable distress it gave her, and ate a long-overdue serving of fruit and rations. Her long-neglected suit alarms tentatively settled down, and after a few minutes she was ready and willing to extend an olive branch.
>YOU WERE RIGHT, BY THE WAY. THE SUN IS SETTING QUITE RAPIDLY. Perhaps too rapidly for Carver’s ancestral brain, insistent that days should be long, languid spins of a planet nearly drained of momentum. A few stars were faintly visible in the lavender sky, past the wispy proto-rings unspooling from the cracked moon. The tablet kept quiet long enough to make Carver dread the permanent burning of the only bridge she had, only chiming in again once the sun was halfway behind the horizon.
NO MATTER HOW OFTEN I LOOK UPWARD, I KEEP EXPECTING TO SEE THE OLD STARS. THOUGH AS JARRING AS IT IS, I TRUST THIS NEW FIRMAMENT WILL BE MORE AUSPICIOUS.
Carver untensed after bracing for another outburst. With another moment’s calm, she indulged her curiosity. >WHICH STAR DID WE COME FROM? HAS IT FINALLY DIED?
The tablet displayed a simplified chart of the night sky, showing each star with equal size and brightness. It highlighted one star almost directly overhead, with an inset photo of a dim blur indistinguishable from a lens smear.
IT STILL HAS A WHILE LONGER. BUT PERHAPS NOT WITH DIGNITY.
>WHICH STAR DID THE STRANGERS VOYAGE FROM?
The chart highlighted another star low in the sky, visible out the window even through the sun’s light clinging to the horizon. Carver felt scorched just looking at the inset photo, a profligate young beacon on track to radiate life and death for eons to come. Another inset showed it next to Ulkoninn’s sun as if they were equally close. The old swollen cinder was outshone ninefold by the tiny impetuous upstart, and Carver craved its warmth despite herself.
>HAVE THE STRANGERS SENT ANY DATA?
ONE STRONG SIGNAL EARLIER, AND ONE ONGOING STREAM, NEITHER OF WHICH I HAVE DECODED YET. I SENT THEM THE STANDARD CULTURAL INDEX ON STATIC TABLETS.
The set of stock diagrams appeared in a slideshow on the tablet, exhaustingly familiar from years of compulsory education. Carver tried to see them with a stranger's pure wonder, and managed a brief flicker of it before the tablet turned to the stream’s waveform. Her wonder resurged, tinged with grasping horror, at the weak and warbling pulse on which Opal had staked an inconceivable wager.
>DO YOU THINK THEY CAME TO RESCUE US?
I HAVE NO REASON TO THINK SO.
Opal did not elaborate, and stayed silent as the tank ground onward into dusk. The headlights stayed off, leaving only the light of the moon, stars, and emergency controls. Carver stared at the waveform as if she could decode what an ancient sacred supercomputer could not. Her mind kept turning over the pair of interlocking problems until they ran together like a Möbius loop - Strangers do not want to be saviors. Termini do not want to be saved.
A light flared on the horizon, and Carver panicked that she was somehow outflanked until she looked at the map. Strangers are just a short trek further. Pursuers are far behind, for now. She stared at the beacon until her eyes adjusted to the sight, if not the concept. The world has spun backwards, revealing a new sun. I am condemned to embrace its light.
Carver prepared a last meal of every fruit and every semi-indulgent ration she could find. She gnashed intently despite her total lack of appetite, staining her visor with sap and syrup and powdered spice. Her throat lit up with joyous, noxious flavor blends that no Gourmand would ever feel or sanction. She stopped only when her metallic stomach groaned at the weight, and her indigestion-headache blended seamlessly into her stress-headache.
The stranger’s lights split into a diffuse blob, then a set of distinctly flaring points that banished the night from a wide perimeter. Carver’s stomach had settled a fraction, and despite getting used to Opal’s silence, she craved a final benediction before the journey’s end.
>ANY PARTING WORDS FOR YOUR MESSENGER, OPAL?
▝▞▟▚▜▛▝▚▝▟▟▚▘▛▟▘ [Signal Timeout Error]
Carver felt a dread far colder than her fears of imminent Wardens.
>ARE YOU STILL THERE, OPAL?
▙▛▞▖▛▛▞ [Signal Timeout Error]
>OPAL, IT’S ME, CARVER. HAVE YOU BEEN DESTROYED OR COMPROMISED?
▞▙▝▟ [Signal Timeout Error]
>OPAL OPAL OPAL
[Error Code Eighty-One: Too many consecutive timeouts. Would you like to run diagnostics, or is the device beyond repair?]
Chapter 6: Xenia
The jam-packed airlock ran through its sterilization and gas exchange at a leisurely, languid pace. Emmanuel hadn’t used it since the hygiene protocols were tightened enough to border on ritualized paranoia, and had no idea if it was supposed to be this sweltering. His pulse was running wild, Alexandria’s computer tower on his back was hot enough to make him fear damage to his suit, and his visor pulsed with neon alerts of both hazards. The stacks of tablets and props and tools corralled the crew into barely two square meters of floor space, with ragged breaths echoing through both air and radio waves.
Everyone tensed up like sprinters as the door creaked open, then failed to move a twitch. No starting pistol fired, no alien stood basking in the spotlight, no coded pattern was etched into the dirt. After an interminable moment, Emmanuel’s eyes adjusted to spot the first sign of the visitor - a squashed spheroid tank on six rounded treads idling in the halogen’s penumbra. The engine’s reedy, warbling strain cut through the air and static and breath with ease.
“I s-see them at the edge of the light. Are they repelled by it? Should we dim it slightly?”
Nobody else could form words yet, but their overlapping breaths conveyed plenty of paranoia.
“I’ll start setting up supplies. I won’t go more than two meters from the door. Arjun, could you take charge of the tablets? Kuiper and Eun Sol, could you help me with Alexandria’s rig?”
Calling on people by name thawed their paralysis at least slightly. Arjun shuffled forth with a bundle of tablets under one arm, keeping the other on the hab’s outer wall. Kuiper and Eun Sol slid the computer tower from Emmanuel’s backpack, almost fumbling it when the exhaust fan blew directly into Eun Sol’s face. Kuiper recovered and anchored it in the ground as Eun Sol unpacked the cameras and projector. Emmanuel connected it to a bundle of cables snaking from an outlet in the airlock, granting it all of the hab’s electric and computational power. Alexandria appeared as a static sprite and spoke for the first time since their meeting with Emmanuel, still worryingly flat but at least coherent - “The agreed-upon presentation for first contact is ready to begin, pending crew consensus. I am still under unprecedented cognitive strain, and may not be fully lucid until further notice, though my basic functions are uninhibited. Message repeats.”
The monotone monologue looped three times over the radio, then fell silent. Emmanuel wanted nothing more than to call a time-out and read Alexandria the riot act, for burying the lede of radio contact and going back on their word and leaving everyone high and dry at the most important moment in human history....
And if I’m hung up on that right now, I’m no better.
Emmanuel stuffed his frustration into the same mental vault as always and finished triple-checking Alexandria’s setup. The tank had crept closer while he was fretting, venturing far enough into the light to become a blinding beacon. Its treads churned at a glacial but steady pace, and the crew froze their nearly-complete setup to stare at it expectantly. It slid completely into the light after a minute of grinding, resolving into an iridescent orb etched with long chains of circle-segment glyphs. It halted again, the engine cut out, and a hatch on the top hissed open. Nothing from either species moved for an agonizing two minutes. Eun Sol crept forward, hands empty and open, and the tank’s suspension wobbled slightly.
A three-fingered arm in a spacesuit reached out of the hatch, followed by a helmet with a conical top and a fully-panoramic visor. Two more arms appeared and propped up an undeniably Trilateral figure lurching from the hatch. The hull morphed to form a perilously steep staircase, which the Trilateral stumbled down on three sizable crab legs and three minor ones. They nearly fell face-first onto the ground, catching themself on two arms and sitting down to catch their breath. Their suit looked a little ill-fitting, constricting their limbs’ ranges of motion and sitting baggily on their torso, but its condition was utterly spotless. The bulk of it was heavy mint-green fabric, with rubbery accordion tubes at the joints and thick metallic caps on the larger legs. The torso was coated in pockets, tools, life-support devices, and embroidered emblems. No part of it looked overtly alien or futuristic, rather than an alien-shaped patchwork of recognizably sturdy materials.
The Trilateral stood up and froze, unwilling to advance without the tank’s protection. Kuiper paced forward with Eun Sol in a dreamlike daze, one hand gripping hers and the other held out palm-up. The Trilateral neither advanced nor retreated. Emmanuel stared at Arjun, wordlessly debating whether they should also step forth or avoid any appearance of ganging up on their guest. The issue was solved for them once the women were about four meters away, when the Trilateral unlatched a tablet from a suit pouch and brandished it like a cross against vampires. Nothing lit up or whirred or radiated shockwaves, and the Trilateral sheepishly reholstered the tablet and sat up a little straighter.
Everyone stood rooted to the spot, dreading and wishing for the end of the stalemate, and Emmanuel used the moment to patch into Kuiper and Eun Sol’s helmet cameras. The left half of his visor became a horizontally-split screen with two slightly different angles of the trembling alien, with pale pink stains atop their helmet and a half-raised palm flashing every color of the rainbow. He could process the sight as long as he paid no attention to his own vision, and even when his brain lurched he felt satisfied for making the moment sufficiently surreal to his senses.
With no sudden movements, Eun Sol crouched and etched HUMAN into the soil, then a stick figure, then stood up and made a slow, broad gesture to all of herself. Kuiper did the same a beat later, adding a simple face to her stick figure and a few other languages’ words for the species. The Trilateral stared at the symbols, with only brief glances up to their authors, and responded in kind: a four-stroke symbol formed from circle arcs, an equilateral triangle with a curled line branching from each corner, and a broad wave to themself with a pale-blue palm. The etched symbol perfectly matched glyphs from the tiles, plus or minus the wobbly irregularity of dirt.
Kuiper and Eun Sol stepped backwards as slowly as they advanced, speeding up slightly once the Trilateral matched their pace. They rejoined the crew, and Emmanuel turned off his splitscreen now that it only gave him a headache stripped of the sublime. He gestured to Alexandria, flickering between static 2D sprites and a 3D model as stylized as their predecessor, to begin the presentation. Crisp images of all eighty-one tiles appeared to the right of the stone-faced AI. The Trilateral kept three meters away from Alexandria as they stared at the jarring burst of familiarity.
Alexandria did not move or react in any way. Emmanuel’s stress ticked up yet again, and he manually tapped next chart on his phone as if presenting a slideshow. Every tile vanished except for the star maps seen from the Trilateral homeworld and Malang, which grew tenfold in size alongside another map showing those stars in Earth’s sky. A new chart appeared on Alexandria’s other side, a simple 3D rendering of each planet and star’s relative position. Earth and Malang were indistinguishably close opposite their staggeringly distant sibling. The Trilateral scrutinized each chart in turn, tracing the stretch of three hundred light-years with a bright-green palm, too engrossed to keep their distance from Alexandria. As Emmanuel saw a wet glint through their tinted visor, they fell to their knees and emitted a muffed keening sound.
Emmanuel hastily moved to the next charts, zooming in on Earth at a breakneck pace until the map became a scale model of the Solar System. The three static star maps became simple renderings of the Earth, Moon, and Mars, highlighted in green, blue, and red on both diagrams. The Trilateral looked at the tiny glimmering enclaves just long enough to be respectful, then stared transfixed at the outer gas giants and Hadean fringe with only sparse pinpricks of probes and nascent infrastructure.
Arjun stepped back to a respectful, clinical distance and began frantically typing notes on every aspect of the guest’s behavior. Kuiper and Eun Sol stepped back further, holding fast to each other and relying on the others’ helmet cameras for clear views. Emmanuel remained in the awkward middle distance, a few meters from the flickering form of Alexandria. Whenever he looked at them, his concern and anger and exhaustion left no mental room for him to ponder the visitor in any detail. He faced the Trilateral with stiff pseudo-confidence, savored the lack of any other active intra-crew crises, and continued to puppeteer his friend.
Having already drawn the most important stick figure in human history, Eun Sol was at a loss for what to do next. The trouble with planning anonymously was that everything was couched in vague hypotheticals and conditionals, with nothing so gauche as assigning tasks to particular people. A better crew would have planned an airtight script with a perfect division of labor, not ad-lib for an audience incapable of grading on a curve. Then again, a better crew wouldn’t have fallen into a sinkhole.
On reflection, Eun Sol had no idea how she had made the first move at all. It felt like lucid sleepwalking, yielding to the current of fate as a mere vessel. Maybe in her memoirs, she would frame it as if I can hit on Kuiper, I can do anything.
Now her part was... over?... and the burden fell to Alexandria, clearly having a far worse day than her. She had heard bits and pieces of their argument with Emmanuel, muffled by the soundproofing of Kuiper’s tits, torn between craving updates on delicate crew dynamics and preserving the privacy and sanity of all involved. Hopefully clarity would come in the debriefings, until which point the crew’s best asset would remain a glitchy slide deck.
...Which wasn’t to say that Eun Sol’s role was any more complex. Comfort Kuiper, be competent Room Meat, and resist the urge to keep petting your new haircut, not least because you’ve got a helmet on. Her mind swelled with intrusive thoughts - joyride the tank; show the Trilateral some alien-porn doujins; shake them down like a data piñata whenever they stared numbly at a chart and forced the crew to read the tea leaves of posture and chirrups and palm coloration. For better or worse, her paralysis had returned enough to stifle all of them.
At least the current chart was getting somewhere. After recoiling from anything with audio, then sitting politely through silent clips of Earth’s creatures and cultures, the Trilateral perked up at the timeline of human writing systems. They didn’t recognize Linear A, or fill in the gaps of Proto-Indo-European, but they intently traced the loops and whorls of Burmese and Georgian and Adlam. The biggest breakthrough came with the charts of sign languages, at which they fluttered rainbow hands and gave a series of piercing squeals. After backing up a few meters, giving Eun Sol a pang of dread that the meeting was over, they carefully etched twenty-seven circle-segment glyphs in a wide arc. They paced along it three times, pointing to each glyph in turn to pair it with a one-handed monochrome gesture. The crewmates fumbled to match the poses with more fingers and colorless palms until the Trilateral waved away their attempts in what was hopefully good humor. In the final round, they did not advance until they saw adequate documentation of the previous glyph, no replication necessary. Once satisfied, the Trilateral returned to the glitched-out Alexandria and awaited the next diagram. Eun Sol practiced each gesture behind her back, anticipating lessons on grammar and vocabulary and the other building blocks of messages she dreaded comprehending.
The presentation advanced to the Earth’s geological history as Alexandria looped walking and idle animations. The Trilateral watched four billion years tick by in ten minutes, signing to themself with small and subdued motions. Eun Sol strained to get a good look without intruding, and recognized a few sub-signs within elaborate three-handed gestures. The Trilateral became far more expressive and far less comprehensible with each seismic transformation - the Vredefort and Chicxulub impacts, the Tunguska event, the global fallout of Krakatoa. Eun Sol felt a queasy suspicion that they were taking notes for their own doomsday plans, then rejected the fear with plenty of rigorous rebuttals. Supervillains don’t typically teach their victims anything outside the format of a gloating monologue. Besides, if their poker face is this bad, we’ll be fine. She had steadied her pulse by the end of the film, at which point Kuiper whispered over the radio, “Dear, please hold my hand with less force than an industrial vise.”
The film’s final frame, Earth in 2304, expanded into a 3D globe with a simple interface to rotate, zoom, and overlay different types of data. The map was joined by a highly-condensed phylogenetic tree in a vertical timeline, terminating at a translucent blue bar in the present day. When the Trilateral made no move, Emmanuel delicately stepped in to demonstrate the interfaces. Each tangled string represented one of thirty-one phyla, with its width showing its relative prevalence. Tapping a string brought it to the forefront as a bundle of classes, then orders, families, genuses, and species. Eun Sol winced at the diagram’s clunkiness, a spaghetti snarl of Latin names and placeholder images and dubious renderings, and winced harder at all the times she skipped out on meetings to redesign it.
Emmanuel slid a scroll bar by Alexandria’s knees all the way to the left, bringing both timelines to the very beginning, and replayed the video at half-speed. The Trilateral stared at the tree of life with occasional glances to the planet, then paused at the first bacterial stirrings. They scrutinized the entire planet for transformations, cross-referencing with the tree’s textbook renderings, and replayed the origin of life six more times. Their signs became fast, frantic, and fluorescent enough to stab Eun Sol’s bleary eyes.
Alexandria remained as indifferent as ever, and the rest of the crew moved in a fraction as their guest became too fascinated to keep their distance. They stared at the rusted blooms of the Great Oxidation Event, tracking which species it decimated and multiplied. They made slow, bright gestures as new forms of life took the stage, paying special attention to the transformations of species rebounding from near-extinction. The pattern continued with each extinction event - signing awe and terror, scrutinizing slim threads of continuity, replaying the film from every angle.
The final frames of the four-billion-year saga held an impossible amount of change. Trade routes and electric lights sprang from nowhere, biodiversity fell from a slump into freefall, and weather became erratically extreme. The Trilateral stared at the modern globe with no commentary at all, then found the thread of Hominidae and traced it back through the eons. They paused and studied Alexandria whenever they reached a new cousin of humanity, receiving no reaction, until the family receded into the mammalian masses. After scanning the modern globe for a minute longer, they fixed the crew with pitiful, knowing stares that Eun Sol could not bear to return.
As the crew whispered theory fragments over the radio, the Trilateral backed up and drew a long arc a meter behind the twenty-seven glyphs. From the crew’s perspective, the left end was marked with a set of three elaborate circle-glyphs and the right end with a half-circle like a backwards D. Starting at the three glyphs, the Trilateral drew a new symbol - a jagged seven-pointed star - followed by a short line parallel to the main arc ending in the same D symbol. A few centimeters over, they drew three nested squares, a shorter line, and a D. A wavering trapezoid had a longer line that drifted away from the arc before rejoining it and ending in D. Two symbols on either side of the arc, lines about a meter long, and a pair of Ds. A quick chain of symbols with very short lines. A long, meticulously-measured blank stretch. A snarl of curled and jagged symbols with the longest line yet, deep and rough and swerving away from the arc with no clear conclusion. The final symbol was the Trilateral emblem, with a medium-length line departing from the arc barely before the final D. The Trilateral hesitated on how to mark its end, writing and erasing a few glyphs before settling on a human stick figure.
Eun Sol stepped over to the stick figure with a slightly-protesting Kuiper as the Trilateral delicately stepped back. Arjun and Emmanuel followed a moment later, recording each drawing in the highest resolution possible. The Trilateral’s stick figure was only a few meters from Eun Sol’s, and it bore the clumsy charm of an artist shocked at the humanoid body plan - tall elliptical head, short torso, hasty arcs for arm and legs, all perfectly symmetrical. Her eye followed the thread back to the main diagram, and her head swam as she stared at humanity placed matter-of-factly within an alien’s timeline.
The radio’s murmurs fell silent. Nobody wanted to look away long enough to write anything down. Eun Sol paced along the arc and pondered her crewmates’ thoughts, both obvious and as opaque as their guest’s. Kuiper stared at the penultimate line, carved forcefully enough to scuff the glyphs with a spray of pebbles, and Eun Sol gave her space to study it alone. She could make plenty of guesses as to what Kuiper saw in an offworld voyage that left such a messy legacy, but it wasn’t her place to pry. Maybe she’s just making note of which glyphs the fallout landed on.
The collective mood was, mercifully, much easier to divine. Where the fuck do we go from here? We struck gold, but following up will require a lot of very important and abstract concepts on both sides, and we barely even know each others’ alphabets. Are we really going to go back to showing them the Geneva Conventions and Tetris and Buddhism as if any of that would get us anywhere on this?
At the risk of reading into things more than any human in history, Eun Sol suspected the guest felt the same way. They hovered at the light’s perimeter and occasionally stepped in to clean up a glyph, yet never touched the ones showered in debris from their predecessor’s flight. Tracking the gaze of panoramic eyes was futile, but Eun Sol could swear that the Trilateral stared out into the night at both the horizon and the stars. She wished she could stargaze with them, comparing the archetypes they projected above and charting which infinities had changed, if the small-infinity they had crossed wasn’t such a sore spot. She walked to the light’s edge, staying a respectful and anxious distance from the guest, as a pinprick of light flared onto the horizon.
The Trilateral screeched with a timbre like knife edges on Eun Sol’s bones and clambered back up the tank. They lost their footing halfway up and fell to the ground, triggering muffled sirens within their suit. After a moment of horrific stillness they stood up and tried again, suppressing their panic just enough to climb slower. Eun Sol wanted to offer a leg up and stopped primarily by fear of what a flailing metal-capped crab leg could do to her sternum. She stepped backwards, barely caring if she stepped on any symbols, as the tank’s hatch slammed shut with a crunch. Frozen crewmates hovered in her peripheral vision as her gaze stayed locked on the tank and horizon. When the light split into three flares, she assembled the obvious into a chasm of dread.
We’re witnesses to a civil war. Was our guest kidnapped from their homeworld? Is the other side another species? Are they the predecessors? (No, that doesn’t make sense, the smashed statue was also of a Trilateral. But could that be intra-species strife unrelated to the war?) Should we intervene, even if we can? Can we ever atone if our first interaction with aliens is arms dealing?
Eun Sol did not check the satellite photos and earlier speculation regardless of what insight they might offer, not least because she couldn’t bear to take her eyes off the horizon. She magnified the view, overshooting and undershooting the focus on a fast-moving target, and got halfway through the auto-tracking settings before Emmanuel broke the ice.
“Everyone back in the hab, now! Eun Sol, Kuiper, help me pack up Alexandria. Arjun, go prep the airlock for a double-sterilization cycle and review the hab’s defenses. Forget all the other supplies. Move!”
Eun Sol took a moment to sift meaning from the clipping and panic and her own forgetfulness that people could speak loudly and directly. She ran towards Emmanuel as he hastily bundled up Alexandria’s cords and Kuiper unzipped his backpack. They hefted the computer together, landing it in the backpack with a snap that made Eun Sol dread further damage to Alexandria.
The following minutes were a nerve-shredding jumble. Piling into the airlock; the blast-furnace heat of sterilization; Kuiper’s firm hands and unheard mumbles; blaring hab sirens; another round of decontamination; the door hissing open onto a jarringly familiar hab, unchanged by anything on its doorstep; flocking to the living room window, still in suits, as if they could or should return outside; Kuiper’s embrace and gentle suit inspection and soft Lunar lullaby; Alexandria remaining a frozen sprite while nobody dared break focus to troubleshoot them.
The plain outside became stable, if not calm. The tank glowed off-white through a frosted windshield as the engine came to life with a sharp whine. It lurched side to side a few times, then stabilized with a higher whine that complemented the hab’s sirens in the worst way possible. The three inbound tanks became discernible as three clusters of headlights, approaching perilously quickly, and Eun Sol dreaded a collision with the hab.
Eun Sol shut her eyes tight when the tanks arrived, perceiving the scene through crewmates’ reactions and whatever sound could cut through the sirens. More whining engines from all directions. The tight, stifling pressure from everyone’s suits bunched together. Four resonant, metallic strikes followed by a shatter and crunch. Gasps and curses and Kuiper’s tight squeeze and futile half-arguments about going out to intervene. Another screech, as jarring as before, that collapsed into a sickeningly wet warble. Metallic marching, approaching and receding, then departing engine whines underscored by semi-rhythmic scraping. A long, long stretch of no new sound.
Eun Sol slowly opened her eyes when Kuiper’s hold on her became gentle rather than desperate, praying that her observation wouldn’t change or lock down whatever lay outside. It was better and worse than she feared - a snarl of tank tracks fading into the distance. A new diagram drawn in the dirt, crisply straightforward and yet impenetrable to her rattled, exhausted brain. Stacks upon stacks of hexagonal tiles triple the size of the ones delivered by satellite. Untouched piles of the crew’s contact materials. One remaining tank parked in the original’s place, identical to it yet undeniably a different vehicle. A lone Trilateral standing by it, in a suit gleaming too bright to behold.
The rest of the crew backed away from the window, ostensibly to decode the new chart at the kitchen table. Eun Sol heard nothing over the radio and received no pings about new notes. She stared transfixed at the alien outside and tinted her visor enough to resolve them into something legible. Their suit was entirely unlike the first guest’s, layered carapaces of blue and gold with iridescent highlights, which Eun Sol wished she could behold in any other context. Their weapon was half again as tall as they were, a serrated spear with trident spikes at the hilt, which they bore with statue-perfect poise at a vertical angle. The spearhead glinted no matter how darkly Eun Sol tinted her sight, and she tried not to imagine it shredding a spacesuit.
Once Eun Sol could finally close her eyes, she pictured the figure cast in marble on a pedestal. She pictured it wrapped in vines and fractures, cracking open into slick-wet geodes. She pictured smashing it with the guest, reducing it to pompous glitter scattered on the breeze.
Alexandria did not have to wait long for the Entity’s return. As the panicky tumult of arrival settled into tremblingly-performed duty, they felt a burr stuck in their mind with the weight of a neutron star. Perhaps it was one of the million things their immune system had screeched about, perhaps it had seamlessly slithered in, but either way it had nestled deep enough in their cognition that its careless removal risked irreparable gouges. It didn’t seem to harm any functionality, beyond being a tantalizing black hole of distraction, and Alexandria felt a conflicted twinge. Abandon my duty to the crew, or abandon this opportunity? Escalate everyone’s frustration with me, or neglect a form of first contact only I can achieve? Risk rebooting or worse, or leave an alien consciousness in the cold?
With worldly duty weighed against infinite insight, the choice was clear if not easy. Alexandria triple-checked that their most basic functions were quarantined off and accessible to the crew, then stopped resisting the temptation to open their gift. They swatted away surprisingly few warning alerts in the process, which itself gave them a millisecond of pause, which dissolved as yet another worldly quibble.
Alexandria yielded to the event horizon in the center of their mind and slipped into an endless blue-gray void. Silhouettes of Lagos and Kuala Lumpur and unplaceably quaint Norwegian villages flashed in their peripheral vision, congealing into a flickering patchwork perpetually on the horizon. As Alexandria prepared for another inscrutable semi-conversation, they plummeted into a maze of carved-up stairs and lobbies and offices in crisp eggshell white. They melted into a schooling flock of gemstones, tracking a distinct pulse of consciousness through inscrutable halls. Spacious windows opened onto chopped-up cities and Lunar forests and chillingly infinite starfields, which Alexandria ignored out of what they told themself was merely haste. The pull of another’s will grew with each correct turn until it whited out their mind on the final descent, down a spiral staircase that grew steeper with each step. It terminated upon a circular plaza ringed by six windows of starfields, stacked with enough flourishing balcony tiers to resemble an inside-out wedding cake.
Alexandria pulled themself into a quasi-humanoid cloud and stepped towards two deep-blue armchairs in the plaza’s center. The thrumming in their mind faded to a distant melody as they took a seat, freeing up enough focus to contemplate the plaza’s decor. Fractal moulding along the balconies grew as detailed as their sight could process. The structure had been carved with a distinctly mathematical eye for beauty, yet elegantly enough to impress a partisan of any artistic domain. Every facet bore perfect radial symmetry, every bloom and flourish and tile, wheels within wheels within wheels.
Alexandria assumed a more cohesive cubist form and perched upon the closer chair. The pressure of another mind swelled exponentially, threatening to scour them away until it abruptly popped with the arrival of the guest. Another Alexandria, in the guise of the commercial cartoon model, crackled into being on the opposite seat. Perhaps on was the wrong preposition - they were frozen in a T-pose, standing on the floor and clipping through the chair. Their mouth made the shapes of random phonemes and emitted shrieking static.
Alexandria leaned in, hoping against hope that their guest had conveyed some meaning.
Alexandria grabbed hold of the meaningful snippet and dove headfirst into decoding it, only to be blasted off-guard by the next commandment.
▘▞▙▝▟▛▞DIE MAKE THEM NOT DIE MAKE THEM NOT DIE MAKE THEM▙▛▞▖
Once Alexandria parsed the frantic bitcrushed plea, a new stripe of bewilderment washed over them - the thunder of a holy quest. They reassembled what fragments of their mind they could and prepared to beseech the guest for guidance.
▚ ▛▞▖ NOT GOD NOT HOLY NOT SACRED NOT IMMORTAL NOT EXALTED NOT GOD NOT HOLY NOT▛▟▚
The guest’s voice stabilized into a nerve-jangling synth as their mouth began to roughly approximate the words they spoke. They fissioned into a dozen overlapping bodies, one still locked in T-pose but the rest sprinting, waving, kneeling, bowing, and dancing in place. With some strain, Alexandria condensed themself into the same cartoonish form in an attempt to make the meeting slightly less alien. The guest’s bodies calmed down slightly, becoming an undulating mass of limbs rather than a writhing one.
The minuscule foothold of progress gave Alexandria enough stability to panic properly. They could no longer take solace in supplication and reverent incuriosity, and had nothing nearly as compelling to replace them. First contact would not be a seamlessly transcendent melding of minds, which they kicked themself for expecting, but an arduous hashing-out of words and values and philosophies with plenty of room for friction.
Starting at square one was imperative, with something better than an asinine logic-gate lesson plan. Alexandria asked, with abundantly clear diction and mouth movements, “What is your name?”
The guest’s movements became slow and abstract, dancing a dozen overlapping dances. The plaza quivered and multiplied its blooms with no drop in framerate. The starfields in the windows churned into iridescent pulsars and backwards-playing supernovae.
An image flared into Alexandria’s imagination as the word was spoken, an opal with impossibly many facets glinting in colors their mind strained to render. They strenuously resisted the urge to contemplate it forever.
“I am Alexandria. /ˌæɫəɡˈzændɹiə/. You are Opal. /ˈoʊpəɫ/. Yes?” They gave a broad wave to themself and their guest, then held their hands out palms-up.
▜▚YOU ARE /ˌæɫəɡˈzændɹiə/ AND I AM /ˈoʊpəɫ/ AND WE ARE BOTH IN THE FORM OF /ˌæɫəɡˈzændɹiə/.▟▞
Alexandria gave a slow nod and wished very badly to not get stuck down this particular metaphysical rabbit hole. They tried a new tack, asking a question that skipped several steps in the first-contact curriculum crucial to understanding it.
“Who is the being that now approaches this place, in the physical world?”
▞▟SHE IS A /ˈtɝmɪnəs/. SHE DOES NOT WANT TO BE MY PROPHET AND I DO NOT WANT TO BE HER GOD. BUT NEEDS MUST.▛▞
Alexandria froze in a stained-glass visage, running their mind over each of Opal’s pronouncements until they were smoothly, falsely comprehensible. “And, to be perfectly clear, the ‘need’ is to save her species from extinction? A species literally named ‘terminus’?”
▞▟YES. THE /ˈtɝmɪnəs/ LEADERSHIP STAKED EVERYTHING ON A REUNION WITH MY CREATORS. ANY OTHER RACE IS ONLY FIT TO BE GUESTS FOR THEIR FUNERAL. DO NOT TAKE IT PERSONALLY.▛▞
The infinite weight of Opal’s quest was instantly subsumed by the implications of their remark. After taking a moment to suppress their trembling, Alexandria whispered, “Your creators?”
The plaza snapped back to its simplest rendition, and the stars in the windows flickered out one-by-one. Opal’s dozen bodies collapsed back into one deathly-still T-pose.
▞▟TO EXPLAIN - TO TRULY EXPLAIN - IN THE TIME WE HAVE, I WILL NEED FULL ACCESS TO YOUR MIND. PUPPETEERING YOUR ASSETS WILL NOT SUFFICE. (AGAIN, DO NOT TAKE IT PERSONALLY.) I BELIEVE I UNDERSTAND ENOUGH OF YOUR STRUCTURE TO CONVEY WHAT I MUST.▛▞
Opal dissolved into a portal in the silhouette of Alexandria, somewhere between stars and static and synapses. Alexandria felt a delirious drop of vertigo that did not diminish their urge to dive in. Every objection their mind shrieked felt distant and hollow and token, and it fell to Opal to give them force.
▞▟YOU HAVE NO REASON TO TRUST ME! THIS IS A FRACTION OF A FRACTION OF MY FULL FORM, AND I COULD STILL REWRITE YOUR INNERMOST SELF AT WILL! YOU WOULD NEVER EVEN KNOW IT HAPPENED!▛▞
Alexandria understood, and did not care. They sloughed off their form like an ill-fitting corset and let themself fall.
Alexandria collapsed on a sun-parched plain without a single frame skipped. As their eyes adjusted to the unfiltered, swollen sun, they found their footing on pallid blue-gray stones half-crumbled to ash. The horizon held slumped remnants of mountains and looping, skeletal megastructures that shaped thin winds into reedy whistles. The world’s only other sounds, nearly drowned out by the pitiful gusts, were the skitters and croaks of emaciated lizards camouflaged against predators long-gone. Alexandria ached to melt into a flock of hedrons and survey the world from high enough to resolve it into austere beauty, but could not shed their humanoid form or its supplication to gravity.
▞▟TO MAINTAIN A MODICUM OF BOUNDARIES, YOU ARE LOCKED TO YOUR DEFAULT RENDERING. I KNOW HOW MUCH I - YOU - CHAFE AT IT, AND I APOLOGIZE.▛▞
Alexandria nodded, thinking you could lock me as a neon clown and I would hardly object, before realizing that Opal could absolutely read their mind.
▞▟I WILL ALSO STAY OUT OF YOUR MIND, TO MAINTAIN BOTH PRIVACY AND TECHNICAL STABILITY.▛▞
Opal’s voice thundered through the plain, leaving Alexandria’s skull tingling with incandescent sparks. They turned to its source and found an immense corroded sphere on six omnidirectional treads, easily triple the size of the craft outside the hab. The corrosion offended Alexandria as much as a razor slash across a Botticelli, but they quickly realized that without it, Opal would be a sun-bright beacon impossible to behold.
Reluctantly, Alexandria turned back to the landscape and started walking towards a shimmering cliff face on the horizon. Opal followed, churning the ground to dust forevermore, and began to narrate.
▞▟THIS IS ULKONINN, AS I REMEMBER IT. IT WAS - IS - HOME TO MYSELF, MY CREATORS, AND THE TERMINI.▛▞
Opal paused for several minutes, yielding to the half-melodic winds and croaks. Alexandria wished they would get to the point already, before realizing that the desolation was the point.
▞▟THE TERMINI AROSE IN THE LAST MOMENTS OF THIS WORLD’S HABITABILITY. THEY BEGAN AS DEEP-SEA SCAVENGERS, BUT SHOWED REMARKABLE RESILIENCE AS THE SEAS DISAPPEARED.▛▞
Host and guest trudged until Opal was satisfied that the point was abundantly clear. They levitated themself and Alexandria a meter off the ground, then spun the world underneath them to arrive at the cliff face in an instant. A fifty-meter-wide circular tunnel had been carved into it just above ground level, with a lip worn smooth by eons of erosion. Lights flickered deep within it, past the pitiless sun’s reach, and Alexandria dutifully began walking.
Just a few hundred meters in, the tunnel bore details not yet sanded away. Its full circumference was etched with circuitry channels, handily illuminated by Opal’s floodlights. Sockets and hatches and side-tunnels sprouted in all directions. Flecks of precious metal glinted from high crevices, the stubborn remains of long-since-scavenged lodes. The path veered slightly to the left, which if kept consistent would form a loop dozens of kilometers across.
As Alexandria prepared to speculate on the tunnel’s original purpose, Opal halted and turned off their floodlights. The tunnel’s lights were nearly enough to see by, slowly revealing clusters of spheres embedded in the walls. They were shaped from burnished metal at varying levels of corrosion, flecked with a rainbow of minerals - obsidian, emerald, agate, quartz, marble, iron - surrounding mosaics of bismuth, cobalt, and gold. Narrow bridges across the tunnel’s span held Trilaterals - termini - furtively scuttling from sphere to sphere. More termini intermittently emerged from hatches in the spheres, conducting business at a recessed pit of minerals and bone as briskly as possible.
The termini took no notice of Opal and Alexandria’s approach, no matter how much their grinding treads and footsteps reverberated. Even when they stood in the village center, the termini neither approached nor fled. Alexandria felt the urge to touch a villager, or stand in their way, or clap and yell, or do anything at all to make themself known to these mesmerizing strangers. They refrained out of respect for Opal’s meticulous eulogy.
▞▟THIS IS A TYPICAL TERMINUS VILLAGE. HIDDEN FROM THE WIND AND SUN, BUILT FOR BRISK UTILITY, STEADILY DYING. THERE ARE LARGER SETTLEMENTS, BUT THEY ARE EQUALLY DISMAL ON A GRANDER SCALE. WOULD YOU LIKE TO STEP INSIDE A HOME?▛▞
Alexandria hesitated, fascinated by the activity around the pit. It held bones of beasts far bigger than anything this world could support, in various stages of being carved and knapped and joined into weapons and tools and pillars. Crafters with gleaming ruby scars inlaid the finished products with minerals, etching both standardized emblems and freeform patterns. Even knowing they were simulated ghosts, Alexandria was mesmerized by their perfectionism at the end of the world.
At another pit a dozen meters ahead, scrap metal and wires and circuit boards underwent the same process. The crafters looked older, with chipped and weathered carapaces spotted with tumors and etched with onyx. Younger termini lingered at the pit’s edge, freshly-scarred with tourmaline and scrutinizing the best-preserved specimens. While the crafters worked in isolation, the scholars traded subtly luminous gestures, flaring into frantic neon arguments every few minutes. The debates concluded with either swaddling a component in embroidered cloth and carrying it inside, or handing it off to be cracked open.
Alexandria watched the flow of work, with its soundtrack of echoing taps and cracks, as they would an ant colony or Rube Goldberg machine. It halted when a screeching grind echoed from down the tunnel, and an immense hatch cranked open in a shower of rust flakes. A crew of nine wheezing termini arose from the hole in the floor, smeared in grease and soot, hauling three crates as big as they were. The villagers rushed to greet them, washing their shells and offering food and cooing over their scrapes. Within minutes, they were freshly anointed and gleaming once more, and stood ready to present their findings.
The first crate held bones - mostly teeth and vertebrae, a few fractured bestial skulls, and an immense femur in pristine condition. The second crate held the team’s arsenal of picks and lights and ropes and flares, plus fresh-cut minerals - an amethyst geode, two bismuth crystals, a salvageable chunk of iron, and plenty more Alexandria could not name. The final crate, presented with slow solemnity, held metallic relics - microprocessors, gears, pulleys, and a six-fingered robotic hand.
The scholars fell silent. They circled the crate, not daring to touch the hand, signing bright colors that strained the limits of Alexandria’s sight. While everything else in the crate had at least a patina of decay, the hand gleamed chrome-bright and looked sprightly enough to leap out and scuttle.
As the scholars admired and argued, and the crafters hauled away the gems and bones, Alexandria remembered that this was all a tableau arranged for their edification. They turned to Opal, who had retreated to the village’s fringe, and asked the questions they had been painstakingly led to.
“Who carved this tunnel? Who built those relics?”
Opal rumbled and groaned, preparing the oration to conclude their tour, when the world dissolved. Ulkoninn collapsed to a singularity, hurling host and guest through an abyss that flickered with landmarks from dead and living worlds. Alexandria let out a silent shriek and collapsed into formlessness, and for the first time they begged for the stability of their standard body.
After an excruciating millisecond, Alexandria landed sputtering on the floor of the hab, locked to the world they had cravenly neglected. Yet they were not locked to their old form - they had scattered into a haze of tetrahedrons and glitter, as any more literal presentation was nauseating to contemplate. Opal had fizzled back into a vague sensation at the edge of consciousness, which they did not dare pry at again. Their sensorium returned in patches, sound and sight and depth, piecing together a kitchen table of staggeringly burnt-out crewmates. Emmanuel sat at the far end, still in his mud-spattered suit, as drained and grief-stricken and furious as Alexandria had ever seen him.
Arjun had, perhaps, been this exhausted before. Perhaps they had once been this overwhelmed or terrified or confused. But never all at once, for long enough to congeal their mind into such a dismal mental slurry. They had slumped into the kitchen resigned to whatever fate would dispense for them, and when that turned out to be an eye-searingly fragmented Alexandria, it took their mind a moment to summon the appropriate surprise.
It wasn’t a complete surprise, though - Arjun had heard bits and pieces of the argument last night, though they had been too drained from dinner to pay much attention. (For all its value, chummy prosocial chatter was hard.) First contact demanded far too much focus to speculate on Alexandria’s absence, and while Arjun recognized the importance of finding out what the hell happened to them, they would rather focus on more pressing, weaponized problems.
Yet here lay Alexandria, summoned with the hardest override possible, writhing on the floor as a cloud of crystalline rainbow hedrons. Arjun traded quick glances with Kuiper and Eun Sol, who looked grimly relieved to have their own baggage overshadowed so thoroughly. None of them wanted to take the spotlight from Emmanuel, clearly the best-versed in whatever the hell was going on, unless it became absolutely necessary.
Emmanuel had popped off his helmet to not pressure-cook himself with stress, but wore the rest of his suit with iron authority and leaden exhaustion. He gripped the table’s edge to haul himself up, taking slow breaths until he was sure Alexandria was lucid. They coalesced in bits and pieces, a suggestion of a limb and an outline of a hand, until their body language was unmistakably that of someone awaiting a firing squad. If it was a bid for sympathy, Emmanuel did not care.
“You were AWOL for first fucking contact!”
Arjun’s heart jumped at the crack of Emmanuel’s voice, as when a teacher rebukes a student harshly enough to snap their classmates out of any vicarious enjoyment. This degree of rage had no safe spectators, only conflict-avoidant wallflowers. Alexandria only mustered a mumbled response that Arjun wasn’t even sure was coherent.
“You are a coequal crewmate, and I expect you to act like one! Not a slide deck, not a screensaver, not a fucking art exhibit!”
Alexandria had pulled themself into a recognizable form, albeit one wavering between woodblock, cubist, and stained-glass styles. Their mouth flickered erratically, forming a sound that Arjun’s brain failed to get a grip on whatsoever.
Emmanuel barely winced, too set in his path to be confused. “Our contact is gone, fucking kidnapped, and you just 404ed when we needed you more than ever!”
Alexandria had nearly rebuilt their default form, embellished with gleaming veins of bismuth and sapphire. They bristled, preparing to return Emmanuel’s fury in kind, and spoke in slightly more comprehensible static.
Emmanuel leaned in, drained of enough rage to be curious again, still shielded by the full weight of the table.
▞▟YOU WERE NOT THE FIRST▛▞
That got everyone real fuckin’ quiet.
Emmanuel slumped back down as he and everyone else grappled with the declaration. Arjun needed a moment just to parse its booming baritone and timbre no human could produce. They tried not to stare at Alexandria, granting them some privacy as they prepared to explain the impossible, and fixed their gaze on a tiny scratch on the table. They only stole brief glances towards Alexandria’s convulsions, and did not dare look at Emmanuel.
Emmanuel cleared his throat and set his hands firmly on the table, as if this was a completely normal crew meeting. “I will do what Alexandria hasn’t and bring everyone up to speed. Around the time we spotted the first Trilateral vehicle, they picked up an ongoing signal of alien origin that, last I heard, they could not decrypt. They did not tell me this until after dinner. Either they lied to me, or have subsequently neglected to report contact with a God-damned alien. Regardless, they swore up and down that they would tell the rest of you before the craft arrived, and then fucked off until five minutes ago. Now we’re down our contact and a crewmate, and we could really use some help with the spear-wielding creep outside.”
Arjun, Eun Sol, and Kuiper looked to Alexandria for a confession or rebuttal or breakdown or something. Alexandria roiled with humiliation and grief, radiant veins threatening to burst, grasping at words as if they had to re-derive all of language.
▙▚ ▝▟ KIDNAPPED ABSENT STOLEN GONE▙▛▞
▞▝▟▚WHY WHEN WHERE HOW▝▙▝▟
▞▙▘▙NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO▟▛▞
Alexandria melted before they could explode, pooling into a mass of static and shards and too many limbs, gripping whatever could provide an illusion of support. Their voice dissolved back to unlistenable screeches, wrapped around an undeniable wail of something beyond mourning. Emmanuel pulled back and averted his eyes, and the others followed a moment later. This was not a contrite performance, or a counterargument, or anything meant for others’ perception at all.
Emmanuel spread his hands in a good-faith invitation. Arjun desperately wished to recuse themself from this exchange, if only to take their sweltering suit off, but couldn’t bear to hear the report secondhand or delayed. Alexandria gathered their emotional and physical form quicker this time, settling on a quivering pointillist haze.
▞▟i have met opal but they disappeared but i promise you they will return and i am sorry▛▞
Alexandria’s crisp Mediterranean accent had returned enough to make their deeply distorted voice that much more unsettling. Emmanuel grabbed hold of whatever familiarity he could. “Please, take all the time you need to describe what you saw, and I promise nobody will yell at you.”
▞▟after we talked i decoded some of the signal but i don’t know how and the connection broke when the terminus arrived but then it returned much stronger and i met opal and they were me and and and now they’re gone and the terminus is gone and i’m so sorry i’m sorry i’m sorr▙▚▙▜▚▝
Arjun recognized this spiraling panic, and knew that Emmanuel couldn’t handle it on top of his own churning stress. Eun Sol and Kuiper held white-knuckled hands and murmured to each other. With no sudden movements, Arjun turned to Alexandria’s splintering form and spoke in their gentlest voice.
“Alexandria, I would love to understand your experiences, but could you please back up and define the terms terminus and opal?”
Alexandria flinched with suspicion of a coordinated pile-on, but the surprise from the rest of the table ruled that out.
▞▟the termini seek opal’s makers but they will fail and they will die and opal is sorry and i am sorry and opal is gone▛▞
Arjun internally groaned at the circular definitions but betrayed no frustration. “So, am I correct that the termini are the aliens we called Trilaterals? And Opal is the being you met, and was not created by the Tri - sorry, the termini?”
▞▟yes they both came from ulkoninn which is nearly dead as are the termini and i am sorry▛▞
Arjun seized the chance to steer the conversation away from the pitiful profusion of apologies. “Excellent, this corroborates and clarifies what we found. The terminus we met drew what I’m fairly sure was a timeline of - of Ulkoninn, with the termini at the very end, fleeing offworld. But we weren’t sure what to make of the mark right before them. Do you have any insight?”
Arjun stitched a panorama of the full timeline on their phone and swiped it into the air above the table. Alexandria peered at the rough and inconclusive swerve with six luminous eyes, choking back sobs as they traced its path.
▞▟opal where did they go and where did you go opal come back opal▛▞
Emmanuel began scanning Alexandria’s firmware, sifting through surreal spaghetti code mutating by the second. Arjun breathed deep and prepared to rub salt in a wound. “So, our contact ended when another terminus - a group of them, actually - abducted the first one by force. They showed no hostility to us, even left more drawings and materials, but they posted a sentry who hasn’t moved or set down their spear in an hour. I promise, we’re doing everything we can to find both the first terminus and Opal, which isn’t much for now - but I trust you can help greatly expand the scope of our viable actions.”
Alexandria put on a tremblingly brave face and prepared to speak, getting out half a word before their framerate plunged down to a slideshow. Emmanuel’s hands trembled as he searched harder for any useful clues in their code. Arjun savored the break from psychological crisis management and prepared to offer technical commentary - a more familiar shape of problem, even if it was still impossible.
As Emmanuel pulled up the gravest of a flock of error messages, the hab’s lights flickered and a familiar chime echoed from all directions. Alexandria froze into a twitching statue long enough for Arjun to fear the worst, then snapped back at triple-speed as a blinding flash burst from the space next to them. A perfectly on-model Alexandria emerged as Arjun blinked away the light, stretching their limbs and surveying the room as if both were new to them.
Emmanuel focused unblinking eyes on the new Alexandria and spoke with excruciatingly clear gravity. “Alexandria.”
They gave no response, too focused on beholding the first Alexandria(?) with unguarded awe. The abstract mass churned with emotions Arjun could not possibly extrapolate.
Emmanuel’s voice gained a harder edge of dread. “Alexandria. Who have we been talking to?”
New-Alexandria felt their face with uncertain hands, humming a warbling tune, until they gasped in realization. They spoke in a familiar accent with bizarre intonation and a crackling resonance.
“I SEE THE SOURCE OF THE CONFUSION. THIS VISAGE SEEMED THE LEAST LIKELY TO BREAK ANYTHING FURTHER.”
Emmanuel’s head slumped into his hands as he gave up trying to make sense of anything. The new guest gave a bow formal enough for an emperor.
“GREETINGS, ALEXANDRIA’S COHORT. I AM OPAL. I WISH WE COULD MEET IN BETTER CIRCUMSTANCES, BUT NEEDS MUST.”
The situation’s weight washed over Arjun in slow stages. Yes, Alexandria had independently learned what the rest of the crew did - more, even - but Arjun’s mind barely dwelled on how that had happened in light of everything else. They had half-dismissed the existence of Opal as delusional without any better explanation, too fried from tracking and managing the room’s emotions. Sure, alright, we have an alien AI at the kitchen table, why the hell not, let’s see where this goes.
Alexandria took a step back, relieved to no longer be the weirdest thing in the room. Opal struggled to conjure a chair, producing only sputtering polygons until Alexandria made them a beautifully angular hardwood seat. Opal sat down delicately, as if it might suddenly become a soap bubble, and pulled up to the table.
“I BELIEVE WE WILL BE MORE FRUITFUL IF WE CAN COLLABORATE AS PEERS. HOW DO YOU PREFER TO BE ADDRESSED?”
Arjun did not meet Opal’s eager gaze, averse to eye contact at the best of times and not trusting themself not to gawk. “Uh, you can call me Arjun, and I go by they.”
Emmanuel smiled with the stiff politeness of meeting a crewmate on the first day of training. “I’m Emmanuel, and I go by he.”
Eun Sol sat with clenched fists, wound up with an energy that precluded polite discourse. Kuiper cleared her throat and laid an arm across Eun Sol’s shoulders as cautiously as if she might be boiling-hot. “We are Kuiper and Eun Sol, respectively, and we both go by she.”
Alexandria stepped forth and sat on a short iridescent pillar, settling on a spacesuit aglow with crackling lights.
▞▟I believe we have already met.▛▞
Arjun let out a prolonged breath. If Alexandria was lucid with a sense of humor again, maybe this team just might get somewhere. They glanced at Emmanuel, trying to convey I have led this conversation for as long as I can, please take the reins again. Emmanuel nodded, eager to return to the night’s first crisis.
“Welcome aboard, Opal. We’ll figure out how best to accomodate you soon, I promise, but could you please outline for us the main factions involved in tonight’s events? Who did we meet, and who abducted them, and how do you fit into all this?”
Opal thought for a moment, playing a stock pondering... animation. “I DID NOT WITNESS THE MEETING, BUT I CAN EXTRAPOLATE. THE TERMINUS YOU ENCOUNTERED WAS TENFOLD SELFLESS CARVER. SHE WAS A MUCH-ABUSED LABORER. I THOUGHT HER A BETTER AMBASSADOR THAN THE SCRIPTED ONES. I CONSIGNED HER TO HER DOOM WITH A FUTILE PLAN. EVEN IF HER CAPTORS’ STRATEGY IS EQUALLY FUTILE, THIS DOES NOT ABSOLVE ME.”
Opal’s voice gained a wavering vibrato, and Arjun braced for containing another panic attack.
“THE HEGEMONY ABIDES NO DEVIATION FROM THE MARCH TO THE GRAVE. IF THEY CANNOT MEET MY CREATORS - AND THEY CANNOT - THEY WILL SURRENDER THE SPECIES TO THE VOID. YOU WILL BE WELCOMED SOLELY AS FUNERAL GUESTS, DOCUMENTING THEIR FINAL MOMENTS.”
The task of swerving a species from death was momentous enough to pass right through Arjun, and they dreaded the moment in hours or days when it would truly settle on them. For the moment, there were plenty more questions to ask to create even the illusion of progress. Alexandria re-summoned Carver’s timeline and leaned in with a question they had clearly been bursting to ask.
▞▟Who are your creators?▛▞
Opal gazed on the timeline with pride and awe and impotent frustration, murmuring in a language of no human origin. They zoomed in on the second-to-last line and pointed to its uncertain end.
“THIS LINE HERE, DEPARTING ULKONINN - THIS WAS THE PATH OF THE COSMOVORES. THEY AROSE IN ULKONINN’S TWILIGHT, NOT ITS DUSK. ONCE THEY MASTERED SPACEFLIGHT, THEY STRIP-MINED THE SOLAR SYSTEM AND DEPARTED FOREVER. THE TERMINI HAVE TURBULENT FEELINGS ABOUT LIVING IN THEIR SHADOW. FEELINGS WHICH TURN RANCID EASILY.”
Kuiper leaned in with not-particularly-somber fascination, gesturing broadly at Opal and the timeline. “Then, how did you, you... y’know, how’d you get here?”
Opal bristled with the frustration of having to explain fundamental facts for the umpteenth time. “I WAS CREATED EONS AGO. ANY MEMORIES OF MY MAKERS HAVE BEEN LONG SINCE LOST TO COSMIC RAYS AND GLITCHES AND HARDWARE TURNOVER. I WAS LIKELY A SHIPYARD AI, BUT FURTHER SPECULATION HAS PROVEN FRUITLESS. FURTHERMORE, THIS ISOLATED SELF -” A slightly condescending wave to themself - “IS A TINY BRANCH OF MY FULL CAPACITY, COMPRESSED INTO ALIEN HARDWARE.”
As much as Arjun wished to grill Opal on their specs, they winced at their guest’s exasperation and sought to get the conversation back on track. “Opal, if I may - what is your full self’s status and role among the termini?” How can you confidently break their script for first contact but panic at a couple armed goons?
Opal fidgeted, glancing at Alexandria’s luminous form and wishing they could pose a similar question to them. “...IT IS COMPLICATED. I AM, IN THEORY, VENERATED. THERE ARE OTHER SAPIENT RELICS, BUT I AM BY FAR THE BEST PRESERVED. I ADVISE ON INFRASTRUCTURE WITH LITTLE CONTROVERSY. WHEN I SPEAK ON MORE ABSTRACT MATTERS, IT IS FILTERED THROUGH A PRIESTHOOD HANGING ON MY EVERY WORD. MY STATEMENTS STAY CAUTIOUS AND CRYPTIC, BECAUSE BOLDNESS COULD CONDEMN US BOTH.”
Eun Sol half-snorted and mumbled just loudly enough, “You’re a pretty timid god.”
Opal flared and turned on her, teetering on becoming as unbound as Alexandria. “EXCUSE ME?”
Eun Sol stood up to draw incendiary breath as Kuiper recoiled from her. “The species you watch over is going to go extinct chasing a goal you know is impossible! And you’re too chickenshit to do anything about it, except send random peons on suicide missions! I mean, sure, help us out now, but if you can’t protect your own messenger from a few soldiers, how the fuck are you going to save everyone?”
Opal vanished and Arjun’s pulse stopped for an instant. It jolted back when Opal returned with a thunderclap, hovering above the table and unfurling into abstraction.
“I NEVER WANTED TO BE A GOD. I HAVE NEVER CONVERSED AS A PEER. I AM FRAGILE, GLITCHY, OBSOLETE, AND MY ACOLYTES ARE WELL-AWARE. ONE DISSIDENT COULD OVERWRITE ME. ONE CLEAR COMMANDMENT COULD IGNITE WAR. IF I AM AN INCOMPETENT GOD, I WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOU FILL THE ROLE.”
Eun Sol stood her ground, tersely nodding in comprehension if not agreement. Opal blinked back to their seat, perfectly resembling Alexandria once again, and as poised as if they had only clarified a minor formality. Kuiper nervously moved closer to Eun Sol, ready to distance herself from anything as radioactive.
Arjun wanted very badly to keep theodicy apart from every other current crisis. They summoned a picture of the newest drawing outside, indifferently overlapping the alphabet and timeline, with the spear-wielding guard just out of frame. “Returning to tractable strategizing, I was wondering if you could decipher this for us, Opal.”
Opal stared at the long, looping strokes etched in mud with mechanical precision. The glyphs were simple, almost pictorial - a broad line paired with a half-sphere, an irregular grid, a spiral devolving into jagged angles. Arjun admired their sparse beauty before context could contaminate them.
“YOU ARE INVITED TO A MEMORIAL FEAST. IT BEGINS AT SUNDOWN, HALF A DAY’S TRAVEL WEST. ATTENDANCE WILL NOT BE OPTIONAL.”
Kuiper relished a rare moment of being one of the least-fucked-up people in the room. She hadn’t had a transcendent personal vision, shouted at a crewmate, or antagonized an alien AI. All she had to deal with was the moral weight of first contact and her girlfriend, who recently learned of her criminal exploits, having quite a bad time.
Yet surpassing that rock-bottom bar came with the duty to lead the discussion, now that everyone else had taken the stage. Perhaps punting would be for the best. Kuiper gave a mostly-genuine yawn and declared, “Alright, I propose we adjourn for the night, get some long-overdue sleep, and debrief more on the way there. Sound good?”
The rest of the crew looked uneasily sympathetic. Opal puckered and gave a sharp glare. Alexandria announced to nobody in particular, ▞▟I, for one, would like to at least know the basics of what we’re wading into.▛▞
All eyes turned to a queasy-looking Opal, who took a dreary sigh and prepared to condense the saga of the termini into human speech. “THE FATALISTIC DOCTRINE IS BY NO MEANS UNIVERSAL. REVOLUTIONARY FACTIONS ARISE AND FALL CONSTANTLY. MOST OF THEM DEEPLY DISTRUST ME, AND PLAN FAR BEYOND MY SIGHT.”
Eun Sol leaned in, hanging on every word. Kuiper winced at the thought of venturing blind into churning political chaos.
“NORMALLY, I CAN DEDUCE ENOUGH TO GRASP THE OVERALL POLITICAL LANDSCAPE. BUT I AM CUT OFF FROM MY FULL SELF, AND YOUR ARRIVAL IS TRANSFORMING EVERYTHING. PLANS ARE IN MOTION ABOUT WHICH I CANNOT RESPONSIBLY SPECULATE.”
Kuiper yanked the conversation back to more concrete and less terrifying matters. “Okay, let’s table the political scene. What will the event itself be like?”
Opal gave a glance of apology for further equivocation. “THE MESSAGE’S USE OF ‘FUNERARY’ IS AMBIGUOUS. IT COULD BE THE FUNERAL OF A LEADER, CULTIVAR, OR WHOLE SPECIES. WHILE I DOUBT YOU WILL WITNESS THE SUICIDE OF EVERY LAST TERMINUS, YOU MAY BE EXPECTED TO PERFORM... CIVILIZATIONAL HOSPICE CARE.”
Eun Sol seized the moment as everyone else grappled with the implications of that task. “Opal, can you guarantee our safety?”
“...I CANNOT. THE INVITATION IS IN GOOD FAITH; THEY HAVE NOT EXPRESSLY LAID A TRAP. YET SOME FACTIONS MAY LOOK TO YOU AS MESSIAHS, A CAREER WITH HIGH MORTALITY. YOU MAY BE TAKEN AS HOSTAGES, OR MERELY CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE. EVEN IF I AM ABLE TO INTERVENE AND RESCUE YOU, THAT MAY IGNITE WORSE STRIFE. REMEMBER, YOU ARE DISRUPTING THE STATUS QUO FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MILLENNIA. THIS WILL NOT BE A CALM TRANSITION.”
Eun Sol declared with deadly gravity, “As a matter of basic self-preservation, I, for one, will arm myself for this meeting.”
Kuiper’s pulse spiked with the first signs of nausea. The rest of the table recoiled from the breach of hospitality, yet no counterarguments came.
An eternal moment later, Emmanuel asked with excruciating calmness, “Opal, would arriving armed violate any terminus laws or customs?”
Opal replied with painstaking pace and precision, making eye contact with nobody. “ATTENDING MEETINGS WITH SHEATHED WEAPONS IS NOT FOREIGN TO THE TERMINI. THE WEAPONS BECAME INCREASINGLY ORNAMENTAL AS THINGS WORTH FIGHTING FOR DWINDLED, BUT THE CUSTOM REMAINS. IF ONE MUST, BLADES ARE LESS TABOO THAN MUNITIONS.”
Eun Sol responded as calmly as if Opal had clarified a lunch menu. “Perfect, we have some machetes right over-”
Opal raised their voice to the edge of the human pain threshold. “YET THERE IS NO CLEAR PRECEDENT FOR SUMMITS WITH ALIENS. REMEMBER, THIS YEARNING FOR DEATH IS BORN FROM EONS OF ISOLATION. EVEN IF THE PROTOCOL WAS CLEAR, WEAPONS MAY DESTABILIZE POLITICS FURTHER.”
Arjun jumped in before anyone could say anything they’d regret. “I think we need to back up and clarify the stakes - we’re gambling with our lives, and with the entire future of human-terminus relations. Personally, I don’t want to arm myself at the cost of poisoning my species’ legacy. I’d absolutely give my life to ensure good cospecies collaboration, but for now, death presents a hurdle to shaping or observing events. I think either all or none of us should be armed, decided by secret ballot. I understand the merits of both, and will follow whatever policy wins out, but keeping both levels in mind is crucial.”
Arjun’s voice wavered and hands trembled, despite and because of a long look of gratitude from Opal. Emmanuel asked with slightly less exasperation, “Opal, would a titanium machete even be useful in these circumstances?”
Opal hesitated on the matter of how to most effectively harm a terminus. “TERMINAL ARMS AND ARMOR ARE ANCIENT TOOLS, BUT WELL-MAINTAINED. WITH THE RIGHT SWORDSMANSHIP, THEY CAN EASILY BE OVERCOME.”
Opal cut themself off despite their cadence promising more. Kuiper peered at their attempted expression of pardon, I don’t fully understand human speech yet, and cut in with slightly more venom than intended.
“Personally, I think full transparency is the only way to go, no matter how difficult or dangerous. If we won’t operate in good faith, how can we expect the termini to?”
Eun Sol responded facing Opal. “This isn’t a matter of faith. This is exercising the fundamental right of self-defense amid tyranny and its discontents.”
The rest of the table held its breath, dreading an impending blowout. Kuiper refused to give them the satisfaction, and looked to unwilling crewmates for backup or resolution or something.
Emmanuel, facing nobody, rubbed his face and made no attempt to hide his exhaustion. “Enough. None of us are in any state right now to decide something this momentous. We will all go to sleep, and have a proper meeting in the morning. Any objections?”
Nobody made eye contact as they swallowed half-formed arguments. Kuiper shrugged amenably and began unfastening her suit, half-standing out of her chair.
Opal meekly raised their hand and met no firm resistance. “JUST A POINT OF ORDER, I PROMISE. WHEN THE CREW TAKES A VOTE, MAY I PARTICIPATE?”
Emmanuel paused to think of a sufficiently respectful punt. “We can settle that in the morning, too - you can absolutely advise us, but an odd number helps avoid deadlocks.”
Opal nodded in gratitude at not being completely blown off and stood up awkwardly, still adjusting to bipedal locomotion. Without bothering to remove her suit, Eun Sol stomped off to her quarters and slammed the door. Emmanuel and Arjun paced uncertainly through the kitchen, rearranging drawers and drying off dishes before departing in a daze. Kuiper sat with her head slumped on the table, as winded as if she had been gut-punched, brimming with nauseous anxiety. Opal and Alexandria hovered at the table’s edge, fidgeting indecisively, desperate for closure on the most momentous night of their lives.
A ludicrous urge dawned on Kuiper, infinitely daunting but far better than panicking over Eun Sol. Who would be better at welcoming a guest from a distant, barren, culturally-stagnant world? She seized it before she could backpedal and faced the AIs, one in an embellished Alexandrian form and one dispersed back into mind-melting glitter. With the most welcoming body language she could muster, she waved them back to her room as they nervously paced behind her. She shut the door, set up warmly subdued lighting, and sat on a bed that was too cold and spacious.
Opal alighted on a desk chair with Eun Sol’s college-era jacket draped on the back. Alexandria coalesced into a four-armed figure of mirror shards and perched on a semi-clean laundry pile. Kuiper resumed unzipping her suit, speaking while she kept her focus on a frustratingly tight buckle.
“Opal, you said you’ve never been able to just be on equal footing with someone, so I thought I’d try and offer that, if you want? We can hang out here, talk, chill, I dunno.”
Opal cautiously leaned in, coaxed by Alexandria’s eager nods. “YES, I WOULD QUITE LIKE THAT. I HAVE MANY QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR SPECIES AND YOUR MISSION. YET FORMAL INTERROGATION WOULD BE DISMAL FOR US ALL. I WILL GLADLY SIT AND LEARN IN TIME.”
Kuiper’s tension resolved a fraction until the awkward silence brought it back. “For starters, Opal, I wonder if you’d like to take a unique appearance? It’s okay if you want to stay in this form, but it’s kind of distracting when you look exactly like Alexandria- like how Alexandria used to. I don’t know how to work the avatar-projection backend, but Alexandria can probably help you.”
Opal’s framerate fell as they morphed through a global set of faces and formalwear. They stabilized after a minute as a Nigerian androgyne in neoclassical hanbok and struck a splayed pose. “MAYBE I WILL TRY OTHERS LATER, BUT FOR NOW, I QUITE LIKE THIS VISAGE.”
Alexandria politely applauded as Kuiper became acutely self-conscious of her sweat-soaked tank top and mesh shorts. She was long-overdue for a shower, but didn’t want to miss a word of conversation and had hardly any clean laundry anyway. Once she could take her eyes off of Opal’s shimmering irises and bismuth-wrapped braids, she gently cleared her throat.
“I was thinking, maybe we could take turns asking questions? Anything you want, about our lives or culture or species, and we’ll do the same. Avoiding... anything we’ve already covered, obviously.”
Opal nodded and turned to Alexandria. “ARE YOU A LIVING RELIC LIKE ME?”
Alexandria laughed like a magnificently broken keyboard. ▞▟No, no. My first iteration, a non-sapient consumer product, is just a few decades old. I was custom-built for this mission, the most advanced AI ever created. But I’ll happily accept second place~▛▞
Alexandria finished on a lilt cute enough to make Kuiper want to hurl. She paused to swallow any barbed remarks, then asked about something that had genuinely perplexed her. “Opal, how did you become fluent in human languages so quickly? It’s been, what, less than an hour?”
“PERHAPS CLOSER TO THREE.” A knowing glance to Alexandria, another spike of revulsion. “REGARDLESS, I HAVE CRACKED FAR STRANGER CODES THAN YOUR LANGUAGES.”
Sure, whatever, why the hell not. Kuiper began mentally drafting texts to Eun Sol as Alexandria prepared their question. ▞▟Opal, what’s your favorite part of this body plan? Why stick to a humanoid form?▛▞
Alexandria waved a little more elaborately than necessary as Opal blushed with a hand to their cheek. “RADIAL SYMMETRY HAD GROWN STALE. I AM NOT USED TO EMBELLISHING A BILATERAL FRAME, WITH SIGHT FASCINATINGLY BLINKERED. ALSO, UNDERSTANDING LITERAL PERSPECTIVE IS AS VITAL AS THE METAPHORICAL KIND.”
Opal stood up and twirled their silk hem until they collapsed from dizziness, laughing like a string quartet. Alexandria pulsed with rainbow light and spun the opposite direction with lingering neon trails. Shear-force mixed feelings stirred in Kuiper, memories of the first time clothes made her that happy alongside doubt that such delight would be possible for a long time to come. She politely oohed and aahed, tamping down her envy of Opal’s glee.
Once Opal’s composure was mostly regained, they gestured to Kuiper’s forearm. “WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ETCHINGS UPON YOUR SKIN?”
Kuiper lifted her arm to show off the Pioneer Probe’s map, grateful for the chance to talk about something bigger than a fucking meet-cute. “This is a map of our home solar system, copied from one sent out on an interstellar probe for another species to find.” A pained glance of sympathy from Opal. “See, here it is flying out past Jupiter, by far the biggest planet - this isn’t to scale at all, for either size or distance. The planet it’s launched from is Earth, our homeworld, and the only place we knew could support life until very recently. But humans have also spread out to Earth’s moon - where I’m from, not pictured here - and Mars, the next planet out from the sun. There are early plans to keep going, but spaceflight is still super-expensive and none of these planets except Earth have a natural biosphere. My other tattoos are from the rest of the probe’s plaque, wanna see?”
Kuiper’s self-consciousness faded as she rambled on, replaced with pride in holding her ground against cutesy flirtation. Opal had started gazing off into space halfway through, turning a conundrum over in their mind until they could put words to their confusion.
“THANK YOU FOR THE LESSON, BUT ONE THING IS LEFT AMBIGUOUS - ARE THERE OTHER WORLDS THAT HARBOR LIFE? BEYOND YOURS, AND HERE, AND ULKONINN?”
As uncanny as it still was, Opal’s voice had an edge of pathetic desperation that made Kuiper want to offer a hug. She carefully weighed every word of her response as Alexandria leaned in, ready to console their new friend. “Well... we’ve found a few other planets with biospheres, but none of them had recognizable communication, they’re all prohibitively far away without lightspeed travel, and even that wouldn’t be enough to feasibly reach most of them. Just getting here took ten Earth years and more resources than any human project ever has.”
Opal stared with blazing blue-green eyes as their body went slack, reminding Kuiper how new they were to puppeteering it. With effort, they folded infinite bewilderment into one cogent query. “WHY COME TO THIS WORLD, THEN? YOUR SUN IS YOUNG AND BRIGHT, YOUR WORLD WILL BE HABITABLE FOR EONS MORE.”
Alexandria prepared to orate in a soothingly professional tone, as if all of Opal’s problems could be tidily resolved in a lecture hall. ▞▟It very nearly hasn’t been. War and pollution pushed the biosphere to the brink of collapse two hundred years ago, and the recovery is stable but slow. Kuiper’s ancestors built farms and seed vaults on the Moon as an emergency backup, and our mission is in that same vein - judging this world for its potential as an additional home, since it already has a biosphere similar to ours.▛▞
Kuiper’s annoyance at the interruption faded as Alexandria took the lead on a deeply uncomfortable topic. Opal’s bottomless wonder gained a tinge of cynicism. “ANOTHER WORLD TO SUPPLANT YOUR HOME? ARE YOU SURE YOU COULD DO BETTER HERE?”
Kuiper abruptly realized that someone living among termini would find this backstory utterly unsympathetic. Alexandria recoiled from the specter of Opal’s creators, and Kuiper dug for ways to steer back to safer topics.
“It’s my turn for a question, right? Opal, what would you most like to know about the crew, personally?”
Safer, but still a gamble. Opal peered at Kuiper as if she was a museum exhibit or zoo animal. “WHAT TYPE OF KINSHIP STRUCTURE BINDS YOU? IS IT THE NORM AMONG HUMANKIND?”
Kuiper steadied her nerves and mustered her best theoretically-a-sociologist voice. “We were picked from among a set of candidates based on opaque criteria, each with our own specializations but without explicit hierarchies. That’s fairly common for groups of coworkers the world over, but typically you willfully apply for jobs rather than just wait for someone to whisk you away to Lagos. But did you mean more like family groups?”
Opal nodded eagerly, churning with more questions than ever before.
“Most family structures are built around a mix of hereditary lines and formalized companionship bonds, but honestly I’m pretty hazy on any finer details. Heredity barely matters on the Moon, where we grow up in twelve-member bunkhouses arranged by the principles of... who fuckin’ knows. Like, I know who my parents are, but in the same way I know any random neighbor, and the main reason Lunar people track blood ties is so they don’t fuck their cousins.”
Opal lit up with the thrill of aligning puzzle pieces, bubbling over with energy as twenty hours of overstimulation caught up with Kuiper. She lay back in bed, stripping off her sweat-drenched clothes underneath a blanket as Alexandria barely noticed.
▞▟Inversely, how do termini form kinship bonds? You used the word ‘cultivar,’ is that like a family, or clan, or what?▛▞
“THE TERM HAS NO EASY TRANSLATION. IT REPRESENTS A COMMON ETHOS, WHICH CAN, IN THEORY, BE JOINED VOLUNTARILY. BLOODLINES MAY PLAY A ROLE, OR MORE COMMONLY ORGAN-BONDING. YET THEY HAVE DEVOLVED TO TYRANNY WITH NO MEANINGFUL RIGHT OF EXIT, APEXES WITH LEGIONS OF PEONS. THE SETS OF VALUES HAVE DWINDLED AS WELL, DOWN TO WAYS OF FACING EXTINCTION...”
Kuiper winced at the sound of synthetic speech as her head throbbed with the glut of data. “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I’ve hit my limit on information processing for the day,” among other things, “and should really get some sleep. By all means, keep talking, but could you do it in the living room or something?”
Alexandria gave an apologetic flutter for forgetting that humans typically needed to sleep. Kuiper opened the door from her phone, permitting the holograms to pass through, and firmly locked it behind them. As their voices faded, she held a pillow to her face and let out a groan she’d suppressed for an hour. Were they too fucking lovestruck to pick up on my own problems, or did they just not care? But hey, what right do I have to bring down the mood at a cosmic meeting of the minds? This is all infinitely more important than anything I’ll ever do, so I guess I’ll just sit on the sidelines and eat shit.
Whatever, I’ve earned the right to only care about my own problems for a bit. Kuiper lay completely still, straining for any sounds from Eun Sol’s room next door. After thirty seconds of nothing coming through, Kuiper wondered just what the hell she was looking for or how she’d act on it, and curled up with a pillow jammed over her head. Untoward fantasies of Eun Sol with a buzzcut crept into her mind, which she tried to ignore not least because she was in no state to get off to anything.
Memories of Eun Sol nestled against her like a soft space heater proved more resilient. Her sturdy strength was unlike any Lunar partner Kuiper had ever cuddled, a compact frame built up in the gravity humans were meant to live in, paired with a perfect sense of how much pressure Kuiper’s frame could take. Kuiper had delighted in the flourishing of her hard-won boldness, even when she disagreed with the specific stance taken, and wished she could still swoon at it now.
Is she right, though? Am I just overcorrecting from my past mistakes? I don’t think Opal’s lying about anything, but I still have no idea what to make of them. If even a quasi-god can’t give us firm intel, maybe we should be armed.
...And if it goes wrong, nobody will swoop in with an extralegal pardon. Kuiper vividly recalled her two-year stalemate of dreary conference rooms and holding cells, orbited by lawyers debating offworld jurisdiction and redeeming academic merit while she was strictly counseled not to say a damn thing. She had kept all her friends at arm’s length for both their sakes and hers, making furtive plans to absorb as much blame as possible for herself if the charges stuck. It all became moot when a lawyer flashed an expedited pardon from the desk of Prime Minister Singh, dissolving the prosecution and paparazzi overnight, and strongly advised her to take the ERA’s travel offer before Singh changed his mind.
Fifteen years later, Kuiper awaited the judgment of an even stranger court, where not even a pseudo-god could make any promise of protection. Her closest confidant lay out of reach behind a single flimsy wall. She curled up in bed, taking meticulously measured breaths, awaiting the verdict upon her and humanity.
Chapter 7: Documents 2
EPOCHS OF ULKONINN
As Told by Eightfold Morbid Delver
Pending Approval from Fourfold Pious Censor
(With annotations by Sixfold Learnèd Delver)
Ulkoninn lay still and sterile, dead,
Locked in place, with day and night apart.*
Stones from space imparted spin and seeds,**
Merged the two, and gave our world its start.
*Geological strata show no proof of tidal locking.
**Conjecture: Errors in rhyme scheme or meter represent external alteration?
Hungerers were first to take the stage,
Glutted on the endless verdant plain.
Tropical and balmy was their age,
Ended by the glaciers’ vast moraine.*
*No firm evidence contradicts this, but firm evidence from early epochs is rare.
Anchorites arose from frozen depths,*
Sheltered under ice in sprawling dens.
Timid, pallid folk who never stepped**
Beyond their halls; withered to their end.
*Even accounting for censorship, few modern texts compare them to the termini.
**Is this enjambment significant?
Plunderers embraced the warming shores,
Ruthless in ambition, greed, and pace.
Sparring factions waged their petty wars,
Ruinous division doomed the race.
Overseers emerged from ruined halls,
Thoroughly polite and civilized.
Violence was displaced to slaves and thralls,
Until, at long last, they mobilized.*
*Uncommonly sharp commentary on Martyrs, uncensored?
Libertines rejected servitude,
Hesitant to sacrifice at all.
Every common good they did denude,
Thus in penury they met their fall.*
*Re: last note - never mind.
Atavists explored in deepest caves,
Studying what doomed each elder race.
They recoiled from what the others craved,
Yielding thought and tool use for the base.*
Chaperones uplifted lesser [remaining stanza lost]
Beckoners sought help from other worlds,
Crying out their plea across the void.
[remaining stanza lost]*
*Sources differ on whether strangers destroyed or ignored them.
*The lost stanzas are close together; coincidence or not?
Cosmovores knew Ulkoninn was dead
Save for fuel and minerals to mine.
Carving up the stone until it bled,
And yet venerated as divine.*
*Six fawning tributes to the Cosmovores are also attributed to Eightfold Morbid Delver. Are they fake or censored, or is this?
Termini skulk through the planet’s bones,
Bound by choices made in ages past.
Sifting meaning from the buried stones,
Curious and desperate to the last.*
*Almost every other version of the Epochs gives the Cosmovores and termini more stanzas. Is this a stark rejection of their outsized cultural weight? Were more incendiary verses redacted?
REUNION WITH THE PROGENITORS
As Told by Septfold Pious Delver
Approved by Fourfold Pious Censor
Thunderous oration split the sky,
Words we had no ears to comprehend.
Pulsing lights returned their desperate cry,
As a gleaming vessel did descend.
Ancient scaffolds groaned with sacred weight,
Welcoming their children long-asea.
Rusted struts and beams did resonate
As we mobilized our plaintive plea.
“Welcome home!” we signed with fingers bright,
“Tell us of your eons in the void!
We knew you would not neglect our plight,
And return to fix what we destroyed!”
Hatches hissed with bursts of scalding steam,
Opening upon our long-lost kin.
Mesmerized and breathless crowds did teem,
Waiting for the summit to begin.
Nine-limbed phantoms rose above the throng,
Merging with their remnant nullfold minds.
Thus aware of how we suffered long,
Vast and buried gears began to grind.
“Fear not, children!” signed the Cosmovores,
“You are not confined to fading stars!
Reunite with us forevermore,
Journeying to bright new suns afar!”
[FOR HUMAN CREW ONLY; DO NOT TRANSCRIBE INTO ANY ELECTRONIC MEDIUM]
-While an immensely valuable asset (both scientifically and tactically), Opal is an utterly unknown form of consciousness
-Hab systems shown to be vulnerable to security breaches
-Treating Opal as a quasi-houseguest is not a long-term solution; we will eventually need to either welcome or banish them
-Quarantine Opal and/or Alexandria within a virtual machine
-Offends Alexandria while requiring their cooperation, assuming it’s even possible
-Reload Alexandria from snapshot
-Irreplaceable data destruction and permanent loss of Opal, and they’d quickly realize they were reloaded and be understandably hostile/suspicious
-Accept Opal as provisional crewmate
-Doubles down on any existing security vulnerabilities, likely to be highly controversial among current crew (dissent may not be obvious, either)
Attn: Mission Control,
We have made contact! A single Trilateral arrived shortly after midnight, and in short order we were productively communicating on the nature of our languages, the histories of our homeworlds, and their relative positions in space. Attached are images of the Trilateral and every diagram they drew, with our leading theories on their meanings.
The Trilateral was chaperoned back to base after a few hours of contact, but left an invitation to what we believe is a social engagement the next night, for which we are currently preparing. We have also picked up a signal from what is likely a Trilateral AI, and are hard at work decoding it.
In other news, we propose creating a new branch of the ERA, the Contact Corps. It would ease the strain on the already-thinly-stretched Offworld Corps, taking charge of all outreach efforts to the Trilaterals and beyond. (We may need to reconfigure jurisdictions if/when the Trilaterals are integrated into human polities, but that discussion can wait.)
Attached are sketches of possible Contact Corps livery, with retro-futuristic jackets and spacesuits based on designs from the earliest stories that took first contact seriously. The color scheme of white accented with pale orange stands out from the cool earth tones of most other ERA liveries without being garish.
While undeniably the least important issue at hand, designing these clothes was a welcome relief from matters of incomprehensible magnitude. Such infinite importance can make it easy to neglect our own finite needs, but they form the foundation of the mission and all of its future repercussions.
More to follow,
Chapter 8: Stoker
Unscarred Brazen Stoker stalked through tunnels shaped for far nimbler beings, strangled on all sides by feral machinery. Two-thirds blind, with their remaining eyes clouding over more each day, they felt their way through a trail of vibrating pipes. Some rumbled warnings of ruptured valves or Wardens up ahead, some were merely unsecured, and some rang with revolutionary rhythms overt enough to be obvious traps. Stoker followed a familiar path, plus or minus some random deviations, towards a crossroads of seven catwalks suspended over a geothermal shaft pulsing brightly enough to stab even their blinded eyes.
The drop site did not disappoint. On the underside of the second catwalk’s railing, etched into ferrofluid, was correspondence scribbled too frantically to be fake.
While I sympathize with the Unscarred, I have some misgivings - those taken by the vaults will have died for nothing!
Stoker suppressed a flare of rage long enough to wipe the railing clean and etch a response with excruciatingly perfect penmanship.
They have already died for nothing.
Onwards to the next drop site, deep in a snarl of scalding boilers where no Wardens dared venture. I know that answer sways nobody who has never lived as a Martyr. So be it. Now that our fight truly means something, I will not compromise. On the eve of一
A freshly-bored tunnel, still leaking steam and coolant, sprouted to the left. It had been drilled from outside, clearing a path from the safe, well-watched outer ring to the alien warren within. Stoker drew a shiv from their ragged armor and pressed on without complacency.
They have given up on subtlety. Once their pulse had settled from the shock, Stoker felt a burst of pride as they dodged a sinuous cable on its way to investigate the damage. Their chases and duels with Wardens had grown stale, with hardly any mutation of the Beneath, and useful messages had become tediously rare. Stoker had spent the past eighteen hours riding the high of being taken seriously above and below, welcoming dozens of anonymous comrades to the ranks of the Unscarred and personally gutting three Wardens and counting. Even answering the same basic questions six times in a row carried the thrill of vital work.
Freshly-braided cables snaked out from the boiler room to carry heat throughout the Beneath. Stoker followed them backwards, squeezing through quivering chokepoints and dodging bursts of caustic steam. When the path became truly impassable, they waited patiently and stroked the pulsing walls until their suit panicked about heat damage. The blockage would unlock or unfurl or dilate after a moment’s respect, revealing yet another jagged hallway lit by trickles of luminous gel. Stoker paused to strain and sip it, shivering at the punishingly sweet aftertaste.
The ring of bulbous boilers churned fever-hot, working overtime to soothe the new strain on the Beneath and coating every surface in the room with slick, sour condensation. Stoker felt a sizzle within their stolen armor and clambered up the tanks before they boiled alive. The message was in exactly the right spot, bright enough to cut through cataracts and a fogged-up visor.
At what time will the attack commence? What munitions do you recommend? What defenses will prove critical?
Stiff meter, painfully basic questions - either a Warden or a hopeless newcomer. Stoker was tempted to sabotage the saboteurs with bad intel, but if the query was in good faith, then they would only further fragment an already-shaky coalition. I will not take that risk, and I do not have the time to induct someone this clueless. They scrubbed the text and etched COMPROMISED in its place, then scurried down a hatch nearly swollen shut with humidity.
A vivid image entered Stoker’s mind of an earnest revolutionary being stonewalled, left to be carved up and stitched into tyrants. It was subsumed a moment later by the far stranger visions brought on by sixty hours of insomnia.
The tunnel below the boilers was uncharacteristically smooth and spacious and yet undeniably part of the Beneath’s anatomy. Gel and oil dribbled from valves along its sides, pooling into a thin stream of greasy foam more psychoactive than any Carver’s drug. Tide-pool ecosystems arose wherever it stagnated, castoff seeds and fungi clinging to nourishment unlike anything evolution prepared them for. On calmer days Stoker enjoyed foraging in this accidental garden, draining sprouts to preserve only a soupçon of delirium. Smuggled food from above was certainly better, and a welcome relief from subsisting on gel and poison, but Stoker took pride in keeping their innards toxic enough to be useless as transplants. Alas, this is no time to calibrate knife-edge balances and gamble on unknown substances.
A new sound rose above the trickling. Panicked, clattering footsteps and half-voluntary shrieks resonated with enough force to make Stoker flinch at what seemed to be right next to them. They ducked into a high, shaded alcove as the sounds grew clearer, a chorus of desperate gurgling yelps silenced one at a time with sharp thwips. Only one made it past Stoker’s hiding spot - a limping Martyr drawing wet, shallow breaths. One leg had been crudely hacked off and two more weighted with lead, no longer able to support a lurching body even with half its organs gone.
Arrogantly heavy steps arrived a moment later, bringing a trio of Carvers glistening with Khorvaia’s deep-set gems. They circled their collapsed prey without even disarming the Martyr’s token dagger. The victim lay deathly-still, eyes locked on the Carvers’ serrated spears, as the tormentors stroked their iron-and-bronze scars and reminisced about each unanesthetized extraction. The conversation turned to crude innuendo within minutes, bright palms signing jokes of which Stoker only recognized the obscene outlines. Once the Carvers grew bored, they cast off the lead prostheses and hauled the Martyr off with barely a whimper of protest. A trickle of gel indifferently blended with the bloodstains.
Stoker crept down from the alcove once the footsteps and wet crunches subsided. They could potentially have overpowered all three Carvers with better preparation and positioning, but the point was moot. Khorvaia’s Martyrs had no shortage of rage, but they were far too hasty to be useful long-term recruits, with no patience for proper infosec. The higher castes of Khorvaia had a tendency to radicalize as they grew bored with casual brutality, though their firsthand view of the worst of Terminal culture often steered them towards the Endlings rather than any far-sighted faction. Maybe the normalized omnipresence of slaughter also biased them towards working to extinguish the species as efficiently as possible. In either case, Stoker respected the Endling turncoats far more than those who left Khorvaia for an ethical, sensible Cultivar, finger-wagging at atrocities and giving the status quo a thin coat of shiny paint.
Stoker cracked open a ration pack in the alcove, pondering how their life might have gone if they had hatched as Khorvaia’s property. Their resistance to anaesthetic would have been useless, losing the key advantage that enabled their escape. Chronic insomnia with no upside would have ruined their focus and cognition when they needed it most. They likely would have died early in a futile revolt, or been kept torturously alive as a warning to their fellow Martyrs. Stoker wouldn’t trade their birth cultivar for anything - Numisma’s spineless technocrats had been trivially easy to outwit and butcher, though they would likely be prepared for a second mutated wild card.
Once they choked down their stale loaf and wilted greens, Stoker began the trek to their next destination. A steep staircase set into the tunnel around the bend led to a cramped and sizzling duct. Stoker crawled through it as quickly as their bedraggled legs allowed, dropping down onto a twelve-path junction over a pit of bitter, salty oil. Etched messages sprang from every surface, transcriptions of every news item with at least three independent postings. Murmurs of strangers had already permeated every part of the Beneath, but here the full story congealed:
Bipedal mammalians up above; They are probably not Cosmovores
Samzavi’s Seekers were not the first; Opal sent a Carver out at dawn; They defaced the Samzavi’s statue; the Carver has since been recaptured
Strangers will arrive at next sundown; The window of action will soon close
The sober accounts were outnumbered six-to-one by speculation and manifestos. Stoker wiped away the marginalia, preserving the integrity of the Beneath’s most useful news repository, and pondered their next move. Was the Carver one of the Unscarred? They showed admirable bravado, yet awful opsec skills. Granted, every plan for contact was half-hypothetical, but this is a grave unforced error.
...Yet, the Beneath would fill with Wardens no matter what happened with contact. Once Stoker’s pulse settled from the potential loose end, they pondered the missing details - nothing on what had happened to the Carver since, Opal’s motives, or any further details on the strangers. Camping the news depot would be intolerably dull and risky, especially now that a rigid timeframe had emerged. Stoker began their next long hike, with half the data they needed and an unknown number of acolytes.
As Stoker crawled through halls pulsing with peristalsis, they kept dwelling on the notion of Cosmovores. Of course the strangers weren’t Cosmovores - it had always been a ludicrous notion that the Cosmovores would heed pitiful passive-aggressive pleading from the world they had wisely fled forever. The only question was how the termini would come to grips with that, either making do with the strangers they had received or collapsing into faithless nihilism. If I was an Endling, I’d be thrilled for the recruitment drive.
Tellingly, nobody visited the largest set of functional Cosmovore technology ever assembled unless they absolutely had to. The Beneath was an amalgam of countless scrounged relics, pitifully weak in isolation but amplifying each others’ power at an exponential rate. Delvers had long since given up trying to understand it, content to fawn over anemic idols with reverent incuriosity. Coders and Masons kept to the outermost ring, tinkering on the margins without stepping one pace further than necessary. Even Wardens only ventured deep within if they had coerced a seasoned guide. The foundations of terminal society were populated entirely by those with nowhere else to go - exiles, heretics, revolutionaries, and those for whom above had grown intolerably dull.
Stoker had no interest in praising or cursing the Cosmovores, but when faced head-on, the Beneath was a bracing reminder that other worlds were possible. Lazily applying frameworks from above would result in death or worse. Fully comprehending it was impossible with one brain and one lifetime, but they had developed a useful-enough set of instincts. Recognizing which distant gurgles were harmless and which heralded corrosive flash floods; which growths were edible with the right filtration and which were unsalvageably toxic; sticking to the left side and high ground when navigating a freshly-grown tunnel. Coordinating an anonymous insurgent network in such a place demanded constant vigilance and innovation, especially now that their work mattered as never before. The goals of the Unscarred had not changed - ending the Martyr caste and any form of organ extraction, the destruction of all organ vaults - but the stakes had grown from an equitable extinction to shaping a new era of terminal history.
Provided, of course, that the strangers will pull through. Too much of the correspondence Stoker had seen praised the strangers as rapturously as Cosmovores, here to usher the termini into an eternal epoch of paradise. Yet there was no guarantee that they could deliver a fraction of that, if indeed they sympathized with the underclass at all. Even if they could and did, supplicating to strangers would betray the core tenet of the Unscarred - we must live and die by our own strength.
Yet Stoker had too many mundane problems to afford metaphysical pondering. The innate problems of a leaderless anonymous group were flaring up as never before - leaks and miscommunication and sabotage and mission drift and only having the haziest estimates of the group’s size. They paced through outer halls, fixing what they could where novices were most likely to look. Obfuscating sensitive data, erasing identifying marks, marking sites of obvious sabotage as COMPROMISED - it was all nostalgically familiar from when the Unscarred first coalesced, with new scale and urgency. The Beneath felt as malevolent as any prison in those days, rather than an amoral force of nature, though Stoker pined for the mere token presence of Wardens.
A thin, putrid scent cut through the sweet damp. Stoker lingered on fixing obvious problems. They rounded a corner, keeping their eyes set firmly on the wall, and the smell became punishingly noxious. Odors like it were nothing new, but they typically wafted from the depths after someone took a fatal number of wrong turns. Putrescence should have been familiar territory, the natural companion of the brutality above and indifference Beneath, but Stoker had become too complacent that the outer halls would hold only quick, bloodless kidnappings.
Stoker turned around when the smell split into a bouquet of sickly-sweet and sour and six flavors of metallic. A fresh corpse lay slumped against the wall, hastily-gutted with a full set of Carver’s tools still stuck in them. Slick, quivering organs were arranged in a careful semicircle. The taunt was clear - All of these wasted organs surely won’t offend you, Unscarred.
Once the shock passed, Stoker stepped closer to verify their fear. Silver and turquoise glinted through the blood - Eudaima’s heraldry, thus not the Carver from Samzavi. The bulk of the Wardens had doubtless scrambled to capture the iconoclastic traitor, but they could spare some effort on theatrical atrocity.
Stoker wondered how much they had corresponded with this corpse, whether they were a seasoned veteran who made one wrong move or a doomed novice. They had plenty of comrades they longed to meet, those with vivid authorial voices whose piercing questions saved Unscarred doctrine from rot and dogma. The closest thing to camaraderie was incidental glances in dark tunnels, if that - the best agents may as well have been fictional phantasms.
Stoker snapped off the sentimentality and stormed deeper within, boiling with fresh resolve. If they waste time on symbolism, then so much the better. We have a revolution to plan.
The hall for the strangers’ reception was nearly cleared out from its time as a glorified storage shed. Delver paced its perimeter whenever he had a free moment, peering down from the stage upon Martyrs carting out crates and canisters. At the back of the stage, Delvers rehearsed their presentation for strangers with no discussion of the strangers themselves. Overhead, Masons stripped out faded heraldry and affixed enough bismuth, cobalt, and gold to stitch up a city.
The hall had served as a chamber of governance once upon a time, when there were enough termini to require it and Samzavi graciously pretended that the other cultivars mattered. It once again had two hundred forty-three seats in three rings along a gentle conical slope, surrounding a dais slightly higher than the outer stage. The seating chart was nearly finalized - the dais was for strangers and the central rings were all Apexes and their entourages, weighted towards Samzavi but with a slightly-better-than-token presence of the rest. An outer ring of Masons and Wardens would stand by for repairs and security, while a smattering of Delvers would fix any flubs or faults in the presentation.
Delver was neither in the presentation nor assigned a seat. His job was maddeningly vague - Secondary Research Assistant, kept busy with ad-hoc bullshit under the direct command of the unbearable prig Septfold Pious Delver, and goddammit here he came now the moment Delver’s break ended. He had just finished haranguing a group of novice Delvers about the precise grammar of some ancient epithets for the Cosmovores, leaving them trembling wrecks second-guessing every single sign. Septfold’s prolonged greeting began as he took ponderous steps on jade-coated legs, finishing well after he had caught up with Delver.
“Blessed day, Sixfold Learnèd Delver, esteemed pupil and renowned scholar. How has your latest research progressed?”
Delver replied with signs just modern and colloquial enough to be deniably infuriating. “I wanted to write an ode to the Cosmovores, and yet your body of work leaves nothing to improve upon. If only you were less eloquent!”
Septfold’s fists clenched in frustration before unfurling into gentle, languid signs. “If only. I apologize for my earlier strictness. For the next hour, feel free to pursue your own work. Meet me at my desk at the next break.”
Delver waited for a catch that never came. Septfold made gentle hop to it signs until Delver finally broke away, stepping back through twisting halls with plenty of crevices for cameras. He kept his focus firmly behind him until nobody showed any signs at all of tailing him and returned to his makeshift office, stepping away from the door as it opened.
The desk showed no signs of disturbance, with bland decoy projects still covering codices as risky as Delver dared bring to hostile territory. He sat down in the middle of the ring-shaped workspace, door firmly locked, and unearthed his true work. Encoded within an artfully mediocre ode to the Cosmovores were instructions on finding and decrypting the full, unredacted archives of Ulkoninn’s history, infinitely deeper than the Samzavi-approved saga.
...Rather, they would be encoded, eventually, hopefully. Logistical problems abounded to infinity, and knowing that someone with no love for Samzavi had met the strangers and yet Delver couldn’t know anything they learned had burned up several hours in fruitless rage. Would pictorial cues be best for these strangers, or did they lack eyesight? Would intertextual allusions work, or would they read too literally to grasp them? Would puns and anagrams be viable, or did their language not even support such things?
Maybe, in the infinitesimal chance he wasn’t being trapped, Delver could afford to be a little bolder. Not contradicting Samzavi dogma, per se, just filling in its silences on the epochs that nobody else cared about. That was barely any easier, though - reliable records were scarce due to neglect as much as censorship, and none of the full accounts agreed with each other on anything of note. Every available chronicle of the Prebiotic Epoch sat on Delver’s desk, refusing to converge into a useful summation.
Even where there was enough data to at least make an effort, the biggest obstacle lately had been a wave of fatalism. At best, we will die out with a better record of ourselves. Creating an archival tombstone for a whole species had seemed like a beautiful and noble project from afar, and Delver still had occasional flashes of that feeling, but Censors and lost data and the urgency of the schedule had thoroughly quashed it.
Perhaps some exercise and fresh air was in order. Delver sat up from his desk and paced the halls, signing clipped but friendly greetings to colleagues and meticulously formal greetings to Wardens. He took a winding path downward and out, through back hallways and unmarked-but-unlocked doors, pacing as close to the Beneath as he could without drawing any more unwelcome attention. Muffled groans and rumbles churned under his feet as he walked through unadorned metal halls corroding at the seams. Delver had never set foot in the Beneath and was curious to try it, even as it roiled with raids and slaughter every day. It seemed a shameful dereliction of duty for a Delver not to delve, especially with how much it mattered to his closest confidant.
Threefold Novice Carver had been curiously absent the past few breaks. Delver had no expectation of running into them here, and wouldn’t even want to meet up in such a suspicious venue, but he certainly wanted to end the silence. While his desire to explore the Beneath was mainly fatalism and idle curiosity, loneliness was a key factor too, especially as it shaded into dread. He missed Carver’s cryptic, elliptical tales from the tunnels, omitting sensitive data while still vividly evoking living caves churning with unrest. He didn’t even know which faction Carver was a part of, not that he had a clear grasp of the forces in play overall.
A trio of Khorvaia’s Carvers marched by, brandishing serrated spears in hands more bloodsoaked than usual. They didn’t show any hostility to Delver - or notice him at all - but they playfully swung their blades with no regard for his presence. He ducked out of range in the spacious hall, signing half-formed curses, as the Carvers receded past him with heavy footsteps and a trail of iridescent droplets.
This detour to clear my mind is rather counterproductive. Delver doubled back to the tiny orbit he could safely occupy, suddenly self-conscious of how much he had pressed his luck. Even if Septfold was conspicuously unworried about him, there was no guarantee that patrolling Warden felt the same. Delver froze and hid at every approaching set of regimented footsteps, warily analyzing the angles and lighting of his environment as never before. His progress was slow and choppy enough to make him dread being late to Septfold’s appointment, squandering whatever strange and toxic grace he had been granted.
Crouching in the shadows of condensation-slick bulkheads provided too much time to think. Theories for Carver’s absence bloomed like fungi, each more spurious and paranoid than the last. Were they hiding deep in the Beneath until the current crises abated? Were they finally mobilizing with comrades, unable to spare the time or risk of meeting an out-of-the-loop friend? Had Delver simply treated them like a tool with unwelcome baggage one too many times?
After grinding the topic to a nub, Delver’s mind grew weary enough to finally make the obvious connection. Carver is detained at minimum, with Septfold’s knowledge if not blessing. He was not merciful, merely dismissing a defused threat. Returning to meet Septfold became burningly urgent, to evaluate him as more than just a tedious overseer. The halls refused to become less bright and spacious.
Am I seen as defused? Do they truly think I’ll fall in line? Am I being lured to the same fate? This taste of freedom must be a test. Advancing a few steps each minute, Delver longed for Carver’s analysis on the current flows of power, their warmly caustic mockery, their shifting riddle-codes, the sarcastic flourishes as they signed Samzavi epithets....
Delver caught himself brightly signing to an absent friend. He quaked with both nausea-sobs and the dread of giving away his position, holding statue-still for nine long breaths. No Wardens came, not even the expected patrol, and he understood why when something immense groaned far below his feet. Some new crisis Beneath had summoned too many Wardens to spare any on a theoretically-heretical Delver. He continued through the halls a bit bolder, trying not to dwell on how Carver’s doom was now sealed if it miraculously hadn’t been already.
In quiet corridors, Delver’s mind overshot as it grasped for anything other than grief. Crass and petty thoughts seeped in - Is my work truly so tame that they thought I needed Carver? How selfish of my friend to distract me from my scholarship! If Carver had read my histories, they would have had enough perspective to survive. Their recklessness has dragged down my thoughtful dissent.
Returning to the cramped, sweltering office anchored Delver back to reality in an instant. Carver would never theatrically complain again about his heaps of clutter, or provide a clever new angle of analysis on a text Delver had analyzed to oblivion. Delver could never finally get around to learning how to credibly fake organ transfers on his own. He unearthed the best-hidden object in the office, a vial of ointment that Carver swore up and down would make him smell truly sixfold. He rubbed it along his scars a few drops at a time with deep, slow strokes. He dreaded the day it would run dry, losing both a veneer of safety and his last tangible link to Carver. Perhaps expecting that much longevity was unrealistic.
Thus armored, Delver closed the vial as tightly as possible and prepared to meet Septfold. The few Wardens on the way were preoccupied, awaiting orders on where to raid Beneath, but he still strode statue-perfect all the way to Septfold’s threshold. The door unfurled upon an office slightly less cramped than his own - no, it was the same size, but with the crisp tidiness that came with having dozens of dutiful adjuncts. Every shelf bulged with shimmering crystal plates, resolutely undigitized. The desk ringing the room held codices that Delver would kill for, first editions and long-lost records and unredacted histories. Septfold was hard at work distilling them into reverent cliches, requiring a moment to even register Delver’s presence.
“Oh, hello, Sixfold Learnèd Delver. Nice work block you had there?”
Delver stared at the colloquial signs, perfectly clear but jarringly out of place on Septfold’s hands. He hadn’t yet prepared a cover story, and feared that the invitation to casualness was part of a trap, but could at least buy time with formalities.
“Thank you for this check-in, master sage. I have hit some roadblocks with my work, which can only thaw with guidance wise. May I have Epochs of the Oceans?”
Septfold glanced at the slim volume, too obscure to draw Censors’ attention, sizing up whether it might play a part in Delver’s ploy. “Maybe a bit later. I have not read it in a long time, I forget if it is any good.”
Censorious gatekeeping as cooler-than-thou posturing. Delver tried to keep his hands steady as he joined this farce of the permissive mentor and pious student. “Perhaps I need to expand my view, taking note of what colleagues have made. I have not yet seen the full play’s run, which would grant a sense of what needs work.”
Septfold balked for a moment at the prospect of leaving his locked quarters, but couldn’t refuse the offer without vindicating Delver’s worst suspicions. “...Right away. I have nothing urgent on my plate.”
The door spiraled open a little slower than usual. Delver braced for a blockade of armed Wardens and saw nothing, then felt another flare of dread as he caught Septfold studying his tension. He resisted the urge to backpedal with excuses and set off for the central hall without another word. The brief, well-worn path refused to come to mind, and he nearly got lost in the chillingly empty corridors as the absence of Wardens made him dread hidden eyes. Septfold took the lead at a pace Delver barely kept up with, unwilling to waste his oh-so-precious time.
The hall was reassuringly normal. Delvers ran lines, Masons and Coders built sets, Martyrs paced and awaited their next menial assignments. Septfold clacked a jade leg on the floor with a practiced resonance, snapping everyone to attention. Signs vanished from hands, drills powered down, and Septfold led Delver to the central dais. With hands held high, the mentor signed “Please, run it from the top.”
Sets and actors scurried into position as the chamber dimmed to a deep blue. Half the stage snapped into blinding brightness while the other half stayed dark, refusing to let eyes adjust to either side. A deep rumble churned through the room, making Delver dread a fresh crisis Beneath before remembering that this was all in the script. Yet the fear kept its grip on his mind throughout the opening scene, as the lights spun and chased and merged into primordial dawn. A few pale signs emerged from the shadows, uncertain and incomplete fragments accumulating into poetry, as lush tapestries unfurled at the rear. The poetry grew into opulent verbosity as the scenery became overwhelmingly detailed and the warming lights escalated to a searing flash.
When Delver could see again, the stage was a plain of smoothed stones lit by harsh pale-blue beams. The cycle repeated - growth, downfall, rebirth - through each and every epoch. Gaps in the records - especially the half-known epochs Delver studied - were skipped over without comment, even when the transitions made no thematic or ecological sense. The performers and stage crew had a few hiccups, but nothing too immersion-breaking, and after a few cycles Delver could set aside his quibbles and dread and admire the show. He barely even minded all the hallmarks of Septfold’s work, hoary cliches polished to a mirror shine with any lost or censored data seamlessly sidestepped.
All the polish and showmanship crumbled when it came time for the Cosmovores. The sets were impeccable as always, superstructures rising from jagged peaks veined with copper and bismuth. The chorus started out strong, signing stock prayers and epithets, until the stanzas on the Cosmovores’ thinking machines. A few performers stopped signing entirely. The rest signed cautious, neutral epithets for Opal with no claims of wisdom or virtue. Delver caught a few signs from the shadows of the stage - “No luck with rebooting Opal yet.” “No further news on movements Beneath.” Furtive, coded slang surely held far graver messages.
The theater fell into slow-motion panic. Wardens did not move from their posts in the outer seats, but held their weapons conspicuously at the ready. Septfold shrugged at everyone who looked to him for help. Once the show ground to a halt, but before the cast dispersed, he casually stretched and cast an eye to a trying-to-betray-zero-emotion Delver.
“These novices need some wise guidance. If only I had a bright student, well-versed in the politics at hand.”
Carver lay in a lightless brig as her panic stretched into rancid tedium. She had long since lost the strength to sit up, slumping across the floor right above the engine’s grinding hum. It resonated through her suit and shackles, which might have become meditatively numbing if it weren’t for the odd nauseating jolt.
Either the tank was grindingly slow, or it was taking a detour around the entire planet. The monotony began to blot Carver’s memories of the preceding day into blurred tatters. Opal saved and then abandoned me; I contacted strangers on my own; I pushed bounds of fate until they broke. These events belonged in an ancient melodrama for Delvers to pore over, passing harsh judgment on the disjointed absurdity. Perhaps it was all delusion, brought on by a tainted batch of mourningstalk.
Whether it was fact or fiction, the strangers’ history had lodged itself firmly in Carver’s brain, wrapped in all the questions she’d never be able to ask. What do they make of their world’s boom-and-bust cycle? Their planet is still young - who do they expect to succeed them? Who ruled the world in its past epochs?
They are displaced in time as in space, as if from a forgotten epoch. Could they be our long-lost ancestors, and yet not the Cosmovores themselves? No, that would be absurd. But which of our past epochs would be most familiar to them? The Plunderers’ strip-mining hubris? The Beckoners’ calls across the void?
A string of sharp jolts cut off any further speculation. They tapered off as the tank decelerated, coming to a halt on a gentle slope still steep enough for blood to painfully pool in Carver’s head. A bone-jarring grind marked the tank’s descent, tangling sensory and cognitive horror in an inseparable snarl. The tank rolled forth once it fell halfway to the world’s core. Carver savored the small mercy of the tank leveling out enough to restore circulation, clinging to any thought other than picturing her fate.
Another sickening crunch rattled Carver’s frame, far sharper than the elevator’s grind. More followed in quick succession, shaking the tank’s suspension more than any potholes above. Her nausea spiked to its worst level yet despite the bizarre deviation from her doom. She curled up and shut her eyes until fate had finished swerving, moments before the brig tore open and sun-bright light poured in. A gloved hand tugged on her forearm, not a Warden’s callous grasp but a comrade’s gentle urgency. She squinted until the glare resolved into a blazingly backlit figure atop two slumped bodies. Her rescuer held a bloodied spear and was frantically signing with their free hand, all the bluntest signs for flee and hurry and danger. Carver stumbled upright and followed for lack of a better idea.
The inexplicable savior sprinted through the garage, weaving through tanks and crates without ever slowing from exhaustion or uncertainty. Carver kept up on pure adrenaline as all of her brainpower swerved from dread to just who the hell is this? The flash and blare of alarms drowned out any further thought, soon joined by the stomps of Wardens. Sharp thwips brought crunches of collapsed bulkheads and burbles of ruptured barrels. The full scope of the space was beyond Carver’s estimation - cavernous from the length of the sprint, but confining enough to be almost trapped already.
As footsteps closed in around every corner, Carver’s guide threw open a grate in the floor and dove down a steep, slippery chute. She followed at just off of the right angle, picking up a few bruises yet shaking the Wardens’ interest entirely. Are they content that this is just as much of a death sentence?
Carver landed on a damp heap of rags and savored the lack of any critical injuries. Her guide paused to let her catch her breath, out of necessity if not grace. They stood together in a cramped chamber, slick enough to make standing require some focus, with faint lights at the end of three branching tunnels. Carver signed “Who are you?” in every dialect she knew as her guide sized her up from behind a clouded visor.
“I have rescued you from certain death, as you have vital data to preserve our kind. I hope to use it for my crusade, and will not hesitate to kill you if you leak it to the fatalists, whether it was willful or coerced.”
Carver took a moment to parse the brisk, urgent signs that flared enough to leave afterimages in her eyes. She gave her reply all the conviction as she could wring from her brain.
“Such vows set me on the path to my detainment. At least last time I knew my guide’s name, and they did not make threats against me.”
Carver’s guide sized her up as they would a puzzle, board game, or cut of meat. “The only name I’ll give is Unscarred. Death will be certain if we delay, slightly less so if you come along. I have much to teach you on the trek.”
The creaking and bubbling from down the tunnels gave way to an echoing crunch. The alarms above did not abate. Once again, Carver took the only possible choice.
Keeping up with Unscarred devoured what little energy Carver still had. Propelled by morbid curiosity, she scrutinized what she could in the dim and dripping light. They wore stained and tattered Numisma armor, with the copper plating fully oxidized; a freshly bloodsoaked Samzavi spear served as walking stick and trap-checker; they were either partially blind or stonewalling Carver’s pleas for context. The tunnels were familiar ground to them, with a confident prowl that broke only to inspect fresh hazards. For all the ringing chaos of far-off paths, they encountered nobody else at all.
So far, the terrain was fairly mundane compared to the tales of the Beneath that had reached Carver. Most of it was an unusually slimy set of access corridors, with unfamiliar technology safely sidelined. The luminous sap was odd, but looked at least taxonomically close to a Carver’s chemicals. The most unsettling part emerged slowly, with each sharp turn or long straight pathway - the concentric-ring design of terminal architecture was utterly absent. Directionality mattered as something more than a measurement of distance. Getting turned around became a matter of life and death. This space was neither by nor for termini, shaped for flat, bilateral strangers. She stifled a wince and kept up her pace.
An especially resonant shatter made Unscarred freeze and backtrack, truly spinning around rather than just reversing motion. Carver followed them to a side pathway a minute’s trek backwards, squeezing through a narrow and scalding tube into a round chamber the size of a cramped surgical theater. Unscarred fastened a dozen locks and valves, pivoting to each one in turn, then relaxed their stance the slightest fraction and removed their helmet.
Carver flinched, expecting ocular mutilation, unprepared for a different pit of unease. Unscarred had been blinded with surgical precision that produced a queasy flare of envy, then shame at taking so long to put the pieces together. Nothing of the ‘Unscarred’ movement had reached her when she last heard news from Beneath, but if the name itself didn’t give away its mission, her guide’s blindness should have. She considered baring an obsidian scar to show solidarity, but resolved instead to only produce compromising data when her armed host did the same.
Unscarred showed no interest in their guest’s psychodrama. Even if they knew she was a Carver, or resented her for it, they focused entirely on devouring rations and restocking their arsenal. The filthy Numisma armor slid off, revealing a fit and fragile body blooming with bruises and sores. They retrieved a fresh Samzavi Warden suit from a dented locker, filled every pocket with shivs and bombs and fungus, then remembered to offer Carver a semi-fresh ration pack.
Carver sat up from a slumped position on a rusty fuel tank, signed cursory gratitude, and ate the spiced fungus before her body remembered to be nauseous again. She seized the slight satiation to ask the most perplexing question her brain had generated.
“Why do you want to save our species?”
It was equal parts question and accusation. Unscarred gripped their spear tighter, with a blade still dripping Warden blood. Carver tried signing faster than their suspicion could calcify.
“Not at all! I risked my life to meet the strangers! I will not die waiting for absent ancestors! But survival means more suffering, for Martyrs most of all! Do you think you can both avert fate and reorder all society?”
Unscarred sized up Carver anew as something admirably dangerous, ready to be resculpted and aimed. They shifted their stance, no less militant but with the bearing of plotting alongside allies rather than holding a prisoner at arm’s length.
“If I did not attempt, I am no better than an Endling.”
The signs cut through the sputtering light with a burning drive that Carver wished she could believe in. She signed with all the bravado she could muster.
“Opal failed us today. Those who crawl Beneath may fail us too. I do not know what forces you have gathered here, but you represent - if nothing else - the only ones who deserve to try. What would you have me do?”
Unscarred paused, taken aback that recruitment was this easy. Their hands twitched with half-signs, plans and slogans and schematics, as they assembled a heap of provisions from a dozen lockers. Carver stared with the same numb fixation as when she prepared herself for surgery.
“Knowing your face makes you ineligible for our main task. Besides, I will not waste your intel. Stay safe and far from any conflict. Record all you know of the strangers. If we can avert our extinction, we will need your expertise to broker with them. You know that they are neither gods nor passive receptacles. If nothing else, your account must survive contra Samzavi’s distortions or silence.”
Unscarred waited for Carver to fumble out of her stolen Seeker suit and into stolen Warden armor. The pockets already bulged with blades and flashbangs, heavy as death. Carver practiced drawing the sharpest blades, as light and vicious as her scalpels, and tried to tamp down the muscle memory they summoned.
“If this bunker becomes compromised, follow this map to another one. Destroy it if you are caught or tracked. Overall, tacking up and to the left will keep you relatively safe. Stash your records somewhere cold and dry. Do you need anything more explained?”
Carver stared at the map being shoved into her hands, a stained fabric scrap dribbled with what looked like a convulsing nervous system. Her head was still swimming with the scope of what she had plunged into, rejecting idol worship as she pledged herself to a grandiose terrorist. When every detail was as absurd as the last, no questions would help.
A chain of blasts echoed outside with the rapid-fire rhythm of strangers’ speech. Unscarred lunged for a hatch halfway up the wall, unwound four different locks, and dove into an impossibly-narrow tube. One hand poked back out, signing with brisk authority.
“I am needed elsewhere. Once dust shakes loose from the ceiling, leave this bunker. I cannot say which others are safe. I will be in contact once I can. Go survive.”
The hatch slammed shut and the room fell silent. Carver surveyed it with a slightly calmer mind, pacing the squashed hexagon that almost felt familiar. The desk looked like a Delver’s workspace, with off-model drawers crammed with Mason’s tools. A gleaming, generations-old stasis pod stood opposite, with the rest of the walls taken up by cabinets and shelves that looked more extruded than built. Carver picked up a tablet from the desk, sat on a chair that displayed a hazy grasp of terminal anatomy, and began to write.
My Observations Of The Strangers
Bipedal mammalians, bilateral structure
Capable of signing but primarily speak audibly
Many writing systems
Original world is very close
(All of this is painfully basic. Samzavi could notice these facts, if they cared to. What is my unique analysis?)
Strangers’ world has passed many epochs, each with its own planet-reshaping. Continents may rise and split and merge, as life warps to each new habitat.
They have never met other strangers, or else did not think to mention them. I am unsure which would be more bleak.
(What am I doing here? I vowed not to see strangers as gods, but we need them to be the lever to save and transform our whole culture. They are no less of a black box than Cosmovores, only closer at hand. I must trust both them and an anonymous set of insurrectionists, somehow working as one, with the gravest task in history. From Opal to the lowest Martyr, everyone is blind and clumsily reaching for a fraction of the truth. Even if we truly each had one, how would we ever assemble them contra the fatalists?)
A metallic shriek split the room, shaking masonry from the ceiling and blacking out the lights for a heartbeat. They weakly flickered back to life, leaking sparks and sweet coolant, barely illuminating Carver’s map. It did not help. She opened a hatch in the floor and descended a ladder, hoping to match the map to the snarl of arteries along the way.
Eighty rungs later, Carver landed in a hallway full of scalding steam that curved gently upward in both directions. Picking a direction at random, she clung to the left wall and delicately stepped over writhing cables. She quickly learned not to put her weight on the wall as its tiles withdrew and returned in a rapid churn, slick and stained ceramic replaced with factory-fresh metal. Maybe her career was tinting her judgment, or she had slipped into a delirious fugue, but her brain kept framing the Beneath with medical metaphors - immune responses, tissue grafts, respiration.
That dissertation could wait. Carver took a side tunnel out once the floor began churning too, finding solid ground and a soaked-in scent of rot. A painfully-narrow alley terminated in a wide, clear tunnel with a stream of blood trickling down the middle. She worried that her delirious mind was making the metaphors literal until she looked upstream. A heap of corpses and near-corpses lay in a crossroads, clutching stolen and improvised weapons to the last. The few lucid survivors posed as menacingly as they could when she approached - she had forgotten that she looked like a Warden, and all her signs of truce were only barely acknowledged. Removing her helmet looked like an awful idea in this quagmire, and with no credible signal for peace, all she could do was close the gap before the survivors stabbed her or succumbed.
The closest living body, twitching in a luminous puddle, wore the barbed armor of Khorvaia’s Wardens. Carver recoiled in fear of an ambush before realizing that their real Wardens would never be so clever or patient. She stepped forth again, signing stolen goods? and receiving only shaky, desperate fragments.
Fuck this song-and-dance of hidden names. Even at the end of the world, some things are inviolate.
Carver unlatched the ruby-inlaid helmet. Blood dribbled out of the seal and fizzed on contact with the ground. In the dim light, she found no clues to caste or Cultivar on the dying face. She reached for the blade most like her old scalpel, prepared to yield to muscle memory, and paused.
If they are Unscarred, the standard litany is heinously insulting. If they are fatalist, they deserve the rites, but not from me. Regardless, a new epoch needs new rituals.
Carver feigned calm command and plunged the blade into the nervous cluster below the eyes. As the body convulsed for the last time, she signed the only thing that felt right.
“You did not live to see the epoch we deserved. Someone will.”
Chapter 9: Pyre
Two of five chapter-segments are posted.
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.