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Mission Critical

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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