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Terra Infirmum

They should have started this from the beginning. From the very beginning.

Max rolled his eyes as the television flashed another story about Terra Genesis. Another rocket launched, another grid of humanity evacuated. Send enough seeds into the wind, and maybe one will take root.

As the reporter congratulated the ship's captain on safely entering orbit, Max's eyes drifted without any real purpose towards the window and the desolate emptiness in the streets beyond. Most of the shops were boarded up, the homes vacated. What few remained occupied were in disrepair, a consequence of the apocalypse. The end of the world tends to have a negative impact on the motivation to complete one's daily chores. If it weren't for the fact that the UN was currently headquartered here, the entire community would have been shuttered. As it was, there remained just enough need for custodians and other workers to keep a few families solvent, to maintain a few businesses that were still essential. For now.

Max's eyes were dim, unfocused as his mind fought off the screeching in the corners of his conscience, reminding him. He had tried to stop it, the virus that now consumed the planet. He was among the first to try. And the first to fail.

Max swirled his drink. If there was any business still essential in this world, it was pubs.

"Oy, barkeep. I'm here to pick up a washed-up doctor looking for glory in the bottom of a pint glass. Seen the likes of him 'round here?"

Max looked over his shoulder and then slowly swiveled in his barstool, raising his glass to the short man in a very neat suit who had appeared in the doorway.

"It's got to be in one of these," Max said. "Just a matter of finding the right one."

"How are you Max?" the man asked, waving a finger at the bartender as he sat down.

Max smiled wearily and nodded at the television.

"They should have started this from the beginning."

The two men sat in silence, each understanding the other.

"I'm sorry, who are you supposed to be?" The tall man adjusted his tie with great importance, eyebrows raised impatiently, thin fingers clutching the check-in sheet like it contained the lost gospel.

"This 'ere is Max Bridges you lousy-"

"It's okay Harry," said Max tiredly, waving off his friend's disgust for the tall figure before them. "Dr. Maximilian Bridges, formerly of the World Health Organization."

"The virologist?" The tall man looked over Max's credentials, a hint of sly amusement creeping across his face. "How nice of you to join us."

Formally admitted, Max and Harry continued into the room, the tall man watching them as they passed. Harry shook his head.

"Right tosser, that one," he growled.

"Careful Harry," chided Max, "you'll wrinkle your pocket square."

Harry laughed and elbowed Max as they took their seats, then discreetly ran his hand smoothly across his breast pocket as the lights in the room dimmed. Max casually surveyed the crowd. Politicians, geologists, generals, social activists, community leaders, physicists, astronauts, teachers, artists, ecologists…and him, the expert on viruses. It was a veritable smorgasbord of voices assembled by a final act of the United Nations to formalize humanity's response to the end of the world, a eulogy to the planet they were preparing to abandon.

"Good evening to you all, and thank you for coming," came a voice from the main stage, and a woman stepped into the spotlight at the podium to fill it. Max recognized her immediately as Aadya Kapur, formerly of NASA and now a US representative to the United Nations Intergovernmental Council on Terra Infirmum. They had worked together ten years ago. Not long after the asteroid struck Mars. She had aged accordingly. Max imagined that he had fared far worse.

"Against our will, we have been ferried across the river and arrived on the far banks of our Rubicon," Aadya continued, leaning into the microphone as she spoke. "We tried our hardest to prevent it. We cooperated. We innovated. We came together, and still, we failed. The Earth is a dying planet, its diagnosis terminal. This puts us gathered today in the unenviable position of debating the fate of the Earth once the human species has been evacuated in its entirety. Over the next three days, we assembled at this special session on Earth Death will bear the responsibility of that decision."

"Hell of an introduction," Harry mused over his BLT, a napkin tucked securely into his collar. Max nodded in quiet agreement, sipping from his pint as he read over the itinerary for the upcoming days, scanning the names in each of the panels.

"Aadya always did know how to work a room."

"Right bit better than you, anyway."

"That's very true." Max kept reading, attention unbroken despite Harry's goading.

"Oh, come off it," Harry said finally, unable to bear the lack of attention. "You've got to talk to her at some point during this bloody conference, haven't you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Max replied tiredly, eyes never wavering from the itinerary.

"Yeah, sure you don't. Afternoon, Aadya!"

"Harry! It has been far too long."

Max's eyes jumped from the page as he heard the voice.

"Hello Max," Aadya said, smiling gently.

"Aadya," he replied, slower than he intended. "Wonderful presentation this morning."

She nodded courteously and then turned quickly to the woman beside her.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Rodriguez this is Harry Winterson of the UK Space Agency and Max Bridges, a doctor who worked with Harry and me back during the Mars impact."

"Pleasure," said the woman, shaking the hands of the men to whom she had just been introduced. She paused a moment as she held Max's hand. "I'm sorry, but you are the Max Bridges who will be presenting tomorrow morning? I look forward to hearing you speak about the planet virus! Will you have a recommendation?"

"I don't know that my opinion on that subject is one the council is desperate to hear," Max replied drolly.

"Oh come now!" Dr. Rodriguez pressed. "Who better to help argue for the planet's fate? Very few have been active in monitoring the geovirus from the start, no?"

"In any hand, it doesn't matter until Terra Genesis is completed. That is the first priority," Aadya inserted with the authority of someone practiced at moderating such debates.

"Shoulda' been called Terra Exodus," Harry commented suddenly, taking a bite from his sandwich. "Make more sense, don't it?"

"I think Genesis fits," Max grumbled. "That's the one where humanity was cast out of paradise. Although I don't understand why we have to attach 'Terra' to everything."

"Unfortunately, Max," Aadya smiled softly, "we can't really take much of Earth with us when we leave. We might as well hold onto the name."

Max found himself strangely uneasy as night fell, although he could not quite determine why. It wasn't his upcoming panel; he had lost that sort of anxiety years ago. Being thoroughly discredited will have that effect. Yet even the hotel bar failed to provide its usual diversion, so Max retired to the balcony of his room. He sighed to himself as he stared up at the night sky, stars twinkling with crystalline splendor. Terra Infirmum. He shook his head and tried to focus on the itinerary for tomorrow's events. He saw his name listed among the speakers, but still, his mind was restless. Terra Infirmum.

Max scanned the night sky again, locating where he believed Mars would have been. Fifteen years since that asteroid struck the red planet. The impact was unbelievable. Astronomers studied the crater extensively and noted the strange geologic formations at the site, but it was years before the big changes began. Sensors picked up tremors suggestive of tectonic activity, an impossibility for Mars. Fissures formed on the surface. The planet's axial tilt and rotation increased. And the red planet slowly ceased to be red.

Max still vividly remembered the first time in Aadya's lab when he saw the crater samples then-astronaut Harry had collected. Nearly translucent at the edges, opulent, yet simultaneously opaque inside, as if light couldn't escape it. But strangest of all, any rock exposed to this sample was quickly recrystallized, transformed in a bizarre act of geologic metamorphosis. This was what became of Mars.

As the entire planet turned to crystal, it bulged, cracks twice the size of the Grand Canyon appearing overnight until…Max observed the sky once more. The explosion was tremendous, hurling bits of debris like missiles through the void of space. Missiles that pummeled into bodies millions of miles away. Max's eyes dropped from the sky to the crystalline mountains in the distance, which sparkled like black diamonds under the moonlight.

"To summarize, Terra Infirmum remains very much a mystery to us but we have been able to use virus theory to predict geoviral spread with high statistical accuracy. This seems to confirm the original conclusions that Terra Infirmum can in fact be understood as an extraordinary case of geological crystal infection."

Max's eyes adjusted as the lights in the room rose amid the polite applause, and he quickly scanned the room from his position at the head of the panel. Most of the faces seemed interested, if unconvinced. Some were entirely disengaged. The skeleton-like figure of Mr. Andrews, however, was furiously scribbling notes, face scrunched in concentration.

"The panelists will now accept questions," said Aadya from her position at the moderator's podium. Max nodded to the woman closest to the front row.

"Dr. Bridges," she began, "would you mind explaining how it was that your team developed the geoviral theory?"

"Yes, of course," Max pulled his microphone closer, "Soon after the Mars impact, Harry Winterson of the UK Space Agency and Aadya Kapur of NASA," he gestured towards the moderator's podium, "began analyzing some of the first infected samples of Martian rocks that had been collected. They observed that the realignment of molecules was seemingly propagated, spreading through bodies of bedrock molecule-by-molecule as if the recrystallization was contagious, and had the wherewithal to contact a virologist. That's when I was brought onto the project. By analyzing the spread we determined that if a planet could catch a virus, that was indeed what had happened. This was what we labeled the geovirus theory. Mars was sick from a crystalline infection and dying. The asteroid that impacted on Mars most likely originated long ago on another planet that burst, spreading the geovirus in the same way that Mars' infected rocks impacted with the Earth."

< 6 >

"And why do you think the process has been accelerated here on Earth?" came another voice. Max quickly recognized the woman as Dr. Rodriquez who he had met yesterday. "After all, it took years for Mars to show measurable effects of crystallization, while these same effects appeared on Earth much sooner."

"I would have to defer to a geologist on that, but my understanding of the literature is that Earth's existing tectonic and volcanic activity meant that crystallization was able to penetrate below the crust much more quickly. If we liken the Earth to a cell, we could say that the virus inserted its RNA directly into the nucleus without having to cross other membranes first."

"And that is why your plan to immunize the Earth failed?"

Heads in the crowd turned to identify the source of the question. Mr. Andrews had finally stopped scribbling and was now eyeing Max unwaveringly. His face betrayed no arrogant smirk this time but remained cold and firm. Max observed the man for just a moment, then leaned into the microphone.

"Yes, that is correct."

"Heard about the panel, sorry I wasn't there mate," Harry clapped a hand on Max's shoulder as they enjoyed a few drinks in the fresh air between sessions.

"You had your own panel to attend. Gave me a chance to understand Andrews a little better, I think." Max took a sip from his glass. "I don't think he likes me."

"Feeling ought to be mutual then," Harry growled. "Most of the generals at this conference, they don't really care about policy. It's Andrews who figures it all out for them. Every angle, every loophole, every weakness. He's a tough one. Keep your eye on 'im."

Max nodded, then put his drink down.

"How was the panel on Terra Genesis?"

"New time table is to get the last ships out of atmosphere 18 months before expected planet death. It'll be rough; we're fighting the clock on this one. I reminded the lot of them that we'd all be having this conference from a revolving space station if they hadn't waited for the bloody Ring of Fire to explode first."

"I'm sure you did," Max nodded again, feeling a sudden weight on his shoulders. Hundreds of millions of lives. Only then did world governments accept the reality that evacuation was necessary for human survival.

"Of course if we were all wealthy we could have chartered cruisers from the beginning. Bloody rich and famous got off this rock with no fuss, didn't they?"

Max picked up his drink and took one last gulp.

"Come on Harry, we're going to be late for the panel."

The presentation had already started as Max and Harry quietly inched along the back row of chairs in the dark. On the stage was a panel of generals perched over their notes, each decorated in medals and ribbons. Harry mumbled something about show ponies as he settled into his seat. It took Max a single glance at the screen to know what he and Harry had walked in on.

"These images were taken by NASA scientists and other space agencies immediately following the fall of Martian rocks to the surface of the Earth." The general in the middle gestured militantly at the screen as he spoke, carrying more an air of a drill sergeant than a scientist.

"You will observe that in several of these sites, the foreign material did not set off the crystallization process but instead remained inactive. After further testing by military labs, it was confirmed that these missiles had been deactivated while entering Earth's atmosphere at excessive speeds. The combined heat and pressure fragmented the molecular integrity of these crystals, which would explain why some rocks that impacted with Earth remained inactive while no such phenomenon was recorded on Mars." He paused for a moment, unmoving, and looked out and the crowd like a sergeant commanding his troops.

"From this and other evidence, we have concluded that a mass detonation of all available nuclear weapons will deactivate the planet virus here on Earth so that when the planet ruptures its debris will not continue to spread this plague throughout the galaxy."

Max leaned back in his seat as hands shot up around the room and the general started taking questions. Harry nudged Max and nodded to the corner of the stage, where a very proud Mr. Andrews sat half in shadow, furiously scribbling notes.

For the second night in a row, Max found himself uncharacteristically restless. Hands in his pockets, he meandered along the sidewalks around the hotel grounds, quietly eyeing a pair of lovers enjoying their evening stroll. He passed a few gardeners, still hard at work pruning shrubbery despite the hour. Max almost admired the audacity of the hotel to maintain a grounds crew. He'd heard they had to ship in dirt from somewhere way out in the American Midwest in order to plant flowerbeds. The final, dying rays of sunlight splashed across the sky and reflected off the uncovered patches of crystallized Earth in vibrant orange and yellow streaks. Max stopped for a moment, observing the opaque and glass-like ground, the crystalline mountains in the distance, the few outcroppings of rocks still fighting against recrystallization.

"Max! We wondered where you'd gone off to!"

Max spun, broken from the spell that had transfixed him, and saw Harry and Aadya walking up the path. Harry's freshly polished shoes blended in nearly perfectly with the obsidian-like crystalline ground. Max smiled warmly, although behind the smile he was suddenly aware of how tired he had become.

"Strange to say, but it is beautiful, isn't it?" Asked Aadya, scanning the semi-translucent mountains as the sky melted into purples and blues.

"The whole world's gone black," Harry mumbled. "We used to have trees and grass and all sorts of colors in the world." He bent a picked up a small crystal that had been chipped from the bedrock. "I suppose it's got a certain shine though, don't it?" He turned it in his hand. "Ever wonder why it don't hurt us? We've got minerals in our bodies, same as the Earth."

"I suspect we're not worth its time," Max suggested.

"What do you mean?" Aadya asked.

"Well," Max shrugged, hands still in his pockets, "the crystal spreads by infecting an entire celestial body until that body explodes, sending shards of crystal in every direction and increasing the chance of infecting more planets. It's copying itself just like any virus, but on a much larger scale."

"You still talk about these bloody rocks as if they're alive," said Harry, slightly amused. "They're crystals. No life signs, mate. "

"Viruses don't meet most accepted definitions of life either," Max countered. "Besides, when you're the discredited doctor who tried to cure the Earth of a crystal infection and failed, you get to believe strange things."

Then, quite unexpectedly to Max, Aadya placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

The next morning arrived quietly, without pretensions. It was the third and final day of the conference and Max was surprised to find himself anxious, jittery even, as he dressed. He hadn't had conference nerves in years. The first two days of panels had allowed the speakers to introduce themselves and their work, but today each would be making their formal recommendation to the United Nations Intergovernmental Council on Terra Infirmum about what to do with the Earth once humanity was evacuated. This day would literally determine the fate of the planet.

"Max, there you are!" Aadya exclaimed as he appeared in the hotel lobby, a cup of coffee in one hand and a half-eaten muffin in the other.

"Yes? Here I am…" he said, a few crumbs falling from his chin. He swallowed the bite. "Everything okay?"

"You've been shortlisted."

"I've been what?"

"Shortlisted. Certain presenters were chosen for an exclusive roundtable with the heads of the Terra Infirmum Council; the presenters with the most experience, most impact on the field, most buzz from their presentations, and you're one of them."

"Do they know I'm discredited?" Max asked after a few seconds of shocked silence. It was all he could think to say.

"Oh for crying out loud we've got to get you ready! Go!"

There was something about the roundtable that was both intimate, and yet left one feeling incredibly exposed, Max thought to himself as he tried to identify the restless sensation in the back of his mind. To his left, a five-star general droned on about the nuclear option. One chair over, it seemed that Mr. Andrews had been granted a seat at the table as well. The presenters sat along half of a circular table, the heads of the Council on Terra Infirmum occupying the other half. Though a curtain of blinding stage lights divided the illuminated table from the darkened auditorium, Max could not help but be aware of the substantial audience that waited in anticipation to hear each proposal.

"And this is why we believe it to be the best option, for the wellbeing of our entire solar system, that we utilize nuclear detonation to deactivate the geovirus here on Earth, once and for all. Our last act on this planet will be to save it from becoming a harbinger of infection, spreading death throughout the galaxy."

Applause thundered from the shadows as the auditorium absorbed the general's closing remarks. Then, like a meteorite impact, Max was suddenly struck with a realization, a sense of clarity.

"Dr. Bridges, are you prepared to present your recommendation to the Council?"

"Yes, yes I am," Max stammered, his mind whirling. He took a breath and leaned into his microphone.

"With respect, I oppose the Security Council's plan to use nuclear detonation to deactivate the geovirus. I believe that we should let the geovirus run its course on Earth without interference, and eventually allow the planet to destruct."

A low murmur rose and fell like a tidal swell of whispers beyond the veil of stage lights. Max exhaled and continued.

"While I agree that we must act to prevent the geovirus from disrupting our future as it has our present, I believe that the best solution is planetary immunization. My proposal is that we use samples of infected crystallized Earth to introduce the recrystallization process on whatever new planets or moons we inhabit. We can then use radiation to deactivate those infected areas. The geovirus cannot infect itself; any rogue projectiles that impact with the deactivated areas will not be able to propagate, to spread. Samples should be given to all Terra Genesis ships so that wherever humanity goes, the geovirus cannot follow."

Max leaned back in his seat, his forehead damp with perspiration. Although his head was ringing, he could hear through muffled ears the applause from the audience.

"If I may…"

Mr. Andrews was leaning into his microphone. The general next to him looked as surprised as Max did at the intrusion. The audience instantly fell silent.

"If I may," Mr. Andrews continued, "Dr. Bridges, nearly a decade ago you proposed a similar theory, am I correct? That the Earth could be immunized against the spread of geovirus? If your theory is accurate, then wouldn't it have worked the first time? If it failed then, won't it fail now?"

"We simply did not know enough about the geovirus crystal ten years ago. It was like trying to immunize a body for the flu after contracting it," Max tried to explain, feeling his voice betray his frustration, his guilt.

"But why take the risk" Mr. Andrews pushed, "when we can say definitively that nuclear deactivation of the crystals will work, here, now? This is not a virus; it is a cancer and one that we must purge from the galaxy. There's only one way to purge a cancer, sir. We sterilize the planet so that nothing is left to spread."

"And that is precisely why we cannot do it," Max said quietly, leaning into the microphone. His voice was steady, collected. This was what had been nipping at the corners of Max's mind, frustrating him throughout this conference. It wasn't what was being said, but what wasn't. All of this focus on death, destruction. As if that was all that could come of this, all that the geovirus represented. No attention given to death's natural opposite.

"Earth is unique among all planets in the known Universe. It remains the only one to naturally harbor life. The planet may be lost to us but Earth was never ours alone. It will shatter and its debris will be scattered among the stars. If we sterilize the planet, in our arrogance that the Earth's journey was always meant to end once it could no longer serve our species, then that debris will consist of rocks no more extraordinary than any in the vastness of space." Max paused, took a breath.

"However, if we let nature run its course when our planet bursts it will shower the galaxy with what remains of our most resilient and invisible forms of life. We know the atmospheric conditions that foster life can potentially deactivate the geovirus crystal. It is possible, however, that microbial life could survive the impact. Imagine those single-celled organisms, frozen in stasis, awakening on a virgin planet, the crystals that transported them deactivated. It's a one in a billion chance. But it's a chance we'd eliminate entirely with planetary sterilization. Instead, if we let the Earth complete its course and destruct, its debris may spread not a deadly infection throughout the Universe, but life itself."

"Well, you certainly got an applause on that one," Harry commented with a smug smile. Max shrugged modestly, feeling a hint of blood warming his ears.

"The Council will have reached its decision by tomorrow," Aadya said, eyeing Max warmly. "We'll know then."

Max nodded, and the three leaned against the railing of the balcony outside the conference room, observing the sky.

"Truth is," he mused quietly, "we still don't know how life first began on this planet. We can't say it didn't come from somewhere out there, those first singular cells. We don't know that life can't spread from planet to planet. In fact, the entire notion of Terra Genesis is based on precisely that assumption, that faith."

"I wonder where they'll all end up," Aadya scanned the skies above for glimpses of Terra Genesis ships. The entire human species, set adrift in all directions, seeds in search of soil.

"Hopefully somewhere with tea." Harry contributed, looking wistful. Max and Aadya chuckled. The three watched the sky for a few more minutes and turned to head back inside.

Writer of solarpunk/nomadpunk, history adjunct, dad of twins... former HPLD Writer in Residence.