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Wild Earth (Chronicle)

Wild Earth

Haatakan Oiritsuu - once-CEO of Kaalakiota and now deposed, in exile, on a barren snowy estate long from the action of the Caldari State politics - held a living plant in her hand, took out the sharpest knife she had, and with careful but precise motions sliced the thing open lengthwise, exposing its layers all the way to the green of its deepest, glistening core. She held the plant over a small pile of peat, squeezing out little drops from its stem. With nimble fingers she drained it dry, running her hands over every inch of its body until there was nothing left but a shredded husk.

The peat, already enriched with nutrients and chemical concoctions, had needed more. All manner of reactions were ongoing in its soil, but in order to sustain them, proper fuel was needed. Dead liquids only went so far; in the end, as was always the case, a sacrifice had been necessary to feed the hungry earth. The best nourishments for the fresh plants in this greenhouse came from the ones that had grown here before. And for every flower, there came a time for the bloom, and a time for the cut.

***

She had always loved being in nature, particularly the kind that lent itself to quiet, long-term observation. Haatakan had grown up in a hard family: not a rough one, and not a hand ever laid on her, but an environment where everything you did and everything you said would be remembered, and judged, and brought up if the occasion required. She had a tiny garden spot behind the house that she tended when everything got too much, and it was there she discovered that flowers were not only beautiful - one must never lose sight of the beauty in life - but how delightfully they responded to control; how carefully they must be tended and grown.

She had made herself the child's promise that one day she would be super powerful and mega rich, a million times more wealthy than the second-wealthiest man in the world, and on the day that she made it - for she surely would - she would spend the rest of her life in a garden of her own, far away from people, tending to the quietly growing plants.

That was her unit of power: a garden. Then she grew up, and she became very powerful indeed, and very rich, and she never forgot about it. When she had this place built, as much in the middle of a wilderness as she could make it without offending the people of the State, she added a greenhouse easily half the size of the entire palace. She spent most of her time there, patiently waiting for the world to catch up with her plans.

***

Most of the plants in the greenhouse were flowering ones. Haatakan chose one of the most beautiful - a lovely lilicae possessing a thick, stiff stem topped with a pristine, bulblike blossom - and uprooted it, placing it carefully in a temporary pot on her table. There were machines that could do this, little nanoids that would turn the earth around the roots into slippery oil, and pressure-sensitive metal arms that could then pull out the flower without dislodging a single one of its tendrils, leaves or petals. Haatakan didn't believe in those. The moment you gave your life over to automation - to any outside process, really - you invited a quiet disaster.

She had invited disaster, but it had not been quiet.

She picked up her knife. Its blade was short, like that of a scalpel, and sharp enough to cut through practically anything that lived. With the lilicae standing tall in front of her, she got to work on its flower. It had blossomed but not yet bloomed, so the petals were still closed in, like a shy maiden on her wedding night.

She put the tip of the blade against one of the petals and rested it there. It was so sharp that it began to slide in, ever so slightly. She pushed down the blade in a slanted fashion, then lifted it back up and slid it down the other way, as if carving the first two sides of a triangle. Instead of cutting the third and removing a piece from the petal, she used the tip to tease out the top part of the cut, then folded it down like a flap, leaving a little window into the center of the flower. The flap's edges curved slightly inward, and on each of them she traced a very faint line, topping off the carving with a single faint press of the knife tip to the top of the cut, leaving the tiniest of dimples.

After cleaning the knife with a purple silk cloth she did this again, to the same petal, cutting and teasing and shaping the triangular flaps until the petal looked more like a well-traversed honeycomb than anything grown out of nature. When she was finished she moved on to the next, and the next. Eventually the flower had been completely pierced and cut, and daylight shone through its gaping wounds.

Haatakan slid the knife down alongside its stem and sliced off every leaf, leaving the plant naked as day. For every tiny join where a leaf had clung to the stem, she inserted the knife tip deep into its fresh wound and gored out a small hole, removing even the final possibility of more growth. Little trickles of opaque sap ran down, over her fingers. When at last the cuts would stop bleeding, the area around them would wrinkle and change color, turning a little darker and lending the flower a marvelous, damaged hue.

It was a cruel way to create beauty. But anything this lovely could not be allowed to stand unspoiled.

***

At one time she was one of the world's most powerful CEOs. She ruled one of New Eden's superpowers, sharing the hot seat with seven of her countrymen. They were feared, as all good leaders must be, but Haatakan had not realized how extensively they were hated.

For the extent of her professional career she had closely followed the Caldari system of governance, where found good use for her indurate upbringing. People knew their place. Anyone who acted up - or worse, failed - would be dealt with, calmly and professionally, and whatever threat they posed to the delicate equilibrium would be eliminated.

***

She uprooted another plant and brought it over to the polycarb glass sink, which she had filled with water. The plant was bottom heavy, composed as it was of a thick knot of roots the size of a closed fist, from which rose single long stem with leafy sprouts, and a large, bulbous flower reminiscent of the lilicae.

Haatakan placed the plant into the sink, where it sank to the bottom, to slowly drown.

This plant, which was renowned for the ferocity with which it drained its earth, would live remarkably long underwater. It would suck in as much of its surroundings as it could, becoming bloated and heavy. While it would retain the framework of its shape until the very last, each part - the flower, the leaves, the stem and even the roots - would grow to several times its original size, engorged on the water the plant would never stop ingesting even as it died. The plant would grow large and beautiful, with a glistening sheen on its turgid surface. In time, the sheen would take on an oily nature as cellular walls began to break and release the plant's essential fluids out onto its surface.

***

A revolution began, one she expected to be quelled without too much trouble. She had become complacent; not weak but laggard, lumbering like a giant tired of striding over the land, no longer bothering to look where he walked, and taking the smallest of satisfaction in the panicked screams below.

If enough people showed fear, she reasoned, then she must be feared, for she saw none who seemed fearless. This, she found to her cost, did not mean they didn't exist, merely that they had the good sense not to step out in the open. Until they did, breaking through all the walls she'd erected, and breaking everything else along the way.

***

In one section of her greenhouse she had a small tree, still in its pot. It was about her height, with a branchless trunk that looked weedy and pale, and a small crown of leaves that drooped in the greenhouse heat.

Its trunk was enveloped by a thin, heavily-leafed vine that looked in perfect health. This vine, which was a parasite, hung on to the tree by a million microscopic needles forced into the tree's trunk. A third of those needles would have little hooks on the end, the better to maintain their grasp; another third would be slowly and gently sucking out nutrients when they were needed; and the last third would be injecting something instead: a chemical, the likes of which had not yet been properly synthesized, that induced the tree to believe it was being fed with delicious, complex nutrients. The tree's own constant outstretching for food and nourishment would be curtailed, and with it all other processes, including the production of antibodies that might poison the parasite. So long as the tree thought it was being fed well, it didn't bother to do anything else but wait for the rest of its ever-shortening life to pass.

***

One of these demolition men was Tibus Heth, who rocketed into the limelight on a tornado of smoke and fire. He was a volatile man, an angry man, and Haatakan did not expect him or any of his plans to last a Caldarian day. Angry men were easily dealt with. But Heth had backing, and even when that backing seemed to disappear, he had a support system, overseen primarily by a very stable, very quiet man called Janus Bravour.

***

She looked in on a single large plant, one that had been growing in its large bed for quite some time. She had recently placed a number of smaller plants, all sorts of varieties, dotted around this one in close enough proximity that their roots had begun to touch it.

This plant, a particularly aggressive rosoid variant, had sensed their presence. Even though they weren't weeds and were of no immediate threat in this rich ground - which had been fortified with the hungry peat of her own creation, and seemed to enhance the aggressive properties of some of her more contentious flowers - it had began to extend its thorns and channel all its energy into keeping off every other plant in the plot. This had left its stem shriveled, likely to break at the least little touch, and its petals so thin and weak that they were not merely translucent; Haatakan could see the thin veins in the flesh beneath the surface. If she stood there long enough she fashioned she could see the plant's vital liquids being pumped and forth, as if from a photosynthetic heart beating its last before the collapse. She would wait until it was spent, then deadhead it, and place its frail little flower with the others she kept in a small bowl in the foyer of her palace.

***

Janus, she thought, would have the long-term plans. He certainly seemed the antithesis of Heth, and that was dangerous, for the men who believe they know better than others - and are capable of acting on it - will eventually overtake the others' responsibilities. It was clear that Janus formed an integral part of the framework that held Tibus Heth in place. Heth himself was still the main threat to Haatakan and the other seven dispossessed CEOs, for he was the instigator and enforcer of the new State, while Janus sat quietly in the background, oiling the gears and ensuring they turned.

Until Heth made his latest move: a reorganization of the Caldari State, a return to the meritocracy they had been founded on. A bureaucratic move, no matter how heavily couched in revolutionary terms. A bold plan, clearly intended to bolster Heth's fragile standing with the State's citizens, and one that relied on something more than fire and fury to work. It needed a quiet mind to minister, lest it fail colossally.

And thus Janus Bravour became, overnight, ground zero for every revenge plan in operation.

***

These two plants, now, had been growing for a while, but not as long as one might imagine if one looked at their towering stems.

Haatakan stroked her fingers over them. Each was nearly as tall as a small tree. She'd had to put their shared pot down on the ground. They were rare, small vitis variants, not inclined to climb walls or do much at all unless given the right impetus.

All that was needed, really, was another plant of the exact same sort. The vine's nature was to rise over its surroundings, and when something began to claim its place, it would do its utmost to reassert its dominance. Not only did it nearly triple its own growth rate, but it would attempt to entwine itself around its rival, keeping it down and stealing a rise on its laurels. If the rival was another vine, it would do the same; and if the two were carefully trimmed and guided, they would encircle each other like strands of DNA, rising to the ceiling in a quiet ballet of mutual competition until, at last, they died from exhaustion. Their lifeless stalks would remain, as monuments to their folly, and with care could be preserved, by drying and lamination, still stuck in each other's snake embrace until the end of time.

***

Haatakan had watched the news. Janus Bravour had suddenly been taken ill and was now in hospital, in some manner of serious condition.

Truth be told, she had been neglecting this greenhouse for months. After Tibus Heth had come in and thrown her out into the cold, she'd spent a lot of her time brooding in her palace. She was resigned to staying here. The terms of Heth's dictated that her safety was guaranteed only on her own grounds. If she left and headed to the metropolis of Khyyrth, the citizens would recognize and kill her; and if she fled into the forest, Heth's own agents would either remove her from this earth, or the cold and the woods would simply swallow her whole.

So she had retreated to her ivory tower, and remained there inert, staring at the walls. Her initial rage had subsided and given way to resigned depression, bringing back memories of all those years ago when she'd been at the mercy of other forces, paternal in name but dictatorial in nature, and had wished nothing more than to be free of them. The gardens had taught her otherwise - freedom was achieved by working around your restraints, for if you waited for them to be removed, you were merely asking for another master of your fate to step forth - but she ignored its lessons, and let herself grind to a standstill.

Janus's fate, whatever it truly was, had changed that. The wheels moved again. Heth was alone and unsupported. Despite the man's volatility, he was a brilliant military strategist; and despite his avowed morality he was, she believed, an unscrupulous one. A military man would take extreme measures to conquer his enemies; so long as his cause, or his belief in that cause, remained just and honest, the ethics and justifiability of his methods did not matter.

Heth understood power on a visceral level, far more so than most of the people he had deposed. As much as she despised him, she could not deny this fact. Right now, with Janus out of the picture and the CEOs mounting their subsequent counter-revolution, he desperately needed someone who knew the intricacies of the highest political level in State and was willing to do what was necessary to achieve her goals; someone who had her hands on the strings and was willing to pull them.

The speakers in the greenhouse rang out with a long, sonorous note.

She had a guest.

***

A single fruit hung like a pendulum from a drooping branch of the plant. The fruit was ripe, ready for picking. It was beautiful, also, and stood in stark contrast to the plant that had born it, whose body was tired and worn.

This one plant could and had been induced to put all of its effort into the fruit of its creation, diverting every nutrient and scrap of energy it picked up through it questing roots and channeling them directly into the soft, soft pulp. Once the fruit was ready, the plant would likely die.

Haatakan grabbed it on her way out and took a juicy bite.

***

Her guest held a small monitor on which Tibus Heth's face was visible. Haatakan ignored him and focused on the woman who had entered her palace.

"I know you," Haatakan said.

"Indeed you do," Tibus Heth said through his monitor. "She's the one who brought you here."

"Last time I saw you, I was having terms dictated to me," Haatakan said to the woman. "You asked me if I knew how much the people hated me. And you said that if I tried to escape, into the woods, I would be lost forever." She walked up close to the woman and was pleased to see the merest glisten of sweat in her combed-back hair. "People do get lost forever here, you know. People who chose the wrong road."

"Janus Bravour is dead," Tibus Heth said from waist level. Haatakan stepped back and looked at him at last.

"I know," she said. "And now you're going to fall."

"Not if you can help it." Tibus leaned in closer on the screen. "I need your help, Ms. Oiritsuu."

"You, the destroyer of the State, need the help of an old lady out in the country? My goodness, how the mighty have fallen."

"The other megacorps are conspiring against me. All seven of them. But not you. I've had my agents thoroughly vet every one of you people, and Kaalakiota, in which you still have your witchy little tendrils, stayed out of the whole thing. Why?"

"For the same reason I imagine you sent this particular messenger to me. We owe our allegiance to a cause, and that cause is ourselves and our view of the world. Everything else is secondary. And every alliance is an opportunity of chance, nothing more."

"I work for the State," Heth said.

"Funny. I used to say the same thing, when I was on top."

"So you refuse? You want SuVee and the rest to rise again?"

"Certainly not. There is no reason for those idiots to regrasp the reins of power. But you need to understand, Heth, that I don't see any pressing reason to help you stay on top. I will still be stuck here, tending to my plants, watching you take this great State to pieces."

"We can work out the terms. You didn't make it this far without an ability to negotiate," Heth said. He leaned back from the screen, and Haatakan saw he was sitting in a chair, likely in the office he'd taken from one of the CEOs. "I think you see plenty of reason to make this happen. I think you're lying, and that you're snapping at the chance."

Haatakan leaned her head to one side. "Do you think I killed Janus?" she said.

The question did not seem to catch Heth off guard, which surprised her. "In all honesty?" he said. "I don't know. You might have. If I know you and your scheming ways, this conversation is merely a point in a long, branching plan you'll have made, one that ends with you being back in power to some degree. I'm alright with that. I've dealt with less trustworthy people than you."

She gave him a long look. At last she said, "We might be able to make something out of this."

Heth grinned, and she grinned back, like two carnivores passing by over a meal.

She had been planning, ever since Janus died. And her renewed time in the greenhouse had taught her to mix that roaring hunger for power that resided in her deepest, unconscious core with the learned quietness of thought that floated up in her conscious mind.

"How would you do this, if you manage it at all?" Heth asked.

There would be seven forces to neutralize, each one of which had some sort of vice. Everyone had a vice. It was to the eternal frustration of Haatakan's enemies that hers was merely a twisted sort of gardening.

You could plan with groups of people, or with the currents passing through society - abstract plans, often, but workable - but individuals were a different matter. Especially mercurial ones such as Heth, who remained a mystery to her. The best option with those kinds of people was to get close and stay close. Study. Presumption had cast her here, and understanding would eventually get her out. That, and patience.

But the others, whom she'd known for so long; they were no mystery. They could be worked on. She'd been practicing.

"Leave it to me," she said, reached out and turned off the screen. She returned her gaze to the Provist woman holding the dead monitor, whose eyes were glazed over with utter dread. "Now, my dear. We're going to have to deal with you."

From a small pocket at the back of her dress, she withdrew the little knife with the very sharp blade, and concealed it in her hand.

There was a large compost heap that needed feeding, and flowers that needed their nutrients. One had to plan for the future.

And, in fact, all her practice in the greenhouse had done more than prepare her for the oncoming little wars. She felt as if she had been engaging in self-purification, cutting away the dead limbs that had grown out of the trunk of her old self. She was cleansing herself and casting off the refuse - not her sins, for those follow as surely as age, but the old mindsets and assumptions - and preparing for a new chapter of her life. To bloom, in this wild new earth.