The Garden was a man-made construct through and through, several acres of carefully tended flora and woodland encased in a massive transparent dome. Souro Foiritan, president of the Gallente Federation, had it constructed long ago as a meeting place between dignitaries of the various empire factions.
In this it served its function admirably, for a twofold reason. First, a peaceful garden was much more conducive to a genial atmosphere and agreeable spirits than a meeting room ever could be. A visiting diplomat, weighted by worries and demands, would feel so much more calm sitting by a babbling brook or a tree in budding bloom than he ever could on the top floor of a high-rise, no matter how good its view. And second, it was so well secured with anti-eavesdropping technology that visitors could discuss the darkest topics of their hearts' desires without so much as a glance over their shoulders.
The dome's outer surface was dotted with holographic projectors that melded in with the surface, making it impossible to detect from the air, and the materials of its hull utterly blocked every possible emanation from within: light, sound, heat signature, electric signals. Its insides were beset not only with equipment that regularly scanned for any anomalous signals, but motion-sensitive audio-scramblers that made it impossible even for servants and cohorts to hear what their leaders were saying to one another.
With all the layers necessary for its shell to be impermeable, real transparency was not an option. Instead, the rivets holding its outer plates together had inset tiny cameras that continuously recorded the outside view and passed the imagery along to a central broadcast mechanism inside the dome that used volumetric projectors to cast it onto the dome's inner wall. The effect was exactly the same as if you were looking right through the wall, and removed the sense of claustrophobia and secrecy that otherwise would have hovered over the Garden. It was peaceful, and perfect.
Mentas Blaque, Head Senator of the Gallente Federation, walked down a stone-tiled trail, past brush and brooks, until he arrived in a small circle of paths surrounded by tidily cut grass and several tall trees. Birdsong emanated from the trees, and unseen insects clicked and chirruped from the bush. There was even a small fountain in the distance, hissing gently at the world.
And in the circle, by the edge of the green grass, he encountered two men. One stood at attendance. The other hung suspended from a silver rod, his face blocked by a deathskin mask.
The man who stood was Souro Foiritan, president of the Gallente Federation, leader of one of the four major Empires in New Eden, and Commander-in-Chief of the Gallentean armed forces at a time when they had just suffered the worst invasion and armed conflict in Federation history. His maroon outfit, which usually flowed with him like a second skin, looked worn, crinkly and unwashed. He had his head tilted slightly upward, as if watching the clouds. Even from a distance, Blaque could see how tired he was.
The suspended man was unknown to Blaque. He was fit, and something in his musculature - thinly covered beneath tight white clothes - brought to mind a military background. The deathskin mask, a covering of breathable material that overlaid his face, was expressionless.
Blaque walked up to them but said nothing.
Foiritan regarded him. Blaque noticed his hair was dirty, too, its oily sheen catching the sun's rays. There were bags under his eyes, and for some reason his knuckles were bruised.
"You can speak freely in here, you know," Foiritan said.
"You don't seem too curious about why you're here in the first place."
"I was summoned by the highest authority in the Federation," Blaque replied icily. He and Foiritan had been at each other's political throats long before the invasion. "I assume you had your reasons."
Foiritan furrowed his eyebrows but didn't comment. He turned to the suspended man.
The silver device which held him up, a modified medical instrument not often used, was called a dead man's needle. It was a long metallic stake affixed to a cross-like stand, and it was literally melded onto the man it held. The stake had small circular protuberances that went into the man's back along the ridges on his spine, holding on to them like rings on a finger and supporting his body from the ground. Some of those circles would be pumping sedatives into his spine and the back of his head, keeping him asleep and mildly sedated. His hands were fixed at the body's sides, and his legs hung straight down. His skin, what could be seen of it beyond his clothes and mask, had dark purple bruises turning to yellow.
"This is Jordan Keel," Foiritan said, and walked a slow circle around the crucified man. "You wouldn't know it, but he helped bring about unprecedented events in New Eden's history."
Blaque regarded the man briefly before returning his gaze to Foiritan. "He seems a little worse for wear in that regard. Sir."
"So it might seem. In fact," Foiritan looked at Keel's suspended body and smiled humorlessly, "compared to what happened to some of the people whose lives he ruined, his own seems absolutely pristine."
The leaves whispered in the trees, brushed by hidden wind generators. Everything was too real here to be true.
Blaque walked closer and inspected Keel. He snapped his fingers in front of the man's face, and poked him in the ribs. Keel didn't react, nor blink or twitch. Blaque raised an eyebrow.
"The needle-sleep only lets him react to intense stimuli. Massive pain, for instance," Foiritan said.
"What do you need me for?" Blaque said after some hesitation.
"There is a war on."
"A person's loyalties will get tested in a war."
"I know, Mister President."
"You weren't always a politician, Blaque. I've seen your locked files. I know what you did in the service of the Federation. There's one particular image, the remains of a Serpentis ship crew your troop once boarded, that'll crop up in my darker dreams for quite a while yet, I fear."
"There is a point to this, sir?"
"I need you to kill this man," Foiritan said, the same humorless smile on his face.
"Go to hell," Blaque replied and turned to leave. He had gone a few steps before Foiritan's voice said, "If you don't, then the aftermath is on your conscience."
"Don't associate me with your little criminals or whatever they do with their lives."
"Not his life, Admiral. Our lives, yours and mine. This man started a war."
Blaque stopped at that. Foiritan walked up to him and said, "It was on Keel's initiative, along with god knows how many others, that the Gallente Federation was attacked, invaded, and forced to capitulate under circumstances and terms that can be called nothing less than brutal."
Blaque turned to face him. A breeze from the hidden fans tugged at them, wafting the scent of flowers and grass through their senses. The man on the silver needle seemed to have no odor at all.
"We lost thousands of people in that invasion, Blaque," the president said. "They sabotaged our defenses, and they came in, and they tore everything to pieces. What they could have achieved with diplomacy they did with fire and death, reducing the lives of everyone who survived on that planet to a grey nightmare. And this one right here, this man who was supposed to be one of our own, he held the door right open for them."
In a grave but incredulous tone, Blaque said, "So you called me in here, sir, because instead of having this man tried by a military tribunal, you want the highest ranking senator in the Federation to put a bullet into his head."
"No. The person standing before me is not the Federation's highest ranking senator."
Blaque's expression turned to frost. "You just presided over the greatest military setback in Federation history, Mister President. Your power base is unstable and you're tottering on its wavering peak. I suggest you think very carefully before destabilizing it any further, or dismissing any political entities you may see as your enemies."
"That's good advice. It's exactly what I'd expect from the head of my new intelligence agency, and the overseer of its special projects division."
Foiritan smiled, this time genuinely, and looked out through the dome of the garden. In the distance, beyond the land and the air, could be seen the faint crystal spires of New Hueromont, some so high they pierced the clouds. "The entire Federation is tottering. We've been hit so hard we barely know who we are anymore."
"So let's hit back," Blaque said, looking at those same crystal spires.
Foiritan didn't answer, and appeared lost in the view.
"You know," he said after a while, "I grew up in this area. I've had this view for so long, as man and boy, I can't ever imagine the city not being here. And I honestly never thought I would be in a position to even contemplate such a thing, living in a world where other people are actively seeking the destruction of something that feels not only like the reality of today but the very fabric of my memories. It's like they want to wipe out a part of what makes me the person I am."
He turned to Blaque. "I made a terrible mistake. I allowed myself to imagine that this universe was composed of good and honest people who could be induced to find a solution to any problem, no matter how severe. And now I find myself playing catch-up with wickedness.
"That's our problem, we Gallente," he continued. "We can't hit back. We're this great hulking beast that's been asleep for eons, being poisoned by ticks and leeches. We're full of rage and energy now, but if we roar into action unprepared we'll do nothing but get pummeled into submission. Worse, we'll still have those parasites in our blood, weakening us and hampering our fight, and it'll sap our spirit until we claw ourselves to death merely trying to get them out. I want those parasites gone, Blaque. I want them eliminated and I want our people to know it."
"And you want me to pull the trigger," Blaque said, with something approaching resignation.
"How'd you even find this guy?"
"We'd been running data mining on all registered actions, civilian and military, covering the time span that led to the great betrayal. His name came up, we ran some matching statistics, he looked more and more likely. I signed a court order for immediate retraction of his statutory rights, then looked into his personal files and immediately found communications that clearly and directly linked him to the Tripwire fiasco. We hauled him in, and immediately he put up a front. Locked up, wouldn't say a thing. You ever see those guys, Blaque? You ever deal with someone who stonewalls you from the first moment on?"
"Every day on the senate floor, Mister President," Blaque said flatly. He sighed. "But most of my life I've dealt in warfare rather than politics."
"Then you know what it means when your enemy tunnels in."
Blaque looked to the crystal spires, then gave a nod so small it was barely perceptible. "So you had our people in white go to work on him?" he said.
"Almost. I had them all ready. But before we were set to start, I looked at the pictures of some of the victims, and I looked at Keel sitting in the interrogation chamber. And I lost it, Blaque. I went in there and had them take off all the restraints, then sent out the guards on orders not to return until I gave word. I had Keel standing before me, as free as I was, and if he wasn't quite as angry then he certainly wasn't in the mood to talk. And then I beat him to within an inch of his life."
Blaque looked at Foiritan with a new-found respect. "That so?"
"He talked. Gave us some information we needed."
"There's diplomacy for you."
"You would have done the same," Foiritan said.
"What makes you say that?" Blaque asked.
Foiritan waved his hand angrily at the world around them. "Look at it!" he yelled. "How can you possibly see this, and all it means to us, and not want to do everything you possibly can to protect it? How can you not want to lay down your life to save it from harm?"
He stalked over to the prisoner, his face turning red. "We helped them," he said in a tone full of quiet murder. "We did all we could for them and their rotten little empire. We poured money into their open hands. And now they do this to us. We didn't kill or destroy anyone over there. We didn't ruin their businesses. Before this all started I was set to make the greatest economic concession in history, merely to make sure that someone else's goddamn home," he kicked the needle at the word, and it vibrated in the breeze, "could be kept from falling apart. Everything could be solved by diplomacy and goodwill, I thought. And now I have before me a pitiable man, one of my own Gallente citizens, who was partly responsible for the loss of an entire planet and the deaths of countless of our people."
"So why didn't you finish it off?" Blaque asked. "Why not end him, or throw him to the wolves? The entire Federation feels the same way you do."
"Would you?" Foiritan asked him. Blaque fell silent.
"I need to know who's on my side, Blaque. Now more than ever, I need allies, people I can rely on to get things done. You dealt in warfare, where the enemies stayed enemies and where words have weight. All my life I've dealt in politics, where my friends could be my enemies and where the words I hear are just words, fitted and molded to the occasion. I need to know who I can trust."
"You want me to kill a comatose man."
"I want you to find the traitors, all of them, and I want you to bring them to justice. Whatever it takes." Foiritan reached into his coat and pulled out a datapad and a gun, both of which he laid on the ground before Blaque. "On the datakey is incontrovertible evidence that Jordan Keel was involved in the Tripwire incident. It would be enough to get him tried for treason in any court and punished accordingly."
"So do it," Blaque said, but without much conviction. "Have him executed."
"I could," Foiritan said. "But that's not enough. There are others like him out there and I need someone with the experience and the guts to root them out. Someone willing to go all the way."
Blaque stared at him in amazement. He said, not disapprovingly, "What happened to you, Souro?"
Foiritan rubbed his eyes. The bags under them were dark. "In my time I've committed acts that were selfish or even outright wrong, but so have you and everyone else. We did it for ourselves, but somewhere in our hearts we always did it for the Federation as well, because we believe we truly are the best for this empire. This here, though, this is ..." He faltered, and waved his hand vaguely at Keel. "Being in power at peacetime, that's easy. But being in power when things go wrong and you have to fix them by any means necessary, that's hard. That's when you find out who can act as well as talk, and who's just a blowhard."
Another breeze passed through, carrying the garden to them in its invisible hands. It was far too serene here for deaths and treachery.
Foiritan said, "The world has changed. We change with it. Or we die, buried in the grass. It's that simple now."
Blaque knelt and picked up the datapad and the gun. He rose and weighed one in each hand, like hearts on a scale. It had slowly dawned on him that they stood not on the cliff's edge debating the fall, but had possibly long since gone over, and were merely looking at the ever approaching abyss. "You're right," he said in a shaky voice. "You monster. You're absolutely right. I don't even like you, Foiritan, and you're right. I wish to god you weren't."
"So do I, believe me," Foiritan said.
"You know how you're going to look if you do this. The measures instigated, the freedoms prohibited. .. Even if you're successful - especially if you're successful - you're going to be a tyrant. You'll be feared and hated. And so will I, as your hit man."
"Then that's the role you'll have to play, like all the rest of us actors."
Something in Blaque gave way, though whether it was the rising revulsion of a darkened path he thought he'd long since left, or the dismantling of the last obstruction to his breakneck passage there, he really couldn't tell. His feelings broke through, and he screamed at Foiritan, "This isn't a play!" His arm shot out, pistol in hand, the barrel aimed directly at Keel's head. "Is this what you want, President? Is this what you're ready for? You're brave when it's fists in a room, but how many times have you looked a man in the eyes before you killed him? How can your conscience ever take that on?!"
Foiritan waited, expressionless, until Blaque had lowered the gun and caught his breath.
"Yes, it's a test, of loyalty and guts," Foiritan said to him. "Everything is, these days. But those men whose deaths he caused? They were just as much your responsibility as mine." He stepped closer to Blaque and took hold of his gun arm, raising it to his own sternum as if he were the condemned. "You owe them this, in your own conscience and soul."
Blaque looked into his eyes, and whatever dark fellowship he saw there broke the last barrier. A wave of revulsion passed over him, washing over his new, unwavering purpose. His face wrinkled in disgust at himself and he said, "Damn you. Alright. But I will not murder," and he turned to Keel and shot the man in the kneecap.
"This is what happens when things get ugly!" he yelled, loud enough to set the birds flying from nearby trees. "This is what you've sanctioned, Souro! You can undersign orders for hunt and interrogation, and damn it, I'll follow them to the end, but will you stand it when the screaming .. when the screaming ... starts." He faltered, and looked back to Keel in amazement. The prisoner hung from the silver needle, serene and quiet. The blood pouring from the gaping wound in his knee was staining his white clothes a deep maroon. He showed no signs of waking up.
"Good job, Blaque," Foiritan said, a smile not quite crossing his lips. "I need a man who will do horrible things for our Federation, but who'll detest doing so. I need a civilized man, so that I can be the monster."
"What ... but ...?" Blaque stammered.
"A body can't let out a scream if there's no mind to carry it."
When no response was forthcoming,Foiritan laid a hand on his shoulder, leaned close and said, not unkindly, "You just shot a clone."
Blaque stared at him, then at the datapad in his hand.
"Fake," Foiritan said.
Blaque stared back at Foiritan. His eyes bulged, and a vein started throbbing in his neck. He took a deep breath and said, "You trickster. You goddamn, good-for-nothing poli-"
His tirade was cut short by Foiritan's fist, which smashed into Blaque's cheek hard enough to spin him around and drop him onto the ground. The senator got up not with the shocked, angered or dazed look one might expect from someone who's just been clocked, but a curious expression. A red welt was rising on the skin over his cheekbone.
"Welcome to the new world," Foiritan said. "Don't forget who you are."
"Gloves off, I see," Blaque said.
"I needed to know where you stood. You'll be immersed in lies, disinformation and violence from now on. Might as well get used to it."
Blaque looked at him for a long time, and at the thing on the needle, and at the crystal spires in the distance. He was an ethical man, in his own mind, but a practical one as well, and decades in military service had tempered those ethics with a thorough understanding of humanity, particularly that wicked and terrible side which rose out of its murky depths only under duress. Through the rapidly fading mist of rage he realized that under enemy fire the most one could hope for was a leader cruel enough to do what needed to be done, and compassionate enough to understand why it needed doing.
"I am not at all sure, Mister President," Blaque said, his anger giving way to the dark humor that Foiritan had always admired in his adversary, "that this new world order should include the President striking his chief of internal security."
Foiritan kept up his poise, but Blaque noticed the slight untensing of shoulders as the president, "I'll say. I nearly broke my goddamn knuckles."
The sun was beginning to descend. The garden's ambient noise quieted accordingly.
"We need to align the people, and to do so we need a leader who fits the season. I'm going to be the monster, Blaque," the president said. "And you're going to be the thunder that announces my passage."