"How aware are you of the plots you have grown in the nursery?"
Isha glanced over from the seeds she was working on, the corners of her mouth twitching downwards. "The ones that are in there now, or the ones that have already passed through your hands?"
The nursery was still behind its wards, but the way she had immersed herself into the warp around it, if not within it, made it easier for her to be able to at least gauge its condition even outside the room itself. The plants that had been taken from her were more distant, but also had nothing between her and them, which made them stand out in the warp with only a minute amount of her attention.
"The latter," the Emperor replied.
Isha let the frown form, wondering where he was going with this. "I can sense where they are and their general state, and with focus I could probably give you an overview of their precise condition while out in the world."
Half of what she produced, she had noticed, had stayed close to the fortress city the Emperor was keeping her within, tracing the edges of what she assumed was the city proper, marked by where the concentration of human life dropped off fairly abruptly. Of course, there were also some plots that stayed within the city itself, but not many, and, she suspected, in places that could contain them easily if she did reach out for them.
The other half were spread out across other population centers, with a few small exceptions that seemed to be far from any major settlements. She didn't know whether those were isolated experimental locations or if they were for people she just hadn't had the focus to notice at the time.
"And you could in theory manipulate them from here?"
Well, that was certainly an accusatory question, even if the tone and emotions behind it were nothing but idle curiosity and calm patience. Isha decided the question had not been intended to be an accusation for something she hadn't done, and answered as such. "I could, though it would be obvious to you. If you mean from within the wards, then not without more effort than it would be worth."
Technically speaking, with her plants and her recovery so far, she could ease open the wards with a bit of time and delicacy, though she wouldn't be able to get away with it without him noticing. However, she still had nothing to gain from the action, which made the entire concept little more than idle musings when she wasn't busy with her private garden or her reports.
After a moment without further questioning, she gave in to her own questioning. "Why do you ask?"
"There is… a project that I had been planning before your arrival." The Emperor paused for a moment, seeming to mull his words over before continuing. "It was one that I expected to take many centuries to complete at a minimum, and would likely be delayed by technical challenges and resource concerns."
"A project?" She considered what could be related to his previous questions, as well as what she could do that would so upend his initial plans. She looked down at the seeds still in her hand - a staple food, meant to help feed a malnourished population elsewhere in the world. She thought of the taste of dry air, the damaged soil, the empty voids in between bursts of life she had touched. "You intend to revitalize your world."
"I do." The Emperor's voice was soft, almost wistful as his attention split between her and the world outside, his gaze somewhere far away. "Terra used to be beautiful - a gem amongst all of humanity's settlements across the galaxy, the model on which all other worlds were shaped. Even after countless wars, after the surface being torn apart again and again, it always was restored to be more pleasant and welcoming than before. People generations removed from her, who only had stories and images to base their views off of, would still come back just to see the world that nurtured our species until we could make the climb to the heavens."
"What happened to make it like this?" She asked, her heart aching at how much it must have hurt to see his own homeworld reduced to this pale shadow of itself. "I would presume you would never allow things to go this far if you had been here to stop it."
"You would be correct," he said with a faint grimace, gaze turning to her. "If I had been here during the Age of Strife, I wouldn't have allowed it to happen."
"But you weren't," she realized. "What could be so important to keep you away for so long?"
"The Iron Wars."
Isha felt her brows furrow, lips tugging into a frown of her own as she tried to place the event. "I… believe that was before the gestation period began? I recall a great deal of death happening even before the Warp became treacherous outside the Webway, though I remain unaware of any details of the conflict itself."
"It was, but the aftermath lasted well past the rising storms." The Emperor paused for a moment before continuing. "I could have returned before things fell so far - Terra's government lasted several thousand years after it was cut off from the rest of the galaxy. In addition, Malcador and several others we trusted were in place to keep an eye on things and reach out to me if any trouble came. At the time, I felt my efforts were better spent tackling other issues that needed to be handled before the storms receded - setting up caches of rare and valuable artifacts, taking down possible future threats, checking in on allies and key worlds."
He paused again before continuing, voice lower and darker. "I cannot pin blame on the Ruinous Powers in particular, since it has long been within the nature of humanity to aggravate small issues far out of reasonable escalation even without their aide. Whatever the reason, the governing body was overthrown by warlords, who immediately turned upon each other to wrest control for themselves. They pulled out weapons that had long been banned by treaty and buried far from where they should have been able to reach, and Terra suffered for it. Malcador was able to focus efforts on preserving as much of humanity's history and cultural artifacts as possible within several safe vaults across Terra's surface, but even he could not stop the world's decline once it began."
"I'm sorry," she replied, hating again how much had been lost because nothing had been done to stop the cascade of events that had led both of them here.
The Emperor shook his head minutely. "By the time I got back, Terra looked nothing like it had when I had last departed from it. Hideous gene warriors beat each other over the head with vibroblades while wearing power armor in the nuclear wastes between decaying hive cities. The oceans reduced to one pathetic body in the heart of what was once its most massive reserve. Several of those warlords even dabbled into warpcraft, letting themselves be seduced by whispers and hollow promises of easy dominance over their enemies."
Isha couldn't recall the last time she had seen her people's homeworld - it had long been hidden away within the depths of the Webway, its access points only known to Cegorach and a handful of his followers. She knew, however, that if she had gazed upon it and seen it turned to ruin, she would no doubt be devastated as well.
"I had expected it to take a great deal of effort to restore what was lost," he continued, resting a hand on the workstation. "Involving importing fresh ocean water from elsewhere in the galaxy, setting my best gene-smiths to restore the damaged seeds salvaged from the bunkers, and recreating or working around the missing holes within the ecological webs that would be necessary to stabilize the young and fragile ecosystems during their recovery. While it might have one day resembled the world it had once been, there would always be missing pieces that would stand out, legacies and lineages forever wiped from the galaxy because of the selfishness of a small faction of extremists."
"And then I arrived," Isha said, already mentally gauging what she could offer both in terms of time and resources. "And gave you another option."
"If there were any entity in the galaxy that could restore Terra to what it should be, it would be you." His gaze was intense, a glimmer of what might be hope within them. "Which is why I ask for your assessment of the world and what it would take to do so."
Isha took in a breath, held it, and released it. "Do I have your permission to work unhindered?"
"How do you mean?"
"In order to do a full assessment, I would need to…extend my power from my avatar to a degree, and reach out to assess the world through the Warp. While I could give you an assessment without it, technically speaking, it would take me longer and be less effective in devising a plan to restore your world to its natural state."
The Emperor said nothing for a moment, gaze assessing her. She did not relent, matching his gaze calmly - what he asked for needed her to be able to do this, and she was hedging her bets on just how much trust he was willing to extend to her in order to pull it off.
"Then you have my permission to do so, though your avatar will remain here, and I will be watching."
That was more than an acceptable compromise. Isha tilted her head in acknowledgement. "Then I shall do so now."
The Emperor nodded curtly, and Isha felt him reach out with his powers, smoothly sliding opening a gap in the wards through which she could project her power, though it was still relatively small, nowhere near enough for her to project any significant power through it. Understandable, Isha supposed, and she did not really need too much of her power just for a simple scan of a single planet's biosphere.
Uncoiling Herself from Her avatar was both foreign and exhilarating, a reminder of how constrained She had kept Herself for the past few local years. Her essence reached out across the surface of the Warp, skirting along the Materium as She looked at the world from outside and within.
The surface state was as She'd presumed, dry and empty and dangerous, though with patches of life both from Her hands and what had held strong after all this time. She touched upon the dense, salt-rich waters surrounded by old salt flats and human settlements, feeling the edges of what had been coastlines and rivers and lakes. She drank in the air, filtered through technologies She was not familiar with, one that had allowed the atmospheric pressure to remain suitable for human habitation between the deep settlements on former ocean floors and at the heights of mountain chains.
She dug in deeper, feeling the touches of Chaos on the world, baleful dark spots She hesitated to go near lest She draw the eyes of their masters, even if She knew She could defend herself long enough to withdraw again. She went down past the soil and bedrock, past even the deepest, most isolated bastions of humanity's reach, into the molten rock that oozed and slid past each other, the slowly shifting lifeblood of the planet itself. She felt for the core, liquid and solid, friction against itself that produced the magnetic field that had protected the world and its fragile lifeforms from the harsh solar winds long enough for humanity to rise up.
Though the Guardian considered the world ruined, what She saw was anything but - its heart still beat, its blood still ran, its skin still held firm. At the height of her power, this would have been an ideal place for experimenting with new lifeforms and world-shaping techniques, in time to be made into a settlement for Her people.
But that was not Her purpose here.
She regretfully withdrew Herself from the Warp again, filtering back into Her avatar, until her senses were again just what she could perceive from the material form and the limited warp senses she allowed herself. Her avatar's eyes opened, meeting the Emperor's gaze with a small smile.
"You actually are fortunate, in terms of resources available for use. I believe that you shouldn't need to import anything from outside in order to complete the restoration of your homeworld."
The Emperor's brows lifted, a trace of skepticism emanating from him. "Elaborate."
Isha waved vaguely in the direction of where the last ocean was. "You presume your world doesn't have enough water to restore the oceans in full, but it actually contains quite a bit within the mantle, which can be accessed with the right tools. As for the ecosystems themselves, I have several options."
She hesitated, knowing already that this would likely be rejected, but deciding to offer it anyway, given it would be the fastest and most efficient option. "I have a particular plant within my arsenal that my people call the Genesis Flower. It was designed to grow quickly and broadly, spreading my power through the ecosystem of an entire world, since they are weak echoes of my own will and desires. They can reshape the soil to any balance, nourish any other life form without issue, and can even influence the weather and climate with sufficient coordination, which is effective in kickstarting healthy weather patterns. Most importantly, they are able to do all these things without my supervision or guidance, and can even be keyed to the control of other psykers if needed."
She carefully did not mention the other uses for it, ones that had been of greater importance during the wars against the enemies of her people in aeons past. An entire world's ecosystem under the Flower's control, all able and ready to be weaponized on a moment's notice, turning a lush garden into a jungle of death and misfortune, a living fortress preying on any misstep, that could and had devoured Necron legions, Krork hordes and K'nib warhosts alike. Many of those worlds still existed out in the galaxy, having endured these last several million years with ease, for even the dangers of the Age of Strife were not as terrible as the beings who had fought in the War in Heaven.
"A warp-based plant?" He asked, a touch of distaste in his tone.
The Emperor hummed in disapproval. "What are the other options?"
"I can set up larger pallets to be moved together, that would all bolster each other and provide pockets of a stable ecosystem that could grow quickly, restoring the soil along the way. It would be much like you currently have me doing, only more deliberately targeted and designed for what climates and ecosystems you want restored for any given region."
"How long would that take?"
Isha ran the timescale in her head, considering how things were going so far, what she could design the plants to do, and how much trouble could happen to cause setbacks. "Three decades on the outside."
The Emperor said nothing, his warp presence at a complete standstill, his emotions betraying nothing. After nearly a minute, he spoke, words slow and deliberate. "...Three decades."
Isha nodded. "On the outside. Ideally, it would take closer to two decades, but I can't access everything that might go wrong along the way, so I felt it better to pad your expectations now."
She watched him mouth 'three decades' again before exhaling sharply, his gaze focused on her again. "And the restoration of the oceans?"
"That would take a bit longer, perhaps up to five decades," she admitted.
"Why would that take longer?"
Isha held her hands out. "The sympathetic resonance devices would need to be built and tested to be sure they work as intended and that there aren't any unintended side effects on your world. Each one will take some effort from me, though the warpcraft parts are simple enough that I should be able to show them to you to be replicated. The surface will need to be assessed regularly for signs of instability, since I am forcing the water out from where it's stored within your world's mantle and through miles of solid rock to the surface. Regardless of caution, you will have to be prepared for quakes and even leakage from the mantle."
The Emperor nodded in understanding. "How much faster could that be accomplished, if caution were less of a concern?"
Isha shook her head. "I would still recommend at least five decades. You also have to move the billions you have living within water basins across the planet before the waters reach them, as well as dismantle the settlements to allow for reuse of the resources tied up in them. Of course, the latter isn't mandatory, and could slim down the time to match the restorations of the surface ecosystems, but I worry that that could cause supply and settlement issues in the settlements that aren't being moved due to unfortunate placement."
"And that would be everything?"
Isha bit her lip. "It would still take another few decades from there for everything to stabilize, since you would need to re-balance the oceans' salinity, restart the currents, build up the natural ocean habitats, and then reintroduce the lifeforms. It would be similar to the order of restoration for the surface ecosystems, especially since the ocean and surface would have to be reconnected smoothly as each affects the other, and that's before getting concerned about the renewal of appropriate weather patterns in order to keep all the new habitats from falling apart without direct attention and manipulation. However, I believe that your people have the technology and knowledge to handle those parts, so I was more focused on the aspects that would need my help specifically, including breaking the hold of those Chaos-corrupted regions."
"So a century in order to have everything put into order, perhaps one and a half if caution and setbacks are all accounted for," The Emperor summarized.
Isha considered everything, before nodding once. "Yes, a century sounds correct. If I were in a stronger state, it would be faster, but as things stand…"
The Emperor huffed, a noise which she realized after a moment was a laugh. "Isha, I was expecting a project that would take at least eight times that length to complete, were I fortunate. To be able to do it in less than a century, without having to pull resources from elsewhere in the galaxy… I couldn't have predicted or even hoped for the numbers you gave me, even knowing your domain and experience."
"Ah," she said, because she had no other reply to give. She thought it was particularly slow, still, even for her lack of experience with 'longer' stretches of material-based time.
"I would like your sympathetic resonance device designs ready for me the next time we speak," he said, one finger gesturing to the dataslate beside her. "If the restoration of the oceans will take longer, then I would prefer to focus on that first, since your current efforts in the nursery are sufficient for the needs of the Imperium for the time being."
Isha nodded. "I presume you wish to test it somewhere isolated, so that if things do go wrong, no lasting harm comes to anything important."
"You presume correctly. The southern hemisphere has places too irradiated and dry for even the nomads to bother with, as well as a thin enough crust that your devices should be effective in their reach."
"That would be suitable." A thought struck her. "The devices do have some notable effect in both the materium and Immaterium, though mostly self-contained. Will that be of concern?"
"I will judge that for myself when the designs are provided to me," he replied. "As for attention in general, I have already ensured that the other factions will be distracted with other matters to notice a small test or two far from their influence."
"How do you mean?"
"The other cities have noticed the… abundance of life that has recently left the city." His gaze shifted to look outwards, past the walls and to the outside world. "Our allies have already been gifted with small parcels of your efforts, while much of the remainder has been kept close, so as to streamline the harvesting and processing of the food and material."
His gaze turned back to her. "Already, your work has won me several wars without firing a bolt. The panacea fruit had a warlord who could have held out for years open his gates and swear allegiance to me, all for its ability to break the hold of warp corruption upon his daughter and heir. Other factions that were aligned against me have started softening at the chance for some of what you provide that no longer exists elsewhere on Terra, and several genesmiths of the enemy have come to me in the night asking for a chance to see what new technologies or techniques we rediscovered in order to produce such bounty all of a sudden."
Isha hummed thoughtfully, surprised and grateful to hear how her work had been paying off in the wider world. "I expect that I was not mentioned?"
"No, your presence will remain under wraps for a while longer," he replied. "There is still much to be done before I would have you looked upon by the public."
"If it's my appearance, I could just change my features to appear more human." She knew she was a good deal taller than any of the non-augmented humans around - in fact, she was fairly matched to the heights of the custodians - and that her alien appearance made her stand out, but those were just… physical things, which were easily altered should it prove necessary.
The Emperor's brow rose. "Why not use it before, then?"
"I'm more comfortable in this form," she replied, exasperation entering her voice as she continued. "And I sincerely doubt you would have trusted me if I tried to disguise myself as a human when I first arrived."
"Your point is taken," he conceded, tilting his head forward. "Regardless, so far the rest of the world does not know I have a biomancer of particular talent as the source of my recent fortune. Should that news get out to them…"
"I become a target," she replied, before the full realization hit her. "Those affiliated with the Ruinous Powers might use it as an excuse to sow further distrust against you, especially if they know or guess that I'm not human."
"Just so. While we both know that the four know you are here, they and their people have little knowledge of where I am keeping you, much less what state you are in. Until they can get that information, all they can do is target the products of your efforts in hopes of bleeding my armies and resources dry."
Which explained why the Thunder Warriors had been hit harder by Warp-based attacks lately, their resilience from her cures just letting them hold out against the enemy's sorcery and treachery.
"Then I suppose I will just have to keep stymieing their efforts," she said, her chin tilting up and a smile on her lips.
Any way she could make the lives of the followers of the Four more difficult was worth the effort she'd put into helping humanity's guardian. The added anticipation of working on such a long and large project as he had offered was more than enough to temporarily let herself ignore the small worry of how long she could afford to wait to reach out for her children.
With more time outside the wards now, she was catching whispers of prayers and pleas from the corners of the galaxy, her lost and weary children reaching out for even a grasp of hope.
The only thing she could do was send out the occasional whisper back, pleading for their patience and offering what meager comfort she could to their dreams. She didn't even know for sure if her words reached them, but there was nothing else she could give them while in her current state.
As the warp settled further from She Who Thirst's birth, the full awareness of the time slipping past her grew further. A few decades might be a small price to pay for her free passage, but it was still one she would have to accept the consequences of for as long as her work took.
AN: As you might notice, this story is marked as complete. This is not because it IS complete, but because I am leaving behind this project for new interests... and, well, ffnet as a whole.
My coauthor is continuing the project, so if you want to continue following, go to their story under the same name, in case this link doesn't work:
Sorry for leaving off, but, well, new horizons call.