The dawn of humanity was marked by the subjugation of the dangers of the natural world. Beasts were tamed or driven away; the weather protected against with cloth and stone; the vagaries of famine and infestation mitigated through planning. There came a watershed moment, a critical point after which most death and suffering was no longer due to nature.
So it came that in those infant years of civilization, when it was still a tender shoot, raw and ever so vulnerable, a man called Zaib drove a donkey to pull a cart over dusty roads to a walled city. The cart was filled with the products of the man's labor: grain mostly, some turnips, even chickens. Zaib was scared, because bandits were known to haunt these roads, but he was careful, wily and observant.
When he reached the city, which was the largest he had ever known, though there were many like it in all parts of the world, the guards that kept the king's peace stopped him. It was, even in the infancy of civilization, a time-honored ritual that they would take the king's part in money and kind, and then for themselves another part that the king's law did not speak of. Zaib obeyed, because they were armed and he was not, and he needed to enter the city to sell his produce to afford metal tools and salt and so many other essential things he himself could not grow or make. Zaib obeyed, and hate grew in his heart.
In the markets in the city, he could not sell his produce himself, for he owned neither a stall nor the place to put one, nor did he have time to stay in the city when his fields needed tending. As he had done many times, he went from merchant to merchant, plying his wares, haggling and cursing. But prices were low, and Zaib did not miss the way the merchants glanced at each other and whispered behind his back. The merchants were unanimous in the price they offered, and there was only the one city Zaib could reach with his cart, and only the one market within. When faced with the choice of a meager wage or letting his produce rot in disuse, he chose the few coins he could get. Zaib took his wage, and hate grew in his heart.
On the way back, the donkey pulled an empty cart, and Zaib carried only a bag of salt and the few coins that were left over. It was then that the bandits struck. They took the salt and the coins, slaughtered the donkey and left the cart by the wayside. When Zaib tried to resist, they beat him until he could barely move. The bandits' leader, a scarred man with hard eyes, told Zaib that he ought to be grateful that he was still alive. More ruthless bandits would have killed Zaib and sold the clothes off his back, as well. The bandit grinned a toothless smile and told him to run. Zaib, black and blue all over, struggled to his feet and limped away. He walked all the way home, and hate grew in his heart.
In his village, Zaib was known as a kind and generous man, and his neighbors would have offered to build him a new cart, to gift him a new donkey. But they, too, were struggling, and he could not accept their gifts. He watched them work their fields, their backs bent with a hard life's work. His journey to the market had gone particularly wrong, but he was not alone with such problems. He could work harder; perhaps even journey farther next time, to another city, or pay a caravan to travel with, that the bandits would not find him such an easy target. But Zaib had been a farmer for a long time and knew much of weeds. Evil had to be cut out at the root.
He beat his plowshares to swords. His body, hard and wiry from the work in the field, he beat into shape as well. When he left the village in spring, his borrowed donkey carried a meager harvest, but he was ready.
When the bandits sought to rob him, they found him prepared. Zaib was a cunning man, and managed to surprise them. Two died before they could draw their weapons, and the third proved no match for Zaib. When Zaib searched their bodies, he found them even poorer than himself. They were, like him, desperate men who had resorted to violence, and were not the root of the evil he had been subjected to. But Zaib felt no remorse: he had not instigated their conflict.
The guards asked for half of his small harvest. The fruit was hard and small, the grain bitter. The guards would take them home nonetheless, and only too late find that Zaib had poisoned them. Unbeknownst to Zaib, they hardly had a choice: their rightful wages would never be enough to support the invalids who had once been their friends, and the widows and orphans who had once been their friends' families.
The trio of merchants, who again haggled in their greed, found Zaib waiting in an alley when they returned to their homes in the dead of night. He let them live long enough to hear their excuses, and they were manifold.
The merchants’ families were large, their homes expensive. They traded in humble agricultural goods, and though they had turnips and chicken aplenty from men like Zaib, they needed to buy salt and soap and clothes from other merchants. These other merchants were driving up the prices, making life ever more expensive, and so they needed to take as much money from the market as they could, if only to save for old age. The increase in the price of goods was caused by increasing taxes levied by the king, or so they said. Zaib saw their point, but also knew that what the merchants saw as dire needs were luxuries to farmers like him, and that, having grown used to excess, they would always have to take more. So he killed them, but knew that he would have been similar, had he been born on silk pillows. They were not the root of evil. So perhaps they were right, and the king's taxes were at fault for the hardships of poverty.
Zaib made his way to the palace. It was still the same night on which he had entered the city, and it was due to this element of surprise, his stealth, and a considerable amount of luck, that he managed to enter the castle and confront the king in his gilded bedchamber. Zaib, sword in hand, demanded to know the ultimate reason for his suffering, and the king, an old man unafraid of violence or death, calmly explained.
The duty of a king was to protect his subjects from other kings, and wherever there were enough people, a king would necessarily rise from among them. Thus, the large fortress was necessary, as were the guards, and even the gilded chamber served its purpose as a show of strength. Though there might be enough food in the world if all men lived as simple farmers, this was simply not possible.
It was at this point that the king's guard finally arrived and overpowered Zaib. As he waited for his execution, Zaib knew that he could have killed the king, that with the help of the other farmers, he could have ruled the city. But he could not deny the king's explanation: the king was not the root of the evil that Zaib had suffered under, and thus, no single man was.
It was rare that progress followed on the heels of men with swords, because evil was not bred into marrow and blood, and could not be extinguished by killing all who wrought evil.
Civilization flourished. Humanity domesticated animals, cultivated plants to grow more quickly and yield more fruit. Technology improved the lives of farmers like Zaib immensely, as less work could feed more people. With more people, cities and kingdoms grew to be increasingly complicated affairs, held together by political constructs which, from time to time, came together in such a way as to create large wars.
It was in such a war that Gerda became an orphan. Her family's farm was burned down by soldiers fighting for a cause that consisted of socio-economic, ethnic and religious pretexts. However, at the time the soldiers burned down the farm, those pretexts did not matter; they were just pillaging. The minor pleasures the soldiers found in pillaging were not proportionate to the suffering Gerda felt. They would soon move on to the next farm, but Gerda would never forget how her parents and siblings were killed, and her childhood burned to ashes.
Gerda, bereft of a home, a family, or indeed anyone that was obliged to care for her, was set adrift. She entered a city as one of many orphans, surviving on the streets by her wits and tenacity, burdened as much by the hunger and cold as by the petty cruelties of others. The street urchins were victims just like her, as were the maimed beggars on the street corners, but their suffering had darkened their hearts.
By a stroke of luck, Gerda managed to catch herself an apprenticeship, an opportunity from which she could have come into a financially stable and independent position. In the months that followed, her master found her talent lacking, and often used his belt on her. His prized apprentice had gone to war and died there, and had left the master in a difficult economic situation; he could not support Gerda if she took too long to learn. Before long, she was adrift again. She was older now, and the streets held new dangers, so she left the city, and found sanctuary in a convent.
By comparison, life in the convent was ordered, simple and pleasant. On any given day, not much was required of her except for lending a hand to the day's work and an hour of heartfelt prayer, both of which she was glad to give.
She learned to write, and more importantly, to read. The convent had a library of dusty hand-written tomes which held the secrets of the ages. She shared in the wisdom of not only the church's elders, but also more ancient writers which the outside world had long forgotten, and found stories of suffering like hers echoing throughout time.
As she came of age, she found in herself a rare ability to peer into others' souls. She knew of their troubles, sometimes even before they did, and just as often knew how to help. It did not take long until some of her sisters, even those far older than her, came to her for advice regularly. After some years, the old abbess died and Gerda was chosen as her successor.
Her fame as a wise woman grew beyond the walls of the convent. They came to her as pilgrims: the destitute, the bereaved, those broken by the horrors of war and poverty. She brought them peace of mind and turned them away from the evils in their hearts, so that they would not inflict them onto others. Her own burden she could not relieve: the loss, the grief, the turmoil that still plagued her. The burning scars of injustice in her soul.
One day, one of the pillagers who had killed her family arrived at her doorstep. He was already an old man, his hair gray, one leg a stump, and his face scarred, all from one war or another.
He did not recognize her and was eager to confess his sins. Beginning at his birth as a minor noble's seventh child, to his enrollment in the army, he detailed a long list of every act of evil he had committed or aided in. For every choice made, he offered a long list of excuses. Economic and social pressures drove him to join the army. Once part of the ranks, he had to obey the commands of his superior officers, to kill for god and country. And when he or his companions went too far sometimes, that was due to the madness of war, that malevolent spirit which sometimes drove groups of men to atrocities no single one of them would have committed. After his time in the army, he was disfigured by trauma, and it was not solely his fault that he drove his family away.
Gerda told him that his excuses were not sufficient, that only repentance would save his soul, and he repented and swore to do better. She did not tell him she had once been one of his victims, because she was wise enough to know that it would not benefit either of them.
The maimed veteran found some measure of absolution in her words, which was good, but it did not feel just. She asked for leave from her duties and set out into the world to see if she could do more.
There were many veterans in those war-torn times, and she talked to common soldiers and generals alike. By her gifts and her reputation, she found them like open books. Some were broken, some whole, some regretful, some not. She healed some, converted others, made whole what war had wrought. Many a soldier laid down his arms after she spoke to them, and only a few were truly evil.
She brought peace to many, but could not heal herself. She found no final source of evil, no monster that she could lay the blame on for her parents' death. At last, she talked to the man who had ordered the first strike of that war which had robbed her of her childhood. He did regret that her family had died, and had tried his best to prevent needless cruelty, with limited success. The war itself, he did not regret. War had simply been in the air at the time, with kingdoms bristling against each other, overpopulated and hungering for expansion. For him, there had merely been a choice between a war of aggression, fought on the soil of another country, or one of defense, in which his own countrymen would have suffered and died.
In him, she found no wounds to heal, no evil to convert. He was an old man who had made peace with his choices, and soon died, leaving her with turmoil in her heart and a new conviction to teach.
Gerda returned to her convent. She wrote letters to the powerful and gave speeches to the masses, influenced many to change their lives for the better, but every soldier that heard her call would be replaced by another young man with a heart dreaming of glory and hands doomed to slay. The army ever needed recruits, the country ever needed armies.
After her death, the church canonized her. She and her words were not forgotten, but parts of her message were lost in time. And one day, a general invoked her name to rouse an army to religious fervor.
Though progress sometimes followed on the heels of saints and redeemers, their legacies often became a tool of evil. In their greatest works, there was still something missing, because evil was not just an infection that took hold in the souls of men, and it could not be fully extinguished by any number of conversions.
But civilization lurched on. It linked all parts of the globe, sent even a few tentative feelers beyond.
In a time that was even more incomprehensible to Gerda than her time would have been to Zaib, everything was changing, rapidly and everywhere. Within a single lifetime, some amassed great riches. Just as quickly, mountains of debt would pile up and crush others; an ever-churning maelstrom with few constants but the existence of oppressor and oppressed.
The parasite called evil thrived. It had been born in the same breath as civilization. It was in every unnatural death, every moment of suffering humanity could have prevented. As the great tree of civilization grew, so did the parasite. Humanity in time came to recognize its offshoots and name them corruption and wastefulness, fraud and the fear of the other. Some fought it, not without success, but it had its roots deep inside the nature of every system they created, even in their own minds, and whenever civilization sprouted a new branch, the parasite was there to take advantage of it.
Nico was born in a time when the masses enjoyed luxuries the kings of old had not known to dream of. They had known only small sufferings, only small annoyances. Yet in their age, the parasite was an inescapable presence. No one could grow up without coming to know its myriad forms, without hatred at its allies and compassion for its victims.
Nico liked walking along gradients. It was an easy exercise: any given city in the world, if it was large enough, had its poor quarters and its rich ones. Within a few blocks, the ambience of a street could massively change: from the domiciles of the working poor, where every cent counted, to complacency, then excess. Nico had a favorite route.
It began at the old factory, a reminder of the horrors of industrial exploitation, which were alive and well elsewhere. Around the world, factory children were born to toil from the time they first understood orders. They were malnourished, malformed, intellectually neglected. Their wages helped feed their families, and from the hungry and deprived, a select few might even rise, but the lion's share of their profits went to people they would never know, people who would never thank them. Insidiously, those same people who maintained the system often found it impossible to stop. They were dependent on their wages and the executives that arranged them, and the executives were beholden to the anonymous mass of shareholders. The shareholders were, for the most part, just people who were trying to save a bit for an uncertain future. Nor could these people give back, since giving back in the wrong way sometimes caused more harm than not giving at all, because every action on a global scale must be supported by a complex system, and complex systems were food for the parasite.
Nico knew these systems: like anyone in their era, they had learned about the global economic web in school, and knew the mathematics to describe it. Textbook photographs of starving children had ignited the first sparks of a deep anger within them, and Nico had sworn to strike at the root of evil.
After the factory came a memorial for a war, the most recent in a sequence too long to remember. The names engraved on the stone seemed innumerable, compared to the deaths of earlier ages. There were no more minor nobles to send their excess sons to the military, but class distinctions still separated the ranks, and common soldiers and civilians alike died in droves because of the choices of a powerful few. Yet the powerful few acted for the benefit and safety of the countries which had, for the most part, lawfully elected them. There was always callous evil among them, but most felt forced in their actions. They were hated by the masses that elected them, and some might even have hated themselves.
Nico knew that some systems were changed from above, some from below. In their age, revolutions and crises of succession were no longer the only means to exact change. It now meant something to be an expert; understanding how the world worked often brought with it a measure of influence. That was part of why, when Nico had finished their compulsory studies, their curiosity had been far from sated.
On the streets and plazas, Nico saw the old, made beggars by a society that could not or would not support them. Once valued and loved members of society were forced to root through trash, hunting bottles for deposits. Everyone felt pity for them, knew that the system had failed them.
Nico had a rough idea of how much this would cost to change; from whence the money could be sourced. It was not an unsolvable problem, but it was merely a symptom, and Nico had sworn to strike at the root of evil.
On the horizon, they could see the walls of a prison, stern, forbidding, and topped with barbed wire. The rebels and vandals who had sought betterment of the system at any cost were within. These righteous were not the only ones deprived of freedom: they shared their chains with the innocent, and, of course, the few who had by some trauma or defect of birth become truly evil. Some might have been rehabilitated, some did not deserve imprisonment at all, but they were all together under lock and key, struggling for survival against each other. Everyone hated this, and when all consequences were accounted for, no one profited. Yet it remained as it was.
In that glorious age of technology, Nico could have found any number of similar examples. The suffering of billions was always at their fingertips, neatly catalogued and calculated. For them, it was impossible to ignore how much effort humanity went to to hurt itself. The root of this evil was not the evil of individuals, neither an inborn flaw of a few nor an infection that could spread through many. Evil was a matter of systems malfunctioning, and Nico had sworn to strike at the root of evil.
The mathematics that described evil spoke of game theory, of inescapable traps in the interactions among people. Prisoner's dilemmas, the tragedy of the commons, races to the bottom-most well of the global utility function. Some of these problems allowed direct solutions, others needed to be carefully avoided. It was in a deeper understanding of these problems that Nico hoped to find their weapon.
They came to the end of their ritual walk and swiped the plastic key card that allowed them entrance to the air-conditioned, gleamingly clean section of the world the privileged had carved out for themselves. Nico did not forget what they had seen on their way, nor did they feel guilt. Instead, they continued their work with their singular purpose in mind.
The tree of civilization grew onward. Humanity and its works grew faster than the parasite, ever finding some new technological trick that allowed access to previously untapped resources. There had always been a slight surplus. Throughout history, the tree had ever been one step ahead of the parasite which drained its sap, allowing the standard of living to steadily increase throughout the ages.
Nico had seen the figures and recalculated them themselves. Currently accessible resources would run out, and greater challenges loomed. Growth alone could not be depended upon forever. The parasite needed to be weakened, its foulest offshoots pruned.
Nico thought. Where decisive action and encompassing mercy were not enough, they employed measured, systematic thought, which gave rise to actionable plans. Nico was gifted in their abilities and single-minded in their focus. They shaped themselves into an effective tool of progress. And they knew that if their work on fundamentals would not bear its final fruit, their understanding would help others, because this was how humanity progressed.
Of course, they cannot succeed alone, and in the meantime, every cause demands its own savior.
The tree reaches ever further, and the parasite grows with it, pruned but not yet tamed. We are ever but a step ahead, never far from succumbing to the stranglehold.
Perhaps in the future, by some method yet unthought of, the parasite may truly be taken out at the root. Perhaps it is enough to beat it back decisively, effectively, ceaselessly, and thus subjugate it as humanity once subjugated the dangers of the natural world.
Perhaps one day, we may see the tree bloom.