The boy coughed. He knew he was dying. He had watched many other children die before him, suffocate over a period of months even as they breathed. With each new day, the synthetic air seemed to feel grittier, heavier. But he was only nine. He could not let himself die yet, not if he could help it.
He had dreams. Lately he had been dreaming of a place he could call home, a place of rolling waves on starlit seas and dreamy, iridescent mountains made of ice. He had never seen the lost home his father had described, a casualty of a dying sun that had sent them space borne.
Aerrie had often asked his father about the lost world. His father had said his home had been far more than its physical features; it had been governed by something called principles, which was the only part of his home planet the natives had been able to carry with them. Unfortunately, Aerrie could not feel or see principles like water, snow, or sand.
“When will we find a new place to rest, father?” he asked for at least the hundredth time. “A place with clear air and rolling oceans?”
His father Zuma was kneeling at his bedside. “Soon, Aerrie, I hope. But we need to find a livable planet we can colonize without waging war. We must land on any foreign planet as humble guests, not as conquerors. As an interplanetary diplomat, I must abide by our laws and report back to our council of elders. They will accept nothing less than reports of a peaceful transition.”
“But why do we have to be peaceful, if we are so desperate?”
“Because,” Zuma sighed, “in finding a new place to live, we must never forget who we are. I wish we understood why children like you seem to need more than just artificially synthesized air, why for the first ten years of your lives, you seem to require a real planetary atmosphere to grow into full maturity. Until we understand, we have no choice but to seek habitable planets to colonize. But we must do so peacefully.”
“Why does it take so long?”
“The last planets we tried were not receptive. Our next target is Earth, the planet where our ancient ancestors lived over 25 million years ago. It is now a place of hominids in the throes of a dark age. They are successors to humans just as we are, though unlike us they never reached the stars. I have carefully researched them. I have learned their language and I believe its leader, a king, will be amenable, which means there is hope for you and all the other children on this ship.”
“And these natives, they will leave Earth so we can take their place?”
His father chuckled. “Not necessarily. Every time is different. It is sometimes helpful to approach them with gifts, to befriend them before making such a big request. Once we establish our colony, we will plant our flag there and claim the area for ourselves. You know our flag with the orba on it? The comical creature with two heads I told you about? On our old planet, our people used to keep them for pets. An orba was on the flag of my home planet. My planet is gone, but the flag still exists. The orba flag will help keep the memory of my planet Raya alive on new soil.”
“Why the orba?” Aerrie asked.
Zuma smiled sadly. “When our Earth ancestors reached for the stars, they chose an animal to represent them on their flag. They chose a lion, a predator with big teeth and sharp claws. It was the wrong choice, but it began the tradition of using animals for flags The orba is the type of animal we should have chosen, but Earth had no orba.
“The ones who ended up staying on Earth were considering leaving at one time, and they actually had a better idea for a flag. They chose a peaceful creature. Their flag design was a tiny bluebird drawn by a five-year-old girl. Though the flag was never used, there are still records of that drawing in our computer data banks. After many years of violence, we used that drawing as a model for who we wanted to become. But there were no bluebirds on my planet, so we chose the gentle orba.”
Aerrie said, “Before I die I want to see oceans and mountains. Are you sure there is no way just to colonize the planet without waiting for permission? I bet we have the power, the technology to do just that, especially if Earth is in a dark age.”
His father leaned in close to the boy and said. “It is no accomplishment just to have power, Aerrie. Some people are given power without having done anything to earn it. Unearned power either reveals strength or exposes weakness. It is those with both power and self-restraint who will inherit the universe.”
Aerrie disagreed, but he secretly admired his father for saying what he had said. Maybe Aerrie would understand principles someday, if he lived long enough. Aerrie was in love with the idea that there were ideals that mattered even more than even surviving; the idea gave him chills. Like heroic tales, it uplifted and inspired him. Ironically, more than anything else, including the idea of home, mountains, and oceans, it made him want to live.
He hated being young. He hated the thought of dying because he wanted to be wise like his father, but Aerrie might have killed in order to live, because Aerrie knew that wise was something the dead could never be.
King Alfred wished he was dead. No, that was not exactly true. He wished everyone else was dead, at least every last one of his tedious dinner guests. However, a mass murder at a dining table would make a big mess and cause way more trouble than it was worth.
Instead Alfred flung a fork across the dining table. It struck a dainty crystal goblet with a hearty clink; the goblet toppled and spilled red wine onto the prissy ivory gown of a noblewoman. As she stood, gasps erupted all around the stunned victim. A few diners looked at Alfred expectantly, but Alfred did not apologize. Alfred never apologized for anything. He was king; he had every right to act however he pleased.
Especially now, because it was still raining and someone had had the audacity to say, “I am so sick of all the rain. I wish it would stop raining at least once before I die.” The rain, the clear nemesis of Alfred, had managed to spit in his face at his honorary dinner, and he had had to do something.
The very mention of rain was how Alfred knew his dinner had failed. It had been the culmination of a stuffy, hour long affair in which not a single diner had bent a knee to him or kissed his ring or even thanked him for the invite. Now Alfred stood, gave the table cloth a violent tug, sending dishes clattering, and declared the feast over. Amid a chorus of angry protests, he ordered the maids to sweep away the half-eaten dishes and his guards to escort the still-hungry guests from the royal dining hall. Soon Alfred was all alone – and, to his surprise, a little lonely.
He stood for a moment, his spine curved, his forehead dipping into his cupped hands. Slowly he raised his head. With a decisive rustle of his long, heavy cloak, he swept over to the balcony to look out at his nemesis the weather, a foe he could neither imprison nor behead.
The insolent grey clouds were clearly meant as an insult to him; from the beginning they had cast a shadow on his true glory; made it appear that the fates had gathered against him on the very day of his coronation, a day he had dreamed about his whole life.
At 25, he was supposed to have morphed from the sad-looking, weak, younger brother of the beloved, golden-haired king Stephen into a kingly butterfly – a very masculine butterfly of course, the kind that swooped instead of fluttered and that was mostly black instead of pansy yellow. In his very masculine butterfly state, his brave soul would shine through. He had dreamed that everyone would declare his previous self a hidden gem as he emerged powerful, ingenious, wise, and formidable. Not to mention irresistible to girls. That was how he thought of all women, as girls. Any female over 25 was not worthy of his regard, and thus not considered anything at all.
The grey weather had changed his luminous plans, had smothered them with an atmosphere where his good fortune could not thrive. The grey skies had not brightened, not even once, after the crowning ceremony, which had been woefully short on pomp; practically no one had knelt to him or clapped; even the royal dog had snubbed him.
For weeks, then months, after his coronation, the sun had hidden itself behind grim and beefy clouds. It had rained almost constantly; he could hear the gurgle of the gutters outside his chamber at night. The ponds and fountains had turned the color of dish water. He had heard rumors of people saying, “I wish King Stephen was still alive. How I miss seeing blue skies. How they seemed to favor him.”
Stephen! If Alfred could have tried the heavens for treason, he would have done so, if he were not so busy washing his hands. He washed his hands a lot. He washed his hands five times a day with a harsh soap that burned his skin raw. His skin remained sore for hours afterward, but he reassured himself he had done the right thing, if only the weather would agree.
He prayed for a sign from the heavens, any sign at all, that his fate would soon change, and that his righteous actions would soon be vindicated by the gods. Reckless Stephen had been about to make unwise diplomatic concessions to the hostile neighboring kingdoms of Mara and Aurora in order to ease mounting tensions over a land dispute. Alfred had done what he had to do to prevent the toxic agreement and save the kingdom of Everwell.
It just so happened that his duty toward the good people of Everwell had also happened to make him king. Destiny, Alfred called it. No one could argue with destiny. Not even the clouds.
Alfred was so fixated on the dismal weather, he barely noticed when the stranger came. It was his bodyguard who urged Alfred to look at the odd vehicle floating in the heavens. From the balcony, Alfred could make out a half-cube of a basket drifting high in the grey sky, attached to a beautiful, ruby-colored balloon almost twenty times its size.
Alfred thought he could see a lone, standing figure inside the basket, a basket which was slowly floating down toward the castle courtyard, rocking slightly, getting bigger and bigger as it approached land. A crowd of palace servants were gathering on the palace lawn to witness the marvelous spectacle with lifted heads, dazzled murmurings, and eyes rapt with interest.
Alfred remembered his earnest prayers for a sign from above. With surging hope, Alfred raced downstairs to the courtyard just in time to finish witnessing the flashy descent of the balloon.
Though desperate, Alfred was not entirely un-cautious. He knew not to trust strangers or other people generally. But he had prayed for a sign of hope from the heavens, and he thought this bizarre sign was likely meant for him. The gawking grounds keepers stood back when at last the basket landed. Alfred could finally get a better look at the stranger.
The stranger did not smile; at first glance his face seemed impassive. His skin had an unusual golden cast, giving him an ethereal appearance. He had an exceptionally high forehead devoid of eyebrows, and he was gracefully bald. He wore a heavy-looking brown robe and had high, intelligent eyebrows, a linear nose and an amused, yet otherwise unreadable, expression.
He was holding a wrinkled, dun-colored satchel of some sort, and when some of the guards stepped forward and tried to seize it from him, he replied, “I would advise against that. I have come from a ship that sails on the winds of the sky.” He gazed up at the sky as if he fully expected to see a ship hovering there, outfitted, perhaps, with cannons. Though the stranger had not exactly threatened anyone, the guards appeared to be unsure if they had been or not, and somehow that was far more ominous than if the stranger had promised full-scale destruction for all.
Whatever the stranger had done, it had worked; the guards did not take his satchel, but could only stare dumbfounded at him as if awaiting his command. His next words were, “I wish to see the king.” A guard said, “The king is very busy. That will not be possible.”
“Untrue, untrue, most untrue, disregard that comment,” Alfred said, pushing and shoving his way through the crowd. “I am the king.” He realized he may have sounded too eager and added with a note of fake anger, “What makes you think you have the right to trespass on royal property?”
The stranger eyed Alfred with a look of intense interest. “I saw no other way to request a private audience with your majesty,” he said. “I have something I believe will be of great interest to you. An answer to your prayers, perhaps. A sign.”
The final words rendered Alfred speechless and sent chills rippling through his body. Answers to prayers. Signs. The stranger spoke his language.
Still, Alfred was not stupid. “Shackle him,” he told his guards coldly. “Cuff his wrists and ankles. I want to speak with him in my royal court. Alone.”
The stranger made no move to resist. His calm, slightly amused expression did not change as the guards cuffed his wrists and ankles.
Alfred had the odd sense that the stranger could easily have escaped if he had wanted to. Alfred turned around and left, followed by his body guard. “Do you really want to be alone with him in the royal court, or shall I accompany you?” the body guard said. “He could be a sky person. Like in the ancient cave drawings of Mount Mystique. Remember the legends. The sky people overthrew kingdoms not with spears but with words and charms.”
Alfred was familiar with the sky people who were said to inhabit cloud continents. They did not scare him. “I am king,” he said. “I can take care of myself.”
His body guard looked at the king a long moment. “You are king,” he shrugged. “I will respect your wishes.” However, his frown conveyed his true feelings. If Alfred could only have taken it to heart, everything might have gone differently.
In the royal court, the stranger bowed. “It is such an immense pleasure to make your acquaintance in a more official venue,” he said. As he spoke, a servant came in with the satchel the stranger had brought and set it on an ornate chair. Alfred had tried to open it and peek inside but opening it had required manipulating a complicated series of interlocking puzzles Alfred had been unable to solve.
King Alfred said, “Why should I trust you?”
“I do not require your trust. However, I do promise you my honesty. My kind has not always been a peace-loving species. Early in our history we almost destroyed ourselves in a devastating civil war. At last we made friends among ourselves, and now we are seeking friends outside our race. We wish to understand those who are different from us, and to make amends to anyone we may have harmed unknowingly. Therefore, I am bringing you a gift. If you wish, you may decline, and I will simply take my leave of you.”
Alfred looked down at the humble cloth satchel on the chair. Warily Alfred said, “What kind of gift?”
“Un-shackle my wrists and I will show you. My name, by the way, is Zuma.”
After a moment of hesitation, Alfred decided to trust the stranger. The king drew a key from his pocket and unlocked the wrist cuffs. Zuma turned toward his satchel on the chair and deftly worked the puzzles that unlocked the opening. “I am offering you a choice of three.”
The stranger pulled out a wooden disk about the size of a stool top. “I have three wheels that will each allow you to behold magnificent beauty. He held up the first disk so Alfred could see that it was surrounded by pictographs at the edges. In the center of it was a circle containing a map. Alfred recognized it well. It represented the continent Esmerald which contained the three kingdoms of Mara, Aurora, and Everwell.
Zuma said, “This wheel will give you the power to command your night sky. You may call to your nearest comet, and it will come running to you like a loyal dog, its tail streaming across the sky. With the turn of a dial, you may direct meteor showers to appear and perform for you any time you wish. You may control the orbit of your moon, which means you can see an eclipse any time you like. You will be as a god. Can you imagine? The beauty. The drama. The majesty. The mystery.”
Alfred was too skeptical about the outlandish claims to be awed by them, but the stranger had certainly captured his interest. “Ah,” he said. “What a beautiful fancy. Tell me, what are the others for?”
The stranger restored the first wheel to the bag and gathered another from it. “This wheel will give you power to command the Earth. You can create mountains where there were none before, or erase mountains where you prefer flat plains. You can lift or lower the ocean tides. You can set the heights of the waves. You can stop volcanos in progress or behold dramatic plumes in ones that have been dormant for years. You can raise new islands from the sea floor and shift the desert sands.”
“Hmm,” Alfred said. His imagination had taken flight as the stranger spoke and, with a thrill, he envisioned all the ways he could remake Everwell, molding his kingdom as if it were made of soft clay. He could even use the dormant volcano that overshadowed a royal village to threaten tax payers into yielding more of their income. However, once again skepticism ruined the fantasy. “That would be spectacular indeed. I am most tempted by your offer. But please proceed. Tell me about the third prize.”
The stranger set the second disk back in his satchel and held up the third for display. He said, “The final contraption gives you complete power over the weather.”
Alfred leaned forward, savoring the pleasant chills, like sweet mint, that the words had sent rippling through his body. He listened raptly as the stranger went on. “You can make it rain. You can command the winds. You can deploy the clouds as you please, make it snow in summer or order flowers to blossom in the dead of winter.”
Alfred had never been more thrilled in his life. “Please. Can I make it sunny?” His voice caught on the final word. “Right now? All the time?” Strange how all his prudent skepticism had given way entirely to the consuming heat of his desire.
“May I?” The stranger gestured toward the balcony. Once again drawing the key from the pocket of his cloak, Alfred unhooked the leg shackle from a chain attached to a column. The stranger thanked him with a nod, then headed toward the balcony. “Will you allow me to demonstrate?”
The day was dismal as always, and Alfred dreaded opening the curtains that separated the balcony from the royal court.
“Or perhaps you would like to try it yourself,” the stranger said, moving the red velvet curtains aside. With mounting excitement Alfred moved quickly to his side, and the stranger handed the circular device to the king. He showed the king how to highlight the kingdom of Everwell in the center of the disk simply by touching it; then he told Alfred to turn the dial to the sun symbol, and Alfred did.
From the balcony Alfred watched his palace gardens glitter to life. Slowly at first, the stern clouds vanished, drifting apart to leave a cobalt blue sky. The sun painted the flowers in splashes of color usually seen only in dreams, tangerine-reds and deep dusky purples like the bottom-most parts of the ocean. The fountains and royal ponds lost their dullness and became glimmering pools of cool light. The entire courtyard looked beyond real, more oil painting than photograph, more fantasy than reality.
At first Alfred could only stare in mute amazement. “This one,” Alfred was breathless. “It has to be this one.”
The stranger laughed with cool pleasure “Very well then. I am so glad I am able to offer a gift worthy of your majesty.”
“Please. What do I owe you for this magnificent treasure?”
“Your trust,” the stranger said. “And of course,” he looked down at the chain still attached to his leg, “my freedom.”
“Granted,” Alfred said.
Before the stranger left, he showed Alfred that he could bestow beautiful weather not just to his own kingdom, but to that of others. He told Alfred he could highlight either of the other two kingdoms with a touch to the map on the screen. “It will be an excellent way to make friends,” the stranger said. “You made need friends someday.”
Alfred did not have many friends. He considered himself perfectly self-reliant, and was proud of it. He shared the continent with the two other kingdoms, Mara and Aurora, which were allies. He was not exactly allies with either of them; they were kind of snooty, but for the most part they left him alone. He saw them as bullying siblings. He was not exactly at war with them, but the kingdoms lived in a perpetual state of distrust, spying on one another, arguing over boundaries, and haggling over trade.
The idea of making friends with Mara or Aurora disgusted him even though they were the only two kingdoms left on the planet; the other continents had sunk into the ocean eons ago. At any rate, Alfred was not eager to share the precious beauty of his unexpected new gift with them, although he would have loved for them to tremble with the knowledge that he had a new super power.
The stranger explained how smaller dials on the back of the device could be used to fine-tune the speed and angle of the rain, say, or the direction of the wind. The stranger gave him a reference scroll with instructions in case he needed help with calibrations
After Alfred thanked the stranger again, he bid Alfred goodbye. “Perhaps we shall meet again soon,” Zuma said, but Alfred was barely listening. He was in his own world. For the first time since his inauguration, Alfred felt a surge of real hope. From now on his kingdom would be forever sunny. At last the skies would forever reflect his true glory; Alfred felt that the whole universe loved him, for it had bestowed upon him a meeting with a remarkable, yet forgettable, stranger from the skies who had changed his world forever.
At first, all was well in Everwell. Beneath the sunlit sky, the summer fruit ripened extravagantly on the trees. The tulips and roses splashed the yellow-tipped green grass with violets, ochers, and ruby reds. Trade flourished within the kingdom. Harp music and care-free laughter drifted from the festivals that cropped up with sweet, edible new bounty.
However, once the summer gaiety had hit its peak, it began to decline. At first, Alfred was able to seek refuge in denial from the elevated perch of his castle balcony.
Away from his castle, the flowers began to wilt from lack of rain. Color drained from them. He heard reports from servants who worked at the castle that farmers were complaining of drought and failing crops. Villagers mourned their starving children. The sun, once a gentle agent of growth, quickly became an aggressive force to be feared instead of loved.
Alfred knew that he should heed the warnings of rampant death, but he was still not ready to surrender the glory of eternal sunshine. Even though he knew better, he let the sun continue to shine its approval of him for many weeks longer as the crops shriveled outside the walls of his palace grounds, and as his people grew gaunt with starvation.
One day a servant announced that the stranger from the balloon urgently desired a second meeting with Alfred. Alfred declined. He had tried his best to forget about the stranger. He was ashamed of the first meeting. He wanted to believe that he had always been destined to control the weather; the stranger was a reminder that this was not so, and therefore was of no use to Alfred anymore.
Having retreated into his righteous bubble of sunshine, Alfred had stopped listening to just about everyone. What finally got his attention was hearing reports that the other kingdoms were making fun of him. The king of Mara had said that Everwell would be more aptly named “Neverwell” because all his citizens were becoming so poor, they were beginning to die like flies. The king of Aurora had reportedly laughed and said, “At least if we ever have to go to war with King Alfred, we will surely win against his army of corpses.” The two kingdoms were close allies after all, and neither of them trusted Alfred.
Alfred could endure most anything except for other rulers laughing at him. It was almost as bad as if the skies had turned eternally grey again. Mockery belittled him. It annihilated his very sense of who he was. It robbed him of the glory rightfully due to him. For his own survival he had to fight back. He decided to make it rain in Everwell to relieve the drought for his subjects, but he had a final bit of business to take care of first.
Alfred wanted to punish his enemies severely. He wanted the king of Mara to know about the awesome god-like powers Alfred now commanded.
Hours after he had confided his plans to his court counselors, a servant once again informed Alfred that the stranger from the skies urgently desired a second meeting with him, and would not take no for an answer. Again Alfred refused to meet with the stranger and told the servant to make sure all the castle doors were bolted against intruders.
Then Alfred sent a royal missive to the king of Mara saying that a violent storm was coming unlike any ever seen, compliments of King Alfred. In it he said that Mara and Aurora should think twice about mocking the king of Everwell in the future. The missive said the terrible storm would begin at the setting of the sun and end only once darkness had fully fallen.
When the sun began to set, Alfred activated the weather dials. He produced a violent hurricane over Mara. He delivered torrential rains, violent winds, and ubiquitous, inescapable lightning. The attack only lasted an hour. His goal was more to frighten than to decimate. Alfred only wanted to flex his muscles, to command the respect he deserved, and he could not acquire adulation from the dead.
After the attack, Alfred sent a cool, gentle rain to Everwell, the first in many months, to fill the ponds, wells, and river beds, to cure the cracked soil, to make the wheat grow once again, and to return life to the troubled villages.
Alfred slept better that night than he had in weeks. He congratulated himself on how wisely he had solved his problems. The late King Stephen had nothing on him.
The next morning, King Alfred received a royal missive from the king of Mara. It said, “Congratulations, King Alfred of Neverwell. I am most impressed by your unusual talents. A hurricane came out of nowhere at sunset yesterday, just as you promised. Your storm killed many of my citizens, including many children, infants, and elderly villagers. I have reason to believe you are as responsible as you claim to be. You will pay a terrible price beginning tonight as soon as the sun touches the horizon. Prepare.”
King Alfred stared anxiously at the missive for a few moments. At last he shrugged off the threat. The king of Mara was clearly bluffing to save face. He was just jealous of what Alfred could do. The thought buoyed Alfred, although sudden moments of uneasiness disturbed him throughout the day.
The real troubles began when twilight came. They started when the volcano that overshadowed the royal village began to belch and make cracking noises that could be heard all over the kingdom. Alfred went onto the balcony and watched distant smoke rising, softly at first, then in bold plumes; then he heard a great roar. He soon heard reports that torrents of lava were spewing from the mouth, liquid fire gushing like rivers down the sides of the volcano. Hours later Alfred learned that many had died in terror, and the village below the volcano was left in ruins.
At first Alfred was baffled. He was supposed to be the all-powerful one, the one who alone had god-like powers over nature. He was the one the universe had chosen to be its ruler. It took a while to dawn on him that the stranger had left his court with two other very powerful wheels. Where had he taken them? Then he remembered that the stranger had tried to meet with Alfred twice, and that Alfred had refused. Was this his revenge for Alfred adorning him?
Alfred accidentally bit his tongue with the thought that the stranger had played him for a fool, and now thousands of his royal subjects were dead. He felt utterly humiliated, and for Alfred, there was no worse feeling. Yet at no time did Alfred ever blame himself for his problems.
Alfred paced. Alfred fumed. Alfred blamed his body guard for showing him the stranger and fired him. I will leave it to the imagination what Alfred did next. I will only say that he dug out his wheel and he yielded to every impulse of vengeance that burned deep within him. He did not hold back, and after his remote attack, he felt thoroughly spent, nauseated, triumphant, and horrified.
Alfred congratulated himself, believing his problems were all over. He felt gloriously omnipotent. However, the next morning he awoke in his bedchamber with a scroll beside him on his pillow. It bore the seal of Aurora. With trembling fingers, he opened it and read, “In Mara all are dead. Not a single bird, squirrel, or bug survives.” Alfred turned the parchment over to see if there was more, but there was nothing, not a jot.
The royal missive weirdly gave no ultimatums, threats, or condemnations. The silence frightened Alfred, but the more he thought about it, the more he believed he had won. Hours later Alfred could not have been more pleased. Alfred may have lost most of his kingdom but at last he had finally gained respect from Aurora, who would be less likely now to challenge him the next time there was a trade dispute.
To celebrate his marvelous victory, he let the sky become clear that evening. He was in a rare, pensive mood and wanted to take an evening stroll through the royal gardens to celebrate. He might have had hardly any subjects left, but at least Aurora was at his mercy; it was so afraid of him now that he could probably annex it as part of his kingdom and it would be too afraid to resist.
That was when he saw the eclipse. The moon turned an enchanting ruby color that made his breath catch and his pulse race.
The redness of the moon stayed but for an instant. Then the black canvas of the sky cleared just before the meteor showers began. Nothing so beautiful had ever been seen in all of Everwell, and all the citizens who still lived dribbled out of their houses to witness the dramatic showers of light against the darkness. Everyone murmured about how beautiful it all was.
Then, more beautiful still, a light appeared in the sky, a brilliant flash, silent and wonderful. It was the last thing anyone in Everwell ever saw. Or any Earth native, ever.
“What you did was wrong, father. I thought I was the ignorant one, the unwise one. I hated myself for not being like you. I would have killed to live, yet I wanted to believe in something that mattered more than my own life. I admired you so much for having principles I was too stupid to grasp. But you lied to me. You, father, are a hypocrite.”
“How did I lie? All I did was give them power. I only suggested peaceful purposes for it. I told them to use it for beauty, for recreation, for friendship. Pretty meteor showers. Sunshine. Pleasant breezes on a mild day. I even tried to avert destruction when I sensed it was coming. Of course, I failed. Afterward, I merely allowed fate to run its course.”
The boy stopped suddenly on the uneven slope of the volcano and glared at his father, and jabbed his flagpole accusingly at him. “But you knew. You did research. You knew his personality, you knew what he was capable of doing. You knew he was vain and had no impulse control. You also knew what the others were likely to do in response to his actions.”
“True.” Zuma pushed the flagpole down with his hand. “But nothing is inevitable, Aerrie. There are always choices. Always. Are those who used the power I gave them to destroy themselves not to blame at all?”
“Maybe.” Aerrie was clutching the flag pole so hard, his fingers hurt. “Maybe they are. But what about the children who were killed in the crossfire? What about the good-hearted villagers who were poor and powerless? I saw your research. They existed. You knew about them. Were they to blame as well?”
Zuma said,. “Your point is well taken, Aerrie. I am afraid that the price of having ideals is we are bound to be judged harshly by them in the end, no matter how hard we may strive to realize them.”
“Then you admit it. Tell me this, father. How do you live with yourself? How do you live with your hypocrisy?”
He looked at the boy. “I remind myself that you are still here. That you still live. And that others of our kind will live as well. I suppose that no matter how much I may wish for peace, I want our kind to survive most of all, especially our young. That includes you. You may someday be able to live up to the ideals I could only aspire to. The flag you hold with the orba on it deserves to fly here regardless of what you may believe. I would have fetched it from the storage bay and carried it here, you know. I know this is hard for you, but you insisted.”
The boy was silent for a long moment. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the fresh air despite himself. “Maybe someday I will be able to forgive you, if only because seeing how you have violated your principles has finally made me understand and appreciate them. I want to become what I needed you to be. But you must promise me one favor.”
“Oh? What would that be?”
“Never again call what you did a peaceful transition. Not to me and not to the council of elders. Admit you destroyed them. You destroyed them completely.”
His father sighed. “Very well Aerrie. I destroyed them. What now?”
Aerrie was silent a long moment. “We will hold a memorial service for them in the morning. I will apologize to their spirits on behalf of my species for desecrating their planet. I will thank them for my life. Whatever you have said, they did not deserve to die.”
“How about you, Aerrie? Do you deserve to breathe?”
“I do not know.” Aerrie staked the flag into the carpet of ash, a flag that revealed not an orba, but a clumsy drawing of a bluebird. “But I am going to try.”
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