Illusions of free choice exist,
When puppets seem to have no strings,
And leaders bow to shadowed snakes,
And, secretly, a king has kings.
“Once again—at the risk of their own well-being and despite the admonitions of this council—Andromeda brings succor to the humans and succeeds in preventing an unwarranted extinction.”
Captain Luthor Lazarus sat beside his warrior king, Pilitreus, nodding humbly from the Andromedan section of the Bowltren’s 100-seat round table, listening to the federation’s vice president—a Reptilian named Septizur from the star system of Alpha Draconis—give a gracious speech of commendation toward the Andromedan ruler. Luthor glanced to his king, whose face was one of reticent pride, and couldn’t help but wonder what was going on inside the man’s head. Whatever those thoughts were, they were occurring within a private section of his mind, free from the probing antennae of his telekinetic colleagues.
Pilitreus had been vaguely different since the battle: since losing every member of his Royal Guard, including the eldest and most-loved of them, Grotinbras. Luthor was unable to discriminate exactly what was unusual about his post-war king, but he knew there was a change deep within the man’s consciousness. It’s true that, sometimes, there are wounds that don’t bleed and scars that aren’t seen. War has a way of instilling such injury: to the spirit, not the body. Maybe this was the case with Pilitreus.
Maybe all this was grief, still working its way from his core. Maybe he’d been emotionally damaged by the brutality and goriness of combat, and the sight of his own men falling beneath enemy fire—or, more likely, the sight of his treasured friend, Grotinbras, being ripped to shreds by a ravenous Tetroll. Either way, the sorrow would pass, and the king would eventually return to his normal demeanor. And this would be good, for Septizur was now sharing word of a momentous announcement that Luthor, lost in thought, missed the first half of before refocusing to absorb the rest.
“And given the consistent display of keen perception and supreme decision-making, Andromeda has proven itself as a race of important leaders, invaluable to the maintenance of galactic peace and order and the furthering of this union’s purpose. Considering this—and also considering the nearing conclusion of the latest centennial leadership term—the members of this council have voted and determined you, King Pilitreus, will be the newest president of the Bowltren. That is, if you accept the honor, which will go into effect quite soon, after a mere 55 standard sleep-wake cycles.”
The circle of eyes—which all looked different in their own way, some hanging from long flagella, others small and beady, enormous, black, red, green, absent—cast their diverted attention all at once upon the king and his legendary captain. The 98 gazes were so diverse yet, somehow, similar in character, conveying the mutual suspense they all felt in the delay before Pilitreus’ response. Luthor could sense, by the color of their auras and the warmth in the room, that the common desire was for the king to produce a fervent “Yes!” They apparently didn’t know the man so well, for King Pilitreus had always been an indecisive individual with qualms and doubts and questions that all needed to be addressed—a process that often took him several standard weeks—before he’d commit a decision.
“I am honored, indeed, by the proposal,” Pilitreus began, “and I would like nothing more than to lead this council into a new and brighter era.”
Luthor recoiled at his king’s quick reply.
Piliteus seemed to sense Luthor’s shock, for he glanced to him and made an expression as if he had suddenly realized he’d behaved atypically. “Now, as many of my assistants will attest to, I’ve always leaned toward caution in such important dealings and drawn my decisions out for what some would call eons. This time is different, for I can feel the support from each of you, and I know in my heart that I possess the abilities necessary to take the Bowltren to another level. I can’t doubt these feelings, and so I won’t doubt them. I accept the offer and look forward to taking my new place at the head of this union.”
Luthor released a sigh. Well okay then. I guess that’s that.
He wasn’t upset with the king’s acceptance. In fact, he was going to be quite happy about it as soon as his astonishment faded. After all, he was the king’s new right-hand man now that Grotinbras had passed. This put him in a prime position: right in the ear of the one who would determine all the doings of the Bowltren, including which planets to lend aid, which wars to intervene in, which unexplored regions of the universe to explore, which technologies and resources to monopolize and share. He’d have a chance to really make a difference, and to help Pilitreus in bringing the Bowltren races into the next density of consciousness. Yes, this would be a good thing . . . as long as this new King Pilitreus differed only in his subtle demeanor and resoluteness and not in some crazy, irrational ways yet-to-be-seen.
Luthor let his thoughts die as the discussion drew to an end. The council members rose from their chairs and hobbled through the room’s multiple exits. After a horde of various members had finished delivering their personal blessings, Luthor followed his king through the nearest archway and back down the winding, marble-floored corridors of the Bowltren’s massive meeting hall. The destination of their stroll: one of the building’s many teleplates that would take them—much like an electron jumping from one side of the nucleus quite instantaneously to the other—back to their Andromedan home over 1.5 million light-years away.
They reached the plate and atomized in five minutes. They were back in the portal room of King Pilitreus’ Viveron manor in five minutes and one nanosecond, staring at the stone gargoyles on the walls, which flashed a fading red as the light of the travelers’ solidification dimmed above the teleplate.
Their arrival had triggered a strobe beacon within the security headquarters, and only moments passed before a butler shuffled in with the king’s lavish robe of pale silk and crimson azengato fur.
“My lord,” the butler said, lifting the open robe to give way for Pilitreus’ arms, “it’s great to see you.” The king cast a fleeting nod of disinterest—apparently discourtesy was another new trait of his—and the butler looked down with hurt in his eyes. “I’ve got something else to give you, my lord.”
Pilitreus stopped his speedy gait and turned back toward where he’d left the servant sulking. “What is it?”
“Well, I was quite surprised when a soldier brought it in this morning. Would have never thought you to lose the item, let alone go heedless of its absence. I—”
“Spare me this pointless preface and get on with it, boy.”
“Right. It’s your royal ring, sir.” The young butler reached into the front pouch of his outfit and came forth with the sapphire jewel-encrusted ring that, only now did Luthor realize, had not been on Pilitreus’ hand since the battle.
So there’s one component of the subtle difference I’ve noticed, Luthor thought.
“Ahh yes, my royal ring,” the king replied, his voice less surprised than Luthor would have expected. Pilitreus reached out and grabbed the piece from the butler, beginning to put it on his hand but then changing his mind and putting it on the other one.
Luthor found this short bout of confusion to be intriguing. The king had chosen the correct hand, but why was there ever any doubt? He couldn’t remember a single instance of the king not wearing that ring. Its placement should have been second-nature, not to mention its absence should have been as blatant to him as a missing arm. Maybe this war has affected him more than I thought.
“It was found near a waterfall at the top of the mountains,” the butler continued. “Someone else was wearing it, but their body was mutilated beyond recognition. There was one other body found nearby, equally as defaced, as well as a Tetroll carcass. Do you—”
“A soldier,” Pilitreus interrupted, “had come to save Grotinbras and me as we were cornered by two Tetrolls. During the scuffle, my ring had been struck free. The soldier swept it up for me and placed it on his own finger for safekeeping. He was killed quite quickly after that. Grotinbras slayed a beast, and I wounded the other, but not in time to keep it from striking him down. Grotinbras was dead instantly. I knew because his head rolled over the cliff’s edge. I ran.” The king’s eyes looked scared and ashamed, his hands trembling as he spoke. “I ran as that monster stayed behind to maul my friend. I only glanced back but once, and God knows I wish I hadn’t. Grotinbras was but a pile of gelatinous red, and that beast was gnawing at his flesh. Savoring the taste, it seemed, for its jowls were so large that it should have swallowed him whole. Nibbling had to have taken extra effort.”
“Okay, sir, that’s enough,” Luthor interrupted. Pilitreus was suffering within those memories. Such pain was senseless, and so it needn’t continue. “The past is behind us all, so let’s leave it there. For now, I believe it’s late and you should get some rest. It’s been a big day for you, Mr. President.”
The butler’s eyes grew wide at the title, understanding, in full, the significance of its usage. “President? Of the Bowltren? My lord, that’s wonderful news.”
The young Andromedan was nearly bouncing, unable to contain his excitement but in a fake, over-the-top way that hinted at its insincerity. He was a servant, though. This kind of indulging was to be expected.
“Thank you,” Pilitreus said glibly. “Please spread the news. Tomorrow, I wish to celebrate. For now, I think I will take my captain’s advice and retreat to my quarters.”
“Very well, my lord,” the butler said, and he was off.
Luthor cast his king a bow, and Pilitreus nodded with closed eyes. He left the king’s side in the direction of his new living quarters at the edge of the estate, thinking as he walked about why Pilitreus no longer bowed back as he’d always done before the war. It was a silly thing to focus on, he realized, but it still bothered him. So many little things were different now. In the back of his mind, he feared the possibility that larger, more unfavorable differences had yet to present themselves.
It’s just a damn mannerism, he thought. It doesn’t mean a thing. And this was the logic that calmed his worries, or at least forced them deeper into the depths of his mind. Soon, he’d be helping to make the most important decisions in the universe. These were the thoughts he took with him to sleep. These were the ones he would dream of that night.
King Pilitreus ambled toward his grand bedroom, passing beneath golden chandeliers that cast a vibrant glow upon the glossed wood floors and art-cloaked walls of every room and corridor. When he reached his bedside, he cast off his robe and removed what clothing he had on, sitting upon the supple edge of his suspended mattress. As he burrowed down within the cool folds of his sheets, he tuned his mind to a covert frequency and reached out in thought. “I’m here.”
He pulled the sheets up over his chest, admiring the stalk of pale light—Viveron’s only moon, Azra, was full this night—descending down from the skylight above and spreading across his covered body. This was a nice room, he assessed. A comfortable bed. He liked it.
“Good,” responded a voice from light-years away. “You’ve done well. Enough that maybe you can atone for the failure of your late general. The humans yet live, and this unfortunate truth is not sitting well with our superiors. Septizur was furious when he discovered the loss. Those damn Reptilians. He threatened to bring the wrath of Alpha Draconis down upon us, and I only managed to avoid that fate by alerting him of your position. It was a keen plan, and you were wise to take the chance when it arose. I must say, as your high king, that I am grateful beyond words. If not for you, I and the rest of our people would soon be piles of flesh under scaly feet.”
“Thank you, my lord. It was nothing, really. I saw an opportunity, and I took it just in case I could be of use later. I’m glad I did.”
“As am I. But this doesn’t stop here. The Draconians have threatened us for thousands of years, ordering we do this and that without the slightest reward but our lives to keep. They won’t stop until we’ve eradicated the human pests. It’s been 5000 years since they first demanded this of Zuron Lai, and they’re tiring of the wait. I fear this is our last chance, and you are our last hope. Fortunately, your new position, as Septizur has informed me, will serve us quite well.
“If the humans want a war, then they shall have it. Patience is key. This was but a single loss in a much greater conflict, and we will have our rematch. Who knows? Maybe those damn Reptilians will finally give up their grand charade and join us in this fight. It is, after all, their chief ambition, and if we succeed, they’ll have no further use of the Bowltren.”
“This is true, my king,” Pilitreus said. He began to think of what his first move as president would be. His mind was cluttered.
“Don’t bother yourself with planning, quite yet. I’ll have my team of strategists craft a promising design, and then I’ll send you the details. For now, enjoy your time amongst those fools. I’ll speak with you soon enough.”
“I understand. Until next time, Lord Zuron.”
“Yes, until next time.”
The tingle of Pilitreus’ open mind vanished with the broken connection, leaving a dull sensation about his temples. He smiled, reveling in the praise of his king and the fact that he was now the sole individual that could save his people from annihilation. He was reveling, yes, but this feeling lasted only long enough for reality to creep in and bite. The fate of his entire race—billions and billions of Zetas—rested upon his ensuing actions. If he failed, it meant not only his death, but all of theirs. This was a weight he wished not to bear, but one, he knew, could be borne by no other.
The pressure made him hot. Sweat rose upon his palms. He wiped them upon his velvety sheets and pulled the blankets down to let his body cool. Azra’s light spread across his blue skin, illuminating him like a clear, blue sea. All but one spot, that is: a grey island, like rock, floating there amidst his chest, its borders refusing to recede, its surface throbbing faintly above the malevolent beat of the heart just beneath. He calmed himself and pulled the sheets up once again. A grin then stretched across his face, and he closed his eyes to dream dark dreams: dark, violent, grizzly dreams.