This story is by Tamara Paxton Copley and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I pondered my lush New Earth, the world I had been in charge of terraforming, through the grand picture window in my office. That window was the one luxury I had allowed myself in the otherwise spare space. I considered the shades of green in my capital’s small buildings, their foundations shaped to hold firm to the boughs of the massive tree that upheld us and gave us life, kept us safe from the man-eating creatures that lurked in the lands below. I understood the power of green in the minds of the people. Green brought peace, joy, and life. Our tree was safety from the unknowns outside her embrace.
“They sent another appeal, Madam Cesar.” I turned on my heel to watch Solomon, my advisor, in his rumpled gray suit enter my office, a stark and depressing contrast to my window.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes as I stood, emphasizing my superior height in my emerald stiletto heels before Solomon. I stood at my authoritative, sage-stained oak desk in my spartan, olive-colored office, staring down my nose at that little man. This was when he was supposed to buckle. Usually he did with just a look. Not this time. He met my eyes with a calm urgency I’d never seen in him.
“There can be no appeal. You told them that, correct?”
Solomon bowed his head but only slightly. Not enough. I wanted to see that shiny scalp through his thinning white hair. “They said the branch has been productive.” He still made eye contact. Too bold.
“Not from where I sit. Weak branches destabilize our entire tree. They weigh down the rest and make the trunk bear their deadweight. The resources we expend there could be better focused elsewhere.”
“The appeal pointed to how much light and strength the branch has shared with the tree in the past,” Solomon insisted.
This time, I did roll my eyes. These constant appeals pecked away at my professionalism. “That was the past.” I closed the door with my voice, but he did not retreat. “Beware. You stand on a razor’s edge.”
“They wonder why we could brush off what that the branch has done.” His warm tone gave each word weight, as if these empty words had merit. I smothered a groan. “What would it cost us to give this one more season…?”
I turned my back, looking up through my precious window. “Does the head give thought to the appeals of the fingernails when they need to be clipped? Does a child consider the plight of dead skin cells when he needs a bath? Does a man weigh the needs of his beard when he shaves? I think not. Mother Nature sheds her dead leaves. We must do likewise.”
He had the gall to reach out to touch my arm, but I moved away, unflinching. “I have to speak in specifics. You have to know who–”
“No specifics. You know it would create an unfair bias.” I felt what little was left of my patience waning.
“You really need to understand—”
“No, I do not.”
“But all we have gained through this branch through the years–”
“Does not counterbalance what we lose now. We cannot make a single exception.” My voice began to rise. Why did he not bow? “Hesitating now would show weakness.”
“Mercy is never weakness.” I heard tears in his voice. Tears.
“Only the weak talk like that,” I said with a scoff.
“I still see life there and value. I see strength,” he said. “I see a future full of full boughs of fruit like we’ve seen in the past.”
“Yes, but the kind of fruit that is produced there is not my kind.” I realized a moment too late what I’d said. “It is not in the best interests of the whole to perpetuate such fruit.”
“And there it is. It’s not a dead branch. It’s the wrong kind of branch for you.” His whisper spoke volumes.
My hand darted like a snake at the button, dodging his hand as it tried to block mine. I felt the shockwave of the explosion from the safety of my bunker, half a tree from the community on the branch I destroyed with one gesture.
The ashes of the dead would coat our gardens and the base of our great tree for months, but it couldn’t be helped.
“The people there were undermining our authority, undercutting the strength of the whole settlement here on New Earth. They couldn’t be allowed to continue,” I said.
“Undercutting your authority. Challenging your right to dominate,” he said.
“That’s what I said. I am New Earth. My only child, the great Cassandra Cesar, will be New Earth after me,” I said, my face turning red and heat filling my limbs. “Those in Branch 26 refused to accept that. In resisting my wisdom, they were destroying the peace for all.”
“How many more will fall to your altar before you realize there are more needs than just yours? That control and peace are not the same?” Solomon demanded. “Branch seven then five then eight, and now 26? The rest will rise up. Peace is already dead.”
“Is that a threat?” I said, my voice like the rumble before a volcano bursts, my fists clenched. My next act would be to send him after branch 26.
“About your daughter, New Earth, Jr.,” he said, placing the appeal on my desk. The third signature down read “Cass Cesar” in her distinctive script. “She was the specific you wouldn’t let me mention. She left with my blessing two days ago to feed the hungry there. Those you left to starve. She knew you would stop her. Now, you have.”
The heat drained from my limbs, and my head became hollow, refusing to accept the words. I felt like my guts, my heart, had exploded.
I picked up the appeal, but I could not hold the page.
“Was she…?” I started, my voice choked.
“I tried to warn you,” my advisor said, his tone bleak. “The great tree of New Earth may continue. But your bough is finished.” He walked toward the door, his footsteps slow and broken, looking back just once before disappearing.
I collapsed under the weight of what I had done, my blind eyes staring through the page that had ended my future.