"Genie," Aladdin asks one day. "Where do you come from?"
No matter what, Aladdin never ceases to surprise the Genie. He looks at Aladdin from over the top of his book and smirks.
"That's not what I meant!" Aladdin cries upon seeing the Genie's expression, his cheeks going pink. "Sorry. I mean...I mean...well, genies come from somewhere, right?"
The Genie's smirk softens into a smile. "There's some legendary mumbo-jumbo that does the rounds about genies, Al," he says dryly.
Aladdin smiles, eyes alight with curiosity. "Can you tell me about it? Please?"
The Genie has to laugh to himself. The irony that he could not refuse Aladdin's requests of him even after the boy had freed him of his eternal servitude does not escape him.
Once, the Genie may have put on a show, dazzling Al with bright lights and colours and a catchy song in response. But Al's tutoring had exhausted the boy. And he was more a man than a boy, now. He deserved a more serious answer.
"In the ancient texts, it is said God created the Jinn out of a smokeless fire of the scorching desert winds," the Genie began.
"What about humans?"
"They came later," the Genie says. "God created the Jinn long before He ever created humans from the mud and clay of the earth. He wanted to get it right the second time."
"Get it right?"
The Genie nods. "The Jinn were God's only children for many eons. He created the shaitan, the nasnas, the ghuls, the ifrit, and my own kind, the marid, endowing them all with the power to bend time, space and matter. But He also gave them free will."
Aladdin's dark eyes were wide. The Genie did not need magic coursing through his veins to know Aladdin was clearly enraptured by the tale he was weaving.
"The Jinn developed their own societies, their own laws, and their own religions," the Genie continued. "They were also individuals. Some were good, some were evil, others fell somewhere in between. Many were tricksters by trade and particularly enjoyed tormenting their human brothers and sisters.
"But one day, the Jinns' continuing tricks against humans went too far. They made God angry, despite His almost infinite patience. In retribution, He destroyed the Jinns' civilizations and scattered them to the winds from whence they came, imprisoning them and binding them to an eternal servitude to the humans they had once mocked. The only way in which a Jinn could ever again be free is if the human they served wished them free. But as each human was only granted three wishes, He knew this was highly unlikely."
Aladdin took a deep breath. "Wow," he said. "Really?"
The Genie laughed. "Your guess is as good as mine, Kid. No one really knows. If God really did put me in that lamp, I certainly don't remember Him doing it."
Aladdin nods, clearly deep in thought. He says nothing more.
The Genie smiles and returns to his book.
The next day, Aladdin has another question.
"Genie, how many human masters did you have before me?"
The Genie has to think about this for a long moment. There have been so many...
"At least a thousand," he says. "Probably more."
Aladdin frowns. "And none of them offered to free you?"
The Genie can't help it: he laughs. "No."
"But...how long were in the lamp? Did you say ten thousand years?"
The Genie nods. "Yes. Not an exaggeration."
"How did you know time was passing?" Aladdin asks. "You couldn't...you couldn't feel the time passing, could you?"
The Genie doesn't know what to say. If he tells Al he could feel every moment ticking by like an eternity in itself, Al will be devastated. But Al's too smart to swallow a lie, either.
"Yes," the Genie says quietly. "I knew time was passing outside the lamp."
Aladdin is quiet. He looks unusually pale.
After a long moment, he places his hand gently on the Genie's forearm. "I'm really sorry, Genie," he whispers. "That must have been really hard."
The Genie smiles. He is grateful that, if Al notices the moisture in his friend's eyes, he makes no comment.
"Thanks, Al," he says. "That means a lot."
Right as the season turns, Aladdin's tutors begin to teach the sultan-to-be world history, as they know it. Aladdin is clearly fascinated, and the Genie is glad of it.
But the Genie's belly churns. He knows, eventually, Aladdin will ask him about Before.
He's not sure if he's ready to talk about it. Even after ten millennia have passed.
But if the Genie knows his luck - and he does; he is a genie, after all - whether he's ready or otherwise to discuss the matter will not enter into the equation.
He doesn't have to wait long.
Aladdin finds the Genie relaxing in the palace's fine hanging gardens, and watches in obvious amusement for a long moment as the Genie continues to sway gently between two tall palms, having fashioned himself into a hammock using his hair and tail.
"Genie," Aladdin says. "May I ask you something?"
The Genie looks at Aladdin. The kid's question is written all over his face.
"Sure, kid," the Genie says, trying to sound buoyant. "Shoot."
Aladdin sits down, making himself comfortable on the grass. He takes a deep breath. "What was the world like? Before?"
"Before?" The Genie asks, playing dumb.
Aladdin sees straight through the Genie's act. "You said you in the lamp for ten thousand years. The Sultan has changed the laws so Jasmine and I can marry. Surely, there must have been other changes in ten thousand years?"
The Genie has to smile, despite his churning belly. Aladdin is taking to his schooling like a duck to water. Aladdin's question does not surprise the Genie, but he had been hoping to avoid the query for some time. Avoid the query entirely, if at all possible.
"Yes, there have," the Genie allows.
"So...how was it different?"
The Genie swallows. How can he possibly explain it all to Aladdin?
How can he explain that humans once had a perfect world...until they ruined it? That their civilisation was built on the ruins of what was once a nation of green fields and valleys and fjords and a kind, progressive people? That the desert that remained was the wasteland left behind when the humans of powerful, far-away nations used their deadliest weapons against each other, everything disappearing in an instant, in a bursting flash of sharp, white pain which left the earth scorched for thousands of years?
That even after the bombs fell, more wars raged for centuries, millennia, even while the Genie was trapped in the lamp?
"It wasn't different," the Genie says with a straight face, looking Aladdin right in the eyes. "Not really. The world has always been pretty much the same."
Aladdin tilts his head, considering the Genie for a moment. "You're lying, aren't you?"
The Genie has to smirk. The kid is too smart for his own good. "Yes," he admits.
Aladdin frowns, although he appears confused rather than angry. "Why? Are you...are you trying to protect me from something?"
The Genie goes a little red. "You think way too highly of me, Al. Many of the Jinn had evil, malicious intent toward humans. What if I do, too?"
Aladdin snorts and rolls his eyes. "I doubt you would have saved my life and offered to remain a slave for all time so I could be a prince again if you had evil intentions," he says, tone dry.
The Genie laughs. "Okay, well, you've got me there."
"So...what happened? Before?"
The Genie is silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
It does not help that the Genie’s own memories are fragmented, scattered in pieces. But he can’t refuse Al an answer. He just needs to find a way to strike a balance between the truth and hope, that he could try and make a better future.
"You strike me as a visual learner, Al," Genie says finally, trying to keep his tone light. "What is it they say? 'Show, don't tell'?"
The Genie brings his hands together with a clap, and sparks fly. The Genie pulls his palms apart, and an image forms, small at first, then growing larger and larger until it fills the entire room. On the left, hundreds of people in simple clothing work together in the fields, harvesting crops, singing together as they toil. On the right, thousands of people in a dazzling array of restrictive, impractical clothing bustle about a vast, shining metropolis of glass and brick and steel, barely making eye contact, let alone speaking with each other.
"There was a war that lasted decades," the Genie says. "These are the people ruled by the two warring sides. They disagreed about ideology. Which economic system was superior.”
“They had a war over bartering systems?” Aladdin asks, incredulous.
“Yes, but this was a 'cold' war," the Genie says.
Aladdin frowns. "How can a war be cold?"
"It's a different type of war: waged not through battle but propaganda and political and economic means,” the Genie explains.
The Genie moves his hands and the image changes.
The vast fields and the city are both still visible, but both are on fire.
"But eventually, something went wrong,” the Genie says. “No one knows who started it. But both sides ended it."
The air is thick with smoke and flames and a strange grey dust and enormous, towering plumes of cloud mushroom dominate the rapidly darkening skies.
"Dangerous weapons were deployed, which poisoned the air and water and earth," the Genie says quietly. "Billions of people died.”
People are running and screaming, ducking for cover, calling for God for mercy upon them all, and Aladdin's eyes are wide with horror.
The Genie waves his hand and the images disappear.
"What..." Aladdin swallows, choking on his words. "What happened next?"
"Those who were left squabbled amongst each other over what was left of the world's usable resources," the Genie says quietly. "And about religion."
"Religion?" Aladdin asks, his tone again incredulous. "After all that, they fought and killed and conquered based on religion?"
"Yes," the Genie replies. He can't lie to the boy. "Decades of smaller wars led to fighting on a global scale. Technology had improved rapidly in the meantime and people were now in possession of great and wondrous technology which aided them in all aspects of their lives."
Aladdin frowns and is silent for a long moment, deep in thought. "Like...like Carpet? You said you've known Carpet a long, long time. Is he...is he a remnant from Before?"
The Genie smiles, impressed. That's my boy... "Yes."
Aladdin nods. "Is that..." he trails off.
The Genie waits patiently.
Aladdin gets up and paces the room a few times, back and forth, back and forth. "Abu can think and plan, like humans can. And Iago can speak! Are they...are they...?" he trails off, not possessing the terminology to express his idea.
"Their ancestors were engineered on a genetic level by humans long ago," the Genie explains. "Humans conducted genetic engineering on plants, too."
"Humans had enough knowledge to be able to change animals and plants at a cellular level?" Aladdin asks.
The Genie nods. He's obviously been paying attention to his science tutor...
"Could they cure the sick?"
"Yes, they could cure a great many illnesses."
"Illnesses that people die of now?"
The Genie nods sadly. "Yes."
"Was...was society fairer?"
"Yes," the Genie says. "It wasn't perfect, but there were places in the world where the wealth was relatively fairly distributed. Every citizen received a good education and care when they were sick and few went without food or water or a place to live."
Aladdin 's eyes light up, and the Genie feels something he hasn't felt in a long time: just the tiniest spark of hope.
"So...what happened?" Aladdin asks. "Where has that knowledge gone? Did they just...pick up and leave and move somewhere else?"
The Genie shakes his head sadly. "That same technical mastery was their downfall. Not all humans learned from their ancestors' errors."
"Humans like Jafar?" Aladdin asks, his tone dark.
"Yes," the Genie says.
Aladdin fiddles with a loose thread on his vest as he thinks. "Was Jafar's snake staff some of that leftover technology, too?"
"Was it something created to do good that he misused?" Aladdin asks.
The Genie just nods.
Aladdin takes a deep breath. "What...what happened next?"
"When fighting escalated, those weapons were deployed again. But these were stronger than those used before, more powerful," the Genie says softly. "This time, there were far fewer people left. But people survived. And eventually, they began to rebuild from the ashes of what remained. But much was lost. And for the whims of a few who sought power and glory and satiation, the whole world suffered."
The Genie stops speaking and Aladdin is holding a fine silk handkerchief out to him. He is surprised to find eyes and cheeks are wet; he didn't realise he'd been crying.
"You saw all of this?" Aladdin asks, his voice raspy.
The Genie just nods.
"I'm sorry, Genie," he whispers.
The Genie just smiles.
Aladdin is quiet for a long, long time.
Aladdin may have had a difficult start to his life, but the Genie has always admired his friend's positive outlook. For every down moment Aladdin suffered - and there had been many - Aladdin still found the strength within himself to hope.
So when the Genie saw the look of determination of Aladdin's face, he wasn't surprised. He just hadn't been expecting it so soon.
"Genie," Aladdin says. "May I ask another question? About Before?
The Genie looks at him expectantly.
"How...how did you survive?"
The Genie smiles, but he can feel it twist sourly on his lips. "The Cave of Wonders was once a seed vault, an insurance policy against environmental disaster," he says. "Seeds for every plant in the world, including food crops. Carpet and I were both put in there for safekeeping. So that we might help the world rebuild itself when the fighting subsided. But those who were meant to come to collect us never did. The fighting was too intense. Too many people died. So...we waited."
Aladdin nods, but his eyes are sad. "I'm sorry, Genie," he whispers.
The Genie shrugs, smiles. "You didn't put me in there, Al. Don't sweat it."
Aladdin smiles again, but his eyes are wet. "Are...are those still seeds in the Cave? Would they still grow?"
The Genie smiles, genuinely this time. "As long as the machines used to preserve and store them haven't all broken down, yes, they should still be viable."
Aladdin nods. He looks determined. "Do you know how to get into the Cave to retrieve these seeds?"
The Genie's smile grows into a grin. "Yes."
"Good," Aladdin says. "I think we should try and get them up to the surface, try and get them to grow. Our people need to be well-fed."
"Sure, Al, we can do that," the Genie says. That little spark of hope that bloomed in his chest the other day is growing. But while hope is a fragile thing, the Genie knows how devastating it is when even the smallest pinprick of hope is extinguished. Throughout history, many humans had espoused grand ideals of equity and fairness. Some had truly meant it, some had not. Sometimes it went well, sometimes it ended terribly.
Yes, this is Aladdin. But the Genie knows he would be a fool not to be cautious.
"I've been thinking, too," Aladdin says. "Jasmine and I will one day rule Agrabah side by side. I'll be her Sultan consort, whether I think I'm fit to rule or not. But...but I think maybe she and the Sultan need to know. About Before. About the good humans were once capable of. That society was fair, or fairer, at least. That we could cure illnesses and could build great machines."
The Genie looks at Aladdin. His belly is churning again; he knows Al has a heart of gold, but he is not sure quite what to think.
"Why?" the Genie asks. The words are out of his mouth before he could stop them.
But Aladdin is not angry.
"I think that we can make things better, Genie," Aladdin says, fire in his eyes. "That knowledge may be lost in all or in part, but there is nothing to say that we can't try and regain it. To make things better. To make life better. For everyone."
The Genie cannot help the slow smile that is spreading across his face.
Aladdin, a boy raised on the streets, would one day by Sultan of Agrabah, the last shining jewel that remained of that great human society which once covered the Earth.
Jasmine, who would one day be supreme ruler, was someone who, despite her wealth and status and privilege, had fallen in love with that street rat. Had refused to bow to Jafar. Had sought out a regular life among her people. Had longed for it. She had heart and spirit and something that truly couldn’t be taught: compassion.
The Genie looks at Aladdin - the street rat, the worthless orphan who now lives in what the Genie knows is the finest palace left anywhere in the world - and knows.
Yes, the Genie decides. This time, there is hope for real - and maybe, just maybe - lasting change.
"I think that's a great idea, Al," the Genie says.
And in Aladdin's smile, the Genie sees a brighter future.