In the Fires of Betrayal – Short Story

Whew, sorry I didn’t post in December, but between the Holidays and several ongoing projects, I just didn’t have time. Then I ended up sick for a couple of weeks in January, just for good measure -_-. That doesn’t, however, mean I haven’t gotten to writing anything. While trying to figure out where to go with my writing from here, I took a look through my archives of unpublished work for inspiration. When I did, I came across an old short I’d submitted for an anthology a few years back. It was a somewhat different departure for me, being themed on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. It also resulted in the single nicest rejection letter I’ve ever gotten. Rather than not liking the piece, the anthology editor liked it too much. He felt that “wasting” it on an anthology was a poor use of the concept and actually encouraged me to turn it into a novel and come back to him. Unfortunately, at the time, I was both working full-time, working on something else, AND the story was so much a departure from anything I’d ever even read, let alone written, that I thanked him…but shelved the story. It’s always kinda sat there in the back of my mind, one of the few pieces I’ve gotten a resounding compliment from an industry professional on, and thus I’ve held onto it instead of publishing it anywhere, thinking I might do something with it later.

Until now. As I revisited it, I was hit by an idea of what I could do with it. I got to work smoothing out some of the rougher bits, it’s an OLD piece of mine, and thus needed a bit of love to bring it closer to my current writing level. And now I’m publishing it here to my blog…as the first in a serial series of unknown length. I’ve got a solid set of notes jotted down for the second installment and several outlines for other possible followups. Though, to be completely up-front, I have zero idea how fast I’ll be at getting them out. I’m currently shooting for once a month, if at all possible :-). Anyway, enjoy the first installment!

In the Fires of Betrayal

Jacen Aster

—–

Sometimes, even in the darkest and most bitter of times, a spark of hope can found. As the world burned, my hope flicker to life at the hands of a child. – Crystal Kyserla
—–

Her veins were on fire and the world was burning, but the two were not related. Well, they were, but not directly. Crystal heard another explosion and felt only dull horror at the knowledge another human being had just lost control and gone critical. She was numb now, even to something like that. Yesterday, the first day of the end of the world, had stripped her of her ability to feel much at all. Even the anger that had kept her going at first was starting to burn itself out, as she felt her own end coming for her. Now all she could do was wait, wait to see if she would survive, and wait to see if the aliens would finish them off.

She staggered but kept her feet, pushing onwards even if she didn’t know where she was going. Somewhere not-here, that was all that mattered. Her mind recalled the ship she’d helped bring down less than an hour ago and some measure of grim satisfaction found her through the numbness. Killing the Draxi on that ship wouldn’t stop what was happening, but at least she paid them back for her own life.

Her mind wandered as her body continued to trudge onward. As much as she hated the Draxi, she had to admit their treachery had been a work of art. Twenty years. The had planned it from the start, set their betrayal to trigger only twenty years after the first steps began. For the short-lived species, that was half a lifetime. Half a lifetime to make sure they’d gotten it just exactly right. They’d first come in a dark hour for humanity, come when the climate was finally collapsing, and unchecked dieses were running wild through half the world. They’d come with badly need technologies and a miracle drug that could cure virtually anything from the common cold to cancer. A new age of prosperity had come for the people of Earth as their world and populations recovered…and they had welcomed their saviors with open arms.

Only now did the hidden dagger become visible. Yesterday, everyone who had ever taken a dose of the miracle cure had started developing powers. Flight, strength, pyrokinesis, you name it and someone had it. For hours it was hailed as a new stage of evolution brought about by the cure. That claim continued even after the first report of a human being exploding had occurred…but it hadn’t survived the thousands of similar incidents that followed.

The world had descended into chaos as the new powers caused people to self-destruct. Cities fell and the world burned as millions upon millions of people began to spontaneously combust. The densely packed nature of places like New York and Hong Kong burned the cities to a husk less than an hour after the first incident. The people who managed to hold out longer against their own treacherous bodies tried to flee to isolated places in hope they would survive, for all the good it did them when they themselves spontaneously combusted.

Crystal shuddered as her exhausted mind forced her to recall her own horrific escape from the fires of a devastated London. She’d been on the edge of the city and still almost hadn’t made it. Some instinct had saved her, made her flee in the chaos when her own powers first manifested. Even so, she’d almost been blown up a half dozen times and her left arm was covered with burns from a fire her own powers had started.

The worst part of the Draxi’s plan was the incredibly short window of events. It had all happened at once, with no warning at all. It didn’t matter if you took only a single dose of cure a decade ago or regularly popped their pills, every human that had ever taken the drug started going haywire in the same hour. There was no chance to study the problem. No time to try finding a counter to the alien’s treachery. No, now there was only the hope that some of humanity would survive the horror of the drug. Perhaps some of the paranoid lunatics that wouldn’t touch the alien medicine might survive. Though, she supposed she shouldn’t think of those crazies as crazies any longer. After all, they said it was only paranoia if someone wasn’t out to get you…and clearly the nutjobs had been right. The aliens had been out to get them, out to get all of them. So perhaps the crazies that weren’t so crazy would inherit the earth, not the meek. Pity, but she supposed it was better than the aliens getting it. If they didn’t just swoop in and finish off the survivors off, that is. Assuming they even could.

The Draxi hadn’t exactly gotten off scot-free.

A cold smile, more of a grimace really, managed to twist its way onto her expressionless face. No one seemed to know why the bastards hadn’t fled as soon as it started, before humanity knew the cause, but they hadn’t. Oh, they’d buttoned up in their embassies and ships, claiming quarantine, but they’d stayed. The best guess she’d heard was that it was all supposed to happen faster, that they’d intended it to all be over before the humans could properly realize that they’d been betrayed. Or maybe it was something else, a mistake about what the exact effects would be, perhaps.

Whatever the reason, they’d paid for their lack of caution with blood. Humans who knew they were about to die had swarmed their embassies, overwhelming the walls and shields with their own exploding bodies. Others, whose manifested powers could reach out and touch things, had targeted ships and brought them down before succumbing to the artificial plague. A handful of military silos and bases the world around where no one had blown up yet had unloaded outdated nuclear ordinance right alongside every prototype horror in their arsenal in a last, gasping stab at their traitorous allies. Crystal had witnessed two of the alien’s ships go down personally and she had no doubt that dozens, maybe even hundreds, had been brought down elsewhere around the world. The Draxi’s embassies were rubble and their orbital fleet had been savagely ripped into, but it was probably still only a matter of time. For there were still more of them out there. More fleets. More populace on their homeworld. The Draxi had been spacefaring for centuries, after all.

But that didn’t matter. Not now, not yet, and not for Crystal herself at all. After all, she was dying. She could feel the power expanding inside her, the fire burning in her veins. The second ship she’d seen ripped from the sky was brought down, in part, by her, and now she was paying the price. She’d joined a mob of others whose manifested powers had let them attack at range and they’d targeted a ship still foolishly hovering over a small town. Why it was there they didn’t know and personally she hadn’t cared.

They’d won, despite vicious return fire from the alien craft, but she’d been separated from the others during the fight. Really, that was just as well. She’d seen one or two of them explode into bits of gore from their own poisoned bodies betraying them during the fight but hadn’t been caught in their explosions due to drifting at the edge of the pack. Best that no one be caught in hers either, she supposed, now that her own end had come. She dropped to her knees in the middle of the rubble-strewn street, only a few feet away from a crater filled with bits of bone where some other poor sucker had clearly blown up. She couldn’t go any farther and there would be no point in it even if she could. She calmly waited for her end.

Then she heard a whimper and her eyes widened. Her head whipped to the left, looking for the all-to-human noise, and spotted the source. A small girl in a tattered dress, clutching a scorched teddy bear for dear life and looking at her with pleading, desperate eyes. A cry tried to wring out from Crystal’s burning throat, a warning for the girl to run, but she knew it was too late. The girl couldn’t be more than six or seven and she’d never make it far enough to clear the explosion. She forced herself to look into the little girl’s eyes, refusing to let her die unacknowledged. She started to mouth an “I’m sorry,” but something froze her. Something deep inside her seemed to snap, white-hot rage boiling up through the numbness, every cell of her body screaming that she wouldn’t do this, that she couldn’t let the child come to harm on her account. The fire flared hotter in her veins but she barely felt it. She stood.

—–

Crystal woke slowly, her first semi-coherent thought utter surprise that she was still alive. Every portion of her body screamed in agony as she opened her eyes, and the fire was still coursing through her veins. But the fire was muted, suppressed, barely painful at all. Well, at least in comparison to the rest of her. She finally registered weight against her left side and managed to turn her head. The little girl was there, laying against her, tucked under her left arm. Her unburned left arm. What? How? Where was she, how had she gotten here, why wasn’t her arm still red with second degree burns? She tried to take stock of her surroundings. There was no feel of concreate below her, so she certainly wasn’t still in that rubble-strewn street. Yet, the burning still present in her veins and the girl tucked tight under one arm said she hadn’t dreamed it all. She looked around in the dim light, finding she was pressed up against the wall inside some sort of wooden building. A shed or something of the like, she thought, from the battered old motorbike and a few lawn tools scattered around. The child was asleep, clinging tightly to Crystal, pale blonde hair hiding her face.

What the hell.

Her mind whirled. How did she get here? Where was here? Why didn’t she remember moving? Why did she no longer feel like she was going to explode? If it wasn’t for the ripped and battered state of her clothing and the girl clinging to get like a limpet, she’d almost be able to believe the last two days had just been nothing but a horrifying nightmare. Or maybe a bad trip. She hadn’t done any sort of drugs since college, but she’d have been completely fine about it being a bad trip. Better than it being real.

She mentally shook off that useless thought and tried to take farther stock of her situation without waking the girl. Most of her aches and pains were fading. Still there, but no longer crippling. The fire in her veins actually seemed to be receding, slowly at least, though she couldn’t imagine why. She found a half-shattered window with her eyes. It was dusty, but not enough to block light. So the dimness of the space, the only illumination coming from a small work lamp on the other side of the room, probably meant it was night again.

She finally gave in and shifted to stand, trying to gently remove the young child resting against her. The girl whimpered in her sleep and clung tighter. She sighed and managed to lift the girl up with her as she stood, the child’s head coming to rest on Crystal’s shoulder. The girl didn’t wake, despite the movement. The poor thing must be utterly exhausted. Who knows how long she’d been alone? Possibly from the very beginning of the end of the world. However long ago that was now.

Crystal moved to the window first, confirming that, yes, it was night out. Though the fires burning in the distance were providing some light for the moonless night. She looked around critically, trying to make out if they were safe there. She gave up quickly on the limited view from the window and reluctantly left the shed for a few moments, looking around quickly before ducking back inside.

She didn’t recognize where she was from her peek. This wasn’t her town, so perhaps that wasn’t surprising. Even so, she could at least tell that they were on or near the outskirts. She’d glimpsed a ruined home, likely the result of an exploding person, but there’d been no houses to either side and the fires of the city were perhaps a half mile off.

She checked the lights next. The overhead was dead, the power likely long since cut by the chaos, but the little work lamp was battery powered and seemed to have plenty of juice left. She fumbled through the various drawers but found little of note. The saddlebags on the old motorcycle were better, containing a handful of almost-expired energy bars. She managed to rip one open with her teeth, despite still holding the girl, and sat back down against the wall as she munched on it.

What the hell was she going to do? Even as she’d moved around the little shed, she’d felt the fire in her veins fading a bit more. Did that mean she was safe? That she’d somehow made it through? Beaten the doom that had come to humanity? Even if she had, what then? The little girl murmured in her sleep and burrowed deeper into Crystal’s side.

She grimaced, and wasn’t that a complication. She wasn’t about to leave the kid alone, so whatever she did would need to include the girl. Hopefully the kid could at least answer how the hell they’d gotten here. Crystal hadn’t seen any sign of other humans, which both soothed and worried her. She continued thinking about their situation for some time before sleep took her again.

—–

Crystal woke to a timid hand gently shaking her shoulder. Her mind caught up with current events much faster this time, registering the small child waking her at the same time she realized she didn’t hurt anymore. Well, not as much. There were the typical aches and pains of sleeping against a wall on a wood floor, but almost nothing else. Even the fire in her veins had faded to barely a tingle. Shaking off thoughts of her situation for a moment, she looked the girl over and grinned as she recognized the expression on her childish face. The poor girl had to pee.

It took a bit of time to convince the girl, who’d given her name as Kira, to use the nearby trees for a potty instead of a bathroom. After that, a bit of poking around the ruins of the house had turned up a miraculously intact fridge. She wasn’t about to trust its perishable contents, but bottled water and a few fruits had joined the remaining energy bars to make a crude breakfast for her and the kid. Now it was time to try and get some answers.

“Kira, do you remember what happened yesterday, after you found me?” Her voice was raw, and a little hoarse, but the sound of it seemed to reassure the girl she was there. Well, that and the hand that the girl had in a death grip. She hadn’t even let it go to eat.

Kira nodded but didn’t speak.

Crystal tried not to groan in frustration. “Kira, I need you to tell me what happened. Can you do that for me, please?”

The girl looked uncertain but eventually took a deep breath. “Y-you looked like you were in pain. Then you looked really angry and I thought I’d done something wrong. But…but you just picked me up in a hug and started walking. You were really scary, but you didn’t hurt me, and with daddy gone I didn’t know what else to do. You carried me for a long time, until all the fires were behind us, then you found the shed and brought us inside. You kinda collapsed after that, which was scary. I couldn’t wake you so I dragged you to the wall and-” she sniffled and went silent.

Crystal gently ruffled the girl’s hair as she considered what she’d been told. So no one had moved them. She’d done it herself, she just couldn’t remember. Trauma? She supposed it didn’t matter. Whatever had happened seems to have brought her at least a temporary reprieve from exploding. “You did good kid and I’m sorry I scared you. I was in pretty bad shape yesterday. I don’t even remember anything after finding you.”

Several moments of silence followed, before the little girl asked her the million-pound question. “Ms. Crystal, what do we do now?”

Crystal sighed. “We try to survive, kid.” She pushed herself to her feet and turned to the workbench. They’d returned to the shed to eat, Crystal not wanting to risk the questionable stability of the house any longer than she had to. Now, in the full light of day, she had seen something on the workbench that she wanted to check out. “But first, we try to find out if there is anyone else out there. And if there is, what they know.”

The kid followed her as she crossed the room to her prize, a small old-fashion dial radio. While she was under no delusion that the major broadcast towers were still up, there would have been far too many people at the stations for that, she hoped the emergency broadcast channel might still work. Or, if not that, then that someone else with broadcast gear was still on the air. The equipment was common enough that she figured there was a solid shot at hearing something, even if it was just a hobbyist with a decent transmitter. Assuming, of course, that there was anyone else still out there. She flicked the radio on and was grateful to hear static. Its batteries were still good. Now, the remaining question was if she should get some privacy for what she might hear.

She looked between the little girl beside her and the radio, then made a decision. No, if the radio had anything to say she’d not hide it from Kira. She’d likely already seen her dad explode. Crystal was almost certain the crater she’d knelt next to had belonged to him, given the quaver in Kira’s voice at his mention, and the kid would probably see lots more horrible things yet. No point in trying to shelter her from reality. She made a quick study of the archaic little radio’s controls and started scanning the frequencies. It took several long minutes before she found anything, a weak signal coming from the AM band.

“-epeat. This is an announcement for any survivors still out there. This is Richard Ellis, and I’ve managed to get in touch with several people via shortwave. We don’t know much, but I’ll share what we do know. There are survivors. I suppose that’s obvious, but maybe it’s not, since I set this to transmit on loop until the power runs out and I don’t know when you’re hearing it. So, yeah, there are survivors. Most I’ve gotten in touch with were from families or groups that didn’t trust the new meds, so yay for them. A few though, like me, we seem to have managed to control the powers somehow. None of us understand what we did. Hell, maybe it wasn’t even anything we did at all. Maybe we just got lucky. But anyway, we have the powers but managed not to explode yet. Everyone that’s reported it so far says that they almost did, that they felt it about to happen, but something let them suppress it. Most say they got angry at it, a couple said they just got real calm like and denied it or something. Neither makes much sense, but whatever the case, pretty much everyone out there that’s gonna explode seems to have gone and exploded. So, good for you, if you’re still alive, have powers, and what I’ve said sounds like what happened, then you hopefully won’t explode.”

The man’s voice paused, his clearing throat mingling with the static in the signal.

“Anyway, stay away from the major cities. They’re pretty much toast and everything around them is on fire. We’ve got lots of reports of destroyed alien embassies and a double handful about downed ships, but no one has seen any of the bastards moving around for a while. Maybe we hurt them, maybe they’re just waiting for the rest of us to die. I don’t know and I don’t care. For now, the best I can tell you is to scrounge some food and drink, a portable radio, and get the hell away from civilization. If no one comes to blow up my transmitter, I’ll ty to update you when I know more. And for God’s sake, don’t hurt anyone human people, we’ve got enough enemies as it is.”

The message started repeating and Crystal tried scanning for anything else. She gave up after a few minutes of nothing and flicked the radio off, returning the shed to silence.

“Ms. Crystal, what are we gonna do?”

Crystal held up her hand, palm facing up, and sorta pushed. A flame appeared hovering over her palm, and when she only felt a tiny smidge of that fiery feeling in her veins in response she sighed in relief and made her decision. “For now, we’re gonna take his advice kid. Later? Later we’ll see if we can’t make the bastards pay.”

It was probably a sign of the times, good or bad Crystal didn’t know, that little Kira just met her eyes and nodded grimly.

 

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