The Fires of Betrayal: Embers of Hope

So…this is a month later than I’d originally intended to publish this. Life got in the way…as it frankly has for many of us in recent days. However, to be honest, I think it was better that it did. The message this second short in the series (this is a direct follow up on In the Fires of Betrayal) was intended to deliver is actually more important, and more fitting, now than it was a month ago. Hopefully, that message does a little good, if a small voice can, in the chaos of the day.

The Fires of Betrayal: Embers of Hope

By Jacen Aster

In this time, with all the world falling apart around us, I hear many people say to me. ‘Padre, what use is it to think about the right or wrong a man should or shouldn’t do, when we’re all struggling just for survival.’ To them, I would say this: What good is it to worry about humanity as a whole, about the survival of the species, if the men and women who reach the peaceful future we dream of have stained themselves so much that they can’t enjoy it? What good will survival do them, will it do any of us, if we men become monsters? – Padre Jaquez Rosca

Broken fragments of concrete crunched under Crystal’s boots as she worked her way deeper into the burned-out shell of an abandoned town. The surface of the alleyway was more gravel now than anything else, likely neglected for years even before the apocalypse came, and broken down farther by the destruction of that night and the following years of neglect and weather since. This hadn’t been a large town to begin with, no proper city, just a smallish suburb in the midwestern plains. Which was pretty much the only reason it was as intact as it was, of course. Most of the larger towns, the true metropolises, had been devastated on the Night of Terror. With millions of people turned into living bombs and all crammed into tight spaces, it couldn’t have been any other way. And that hadn’t even accounted for the secondary damage from the fires, or for the systematic follow-on damage from power plants and the like failing, their automatic systems unable to keep things running after theirs crews died. The cities were pretty much a total loss at this point, fallen skyscrapers and toxic spills turning once-grand bastions of civilization into deathtraps that only the most desperate of scavengers would even consider trying to enter.

But smaller towns and suburbs like this nameless place had tended to be more spread out. Not just in population density, but in construction as well. They had still been devastated on the Night of Terror…but where the cities rarely had a single building still standing, smaller towns like this one might be as much as twenty to thirty percent intact. Which, of course, made them a primary target of both scavengers…and raiders. Scavengers for various groups of human survivors braved these locations for materials. Not food, of course. Five years after the Night of Terror there was little to none of that to be found in such places. But for technology? Certainly. Parts for vehicles, radios, or even just copper wiring and such to build or jury rig all sorts of systems. That sort of thing was still present in plenty, there not being anywhere near enough survivors around to have even begun stripping all such useful bits from every town.

But…is was the very need of scavenger groups to visit these places that made them dangerous. Draxi patrols, few and far between even years later, to everyone’s unending confusion, swept such places at random, looking for human survivors to capture or kill. Worse, despite the small relative number of human survivors, those survivors still fought amongst themselves. It was stupid, foolish beyond belief almost, to fight among themselves, but the very infrequency of the Draxi raiders had convinced some survivors that the Draxi would never be a true threat. All too true to human nature, some of those survivors had tried to seize power for themselves. Thankfully, such individuals had never been overly common and, with the efforts of larger groups like the one Crystal and her daughter Kira belonged to, their actions had been curtailed drastically in the last two years. No longer were raiders a common fear for the various hidden settlements. Now, they were only encountered by scavenger parties, and even that was decreasing in frequency as more and more raider groups were put down by either the Draxi or the steadily-more-organized Remnant communities.

It was with mixed feelings, then, that Crystal was here at all. For it wasn’t reports of human raiders that had brought her. It was reports of Draxi. Far more of them than the usual patrols. At least three or four dozen, from all reports. Possibly more, as no one had dared get close enough for a proper count. That was alarming, of course, but the same reporters had said that there was something different about this group, that the aliens seemed ragged, maybe even injured. Like they’d already run into another group and been battered by the confrontation, maybe. Why they wouldn’t have just been extracted by their fellows, no one knew. And that lack of knowledge was dangerous. So, rather than sending out a full team to possibly end them for good, they’d sent her.

Crystal was a solo operator, as much due to her own personal preference as due to the fact her pyrokinetic powers didn’t exactly play well with others. The unhumble truth that she was easily one of their strongest ‘enhanced,’ as far as combat went, just made using her as a scout all the better of an idea. She’d long since honed the instincts that had seen her through the apocalypse into actual skills, becoming exceptionally talented at not being seen by any raiding parties, alien or human. And, of course, if she did get caught, she had an excellent chance of blasting her way out of any confrontation. She’d genuinely lost track of the number of small patrols of Draxi or raiders she’d wiped out, which probably didn’t bother her as much as it should.

Any idle thoughts ended as she came to the end of the alleyway and used a bit of cracked mirror to look around the corner. Fear and hate surged simultaneously as she spotted the Draxi lookout, well down the street. Pulling the mirror back before any glint of sunlight on its surface could give her away, Crystal pulled back several meters and gave the building she’d been leaning around a critical once over. It was solid brick construction, burned out but still largely intact, and after a moment of picking out handholds, she nodded. With a quiet crunch, she jumped up and grabbed a crack in the wall, shimmying up silently but swiftly, finally easing over onto the building’s, thankfully flat, roof. Picking her steps very carefully, she eased across the broken building’s roof, coming to rest on the strongest looking chunk of its far side. Slowly, and very very carefully, she peeked over the lip of the roof, not daring to risk the possible glint from the mirror again.

At first, all she felt was satisfaction. She’d chosen a good building, as she’d thought, and had a decent view into the Draxi’s camp. It was only after checking all the sightlines, making sure she wouldn’t be easily spotted by any lookouts, that she looked over the camp itself…and her satisfaction shifted to confusion. It didn’t look right at all. No vehicles, no heavy weapons, hell barely any weapons at all! And, the more she got a look at the few weapons present, the more sure she was that she was seeing human-designed weapons, battered ones, mixed in with the Draxi gear. Add in a lack of standard Draxi military armor on any of the lookouts, not to mention a lot of wounded deeper in the camp, and this was painting a very strange picture.

Her fingers twitched, the feeling of fire in her veins intensifying at little embers began to fall from her fingertips as she realized just how utterly vulnerable this ad hoc camp was. It would be so easy. The Draxi were all in rough shape, they barely had any weapons and poor organization. She could kill all of the motherless bastards with no support at all. And she itched to do it, wanting it down to the depths of her soul. She’d killed many of them already…but the rage never lessened. These were the race that had wholesale murdered something like ninety-eight percent of humankind. And here were over forty of the monsters, more than she’d killed at any one time since she helped bring down one of their ships the very night she got her powers. She wanted to kill them, she should kill them…

Yet…

She relaxed her hands, forcing her power back down, and leaned back against the building. She wasn’t completely sure why she wasn’t going through with it. So what if these Draxi didn’t look military? So what if they were wounded? Their kind had betrayed humanity in the worst way and it hadn’t been their military that did it. They were monsters, to be exterminated. To be fought to the last man women or child, until they had either been pushed off the planet or wiped out humanity for good. All or nothing.

Yet…something about the sight of them bothered her, even through her well-justified rage. These couldn’t be soldiers, not the way they were acting, so what were they doing here? Trying to look at the whole situation logically, she spun the information she had around every-which-way in her mind, trying to make sense of it. She couldn’t. She needed more information. Making a decision, she shifted her position carefully, moving deeper into the most shadowed portion of the roof that still gave her a view into the Draxi camp. Calming the fire in her veins as best she could, she settled in to wait. At worst, she would be able to pick her moment and wipe them out despite her hesitation. At best…she didn’t know. Just that, maybe, there was something important here…

Crystal bit her lip as she watched the rusty flatbed truck close in on the town. She’d been watching the Draxi for three days, even sneaking in closer to their camp to overhear a few conversations. She wasn’t truly fluent in Draxian and translators weren’t exactly anyone’s priority these days…but what little she’d understood had been illuminating. Unless these Draxi knew she was there to listen and were all fantastically good actors and actresses, this group of aliens wasn’t connected to the Draxi government at all. In fact, the few tidbits of conversation she’d caught finally shined a light on just why the Draxi hadn’t swept in and finished humanity off. Apparently, the Draxi were a war…and not with humanity.

No. The Draxi were in the midst of a civil war.

The reasons hadn’t been stated outright in what she’d overheard…but given a few other conversation snippets she’d picked up on, she had a rather strong suspicion what had started it. For these Draxi had apparently come here…to try and help human survivors. As absurd as it seemed on the surface, had the Draxi people not known what their own government planned? Not known about the Night of Terror until it happened? If that was true…what did I mean?

Crystal desperately didn’t want to be the person forced to figure that out. What she wanted most, right this very minute, was the book it out of the town before the truck full of raiders creeping up the road reached the city limit. To pass on the admittedly critical bits of information she’d just lucked into. So what if the raiders she could see coming wiped out this group of misguided aliens? That was no skin off her nose… And yet the words of Padre Rosca’s radio broadcasts, something Kira listened to whenever Crystal would allow it, were ringing in her ears. She’d never been religious before the world ended and, to be completely honest, she wasn’t really now, either. But her daughter was, at least a little, and Crystal herself had to admit that the Padre was a good moral guide in a world gone mad, even if she wasn’t sure she believed in his God.

What good will survival do us, will it do any of us, if we men become monsters? 

The Draxi back in the town center weren’t military. She knew Draxi military and she’d known that much from the get-go. And now she knew that they had actually come to Earth trying to help…only to be all-to-obviously attacked by whatever group they’d tried to make contact with. Given her own strong desire to do just that, to burn them all to ash, that Crystal was still fighting…it was a wonder they’d made it out of any such meeting with human survivors at all. Sure, they had a few guns…but the closer she looked at them the more she was certain that they were scavenged. Not just the human-made ones, either. Even the handful of proper Draxi weapons they had looked battered and poorly repaired. And then there were the wounded…

Crystal bit her lip and made a choice. It was probably a stupid choice, one that might see her dead and the information she’d gleaned never passed back to others who needed to know, but the Padre’s words wouldn’t leave her alone…and neither would the thought of trying to look into her daughter’s eyes if she just left. She fell back swiftly into the town, knowing she didn’t have much time and no longer making much effort to be quiet. She managed to get back up on her previous rooftop perch without being seen or heard, which just proved yet again that the lookouts weren’t military in any way. Or trained at all, for that matter. Looking back down toward the town entrance, she could just see the truck full of raiders entering. She took a deep breath, then yelled just two words in her limited Draxian…

ALARM! RAIDERS!

The Draxi camp exploded like an anthill as the words registered. Some snapped eyes towards her, now standing visible on the rooftop…but others looked down the road and spotted the truck, echoing her alarm. She pointed at the truck, trying to preempt the weapons raising in her direction. She deliberately turned her back, trying not to freak out internally as she did so, bringing up her pyrokinetic powers and aiming at the oncoming truck…

The minutes that had followed had been chaos. Only one of the Draxi, thankfully a bad shot, had fired at her. And even that one had stopped almost immediately as he saw streams of fire lance out from her at the truck full of raiders. Of course, the raiders had turned out to have several enhanced of their own with them, no real surprise that, and the flames had mostly been deflected by one of them that could make some sort of air-walls as shields. Had the Draxi been alone, the raiders would have wiped them out…but Crystal was a solo operative for a reason. Her pyrokinetic gift was stronger, far far stronger, than any other she’d run into amongst the human Remnant…and she’d driven herself hard to fully master its use. Back in the early days after the Night of Terror, she’d been all there was to keep herself and Kira safe, and she’d been grimly brutal in every fight they couldn’t run from. Eventually, they’d linked up with others…but even then, Crystal had been a cut above. 

Now…the raiders didn’t stand a chance.

Had she been alone, they might have managed to make her work for it. She’d taken on groups like them before successfully. But usually it was a near-run thing if she had to fight a half dozen other enhanced solo, without the benefit of ambush. With the weapons fire from the Draxi splitting their attention, however, it had been a slaughter. Not a completely clean one, as at least one of the Draxi was dead and several more wounded, but in exchange…there wasn’t a single raider left alive. 

Now she just had to figure out what to do about the nervous-looking Draxi pointing guns at her…

Fun.

In the end, it hadn’t gone as poorly as Crystal had feared. She’d not been fired at…and they somehow still had both a working translator and two members who spoke a broken combination of English and French. Somehow, perhaps by the divine touch of that God of the Padre’s, they had managed to calm everyone down. The nominal leader of the Draxi group had confirmed Crystal’s own guesswork. That, yes, these Draxi had been part of an expedition to try and make contact with the humans on behalf of the Free Draxi, apparently the name of their faction of the civil war. A war that had, in fact, started over the events of the Night of Terror. Though the Draxi apparently called it the Krlential, loosing translating to ‘The Abomination.’ 

The expedition hadn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms. In fact, Crystal was an odd mix of horrified and viciously pleased to learn that the 38 survivors here were the last members of a 250 Draxi-strong group. The pleasure she took in hearing of their deaths actually alarmed her a little, and she tried not to let it show. Perhaps…she might be a little closer to becoming the monster the Padre mentioned than she thought. It was a disquieting thought…but one that drove the other half of her, the half that was horrified, to the forefront. That part of her realized just what it could mean, if they got Draxi support for the attempt to reclaim their world. And so, with that thought in mind, she sat down with the leaders of this battered peace party and talked to them about how to get in touch with her own commanders. 

This was crazy…but at the same time, Crystal couldn’t help but feel just a tiny spark of hope. She doubted she’d live to see it, given her occupation. But, just perhaps, Kira would live to see better days…

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