Doomsday Will Come With Flame
by Anaea Lay
Anaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she sells Real Estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, runs the Strange Horizons podcast, and plots to take over the world. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Apex, Nightmare and elsewhere. She lives online at anaealay.com.
There is a button looming over us, round and red and waiting. If I close my eyes I can see it, a bulletproof plastic case covering it in its shining metallic console. And the console rests in the bowels of a fortress impregnable for its distance as much as for the ring of blue flame surrounding it. Blue flame. Of course she found a way to surround her fortress with a ring of flame, never mind the vacuum, the impossibility of sustained combustion on the naked surface of the moon. It wouldn't be hers without the fire. She needs it, the symbol, the existential warmth of it. She needs the burning, needs to share it, to set it free. That's who she is. That's who she will always be. It's what drove her from the planet that birthed her and why the button hangs over our heads, waiting.
She's going to press it.
I was falling when she introduced herself. Not just any fall, but a "your jet-pack has been destroyed while you wore it, and your faith in the series of improbabilities that made it possible shattered as thoroughly as your body will be once you land," sort of fall. I watched the ground rush up to me and tried to find the poetry of it. There had to be some sort of beauty in splattering myself across the earth, broken by the very world I was trying to save. I was failing to find it. I consoled myself with the inevitable brevity of my failure. And then she was there.
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"Would you like help?" she asked. The flier she rode was silent except for a flickering buzz that sounded like a dragonfly, which matched the thin, shimmering wings beating the air to either side of it. Her hair whipped in the air like exposed flames and her lips twisted in a smoldering grin.
"Please," I gasped, even as I doubted her slim flier could support my weight as well as hers.
"Oh good," she said. Then she plucked me out of the air and I was riding behind her, my arms trembling as they clung to her waist, my chin pressing to her shoulders. "Call me Ti," she said as she shifted her weight forward. The flier dove back into the action.
The fight was nearly over and completely lost before she showed up. I wasn't the only one to fall that day, though the others had better safety mechanisms, or more reliable rescuers. "You second-string gadget boys always get the short end," she said as we dove into a cluster of carnivorous flying monkeys. "Almost as disposable as side-kicks, but less outrage over it."
I'd just barely escaped a gruesome but heroic death and been rescued by a woman who clearly shared my love of improbable machinery. There was only one possible thing for me to say. "I'm not second-rate."
She turned around, her eyes meeting mine. "Not anymore."
I didn't ever want to be a hero. It was the process of becoming a hero, the construction and research and development, that I loved. I'd have been content if the Vigilance League had just let me stand in as a tinkerer. But they didn't exactly have job listings or take applications. You had to be a hero to get the attention of the heroes, so I'd started with a rudimentary exoskeleton. When the first wave of carnivorous flying monkeys appeared I was there, netting them with my drone-guided capture-and-release system, protected by my exoskeleton. It moved with the click and hiss of spring-powered gears, a solidity that filled me with na´ve confidence. I'm not particularly strong or brave, but my inventions are things of beauty. Wrapped in my exoskeleton, I wasn't me anymore; I was a hero.
As attacks went, it was a small thing, barely big enough to warrant heroic intervention. We didn't know Maligno was behind it, that it was his first test run and a prelude to something much, much bigger. But that worked in my favor, because the big heroes took their time coming, and I got to prove myself before they got there. By the time they arrived, I'd netted a flock of monkeys and was starting the cleanup.
"Nicely done," Solitaire said as she surveyed the scene. I remember thinking her diamond halo was a little distracting, and trying to figure out how I could steal the idea for one of my battle-droids.
"You can take the nets. With the monkeys. For research," I said. I'd never been that close to one of the heroes before.
"You take them," she said. "This can be your project."
The monkeys got smarter, meaner, more dangerous, but I kept up with them, barely. By the time I figured out Maligno was behind the attacks, putting them very much in the realm of a project for the real heroes, it was already too late. They were being released over D.C. during a big U.N. summit, and I was the only one who had any experience against them. The whole Vigilance League showed up. They got knocked out nearly as easily as I did, which either says good things about my skills, or not so good things about theirs. Neither of those consoling thoughts occurred to me while I was falling.
They didn't occur to me immediately afterwards, either. I was too busy feeling utter awe as Ti zipped through the monkeys, luring them away from the city, across the river, and into a force-field cage she'd prepared. She had the flier mastered so thoroughly I felt graceful, even as I clung desperately to keep from falling off. Making her rescue me twice in one day would have been greedy.
After the last of the monkeys were secured inside the cage, we went back to help the Vigilance League tend their wounds and limp back to their base. Solitaire was having a small meltdown because the Awe Sun was unconscious. Comatose, as it turns out. Orion Knight was trying to console her, and Dandy Dolor was babbling incoherently off to the side.
"Where did you come from?" Solitaire demanded when the flier set down next to her.
"Nightmares," Ti said, her smile warm. "Let's get you home."
I don't know why she told us about the button. Or I do. Because she knew we'd have to stop her. She knew we'd pile onto the shuttle, launch, come after her. I would have to pull out all the stops to create new drones and a shuttle that would deliver us to her fortress safely, ring of impossible fire notwithstanding. She told us because we're heroes and this is what we do. We close our eyes and we can feel it waiting. Wanting. Whispering for somebody to press it.
Or maybe that's only what I hope.
We found Maligno's underwater fortress just days after his attack on D.C. and launched our operation against him within the hour. The Awe Sun was still comatose, which meant Solitaire was being a bit rash. Orion Knight was moping--I think he'd been hoping Solitaire would go for him. I'd expected to be cast out on my own again--I didn't have more knowledge about the monkeys or Maligno than the rest of the group anymore--but apparently I'd been integrated into the Vigilance League. I'd navigated their obscure HR process and gotten a job. Not the job I wanted, mind, but I could transfer from hero to tinkerer pretty easily. Worst case, I just had to get paralyzed first.
The attack would have been another disaster, another terrible defeat, except for Ti. Again. The minute we got into sight of the underwater fortress we were beset by angry mermaids, vicious creatures all teeth and claws and hunger.
"What the hell?" Solitaire cried as she jerked at the controls of our sub, trying desperately to shake them off.
"They must have allied themselves to Maligno," Orion Knight said.
Solitaire wrenched the controls as harshly as they'd permit. The sub swayed, but the mermaids clung fast. "Why would they do that?"
"They're afraid of him," Ti said. "Give me the microphone. Set it to broadcast on the external speakers."
We all cast uncomfortable glances around the cabin. It was hard to know what to make of Ti. She was abrupt and fabulous and impossible to read, but when she looked at you, you could feel warmth in your bones. We didn't trust her--we knew better than to trust somebody who waltzed in mid-battle and miraculously rescued everybody--but we were finding it hard not to love her. Well, they were finding it hard. I'd lost that fight the moment she plucked me from the air, and I didn't feel particularly bad about that.
Microphone in hand, Ti leaned back in her seat. The rest of us held our breath, expecting to hear her speak in some ancient tongue, or emit an ethereal screech, or begin bargaining for the mermaids to change allegiance. A warning alarm about hull integrity started screaming while we waited. Ti squinted against the noise, then held the microphone close to her lips. "Stop that," she said.
Just that fast, the mermaids were gone.
"Ti" was short for "Tiamat." That should have been a clue. Hindsight's a bitch. Regret is the cur that follows her.
Maligno's underwater fortress was eerily deserted when we got there. It should have been crawling with mermaids, but they'd all fled. Still, we searched it. Orion Knight paired off with Solitaire, Ti stayed with me, and Dandy Dolor went alone, muttering barely audible imprecations at the rest of us.
Ti and I were the ones to find him. He was at the center of the fortress, stiff and formal on a coral throne. I grabbed her shoulder at the doorway, stopping her from barging right in. "We should get the others," I said.
"What for?" she asked.
"That's Maligno. We'll need all the help we can get to capture him."
"We aren't here to capture him," Ti said. Then she smiled at me, and I felt warm and calm and confident.
Maligno watched us with interest, then laughed as we strode toward him. "You think that just because you can frighten mermaids, you can take me?"
"No," Ti said. "I think I can take you because you're boring. You're slow, hesitant, ineffective. You play at being evil, but you don't understand its purpose. You don't know devotion. You've never burned. You sew wings onto monkeys and think you've created something? You're embarrassing." She advanced on him, sea urchins and sharks scattering before her.
Something was wrong. I panicked, my instincts suddenly keyed in to what she was doing even though my conscious brain hadn't figured it out yet. "Hey Ti, just net him. Okay?"
I'd given her one of my special net launchers. She'd examined it with transparent glee that made me tingle and flush. It was hooked to her belt, hanging off the back where it bounced against her hips as she moved. She wasn't reaching for it. It wasn't even loaded.
Maligno was getting nervous too. "Who... who are you?" he asked.
"Your finale," she said, steam coming off her breath with the last word. She climbed the steps to his throne, then pressed her fingers to his chest.
"Ti?" I called, my own net launcher in my hands as I ran forward. I was falling again, the world rushing up to me, forcing me to think about the mosaic of blood and flesh my body would leave on the ground. There were screams, terrible, skin-splitting shrieks, but they weren't mine. It was Maligno, burning from the inside out. His voice echoed off the cavern, the coral, the marble walls of his lair, wordless and pregnant with the message of his agony. Sparks flew from Ti's fingers and her eyes glowed, burning brighter as the screams reached their crescendo. The sound tore me loose from the world around me and I was falling inside them, falling not to earth, but to flames and agony and death. I was blind and I was running and I was begging Ti to stop it, to net him, to let me be a hero.
Her arms were around me, her lips were on mine, and I landed. Safe. Happy.
"Why would you want to be a hero?" she asked.
In that moment, I didn't know.
We blew up the fortress. It exploded behind us as we left in our submarine, the five of us. I stared at the explosion, felt Ti's quick hitch in her breath at the sight of it. It left a crater half a mile long on the ocean floor, a zone of devastation that will take a century to heal. After seeing Maligno die, it was anti-climactic.
Even now, there are people who worship her. I can see them as the shuttle heads for the exosphere. They're dancing in the streets, red banners swirling around them, losing themselves to drums and the ecstatic nihilism that comes with knowing that one press of one button and we'll all be kissed by oblivion.
The Vigilance League's HR department sucks. But the medical insurance is hard to beat.
All of the ceilings in the Vigilance League's headquarters are removable tiles stamped with art deco flowers. I stared up at them, my head resting on Ti's shoulder, my fingers tracing the curve of her hips. The moment was too perfect. I had to risk ruining it. "Why me?" I asked.
Her fingers ran through my hair, stopping abruptly when they found tangles, pulling through them before returning to my scalp and starting again. "What do you mean?"
"That day you came, you came for me. That flier, it's not your usual style. It was bait."
She squeezed me, a lazy smile crawling across her lips. "It worked."
"But why target me? Solitaire and the Awe Sun weren't officially entangled yet. Orion Knight isn't just a gadget guy; he's got actual powers and--"
"Shh." She rolled her eyes. "They're heroes. All they do is fight to keep things the way they are. What would I want with them?"
"I'm a hero."
"No you aren't. You're an inventor wearing a hero costume. You're better than them."
Her skin tasted like salt and cinnamon as I kissed her shoulder, moving toward her neck. "You're a hero. You're the hero of the heroes. You've saved us twice."
She laughed. Her laughter was free and wild and wicked. It ran down my skin and left me shivering. I clung to her for warmth, for shelter against the edges of the sound.
My first invention was a music box. It was simple, crude, but I was a child and unspeakably proud of it. The mechanism inside of it played Clair de Lune while two stiff, awkward figures reached out to touch hands. I'd spent months tinkering with it, getting all of the parts to move, making sure the spring could be tightened enough to get all the way through the song. I gave it to my mother for her birthday.
She hugged me when she saw it, then snatched it up, wound it, gasped with delight as the music played and the figures moved. I'd never been so happy as I was at that moment, seeing my mother's pleasure in the thing I'd made, my little act of creation.
And a month later she was throwing my father out of the house for the last time and sent him out with a hail of objects shattering near his head. Plates. Photos. Shoes. Anything she could grab, it didn't matter what so long as he was leaving and it was her rage that sent him. Books. Vases. The music box.
She never apologized. Not for waking me, for sending my father away, or sweeping my invention out with the rest of the debris. "Sometimes things are broken beyond fixing and all you can do is accept it and move on," she said by way of explanation. And that was her last word on the whole affair.
Now you're going to think that I'm one of those boys who just needed a good male role model. I suppose that can't be helped. But you're wrong.
Ti, it turns out, was a villain, conspiring against us from the start. She'd more or less told us that the first day, but we were all still genuinely surprised. Hindsight. Regret.
"Come with me," she said as the flames rained down from the California sky. "You don't belong with them." She was perched on the back of her flier, riding it as gracefully as ever. The machine and the sight of her together took my breath away.
"I can't," I said, my stomach twisting and hating the words even as I spoke them.
"Stop pretending you care about the hero thing," she said.
People were dead. She'd betrayed us at the worst possible moment and thousands were swallowed in the flames. I was choking on the smoke, filthy with ash and sweat, overwhelmed and probably in shock. "I'm not evil," I said. "It kills me that you are."
She shook her head. "Then you don't understand yet." With a shift of her weight and a flickering hum from her flier, she was gone.
Good and evil. Light and dark. Life and death. One always triumphs over the other. But they keep fighting. I guess it's because Light wins, but Dark doesn't lose. Not really. If it lost, triumph would be the end, right? How do you come back when you've lost? It's not like the bad guys have friends who come out of the woodwork in a crisis, ready to lend a hand and a smile, to pluck them from the air as the earth rushes up at them with a fatal, final embrace. They can't possibly have that, because if they did, they wouldn't be the bad guys. The bad guys can never win. There'd be no point in us getting onto this shuttle and launching into space, throwing ourselves at the moon just to disconnect one red button. Only the good guys get rescued by the deus ex machinas of fate. We might suffer, pay a price for our victory, but we will have it. The deck is stacked in our favor. That's why we triumph.
And why it never lasts.
Guilt is an ugly thing, hungry and frightened and fierce. It ate away at me after Ti's betrayal. I watched every memorial, sent flowers to every family, lit candles for every victim. The entire League had let her in, but she'd come for me. She wanted the inventor, the tinkerer, the man who played at hero but really just wanted a nifty workshop. The others felt responsible for misjudging her character but I knew the truth, knew it was my fault she'd blindsided us like that, and that no matter what we'd done or who we really were under our uniforms and powered exoskeletons, she'd have done the same thing. We were immaterial to her, just a step, a moment along the way. Ti was a force of nature and we couldn't stop her. We couldn't begin to fathom her. We couldn't protect anything. We couldn't even hold off our own sense of futility in the face of our loss.
Round and round, the guilt gnawed at me until the inside of my skull was filled with a constant, long scream and the despairing wish that her voice would come through a speaker in my brain and snap out, "Stop that."
But we didn't hear anything from her. Couldn't find any sign of her. Had no idea what she was planning or what she was doing.
"What is it with you and fire?" I asked her once. I was staring at the flowers on the tile ceiling again, but this time she was on my shoulder.
"What else would it be? Fire is the only perfect thing in the universe. Everything was born in fire, and in the end, it'll all be consumed by it again."
"I don't think that's what they mean by the heat death of the universe."
"So? I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about phoenixes and wildfires. Lava plains and super novae. Everything bursts forth in heat and destruction and birth, and there's no stopping it. It's the end of everything that came before, and the beginning of everything that comes after. Something new."
"Like an invention?" I asked.
"Exactly," she said.
I tried to think of it like that. Fire was the universe reinventing itself. Something about that felt true, felt real, obvious. I knew I'd been in love since she came between me and a splattery fate, and I knew exactly why and how far that would take me. But I'd never understood her angle on it, what she saw in her second-string gadget boy. Now I did, and I felt whole. The thing in me that broke with my first music box mended, and I knew I could make the most beautiful things, because I was tied into the rhythm the universe used to keep itself fresh.
I went on a binge of invention, a tinkering tear, and I didn't come up for air until the sirens announcing the big California quake went off. My head was still in my lab until the fire started to rain down, until I could hear Solitaire in my ear, screaming over our radios as Ti burned her up from the inside. The Awe Sun lunged for Ti, but she laughed and darted away, leaving him to kiss smoke from the cracked lips of Solitaire's corpse.
After, when we got back to base, I went right back to the lab. I had so much work to do.
In mythology, Marduk slew Tiamat. In life, Marduk had been a two-bit low-powered hero in the seventies, one of the first batch of second-stringers in the Vigilance League. He'd died two years in, impaled by a zombie spear, and nobody really cared.
So much for mythological symbolism.
I was covered in a scraggly beard and miserable funk when Dandy Dolor breached the sanctity of my guilt-ridden workaholism. Dandy was talking all the time, just never to anybody, so direct statements and an actual conversation were rather significant.
"She'll attack next week."
I tugged at my beard, covered in a cold sweat already. "How do you know?"
"It's the U.N. meeting in D.C. again. She'll like the symmetry."
"Oh god. You're right." She'd been the only thing that saved the whole thing from Maligno last time, and now we would have to go against her. We'd already lost that fight once.
"You got your jet pack working?" Dandy asked.
"Jet packs are stupid. Vulnerable. I don't believe in them anymore."
Dandy shrugged, then shuffled out of the lab.
Last time we'd lost, but we hadn't figured out what was going on until too late. We had a week, and we had me, with full access to the lab. I could make it right. I could save everybody this time, wipe the slate from California, send my past sins and failures up in smoke and start over fresh, clean, hard and pure as a cooled lava floe. I might not have really been a hero before, but now I'd been burned. Transformed. Perfected.
It was beautiful. Ti slipped into the conference, red silk streaming from each hand, fluttering along the floor to either side of her. Delegates and ambassadors pulled away, clearing a path for her as she went. Steam rose from her footsteps. Cinders fell from her hair. She reached the center of the room, then turned in a slow circle.
"Thousands of years of human history, and you haven't had a new argument yet. Land and water and food and power, you're still squabbling as churlishly and ineffectively as ever. Still too shy to wipe each other out completely, too terrified to give up and let them do it to you. Aren't you tired? Aren't you bored?"
The crowd murmured, frightened. I was standing at the edge, my remote drones at the ready, waiting for the signal from Orion Knight.
"I'm bored," Ti said, her voice trickling down the spines of everyone listening like warm honey. "I want something new."
And then the silk scarves trailing from her hands burst into flame, and she was dancing with them, in and out of the crowd, whirling and spinning across the room. Everything her flames touched immediately took, burning hot and fast. The carpet, the walls, the people. Spirals of heat and destruction as she went, a blur. I was mesmerized for a whole minute, then remembered my duty, my task, and set my robots to work.
She dodged them, dancing around them, her scarves twisting in the air to embrace this or that delegate, brushing chair cushions and lecterns. She could have planted bombs, brought an army of fire imps, rained napalm down through the emergency sprinklers. She didn't have to be there in person, didn't have to be so exposed. But she was. Just her and her scarves, and we couldn't catch her, couldn't stop her.
I saw her leap up to the balcony where the Awe Sun was about to attack her. His eyes grew round and large, and then her hands were on his chest and his shrieks were louder and more resounding than all the others combined. Her whole body glowed as he burned up from the inside, her hair flying in the breeze coming off the burning walls.
The time it took her to kill the Awe Sun was all my drones needed to catch up to her. The same moment he collapsed to the floor, Ti fell under their retrieval nets. I sagged with relief, with joy. I'd captured her. I'd stopped her. I'd made amends.
The net, the robots, Ti, and everything near them burst into blue flame. It was a small explosion with a roar that echoed under my sternum. And then Ti was standing there, free and alone, her scarves nothing but snakes of blue flame coiling around their mistress. And she was walking towards me.
I drew her away from the crowd, toward a containment cage like the one she'd used against the flying monkeys, and she followed. She caught me too soon, had me backed into a wall. She was right in front of me, her breath hot and dry on my face. Her fingers brushed my cheek. "I'm sorry I had to break your robots. But I bet your replacements will be fantastic." She kissed me, and I expected my lungs to burn, my throat to tear as the screams I'd heard from Maligno and Solitaire and the Awe Sun came from me. But it was just a kiss, too short, too painful.
I'm terrified that she's going to press the button before we get there.
Her worshipers went public after that. Or maybe they spontaneously formed. We can't be sure because they won't answer questions. They just took to the streets, a red scarf in each hand, and danced. There was never any violence. No anger. Just the dancing. Crowds swaying and spinning as the silk twisted around them, snapping out and coiling through the air. People stop to watch them, mesmerized, uncomfortable. There's been talk of stopping them, pulling the dancers off the streets to show that we won't be intimidated by her.
But we are intimidated by her. Once burned, twice shy. We're terrified. The dancers took to the streets, and then we all felt it, the button, looming overhead. A low-level psychic field, the researchers say. Just enough telepathic suggestion to let us know what she planned. We had to turn telescopes to the moon to see the base, the ring of flame. We had to scramble to turn my designs for a lunar shuttle into reality. The fear motivated us. Made us quick. She'd lit a fire under us.
There was a small town in Kentucky where they only had one dancer, a thirteen-year-old girl. Her parents claim they don't know where she got the scarves. After a few hours of watching her, the sheriff decided to intervene. She was blocking traffic. She was causing a nuisance. She was skipping school.
She burst into flames the moment he touched her. He caught fire, too, and everything everyone did to put the fire out just made it spread. Twenty people were killed and half the main street burned down. The girl never missed a beat, is still dancing and burning even now. You can hear her laughter echoing off the ruins of the town.
There's been less talk of stopping the dancers since then.
We stare at each other for a moment when the shuttle lands. This is it. She fled to the moon and we followed and soon this will be done with. I look at Orion Knight and Dandy Dolor and they look back at me. Orion Knight should be leading us, but somehow that's fallen to me. I'm the one who loved her. Who loves her. It's my shuttle, and we're counting on my drones to take care of the army we're sure she has guarding the fortress. This is my mission. So much for just being the tinkerer.
We open up the airlock, climb through, start running down the corridor, shielded by a cloud of drones. I've redesigned them from scratch. No retrieval nets this time, they wield a complex array of blades designed to cut their way through hordes of her minions. No springs to power them, but a small flame, hot and angry. I will not be stopped.
As we run Dandy Dolor undercuts the rhythm of our footsteps with a stream of grumpy murmurs. Then the murmuring stops. Orion Knight and I turn. Dandy Dolor is dead, shredded.
"How?" Orion Knight asked, and I can hear the fear in his voice.
"Come on. We have to move quickly," I say. And then we're running again.
We know time is tight. She told us that, with her low-level telepathic field, sent a need for urgency along with the vision of the button. It occurs to me that I should confess to Orion Knight that I developed the device she used to do that. Somebody ought to know. But conversation would slow us down and I need to get to the center of the fortress as quickly as possible. I'm so, so scared she'll press the button before we get there.
I may have brought more drones than we need. We don't meet any resistance. No guards. They hover around us but I never need to activate them for defense.
Orion Knight drops at the doorway of the inner chamber. Shredded.
Just a handful of drones would have been enough for that.
I walk into the chamber. She's standing next to the console, her hair fluttering around her, her fingers resting on the plastic cover. Her lips are full and red, tendrils of steam rise from the skin of her bare arms. She smiles at me as I approach and I feel the most glorious warmth flow through me. I'm falling, but everything has gone topsy-turvy and it's the sky rushing up at me, ready to embrace me with eternity.
"What brought you around?" Ti asks me.
"The girl in Kentucky," I say.
"All that destruction. All that fire. It was beautiful. And she's laughing."
"She is," Ti agrees.
"You made her happy. All of them. They're happy."
Her hand is still on the plastic cover. I'm close enough that the heat from her singes my clothes. I put one arm around her waist, cover her hand with my other. Then I lean in, whisper into her ear. "Together?"
There's a red button looming over you. It spells death and destruction and the end of all things you know before the sweep of a cleansing fire. It's waiting. Wanting. Don't worry.
We're about to press it.
This story was first published on Friday, October 11th, 2013
Sometimes, your subconscious decides to lampoon you. Sometimes you don't notice until you're five thousand words into the self-mockery. And sometimes all you really want is for somebody to press the button already.
- Anaea Lay
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