Nothing moved in the main lounge of the large, coed dormitory on the University of Texas campus. A dozen or so students were assembled on mismatched furniture in front of the big screen T.V. Some were wet, having run in from the storm, while others had textbooks and homework papers strewn across tables in front of them, forgotten. Everyone in the room was motionless except for the slight tendency to lean in towards the T.V., where reports of the alien invasion held them captivated.
In the midst of the room's silent scream, one person remained distracted from the images flashing across the TV screen. Elizabeth Shaw knew something the others did not know, something about her roommate, Krista, which terrified and shamed her. Krista was not from Earth.
Liz looked over her shoulder at Krista, hoping to find some semblance of comfort in her expression. Far from being comforted, Liz could not help but notice that Krista's expression was missing the telltale shock that marred the faces of everyone else in the room. In fact, Krista seemed positively calm, all emotions carefully hidden behind the human mask she wore to cover her alien skin.
Liz looked past Krista, toward the large, rain soaked windows and into the black-as-night afternoon beyond. She had believed Krista when she had said not to worry, that her people meant no harm. In the midst of a worldwide crisis, Liz was left with the real possibility that she could have stopped all of this from happening if she had not been such a fool.
Then she heard a deafening boom of thunder and saw a blinding flash of lightening close enough to make her gasp. The sound and light startled everyone out of the stupors they had been in.
"This has to be a joke, like War of the Worlds," said a boy from Liz's freshman composition class.
"We've got to get out of here!" shrieked Liz's ditsy neighbor, Jenny. She was behaving hysterically, unsettling everyone in the room.
Liz ignored the insanity that threatened to engulf the room as she looked back toward her roommate. Krista caught Liz's eye and offered a reassuring smile, but the smile had the opposite effect. Krista's smile was fake, a product of the mask she wore, controlled as a puppeteer controls his marionettes rather than by her true emotions. The smile hardly convinced her, and Liz wondered that everyone did not see what she saw.
What sort of reassurance was Krista trying to offer through that smile, anyway? Was she trying to reassure Liz that, in exchange for being so helpful over the past couple of months, she would not be killed? Or perhaps the reassurance was simply a ploy, a way to keep her calm while the aliens shackled her and forced her into slavery. Then again, there were the other movies, the ones in which the aliens intended to leave absolutely no survivors. What did Krista know? Were the attacking aliens after slaves, resources, or the entire planet cleared of all humans?
Krista must have seen something in Liz's eye that disturbed her because she began to shake her head vehemently. "No," she mouthed.
No what? No, she was not a member of the same alien race that was attacking? No, nothing bad would happen to her?
Liz gripped the arm of the shabby orange couch and turned back around so that she once again faced the TV. For several minutes the news had been repetitive as the anchors searched for something to say in the midst of no new information, but now people's attentions began to turn back to some new images. Liz put aside her own doubts for a moment as she took in an aerial view of what was left of Washington, D.C. Large aerodynamic fighters had swooped in, heavily shielded from attack, but able to cause massive amounts of destruction against the essentially unprotected city. Only ten of the alien fighters had been shot down, while several hundred F15's and F-16's had been destroyed along with the city they had tried to protect. All this had occurred in the space of thirty minutes, and now the attackers had moved on, leaving the ruined city behind.
Liz brushed a tear from her eye as she continued to watch the gut-wrenching footage. The city was beginning to reawaken from the attack, and those few who had survived were surfacing to take stock of what had happened. On the outskirts of the city a reporter was interviewing a battered and dirty woman who was pouring through the wreckage of what must have been a lovely middle-class house an hour ago. She had three children buried in the rubble, she explained, not stopping her digging and clawing for a second, but there was no one to help her search. She had no idea where her husband was. He worked at the Pentagon and did the reporter have any news? The cameras switched over to a sky view of the area near the Potomac where the Pentagon had once stood. All that remained was a massive crater.
Liz did not think she could stand to watch for another second. She stood, giving up her front row seat in order to make her way toward Krista. She wanted the truth. She remembered the promise she had made to Krista, that she would not reveal her secret, and wondered guiltily if she might be forced to break her word. The guilt subsided as she thought of the three children buried in the ruble.
Liz positioned herself within inches of her roommate, placing her hands firmly on her slender hips. "Did you know?"
Krista did not answer. She looked away, at the floor, out the window, back at the T.V.
"Did you know?" Liz repeated. She had a horrible feeling rising in the pit of her stomach. A few nearby students paused in their own discussion to watch Liz and Krista.
"Yes," Krista said, her face, as always, failing to betray any emotion.
Liz had not believed it, not really. Her doubts and fears were natural, but she had been ready to set them aside in an instant if Krista had told her something, anything. She closed her eyes and stepped back. For three months now, ever since the beginning of fall semester, she and Krista had been inseparable. They had studied together, partied together, dated together, and most importantly, had spent hours just talking together. She had poured her soul out to Krista, whom she could sometimes forget was not human.
Krista was not human. But she had betrayed humans, all of them.
"How could you?" Liz asked. She noticed that the surrounding students had gone back into their own discussions of what to do and what might happen. Thankfully, they were ignoring Liz and Krista. Liz was not ready to turn Krista over yet. Not yet.
"I can explain," Krista said.
"What planet are they from?" Liz asked. Do not say Prothema, she prayed silently. Please do not be one of them. Even now she wanted to find a way to redeem the person with whom she had shared so much.
Krista took a deep breath. "Prothema."
Liz remembered the day she had first heard that name. How smug she had been, how certain she had been that she was somehow special. She knew something no one else knew, not even the supposedly conspiratorial U.S. government.
To the casual observer, Krista's human disguise looked entirely convincing. To this day Liz did not know exactly what Krista looked like, though she had an idea. She knew that Krista was a biped with an extra set of arms that had been surgically removed for her mission. She also knew that underneath the surgically grafted layer of skin was Krista's true outer layer, one made of bluish scales. While it was true that Krista was female, her feminine biology was completely different from that of a human's. Krista wore breast implants as part of her disguise. Aside from that detail, Krista had always remained close-mouthed about the specifics of her reproductive system. Topping off the disguise was surgically grafted brown hair placed convincingly everywhere hair grows on a female body. If her hair did not grow as the months wore on, no one seemed to notice.
A minor mistake had allowed Liz to see through the disguise one sunny afternoon during their first week of classes. Her last class of the day, Physics, had been cancelled. She had eagerly returned to the dorm room to invite Krista to join in a raging water fight when she saw her roommate sticking a long hypodermic needle into her thigh. The needle seemed large enough to be a joke, the sort of thing used to prey on people frightened of going to the doctor's office. Some kind of bluish liquid filled the needle, the likes of which Liz had never seen.
"What are you doing?" Liz had asked.
Krista, startled by Liz's early return, had nearly fallen out of bed, jabbing the needle crookedly into her leg. She had made up a story about receiving insulin shots, but Liz's sister was diabetic, and she knew better. Then Liz had noticed something else. Some sort of purple fluid leaked from Krista's thigh in the place where she had erratically jabbed the needle.
For two hours Liz had listened carefully as Krista explained who she was and what she was doing there. She had claimed to be on a research mission, setting the groundwork for a future trade relationship. The reason for the injection had seemed simple enough. Earth's atmosphere contained ample supplies of oxygen and nitrogen for her needs, but was missing several nutrients she could normally absorb through her scaly skin. The injections contained, among other things, simple water to combat the relatively arid atmosphere.
At some point during Krista's tale Liz had come to the conclusion that knowing an alien was pretty cool. She had agreed to keep her roommate's secret, and since then they had become fast friends.
At least, until now. Liz could not believe how eagerly she had fallen for Krista's lies.
"Please let me explain," Krista said. She looked around at the crowded room. Another dozen students had wandered in recently, all apparently eager to find human companionship.
"I think I understand perfectly," Liz said. She did understand. She understood what Krista was really researching: human frailties. The ships would come in, knowing just where and how to attack to cause the most damage. "Was anything you said the truth?"
"All of it." Krista said. "I swear every word I ever said to you was true."
But Liz was done listening to Krista's lies. "Why didn't you tell me about them?" Liz pointed to the TV, which showed a fleet of alien ships flying toward New York. Liz suddenly remembered Aunt Susan and the twins, Mary and Mark, who lived in New York. Would Aunt Susan be digging through rubble in search of her children in thirty minutes?
Krista's most alien quality was her perpetual lack of emotion. The mechanism used to try to emulate human facial expressions had serious design flaws. Her voice, however, could show signs of emotion, as it did then. "Did it ever occur to you that humans could do absolutely nothing to help? That humans are so far behind the intergalactic curve that telling them would be less than pointless?"
About half the room had heard Krista's tirade. The people in this room were frightened, but not stupid, and they would put two and two together. Liz found that she did not care anymore.
Slowly, the room began to fall into silence. After a minute Liz could hear nothing except the voice of a news anchor. "This just in. A riot in Chicago has just unmasked an alien living among us. The violent mob had been looting and burning much of downtown Chicago when a fight broke out, pausing only when the people began to realize that one of their numbers was not human." The camera switched to a live show of a 40ish man in a business suit. He lay on a sidewalk, having been beaten to death, surrounded by shards of glass and lying in a pool of familiar purple blood. Beyond him, it was clear that the mob had turned on one another, apparently convinced that there were more aliens to root out of hiding. One of them caught sight of the cameraman and shouted that he might be an alien. As the mob rushed at the camera, the picture suddenly switched back to a frightened news anchor.
Then Liz heard the inevitable conclusion. "You're one of them!" a couple of students shouted at Krista.
The eyes of the students in the room began to drift from the TV to the scene beginning to unfold in the opposite side of the room. Liz turned away, unwilling to either confirm or deny anything.
"Liz," Krista said in an oddly small voice.
Liz ignored her. She wandered back to the ugly orange couch in front of the TV, glared at a boy who had his feet propped up on the couch until he moved them out of the way, then plopped down. She cupped her head in her hands and listened to the accusations without watching.
"How do we know for sure?" Jenny asked. She did not sound as hysterical now.
Jenny's roommate, Sarah, piped in, "Maybe she's green under her clothes."
"Who has a knife?" John asked, ignoring the girls' suggestions. The boy standing next to him pulled out a pocket knife.
"What are you going to do?" Jenny asked.
"In the news report there was purple blood on the sidewalk," John replied.
Liz turned around to look at the scene. She could not help it. John unfolded the pocket knife, grabbed Krista by the arm, and jabbed the knife into her forearm. Krista screamed with the pain as purplish blood oozed from the gouge.
"Oh my God," Jenny said.
Then everyone in the room tried to be heard at once, and all intelligibility disappeared. Liz tried to see what was happening to Krista but a few people, who knew that Liz was Krista's roommate, converged on her.
"Did you know?" Sarah asked.
"I knew she was an alien," Liz said. Why did Sarah's voice sound so accusatory?
"Why didn't you say anything?" Sarah asked.
"I didn't know about this!" Liz said. What was Sarah playing at? She noticed several people converging on her.
"But you did know she was an alien," Sarah said.
"I promised not to tell," Liz said. Why was she explaining herself to these people? Did they think she helped plan this attack?
Several hands grabbed Liz, pulling her off the couch by her arms and legs and pushing her toward Krista, "She's in on it!"
They pushed Liz into Krista, causing both girls fell to the ground in a heap. When Liz picked herself up she found that her hands purple blood stained her hands. John must have hit a major artery, because a lot of blood gushed from Krista's forearm. Ignoring the room around her, ignoring her own doubts about Krista, Liz stripped off her shirt and ripped it to tie a tourniquet around the gushing wound.
"Thank you," Krista whispered.
"Still friends with the alien, then?" John asked. He seemed to have fashioned himself as the leader. At least, everyone else seemed to be doing as he directed.
"Don't thank me," Liz said bitterly, but she did not feel nearly as angry. She felt, instead, as if a part of this story remained untold. Perhaps she still wanted to learn that she had not played the fool, or perhaps a modicum of logic had seeped into her fear-ridden brain.
"What do you want?" John asked. His directed his question at Krista.
"I'm just here to do research," Krista said.
"I see," John said. He kicked Krista hard in the shin, and then turned to the room at large, preaching to the choir. "She was here to discover our weaknesses. You heard her." John turned back to Krista. "But that's not what I meant and you know it. What is it that you want? Why are you attacking our planet?"
"I'm not." Krista said, desperation and insistence in her voice.
John kicked her in the ribs this time. Krista screamed in pain and clutched at the place where her sternum would have been, had she been human. "Don't toy with me. Why are your people attacking us?"
"My people are not attacking you," Krista said softly, protecting her chest. Liz wondered briefly if that was where her reproductive organs were. She knew that the second set of arms would normally have protected the area from harm.
"I-" John kicked her side, "said," he kicked her stomach, "don't," he kicked her groin, which produced little effect, "lie."
"Who is attacking us then?" Liz asked, eager that this torment end. She also wanted to know the answer to this question. Krista had told her that these aliens were from Prothema, so what did she mean by saying that her people were not attacking? Liz held her breath for the answer, not daring to hope that Krista still might have a reprieve.
Krista took a moment to steady herself. "The Prothemans from the northern continent are attacking. I'm from the southern continent."
A murmur encircled the room, but it was not, as Liz had hoped, a reprieve. For her, the last piece of the puzzle had just clicked into place. She would determine later why Krista had not warned anyone, but for now she felt satisfied that her friend had not been a part of this attack.
No one else had come to this conclusion. "You admit being from the same world, then?" John asked.
Krista was confused. "We're very different."
"Then why didn't you tell anyone?" John asked.
Liz wanted to know herself, but Krista seemed unwilling to speak on this subject.
"Answer me!" John kicked Krista again and again until she cried out in agony, then he kept going. No one in the room seemed willing to raise a finger to help her.
"Stop it!" Liz cried out. Since she was on the floor all she could do was grab John by the leg, but this turned out to be a bad idea. John shook her off, but a dozen other people swarmed in, most attacking Krista, but some even turned their fear and rage on Liz.
Liz tried to fight back, but her attempts were less than useless. Her reactions were more instinctive than anything, and soon she was relegated to protecting her head as best she could while attempting to ignore the bulk of the pain. Help! Someone help! Had she said that out loud or not? "Help, please!"
"What are you doing?" Liz heard John ask. His voice seemed so faint and distant. "She's human, what are you doing? And the alien could still give us information!"
A moment later the onslaught ceased, but Liz did not know what had precipitated her relief. Surely John had not managed to gain control of his mob? When she looked up, she saw half a dozen large boys holding the mob back. They had not been in the lounge a few minutes ago, so they must not have known what was going on.
"What do you think you're doing?" one of the newcomers asked.
"She's an alien!" someone cried out, pointing at Krista's limp body. She did not move. Liz crawled over to get a closer look, pain shooting through her body with every tiny movement.
The news startled the newcomers, but they did not release the mob to start attacking again. "Both of them?" one asked.
Krista was not conscious. Liz picked up her wrist to take a pulse, before realizing that Krista might not have a pulse in her wrist. She felt for one anyway, since she did not know what else to do. She felt nothing.
"Well, no, but she's in with the alien," Jenny explained.
Liz bent down, ignoring the stabbing pain in her ribs, to see if Krista chest moved. She lay completely still, not a breath of air rushed into her body. As Liz hoisted herself back to a sitting position, ignoring the pain of what must have been several broken ribs, she saw a trickle of purple blood oozing from the corner of Krista's mouth.
"She's dead," Liz said, not quite believing.
"She's an alien. She's one of them," someone said. There was a murmur of ascent from around the room.
John whirled around to glare at the boy who had spoken, "I told you to stop. I wanted to get more information from her."
The room was saved the chore of answering by a new report on TV. "This just in, another alien force has begun attacking the first! A spokesman for the President has just released the following statement, ‘The new fleet has contacted us, offering their assistance, which we have gratefully accepted.'"
Editor's note: Christine wrote to say "Betrayal" holds a special, almost nostalgic place in my heart. Even though I had been playing at writing since the age of eight, I think of "Betrayal" as the short story that truly began my writing career. It's the audition story that gained me entry into Orson Scott Card's boot camp in 2003. Since then, I have published six novels, including the four-part Cassie Scot series -- my proudest work yet.
Christine Amsden is the award-winning author of Touch of Fate, which continues Marianne's story ["Signs 3.0"]. Her second novel, The Immortality Virus, won the Epic Ebook Award and the Global Ebook Award for Science Fiction. She also has an urban fantasy series out. The first novel in the series is Cassie Scot:
Read another story by Christine:
Originally published in Aoife's Kiss. Re-printed by permission of the author.