A Stranger Comes to Town, Page 3

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“First,” Talie said while Cognis and his glowing orb came down to join her, “could you say and spell your name?”

“Charlotte.  C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E.”

“And your last name?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You don’t?” Talie said.  “None at all?  What about your father?  What’s his last name?”

“Don’t know,” Charlotte said.  “Never met him.  Never will.”

Talie nodded with understanding.  “Your mother?”

“She’s called McGee.  Rebecca McGee, but I don’t go by her name.  I’ll have nothing to do with that name.  Just call me Charlotte.”

Talie frowned but nodded.  She asked a lot of silly questions after that like “Where do you think you live?” and “What year do you think this is?”  Then, with a smirk, she asked what Charlotte thought had happened to the sun, why the ground shook, and how everyone could have floated in the air like they did.  A few of Charlotte’s answers made Talie laugh.

At the end, Talie returned to the subject of Charlotte’s mother.  “Are you worried about her?” she asked.

“Course not!” Charlotte snapped.  “I don’t love her and she don’t love me.  End of story.”

“I see,” Talie said.  “Is there anyone in town you’re worried about?”

Charlotte thought of Davis first, but she wasn’t going to mention him.  She had no more love for him than for Rebecca.

“Doc Jones has been kind to me, I suppose,” she said.  “And the sheriff.”

“Is there anything you’d want to tell them right now if you could?”

Charlotte shook her head no.

Talie clapped her hands.  “Well, then I guess it’s your turn.  I’ve never been on the other side of an interview before.  This should be fun!”

Charlotte stared at Talie, not sure exactly how this was supposed to be done.

“Umm… could you say and spell your name?” Charlotte said.

Talie laughed.  “Talie Tappler.  T-A-L-I-E space T-A-P-P-L-E-R.”

“Are… are you the first woman journalist?”

“That’s an interesting question,” Talie said, laughing again.  “I’ve covered news stories as far back as 13 billion years ago, but I’m a time traveler so you can’t look at my career from a chronological perspective.”

“Time traveler?” Charlotte said.

“You think of the universe in three dimensions,” Talie explained.  “You can move left and right, forwards and backwards.  If you use a ladder, you can also go up and down.”  Talie pulled out a brass pocket watch and opened it.  An unearthly glow emanated from inside.  “This watch is like a ladder through the fourth dimension, the dimension of time.  We call it a time machine.”

Charlotte shook her head.  “You said something about outer space.  What’s that?”

“It’s better if I don’t tell you,” Talie said, putting her watch–her time machine away.  “You’ll have to see it for yourself.”

“You also said, ‘The ultimate outcome of these events is fixed.’  I guess you know that because you’re a time traveler and you’ve been to the future.”

“Correct,” Talie said.

“So what’s the ultimate outcome?” Charlotte asked.

Talie shrugged.  “Same as most of the stories I cover.  Everybody dies.”

“Everybody dies?”

“Everybody dies.  One thousand and twelve humans–dead.  All the billions of credits spent to bring you here and recreate your natural habitat–wasted.  It’s quite a scandal.”

Charlotte’s mouth hung open.  She couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“If you’re done, I want to make sure we get a good shot of you walking through that door and seeing space for the first time.  Give us a minute to set up.”

Without waiting for a reply, Talie hurried off toward the door, skipping over water and loose gravel.

A firm hand gripped Charlotte’s shoulder.  She looked up at Mr. Cognis and saw him smile.

“What you said about your mother is illogical,” Cognis stated, his voice in monotone.  “She must have had numerous opportunities to get rid of you.  She could have left you at an orphanage or abandoned you in the street.  When she came out West, she could have left you behind.  She did not; therefore, she must love you, at least to some degree.”

Cognis released Charlotte and flicked a switch on his arm.  His smile faded away, and he followed Talie through the doorway.

Charlotte hesitated a moment.  She glanced back toward the town.  She saw a pinprick of light.  All the lamps must be lit in the church as over a thousand souls prayed for salvation.  Rebecca would be among them.  Charlotte didn’t know what she’d find beyond that door nor how long she’d be gone.  Thinking of that, Charlotte realized she missed her mother.  Not much; just a little bit.

* * *

Charlotte had learned in school the world was round, that Christopher Columbus had proved it when he discovered America, but she’d never quite believed it.  Now she stood there, her face pressed to an enormous pane of glass, staring down at a blue ball suspended in a sea of stars.  It had oceans and continents and tiny, wispy clouds, but Charlotte saw other things too: bursts of light and fire, chunks of metal adrift in orbit, and a hole dug straight through to the planet’s core like a bite in an apple.  As she watched, the hole seemed to grow larger.

“Is that… is that the world?” Charlotte asked.

“You mean Earth?” Talie said.  “No.  That’s the planet Hyla.  Earth is over there.”

Talie pointed to one of the multitude of stars.  Charlotte couldn’t tell which one, but she got the idea.  Earth was so far away she’d never be able to see it.  She turned her gaze back to Hyla.

She felt totally bewildered.  That morning, she’d rolled out of bed, got dressed, and went outside; now she learned that everything she thought of as “outside” was inside something else, something called a space station, according to Talie.  She’d called it another name also: a zoo.

Some extra-terrestrial beings called Hykonians had abducted the entire town of Greenfield, along with all their livestock.  No one even noticed.  The Hykonians had created a perfect replica of the town and its surroundings.  Charlotte wondered how many years had passed without real dirt beneath her feet.

She knew a little about zoos.  They’d opened one in Philadelphia back in the 1870’s.  Folks would go there, taking their kids to see the elephants and chimpanzees and kangaroos.  What about Hykonians?  Did their children gawk at the “Earthlings”?  What other “animals” did they have on display?

More lights flashed over Hyla.  Charlotte saw a second hole forming in the southern hemisphere.

“Three billion Hykonians will die today,” Talie said.  “For all their military power, the Hykonians are no match for the Swarm.”

“What’s the Swarm?” Charlotte said.

“Microscopic robots.  Billions upon billions of them.  Some call them the Planet Eaters.  They’ve terrorized the galaxy for thousands of years, and it’ll be thousands of years more before they’re wiped out.”

“Are they the ones who turned off the sun?”

“No,” Talie said.  “During the battle, a damaged Hykonian ship collided with the station.  All the automated systems shut down.  Artificial gravity went off line for a few seconds too.

“The Hykonians abandoned this station.  When their fleet returns, they’ll destroy it.  They can’t risk leaving a Swarm infected space station on their flank while they try to retake the planet.”

“So the Swarm is here?” Charlotte said.

“Of course not, but the Hykonians don’t know that.”

“But you’ll tell them when you report your story, right?” Charlotte said.  “Then they won’t have to blow us up.”

Talie laughed.  “It doesn’t work that way.  My job is to report the news, not change it.  I have to remain objective.  It’s not my place to choose who lives or dies.”

Talie tussled Charlotte’s hair.  “You’re a journalist.  You must know that.”

“No!” Charlotte said.  “We make the world better.  We expose the bad guys, call for justice, advocate progress for all Mankind!”

“Who are you to decide what makes the world better?” Talie said, grinning.  “What if you’re wrong?  What if you convince people to do something and it makes the world worse?  The universe is full of people who mean well but lie and cheat to achieve their goals.  Do you think that makes the universe a better place?

“Our first responsibility is to the truth.  Tell people the truth–not your opinion–and let them make up their own minds.

“Yes, I could save your life and the lives of your whole town.  I’d do it gladly, but the Battle of Hyla is a crucial turning point in the Swarm War.  If I interfere with Hykonian military strategy, even I can’t predict the consequences.”

“Then what’s the point?” Charlotte said.  “Why be a journalist or a time traveler if you can never make a difference?”

“Because the public deserves to know the truth.  That makes the universe a better place.”

* * *

According to Talie’s magic watch, they had until eight minutes past midnight before the Hykonian fleet attacked.  She and Cognis had plenty of work left.  They needed footage of some of the other zoo creatures, and Talie wanted fresh video of the battle.

“Ms. Tappler, can I remove this absurd hat?” Cognis said.

“No,” Talie answered.  “Mr. Cognis, you have to get into the spirit of things.”

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