Charlotte took a few steps away from them. The time travelers seemed to ignore her. Cognis was filming some monstrous spiders called gargantulas; Talie was writing on some device called a data-pad. When she was sure they wouldn’t stop her, Charlotte ran back down the corridor, her boots pounding on the metal floor. She only paused long enough to yank one of the flashing emergency lights off the wall.
“Don’t worry about her,” Talie said. “Even if she tells them, they won’t believe her. Even if they did, they can’t do anything about it.”
“Yes, Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said.
Charlotte’s horse had found a small patch of grass to eat. Charlotte climbed over some boulders to reach him and pulled him away by the reigns. He put up a brief resistance, nibbling a little faster, then succumbed to her will.
“What do you think of us?” Charlotte said, patting the horse’s nose. “Are we as strange to you as the Hykonians are to us?”
The horse stared at her, the flashing emergency light reflecting in his eyes.
Charlotte mounted her horse. As far as she was concerned, the men and women of Greenfield deserved more than the truth. They deserved a warning and a chance to save themselves.
* * *
Riding back into town, Charlotte planned out what she’d say. She didn’t have time to write an article on what she’d seen. She didn’t even know how close midnight was. She’d have to skip everything about the Stranger’s identity. She wouldn’t have much time to explain about the zoo or the war either. As she jumped off her horse and ran up the church steps, she realized Talie was right about one thing: no one would believe her story.
The church wasn’t meant to hold all the townsfolk at once. Only half attended services regularly anyway, but now everyone had squeezed inside. Many had gone up to the balcony where the choir usually sat.
Charlotte pushed her way through the crowd. People stood aside for her. Some stared. Others gasped. The reverend faltered in his sermon. Only when the entire church fell silent and everyone was watching her did Charlotte remember she still held the flashing emergency light.
“I… I know why the sun went dark, why the earth shook, and why our feet left the ground,” Charlotte said. “I’ve seen a great war raging across the… the world. Lucifer and his armies have risen up to devour all of Creation.”
A few in the congregation whispered to each other. Some cast dark glances at Charlotte. None of them liked her much after all the snooping she’d done, all the secrets she’d spoiled, but they knew one thing: Charlotte always told the truth. They may not like it, but it was always true. Not only that, but she held up her pulsing light as evidence. It outshone all the oil lamps in the church combined.
Rebecca pressed a hand to her bosom, trying to calm her racing heart. The reverend’s wife bit her lip, her face pale as death. The menfolk looked as scared as the women, and the reverend himself gripped the edge of his pulpit, muttering, “The End of Days.”
“This is not the end!” Charlotte said. “The hand of God reached down from heaven. He scooped up our whole town and every rock and tree around it. His angels now carry us above the devastation, but we must act now or we too will be cast into the fires of Hell.”
“What must we do?” someone shouted.
Standing in the middle of the church with everyone listening, Charlotte opened her mouth. For once, she could tell people exactly what to do, and they’d do it. She could see their impatience, their eagerness for her instruction.
Except what should they do?
“You’re telling lies, girl.”
Charlotte turned and saw the sheriff emerge from the crowd, his thumbs hitched to his belt. He glared at her from beneath his bushy eyebrows.
“I am not!” Charlotte said.
“You’re telling lies,” the sheriff said, advancing on her with long strides. “What did you really see?”
“I told you,” Charlotte insisted. “Angels holding us in the heavens and Lucifer’s armies and…”
The sheriff grabbed Charlotte by the arm. She cried out, but no one moved to help her. The sheriff leaned close, his breath hot in her ear.
“You’re lying,” he whispered. “Now what’s happened to the Hykonians?”
* * *
The sheriff led Charlotte out of the church, into the pitch-black streets, down to the jail. She didn’t struggle, though he held her arm in an iron tight grip. Neither of them spoke.
“Sheriff, what’s this about?” the reverend shouted from the church doors.
“That’s my daughter, you son of a bitch!” Rebecca shrieked behind him. “God help you if you hurt my daughter!”
The sheriff didn’t reply.
Charlotte had been in the jail before, in a manner of speaking. Like the saloon, it had a crawl space beneath the floorboards. Some water-starved brambles concealed a narrow opening around back. Charlotte often cut her hands and face trying to get through, but the stories she overheard made it worthwhile. Stories of thefts, drunkenness, and one case of adultery and murder that kept the town gossiping for a month.
But Charlotte had never gone in through the front door. She’d never seen the sheriff’s desk or the bars on his three cells or the wood carved clock hanging on the wall. A faded painting of Lady Justice and a copy of the Ten Commandments hung beside it.
The sheriff forced Charlotte into a chair by the door then went to unlock one of the cells. Inside, Willard sat hunched over, his hair tangled, his eyes wild.
“I swear I saw them!” he said as the sheriff pulled him to his feet. “Munchkins. Green munchkins with eyes black as sin. I saw them!”
“I know you did,” the sheriff said, shoving him toward the door. “Now get out of here.”
Willard tripped over the doorjamb, tumbling into the darkness outside. The sheriff slammed the door behind him.
“He tried to escape a bunch of times,” the sheriff said. “He ain’t a drunk. He don’t touch the stuff, but ever since the Hykonians brought him back he’s been messed up like a drunk. They used something called a tranquilizer on him. ‘It’ll wear off,’ they said, but I think that tranquilizer did something to his mind. Each time they send him back, he’s a little worse.
“Or maybe it’s just the sight of those Hykonians that drove him mad. Nearly drove me mad first time I saw them.”
The sheriff wandered toward his desk, not looking at Charlotte, not particularly looking at anything.
A good reporter knew when to talk and when to listen. This, Charlotte realized, was a time to listen. She kept her mouth shut, though she had a thousand nasty things to say. The sheriff had known all along about the Hykonians and their zoo, so what else did he know?
The sheriff slumped into the chair at his desk and ran his fingers through his thinning hair.
“I ain’t no fool, girl,” he said. “I know it ain’t God and a host of his angels holding us in the sky, and you know it too. Now tell me what you’ve seen.”
Charlotte didn’t answer. She’d never been so frightened in her life, and her fear made her stubborn. She stared at the sheriff, watched every move he made while she remained still.
Second by second, tick by tick, the hands of the clock crept toward midnight.
“You’re too young to remember how it was back East,” the sheriff said. “They say the War Between the States ended, but it didn’t. They say slavery’s gone, but it ain’t. It’s still American against American, brother against brother, still one group of people aiming to be master over another. They don’t call it war; they call it politics.
“We came out West to get away from that, as far as possible. Never dreamed how far we’d go.
“The Hykonians only revealed themselves to me. I’m the lawman. They figured that made me the town’s leader. For everyone else, they stayed hidden. They wanted to observe us in our ‘natural habitat’ without any ‘cross cultural contamination.’”
“We’re prisoners,” Charlotte said, her anger boiling over. “We should fight back, fight to get free. Why didn’t you tell anyone the truth?”
“Why didn’t you?” the sheriff said, his gaze flicking toward her.
Charlotte sat motionless, her feet planted to the floor, her hands gripping the sides of her chair. She clamped her jaw shut, reminding herself to listen instead of talk. The sheriff laughed at her.
“We wanted to leave the troubles of the world behind. No more Reconstruction. No more Industrial Revolution. No more Uncle Sam. The Hykonians gave us the opportunity. We’re safe here, and we’re free so long as we stay in the enclosure.
“Besides, even seeing it with my own eyes it took me years before I understood. Green men, outer space, mighty empires among the stars–how am I supposed to explain all that? No one would’ve believed me, and they’d never believe you neither. You’re smart enough to realize that, girl.”
“I’m a journalist,” Charlotte said. “I have a duty to the truth.”
“But you lied. You concocted a story full of fire and brimstone to get folks riled up. You lied, just like me. The lawman and the journalist–we’re both liars.
“Now I gathered from your little fiction that you left the enclosure. Something bad’s happened outside, something bad enough to cut the power supply, something so bad our zoo keepers won’t answer when I call them.”
Charlotte bit down on her tongue. She wouldn’t speak. This was not the time for speaking, though the hands of the clock neared midnight.