“What happened to the Hykonians?” the sheriff said.
Charlotte glared back at him.
“Who was that woman? Was her name Tappler?”
“How did you know…” Charlotte started.
The sheriff sneered at her. “The Hykonians talked about her. They say she comes when all hope is lost and everyone’s about to die.”
“That’s not true!” Charlotte snapped, but of course it was. Maybe Talie covered some stories where people survived, but not this time. The first humans in space were destined to die.
The sheriff nodded. He saw everything in Charlotte’s face, and he knew what Talie had told her. Death and destruction was the Talie Tappler way.
The lawman and the journalist sat in silence, neither daring to look at the other, both sharing mutual thoughts of doom. Then the clock struck midnight.
“Eight minutes,” Charlotte whispered.
“Eight minutes until what?” the sheriff said.
“Until the Hykonians blow up the station.”
Charlotte explained about the fleet returning and the war with the Swarm and what had happened to the planet Hyla. She also repeated what Talie had said about everyone dying.
“Talie Tappler ain’t as smart as she thinks she is,” the sheriff said, getting up and stomping across the room.
“But we can’t do anything,” Charlotte muttered. “We’re just dumb animals.”
The sheriff took down his copy of the Ten Commandments, revealing some sort of machine built into the wall. It reminded Charlotte of the glass panels she’d seen out in the corridors, the ones Talie called “viewlinks.”
The sheriff pressed a few buttons and said, “This is Sheriff Lee Robert Hughes aboard Zoological Research Facility Four. Does anybody hear me?”
After several long moments, an image appeared on the screen. It showed two Hykonians standing in a room full equipment. They were small, like munchkins; green, like lizards; and wore uniforms made of metal, like the knights from the old fairy tales. Their eyes were completely black and seemed to glisten in the light. A pair of insect-like antennae extended from the tops of their bald heads.
“I am Fleet Leader Lor’selk,” the shorter Hykonian said. “This is Adjutant Leader Zill.” The other Hykonian nodded. “We did not realize any of the specimens at the research facility had survived.”
“The Swarm went straight for the planet,” the sheriff said. “They spared us.”
“This could be a trick,” Zill said. “This Earthling may be infected.”
“You can see he is not,” Lor’selk said. “Deploy a squadron to defend the research facility. Military Command will be pleased we recovered it.”
“We’ll lose the element of surprise,” Zill said, “and we’ll have one less squadron to work with.”
“I am aware of that,” Lor’selk said. “Carry out my orders.”
The image disappeared.
* * *
Something bumped beneath the floorboards. The sheriff cussed and ran outside. Charlotte heard a struggle. When the sheriff returned, he had Davis by the collar, his face and hands cut up from crawling through the brambles behind the jail.
“I heard everything!” Davis said. “Charlotte ain’t the only journalist in town. If she won’t tell the truth, I will.”
The sheriff chuckled. He grabbed Charlotte by the arm and held her and Davis close together.
“It’s about time you both stopped playing games. This town don’t need journalists. Girl, you’re becoming a woman. Boy, you’re becoming a man. Go act like it and leave other folks’ business alone.”
The sheriff led them outside and slammed the door behind them. Charlotte glanced at Davis. He glared back at her.
“I’ll tell,” he said. “They may not believe it all, but they’ll know you’re a liar.”
Charlotte nodded. Her first duty had been to the truth, and she’d failed. If she’d told the truth from the start, most people wouldn’t have listened, but one would. The one person who could make a difference, who needed accurate information from her, information she’d willingly concealed.
“You’re not…” Davis said. “Are you crying?”
Charlotte wiped her eyes. She sank to her knees. Davis shuffled awkwardly behind her.
“It’s okay,” Charlotte said. “Tell them everything. They deserve to know the truth: that we all live in a zoo, that little, green men are our masters, that we almost died because of that Swarm out there.”
Davis didn’t speak for a long time. “Aw heck. The sheriff’s right. No one would believe all that anyway.”
Davis walked off toward the church, leaving Charlotte alone in the dark. Everyone else was praying for salvation. Charlotte felt like praying too, felt like she needed saving more than anyone because she was the journalist who told lies.
* * *
Charlotte wore one of the dresses her mother had made, the only blue one. She even let her mother fuss over her as she put it on. She still hated it, hated its puffy sleeves, its tiny buttons, its layers of skirt that made walking difficult. She tore off all the lacy nonsense when mother wasn’t looking. As for the ribbons for her hair, she took one and tied it around her neck, making a neat, little bow.
She thought for sure Davis would tease her when he saw her, but instead he took off his cowboy hat and placed it atop her head. “Now you look right,” he said.
The two of them went down to the stables, Davis lugging a heavy pack of gear on his back. They took a pair of horses and rode across the dusty plains, up into the hills, all the way to the fake mountains. They found the open doorway and left the Earthling exhibit, walked through the space station’s lifeless, grey corridors, and saw the windows with all the stars outside.
Several rotating disks hovered near the space station. They had to be Hykonian spaceships. One was approaching. Charlotte tried to figure out where it would dock.
“Which way we supposed to go?” Davis said, his face dripping sweat. Charlotte had offered to carry some of his equipment, but he wouldn’t allow it.
“This way!” she said, fighting not to trip over her dumb skirts as she ran. She could see why Talie preferred them shorter.
They came to another door, one leading out into space. Through the window, they saw the spaceship come to a stop, and they heard a metallic clunk when it connected.
“Get ready,” Charlotte said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Davis answered, and he started unloading his pack.
Charlotte felt herself breathing fast, her heart hammering in her chest. Her knees quivered. This doesn’t seem right, she thought. She shouldn’t be this scared, but as soon as she heard voices on the other side of the door a big pit opened in her stomach. She thought she was going to be sick, sicker than she’d ever been. What made her think she could do this anyway?
But there was one small thing, one detail that made a difference. Talie Tappler had predicted the deaths of everyone in town, of every creature on the space station. She’d stated it as a fact, a piece of history that could not change, but Talie had been wrong. Everyone was still alive because Charlotte had spread the news–not the whole truth, but enough of it–and she’d changed the future. Those Talie condemned to death, Charlotte had saved.
Maybe a thousand lives didn’t make much difference to history. Maybe history didn’t care what Charlotte had done, but it brought a grin to her face nonetheless. She’d outsmarted Talie Tappler. She couldn’t be sure, but she guessed no one in all God’s Creation had done that before.
The door began to grind open, two Hykonians pushing with all their strength.
“Hello,” Charlotte said once they got through. “My name is Charlotte Tappler. This is my cameraman, Mr. Davis.”
A flash lamp went off, blinding the Hykonians and releasing a puff of acrid smoke. They shielded their orb-like eyes and stumbled a few steps back. Davis pulled his head out from under the cloth hood of his camera and nodded to Charlotte. He’d gotten the shot.
“Would the two of you mind answering a few questions?” Charlotte asked.
The Hykonians glanced at each other, their flap-like lower lips hanging open, the color draining from their lime green faces. As Charlotte watched them, her grin expanded into a glorious smirk.