CHAPTER 8 – Sacrifice
Matti welcomed the distraction of plain, physical labor. Thinking of what they should bring out of the market for the next truckload required that she pay attention to what she was doing. Even the time it took her to carry each box from the store to the growing stack outside the double glass doors was occupied with picking her way through the debris littering the floor. Several holes blasted in the ceiling and roof during the aerial attacks provided enough light for negotiating the obstacle course, but she and Woody still had to step with care.
She had just deposited another box on the pile and headed back inside, passing Woody on his way out. As she walked past the line of checkout counters, he called to her.
“Matti, come here.” He sounded concerned.
When she joined him, he nodded toward a group of men walking across the parking lot and headed toward the market entrance.
“It might not be trouble. Maybe they’re just coming to give us a hand,” she said. She recalled how, just an hour or so earlier, people had joined together to help others that were trapped in houses. But, like Woody, she also could not forget the men that had chased her.
As they drew closer, Matti counted five. Then her heart began racing when she recognized one of them from the chase to the river. It was the clean-cut one, the one that was going to take the first swing at her. She could tell by the way he glared that he recognized her, too.
“Hi, kids. What’re you up to?” The one who spoke was in front and, from his bearing and the way the others held back in their silence, he appeared to be their leader. He was the shortest of the bunch, with some extra pounds around his middle and a jovial, round face with a ruddy complexion, but he carried himself with self-assurance and awareness.
Maybe they are here to help, Matti thought.
“Yeah, what’s going on here?” The second one that spoke didn’t sound quite as friendly, but not really threatening, either.
“Looks to me like they’re scarfing up everything they can get their hands on.” The third one, the lawyer or insurance agent, was definitely unfriendly.
That’s when Matti noticed the pistol tucked into the waistband of his pants. He repositioned it as though it was pinching or something, but Matti thought he just wanted to be sure she and Woody knew it was there.
“Is that it? You just scarfing up?” The first one was still coming on as amiable. At least he has offering them a chance to deny the accusation. Although, Matti noticed he, too, had a pistol; just the end of the handle protruded from his pants pocket.
“No.” Woody’s response was a little on the challenging side, Matti thought. But when he continued, his tone echoed more of the first man than the third. “Judge Woodall asked us to get the next load ready for him to take up to the relief center. He should be back any minute.”
Good response, Matti thought. There’s always a place for some good namedropping. Shouldn’t hurt, too, to let them know The Judge is due back any time.
“I didn’t know a relief center had been set up,” the leader said.
“Yeah, it’s up at the Veterans Memorial,” Matti said with a smile. Smiles are good, too. Always remember to smile when folks are considering lynching you. “Charlie said it’s about the only place big enough that’s still standing.”
She surreptitiously checked over each of the others and found they all carried guns. Only the curly haired lawyer-insurance agent carried his tucked into his belt at his side, like it was held in a cross-draw holster and ready for a fast draw.
“Is that Charlie Dickerson?” the leader asked.
“He’s driving the truck for The Judge,” Woody answered.
“They’re lying.” It was Curly-Hair. He sounded bored and impatient. “They’re just looting the place.”
The leader looked around at the others and said, “Well, we don’t know that. They could be, but they could also be doing what they claim.”
“Come on, Brother Jones, we’ve seen this kind of blatant looting going on all over town.” This one had been silent until now, and he was carrying a rope.
“And we’ve also seen a lot of folks pitching in to get things back in order.” Brother Jones was more persuasive than commanding. “And there’ve been a lot more of them than looters.”
“We all agreed, in the absence of recognized law enforcement, to do what is necessary to maintain order,” Curly-Hair said. “I say we use the rope, so we can move on to other areas.”
“That’s what we agreed.” The man with the rope seemed eager to use it.
“Not on no more evidence than we have.” The leader’s tone became more commanding. “We are vigilante’s, but only in the purest sense. We agreed to maintain order, not become a lynch mob.”
“Well, we can’t just let ’em have the store. Not just on their say-so.” The rope holder was eager, but it was holding at three to two in Matti and Woody’s favor.
Brother Jones said, “They said The Judge and Charlie are due back any time. We’ll wait.”
“And what if they decide they don’t want to wait?” Curly-Hair wasn’t going to give in so easily. He had said nothing about the earlier incident, but Matti figured it was because he feared being accused of hallucinating. And she couldn’t claim he was biased against her without admitting to what he has reluctant to bring up. She didn’t doubt that it would go against Woody and her if the others believed the tale.
“There’s five of us against two. I think we can keep ’em here.” The leader’s tone was now cajoling, and the tension eased off a bit.
He’s good, Matti thought. She said, “We aren’t going to run. The Judge will tell you we aren’t stealing.”
“Both of ’em look like they could outrun a deer. If they were to get past us, we’d never catch ’em,” the man with the rope said as he fiddled with it. “Why don’t we at least tie ’em up?”
“Yes, at the very least.” Curly-Hair took a step forward while he reached back for the rope, like the matter was settled.
The leader took a moment to evaluate the situation, glancing at the two that seemed to be still on his side, and he apparently decided that compromise was called for while he still had the strength of supporting votes. “I don’t suppose it would hurt to make sure they stay with us. Very well, tie them up. But, Brother Tattinger, the rope goes on their wrists, not their necks. Okay?”
Brother Tattinger nodded with an assenting grunt as he took one end of the rope while muttering something to the man holding the rest of the coil. When he stepped up to Matti to tie her wrists together, rather un-gently, his unspoken declaration of victory was unmistakable in the glare of his eyes and the smirk that twisted his mouth.
The man holding the rest of the rope made no move to tie Woody, although he stood close enough to grab him if the fleet-footed young man tried to run.
When Brother Tattinger finished with Matti, he took the rest of the rope and tossed it through the space where the glass had been broken out above the heavy, aluminum beam of the double doorframe, catching it as it came down. The rope porter grabbed Woody’s arms and stretched them above his head. Brother Tattinger then quickly tied his wrists together after pulling through enough of the rope to raise Matti’s hands over her head. He and the other man accomplished it so quickly Matti wondered how many times they had practiced it.
Brother Jones raised his hand when he saw the rope go over the door header, but his protests were ignored until the two captives were secured half-suspended in the doorway. They could relieve the biting tension on their wrists only by standing on tiptoe.
“That was not what I meant, Brother Tattinger, and you know it.”
Brother Tattinger turned to his leader and replied, “You would have walked away, leaving them to steal the town. Now, the rope will be in place when their lies are exposed, and we can hang them properly.”
Matti’s face was only inches from Woody’s, and his eyes reflected her fear, but they remained silent. Arguing with Brother Tattinger would do no good, at this point, no more than pleading. And the good Brother had openly challenged his leader’s authority. It appeared their fates were in the hands of Brother Jones. He seemed to be a natural leader; but, perhaps, in the chaos that now reigned, ruthlessness was more appealing to uncertain followers than cajoling persuasiveness.
The tension suddenly broke when a large shadow passed slowly over the ground from one side of the parking lot to the other. They all looked up at a silhouetted disk moving slow enough for no one to miss. It appeared to be close to a hundred feet across and no more than five hundred feet over their heads, and it was as silent as a shadow.
A flying saucer that looks like a flying saucer, was the first thing that popped into Matti’s head.
The men pointed and crouched and looked quickly about, both at ground level and in the sky. From beneath the door header, Matti could only see the one object. The building at her back could have blocked out others, but the men weren’t pointing anywhere else.
The thing in the sky swept westward, circled around the downtown area and back to the airspace above the parking lot of the shopping center. And then it began to descend.
As the men fled from the shopping center, they didn’t even look back at the two they had left trussed up like a sacrifice at an altar.
With the rope biting into their wrists, Matti and Woody peered in growing terror as the strange craft came to a silent hover fifty feet above the tangle of torched cars littering the pavement. Then, to their amazement, the wreckage in the middle of the parking lot began to scrape and bang together as it moved and slid outward from a center directly beneath the thing in the air. It was as though the alien craft had extended an invisible broom from beneath it and was whisking itself a clear place in which to set down.
Matti and Woody jerked back to their senses at the same time. As fascinating as it was to watch, they would be in clear view to whatever would be coming out. They began grabbing at the knots that tightened even more as they twisted and turned about.
Then Matti stopped and took a deep breath, flushing the rising panic from her mind. She said, “Pull me up, all the way to the top! Quick!”
When Woody didn’t instantly comply, she added, “We’ve got to get out of this doorway. Even if we’re still tied together, we can get inside out of sight to work on the knots. Pull me up so I can climb over the top.”
As soon as Matti flipped over the door header and landed on her feet beside Woody, they turned and darted into the shadowy interior. Matti glanced back just as the thing in the parking lot, now discernable as a fifty-foot tall, flat-bottomed dome, settled to the cleared pavement.
The long rope still linked their hands when they reached the delivery door at the back of the market. But escape would have to be by another route; several pallets loaded with still-sealed cases had fallen over and blocked access. Woody picked up a discarded box cutter and freed them from the rope, but they were still trapped. After making sure no other doors to the side or rear offered a way out, they crept back towards the front. Still far enough in to be hidden from anyone – anything – looking in from outside, they half-crouched behind an open-top freezer case and studied the thing outside no more than a hundred feet from the supermarket.
On the ground, it looked more like a domed building than an aircraft or spaceship. There even seemed to be an entrance like a closed door at ground level just a little to the right of the market doorway. Matti could see no windows among the pattern of connected triangles that covered the exterior, but she didn’t know if the occupants even needed windows to see outside. For all she knew, whatever was in there could see through the walls, maybe even through the walls of the supermarket. They could be looking at Woody and her right now. She grasped Woody’s sleeve and dragged him down behind the freezer. Then, after assuring him that she was just spooked, they both peeked back over to top.
The thing had been on the ground only a few minutes when the door opened, silently sliding back inside, and the occupants began coming out.
At first glance, Matti thought they were men, humans. They were man-size, and they had two arms, two legs, and one head. But with the second glance, they were clearly not human. They looked like no creature she had ever seen.
Their legs were more like a dog’s hind legs, or maybe even birds, bending in opposite directions from those of humans at the knees and ankles, and stubby in proportion to their bodies. Their arms were more similar to those of humans in the numbers and direction of movement of their joints, but their hands seemed elongated. Their torsos were less similar to humans with large humps on their backs between their shoulders that reminded Matti of bison. Their heads faced forward with two eyes, a nose and a mouth. But their noses looked like the snouts of pigs or moles, and their eyes were small and deep set beneath heavy brow ridges. These had knobby protrusions above the outer corner of each eye giving them a demonic look. Ridges ran from front to back down the middle of their heads like male gorillas. Their mouths were wide, lipless gashes. Matti saw none with open mouths to reveal if they had teeth. They could be mammalian, just not like any mammal she had seen.
She couldn’t tell if they wore garments, although, what appeared to be heavy folds of skin at their joints and around their torsos could have been from oddly-fitted suits.
The most obvious items were sashes that each one wore like bandoleers draped over one shoulder and down around the torso at waist level. They seemed to be just blank strips of colored fabric; most were red, but a few wore green and were accompanied by other, smaller ones that wore mottled multicolored sashes. Some of those with red or green wore belts with various, unidentifiable items attached. Boots might have covered their feet, or their feet might simply have been colored differently. It was hard to tell at the distance.
All the larger ones carried rods or poles about the size of short broomsticks from which small protuberances extended at odd angles and uneven spacing.
Although they had come storming out like a Marine assault force hitting the beach, they paused after forming a perimeter. Then, rather than rushing off into the town shooting at anything that moved, they walked. Singly and in pairs, they just started wandering off out to the street and out of sight – shooting at anything that moved.
All but one.
Matti watched with growing dread as one of the invaders wearing red walked slowly to the supermarket entrance. It paused for a moment beside the stacked boxes of food then moved to the doorway where Matti and Woody had hung. It stood there for a moment, possibly letting its eyes become accustomed to the gloom. Or, maybe, Matti feared, it was scanning with its x-ray vision and counting how many humans huddled within.
Woody held her hand, and his grip tightened to a painful level when the creature stepped inside and started moving past the checkout counters. Their hiding place behind the case would soon become useless. And, if they moved up or down the aisle with other than the greatest care, the jumble of bottles, cans and ceiling debris covering the floor would announce their presence. All the creature had to do was move across the front from one side of the store to the other and simply glance down each aisle. That appeared to be the plan.
From the entrance, the alien went to their right. When it turned at the end and started back, they would have only seconds before it spotted them.
Woody peeled his hand from Matti’s and picked up something from the floor. He whispered, “I’m going to distract it, then draw it out the door and away. When you’re sure it’s clear, get out of here.”
“No! It’ll kill you.”
“It’s going to, anyway, both of us, if I can’t get it to chase me.”
“Woody, no, please. We’ll –”
He gripped Matti’s face in his hands and peered deeply into her eyes. “Just get out and away.”
Matti tried to shake her head as tears formed in her eyes, but he held her too tightly.
“I love you,” he said, and then he kissed her hard and fast on the mouth.
Before she could return the kiss, he released her, peeked over the top of the freezer at the alien only three aisles away and tossed the pebble he had picked up. It was a gamble that the creature wouldn’t see it in flight as its gaze swept the store space. But when it landed with a small clatter in the far-left corner at the rear, the thing spun and went back that way.
Woody waited until it was almost at the back wall before he jumped up and dashed for the open doorway at the front. Although he wasn’t trying to slip out undetected – the plan, after all, was for it to chase him – he should, at least, be close to the exit before being spotted. So, as he sped down the aisle, his main concern was to avoid slipping or tripping and going down; that would probably prove fatal for them both.
Matti watched Woody’s rapidly receding back as he ran at a slight crouch, and she remembered his amazing speed on the sprint track. She also recalled, as his pumping feet found clear inches of floor space between ankle-turning trash, how he could duck and weave his way through a defensive football line, leaving the grasping tacklers empty-handed and wondering how they missed him. He was fast, strong, and small, but he was flesh and blood. What kind of weapon would he have to outrun?
He was only halfway to the door when the thing that hunted them spun again and fired. A violet line blinked across the store, smaller but identical to what the flyers used to burn the town. The laser missed its target, but only just, and it still charred a black line across the back of his club jacket above the emblem as he darted past a checkout counter. A second shot followed, and Matti only kept from screaming when he fell by clamping down on her knuckle with her teeth until she tasted blood. But he hit the floor in a tuck and rolled back to his feet in the open doorway. When a third beam blinked, melting a hole through the heavy aluminum doorframe, he was bobbing to his right. He ducked and opened up to his full sprint out of sight toward the street.
The alien wasted no more time searching the store. With amazing speed, although less than Woody had displayed, it sprang to and through the doorway.
Matti counted five seconds before she rose to her feet. She waited another two then ran as quietly as she could to the doorway. Peering around the edge of the frame, she watched the alien out at the edge of the parking lot run into the street and turn left toward the river bridge. It fired once more at a target out of Matti’s view before it, too, passed from sight. It had kept its speed up, so she assumed – hoped – that Woody was still running.
She saw no other aliens in the parking lot, and she hoped they weren’t looking out from inside their ship. She slid out the door and crept to the left. The corner of the building was only a few feet away, and then she was safe. A space of ten feet separated the side of the building from the ice plant covered riverbank where the river expanded out into a wide, boat turning basin. She ran to the rear of the building, across a street, across a truck parking area, and out into the train switching-yard east of the shopping center. After slipping behind the wheels of a parked boxcar, she searched in all directions for signs of other aliens, but she saw none.
Wiping at tears streaming down her cheeks, she crawled out and rose to her feet. She still had to get farther away from the aliens’ dome before she could let go and cry for him. She had to get away. That was what he had told her. That was why he had done it, and, how horrible it would be to have his sacrifice be for nothing.