Ed Fahrow pulled his new Cadillac into the station in part to get gas, but more so just to show off. His recent foray into the entertainment business, opening the town’s first video store, had paid off well.
“Mornin’, Carl,” he called out as the engine came to a stop. “Fill ‘er up?”
“Not in this baby, Carl, fill ‘er up with Supreme!” Carl tried hard not to notice the toothy smile on Ed’s face, but he couldn’t, not when manners dictated he look the man in the eye when talking to him. Carl may not have a new car, or much else these days, but he still had his manners.
He moseyed his way across the concrete from the store to the pump. He smiled to himself as he did this, taking pleasure in the simple fact that a few years ago he couldn’t have moseyed if he tried, but he’d taught himself well. Carl took off his cap and stuffed it into his back pocket. Fumbling with the gas pump with his right hand, he opened the gas cap with his left.
“Watch that you don’t get no gas on the paint job, would ya Carl?” Again with that toothy grin, “Don’t want to mess ‘er up until I got ‘er broke in.” Some days it was all he could do not to punch people, but he took it as best he could and forced himself to smile back. Though with much less teeth.
“Missed ya at the game, Ed,” Carl said, trying to make small talk and knowing that Ed was skipping the weekly poker games due to his inability not to give away every hand.
The smile almost faded from Ed’s lips. “Well, got the new business and all. Can’t be wasting my time on lesser pursuits.” And the smile came back in full force. “Buddy still takin’ everyone’s money?”
“You know he is. A luckier man I don’t think I’ve ever met.” Of course, Buddy wasn’t a lucky man, he was about as close as you could get to a professional poker player. Buddy could sell ice to Eskimos, or rather, convince them he was selling ice when all he had was empty boxes. Even better, Carl and Buddy were a team. Carl brought in the players, and Buddy took their money, then they split it fifty-fifty. It was as close as they came to being criminals these days.
The gas pump dinged. Carl put away the nozzle and wiped his hand on his overalls.
“Put it on my tab, Carl?”
“Sorry, Ed, I’m still a cash only establishment.” It was Carl’s turn to smile again, and held out his hand. “But we’ll call it fifteen even, you can keep the pennies.”
Ed Fahrow paid his money and hopped into his car and drove toward his home, away from town. Carl watched him go, half shading his eyes from the low hanging sun, and ran his fingers through his hair before putting his baseball hat back on. He was just about to mosey back to the air conditioned store when the sheriff’s car pulled up in front of him.
Carl had gotten in like Sheriff Pilson had asked, no questions. Pilson was about the only man left in the world that he had any fear of, but it was for that reason as well that he’d come to respect him greatly.
“What’s goin’ on Sheriff?”
“I got a car headin’ out to Buddy’s place too.” He didn’t bother to look Carl in the eyes as he talked, but it was excused as he was driving. Driving quite fast, he noticed. There was a tense silence for a while. Pilson knew a thing or two that Carl would prefer people not know and his mind raced with thoughts of having to escape the car and run again. The Sheriff saw Carl’s body tense and reassured him, “Relax, Carl, for now anyway.”
The automobile flew down the familiar route 18 into the city limits. Finally Carl couldn’t hold it any longer. “So, you gonna tell me what this is about?”
Sheriff Pilson licked his lips, started to speak a few times, but words never came. Until at last he muttered, “I moved away from the city to avoid things like this.”
“How’s that?” Carl urged.
“It’s on the news, all over the world. I take it you haven’t been listening?”
Carl shrugged, “You know me, I don’t care much for the rest of the world.”
Pilson darted a glance over to him, “Well, I hope you’re wrong, or that you start.” He paused again as they took the sharp curve before Morley Bridge. “There have been portals openin’ all over. Word is they are a door to some other world. Star Strider went in, but hasn’t come back out yet. News is saying it might be an invasion.”
“Well, the heroes will be all over it, I’m sure. Let ’em, it’s what they are good for.” Carl slumped back into his seat. “So why come get me and bring me to town?”
“Paragon City’s got heroes in spades, son. We have none, but we got a portal anyway. Right smack in the middle of the town square.”
Carl sat forward and started at Pilson. “Now hold on. Look, if there are portals and it’s an invasion, I suggest you evacuate people, get everyone to safety. I don’t think I like what I think you have in mind.”
Pilson slammed on the breaks and the car skidded to a halt on the side of the road about fifty yards outside the last row of buildings marking the edge of town. His voice was low, and his eyes were locked forward, but Carl didn’t miss a word that was said. “Son, you and Buddy. You and Brawn, the two of you have done a lot of wrong in your lives, and you paid a good debt back to society in the Zig. But this isn’t about you or what you’ve done. If this is an invasion, if this is war, you gotta start thinking tactics, like when you used to rob banks. There is only one or two reasons an army would put forces in the middle of nowhere like this, just one or two: reinforcements or a sneak attack.” The Sheriff turned and looked Carl in the eyes now. “I’m not saying you have to stay, son. But I just want the two of you to take a look at it. You two ain’t heroes, not by a long shot, but you are the best we got.”
Carl felt the weight of his words as the idea of an invasion and what this single portal might mean sunk in. He nodded, and Pilson put his foot back on the gas and drove the car into town.
Buddy was already standing at the edge of the square, staring at the portal, as Pilson and Carl approached. His predisposition to primary colors remained true, and he looked halfway like a comic book hero in tights in his blue jeans and red t-shirt stretched over his wide shouldered six foot six frame.
He turned now and faced the other two men, “Guess we can drop that crap now. I mean, anyone who doesn’t know already will the moment something wrong steps out of this portal.” He smiled at Carl and extended a hand, “How ya doin’ Chisel?”
Carl shook Buddy’s hand. Carl wasn’t nearly as tall as his friend, nor as broad. “Doin’ good Brawn. Saw Ed earlier, in his new Caddy. Think maybe in a week or two I can talk him into coming back to the game.”
“Good,” Brawn smiled, “our pot isn’t as good without his money in it.”
The three of them just stood there a moment, enjoying the company, until Chisel broke the silence.
“So what have we got here? Seen anything like it before?”
Brawn turned back toward the glowing disc. “I read about it. The Portal Corporation played around with stuff like this. Our second stint in the Zig. You remember that guy I got stuck with as a cellmate?”
Chisel scratched his chin and thought, “The nerdy guy? What was his name? Elmo?”
“Elmund. That’s the one. He claimed he had worked for Portal. Told me all these crazy stories. I didn’t believe him. I mean, superpowers and gadgets I believed, but alternate realities? It was just too much.”
“Guess he was right.”
“Yeah, and it means I owe him. Told him right before we broke out the last time that, if he could prove the portals existed, I’d take him with us. He couldn’t, so I didn’t. Well, turns out they do, so if he’s still inside, I guess I gotta go bust him out.”
They both turned to look at the Sheriff. “Sorry, old habits,” Carl shrugged his explanation.
“Hey, when I found out you two were crooks you convinced me you just wanted a second chance at life, and I took you at face value. When this Portal mess is over, if the town’s still here, I’m sure you’ll be welcome to stay, but if you need to go, that’s okay too.” He grimaced and hooked his thumbs inside his belt, “But I told ya before, if you go back to a life of crime, you won’t be welcome here no more.”
Brawn laughed, “We’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it. For right now, lets head over to the Radio Shack and, umm, borrow some gear from Peter. Maybe figure out this whole mess.”
Buddy, or rather Albert Charles, had always been the brains of the duo when it came down to it. With a name like Brawn you’d expect him to be muscle, which he was, you don’t run a hundred acre farm by yourself without being able to lift the farm equipment, but he also had three degrees from M.I.T. Carl, James Heath, was far from stupid, but his smarts were from the street. It was Chisel’s unique talents that brought the two of them together. He could make his flesh and bones as hard as steel or as soft as putty and shift parts of it, most notably his hands, into any shape he imagined. When it came down to it, Brawn figured out where to go and how to do it, and Chisel was the tool by which things got done. It allowed them to travel light.
The moment they stepped into the Radio Shack, Brawn was immediately back in his element. As Sheriff Pilson calmed down Peter and explained the situation, he started pulling items off the shelves and laying out plans for building a scanner, something to look inside the portal with.
Chisel stayed near the door and watched the town square. He nervously began shifting his hands into a myriad of shapes and textures, stopping time and time again on the steel hard blades that had earned him his name. His game was coming back too, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as Peter approached from behind.
“I read about the two of you once,” he said with only a slight stutter.
“Really? What did you read?” In his mind Chisel was back in the city, and the country was already being squeezed out of his speech.
He could see Peter’s reflection in the window; he was fumbling with his hands and looking down at Chisel’s. “I read that you guys were the only ones to steal directly from City Hall and get away with it. That true?”
“Probably not,” he smiled as he thought back on the job. “I’m sure more people stole stuff from there, and not all of them were arrested for it, even when they got caught. And we didn’t get away with it, not in the end. When they arrested us for the Incatech job, they found some of the City Hall plans in Brawn’s workshop along with some of the toys he’d built out of the gear we stole, which lead them to being able to link us to a few dozen other jobs. That’s why we’re here.”
“Oh?” Peter looked up from Chisel’s hands and was staring at the back of his head now.
“Yeah. That bust wound up putting us in for seventy-five years, eligible for parole in thirty-five. We broke out in just under three years, haven’t set foot back in Paragon City since.”
Peter was getting fidgety again. “So you guys decided to go straight?”
Chisel furrowed his brow and turned around to look at Peter. “Decided? That’s not really the right word. We ran away out of fear, not wanting to spend another day in the Zig. We have superpowers, and yet, I pump gas and he runs a farm. It’s not like we put on tights and took up the fight for right or anything.”
Peter just nodded and backed away into the store. Behind him Brawn was putting together a laptop with a bunch of other junk. The smile on Brawn’s face reminded Chisel of the old days when they would work up schemes on making their next score to carry them another few months. But for some reason he couldn’t help thinking that he forgot to lock up the gas station before he left. He knew he forgot, the Sheriff had sounded pretty urgent. What he didn’t understand was why it bothered him as much as it did.
“Its getting dark out, ” Chisel said and looked down at his watch. It was almost seven thirty.
“Brawn, you getting close to done?” Chisel was beginning to get impatient. Brawn was still typing away on the laptop and soldering pieces together. Peter’s face was pale like all the blood had run out of it. One of the TV’s was playing one of those shows where people take their small claims cases to be tried by a judge on TV. Sheriff Pilson had his gun out of his holster and was trying to load bullets into the revolver’s chambers. Chisel looked back at Peter whose face was still pale, growing paler if that was possible, his mouth jawed open and closed like he was trying to speak. “Peter? You okay?”
He hit the floor with a thud. Chisel couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen someone faint. The hairs began to stand up on the back of his neck again. Pilson’s gun clacked shut and he aimed toward the window, he looked a bit pale as well.
Chisel slowly turned around to look back at the town square. The portal still hung effortlessly, red with a light pink hue around it were it ripped the air. The monsters standing in front of it were new, just a handful of them, standing in formation and looking around. A scouting party.
“Just a minute.”
Too late, Chisel realized that yelling was the wrong thing to do. Two of the things seemed to be looking at the store now, slowly raising what could only be guns. “Run,” he said as he spun back around and moved into the interior of the store.
Brawn looked puzzled. From his angle behind the counter he couldn’t see the square, but he was quick to catch on. He put one hand in the Sheriff’s collar and pulled him off his feet. Hoisting Pilson over his shoulder he began running for the rear of the store. Chisel was already passing him when he started to move and the two of them were into the back room when the storefront exploded.
Chisel didn’t stop. He leaped over a half height wall into the supply area and kept running for the fire exit, hoping that Brawn was falling back into old habits too and following him like he used to back in the day.
The back door was cut off its hinges by Chisel’s hands and it slammed into the asphalt of the rear parking lot. He could hear Brawn two steps behind him as he rounded the dumpster and headed into the alley.
“What the hell was that?”
Brawn was probably asking more for effect than anything else, but Chisel answered him anyway. “Aliens, I think.” Then he stopped dead in his tracks. Brawn almost ran him down, but was able to dodge to the right of him. “Oh shit!”
They both looked back toward the rear of the Radio Shack, and as if on cue it exploded into the alley.
Sheriff Pilson finally spoke, “Put me down!”
“No.” Brawn said with force. He looked toward the way they had been heading. “Keep running?” he asked.
Chisel stood staring back at the Radio Shack. A long and not quite so glorious career as a criminal, but he’d never hurt anyone. It had been part of their personal code. No one gets hurt. His mind kept replaying Peter fainting and him running past Peter’s unconscious form on the floor. Brawn was snapping his fingers in front of Chisel’s face.
“Hey. Don’t do this to me, Jimmy.” Brawn slapped him, knocking him to the ground. His skin hardened by instinct.
Blinking a few times, Chisel got back to his feet. “Sorry, won’t happen again. Let’s go.” And he continued down the alley away from the burning building, barely shaking off the images of Peter.
They came out of the alley on Main Street and turned toward the square. “This a wise move, Chis?”
“Sure. They look military to me. At least some of them will be heading into the building to look for survivors. Besides, we need to get to the police station.”
Pilson, having given up and just gone slack, spoke up again, “If you are looking for guns, you’d do better heading to the Wal-Mart. Only gun the station had I dropped back there.”
“Guns would be nice,” Chisel said as they ran. “But what I want is a radio.”
They came to the end of the block, Chisel waved Brawn to hold back. He peeked cautiously around the corner. Of the six that had been there only two remained, and they were setting up some sort of device near the portal entrance. He guessed the four missing aliens were checking the store, or perhaps spreading out to some other objective. Not wanting to waste a moment, Chisel reached back and placed a hand on the arm of his old friend, “Stay here.”
“Wait,” the Sheriff said. “Can you put me down?”
“No,” Chisel and Brawn said in unison.
Normally the town square would have been full of people, but the Sheriff obviously hadn’t needed to tell anyone to head for the hills. It was like a ghost town except for the visitors from the portal, the sheriff, and the two former felons. Despite the lack of people, there were still a number of cars parked along the square. Tom Duggan’s truck had been sitting there for a few days with two flat tires. He’d tried to drive it home anyway in his latest drunk, but had only gotten so far as to block three parking spots before he stopped. Three more cars were parked along the way, and the Sheriff’s office door stood open at the far end, the corner of Main Street and Pleasant Drive.
Chisel watched the aliens closely. They would work on the device a few seconds, and then both look back into the portal, away from the line of cars. If they could run between glances, they might go unnoticed.
Once more they looked into the portal. Chisel darted across the street, dove and rolled to a stop behind Duggan’s truck. Brawn waited anxiously at the corner of the Farmer’s Trust office. Every time the aliens looked into the portal Chisel moved another car, until at last he made the final dash and dive into the Sheriff’s office.
Inside now, Chisel made his way back to Pilson’s desk and switched on the AM radio first. Every station he expected to find traveling up the dial was either static, dead air, or an emergency broadcast announcement. Finally on 1750 a voice popped in and out between hisses.
“… the portals… battles being waged… Statesman barely holding… losing ground all over… communications lost in the cities…”
Clearly something was interfering with the signals. He clicked the radio off and went for the CB. Brawn came running in through the door with the Sheriff still over his shoulder.
“Thought I told you to wait?”
“You know how I love to listen, but we heard sounds from the alley, figured it was better to move,” Brawn said as he finally put down Sheriff Pilson. “Anything on the radio?” he asked as he hunched down and peeked back out at the square.
Chisel sighed heavy, “Not much on the radio, but what I picked up sounded like a war everywhere. The heroes aren’t holding up. I haven’t tried to raise anyone on the CB yet.”
His words trailed off as he looked out at the square. The three of them watched as the two aliens at the portal stopped messing with their device and stepped away from the disc. The four other aliens began to reemerge from the shell of the Radio Shack and the alley near the Farmer’s Trust, and head back toward the portal.
Then a seventh alien appeared, stepped out of the hanging portal and setting foot on solid Earth.
“This can’t be good,” Pilson whispered, as an eighth alien marched out of the world beyond the portal.
Brawn stayed low but moved back into Pilson’s office with Chisel, the Sheriff joined them. “You got any bright idea’s Brawn,” Chisel said as they came in.
“Just one,” Brawn frowned, “and even I don’t like it.”
“You and me, Al, we’re crooks.I’ve been on the wrong side of the law since I was a kid, and you took to it like a duck to water when you got out of college.” Chisel looked into the eyes of the only friend he had in this world, “Running I can do. Hiding, yeah, I’m up for it. But when was the last time we stood our ground when there wasn’t any money in it? Never, that’s when.”
Albert leaned back against the office wall and smiled. “Jimmy, this isn’t about you or me, it’s not about money or no money. The world, the whole ball of wax is at stake here. This town, these aliens, in the end it might not even matter. But if we run, and the world loses because of it, then we fail, not as heroes, but fail at being men, at being human.” He looked back out the office, through the front window to the square where a dozen aliens now stood. “I may be a crook, Jim, but I don’t want to go out like that.”
Chisel hadn’t taken his eyes off Brawn the whole time he’d spoken. “Well,” he said, a smile creeping on to his face, “as long as I don’t have to wear any spandex.” Brawn looked back at him, still smiling himself. “And if you try to hug me, I’ll slit your throat.”
They’d forgotten the Sheriff was even there until he spoke up. “I guess I’m in too.” He had a defeated, yet oddly hopeful look on his face. “Just wish I hadn’ta dropped my gun.”
“So Brawn, you are the brains of this outfit. You, me and a gunless Sheriff. What’s the plan?”
“First thing’s first,” he said as be moved back out into the main office, “we got to get away from these windows.”
“We can go in the back,” Pilson offered. “There’s a storage room back there, and a rear exit. Or the holding cell in the basement.”
Brawn thought a moment, “If we need to hide, keep the cell in mind, but the back room ought to do for now.”
The three of them made their way as quietly as they could to the back storage room and closed the door. Their view of the square was cut off now, but it meant they could speak a little less quietly. The room itself wasn’t much of a storage room. It contained only a water heater, a stack of sheets for the beds in the cell downstairs, a few cans of paint from the last remodel, a couple of boxes of bullets for the sheriff’s revolver, a small box of road flares, and a few unmarked brown boxes stacked in the back corner.
Brawn pointed to the boxes, “What are those?”
“Party favors mostly. The top one is streamers, the next one is one of those banner signs to drape over Main Street, the third is police tape that got ordered back when we had that highway accident a couple years ago, and, hmm, not sure what’s in the last one.” Sheriff Pilson headed over to the boxes. “Don’t recall that one. Let me open her up.”
“What you got cookin’, Al?” Chisel was nervously shifting his hands into various shapes again.
“Sadly none of this is real weaponry, but we can use the streamers and banner maybe as distraction. Those things look like they had helmets on, and I didn’t notice clear glass visors on them, so either its organic or maybe we get lucky and it’s like that movie Predator, and they use motion or heat to see.” Brawn started rubbing his chin. “I figure the banner or streamers to mess with motion. If we had some gas we could use those flares to start some fires for heat. Only problem left is plain old normal vision. If only we had some…”
“Smoke grenades,” Pilson announced. “A whole box of ’em. Sheriff Winder picked these up back in ’68, if I recall correctly. He was afraid of a hippy protest to Vietnam.” The Sheriff slid the box over toward Chisel and Brawn with his foot. “Sure, the town only had a population of maybe a thousand back then, but better safe than sorry, I guess. Thought he took these with him when he retired.”
Brawn’s eyes lit up, “Do they work?”
Pilson shrugged, “Hell if I know, been here more’n thirty years. Your guess is as good as mine.”
Chisel clapped his hands together, “Sounds like a plan to me.”
Chisel had brought down a can of gas for the Sheriff’s generator a few days earlier, and it was still sitting out in the alley behind the Sheriff’s office. He had a couple flares in his back pocket and the gas can in his right hand, and he waited on Main Street for the signal.
Sheriff Pilson was up on the roof with the smoke grenades, he was going to start. When a few of them were smoking out the square, Brawn was going to leap out and start crushing cars and throwing streamers. Chisel’s job was to run out and start gassing down the crushed cars and then use the flares to set them on fire. If he was able, he was supposed to set some of the buildings on fire as well.
From his position he could see the Radio Shack was still burning. He thought for a second about Peter and then forced the thoughts from his mind, as it was not a good time to be distracted. The neighboring buildings were already catching fire, and the aliens did seem to be keeping their distance.
There were at least twenty of them now. From the brief snippets on the radio he assumed the outpouring was much greater in places like Paragon City. Here is just seemed like some sort of exploratory force. The sheriff may have been right, reinforcements or some kind of sneak attack.
The first smoke grenade touched down on Eisenhower, almost directly diagonal from where Chisel stood. Brawn had told Pilson to arc his throws as high as possible in order to help slow down any kind of triangulation. As the smoke began to billow out, the aliens took the bait and a few of them started to investigate.
A second can touched down in between two of the cars they’d used as cover when crossing to the sheriff’s office. The smoke began to surround the automobiles. Again, a few aliens started to approach.
The third can hit dead in the center of the alien formation. Confused, they started looking upward for the source of the possible attack.
A half dozen streamers arced over the square from the Farmer’s Trust. Brawn had circled around the outer side streets to get there. The aliens started shooting at the streamers in mid-flight. Chisel had been watching the streamers too, so when Tom Duggan’s truck was crushed, he almost jumped at the sound.
Brawn was taking high arcing leaps, the smoke from the grenades, six or more of them going now, hiding him from view. He crisscrossed the square crushing cars and trucks at every landing, then taking off back into the sky again.
That was Chisel’s cue. He moved as fast as he could from his corner and ran along the row of cars alongÂ Main, trailing gas as he did. As he rounded the corner toward the Radio Shack, he popped the first flare and tossed it into the remains of the bed of Duggan’s Ford. The fire caught immediately and spread through the entire line of cars.
He ran the next street closer to the buildings than the square. The cars here were already on fire, likely from some spark when one was crushed or a lucky dying ember from the burning buildings. As Chisel passed the Radio Shack, he forced himself not to look, knowing he couldn’t bear seeing Peter’s body if it was still there.
Brawn landed next to him in the smoke, “Give me the can!” Chisel handed it to him without a word. “When you see me clear the smoke again, throw a flare.” And he charged toward the center of the square and the portal.
It was only a few seconds, but they were anxious ones until Chisel saw Brawn arcing into the sky again. He popped another flare and threw it, then a second just to be sure. What he could only guess was the gas can and perhaps the alien device exploded into a ball of red and green flame. Several alien silhouettes were flailing strange dances in the smoke.
Brawn was arcing over the square again, only much lower this time, and he plowed head first into the video store. Chisel headed straight through the smoke, through the center of the square toward his only friend.
He heard more explosions and alien gun fire. A small gust of wind allowed him to see the Sheriff’s office roof was ablaze, that meant that Pilson had moved or was dead and also likely meant no more smoke.
Chisel needed to know if Brawn was all right, but with the possible loss of the smoke he needed to take advantage of it while it lasted. His right arm went heavy as the skin hardened and his fist disappeared into a club. It was three steps to the first dark shape in the smoke, and it was enough to put a driving force behind his arm. He felt the armor or exoskeleton or whatever it was give, and his arm shifted from blunt to sharp and Chisel pushed it through the crack into the soft wet beneath. It twitched and fell, and he pulled his arm free.
A car exploded somewhere off to his left. He could feel the wave of heat and the smoke shifted in the draft. The aliens were drawn to the fires and explosions, but some of them he figured were beginning to understand, not being distracted by the destruction. The ones standing still were the ones he targeted first.
Moving as swiftly as he could, Chisel went from shadow to shadow, crushing and slashing from behind. Four more fell, each crumbling to the dirt and flowers of the square.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up again, and he heard a faint hum. Chisel spun around and faced two shapes a dozen yards away, their weapons leveled at his chest. He went down to a knee and spread his hands in front of him. They hardened and flatted as he tried for the first time ever to form a shield. The first blast burned his skin. He wanted to scream but bit his lip waiting for the second blast. Instead there was only a crack and a thud, followed by a second.
He lowered his hands and saw the two aliens’ bodies each cut nearly in half, Brawn standing above them wielding a stop sign. He gritted his teeth as he approached.
“You okay, Al?”
Brawn winced a little. “Good enough for now. That’s two, plus one I jumped on earlier, and another I set on fire.”
“Pretty sure you got at least one with the blast. Was that their device?”
“And I’ve done five by hand. How many were there?”
“I counted twenty before the smoke. So that leaves us ten, maybe eleven.” Brawn looked around, “Smoke’s getting thin.”
Chisel stepped around his friend and stood back to back. “Sheriff’s station is on fire.”
“No idea.” Chisel scanned the smoke looking for more moving shadows. “We should try to finish up, and then see about shutting that thing for good.”
“Right.” Brawn held up his makeshift battle-axe in a ready position. “Meet back here in fifteen?”
Chisel grinned, “Make it ten. Five to five?”
Brawn laughed, “Not for long.” Then he charged into the smoke toward Eisenhower. Chisel headed toward Main.
Sheriff Pilson came up from the holding cell. He’d retreated there after the roof exploded, having only barely made it to safety. He felt like a coward. Almost a whole day he’d slept down there. It was late afternoon as he cautiously stepped out into the street.
The square was littered with alien bodies and body parts. Most of the buildings were in some stage of burning down. All the cars were piles of wreckage. He spied Chisel and Brawn a few yards away from the portal.
Chisel got up when he saw Sheriff Pilson approaching. “Good to see you made it.”
Pilson had a grim expression etched on his face. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure I had. Are we winning?”
Brawn chuckled and coughed up a little blood. “Score is sixty-two to fifty-four. Jimmy can’t keep up.”
“It’s not good,” Chisel whispered, “He got jumped. They did a pretty good number on him. He’s got some broken ribs, and he’s lost consciousness a few times. He’s lost a good deal of blood.”
“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” Brawn screamed and coughed up a little more blood. Settling back against the alien corpse he was resting on, he continued much softer, “I’m not dead yet.”
“We gotta get you to a hospital, Brawn.” The sheriff moved over to him and kneeled down. “You won’t do nobody no good if you’re dead.”
“Pilson,” Brawn blinked a few times and seemed to lose focus, “I may not be dead yet, but I will be. Nothing can be done about that.” His head tilted forward and he closed his eyes.
Chisel put a hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder, “He’ll wake up again in a few minutes.”
Sheriff Pilson stood up and looked at the portal. “How many have come through?”
Chisel scratched his head. “Two hundred? Probably less, maybe more. I lost track after Brawn got hurt. And to be honest, once I figured out how to use their guns, I stopped caring.” He picked up two of the rifles. “Their hands are different. You and Brawn couldn’t fire them, but I can shift my hands and make them work.”
Pilson walked around the portal, “Any change in this thing?”
“I’ve been staring at it enough. It glows, pulses, just a little bit before something comes through.”
“You thought about walking in?”
“Brawn thought about it, but I talked him out of it. A few hours ago he was talking about going in there and blowing it up from the inside.” Chisel looked back at his friend sitting on the ground. “I told him if he could get up and make it inside, he was welcome to, and I’d go with him.” He stared down at the guns in his hands. “If I’d figured these things out sooner…” His words trailed off.
The Sheriff came back around the portal and put his hand on Chisel’s shoulder. “Son, I’m sure you did your best.”
“Well, then my best just wasn’t good enough.” Chisel shrugged off the Sheriff’s hand and took a few steps away.
The portal began to glow, just slightly. Chisel leveled his guns at the disc. “You might want to get down. They usually get off a shot or two.” He braced himself for the kick of the alien rifles. The glow of the disc grew brighter. “This is different. Something’s…”
He didn’t get to finish his thought as the disc winked out of existence.
“Is that it?” Pilson asked tenatively.
“I don’t know.” Chisel kept the guns up, trying to prepare himself for anything. Minutes passed, and nothing happened. He lowered his guns, “I guess that’s it.”
Brawn coughed and sputtered awake. He blinked a few times and stared at the place the portal used to be. “Is it gone?”
Chisel sat down on the singed grass next to his friend Brawn. “Yeah, Al, it’s gone.”
Al tried to smile and coughed instead, another mouthful of blood spilling onto his shirt. “Good, ’cause I’m tired, Jimmy.”
“Go to sleep, Al.”
“No more running, okay?”
Tears welled up in Chisel’s eyes. “No more running, Al.”
Brawn closed his eyes and drifted off to eternal sleep.
It had taken most of the night, but all of the fires were finally out, except the one where the pile of alien bodies burned in the intersection of Main and Pleasant. All of the debris had been cleared out of the town square and pushed into the street. As dawn showed its first light, Chisel and Sheriff Pilson were taking a break from digging two graves where the portal had once been.
Recovering Peter’s body from the Radio Shack hadn’t been easy. His corpse had been burned and crushed under a piece of the second floor when it had caved in. Carefully they had wrapped him in a sheet and placed him in the smaller of the two caskets they’d retrieved from the funeral home.
Brawn had laid most of the night right where he had died. It was a clichÃ©, but Chisel had looked over a few times and if he hadn’t known better would have mistaken Brawn’s lifelessness for sleeping. The casket they’d found for him was probably intended for an obese man, but it was the only one they figured they’d be able to fit his broad shoulders into. Despite his bulk of muscle and six foot six frame, he’d been easy to lift. Perhaps that’s why he had been able to leap so high.
After a few minutes rest, the two men used ropes to lower the coffins into the graves and began the sober process of shoveling the dirt back in. When they finished, they bowed their heads in a moment of silence, then Chisel walked off and uttered something that sounded like he would be back soon.
Sheriff Pilson sat down in the burnt grass beside the graves and looked around at the square, taking in all the destruction. He wondered how long it would be until people started returning to town, and also how long it would take to rebuild. Lost in his thoughts, he gazed up at the morning sky and picked shapes out of the clouds.
Chisel returned in less than an hour. He rolled in riding Curt Beck’s Indian, with two saddle bags and a backpack strapped on it. He’d also found himself a full helmet and a long back duster. Replace the bike with a horse and the helmet with a hat and he’d look the part of an outlaw to a T, Pilson mused.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
It was a question that Chisel had probably answered a thousand thousand times in his life. He couldn’t help thinking this might be the last. He kicked the kickstand out and dismounted the motorcycle, removed the helmet and hung it on one of the handle bars. As he walked over to Sheriff Pilson, he fished in his pocket for his keys.
“You can have the gas station,” he said, handing over a set of keys. “Red one opens the store. Green one locks the pumps. Blue one is for the apartment in back.” He looked over at the two fresh graves. “Yellow one is a key to Al’s place. Figure it can go to auction once all this alien business is done. Deeds for his place and mine are up at his house.”
Pilson looked down at the keys in his hand. “You don’t mean to be coming back then?”
“I might, but I don’t know. Whatever happens though, I’m done being Carl Eagan.” Chisel looked around the square, then settled his eyes on the Sheriff. “Now this one is important, so pay attention. In Al’s storm cellar, there are some loose bricks in the north wall. Behind those is a safe. Combination is forty-three right, eighteen left, twenty-six right. You’ll find about three hundred thousand dollars in there, give or take. It’s everything that’s left of everything we ever stole.”
The sheriff’s jaw dropped open. Chisel allowed a half smile to creep across his face. “It’s for the town, to rebuild.” He looked back at the graves again, “and maybe put a plaque here or something, to remember who they were and what happened.”
Pilson just nodded, at a loss for any kind of response.
Chisel collected two of the alien rifles and put them in the saddle bags like holsters and tied them in. He mounted the bike and looked around the square one last time.
“You never answered me.” Sheriff Pilson approached the motorcycle. “Where are you headed?”
Picking up the helmet, Chisel smiled and laughed. “Brawn said no more running.” He put on the helmet and lifted the visor. “Guess I’m headed to Paragon.” Pilson backed up as Chisel lifted the kickstand and kick started the Indian, then he slapped down the visor and rode east out of town on Main Street.