Anna was walking into an ambush. There was a warm comfort to that. She could manage uncertainty and navigate delicate political situations but sometimes it was nice to know exactly what she was getting herself into right from the beginning. The moment she stepped into the gas station office, the world came to life and everything went wrong in just the way she hoped it would.
She’d waited a few moments after Val entered the Post Office on the off chance that things were more or less as they appeared to be. When Val didn’t emerge after a minute though, Anna knew that the buildings weren’t as empty as they seemed to be.
She could have followed Val, and normally would have. Second Chance Club associates backing up their partners was a standard operating procedure but if Tam’s guess as to the nature of Bright Springs was correct then Anna didn’t have any concern about Val being able to handle herself.
Plus, the Post Office wasn’t the building that was inviting her to enter.
From the outside, the gas station had looked well lit with only a few pieces of simple furniture on the floor and and walls. Waiting inside however, she found three men and two women, all armed, and all with the sort of sour looks that said there was violence in the offing which they had little taste for.
“Before we get started,” Anna said, “which of you is the one I can have a nice conversation with once the unpleasantries are taken care of?”
The largest bearded man in the room twitched at that and, rather than answering with words, swung the baseball bat that he was holding.
It was a good swing, solid and from the shoulder. If Anna had stayed in place it would have cracked into the left side of her neck with enough downward force to shatter her collarbone and disable her left arm. The only flaw in the attack was the moment’s hesitation that preceded it.
Anna wasn’t the fighter that Val was. She did ok when they sparred but that was only because Val held back and Anna didn’t. That was how she always fought, which was unfortunate for the man swinging the bat at her.
From the position where he had the bat readied, and the grip he held it with, Anna could see exactly where his swing was going to go well before he decided to make his attack.
With a small side step, she slid away from the blow, allowing the man to overextend himself. As he started to tip forward off balance, she grabbed his shirt sleeve and forced him hard into the door beside her.
The gas station door was old, and hadn’t been built with the sturdiest of materials to begin with, so when the man struck it with the full force of his face and torso, the door shattered into kindling.
Then the town exploded.
Anna blinked and spit dust out of her mouth.
She’d wound up on the ground somehow.
Beside her Val was rising to her feet as well.
“Well that sucked,” Val said, shaking her head to clear the ringing away from her ears.
The explosion had rippled through the town fast enough that Anna could barely recall it, but given the immensity of the blast she was having a hard time understanding why she was around to remember anything at all.
“Things did not go well in the Post Office?” she asked, getting to her feet. They were back at their bikes, but this time the lights were on in all five of the buildings that made up Bright Springs.
“I may not have been as diplomatic as I should have been,” Val said.
“I don’t think any amount of diplomacy would have avoided that,” Anna said. She had her suit jacket back and Val was wearing her own racing jacket again.
“Well, at least we found the townsfolk,” Val said, dusting herself off.
“And now you’ll regret that you did,” the baseball bat wielding man said as he exited the gas station flanked by the other ambushers.
“Aww, did you find some friends to play with? They’re just adorable with those little sticks,” Val said, stepping forward into a casual fighting stance.
“We don’t want to fight you,” the short, older woman of the group said. That she was clutching a branding iron raised questions that none of the others were leaping to answer.
“You are not wrong about that,” Val said. Five on one weren’t great odds, but watching the five townsfolk move as a group told her they would be more a danger to each other than to her if a serious fight broke out.
“What Hilda means is that it’s too late for you, so there’s no point in fighting anymore,” the other woman said.
The resemblance between them was too strong for Anna to believe the taller woman was anything other than Hilda’s sister.
“And why was it that you were so intent on fighting before?” Anna asked.
“We were trying to save you,” the man with the baseball bat said.
“You have an odd method of saving people,” Anna said.
The townsfolk glanced at the weapons and nervously dropped their arms to their sides to show they weren’t threatening violence anymore. Anna noted that they didn’t actually drop the weapons though.
“We wanted to get you out of here before you did anything,” Hilda said. “Then you went and broke the door and now the town’s got you.”
“I broke a window too,” Val said. “Or I guess the Post Office manager’s face broke a window. Kind of the same thing really.”
“You shoved him through a window?” Anna asked. “We weren’t even inside for two minutes?”
“Technically I didn’t shove him,” Val said. “It was a knee strike, and what can I say, he deserved it.”
“Miller must be fuming in there,” Hilda said. “Poor Bill, he’s gonna get it for sure.”
“Sounds like I need to go have another ‘discussion’ with Mitchy,” Val said.
“No! Don’t do that!” the baseball man said.
“If you break anything in the town, the judgement comes,” Hilda said.
“The Judgement? That why the town seemed to explode?” Anna asked.
“It didn’t seem to, it did,” the baseball man said. “Anytime the town changes from how it was when the contract was signed, the Day of Judgement comes and sets it all back to how it was.”
“Like Groundhog Day?” Val asked, but the townsfolk replied with only confused silence.
Tam had speculated that the ‘town being kept as it was’ clause in the contract could have a component of temporal manipulation involved, but she hadn’t given them the full details on what a time loop that could hold a town in stasis for a century would entail.
“So when I broke the door, and Val broke the window, everything reset?” Anna asked. “And somehow that has made us a part of this town?”
“Yeah, that’s how I got stuck here,” a smaller man at the back of the group said. “I stopped in to grab a bite because I’d heard of the restaurant here from my grandmother. Backed into the gas pump by mistake and that was it for me, I’ve been stuck here ever since.”
“When was that?” Anna asked.
“1961,” the man said.
To Anna’s eyes the man couldn’t have been older than his mid-thirties but she knew that deceptions were the easiest form of magic. Not that the deception was complete. The man might look like he was in his thirties but there was a quality to his eyes that suggested sixty years of weight those thirty plus years were never intended to bear.
“Why couldn’t you leave?” Val asked.
“We don’t know,” Hilda said. “Anyone who’s here is a part of the town through. Anything happens to them, or the town, and it all gets rolled back like you saw.”
“What’s the longest you’ve gone without a reset?” Anna asked.
“It varies,” Hilda said. “I know we had one time where we went about three months with time passing like it does for everyone else. Other times it just seems to skip back whenever it wants. Sometimes two or three times per day.”
“So anyone who’s here when the town resets gets added on as a permanent resident?” Val asked. “How come you’re not overflowing with population here?”
“Most people cannot find Bright Springs, I imagine,” Anna said. “We did because we knew of it through PrimaLux’s contract. He did because he knew of the restaurant from his mother. Without a connection to Bright Springs, we might have driven right through and never noticed it.”
“It seems like that,” Hilda said. “Back before this all started, we never had all that many people come through, but afterwards it was like nothing else existed at either end of the road.”
“What happens if you try to leave?” Val asked.
“If we get too far away that seems to be the same as taking something from the town,” Hilda said. “We wind up back wherever the town wants us to be.”
“Is that why you were in the gas station?” Anna asked. “Did the town put you there?”
“And gave us the weapons,” the baseball man said.
“We only wanted to knock you out and dump you outside of town before the next reset,” Hilda said.
“So you were concerned enough for her well being that you expressed it with a baseball bat?” Val asked.
“No,” Anna said. “It wasn’t for my sake. They didn’t want another member of the town to spend eternity with.”
“Not one the town didn’t like!” the baseball man said.
“But it was for your sake too,” Hilda said. “Who would want to be trapped like this? Never able to move forward or change at all.”
Anna and Val looked at one another.
“The guy who holds the deed that set this up I would imagine,” Val said.
“Perhaps we should all go pay him a visit?” Anna suggested and began walking towards the Post Office.
The others fell into line behind her, Val trusting her insight and the townsfolk having nothing better to do at that point.
Inside the Post Office, Bill was dutifully reading a handbook on postal regulations which looked like he’d read it a few thousand times already.
“Hello?” he said followed swiftly by, “You shouldn’t go in there!”
Anna ignored that and marched into the office of Mitchel Miller to find the man backed into a corner and pointing a gun at her.
“Under the circumstances, that is a singularly ineffective threat, don’t you think?” Anna said.
Miller’s gaze flicked around as more people entered the room before returning to Anna.
“Mitchel Miller,” she said. “Former PrimaLux Director of Natural Resource Development for their Americas division. This is quite the golden parachute you arranged for yourself.”
“What is she talking about?” Hilda asked. “Mitch has been here as long as the rest of us.”
“Of course he has,” Anna said. “This is the one place on Earth where he was safe from the machinations of his former employer.”
“Mitch? What are they saying?” Hilda asked.
“You weren’t the one who arranged the original deal, were you Mitchy?” Val said. Miller swung the gun to point at her but didn’t answer. “You had one of your flunkies come and make the offer after you bought some land here so that you’d be a legit part of the town.”
“Then you put together a deal that would snare the souls of the dead to power the time loop that you caught the town in,” Anna said. “The deal required PrimaLux to create the loop but since it was self sustaining and got them the resources they wanted, it was easy enough to convince them to take the offer.”
“Strange time loop,” Val said. “It seems like it rolls forward with regular time.”
“That’s what we thought,” Hilda said. “We get set back, and the town gets set back, everything just like it was, but the rest of the world keeps moving on.”
“It’s the perfect tool for someone who wants to live forever, but also continue to exert their power on the outside world,” Anna said.
“There is one odd bit though,” Val said. “I’m not a legal expert, but I thought the deal stipulated that the Additional Value clause or whatever it was that gives the owner control over the souls of the dead only came into force if PrimaLux had to relinquish ownership of the deed. Kind of a payback for the loot they were losing.”
“That’s true,” Anna said. “Which suggests that the transfer didn’t happen when PrimaLux fell. It happened right after the deal was signed.”
“And who could have been the one to get the deed from PrimaLux?” Val asked. “Could it be Mister Mitchy Miller himself?”
She strode over to him and slapped the gun out of his hand.
Firing it would have been useless. It just would have reset the town and they would have done the same scene all over again until it turned out how they wanted.
“Why, what do we have here?” she said, pulling a thin envelope out of his coat pocket and tossing it to Anna.
“This would look to be the signatory sheet for the Mineral Rights contract,” Anna said.
“It doesn’t matter if you destroy that one,” Miller said. “It won’t void the contract. There are still copies on file in safe locations, and I’m still the owner!”
“That is true,” Anna said. “Which is why you’re going to sell us the Mineral Right deed and we’ll put an end to this ourselves.”
“Why would I do that? I would never do that!” Miller said.
So Anna threw his nameplate through the window.
And the town reset.
She and Val marched back into Miller’s office. Miller objected to their presence. So Val threw Miller through the window, again.
And the town reset.
They didn’t talk to Miller or make him any offers after that. They merely repeated resetting the town until he ran out to meet them before they could enter the Post Office.
“I will get you for this,” he said, offering them the contract.
Val tossed him in through the window this time.
And the town reset.
“You don’t deserve it, but this is your second chance,” Anna said when he hobbled out to them the next time. “Here’s one dollar. This pays for the contract. You’re going to take it and walk out of here and pray that the rest of your life passes by without you ever seeing anyone from Bright Springs or either of us again.”
“Because if you do to scheme against us or them,” Val said, “we’re going to make sure the ghosts you’ve been abusing get a second chance at their revenge on you.”