A month passed since that eventful day in Washington D.C. when little Alice came into the world and her parents were forced to leave their home. Sergio and Katariina Rios, though they loved their daughter, had found little solace in that time. Immediately following the delivery, they could not return home. So they drove west and found an out-of-the-way motel that seemed secluded, but clean. They spent a week there while Kat recovered, then moved on, only staying put for a few days at a time.
Since that night, no one had contacted them from Argo Force, that mysterious organization that allegedly cared so much about them. The blonde girl who called herself Kira, though she was instrumental in saving their lives, had not been seen since. Both Sergio and Kat wondered if something was wrong, if perhaps they were left on their own because Argo Force could not help them, or worse, did not care to do so. Had they forgotten? During idle moments, Kat sometimes wondered if it hadn’t all been one big dream. But no, that was wishful thinking. Something amazing had happened that night, something of Biblical proportions, and yet no one knew about it except she and her husband. Something about this bothered her, but she didn’t quite know what it was. Perhaps it was simply the overload of new information that she had never before considered: monsters, superheroes, time-travel. She thought she had known the nature of the universe. Now, she realized there was so much more to learn. And she had no idea where to turn for answers.
They spent most of their time indoors, afraid that if they emerged for too long, another monster would attack them, or men in suits would try to take their daughter away. Sergio only left to purchase food with the credit card he had been given the night of Alice’s birth. As far as they knew, it had unlimited funds, though Sergio didn’t want to push that theory. The blonde girl, Kira, had told him not to attract attention by spending too much. Their motel lacked a kitchen, so they ate microwavable dinners, none of which left them feeling particularly nourished. This only added to Kat’s stress as she nursed the baby.
Little Alice was the only joy in their nomad lifestyle. The girl was still a handful; everyone had told them that the first month was always hard. Indeed, the girl hardly ever slept when her parents wanted her to sleep. Seeing as neither of them needed to go to work in the mornings, this wasn’t a huge issue. But it meant that any semblance of a sleep schedule depended fully on their daughter. The girl still could not smile, but her parents already saw personality. She was a curious girl. When awake, she would stare wide-eyed around the room, taking everything in. Though she still could not see well enough to detect far-away objects, she would stare, enraptured at anything that came close, her mouth forming a small O. You could almost see her starting to catalog familiar objects in her mind. Whenever she was upset, all her parents had to do was hold a colorful toy in front of her, and she immediately quieted, entranced by the experience of something new to look at.
Both parents started to grow tired, especially as they imagined years of moving from one motel to another. It wouldn’t do for Alice to grow up in such confined spaces with nothing but a few toys and the TV to entertain her. This was something Kat and Sergio discussed multiple times, but they always came to the same conclusion: they didn’t know enough. They desperately needed to talk to someone from Argo Force because they had no idea where to go or where it was safe for their girl. This both frustrated and stressed both parents. Finally, Sergio decided he had had enough of their rather dull existence. It was time to try something new, something to invigorate their lives. He told Kat he was going out to purchase more food, but instead went straight to a local outdoors shop he had seen when they drove into town a week ago. The area was a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts, and the store was well stocked. The shelves carried all the best camping gear, survival kits, and even some hunting equipment.
Sergio got to work selecting everything he thought they would need. His first selection was a very large tent, the best the store had, with several compartments and a makeshift patio. He could afford to splurge after all. Then he selected two large sleeping bags and a small one for Alice. These too were of the warmest and highest-quality. If he had stopped to think, he would have remembered that they were in the middle of January, and it would be silly to take their one-month-old into the cold. But Sergio was more interested in preparing for the worst and having something to look forward to once warm weather arrived. This would allow them to live off the grid for awhile, and give Alice a healthier environment to play in. The cold, however, prompted Sergio to pick up a bag full of handwarmers and a portable stove. He paused to look at the small generators. Should he? But sure, their credit card had enough, and a generator would mean having some additional warmth in the winter. He made up his mind and grabbed one of the smaller generators. He didn’t need anything too bulky. When he finally checked out of the store, he was shocked to find he had four-thousand-dollars-worth of supplies. He hadn’t meant to spend that much. But they were about to leave the area anyway, so what would it hurt if they spent a lot for genuinely useful supplies?
Sergio wasn’t done shopping. His next stop was the grocery store to actually buy the food he had promised. There was one thing he wanted, though, and he couldn’t find it here in this small town. He checked his watch and decided there was enough time. Kat might worry, but she’d feel better once Sergio returned with his surprise. He pulled out of the grocery store parking lot and headed toward the nearest city. He was too excited to notice a small smart car that followed.
The sun was starting to set by the time he returned to the motel. The car was loaded with supplies, and Sergio felt thoroughly pleased with himself. Yes, he had splurged a bit, but they’d be long gone by tomorrow. He exited the car which was packed to the bursting point. Perhaps they should consider a more spacious vehicle, or maybe an RV. They could do it. They had the money. Sergio’s mind buzzed with the possibilities as he approached the room, inserted the key, and opened the door.
Kat was waiting for him. Relief flooded her face as he entered.
“You’re here! I was so worried,” she looked frantic. “Why were you out so late?.” She was holding Alice, who stared at Sergio through the folds of her blanket. What was she thinking?
Sergio was about to respond that he hadn’t been gone too long, but he looked at the alarm clock next to the bed and realized he left seven hours ago. His trip must have taken longer than he thought. “I’m…sorry,” he said finally, “I got carried away.”
Kat sniffed, “I presume you got more than food.”
Sergio brightened upon remembering. “Yes!” he said, “Come see.”
Kat followed him out the door, holding Alice close to her chest as they entered the cold air. She saw their little Corolla and groaned.
“We can’t possibly need all this,” she said.
“Oh yes,” said Sergio defensively, “You see, this will allow us to camp outdoors, to get away from civilization. We can hide better now!”
“It’s the middle of winter, honey. We can’t take Alice out in this.”
“Oh well that’s why I got the generator and space heater, and plenty of reserve fuel.”
Kat spied an object through the back window, “And a crossbow?”
Sergio shuffled his feet, “For…when…we need to hunt wildlife. For food.”
“Sergio, you’ve never even shot a crossbow before, how are you going to learn well enough to feed us?” Before Sergio could respond, she continued, “How much did this cost?”
“It was enough to draw some attention.” A third voice sounded.
Kat and Sergio spun to face this new person, both dreading what they would see. He was a man, not tall but imposing. He wore a long black trenchcoat over a suit and tie. His face hid behind a mass of greasy hair and a wide-brimmed hat. They couldn’t quite make out what his face looked like, but scars crisscrossed his features. Kat and Sergio stood rooted to the spot.
“I’m glad I found you,” the man continued as if he was unaware of the fear on their faces, “I very much want to make the acquaintance of your daughter.”
That prompted action. Sergio and Kat dove for the car, trying to open the doors and enter before the creepy man could get any closer. Whoever this man was, they needed to put as much distance between them as possible.
“Now let’s not get too excited,” the man said. The man’s voice remained calm, but Sergio was horrified to see a small handgun poking out from his sleeve. Kat saw it too and froze. The man continued, “These weapons are crude, but they will get the job done. Unfortunately, our own weapons don’t work in this dimension. Which is quite unfair. Your weapons work in our dimension, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around? We’re forced to use mediocre material. But I suppose there’s a silver lining in that. It keeps us creative, wouldn’t you say?”
He was rambling. Sergio met eyes with Kat and she looked as incredulous as he felt. Suddenly Sergio realized that the man was waiting for a response.
“Uh…uh, sure. That’s good I guess.”
“I thought so, it is such an inconvenience, though. Like…decaf, or bird song”
Was this guy serious?
The man continued to walk nearer. Kat held Alice close. As the man approached, Sergio realized that he looked familiar. Kat seemed to notice it too, narrowing her eyes to get a better look. The man grinned, took off his hat, and brushed the hair from his face. Sergio’s eyes widened. The man looked…like him. Apart from the hair and the scars, this newcomer had Sergio’s face.
Sergio didn’t know how to react. He wanted to run, or yell for help, but he could do nothing but stare at this man. The doppelganger continued to grin. “Manners of course, I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Sergio Rios.”
Suddenly Kat scoffed, “You expect us to believe you? What kind of sick game are you playing here? Why do you have my husband’s face!?”
“Or why does your husband have my face?” the stranger responded.
“Your face? I…” Kat didn’t seem to have a response.
“I’m not sure I’m the one to ask for straight answers.” the anti-Sergio continued, “Perhaps we’d be more comfortable inside.”
He waved them towards the door of their motel with his handgun. Sergio and Kat exchanged looks. They didn’t want to move further away from the car, but they had no choice at the moment. Slowly, they did as asked.
When they had entered the room, anti-Sergio pulled up one of the motel chairs and sat, his gun still leveled at Kat and Sergio.
“As you can probably guess,” he said, “I’m from a small organization called Invergence. You had a run-in with us about a month ago I believe.”
They stayed silent.
“I don’t want you to be afraid. It’s very simple, I’m in charge of the search for your baby girl. They thought I might have a lot to offer on the case given my—“ he grinned at Sergio, the same grin that Sergio saw in the mirror each morning, “— unique perspective. But I don’t want to harm you. Besides, the others don’t even know I’m here.”
“Why should we believe you?” Kat asked.
“Well, I suppose because if Invergence were here, then you would be dead, and your little girl would be ours already. Or she might be dead too. I’m not entirely sure what they intend for her.”
“And why do you have my face?” said Sergio.
“Now that’s a much more complicated question.” anti-Sergio sat back in his chair, his eyes staring at the ceiling in thought. Sergio glanced at Kat. Perhaps if they kept this man talking, they’d get a chance to disarm him.
But before they could do anything, the man met their eyes again. “How much do you know about Invergence?”
Sergio answered, “We know you’re after Alice, and that you’re trying to take down Argo Force.”
“And has it ever occurred to you why we might hold such a grudging relationship with those snobs? Apart from their monochromatic fashion sense? I’m telling you, white is so unimaginative.”
To be honest, neither Kat or Sergio had put much thought into it. All they knew is that Invergence wanted to kill or capture their daughter, and they needed no more than that to know they were bad news.
“They helped us,” Kat responded, “You came at us with monsters and…and guns. They saved us. That girl, Kira, we would have died without her.” Kat’s emotions were on edge and her voice began to rise in volume, “You want to know why we don’t trust you? Because normal people don’t make nice with lunatics who TRY TO KILL THEM.” Her face was flushed, and she looked about to launch herself at the man. Sergio put an arm around her for safe measure. Little Alice, despite the tension of the situation, had fallen asleep. It almost seemed comical to Sergio.
Oddly, the anti-Sergio didn’t react. He sat there quietly, long enough for Sergio to wonder if he had spaced out for some reason. Perhaps now might be a good time to…
“You make some good points,” he said, finally. Kat let out a breath, exasperated. The man continued, “But as I said, Invergence doesn’t know I’m here. I came to talk to you personally before those corporate know-it-alls do something they’ll regret.”
He turned to look at Sergio, “I still haven’t answered your question. Why do I look like you? I will tell you, but only because I, unlike my superiors, think you deserve to know why we want your child before we take her.”
Sergio swallowed. So he did intend to take Alice, with or without their consent. He began looking desperately for a way out, some way to distract the reverse-version of himself. For now, letting him talk seemed to be the best option.
“This Argo Force you encountered, it’s not all you know it to be. You only met one person, which by the way I’m stunned that you haven’t figured out her real name by now, but she’s hardly a fitting representative of the group.”
As he spoke, Sergio suddenly had an idea. The ring. Before Kira had left them, she had given them a ring that supposedly called someone from Argo Force to help. If they could activate it now, perhaps someone would come to rescue them. He looked around to find Kat’s purse where they kept it hidden. It lay on a shelf near the bed, but Kat was closer. Sergio did his best to grab her attention as the anti-Sergio rambled on.
“Argo Force is supposed to help people, make their lives easier by changing the timeline. But in truth, they only replace one problem with another. You see it all the time. Take away a man’s problems and he’ll always find more to busy himself with. That’s how we came into being. Argo Force made a mistake. Argo Force created us.”
“What do you mean?” Kat sounded concerned. Sergio kept trying to catch her eye, but she seemed interested in what their intruder had to say.
“Someone in Argo Force changed too much early in history, and the ripples were violent enough to split the timeline in two. I’m sure you’re familiar with the multiverse theory? I know you have that here, I saw it in a…what do you call it…YouTube video.”
“Yes, we know of it.”
“Well it’s complete rubbish,” anti-Sergio said abruptly, “To our knowledge there is no such multiverse, or if there is, it’s completely beyond our reach. With one, big exception.”
“Is that where you come from, another universe?” Sergio said, momentarily forgetting the ring in his wife’s purse.
“Everything has an opposite to prove its existence. Hot has cold, good has evil, light has dark. We are not simply another universe; our universes inherently connect. Like two sides of a coin, a complete whole. Your Argo Force—” he spat the name, “—created us when they changed the past too far, and now they wish to destroy us. We are only acting for our own self preservation: to protect the whole.”
Sergio finally caught Kat’s eye now. He glanced down at her purse, then back up at her. She looked down where his eyes indicated. At first her eyebrows knit in confusion, then comprehension dawned on her face. She looked back at Sergio and gave the smallest nod in confirmation. Anti-Sergio was still talking.
“So you see, Argo Force from our perspective is no different than we are from yours. We’re only trying to continue an existence that they started, rather than let them end us, as if we were a mistake. That is why I have your face, Sergio. In a very real sense, I am you, and you are me. We both want to continue existing.”
“You still haven’t explained why you want Alice.” said Sergio. He tried to keep the anti-Sergio’s attention on him, letting Kat inch her fingers toward her purse.
Anti-Sergio’s brow furrowed then he stared at the sleeping Alice with a look of….longing?. “I honestly don’t know what the others want with her. She’s important but no more or less than any other Founder. That’s why I came here first, because—” he hesitated, “I never had a child. My…wife, as you would call her, died before I could give her an heir. She looked like you.” he nodded his head towards Kat, but suddenly noticed her hand that had just reached below the opening flap of her purse. All three of them froze.
“Take your hand out of that bag,” Anti-Sergio said. His voice was cold. Kat obeyed, visibly trembling. Sergio too felt his heart drop. This had been their best plan to escape.
Anti-Sergio snatched up the purse and looked inside. After a few moments he withdrew the Argo Force ring, its embossed AF symbol gleaming in the dim light.
“Oh, this is disappointing,” Anti-Sergio said, “so disappointing. And I thought you were listening.”
He looked agitated, increasingly so, and his lips curled into a snarl.
“I thought you were reasonable people!” his voice rose, “I thought you would be willing to talk to someone who shared a vested interest in the SAFETY OF YOUR DAUGHTER!”
He was shouting now. Sergio stared at him. Was the man insane? Of course they wouldn’t trust him after he threatened them with a gun and opening admitted a desire to take Alice away. But he kept his thoughts to himself as his reverse-version became more enraged. Alice was awake now, and the shouting upset her. She began to cry.
Anti-Sergio pulled a small device from his belt, a transparent tube of some kind. He dropped the ring inside and it disintegrated before their eyes. Kat let out a soft groan, and Sergio’s face fell. That was their only method of contacting Argo Force. What would they do now?
“So disappointed,” the man continued, “what am I going to do with you now?” He waved his gun in the air, and looked to the ceiling in exasperation. “I suppose—”
His tackle caught the man completely off guard. Once on the floor he began to punch the man’s face with all his might. His reverse self recovered quickly, however, and soon blocked each blow and tried to reach the gun, which had fallen beside them. Then Kat joined in. She grabbed the clock from the side table and slammed it down on anti-Sergio’s head. He jerked and fell still. Both Kat and Sergio lay there panting, shocked at the violence they had just discovered they were capable of committing. It was a new sensation for both of them.
“Grab what you need, fast.” Sergio told Kat. They rose and took a few seconds to gather their most essential items from the hotel, leaving most of it behind.
Kat ran outside to put Alice in her carseat while Sergio gathered any remaining supplies. Thankfully, most of what they needed was in the car already. As he exited the motel door, he heard a loud POP! Sergio stumbled and fell to the cement. Pain exploded in his calf.
“Sergio!” Kat rushed to him. Another pop sounded, and Sergio realized that it was the sound of a pistol. He looked down at his leg as warm blood began to spread down his pant leg. Shocked, he looked back inside the hotel. The anti-Sergio was still on the ground, but he was awake. His hand held the pistol, its lip smoking. Stupid! Sergio cursed himself, how could they forget the gun?
“You won’t get far!” he snarled, “My men are coming. If you think you’ve been in danger before, it’s nothing compared to the chase we’ll give you now! I was going easy on you!”
Kat slammed the motel door shut as anti-Sergio fired again. The bullet shot through the door an inch from Kat’s head. Hastily, she helped Sergio rise to his feet. He almost passed out from the effort, but hopped to the passenger seat. Kat helped him enter the car, and more gunshots tore through the motel door.
Kat entered the driver’s seat and started the vehicle. Soon they were a safe distance away from the gunshots, but they didn’t stop. If anti-Sergio was to be believed, Invergence was coming, and they needed to get as far away as possible.
Sergio did his best to slow the bleeding on his leg, but he couldn’t get a good look at it from inside the car. He couldn’t tell if the bullet was still logged in his calf. Nevertheless he tore his shirt and gritted his teeth as he used the cloth to put pressure on the wound. He had bought a first-aid kit at the camp store, but that was buried somewhere in the trunk and they needed to put some distance between them and their motel before they could stop to retrieve it.
They were now driving on a long country road going west. There was hardly any traffic so Kat sped up as much as she dared. Alice was still crying.
“Are you okay?” Kat asked, concern etching her face.
“I’ll be fine,” said Sergio, “Thankfully it missed the artery, it’s not bleeding enough. I think” he added hesitantly.
“I’ll pull over as soon as I—” she broke off as the engine made a heaving noise, sputtered, and died. Kat used the car’s forward momentum to pull to the side of the road. “Oh no,” she said, “we’re out of gas.”
“What?” asked Sergio, “I filled it up before I went back to the motel.”
Kat exited the car and looked it over. “Gas leak,” she called back to Sergio, “I think a bullet pierced the tank.”
Sergio let his head fall against the headrest. What were they going to do now? They had no gas, they were exposed on a little-traveled road, the temperature was dropping, and Invergence was almost certainly looking for them. Plus, they couldn’t walk far due to Sergio’s leg, which also needed medical attention.
Kat stood with her hands behind her head, also trying to think of a solution. All while the sun lowered ahead of them in the west, and darkness fell.