He was no longer on Earth. At least, not the same Earth.
A dark room greeted him as he stepped out of the tube. A few people inhabited the room. He staggered, and a young aid helped him stay on his feet. Another brought him clothing. It was formal wear, appropriate for an audience with the High Matriarch. Apparently, they had been expecting him.
As if confirming his thoughts, the aid who had given him his clothing spoke, “The High Matriarch will see you now.”
That woman never had learned patience. Sergio finished donning a sleek overcoat and nodded. The aid led him from the chamber to the throne room. The walk took several minutes, and they passed by multiple guards. The tube chambers could not be placed so near the throne room, as that would make it easier for an assassin to materialize right in the heart of the Matriarch’s residence. Instead, they were placed just outside of the building, next to the barracks. And so they walked for several minutes in silence.
Soon, they approached the entrance to the throne room. Two large doors extended to the high ceiling above. They were greeted by four of the High Guard, brawny men and women and some of the most exceptionally skilled fighters. What Sergio wouldn’t give to have one of them join his team on Earth. The aid provided a note to the guards, most likely signed by the High Matriarch herself. The guard grunted and then the four of them opened the heavy doors.
Inside was an impressive sight. At least, it was impressive to those who hadn’t seen it before. The chamber stretched to the skies, and the roof sat hundreds of feet above them on long columns. Behind the throne were large windows, three of them, that stretched almost as high as the ceiling. The light from those windows cast three long projections on the floor, leading to the entrance where Sergio stood. The aid bowed to the throne and exited.
The throne itself was lavishly decorated, and its back stretched high, like everything else in the room. Smaller chairs sat on either side of the throne, and a council of women sat in these. But it was the woman sitting on the throne that drew Sergio’s eye.
The High Matriarch, a woman with dark skin and piercing gray eyes. She wore a simple crown that clashed with the extravagance of the room around her. Her eyes found his and they remained cold.
“Welcome, Commander Rios,” she said as he approached.
“Power and long life to you, mother,” he said, choosing the honorific reserved only for the High Matriarch.
She nodded. “Tell us how go things on Earth? Have you found the girl?”
“We have not, mother,” Sergio confessed, “We located her parents, just before her birth, but members of Argo Force interfered.”
“And you could not hold off such a pitiful force as they?”
“Forgive me, mother. But they were far from pitiful. There were dozens of them. We were outmatched. It would serve us well to not underestimate them.”
A few gasps came from the women sitting throughout the room. Sergio had very nearly reprimanded the Matriarch. Sergio didn’t back down. He knew his limits, especially given his past position in the High Court.
The High Matriarch pursed her lips. “And your report also indicates that you nearly found them again.”
Now, this was a subject Sergio would need care to relate. He had not told anyone about his debacle with his alternate self, the wife, and Alice herself. He didn’t know that he could ever tell that story. If word got out that he had disobeyed orders and approached the couple without backup, it would mean the end of his career, if not his life. He chose his words carefully, “Yes, I nearly stumbled upon them in a place called Tennessee. I called for backup but they got away before help could arrive.”
“And you expect us to believe that these inexperienced, soft Earth people could escape you?”
“I do, because they did.” Sergio responded, “Again, you underestimate our opponents.” Another wave of murmurs ran through the room at Sergio’s brashness
This time, the Matriarch smiled. That did nothing to put Sergio at ease. “How do we know that you didn’t let the girl get away, or that you’re going easy on them. You do, after all, have a certain connection with that family.”
“I was under the impression that my connection to this family was the very reason I was chosen to pursue them.”
“Yes, but perhaps it was a hasty decision. We did not pause to think about the potential…biases you might have. Biases that might keep you from doing whatever it takes to secure the girl.”
“I will do what must be done.”
“YES!” Sergio’s response echoed loudly in the chamber. Everyone tense. Even Sergio knew better than to raise his voice at the High Matriarch.
She studied him, reading his expression. “Very well,” she said finally, “You will return to their Earth and continue your search. But be warned, that we will view more failures as evidence of your guilt. Bring her to us, or we will find someone else to do the job.”
“If I may, mother,” Sergio replied, daring one last question, “why can’t you give us more information about where she will be and when? You have access to the time stream.”
“The uncertainty of her future makes it…difficult for our time readers to locate her.
“And it would help if my men and I knew why you want her.”
“She is destined to become a high-ranking member of Argo Force, our enemy. I would think that is enough.”
“We have many enemies at Argo Force. We don’t exert the same efforts to locate them when they are infants.”
“True, but Alice will be a Founder. She is critical to the formation of Argo Force in the first place. If we can change her path, we could potentially erase Argo Force from existence.”
“So why not just kill her then?”
“We would prefer that you bring her in alive, but if impossible, you are authorized to use deadly force.”
Sergio still felt like there was more that they weren’t telling him, but he let it go for now.
“Very well, mother,” he said, “I shall leave immediately.” Anywhere but here, he added to himself.
“May the gods see you there,” she replied, without a hint of sincerity to her voice.