Kat paused, a fork of food held partway to her mouth. Something was wrong. She could feel it.
Not long ago she had felt Alice move away east. She assumed that Sergio was the one taking her that direction, but now she wasn’t so sure. The connection that she felt with her daughter, through the Argo Force ring, seemed clouded. Like trying to see through a windshield when it was raining.
She quickly finished eating at the small diner she was at, and returned to her rental car. Her saviors Valerie, Leslie, and Charlie had all pitched in to give Kat a little money for her travels, which she fully intended and promised to pay back. As soon as she could get her hands back on that unlimited credit card that Argo Force gave them, she’d have the money to do so.
Getting back into the rental car, she sped off in the direction she thought Alice was located. She seemed to be beyond the east mountains now, so Kat found the nearest canyon pass through the mountains at the north end of Provo, and continued on from there. As she progressed, she grew more certain that she was going in the right direction. But that nagging feeling that something was off kept weighing down on her. She sped up, hoping to close the distance as soon as she could.
The day was already starting to stretch into evening. With the mountains in the way, light in the west quickly dimmed. Kat turned on her headlights and continued forward. She was getting closer.
It wasn’t long before she found the Invergence base.
She recognized it instantly. A handful of trucks and smart cars, with a makeshift tent in the center. They had moved since Kat had been held by them, but their setup was almost exactly the same. Their home base lay in a field accessible from the road, but not too far away. Just like when she had been their prisoner.
It was unmistakable. The ring was pointing her towards the Invergence base. That could only mean one thing. Invergence had Alice. Probably Sergio too. Although the ring only pointed her to Alice. She didn’t even know if Sergio was still alive.
She pushed that thought away. One problem at a time. If she thought too much about Sergio now, fear for his fate would paralyze her. She couldn’t deal with that now.
Rounding a bend, she found a place to pull over and waited for about an hour for night to set in.
When the hour was up, she opened her door and began walking back the way she came. When she rounded the bend again, she could see the Invergence base a few hundred yards in front of her. The sun was gone, but several spotlights still brought light into the camp. She would need extreme care not to get caught once she came closer to the light. She had no weapon, other than the Argo Force ring, and she had no way of calling a member of Argo Force to help. At least, not that she knew of.
She kept walking, and came closer and closer to the camp. Once she was within a hundred yards, she ducked down and tried to hide in the tall grass as best she could. Her steps slowed as she tried to mask the sound her feet made.
Soon, she was close to one of the trucks. None of the guards had seen her yet in the darkness. She listened closely to the truck, wondering if perhaps Sergio was inside, chained up like she had been. She could tell from the ring she wore that Alice was somewhere else. In the tent, she thought. But it wasn’t likely that Alice and Sergio were kept together. If Sergio was even here at all.
The truck suddenly lurched to one side, and Kat stifled a cry of surprise. She could hear roars and growls from inside the truck now. That must be where they kept the monsters that had attacked them earlier. And from the sound of it, they smelled her outside.
She ran to the front of the truck and peeked her head around the corner. She could see the tent from here, but there was a guard standing at the entrance.
Kat had an idea.
She snuck back to the center of the truck, and knocked softly against the side. The monsters inside increased their frenzy. The truck was visibly moving at their struggle.
“What’s up with them?” a voice called out. Kat tiptoed back to the front of the truck. The guard who had been in front of the tent, had taken a few steps forward, curious about what was setting off the monsters.
“I don’t know,” another voice answered. This voice was closer and Kat instinctively ducked down lower. Hopefully they would move to the back of the truck and not notice her hiding near the front.
Kat heard the sound of the back door of the truck being opened. The sound of the raving monsters within was suddenly much clearer. Access to the open air caused the demons to struggle even further. Likely they could smell Kat’s blood nearby.
“Hey, be careful with those things. You don’t want to accidentally set them off. You saw what happened to the other guys.” The first guard’s voice seemed to be moving closer. Kat looked and saw him moving towards the truck, and away from his post.
Now was her chance. Quickly, Kat rounded the front of the truck, and moved between other large objects like the smart cars and unloaded equipment. She moved in an uneven line towards the front of the tent.
She knew that the moment she stepped through the tent, she would likely find someone there waiting for her. But she had to take that risk.
A moment later, and she was there. Sparing one glance behind her, she could see that neither of the guards had noticed her approach. Without a second thought, she entered the tent.
The area was surprisingly clean, and without any guards that she could see. The tent was sectioned off into smaller compartments, so she began tiptoeing through. Occasionally, she heard a voice coming from elsewhere inside the tent, and took great care to avoid the sound. Thankfully, her ring was guiding her in a different direction.
With the help of her ring, it didn’t take her long. Opening one hanging tent flap, she finally saw her. Alice was asleep in a makeshift crib, that looked like it was made out of rolled up blankets and pillows inside a large box.
Tears came unbidden to Kat’s eyes as she saw her daughter for the first time in weeks. There were times when she thought she would never see her daughter again.
With all the tenderness she could muster, she scooped her sleeping daughter up from the crib and held her. Oh, it felt so good to hold her again. Though, Kat noticed, that in the short time that they had been apart, Alice had already grown considerably.
The little girl’s eyes opened, sleepily. She blinked and looked up at Kat. Kat thought she saw recognition there. Alice smiled and reached one arm out to touch Kat’s face. Kat smiled back, tears streaming down her cheeks. She kissed Alice on the forehead.
Unfortunately, Alice didn’t realize the danger they were both in. She started cooing and babbling in excitement, throwing in the occasional “mama.” Kat tried to shush her daughter, but it was no use. Placing a hand on Alice’s mouth, she began moving toward the exit. She had to get out of here, but now that she was inside, she realized that she had no plan for getting out.
She rounded a corner, little Alice clutched in her arms, and nearly collided with a man there. Her heart dropped into her stomach. It was Anti-Sergio, the reverse-version of her husband. She almost felt satisfaction when she saw the shock on his face. But that shock soon turned to anger, and he reached for her.
Kat ran. She ran for all she was worth. Exiting the tent, she nearly bowled over the guard standing there.
She heard shouts behind her. Anti-Sergio was calling out orders, “DON’T FIRE, SHE HAS THE GIRL!”
More guards began streaming in. Kat kept running as fast as she could, but guards appeared in front of her. When she turned to try and avoid them, she found more flanking her. She stopped and looked in every direction. She was surrounded! No! she thought. She had been so close!
“Well, Katariina Rios, you have certainly proven yourself to be a giant thorn in my side.” Anti-Sergio was walking towards her. “First you reject me, then you escape me, and now you’re come to take my girl away from me too.”
Kat spat. This man deserved no less of a response. He paused and smiled at her.
“You,” he waved at the guard nearest him. “Go get the husband. I want him here to see this.”
Kat swallowed. So they did have Sergio here.
A moment later and Sergio was dragged out of another truck. He stumbled as the chains on his feet limited his mobility. When he looked up and saw Kat standing there, his mouth fell open and his eyes glistened.
“Kat,” he said, “They told me you were dead.”
“Oh she very much is dead,” said Anti-Sergio, “The bullet just hasn’t caught up with her yet.” He leveled his gun at Kat. “Now. Give me the girl.”
There was ice in his tone, and Kat began to panic. They were going to take Alice, shoot her and Sergio, and there was nothing she could do about it. Desperately, she tried to will her Argo Force ring to react. Nothing happened.
She tried again, as Anti-Sergio cocked his weapon. “If you don’t give her over, I will forcibly remove her from you.”
Kat tried the ring a third time. Perhaps willpower wasn’t what she needed? She didn’t know. She had tried over and over to get the ring to work, but nothing had come of it. She couldn’t….
She had an idea.
Anti-Sergio waved an arm, and guards came for her, but not before she had slipped the ring from her finger. Anti-Sergio saw it in that moment, and his eyes widened. Kat took up Alice’s arm in her own. Anti-Sergio lunged forward to stop her, but it was too late.
The ring slipped on Alice’s finger.
Time seemed to freeze for a moment, while everyone’s eyes turned on the baby girl. Even Anti-Sergio took a moment to stare, to see what happened next. Alice looked at her hand, curious to see the new shiny object she had in her possession.
Anti-Sergio rushed forward and grabbed Alice, pulling her away from Kat. Kat yelled and tried to pull back. Alice, distraught from the commotion and the distraction from her shiny new toy, started to cry.
Then the area surrounding them exploded with light.
Kat tried to see what was going on, her ring was glowing on Alice’s finger, but it was not the main source light. That source was nearly too bright for Kat to make out. As her eyes adjusted, she thought she saw a male figure within the light, tall and muscular.
The figure moved, and guards began to fall.
Kat could do nothing but stare. Her husband, still chained, stared too. They were the only ones standing still.
The figure was a tall man, with dark skin, of an ethnicity Kat couldn’t quite place. His hair was white and there was a simple golden circlet around his head. In his hand was a sword that gleamed brightly in the night.
But it was the symbol on his chest that raised Kat’s hope. It was a stylized AF surrounded by a circle, the symbol of Argo Force! His outfit was just like the girl who had saved them nearly a year ago, only this member didn’t have a cape and his sleeves were cutoff at the shoulders, exposing his considerable biceps.
The figure darted back and forth, his sword cutting through guns and other weapons like they were butter. Anti-Sergio had turned now, and was firing shot after shot at the newcomer. A few of the bullets missed, but one grazed the arm of the superhero. That caused him to turn on Anti-Sergio and his sword lifted to intercept more bullets. That must be some sword, thought Kat. And watching this man deflect more bullets from Anti-Sergio, she realized that this man wasn’t just a member of Argo Force, he had to be one with superpowers. She had seen Kira manifest some incredible powers, but nothing on this scale.
The man in white spun towards Sergio, deflecting bullets as he went. With a graceful leap, his sword came down on Anti-Sergio’s weapon. The Invergence leader was ready, he had a pistol in hand, which he fired just as the superhero cut through his automatic weapon. The newcomer knocked the pistol out of Anti-Sergio’s hand.
Anti-Sergio didn’t waste any time. His hand shot out and grabbed the man’s shirt, pulling him forward to head-butt him squarely in the nose. The superhero staggered backward for a moment, dazed. Anti-Sergio took advantage of the moment to kick the sword out of the man’s hand.
They were evenly matched now, and Anti-Sergio began pushing his advantage, punching and kicking with trained skill. Kat had never seen him show that level of skill in hand-to-hand combat. Clearly, there was more to Anti-Sergio then they expected.
The newcomer raised his arms to protect himself from the first few blows, then he began to block and parry. Within a few seconds, he was on the offensive. Despite Anti-Sergio’s skill, it was clear to Kat who was the master here. The superhero’s arms were almost a blur as he parried Anti-Sergio’s blows and delivered his own. Fists connected with Anti-Sergio’s face and he staggered backward. That was all the in that the man in white needed. He punched the Invergence leader in the gut. When the man doubled over in pain, a knee was waiting to smash into his face. Anti-Sergio crumpled and fell still.
The whole engagement had taken mere seconds, but Kat and her husband stood with their mouths hanging open. Alice was still playing with the new ring, and Kat barely noticed in time to stop the little girl from putting it in her mouth. The newcomer turned to look at Alice, and smiled. Then he bent to pick up the sword that had fallen to the ground.
“Who are you?” Kat asked. The man didn’t seem to hear, as he continued picking up his sword and cleaning it on the sleeve of a fallen guard.
When he straightened, he put the sword in a sheath behind his back. Then he did the last thing that Kat had expected. He began to speak in sign language.
The man’s hands moved in familiar patterns, though Kat had to look closely to determine what he was saying. She had only some basic practice with American sign language, but she was able to make out the gist of what the man was saying.
“Hello,” he signed, “My name is Michael.”
Kat tried to sign back, but found it impossible while holding Alice. The man smiled again, pointed to his mouth, and indicating that he could read lips.
“Thank you for saving us.” Kat said. Sergio had risen to his feet and approached Kat. He still had chains on his wrists and ankles.
“It is my pleasure. I’ve been waiting for the chance to meet the fifth Founder.” His eyes looked to Alice, who was now upset that her mother had taken the Argo Force ring away.
As Sergio approached, Michael lifted the sword from his sheath and pointed it towards Sergio’s chains. Sergio nodded. A few brief swipes later and the chains fell from his hand and feet. Michael resheathed the sword in one fluid motion and began signing again. He indicated they move inside the tent. Kat and Sergio followed him inside and they found a room to sit and rest for a moment.
“You probably have questions,” Michael signed.
Kat translated for Sergio before responding. “Yes we do,” she said. “For starters, why haven’t you come to help us before. We haven’t seen one of you since Alice was born.”
Michael bowed his head. “We have been there. But direct contact was forbidden.
“Forbidden!” Kat raised her voice, forgetting that the man could not hear the volume increase. “People died for us. We nearly died.”
“But look at where you are now. Both of you are now much more capable than you were a year ago. You, Kat, you managed to escape Invergence on your own, then sneak back to save your daughter. You have shown courage that few in this world possess.”
“But people didn’t need to die.”
Michael considered that for a moment. “I know it may sound arrogant to say so, but I can assure you that they are in a better place. It was their time, a time that comes for all of us eventually.”
That was not an answer that Kat liked to hear. Answers like that implied that it was okay for horrible things to happen. “So, you’re telling me that there is an afterlife, and…a God…and all that?”
Michael smiled and continued signing, “I am probably the person most qualified to answer that question. There is certainly an afterlife. And there is a God. We call him the Hand.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve met him.” Kat was starting to not like this man, despite his help earlier.
“Yes, I have.” That answer made Kat think twice. She hadn’t been expecting that. Michael sighed, “Once, a long time ago. But it is rare. Only the Founders have ever met the Hand, and I’m pretty sure some haven’t yet. But while I can tell you of my experiences, I cannot do more than that. You want proof. You cannot have it.”
“Why?” Kat asked. It was a genuine question. Why, if God was real, wouldn’t it be completely obvious. Why wouldn’t he make himself known to everyone!
“Because knowing would eliminate faith. And faith, trust, is what we’re here to learn.”
Kat had never really considered it that way before. She was still unsure and still had questions on the subject, like how can one trust in a God who lets such bad things happen. But Sergio interrupted before she could articulate another question. “So, you’re a Founder then? One of the five Founders?”
“Yes,” Michael signed back, “I was the fourth to join Argo Force.”
“And the girl who helped us a year ago, was she a Founder too? She seemed to know a lot about our daughter.”
Michael laughed, the first sound they had heard him make. “She is a Founder,” he confirmed.
“Where is she? We haven’t seen her at all since that day.”
“You’ve seen her every day since then.”
Sergio frowned. Kat also had no idea what the man meant. Then comprehension dawned on her. She looked down at Alice, at her blonde hair and blue eyes. Hadn’t they thought Kira looked a bit like Kat’s sister? They had the wrong relative all this time.
Kat looked to Sergio who still didn’t get it. “She never told us her real name.” Kat raised Alice a little, giving Sergio the hint he needed to understand. His eyes widened.
“You mean to tell us, that our daughter…from…from the future, was the real Kira?” he asked her and Michael together.
Michael nodded. “That is why she hasn’t returned since then. She could only help you before you gave birth.” He nodded his head at Kat. “We have strict rules against interacting with our younger selves.”
Kat felt her head spinning. She had met her daughter earlier than she thought! Pride welled in her. Kira…Alice had been so competent and skilled. It was quite the contrast to the curious but still helpless baby she held in her arms.
Michael looked to Kat. “I know it may seem like there’s no hope at times. We don’t take the same direct approach that Invergence does, most of the time. But we have been watching, and we’ve been there to protect you when you needed it most.”
Kat almost wanted to scoff at that, but then she remembered something. She looked at the horn that Michael carried at his belt. “You were the one who called off Invergence when we were at the hospital. That loud noise, that was you.”
Michael nodded, “Invergence was familiar with my call. It has spelled trouble for them in the past. We also inspired Simon to find you, and helped Valerie get lost so she would rescue you from Invergence. We might not have taken much direct action, but we are masters of subtle time manipulation.”
Kat still didn’t like the whole situation. Thoughts of the Evans family kept swimming to her mind, their dead corpses in a burning house. No matter what she heard, she would never accept the fact that Argo Force did nothing to keep them from dying. But, it seemed, she had misunderstood a lot of what was going on. So for now, she said nothing more on the subject.
Michael began signing again, and Kat translated to Sergio. “I’ve been given new orders. It’s too dangerous for the three of you to remain in this century. Surveillance tools make it too easy for Invergence to find you. I’m to take you somewhere where they can’t do that. The other children here, they will be safe. We will take care of them.”
Sergio spoke up, “Wait a second. What do you mean, not remain in this century? You’re not going to…”
Kat was wondering the same thing, so Michael explained further. “Don’t worry, I’m only going to take you back far enough that you will still have the advantage of technology, but Invergence won’t have the advantage of the Information Age.”
In her surprise, Kat forgot to translate this for Sergio. Instead she said, “well don’t we get a say in this?”
“I’m sorry. This order comes from much higher than I have authority to change.”
Before Kat could protest further, or translate the words to Sergio, a bright bubble of light emanated from Michael and enveloped Kat and her husband. The light grew brighter, and Kat thought she might be sick.
Moments later, they were standing in a different place. A different time.