Kat forgot who she was. For the briefest moment, she was just the smallest consciousness adrift in a swirling whirlpool of light. She liked the light. It was pretty. She wanted to go to it, to become one with it. To…wait.
A part of herself joined her unconsciousness. She wasn’t part of the light, she was someone else. Katariina. That was her name. She was married, she thought. S….Sergio! That was his name, and there was someone else there too.
In a rush, all her memories came flooding back just as her feet made contact with something hard. The ground. That’s what it was called. The light that enveloped her faded, leaving only darkness and a harsh afterburn in her eyes. She could see nothing around her.
She still kept Alice clutched in her arms. Now she remembered. That snake, the alternate-universe version of her husband had tried to take the girl away from her. A member of a group called Argo Force had come to save them. His name was Michael. It was he that brought her to…whatever this place was.
Alice was awake in her arms, but keeping quiet for now. Kat gently hugged her daughter close as her eyes began adjusting to the world around her. It was still dark, and she could make out very little with the afterglow of the bright light still blinding her.
“S-Sergio?” she managed to say. “Are you there?”
She thought she heard footsteps nearby. “Yes, I’m here.” a voice called out.
It was her husband’s voice. Just the sound brought waves of relief to her troubled mind. “Where are you? I can’t see anything.”
“Me neither,” his voice was closer now. “All I see are these afterimages.”
Kat could see them too. The one blinding afterimage had faded into several spots in her vision. She…
One of the afterimages moved.
“Sergio, I’m not sure those are…”
A scream filled the night. A piercing, haunting scream that chilled Kat to the bone. It came from the image in front of her. Now that she had time to focus, she realized it wasn’t an afterimage, it was a form, in the shape of a woman. It glowed like….like a ghost.
A small part of Kat’s brain wanted to say that there was no such thing as ghosts, but that part was soon drowned out by other emotions…like panic.
“Kat, what’s going on!” Sergio said. He sounded as scared as she felt. Kat thought she could make him out now, just a few feet to her right. She stumbled toward him. Whatever this was, they would face it together.
More screams echoed through the night, and they were followed by more ghostly figures appearing all around them. “Kat…” Sergio’s voice was higher now.
“I’m here, love.” She fumbled and finally grabbed his hand. He jumped but gratefully took her hand a moment later. They stood there, hand in hand as apparitions surrounded them on all sides. They had nowhere to run, they could see nothing of their surroundings. All they saw were pale shapes in the darkness. The air chilled.
A shape moved closer, coming face to face with Sergio in a matter of seconds. Sergio yelped in fear, but that was followed by a loud scream as the ghost touched his head. Kat had never heard her husband make a sound like that, not even when he had been shot several months earlier.
Without thinking, she leapt at the apparition, driving her fist as hard as she could into its ghostly form. Her hand passed straight through it, and immediately grew numb. She screamed too, as a deep cold set in. That must have been what Sergio just experienced. Her other arm kept supporting Alice while her free arm went limp.
Okay, they were in trouble. Kat knew that right away. She was having difficulty thinking straight. Hadn’t Michael sent them here to get them out of trouble. What was going on?
A bright light illuminated them from one side, a warm light. Kat looked, and it seemed every apparition in the area followed her gaze.
Standing in a small clearing of trees that Kat could now make out from the new light, stood a man. Fire burst from the man’s hands into the air around him. Kat looked around at the ghosts and saw that they were all looking at the newcomer.
The flames in the man’s hands erupted higher into the night, and that’s when the apparitions began to move. They drifted towards the fire, mesmerized like a moth to the flame. She, her husband, and daughter were forgotten as all attention focused on this man with the flaming fists.
Kat didn’t know what was going on, but she realized an opportunity when she saw it. She turned to Sergio, who was looking stunned and very pale. “Sergio, are you okay?”
“I…yes, I think so. That thing, when it touched me…”
“I felt it too. My arm.” She still couldn’t feel anything from that arm, though she was vaguely aware of a faint tingling coming from the tips of her fingers. Good. If feeling came back to her arm, perhaps Sergio would recover fully as well.
“Can you stand?” she asked.
“I think so.”
As she helped her husband to his feet, she took a moment to look at the man with the flaming hands. She blinked as she stared into the light.
The man was taking the ghosts out one by one, throwing flame at them and causing them to disappear. His motions were fluid and precise, every movement of his arms directing fire at a new apparition. Who was this guy?
Kat tried to support her husband but couldn’t with one arm dead and the other holding Alice. But Sergio seemed to be recovering faster than she was, and soon enough they were walking as fast as they could away from the place. Kat was grateful to the man who had saved them, but she also wanted to get as far away from this place as she could.
“Hold up there!” A voice called out. It was the man with the flaming hands. “Don’t worry about this lot I’m almost done, see.”
Kat hesitated. Should they really stay put after all this?
But the man was right. Only a few apparitions were left and it wasn’t long before the man made short work of them.
“I think, we should probably find out more about what just happened.” Sergio whispered to her. He was right of course. Something strange was going on, and they needed to know more. Nothing was ever simple, it seemed, when Argo Force was involved.
Cautiously, they tiptoed back to where the man stood, flames still protruding from his hands and illuminating the area. As Kat approached she realized that the flames weren’t coming directly from the man’s hands, but from two nozzles that attached to an iron exosuit that he was wearing. They were just a form of flamethrower! A part of her felt relieved. At least there was an explanation for something.
“Hi there. Haven’t seen you before.” the man said as they approached. He had an odd accent, sounding almost like a man from an old nineteen-thirties black and white movie, like he had a wad of chewing gum constantly in the back of his throat.
“We…ah, just arrived.” said Sergio.
“Well that’s just curious, very curious. We don’t get new people here.”
“I’m sorry but who are you? And what just happened here?” Kat asked.
The man seemed not to hear her. “And you’re dressed very strangely too. Judging by your clothing and how you’re all covered in dirt, plus the baby there, I’d have to say that you must be from…” He looked upward in thought. “Portland.”
“We…what?” Kat momentarily forgot her questions. “What gave you that idea?”
“I’m the detective in these parts. But sorry my manners, the name is Lance, Lance Carson.”
The name sounded familiar to Kat, but she put it out of her mind for now. “This might sound like a silly question, but could you tell us what day it is?
“It’s Friday, January ninth.” he said.
“Yes, and..um…what year?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. She thought she saw his eyes move to Alice. “Wait, could it be?”
“Please, just answer the question, and could you also tell us…where we are?”
The man, Lance, looked up from the baby to meet her eyes. “It’s nineteen forty-eight. You’re just outside a little town called Greenfield, California.”
Kat looked at Sergio, who met her stare with wide eyes. Nineteen forty-eight! Why on Earth were they here of all places? Well, she supposed it could have been worse. Michael could have led them back to the dark ages or something. At least this way they had access to…semi-modern amenities.
“Your daughter,” Lance broke the silence. “I recognize that ring on her finger. Have they sent you to help?”
Kat looked back at Lance, several pieces falling into place. “You’re a member of Argo Force.” It wasn’t a question.
Lance nodded. “One of the third-tier of course, I don’t have any superpowers. I try to make up for it though.” He raised his hands to show them the nozzles sticking out of his sleeves. “So did they send you?”
“Maybe,” Sergio cut in. “But we’re as clueless as you. It’s kind of a long story.”
Lance shrugged, “I’ve got all night. You can follow me back into town if you’d like.”
So Sergio gave him a basic rundown of what happened to them over the last year as they walked alongside their new friend. He told him about Invergence, and how they were on the run from monsters for months. He told them about Invergence capturing both of them, and how Michael, a Founder of Argo Force came to their rescue. He didn’t say much about Alice, only saying that Invergence wanted her for some unknown reason. Kat agreed with Sergio’s choice of words. They didn’t want someone they didn’t fully trust yet to know that Alice was a future Founder of Argo Force.
“Crumbs, that’s a story!” Lance exclaimed when Sergio finished. “Who’da thought a Founder, an actual Founder would send you here of all places! I mean, you saw the problems we have here but it’s hardly nothing I’m sure in comparison to what they deal with day to day…crumbs.”
Kat was beginning to like this man, despite her trust issues that had developed over the last year. But, she remembered, there had always been good people on the road they took to get here, even if some of them suffered for it. She lost the smile that had been forming on her lips as she remembered the Evans family, who had died because of them. No matter what happened with Argo Force, she didn’t think she could ever forgive them for that. No one needed to go through an experience like that, ever.
“Well I suppose you’ll be looking for a place to stay tonight?” Lance continued. “Seeing as you’re not from around here.”
“Ah, yes.” said Sergio, glancing briefly at Kat to confirm. “We’d appreciate that.”
“Ha, see I know what people want.” Lance seemed positively thrilled. “They tell me I’m a poor detective, but they don’t see what I see!”
Kat glanced at Sergio, an amused smile on her lips. This guy was a character. Sergio faced Lance and spread his arms out in mock surrender. “You got us!” he laughed.
“Of course I do, but let’s go, I don’t live too far from here.”
They followed him down an empty street. They had been on a small foothill which Kat and Sergio didn’t realize until they began to walk down it. Once at the base, it was only a few more blocks before they reached Lance’s home. It was a small building, falling apart at the edges, but still sturdy.
Lance waved an arm at it. “It’s not much but I’ll be able to put you up for a night or two. I’ve got a spare room where my…well where yous can sleep tonight. Sorry I don’t have anything for the little one, but I’m sure we can improvise.”
He led them inside, and Kat began to rethink the whole thing. The place was absolutely littered with…stuff. There were spare pieces of metal everywhere, some part of a larger gadget, others just lying around. Where there wasn’t some mechanical project lying around, there were food wrappings and dirty dishes. This man clearly lived alone and didn’t entertain people often.
Lance entered behind them and scratched the back of his head. “It…ah, needs some tidying up for sure, but the spare room is better.” He led them to the back and opened a door for them to inspect.
Just as he said, the spare room was much nicer. It contained a queen-sized bed with a nightstand and plenty of space to get around. Kat almost felt her knees buckle and it was only then that she realized how tired she was. She hadn’t had a break in at least twenty-four hours now, though she wasn’t sure how to calculate that number given the fact that they had time travelled in the middle.
Lance saw the expression on her face and raised one hand. “I’ll let you folks settle down for the evening. We have a lot to talk about, obviously, but it can wait until morning. If you need the bathroom it’s the room right next to this one.”
“Thank you Lance,” Kat said. “We really do appreciate it.” That wasn’t a lie. Though Kat had yet to fully trust this man, he had saved them from…whatever those things had been on the hill. And he knew about Argo Force, which meant that at least his heart was in the right place.
Lance nodded gratefully and closed the door, leaving Kat, Sergio, and Alice alone in the room.
They slept peacefully that night, with Alice between them. The girl woke up once in the night, but after rocking her gently, Kat managed to put her to sleep again. Thoughts still clouded their dreams, but it was still perhaps the most rest either of them had received in weeks.
In the morning, they awoke to see that the sun was already high in the sky. They probably would have gone on sleeping if it weren’t for Alice who awoke and decided now was a good time to pull on Sergio’s ear and shout nonsense in it. She wasn’t forming full words, other than the occasional ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ approximations, but she knew how to get attention.
Still tired, but rested enough to be getting on with the day, Kat and Sergio stood and stretched. They were still in their clothes, they didn’t have anything else to change into, but they found a hot shower in the bathroom next door, which they both used with eagerness. Kat stepped out of the shower feeling like a whole new woman. She could feel the refreshing coolness as her wet skin met the air. It was a good start to a good day, even if she still had to wear the same clothes for a while longer.
“Now then,” Lance said after they had prepared themselves and gathered around the kitchen table to eat breakfast. “We have to go about establishing your identities, see. We’ll need a good story.”
“I’m not even sure we plan on staying in this town.” Kat said, turning to Sergio as she spoke. “We’ve had…some bad experiences staying in one place for too long.”
“Sergio swallowed the bite he had just taken, “That’s true, but I get the feeling that we’re meant to do something here. I don’t think Michael just randomly chose this place and time. Besides, the technology is far inferior here so it will be much harder for Invergence to track us down, especially in a small town like this.”
“Wait, what are you calling inferior?” Lance said, taken aback.
“Uh…actually the stuff you have here looks pretty advanced.” Sergio responded. “You’re a gifted mechanical engineer.”
Lance puffed out his chest. “You make a good deduction son! It’s a powerful hobby of mine.”
Son? Lance was no older than Sergio.
“Oh you would love the twenty-first century. It’s got televisions the size of your wall there, personal phones that fit in your pocket, and this thing called the Internet that….” Sergio broke off as he caught Kat’s gaze. “But that’s not really relevant at the moment. So maybe back to getting our identities straight?”
Lance was sitting wide eyed, which was partly why Kat had cut Sergio off. No need to tell the man too much. “Televisions as big as a wall, you say? I wonder how they carry something so heavy.” His eyes drifted downward, lost in thought, before snapping back to reality.
“Yes, so your identities. I was thinking you could be a distant war contact I once had, and you’re from Spain. You’re here because a sinister European mafia is onto you because you tried to cut them out of a major drug deal, so you sailed to America to get away and now you’re trying to lay low.” He stopped and held out his hands, looking from Sergio to Kat. He was completely serious.
“Um…” Kat said. “How about we’re just some cousins of yours that moved here looking for a simpler life where we can just relax and enjoy our time with family. We moved from…let’s say, Alaska, where it was so cold that I grew worried for the health of our child, so we decided to look for other opportunities in warmer climates. You were gracious enough to let us stay here while we look for work.”
“Alaska, huh?” Lance looked thoughtful. “I’ve never been there, is it nice?”
“We haven’t been there either, that’s just the story.”
“Oh, wow! Oh, you guys are good, you even had me fooled for a second there.”
Kat blinked. Lance sure did take some getting used to.
“So we go with that story?” she asked. Sergio nodded but Lance sat back, as if considering further.
“Well I suppose I could find a job in the local factory. They’re usually about a hand short. You’ll need some kind of cash flow.”
“Oh, we have money. That’s not a concern.” Kat said. She didn’t want to mention how they had money yet, but Lance needed to know that they had something at least.
Sergio cut in, “Lance is right though, I’ll need to find a job while we’re here, otherwise it will look suspicious.”
“Quite so,” said Lance. “Crumbs, but this story is shaping up to be a good one. Might have even fooled me if I didn’t know about it already.”
Kat stopped herself from pointing out that it almost had fooled the so-called detective despite being in on the cover story. “So if we have a job, we’ll also need a house. I didn’t get a good view of the town last night, but it doesn’t look big. Is anyone selling?”
“Oh you won’t have to worry about that. There’s a whole street of new homes that they’re trying to sell, just finished building them.”
“Huh, convenient.” Kat said. “Who’s they?”
“There’s a woman who runs the real estate here, her name is Norma. I’ll take you to see her next week.”
“Thank you.” Sergio added. “Now about that job, I’m not sure I want to work in a granary. Do you know of anyone hiring mechanical engineers? That’s my profession.”
“No kidding? Well I’d hire you myself if I wasn’t darn-near broke. Being a detective doesn’t pay for much of this.” He swept his arm over the room, indicating all the gadgets lying around, the use of which Kat had no clue. “But I could introduce you to Tom. He’s got an auto-repair shop and would probably welcome an extra hand. I hear folks sometimes hire him for other mechanical mess ups too. Yeah, Tom might be able to help. He owes me a favor anyway.”
“Uh, yeah that sounds okay.” Sergio said, shrugging at Kat.
“And what about me?” Kat asked Lance. “I was an English teacher before, maybe I could find work doing something like that?”
“Oh, uh…” Lance looked uncomfortable. “I’m not sure we want to draw suspicion?”
“What suspicion? Your plan was to pretend we were international spies. What is more suspicious than that?”
“Well, begging your pardon ma’am but with you caring for the little one it would be…indecent for you have an occupation while the child needs you.”
Kat rolled her eyes. Of course, they were in the nineteen-forties after all.
“Well I can’t just stay home all day?”
“Well of course not, you can do the grocery shopping, take the kid to the park, do the dish…” but Lance cut off as he glimpsed the look on Kat’s face. “Or none of those things. Whatever you want really, that’s fine.”
“Lance, could you give me and my husband a moment to talk?”
“Sure no problem!” said Lance, eager for an excuse to escape the uncomfortable tension. “Call me when you need me.”
“Are you sure about this?” Kat asked Sergio once they were alone.
“Not entirely, but I definitely feel like we’re supposed to stick around for a while.”
“But this is California, in the nineteen-forties. We don’t know what that’s like, or if we can even blend in enough to avoid suspicion. And all this…inherent sexism of the day is probably going to irritate me sooner than later.”
Sergio placed a hand on her arm. “I think we can be alright.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re the one with the pants.”
“No, I mean, we won’t be here forever, but you saw those…ghosts. That’s not normal. I mean, obviously.”
Kat nodded. He was right about that. There was something going on here, and with Lance being a member of Argo Force, it was too much of a coincidence that they just happened to arrive at this place and time.
“Okay, I’ll go along with it, but if I have to do all the cooking I’m going to scream.”
Sergio laughed. “That’s okay dear, I don’t want you to cook either.”
She punched him in the arm, but found herself laughing anyway.
They called Lance back in, and the man peeked his head out of his room, as if checking to see the coast was clear. “All decided then?”
“Yes, Lance, you can come back in.” Kat said.
“Oh very good!” Lance exclaimed with almost too much enthusiasm. “This is going to be fun! I’ve been the only member of Argo Force here for a long time, I almost thought they had forgotten about me.”
Lance was an eccentric man, but he definitely appeared to be on their side. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
They became too caught up talking to Lance and eating breakfast, that they didn’t notice the near-invisible apparition watching them from the window.