“Get the hell away from my grandson!”
My eyes spring open. Estelle—in her nightgown—is calmly walking down the staircase, both hands clutching Bud’s gun.
Naima slowly raises her hands. She flicks a glance down at the end table, at the shattered remains of a ceramic vase. “Now let’s not be rash,” she starts.
“Estelle! Thank God!” I start toward her.
“Get her gun,” Estelle snaps.
I rush over to Naima and grab her gun. Estelle has me tie them up with duct tape while she keeps her gun on them.
“Watch them while I get something to stop his bleeding.” She hurries to the kitchen and fetches a dish towel. Then she ties it around Axel’s shoulder, cinching it extra tight. He winces.
“Why don’t you guys just leave us alone already?!” I spit out.
Neither of them even looks up, much less saying anything. I know this is not going to go smoothly, but I hate to think of what it may take to make them talk. I glance at Estelle. She half-squints at me and nods slightly. All I can think of is Bud and my promise to him and my parents to protect her. “I’m not playing around anymore! I want answers!”
Axel chuckles under his breath.
I slam the steel grip of my pistol into Axel’s forehead. He rocks back and almost topples over but doesn’t say a word. Naima looks at him, then sneers at me. Estelle and I exchange looks again and she moves toward Axel herself and raises her gun, ready to take a swing at him.
“No…” Axel moans, rubbing his forehead against the floor as if it’ll take away the pain. “Don’t… I’ll talk…”
I position the barrel of my gun against Naima’s forehead. “I’m not very patient,” I tell him. “So I suggest you start talking.”
I can see from her furious glare that she’d kick him into silence if she could, but for once she’s helpless. Her wild, seething eyes tell me she despises not having control of the situation.
Axel starts blathering about Norrek and the Peace Hunters. “The Peace Hunters mean no harm. Our goal is only to go back in time and change moments that result in war and other catastrophes. We mean only good.”
“We already know all this!” I snap. “What I want to know right now is, did you have anything to do with the fires that killed the Pashners and almost my parents?”
Naima and Axel both gape at me.
“Contrary to your beliefs, dear boy… we have killed no one,” she says.
“She’s right. That wasn’t us.”
“Then who did?” I yell.
Naima looks insulted. “We don’t kill just to kill. This is no sport for us.” Her voice is on the verge of shaking, but she manages to force the words out flatly. “We’re not cold-blooded murderers. We believe in peace. It is all we stand for. What we have dedicated our lives to achieving. Death is a last resort. We had no reason to kill anyone.”
“Are you even listening to yourself right now?” I shout. “You say you believe in peace?”
“That’s right. Ask your sweet grandmother.” she sneers. “She knows better than anyone.” She turns a hate-filled glance on Estelle. “After all, you were there when Norrek saved our world from the nuclear catastrophe that Bower would have created.”
“Norrek is a self-righteous murderer!” Estelle shouts. “He assassinated a president! No one has the right to do that—”
I interrupt her. “I don’t care about what happened years ago. I want to know what’s going on now!”
“Experiments…” Axel says.
“What do you mean ‘experiments’?”
“I’m sure you’ll be surprised … but there are followers, believers, that stand behind what we do. Norrek has used this pool of advocates to try and expand our numbers. By transforming ordinary people into Peace Hunters.” He talks about it with a joyful grin that matches his passionate tone—like some child who’s gunning for first place in some Science Fair. “At first he tried having them drink the fluid, but nothing came of it. So Norrek pioneered experiments, which he calls Traveling Transfusions, which are—can you guess?—done via blood transfusions. The host’s blood supply is drained and then mixed with a carefully calculated dose of the liquid, and then reintroduced to the host. Simultaneously, he manipulates the certain genes which he believes are the ones that mutated, allowing Photo Traveling in the first place. It’s quite fascinated, don’t you think? The man is a genius.”
“My God…what has he done?” Estelle softly murmurs.
“How many are there?” I ask.
“Only two of the transfusions have actually worked so far,” Axel admits. “Naima and myself. The others, I’m afraid, have failed.”
“And how many have failed?”
“I’ve lost count.”
“But what happens to them?”
“Nobody knows. And for all the genius that Norrek is, not even he knows. When he’s completed a transfusion procedure, he sends them on a Peace Mission. But the majority have never returned. We assume they disappear into the space between past and present—which we call the Time Limbo. A sort of oblivion, if you may.”
“And you both are okay with having innocent people just disappear?” I ask.
“We must all make sacrifices. They volunteered. Each and every participant is well aware of the possible repercussions. I knew it myself. No one promised me anything.”
“So why does he want the crystal vials then? What’s the point? If he’s carrying out these experiments—which have the potential to work—then why invest the time and energy to find the vials?”
“He wants the crystal vials to attain the ultimate power. With all five of the vials, there’ll be no barriers to him traveling wherever and whenever he wants. His power will be limitless.”
“Quiet, Axel!” Naima hisses.
“It’s true. There is no need to deny it. Norrek aims to create a world without war, disease, suffering, or imbalances. And why shouldn’t he? How can you not find that admirable? It’s the code we live by. There are no boundaries in the pursuit of peace. Nothing will stop that. You should remember that when you choose your side.”
“There is no side!” I snap. “Wait—Do you guys even have vials? How do you photo travel?”
“No, we do not have vials. And unlike you we don’t require a chant. Our method is more along the lines of meditation, which requires extreme concentration. Norrek calls it ‘Meta-Traveling’. It’s quite easy once it is mastered. The European Photo Travelers have a limited source of the purple fluid. Their ancestors reached the Picchu Creek after the vials had been discovered by the Americans, so they were only able to drink from the creek and take away a substantial amount. Norrek knows it’s something to do with the combination of the vials and the chant you use that allows you all to Photo Travel as you do.” He shifts slightly, letting out a moan. “You see, he doesn’t just want the vials to go back and change the past.”
“So then for what else?”
“He’s going to retrieve an unlimited supply of the creek’s fluid. Norrek will create a new, stronger army of Peace Hunters. Ones who don’t have limited abilities.”
“He doesn’t need the vials for that.”
“Right … but wrong. Although he’s gone back to past photos of Machu Picchu, he has been unsuccessful at locating its source.”
“I’m still uncertain about how Norrek is exactly finding these volunteers?” Estelle asks. “It’s not something you necessarily advertise, I would guess.”
“There are far more people whom share our own views than you can imagine. Finding like-minded individuals is the easiest part of it all.” Naima says. “You’d be amazed how many people are willing to risk death for the greater good. Now … If you are going to dispose of us, then please do get on with it.”
I squint my eyes at her. “What about intercepting our travels? How do you do that? Why can you do that and not us? And those damn gloves of yours—where’d you get them?”
Naima rolls her eyes and answers in an annoyed tone. “The successful experiments have resulted in our additional ability. We can sense when others are traveling and can intercept their travels, so long as they are still traveling.
“So you’re forced to depart when the person whose travel you are intercepting returns back to their original time,” I say in realization. “That’s why Alanna saw you guys disappear after the Christmas party, as soon as I did. But how does it work?”
“I’m not a bloody scientist. That’s Norrek’s expertise. What I can tell you, is that time traveling revolves around energies. And time is the ultimate, infinite source of energy. Time–past, present, and future–surrounds us at all times, only on different planes. Planes that are imperceptible to us. We have been blessed with the ability to feel when this energy is tapped into. And I must say … it has come in quite handy.” She smirks. “As far as the gloves … these are Norrek’s brainchild. Like Axel said, Norrek is quite the genius.”
“Who are you to decide what happens in the world?” Estelle exclaims. “No! It isn’t right. What gives you the right to murder innocent people for the greater good? Who are you to decide what the greater good even is? You are not gods!” We stare at one another, my eyes quivering as my mind absorbs all the information. Axel and Naima may be crazy and extreme, yes, but not evil. For a moment I find myself wondering whether they actually might be on to something.
But Estelle’s right. Even if what they want is something great, it’s still unrealistic.
I know things won’t stop here, even if we kill them this very moment. If we kill them, we’re no better than they are—we’re just trying to manipulate the future by murdering in the present instead of the past. The only way to end this is by going directly to the source. Norrek. And Naima and Axel can lead me to him.
When I start untying them, Estelle freaks. “What are you doing?”
“We’re not killers.” I turn back to them. My voice is as hard as stone. “Get out, never come back. If you do, I will kill you.” I give them a sarcastic smile. “You know, for the greater good.” I won’t second-guess it next time. That, I can promise you.”
“Gavin I don’t know about this.” Estelle’s face creases with worry.
“Just trust me.”
We keep our guns trained on them while I shove the front door open. “You’ve got five seconds.”
They look at each other and fumble out onto the porch. But before they vanish, Naima leans in the doorway. “You made a wise choice, Brown Eyes.”
After they’re gone, Estelle looks at me bewildered. “You just let them go? Just like that?”
I grin. “You really think that’s the last time we’re going to see them?”
“No! That’s my point!”
“Look, they are not our real problem. Norrek is. It’s clear that they aren’t out to kill us. Look at how they reacted when I accused them of killing Bud. And with Norrek trying to recreate photo travelers—think how dangerous it’ll be if he succeeds. He did with Naima and Axel, so it’s only going to be a matter of time till he succeeds with others. And if they all will have the ability to intercept our travels, then this is bigger than anything we ever imagined. So I let them go because they’re going to lead me to Norrek.”
“Yes. They’ll be back. That’s for sure. I need to stop them. And I’ll do it by making them think I’m on their side. Like I want in.”
“And you think they’ll going to fall for that?”
“If you guys were once involved, why wouldn’t they believe me if I let them think that the idea appealed to me?”
“We were not involved.” she protests. “And if you believe for one minute that I’d ever allow you to do something so dangerous—”
“Estelle, I promised my mom and dad—and Bud—that I’d always protect you. I’m done with these people threatening our lives. And anyway, before anything we still need to deal with the other photo travelers that are after our vials...” I pause. “Wait…” I murmur to myself. “What if more has changed in the photo?”
“The photo of the vials. I didn’t tell you and Bud… but I went back to it.”
“Gavin, we told you not to—”
“I know, I know—but that’s not important now. I mean… I’m sorry—but look, every time I did go, something had changed. It’s like all of my travels have changed some small detail in the future. Who knows what else has changed around us because of me. But maybe this time something else has changed in that photo. I’ll go back. There’s got to be more that I haven’t seen. We need to know, Estelle. Look what’s happened. I’m not going to stick around for someone else to come hurt us… to hurt you.”
“Promise me you’ll be careful.”
Estelle takes the gun and I follow her outside and to the basement. I grab the photo and tell her, “Watch out, in case Naima and Axel come back,” I tell her.
“Take this,” she says, handing me the gun.
“I won’t need it. You keep it. Just in case.”
I chant the words and find myself crouching behind a bush in a neighborhood I’ve never seen before. The buildings are all different sizes, different colors. They all seem abandoned now. And it’s nighttime again. The air smells different too; more polluted.
My patience mixes in with my anxiety as five minutes turn to ten minutes. I keep glancing at my watch. Estelle is going to get worried. The last thing I need is for her to travel here, thinking I need protecting.
I’m about to leave when I hear footsteps. I pull aside a branch of leaves to get a better view and have to smother a gasp of shock. I can’t believe it. The person who’s been after me. The person who’s been after all three of us all along.
With a stupid smirk on her face, she stands with her Brownie Starflash, kneeling down to grab the two vials—which I assume can only be the ones from her family, the Hoytts, and the other from those that were murdered, the Pashners.