The guard shivered. Even through layers of nylon, fleece, wool, and polyester, the chill seeped into the bones. The wind roared around him, whipping up snow, branches, and dirt, pelting him with sleet. When he shifted position, he heard the snap of his frozen clothes cracking. Tiny icicles hung from his weapon. He tried to lift his arm to check his watch, but couldn't muster up the energy.
How long had he been standing on this balcony? It felt like hours. Days, maybe. But if it had been hours, where was his replacement? Had they decided to leave him here? Was that his fate, to freeze to death on this balcony at the bottom of the world?
There was a loud SNAP and pain shot down from his head. The world around him began to smear in his vision. Then it went black.
The two women stared down at his body. “Fuck!” yelled the Sister. “What the hell just happened? Where are we?”
“Be quiet for a moment,” said the Queen. She knelt down and began digging through the snow. Soon, she knocked against a metal panel. Underneath tunnel leading down, and a ladder. She motioned towards the first woman. “Get in before you freeze to death.”
The Sister nodded and climbed down. The second followed her. After several minutes of climbing, they dropped into a concrete hallway. Three rows of fluorescent lights ran across the ceiling. On one wall were three posters touting workplace safety standards. Across from it was a large map.
“Seriously, where are we? Please tell me you just didn't kill that guy,” said the Sister. She was tall, with a thin face and long nose. Her black hair was wrapped into a tight ponytail. Three silver rings jutted out of her bottom lip, and the edges of a red tattoo crept from her shirt and across the back of her neck. She wore a leather jacket covered in patches, jeans, and a Black Flag T-shirt.
“Sister, if you're as eager to see what I have to offer as you said, you'll have to become more accustomed to violence,” said the Queen. She was almost identical to the first. Her hair was cut shorter, only shoulder-length, and instead of street clothes she wore hiking gear and a large rucksack. The bulge of a shoulder holster was visible under it. A scar ran from the corner of her right eye, to the nape of her neck. “As for where we are… Antarctica.”
The Sister sucked in a breath. “Jesus. Antarctica. And… and we're still on Earth? My Earth, I mean?”
“No,” said the second. She began walking. “We're approximately 300 universes away from your home Earth. Follow me, please.”
The Sister jogged to catch up. “So… what's here that you want to show me? And who would build something like this in Antarctica?” She thought for a second. “Actually, I'm still not sure what this building even is.”
“Be patient,” said the second. “Stop asking so many questions. Learn to observe, it'll prove more useful.” She tapped a button on her watch and spoke into it, “Hill, this is the Queen. Are you ready?”
There was static, followed by a voice. “Yes, ma'am How long will it be?”
“Five minutes,” said the Queen, and said nothing else. They continued walking. Several times the hallway branched off, but the pair continued going straight. Eventually, they came to a metal door.
“We're here,” said the Queen into her watch. The doors slid open.
They stepped into a large, circular room. The walls were lined with computer monitors, all black. The center was raised, surrounded by guardrails, with a large screen, blank in the center. A man stood in front of it.
“Hello ma'am,” said a voice to the side. A man in a white labcoat stood with his hands clasped in front of him. “It's so good to see you again.”
“It's good to see you to, Wayne,” said the Queen. “Is your daughter feeling better?”
Wayne nodded. “Yes ma'am. Things were close for a while, but she's through the worst of it.”
The Queen nodded. “Very good. Tell Linda I said hello.” She stepped onto the raised area. The Sister followed.
“Hello ma'am,” said the man at the screen, turning. “Your travels went well?” His eyes darted to the Sister.
“They did.” She pulled a plastic disk case from her jacket. “This should be all that we need.”
He nodded “And this is your… ah… associate?”
“Everything should be ready then.” Turning back to the screen, he pressed a button to the side. A slot opened, and he pushed the disk in. “Ma'am, are you sure you can do this fast enough? I'd say you have about 15 minutes between us uplinking the data, and them going on lock-down.”
She stared at him.
He looked away. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply anything.”
“I know exactly what will happen once we upload this,” she said. “How long have we been planning this?”
His face flushed red. “I wasn't trying to insinuate anything, ma'am. Just… you know…”
“Enough. It doesn't matter anymore. Send it through.”
He nodded. With a few quick button presses, the screen lit up. A red hammer and sickle flashed across the center, then a cascading series of Cyrillic command lines.
“Okay,” said the Sister. “I think I have even less of an idea of what's going on now.”
“What did I say about questions?” said the Queen. She stared at the screen, arms crossed, eyes flitting through the code. “It's a universal transporter. One significantly more powerful than the one I've been using. With it, we should be able to greatly expand our operation.”
“Um, alright. So, what are we gonna do with it now?”
“Watch. You'll see.” The Queen stepped forward and tapped a series of numbers into the keyboard. The lines on the screen paused. Then they disappeared. A red outline of a box replace them, with a number above it: “0%”. Several seconds later, it blinked up to “1%”.
“It shouldn't take more than-” Wayne said. A gunshot echoed through the room. The Queen spun around. Four men stood in the back of the room, dressed in black riot gear, assault rifles raised. One of them yelled something in what sounded like Russian.
The Queen and Wayne lifted their hands. The Sister followed suit. “When I tell you,” said the Queen, “run behind the screen.” Then she responded in Russian.
The man took a step forward, and barked another order. Wayne began to kneel down. A wave of the Queen's hand stopped him. She said a few more words, her face blank. Her gaze turned towards Hill.
His face fell. “I'm sorry, ma'am. It was my daughter… I couldn't just let her… they said they would fix her if I led them to you…”
“Be quiet,” she said. “I don't care. Sister, these men are about to start shooting at us.”
“Now!” yelled the Queen, and leaped to the side. She scrambled behind the screen and the Sister, without thinking, followed. She slid into cover just as the firing started. There was the sound of glass breaking, and a body collapsing. From the other side of the screen, Wayne moaned in pain.
The side they were using also had a screen. The red bar blinked: “15%”
Low voices speaking in Russian from the other side. Someone yelled. Footsteps, running farther away. More arguing, then two gunshots, and Hill screaming.
A Russian voice barked at them.
“What happens when it reaches 100%?” said the Sister.
“We'll be transported to the set destination,” said the Queen.”
“Okay, great. And how long will that take?”
“Two minutes. But it's not our primary concern.”
“Of course it isn't.”
“I never was able to finish inputting the destination. If it activates now, I'm not certain where we'll end up.”
The footsteps were drawing closer.
“Have you killed anyone before?” said the Queen.
The Sister paled. “Um. Once.”
“I see.” The Queen opened her jacket and pulled out two pistols. She handed one to the Sister. “Do you know to use this?”
“We're going to have to kill them.”
“I don't even know who the hell they are! What do they want?”
“Presumably revenge for killing a guard and trying to steal their technology.” The Queen handed her a magazine, then slapped one into her own gun. “ Only the most recent event in a long line of conflicts between us. They'll almost be here. Be ready. I'm going to need to input the last of the coordinates. When they come around, stop them.”
The Queen inched to the side panel and began typing. As she did, numbers ran across the bottom of the screen. The Sister looked over her shoulder, at the other end of the screen. There was no one there. But she could hear, faintly, the sound of footsteps.
The Queen continued to type. The Sister scanned the area, looking for any movement, looking for any sign of-
“Stoy!” said a voice behind her. She spun around, lifting the pistol. It was too late. The man had his rifle trained on her, finger resting on the trigger. Another next to him trained his weapon on the Queen. Sighing, she backed away from the keyboard and raised her hands.
Two more men emerged from the other side. They circled around the women to stand behind them.
The Queen spoke in Russian, but the men did not respond. One motioned for the Sister to stand. She did. He said something she couldn't understand. The Queen replied without looking at him. Beads of sweat were starting to form on her face.
“Did… did you make it?” said the Sister.
The Queen shook her head. “Almost.”
“What do we do now?”
“Shut. Up,” said one of the men behind them. He slung his weapon over his shoulder, and approached the Sister. Taking a pair of handcuffs from his belt, he grabbed her arms, wrenching them behind her back. She shuddered as the cold steel wrapped around her wrists. Pain shot through her knees, and she fell to the floor.
“I'm sorry,” said the Sister. “Dammit, I shouldn't have-” The man stepped forward and kicked her in the gut. Pain tore through her. She gasped, trying to suck in air, but couldn't.
The Queen stared at him. “Don't do that again,” she said, in Russian.
“And if I do?” he said.
She turned her eyes to the screen.
“Put your hands on your head. Get on your knees.”
She didn't move.
“We don't want to make this difficult. We're not going to kill you, but we'll hurt you if we have to.”
She stayed frozen. Her eyes were locked on the blinking number.
The man sighed, un-slung his weapon, pointed it at the Sister. “We can hurt her, too. Is that what you want?”
The Queen gritted her teeth. She slid her hands down, locking her fingers behind her head, but stayed standing.
“We're waiting,” said the man.
“If you touch her,” said the Queen, without looking at him, “there won't even be a corpse by the time I'm finished with you.”
The man chuckled. “You think you have room make threats?”
He spat. “You think you're so clever, dancing around us for years. Lying. Stealing. Making us look like fools. Did you think you could it up forever? You thought you were much better than us, so much smarter. Now you'll see-”
Her hand shot forward. It slapped into the keyboard, mashing down five keys. The bottom of the screen flashed white.
The world fell away.
Was she flying?
It felt like she was flying. Hurtling down through the air. The familiar drop in her stomach. The sensation of stepping off a ledge and feeling the tug of gravity sending you towards Earth. She opened her eyes. Then she tried to open then again, because there was nothing but darkness. Turning her head to the left, she saw the Queen, and the man, hovering in the darkness. As if they were standing on an invisible floor. Behind them, loomed the screen. The screen flashed red, over and over. The man had his gun raised, pointed at the Queen's head. He tried to fire, but nothing happened when he pulled the trigger.
The Queen held her pistol against the side of his helmet. She said nothing, only stared straight into his eyes. The Sister looked behind her. The other men had their weapons raised. They were also trying to fire, but the guns didn't respond. One moved a foot forward, as if to take a step, but instead of landing it fell. He stumbled and fall, hitting the invisible floor.
The Sister tried to push herself to her feet, but could find no surface to press against. She tried to breath, but there was no air. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. There was only the feeling of falling, and the figures around her.
Reality hit her like a sledgehammer. One second, darkness. The next, a burst of light, green, brown, and orange. Pain rushed through her, like she was being mashed into the ground by a giant thumb. She screamed, and over the noise heard gunshots. Several minutes later, when the pain subsided enough for her to open her eyes, she saw the Queen standing over her.
“What… what happened?” She pushed herself to her feet, clutching her side. It felt like one of her ribs was cracked. They were in a forest. The trees towered above them, hundreds of feet tall, and the ground was covered in a blanket of fallen leaves. Birds twittered in the branches above. Several meters away, a furry, six-legged animal watched them with unblinking gray eyes. Branches and vines sprouted from under its fur to wrap around its body. Next to them, the screen sprouted from the ground. “It worked.”
The Queen nodded.
The Sister turned her head, and saw the bodies of the four men. The leaves around them were splattered with blood. “You did that?”
“As I said, I prepared this for months. I knew exactly how long the journey through the Membrane would take. They didn't. I was able to brace myself for our arrival.”
“Right,” said the Sister. She took a step forward and fell. The Queen darted forward, catching her and pushing her back up. “I don't feel good.”
“We jumped much farther than you have before,” said the Queen. “Your body isn't used to that kind of strain yet. It'll go away in a few minutes. We'll wait here until then.”
“Fuck,” said the Sister. “I should have brought some cigarettes.” She looked over to where the animal had been, but it was gone.
They waited for hours in silence, sitting against the trees. When the Queen moved again, it was night. The woods were silent. “Are you feeling better?”
The Sister nodded. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“We're going to have a far distance to walk.” The Queen stood, brushing off her clothes. She tapped the gold watch on her arm. “Three days to our destination, three days back.”
The Sister pushed herself to her feet. “We're leaving now?”
“It'll be easier to travel at night. It's too hot during daytime.” She tightened the straps of her rucksack.
“So, where are we going?” The Sister stood with her arms crossed.
“You'll see when we get there.”
The sister said nothing.
The Queen stared at her. “Is something wrong?”
“Well,” said the Sister, staring at the ground, “this isn't what I expected. Being shot at, camping in the woods. You said you would help me find my dad.”
“I did, and I am,” said the Queen. She stepped towards the Sister, who didn't look up. “I told you it would involve risks. I told you that it would be difficult, that you would probably regret your decision. You insisted.”
The Sister swallowed. Her palms were slick with sweat. “Yeah, I know. But this is bullshit. You won't tell me what we're doing, where we are, why, any of that stuff! You take me to a different universe and you still won't even tell me what's going on? How the hell do you expect me to learn anything like this?” Her voice rose as she spoke. “Come on! I'm willing to go where you want, but you need to respect me enough to tell me what the hell is going on!” She was nearly shouting now. “Tell me something, instead of just stringing me along and letting me get shot at and hit and thrown into new worlds like I don't fucking matter!”
The Queen took a step back. She lifted a hand up, as if to place it on the Sister's shoulder, then dropped it down. “I see,” she said. Turning, she walked to where the rucksack was placed against a tree and began searching through it. The Sister looked away.
After pulling out half the ruck's contents, the Queen returned to the Sister, clutching a black notebook. She thrust it into the Sister's hands. “Take this. Read it on the way.”
The Sister looked from the Queen to the notebook. Her hands trembled. “What is it?”
“Part of my notes. It contains basic information that I've uncovered over the years. Read through it as we're traveling, and feel free to ask me about anything in there.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “I'm sorry I've been difficult with you. Sharing information in the past has lead to… problems.”
The Sister nodded, still looking away. “Alright. Fine. But why are we here? What's the point?”
The Queen slung the ruck across her back. “We're going to kill our Father.”
The Sister's eyes widened. “Dad? He's here?”
Nodding, the Queen tightened her straps. “A version of him is. And he's dangerous, Sister. If he isn't stopped soon, he'll corrupt the entire universe. And he won't stop there.”
“How? What's he doing?”
She shook her head. “That's something you should see for yourself.”
The hiking wasn't hard. The Sister was used to hiking. She'd done a lot of it when she was younger, wandering through the woods behind her house in lieu of having to socialize. After her father disappeared, she would spend days out there, just her and books and whatever canned goods she could find with her mother's decades old camping equipment. That was nice. Relaxing.
This was different. Everything about this place felt wrong, in ways she couldn't describe. The noise the breeze made as it blew through the leaves sent chills down her spine. The way the branches loomed and twisted around them, like they were the top of a demented wooden prison cell. How the little wildlife she saw resembled monsters more than animals. They all had wood sprouting from their skin, and acted strange. They would slam themselves against trees endlessly, attack the Earth, bark and wail at nothing.
To distract herself, she read the journal. By the end of the first day, she had gone through every page. By the end of the second, she had it fully annotated. Going into the third, she had begun to compare it to her own notes, and was beginning to realize almost everything she had assumed she knew had been wrong.
“Jesus,” she said as they walked. “How long have you been working on this?”
The Queen ducked under a branch. “Six years. Nine, if you count the time before I discovered the Foundation.”
“Fuck. You know, you never told me how old you were.” She brought her head up from the notebook just in time to see the branch and swing under it.
“The same age as you,” said the Queen. “Twenty-four. I was just dragged into this earlier.”
“Oh,” said the Sister. “How?”
“Maybe another time,” said the Queen. She stopped to check her watch, then started walking slightly to the right. The Sister followed, shifting her focusing back to the notebook.
It was amazing what was cataloged here. Descriptions of dozens of worlds, twenty different groups tied to the supernatural, lists of thirty different anomalous items and how they appeared throughout various universes (including a few she had seen in her own). The entire last half of the notebook was devoted to Charles Gears, tracking his movement patterns, behavior, allegiances across every universe she had found. One repeating idea stood out among the noise.
The reasons vary, read one note, but its presence is near-constant in instances of Charles Gears who have abandoned their families. Somewhere along the line, an event takes place that removes his capacity to feel emotion. Sometimes it's purely psychological, a regression in order to cope with the situations he must confront on a daily basis. Sometimes it's due to psychic influence, or an encounter with a powerful cosmic entity. Whatever the cause, it is, with only a few exceptions due to outstanding circumstances, always present.
And a little later on in the book. It is this sociopathy, combined with his loyalty to whatever cause he is allied with, that makes Charles Gears such a danger to reality.
The Sister looked up from the book. What was the noise? It seemed to be coming from just ahead, a slow murmur flowing through the trees. The Queen didn't seem to notice, or at least, didn't seem to care. She just continued on through the brush. The Sister tried to quiet her steps and listen closer. It sounded almost like water.
“Do you hear that?” she said.
The Queen nodded. “We're getting close. Look.” They were coming up to a large treeline. The Queen just strolled through, not even pausing. As if the scrapes and cuts from the trees weren't even worth thinking about. The Sister sighed, covered her head with hear hands, and barreled through. She ran for almost a minute, branches snagging at her clothes, thorns ripping her skin, before bursting through on the other side.
She reared back as sunlight hit her face. So far, the forest had been dim, most light blocked by the canopy. Now, the glare was blinding. She managed to squint one eye open and gasped. They were out of the forest. She was standing on the bank of a river. It must have been close to 30 meters wide. The water was blue and clear, and at the bottom, small creatures that looked like wooden crabs scuttled across the rocks. Trees sprouted from the riverbed. Their leaves were long and vinelike, streaming through the water, and fish swam between. Most were too short to reach the surface, but a few reached out of the river to scrape the sky.
Three large, white-furred beasts stood on the other bank of the river. They looked almost like buffalo, but their fur was shorter, and their horns longer. They arched backwards, almost touching the nape of their neck. Short branches sprouted from the fur around their bellies. Two took no notice of the Sister. They kept drinking, oblivious. The third stared at her. After a minute, it gave a low grunt. The others looked up at her. They grunted, and all three turned away to roam off.
Across the river, a plain stretched to the horizon. Far off, she could see a herd of the buffalo creatures. Every few hundred meters, a massive, branchless tree trunk grew from the earth, taller and wider than any of the trees in the forest.
The sound of branches snapping behind her drew her attention. From the branches emerged the Queen, looking none worse for the wear. She brushed a few leaves from her clothes and readjusted the straps of her pack.
“It's beautiful,” said the Sister.
“No,” said the Queen. “It used to be beautiful. This is a disease.” She turned to face upriver. “Come. We still have a few more hours before we arrive.”
The woods had been, for the most part, flat. That had been fine. Walking uphill sucked. The sun was nearing the middle of the sky, and the heat outside the forest was almost unbearable. She'd taken off her jacket and tied it to her waist, but it didn't help. The Queen strolled on, not even sweating.
There was something up ahead. Coming up, she had thought it was just an outcropping of the hill. Now, she saw it was a tangle of branches the size of a building. The river (though by now it had narrowed to more like a stream) flowed from an opening in the center. They approached it, and the Queen held up a hand to stop her.
“This is it,” she said.
“About time,” said the Sister. “Are we going to go in?”
The Queen nodded. “I want to ask you something first.”
“Yeah, sure. It would be a nice change of pace.”
The Queen crossed her arms. The Sister stared into her eyes and shivered. Something about them felt off. Inhuman. It was like looking into a thunderstorm. “What do you plan to do with your father, once you find him?”
“What?” Why would she need to ask that? “Take him back home. What else? I was going to try to fix whatever the Foundation had done to him.”
“I see.” The Queen pursed her lips.
“What, do you have a problem with that?”
She sighed, shook her head, and stepped into the opening of the tangle. “This will be the sixteenth version of our father I've killed. It won't be the last.”
The Sister followed. The cave was dark, except for the Queen's flashlight. They stood just inside, still, looking at each other.
“Not even 10 years ago, this world was very similar to your own,” said the Queen. “Your father ruined that. He always does, in the end. This time, he accidentally fused himself with forest god, giving it the connection it needed to spread across the entire world. But it's still not satisfied. Give it time, and it'll spread throughout the solar system. Then the galaxy. Eventually, it will find a Way to another universe. And from then, there will be no stopping it. It must be destroyed here. At the source.”
The Queen handed the Sister a small, silver canister. “Do you have what it takes to kill your father?”
The Sister looked from the canister to the Queen. She bit her lip. “Well… he's not my actual dad, is he? He just looks like him.”
“Yes. But that doesn't mean much. The mind has odd ways of holding onto the associations it builds up.” The Queen crossed her arms. “So, can you do it?”
The Sister turned the canister in her hands, running a finger across it. “I don't know,” she said. Her voice was soft. “Will he feel it?”
“He doesn't feel much of anything now,” said the Queen. “He's just fuel for the god.”
The Sister sighed. “Maybe. Maybe. I can try.”
The Queen nodded. “Follow me, then.”
They began to walk away from the entrance. Neither spoke. After several minutes, the Sister realized that the ground was sloping downwards. From the outside, the tangle had seemed about the size of an elementary school, but they'd gone too far for that to be right. She looked behind her, but the light of the outside had disappeared. The tunnel was pitch black. To steady herself, she ran a hand against the wall, and listened for the Queen's footsteps.
The ground was soft and wet. Every step slipped slightly into the earth. She could hear insects buzzing around them. The whole place smelled sickly sweet, like rotten fruit. As they walked, the air cooled. Soon she was shivering.
She wasn't sure how long they walked. It felt like an hour, but it could have been more. It could have been less, too. For all she knew they only went a few hundred meters. But down there, it felt like an hour. Ahead of them, a pinprick of green light was forming. As they moved forward, it grew. Soon it was bright enough for her to see the silhouette of the Queen, and the rough walls of the cave. They were covered with thin vines and flowers. Finally, they arrived to the entrance of a smaller cave.
The walls were hidden under layers of branches and ropey vines. The ground was clean, smooth stone. Sprouting from it were small bushes. Glowing blue fruit hung from them. In the center was a pool of clear water. She couldn't see the bottom, but several schools of fish swum beneath the surface. Hanging just inches from the water was Dr. Gears.
Hundreds of vines held him suspended from the ceiling, his arms splayed out, legs dangling. Sprouting from his skin were leaves, twigs, and flowers, that roped around his body. They covered him almost completely, left only a few inches of naked torso and his head exposed. His eyes were open, they looked empty, like the eyes of a corpse.
Her breath caught in her throat. She tried to speak, but couldn't. This was it. This was what she had been waiting fifteen years for. To see dad again. She wanted to move, to say something, anything, to see if he would notice. If he would know who she was, or even move. But she couldn't do anything. Just stare into that face, slightly more worn, slightly more wrinkled, but otherwise exactly how she remembered.
“Are you alright?” The Queen stepped forward. She stared at the Sister, her lips thin.
“I'm…” said the Sister. Go on, she thought. Say it. Just say it. “I'm fine.”
“This isn't your father,” said the Queen before going to quiet. She looked from Gears to the Sister. “You said it yourself. He's never seen you in his life.” She picked up a pebble from the floor at threw it at Gears. It smacked into his forehead, but he didn't react. “He can't even be considered a human at this point. His memories, his hopes, his fears, they've all been destroyed. Eradicated by the Uprooted God.”
The Sister nodded, but couldn't take her eyes off of him. Her stomach felt heavy. Something pounded in her throat, like an animal trying to break free.
“You don't have to do this if you don't want to,” said the Queen. “But I think it would be a valuable experience for you, to understand more of what we'll be doing.”
Say something. Thought the Sister. Don't just stand there. You're better than that. “It's… no,” she said. Her voice was raspy. Her throat felt like concrete. “It's going to happen, whether I do it or not, right?” She sucked in a breath and held out her hand. “I can do it.”
The Queen nodded and gave her the canister. It was heavier than the Sister expected. Like a brick. She turned it over in her hands. “It's easy to use,” said the Queen. “Put it down the wall, pull the top off, and run.”
She nodded. “Will it be quick?”
The Queen shook her head. “No. But he won't feel anything. This will be better for him, I promise.”
“Right.” The Sister walked to the other side of the cavern and set the canister down. The Queen stayed at the entrance, watching. The Sister placed a hand on the top. She looked back at the man hanging from the ceiling. God, he looked so much like her father. Every part of her body screamed that this must be him. She knew that he wasn't. She knew that her real father was with the Coalition, in a different universe, not trapped like this. But still, her hands shook. “Come on,” she whispered to herself. “Come on.” But her hands wouldn't move.
She thought of the past two weeks. Of meeting the Queen, of barely escaping from the Coalition alive. Transporting to another world, a freezing wasteland, and almost being killed again. Hiking for days. Seeing men die. For what? For this moment. To kill this man at the Queen's request. No, she thought. He's not a man anymore. One look was all it took to confirm that.
Her hands were slick with sweat. Her stomach felt like it was doing somersaults. She could taste last night's meal in the back of her throat. The pin of the canister rested between her fingers, waiting to be ripped away, to release the fire it bottled in. She didn't want to do this, she realized. Why had she come here? Why had she insisted on doing this?
She looked back at the Queen. She'd said it was okay to not do it herself, but the Sister knew that wasn't right. The Queen expected this of her. She could show the Sister the universe, but first the Sister would have to prove herself. She wrapped her hand around the canister. Do this, a voice in the back of her head whispered, and you'll be able to see dad again. Your real dad.
She wiped the sweat from her brow. Yes. This wasn't her dad. Her real dad was waiting for her, a universe away. And all she had to do to see him was pull the pin.
She closed her eyes and yanked her hand back, tearing the pin from the canister. There was a hissing noise, and the top of the canister erupted in red light. She leaped up, sprinting back to the entrance of the cave. The hissing noise grew louder.
The Queen grabbed her shoulder. A smile spread across her face, the first the Sister had seen. “Excellent. Absolutely fantastic. Now, hurry. It will spread quickly.”
The Sister nodded. She took a step forward, then stopped. This wasn't right. She couldn't just leave like this. She had to see. Turning, she stared back into the cave. And froze.
The Queen looked back at her. “Is something wrong?”
She shook her. “No. No it's… fine. We need to go.” And they ran.
When they finally burst from the cave, and the sun and wind hit their faces, she turned and vomited against the side. The Queen stood above her, looking almost concerned. “I know how hard this could be at first,” she said.
“No, really,” said the Sister, wiping her mouth. “I'm fine.”
But her thoughts were stuck on the cave. What she had seen there. When she'd turned, she could have sworn Gears was looking at her. That there had been recognition in his eyes. That he had mouthed a word. Her name. Alison.