Let me tell you, getting attacked by a blood-thirsty sea monster was definitely not my finest moment.
But let’s go back a little bit.
My Wanderer was coming to a landing on the peaceful blue waters of Nimue, a planet that I had been researching for the last week before my departure. Even though the smooth silver oval was completely still, it still managed to encourage chaotic ripples across the serene surface of the ocean, expanding, never-ending, to the unblemished horizon. No landforms in sight, as I’d expected. There had been no certain records from the records taken from previous trips by agents before me. The records were spotty, which was to be expected. The HQ focused its main priorities on learning more about the nearest Realities, and, most importantly, alternate Earths. Our home planet, but with… differences.
I was wrapped up in this company, LIT: the League of Interdimensional Travelers. Led by the genius Director Kosmo Johnson, a natural-born leader who could whip an entire army to his will, all with his knowing smile and this...idea.
Humanity had the capability to explore the wonders beyond the universe and see other lifeforms.
Our universe was tiny. We are an infinite speck, surrounded by other infinite specks, all grouped together with one timeline; the history of the universe that we know now. This group—a Reality— was an infinite timeline, collection of universes. And there were many of these Realities—a seemingly infinite number. As many as there were choices made, in all of time and space. One for each and every decision, from each and every organism. Decisions create a ripple in space and form a split in the original course, a new Reality made. Each Reality contained the same worlds, the same people. Just different.
I stared down at the water, entranced, thinking.
That moment. That moment with the rippling cerulean water and endless indigo sky stealing my breath...
I let my guard down.
I stood on the hovering steps of my Wanderer, staring like a fool at the enchanting views before me, when the water changed.
Small bubbles rose to the surface like the whole sea was coming to a boil. They quickly grew in size from peas to dinner plates. The water sloshed against my feet.
I frowned and bent closer to the water, its taunting depths sending a message of allure into my heart. Dive in. I dipped a finger into the water.
Both my wildest guesses and logic fought to claim control over my heart. I glanced back down.
And something grabbed my wrist.
I flew face-first into the water, a scream bubbling in my throat. My skin went numb with the icy depths, my heart pounding, exploding out of my chest. I can’t see. I can’t see. I can’t see. My vision was nothing but darkness, and after a moment I realized my eyes were closed. I wrenched them open, stinging with the salt and cold. I regained enough control to shut my mouth as my vision adjusted, saving what little air I had left. The water pricked my skin like needles, cold and yet as hot as iron pokers. Whatever had a hold of me was relentless in yanking me to their destination. In a dim moment, I thought of all the new information I could record right now.
I must’ve been going insane.
Director Johnson’s voice filled my mind, One mistake, Olivia...
I choked as water threatened to fill my lungs, my vision dimly darkening in the corners. My abdomen lurched, desperate for air that was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t think I couldn’t move I couldn’t feel.
Almost against my will, I felt my mouth open, the last of my breath floating to the surface.
The darkness overtook me.
I dreamed of my little sister.
I was ten. She was seven.
I opened my eyes to Bella’s cheerful face, framed in honey brown waves, a bright smile alighting on her lips. Innocent smile. But in her thickly lashed blue eyes I saw something shift behind her happiness. Concern.
“What?” I asked. I tried to sit up, but my ribs ached in protest. I laid back down, gently, so I wouldn’t upset the bruises.
Bella glanced up and pulled up the blinds above me, releasing bright sun rays down on my face.
I squinted, annoyance twisting my features. I preferred to keep my room dark. It was calming and concealing. My father wouldn’t think much about a dark room, now would he? Darkness was safety.
I glared up at her when she turned toward me again.
“More ice?” she asked.
I sighed, which racked more pain across my chest. A part of me rebelled at the thought. Of my little sister taking care of me. I wasn’t helpless. I closed my eyes, breathing slowly, pain in more ways than one tumbling inside me. I opened my eyes. “Please.”
Bella nodded, curls bouncing. As if she had already guessed my answer, she held up a tiny pack of coolant. The kind you would put in lunch boxes. “I need you to sit up,” she said seriously.
I knew this was nothing but practice for her. She wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, after all. But I was curious. I slowly began to sit up, tears springing into my eyes, and asked, “Does Father know you’re in here?” I came to a halt, a tear running down my cheek. I bit my lip. My ribs were on fire.
“No,” she said. She looked me in the eyes, dead serious. I’d never seen such a little kid look so mature. “Mother doesn’t know either.”
Some of the pressure on my chest released in relief. We both knew what would happen if Father found out. Now more so than ever before.
More bruises. More anger. I felt another tear roll down my cheek. Shouting and broken things and hurt.
I sniffed. Bella took it as a sign to hurry up, and quickly pressed the ice pack on my bare back. I gasped, arching in pain.
I was breathing heavily as I relaxed- somewhat- again. The ice had spread a series of numb tingles across my ribs, a strange sensation. It lingered, the untouched skin hot in comparison. My small fingers gripped the edges of my mattress, my teeth clenched.
“I’m sorry,” Bella said, soft. Her tiny voice almost echoed in the cocoon of quiet.
I slowly shifted my gaze to her, careful to keep my chest still. Our eyes met, hers round and sad, mine barely holding back tears.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “It’s okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“It’s not.” Her voice cracked, telling me she was on the verge of tears. “It’s not okay.”
I stared at her, unsure. Of course it was wrong. But… what was I supposed to do about it?
“Livy…” She trailed off. She didn’t meet my gaze.
“What?” I asked quietly.
“I want to leave.”
The statement startled me. “Here?” I asked, voice lowered to a frightened whisper. If they heard… If Father knew…
Bella nodded. Her cheeks grew pink and she cinched her eyes shut, as if even she couldn’t believe what she was saying. “We’d go together,” she said, voice a quieter whisper than my own. “After Mom and Dad go to sleep.”
Risking pain, I hesitantly reached out a hand and pressed it on her tiny shoulder. She opened her eyes, now filled with eager determination. “You’d be okay,” she said, painfully hopeful.
For a moment, I dared let myself imagine it. Freedom. No more pain… Happiness. Just Bella and I. Together.
It was impossible.
So very impossible.
They’d find us within moments. Burning with fury, embarrassment. I was enough of a failure. Father would be cursing, throwing words like sharp daggers. Mother would be aloof, nose upturned, watching with distant approval of the events that followed. Pain. Shattered things. To think he rarely laid a hand on me now… He’d tossed me down the stairs for lying. My worst nightmares could only express what he’d do next.
Even worse. Bella would get hurt too.
My heart pounded. “No,” I said firmly.
She gave a start. Looking a bit deflated, she whispered, “What?”
“I said no.”
She seemed to dim, the life and fight going out of her. I’d crushed her hope. My heart ached.
Without another word, she left my room.
I started awake, bolting upright. My head pounded, pulsed to a sadistic rhythm. Each beat was a knife being hammered into my skull. My ribs ached as if the bruises from nine years ago were still there.
I stood up and wiped the tears and gritty sand from my cheeks, trying to gauge how I had ended up here.
Glistening stalactites dripped from the ceiling, almost a story above me. They glittered, dark and dirty gray, and a few feet away a large pool of water streamed into the depths of the cave, sending rippling shadows of light everywhere. Light sand dusted the floor, scattered with patches of moss and lichen, which crept up the smooth walls. The cave stretched beyond me, following that flow of water into darkness.
I blinked. How was this possible? An underwater cave. A dry underwater cave!
Just the chance of something like this forming was incredible. Back on Earth, there were plenty of underwater caves, just completely submerged ones. Scientists had no proof that dry caves like this existed, or were even possible.
I had the sudden urge to pull out my journal, and my hands reacted, reaching for my pack behind me. They gripped nothing but damp air. My heart sank. I’d left both my weapons and pack back on the Wanderer.
Images flashed through my mind’s eye, of the giant slimy thing dragging me through the water. The water had surged, I remembered. Powerfully. The creature had risen above the water, but I hadn’t seen it. A huge splash. Dark shapes, bubbles. It was almost as if the creature had risen and arched downward through the air, whale-style. On top of my Wanderer.
My heart clenched, imagining the Wanderer drifting down into an ocean trench, crushed and deformed. Dead. It was just a machine, I reminded myself.
But it was my only way back to Earth.
I was stuck here.
Utter disbelief rose in my chest. This had never happened to me before. Such embarrassing mistakes like these happened to other agents. Agents who didn’t care. Agents who had a place to go back to outside of this. Those agents got stripped of their titles, sent back to the world of their hometown, memories wiped and passed off as a mentally-ill beggar on the side of the street. Security precautions, the Director called them.
I wasn’t one of those agents. I couldn’t be.
And yet, I had just lost track of, and possibly destroyed, a multi-billion dollar machine that could travel between alternate universes.
I almost choked on the lump in my throat.
I took deep breaths, resolving that as long as things didn’t get any worse, it was still possible I could keep my job. There was a very, very slim chance I could get out of this alive, memories intact.
Don’t lie to yourself, Olivia, I mentally scolded my positivity. You’re going to be a brainless hobo if you go back there.
I shook the thoughts away, shoving them into a dark corner.
I looked down and saw that I was covered in the pale sand from the floor, the saltwater crusting the hems of my uniform. I roughly brushed it off, the grains rattling to the ground. I hesitantly ran a hand through my hair. It was full of sand and dried stiff. Thank goodness it was still in a ponytail. And there was no way it was coming out of it until I could take a proper shower.
I patted my pockets, hoping against hope that my flashlight was still there. I felt the zippered one on my chest, and retrieved the sleek cylinder of black steel from its contents. I clicked it on, a bright beam cutting its way through the shadows before me. I breathed. Still water-proof.
Someone stepped into the light.