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Time and Tide

Discussion in 'Completed Fics' started by Cutlerine, Jan 26, 2015.

  1. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    SIXTEEN: DEEPER COILS

    Pirate Code, Article 21: The monarch may only retain their position with the backing of a majority of their subjects.

    Mackenzie.

    That's what we've decided on, for the murkrow. (We've also decided it's a she. She doesn't mind: she's a bird, she has no idea what gender means.) I went and asked Maxie, who suggested Dennis, but I don't think he put any thought into it, because honestly he doesn't seem to like Mackenzie much. I asked Archie, who suggested Caitlin. That didn't quite fit either. I asked … well, you get the idea.

    I bring all this up because the naming of things is important. It's why I was concerned yesterday about titles for chapters and such. You've got to take care with that kind of thing. Names are significant. Avice. Maxie. Archie. Zinnia. Ulixa. Berenice. These mean things. I know they do – I have that dictionary, remember? And I have others, too.

    Berenice, for instance. That's from another kind of Oldspeak: 'bringer of victory'. And that's a knack of hers – bringing victory, I mean. She wins, every time. Some people have all the luck, as they say, although some of them manufacture it for themselves with a mismagius that specialises in lucky chants.

    Anyway, so Mackenzie was Edie's idea. And I like it. It's a spiky kind of name. That K, that Z. It's the right shape for a murkrow; matches all those daggerlike feathers. But perhaps you're just surprised that Edie could suggest a name. She can do that, these days, and a lot more than that. The changes began at Jonah's Respite, actually, although not until some time after we stole the key stone. That was what I can safely say was the less fun part of our stay there. The first bit, where Berenice thought I was a hero – well, that was pretty good, I guess. Everyone likes attention, especially from someone as cool as her.

    I suppose I should get down to business. I've had a walk out on deck (without the crutch! It feels like the first time in forever), fed Mackenzie, and now I'm just wasting time, burbling on before I get back to the story. I can't blame myself, really. For one thing, I'm feeling restless today, and for another, I find myself cringing quite a bit whenever I think of Berenice. Or, more specifically, of my younger self thinking about Berenice. I want to reach out across the years and shake myself by the collar: she's not Moll! You're just homesick!

    At least there was no harm done. I didn't say anything to her, anyway.

    Right. Coffee close at hand. Mackenzie perched on the lamp. A blank page, just a few words away.

    Let's get started, shall we?




    You can imagine my surprise when Berenice said that.

    “What?”

    Her grin broadened.

    “Put it this way,” she told me. “You're gonna save the world, right? That's something I can get on board with. And you're also gonna steal from the King. Now that's a bit harder, but hear me out. You just want the stone. Which means that I could – after a gruelling battle against you, naturally – retrieve the necklace and bring it back to him.”

    “And be welcomed as a hero?” I asked, catching on.

    “And be welcomed as a hero,” she confirmed. “You catch on quick. I like that.”

    “Oh, man,” muttered Zinnia, shaking her head. “What kind of luck do you have, Avice? Of all the guards in the city … Well, I'm just saying, you should see if you can keep her.”

    Zzz, hummed Lillian, eyes sparking with orange light, and Berenice scowled at her.

    “You,” she said, “are no fun at all, Lil. And also, I'm not listening to you.”

    Lillian made a sound like a child babbling. Zinnia raised her eyebrows.

    “Haven't heard that in a while,” she said. “I think they do that when they're mad.”

    “Whatever.” Berenice wrinkled her nose. “Are you scared or something?”

    Lillian narrowed her eyes.

    “'Cause, you know, if we could pull this off, we'd be pretty set,” she went on. “Put us in a good position for when Avice brings the land back and all. But, you know, if you think you're not up to taking the risk …”

    Rolling her eyes towards the ceiling, Lillian sighed, and nodded her assent.

    “Awesome.” Berenice grinned. “So. First things first, we gotta figure out how to get you close enough to snag the necklace.”

    “Yeah,” said Zinnia, “and also how to let Archie and Maxie know what we're up to.” She paused. “Assuming they ever actually find us. You know, they've probably found out that we're not at that pub by now. We might have to head back to the Museum if we're going to meet up.”

    “Oh yeah,” I said. “The ship …”

    “What about your ship?” asked Berenice, oblivious. You would think that I'd have got used to covering my conversations with the ghosts by then, dear reader, but unfortunately not. “Something the matter with … wait a minute.”

    “What?”

    “Your ship,” she said slowly. “A ship you stole from Tethys that they keep old stuff in. You said it's old, right?”

    “Yeah …?”

    “Pre-making-over old?”

    “Yeah …?”

    “Does it maybe have a drill on the front?”

    I blinked.

    “How did you know that?”

    “Because that's our ship,” Berenice said grimly. “At least, that's what they always say. That's the ship that the Prophet took to the bottom of the sea in the stories. I wasn't sure if it was real, but the monarchs have always said they'd get it back if they could.”

    I imagine that what I felt just then was something similar to what my father felt when he was called to the Administrator's office and saw the baby in the corner. Or what the noted thief Colm Sebastian dol' Tethys felt when he popped his head out of a maintenance hatch to see where he'd got to and saw a shuttle barrelling down the tunnel towards him. It's a kind of feeling that starts with some considerable impact in your stomach and takes a little while to reach the more conscious areas of your brain.

    “Oh,” I managed. “Uh. We should go.”

    “Yeah,” agreed Berenice, jumping to her feet. “You're drowned right we should.”

    As we started to run, Zinnia and I trailing Berenice through the labyrinth, Lillian began to call out something that sounded like it might have been magic; certainly it felt like magic, because after she did it, whichever part of the passage we moved through always turned out to be the emptiest.

    “Keep it up, Lil!” cried Berenice over her shoulder. “We're gonna need all the luck we can get!”

    “Luck?” I asked, ducking under a pipe with more than usual presence of mind. “What?”

    “It's a pokémon thing,” replied Zinnia, gliding effortlessly along beside me, moving straight through any pirates in her way. “Some of them can manipulate luck. Pay day, lucky chant, that kind of thing.” She glanced at Lillian with renewed respect. “It didn't get used much in the, uh, old days. Everyone thought it was too unreliable. But she seems pretty good at it.”

    She was: we made it back to the docks faster than I thought possible. Given how long we'd been wandering, I thought we must have been pretty deep in the Respite – and maybe we were, but with Lillian's luck and Berenice's navigational skills, we were there in less than ten minutes, pedestrians stepping unconsciously out of the way as we approached and connecting corridors always just where we needed them. I was hardly even out of breath when we burst back into the cavern – which is just as well, because Berenice didn't slow down; she took in the vast chaos of the docks at a glance, picked out the Museum, and was halfway there before I'd even remembered where it was.

    “I think we're OK,” she said, when I caught up. “If we can just like get on board and move it somewhere – I know the access codes to Kate the Carvanha's private dock, don't ask how, we could stash it there for a couple days till she's back from – oh, gods below.”

    That last part she said when we were heading out down the jetty towards the Museum, and saw at the other end the harbourmaster deep in discussion with a couple of men whose zangoose and linoone had the wary eyes of guard pokémon.

    “You think we can sneak by?” wondered Zinnia. “If you just walked casually …”

    “I think we can maybe get by them,” said Berenice, at the same time. “Act casual.”

    “'Sflukes,” I muttered, head spinning. “Sure. Yeah, I guess.”

    It was the Museum, after all. Lose that, and I'd lose everything: progress, transport, the whole lot. That would be the end of my journey, and by extension, of any hope that I might be able to recover the old world. Perhaps I could find another vessel, but not another two key stones.

    So: off we went. Casually. We almost sauntered down that jetty, but of course, it didn't actually work. I'd been seen coming out of this ship, and as soon as we were close enough to be distinguished from the crowd the harbourmaster looked up and pointed. Four sets of eyes – two human, two pokémon – followed his finger.

    I swallowed.

    “OK,” said Berenice under her breath. “So, you got a Plan B?”

    I opened my mouth to say no, and realised halfway through that I did.

    “Yeah,” I said. “Arrest me.”

    She looked confused – for all of perhaps half a second, and then she grinned.

    “Got it,” she said, and grabbed my arm. Zinnia raised her eyebrows.

    “I guess it's worth a shot,” she said. “Your guns, though.”

    “Ah,” I muttered. “Berenice. Guns.”

    “Huh? Oh. Uh – I'll handle it. Hey!” she called out, as the guards advanced. “Is this her ship?”

    “Berenice,” replied the one with the zangoose. “I might've known you'd be mixed up in this.”

    “You wound me, man,” she said. “Is this the kind of reward you get for apprehending a Tethys spy?”

    Both guards and the harbourmaster looked at me.

    “She's a Tethys spy?”

    Berenice nudged me.

    “Of course not,” I said. “Do I look like one?”

    “She was asking after the Three Anchors,” Berenice said. “Trying to get in touch with Garrick, I guess. Agitating to weaken the war preparations.”

    “If you've arrested her,” said the guard with the linoone, “why does she still have her weapons?”

    “Because they're unloaded,” replied Berenice, without missing a beat. “There's only so much I can carry, you know? So I just had her take the bullets out. I'll get 'em off her back at the station. Besides, I got Lil.”

    The two guards exchanged glances.

    “That does make sense,” said the one with the zangoose. “For Berenice, anyway.”

    “She does have the accent,” said the one with the linoone.

    “And she does have the ship,” added the harbourmaster, and both of them shushed him violently. I suppose they wanted to claim the Museum as their own discovery.

    “The ship?” asked Berenice, looking up at it as if noticing for the first time that it was there. “So this is her ship, then?” No one answered. “Is it your ship?” she asked, shaking my arm a bit.

    “Uh. Yeah,” I admitted. “I'm just here to sell salvage, though. Look – the ship itself is salvage, OK? You can see that. The front bit's all rusty.”

    Zinnia smothered a laugh.

    “I cannot believe this is working,” she said. “Seriously. If you two were anyone else, this would definitely have failed.”

    “I'm gonna have to search it,” said Berenice authoritatively. “Could you two get out of the way? I'm betting there's like evidence on board.”

    I sighed.

    “You're not going to find anything,” I warned her. “Seriously. I'm just a trader―”

    “A trader who's what – eighteen? Who owns her own ship?” She shook her head. “Nah, kid―”

    “Oh, come on, you look about twelve yourself―”

    “I have a mismagius,” she announced, and Lillian burbled on cue. “So. Shut up.”

    I made what I hoped was a suitably frustrated face and fell silent.

    “Better.” Berenice looked back at the guards. “So, could you two get out of the way so I can search the ship?”

    “This ship?” asked the one with the zangoose.

    “No, that freighter over there. Yes, this ship, muk-for-brains. You. Lenny, right? Yeah, Lenny. Is this her ship or not?”

    The harbourmaster nodded reluctantly.

    “Well, yeah,” he admitted. “But …”

    Berenice blinked.

    “But what?” she said. “Are you obstructing my investigation?”

    “Come on, Lady B―”

    “Lady B yourself. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm a guard now. I've got, like, duties and stuff.”

    There was a long, tense pause.

    “Well,” said Lenny, looking at the guards. “I had better – um – I have a lot of work―”

    “Hang on a minute,” sighed the guard with the linoone. “Berenice. How about we search the ship and you take her down to the station?”

    “I need to do it,” she said. “How am I gonna search that whole massive ship without her to guide me?”

    “She doesn't sound very cooperative,” pointed out the guard with the zangoose.

    “She might be, if we could make a deal,” suggested Berenice, but I had a feeling that we were out of room to manoeuvre. She was smart. But she was also a lot of other things that the unspoken rules of the world rank beneath the things that the other guards were, and quick wits, as you and I know well enough, dear reader, can only go so far towards redressing the balance.

    “It'll be easier for both of us to search it,” said the guard with the linoone. “We'll cover more ground that way.”

    “But I―”

    “Have done very well,” said the guard with the zangoose. “I'm sure you'll be commended.”

    Zinnia took an automatic half-step forwards, frowning, but stopped herself. There was nothing she could do.

    “Don't patronise me,” growled Berenice, a dark anger clouding her eyes. “You know me.”

    “Yes, we do,” said the guard with the linoone. “Go back to the station, Lady B. We'll handle things here.”

    Berenice stood there for a moment, motionless as a taut bowstring. Her fingers dug into my arm like stakes of iron.

    “Right,” she said. “I'll see you two later, then.”

    She turned, dragging me with her, and marched back into the crowd.

    “Archie?” I heard behind me. “So there you are. Over here! Quickly!”

    I tried to motion for Berenice to stop, but she didn't seem to see me; looking back over my shoulder, I saw the ghosts hurrying towards us, Zinnia frantically trying to explain.

    “No, it's a trick, OK, she's not actually being arrested―”

    “But what―?”

    “Shut up a minute, would you? Jeez. Five hundred years later and still full of hot air. One of you get back in the Museum and have Edie lock it down. They're gonna board it.”

    “What? What's going―?”

    “I'll go. She's my ship. I'll be able to lock it down and maybe send Edie out to help―”

    “I've been there several centuries, Archie. I know both Edie and the Museum quite well enough. Get back to Avice. I'll send Edie on if I can.”

    “Tooth take 'em,” sighed Berenice, suddenly letting go of my arm. “Sorry, Avice. Full disclosure, I'm not actually on such good terms with the other guards. Like I'm new, and before that I was … well. Kind of a crook, really. And then … anyway.” She looked at me with eyes that asked if I understood what anyway meant, and I nodded.

    “It's OK,” I assured her. “I know exactly what you mean. The Tethys sergeants never liked me much, either.” (Pirate's brat. Civic traitor. Other words too, that I refuse to allow into this history.)

    She smiled, although her eyes were still not quite clear.

    “You really do, huh,” she said. “That's nice.”

    Behind us, Archie coughed.

    “Anyone gonnae tell me what exactly is going on here?” he asked.

    “Avice has found a, uh, friend,” replied Zinnia. “Come on, Archie. Are you that old? Can't you see the chemistry?

    “But we've still got a problem,” Berenice said. “Your ship―”

    “Is safe,” I told her, suppressing the desire to dig an elbow into Zinnia's spectral ribs. “My porygon2, the pokémon I told you about – she's still aboard. I got a message to her; she'll lock the hatches down and seal it off.”

    “You what?” Berenice blinked, then stumbled as someone bumped into her. Lillian gabbled, and she nodded. “Right, right. Let's get out of the way … OK. There's a way out onto Yanma Passage through here. It's usually not so busy.”

    I could see why. It was a narrow little tunnel, the walls barely wide enough for the two of us to walk side by side – and neither of us were particularly broad. Not the sort of place through which freight can be brought, and that day, mostly abandoned.

    “OK,” I said, “so, um, I guess it's my turn for full disclosure.”

    I glanced over my shoulder at the ghosts. Zinnia shrugged; Archie was doing something that I recognised from long experience as trying politely not to stare.

    “Yeah?” asked Berenice.

    I took a deep breath.

    “I'm not doing this all by myself,” I told her. “Do you believe in ghosts?”




    I have to wonder whether Maxie really did know Edie. Or no, not that – whether Edie knew Maxie, rather, since he clearly did know her. I've turned the sequence of events surrounding the impounding of the Museum at Jonah's Respite over and over in my head, and still haven't been able to decide whether or not Maxie and Edie actually ever communicated during the period when they were alone together on board. When Edie sprang to my defence in the court, was it at Maxie's signal or because she was watching and waiting for me? It's hard to say. I've asked Maxie, and even he's not sure. Sometimes, I worry that I give the impression that I remember everything perfectly correctly, that all these conversations are written down here exactly as they occurred. Certainly some of the more memorable lines are – what Aranea said when she burst into the Administrator's office to rescue my father, for instance, or what Maxie said when he pleaded with me not to give up after his betrayal. But, like all archaeology, most of this is educated guesswork. I've spoken to the ghosts, but they don't remember everything. And when it comes right down to it, dear reader, there's still no proof that the ghosts are anything more than figments of my imagination, created from the history books to fill the gaps in my life.

    As I say, though, it's probably best not to wonder too much about it. I don't want to wonder about it. There's enough fiction in life and history without it spilling over into my family. It's just that I can't seem to stop myself worrying.

    Well, enough about that. You've listened to me trying to absolve myself of my sins as a historian too many times to want to hear it all over again, I'm sure.

    Whether or not you believe in ghosts, Berenice did – at least after some persuasion. It actually made my story more believable, she said, if someone had guided me, and clearly there was no one alive who was qualified to do so.

    “Wish you'd told me before,” she said. “We could've used some help with that plan. Like if they'd gone aboard your ship and worked the controls, we could've made it look like it would only unlock for the two of us.”

    Lillian shot her a sceptical look, and Berenice sighed.

    “All right, it en't one of my best plans.” She paused. “Are your ghosts here? Like, right now?”

    I hesitated. Have you ever tried to introduce someone invisible, dear reader? It's incredibly awkward.

    “Yeah,” I admitted. “Um, this is Zinnia, and this is Archie.” I gestured in their direction; they, uncertain of how exactly to respond, just stared. “And this is Berenice, Archie,” I added. “Zinnia was there when we met,” I told her.

    “Right,” he said slowly, scratching his head. “Uh – pleased to meet you. I guess.”

    “Um. Yeah, I guess,” said Zinnia. “OK, this … this is really weird.”

    “They say hail,” I told Berenice, trying hard to believe I didn't sound like a child introducing her imaginary friends. “This is a bit weird for them, I think.”

    “You're telling me,” muttered Archie.

    “Oh.” Berenice waved uncertainly in the wrong direction. “Um. Hail.”

    I decided not to tell her that the ghosts were actually behind us, and instead reminded her that we needed to come up with a plan.

    “I mean, they have the Museum now,” I said. “That makes things complicated.”

    “Right.” She tugged on a coil of her hair, thinking. “Right, but if … OK. First we need to know where they're gonna take the Museum. By the time they move it, everyone at the guard station will know, so I can get that from them – but I think they'll probably move it to the court, where they used to keep it before the making over.”

    Archie nodded.

    “Aye. We were just there. The channel's still in place; looks like they still have the original sea access.”

    I nodded, and Berenice paused.

    “Are they speaking?” she asked diffidently. “What … what are they saying?”

    “Oh. Um, Archie said he was just there in the court. He and Maxie were going to see if the key stone was there,” I explained, “and they saw that there was still sea access in the dock.”

    “Ah,” said Berenice. “Right. That's right. There is. Separate to the main mouth.”

    “Yeah, we've … sort of established that.”

    The four of us stood there uncomfortably for a moment, until Lillian coughed pointedly.

    “Right, so yeah,” said Berenice hurriedly. “Once they've taken the Museum there, if we can get into the throne room and get you that necklace, you can signal to your pokémon―”

    “―and have her open up the Museum for us to get on board,” I finished. “Where we seal the doors, bang on the walls to make it sound like we're fighting―”

    “―and then, as the ship starts to submerge, I stagger out of the hatch, clutching the pendant in my bloodied fingers―”

    “―which they will only discover has had the key stone taken out of it once we've escaped through the back exit,” I said, and Berenice grinned wildly.

    “Yeah!” she cried, holding up a hand for me to high-five. “Now that's what I call a plan!”

    “They're so cute, aren't they?” said Zinnia to Archie. “Look!”

    “Er – why don't you leave me out of this,” he said hurriedly, going a deeper shade of blue. “I'll just, ah. Watch.”

    Zinnia looked back at me, grinning.

    “He's old,” she said, in a whisper so loud Archie couldn't help but hear. “He gets embarrassed about that kind of thing.”

    “So do I, when you keep commentating,” I muttered.

    “… so, we've probably got some time before word gets to the station to confirm what's to be done with the Museum,” Beatrice concluded, oblivious. “I'm guessing we need to waste thirty minutes to an hour, something like that. Then I'll show up, panting, and say you got away and I was chasing you, and then … OK, got it.” She snapped her fingers. “Right now, then, you're gonna buy me another coffee.”

    I'd had a lot of practice at maintaining two conversations at once by that point, but Beatrice's mind was racing ahead at a speed that I couldn't quite match while I kept looking at the ghosts.

    “What?” I asked, hopelessly confused. “What's that about― didn't we just have coffee?”

    “Avice,” she said, laying a hand upon my shoulder, “we're gonna steal the crown jewel. That's kind of big. Normally, maybe, too big. But with coffee … well. Let's just say there is no limit, none whatsoever, to what I can achieve with a cup of hot black coffee in my hand.”

    Lillian rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath; I just stared.

    “Is that a prepared speech?” I asked.

    “I mighta been saving it for a special occasion,” she admitted. “C'mon! We'll go back to Clem's.”

    “Wait a minute,” I said. “What if the guards―?”

    “We'll give him a few extra kites,” she said dismissively. “En't gonna take much, he likes me more than he likes them anyway, even if he does keep complaining about my tab.” She beckoned. “Now c'mon! We're supposed to be wasting time here, and you can waste it a drowned sight faster in a coffeehouse.”

    So I followed. That's another way in which Berenice was like Moll: I never really had all that much choice in the matter. But that's all right; I never was much of a leader. Not until I had to be, and even then, not by choice. Some of us are born to be sidekicks, I think, although apparently in my case the gods (or fate, or whatever's in charge these days) disagree.

    I sort of miss it, really. Being second in command is much easier than being the boss. I have to wonder how the corsair-king manages it, with all those hundreds and thousands of pirates under his command. If I was queen, I'd probably go to pieces in less than a week.

    If I ever managed to get anything done, that is. More likely, I'd just get distracted before I ever got round to passing any laws or whatever it is that monarchs do. Look, I'm distracted right now! One minute I'm diligently working away at my history, and the next I'm about four seconds away from writing a thousand-word inquiry into what exactly the duties of a monarch consist of.

    There's only one cure for this. I'm going to have to get some lunch.




    I'm tempted to jump ahead an hour or so, to our dramatic assault on the throne room of Jonah's Respite. You know me and my tastes, dear reader, and you must by this point understand that I love a good action story, and also that I have a lot of issues with my chronology. All of this adds up to a great temptation for me to skip ahead an hour or so, to our dramatic assault on the throne room of Jonah's Respite – because after all, we know Berenice now; we don't need pages and pages more of description of her. And besides, that conversation, like those afternoons with Moll back in Tethys, is something I want to hold onto for myself. Part of being a historian, I'm figuring out, is knowing what not to say. Not everyone can know everything about everybody, and while I'm happy to lay most of my life bare to you, dear reader, some moments are so delicate that, if shared, they might be torn and lost forever.

    So I won't talk about that, but I won't skip ahead either – indeed, I can't, because something else significant happened before we got to the throne room. As I keep saying, it's not all about me – and in this case, while I was busy cementing my newfound friendship with Berenice over more coffee, Archie and Zinnia were involved in a conversation of their own at the next table.

    “So,” Archie said, when it became clear that I had left them to their own devices. “What do you think?”

    “Of what?” Zinnia asked, tracing circles on the tabletop with one finger. “Of this place? Of the situation?”

    “Of her.” Archie nodded in Berenice's direction.

    Zinnia grinned slyly.

    “I think that Avice has found a friend,” she replied. “I mean, we can probably trust her, if that's what you're asking.” The grin flickered a little, as if an old scar had suddenly started to ache. “There's something between them that we can't have. And I think that probably means she'll look out for Avice. Don't you?”

    “I hope so.” Secure in the knowledge that I had my back to him, he shot one of those thunderbolt glares at Berenice. “But a proper alliance takes longer than an hour or so to forge, you know? We're taking a real risk here.”

    “Well, obviously. But you're already taking risks, right? Because you don't trust me, either.” Zinnia gave him one of those ironic smiles. “You're kinda transparent, Archie. Both literally and figuratively.”

    Archie snorted.

    “Right. Listen, I'm doing what we're all doing, following Avice―”

    “Sure, sure, and that's admirable and all, but we're guiding as much as following.” Her finger was still moving in slow circles across the table, a green light revolving like a lanturn's lure twitching in the dark. “C'mon, Archie, don't take me for an idiot. It's been weeks and weeks now – months, even – and still, you keep muttering about me to Maxie when you think I'm not listening.” She sighed. “You're a pretty remarkable guy, but you gotta admit, 'subtle' isn't really your strong suit.”

    “I can be―”

    “Your response to oceanic pollution was, and I quote, to 'return everything to its unspoiled beginnings'.”

    Archie paused.

    “It wasn't the most balanced reaction,” he said, “and you bloody well know that I know that now―”

    “But you see my point,” said Zinnia. “When you're cross, you don't exactly hide it.” She shook her head. “Look. I've been here ages. I haven't done anything wrong, have I? We've both demonstrated we care a lot about Avice and her mission, right? So what is it, Archie – what is it about me that means you can't trust me, even now?”

    For a long time, he said nothing, and the space between them filled with the kind of silence made up of other sounds: of the clink of crockery and the chatter of patrons, the low roar of footsteps and voices in the corridor outside, the hiss of stale air, the glug of a bottle, Berenice's joke, my laughter.

    “You were just there,” said Archie at last, and Zinnia's eyes narrowed very slightly. “D'you expect us to believe that? You were just there in Meteor Falls, and you just happened to know what to do, and you just happened to meet the only person in the world who could see and talk to you. That ain't how life works, Zinnia. That ain't a coincidence. That's a bloody plan.”

    Another un-silent silence. Zinnia leaned back in her chair, hand falling from the tabletop.

    “Well, it wasn't,” she said evenly. “I know what it looks like, Archie, but I told you the truth. No agenda, no nothing. I just bumped into Avice and decided hers was a quest I could get behind, same as you.”

    “Really.”

    “Yeah. Really.” She gave him an exasperated look. “God, Archie, what would it take for me to prove that to you? Rayquaza descending to call the wind and lay Kyogre to rest?”

    “It'd be a start,” said Archie, which was, I think, one of those things that pop out of your mouth in a fit of anger and are instantly regretted, and Zinnia shook her head slowly.

    “Hasn't it occurred to you,” she said quietly, “that you turning up when you did was just as unlikely? Or that pirate – what's her name – Ulixa? Look, Archie, I'm not saying you shouldn't be suspicious, but c'mon. If you're gonna start questioning how things have worked out, you've got to question more than just me.”

    “I came to Tethys because I had a hunch―”

    “And boy, does that sound plausible,” said Zinnia, one eyebrow rising upwards into an ironic arch, and the two of them fell back into the un-silent silence.

    What might Archie have said next? What could anyone actually have said in response to that? I do think about it, dear reader – the virtual impossibility of events and people lining up for me as they did, propelling me gently from one point of interest to the next. I think about it a lot. Perhaps the way I've structured it here, laying it all out as a narrative and giving it a shape and form, has made this strangeness less obvious to you. After all, you expect that sort of thing from a story; if a hero is marooned on a deserted island, there's going to be treasure or salvage or something waiting for them there. But in life – who on earth bumps into so many ghosts when they are so few in number and she just happens to be the one person who can see them? Who accidentally draws the attention of her long-lost mother's protégé in a bar, and later happens to be in the right place at the right time to be rescued by her? The more I write of this, the more it seems to me that the story of my life is my life. I've been worrying about how turning the world into narrative removes its nuances and makes it unreliable – but I wonder now if the world is narrative, if it might be impossible to look at the world without unconsciously connecting the dots, drawing conclusions, imposing structure on the randomness.

    Maybe that's what coincidence is: me looking at these unlikely events and thinking there must be reason behind it. Do all effects need to have causes, or does thinking only make it so?

    I suppose that's a digression, and anyway it's a bit early in the day to be getting philosophical. (My father always said that he treated philosophy like rum: best not indulged in until after five o'clock, and never while working.) But at the same time, it's a question that keeps coming back, more insistent every time. Aranea. Ulixa. The ghosts. The three days of birds. Mackenzie the murkrow. All of this has the ring of myth about it. And yet it happens to be true – or at least, it happened, which may not be the same thing.

    Anyway, this isn't the right place for me to be having an epistemological crisis. I should probably leave it for now and go have a brisk debate about it with Maxie in a minute. He'll at least give me some new ideas on the topic, even if he doesn't have any answers.

    So: what might Archie have said next? Tide only knows – or no, it doesn't. Not any more. Tempest is still around, of that I'm sure – I think it will last for as long as there are oceans – and Tooth is, well, Tooth, but Tide's time is over. Some new god will rise to take its place, and it will just be Kyogre again, sleeping away the millennia in some seafloor cavern. But that's me getting off-topic: the point is that no one knows what Archie might have said in response to that, not even Archie himself (I've asked him), and the un-silent silence grew and grew between him and Zinnia, until at last Berenice and Lillian left for the guard station and I turned around to see what the ghosts were up to.

    “So,” said Zinnia, instantly switching conversational track, “what's up with Berenice? You two are getting along pretty well, from what we saw. Right, Archie?”

    “Oh, aye,” he agreed, nodding genially. “Lucky to have met her.”

    “Yeah,” said Zinnia, with a little glint in her eye. “Lucky.”
     
  2. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Now I can skip ahead to the dramatic part. Everyone's ready: Berenice has gone to the station and confirmed where the Museum is; Archie and Zinnia have made headway on their curious rivalry; Maxie and Edie are waiting for our move; and I, dear reader, am following Berenice down the passages to the King's court and trying not to fiddle with my handcuffs.

    “OK,” she whispered, as we neared the corner that would take us back into the main corridor and its concomitant flow of human traffic, “we play it like at the docks, yeah? Should work. I bet the King will want to meet you, if I can get you in.” She paused. “Has the ghost, I mean, Archie, has he gone ahead?”

    “On my way,” he said, nodding at her. “I'll let Maxie know what's gonnae go down and have him and Edie ready for the signal.”

    “He's just going now,” I told Berenice, as Archie vanished through the wall.

    “Perfect.” She took a breath. “OK. So, let's get into character. Wanna stop playing with those handcuffs for just a second so I can actually put 'em on you?”

    “Oh. Right. Sorry.”

    The cool touch of steel around my wrists was uncomfortably familiar; I hadn't realised until then just how strongly a tiny impression like that can stick to your memory. For an instant, it was like I was back aboard the corvette, and I seemed to feel around me the stifling gloom of the cell―

    “Hey,” said Zinnia, brow creasing. “Are you OK there, Ava?”

    I was not, really, but I nodded. I'd survive, I told myself. I'd done worse. I could do this too.

    “O-K,” said Berenice, who was too busy adjusting the cuffs to have noticed my momentary panic. “So, if you pull your hands apart hard, kind of like this” (here she mimed the action) “that link Lil zapped should just break apart. Assuming Lil's actually managed to weaken the metal properly.”

    The mismagius glowered and engulfed herself in blue-black smoke, which I assume was a rough equivalent to the kind of thing Moll usually said if someone belittled her battling ability. Berenice, equally eloquently, stuck her tongue out.

    “Sure, go ahead and sulk,” she said. “You look scary like that anyway, and we're kinda gonna need you to play the tough guard pokémon for now.”

    Two burning orange points appeared in the cloud of darkness, and Berenice, determinedly oblivious to Lillian's hostility, nodded in appreciation.

    “Neat,” she said. “That'll do it.” She turned to me and clapped her hands together. “Right, then. Ready?”

    And in that moment, with my hands cuffed and the court just around the corner, I was not, really. But again, I nodded. After all, I'd survive.

    “It'll be OK,” said Zinnia softly, as if reading my mind. “You can do it. I know you can.”

    Beside her, Berenice grinned, but there were nerves behind the bravado. I could tell, and I could tell that she knew I was anxious, too. Neither of us mentioned it: we felt like we knew each other better than we really did, than was even possible given the limited time we'd spent with each other, but even so, to admit nerves then might have stopped us from going at all.

    “Then let's stop hanging around and get a move on before one of those guys walking by out there notices us,” said Berenice, and grabbing my arm, she shoved me out into the corridor.

    We got looks – of course we did. This was clearly a less seedy part of the Respite; the people travelling along this corridor, to and from the court, actually looked and smelled like they'd washed sometime in the past week, and an armed guard hauling a captive through their midst couldn't go unnoticed. Of course, there were probably other reasons they stared – neither Berenice nor myself look entirely normal, whatever that means – but I couldn't think about that then, refused to think about it. I had to focus on the plan, or else I was going to end up screwing this up.

    “Out of the way!” called Berenice, with substantially more authority than she actually seemed to feel. “Official guard business!”

    It must have been convincing enough, because people actually did get out of our way; either the news about the Museum had got out and they thought this was connected, or else I looked much more like a real criminal than I thought I did. Actually, now I think of it, it probably helped that Lillian was still doing that trick with the smoke and the glowing eyes.

    The corridor terminated in, surprisingly, a blank wall – a blank wall that I thought must have perhaps concealed a door, since it was guarded by a machamp and a woman who looked worryingly like she might have been able to take it in a straight boxing match.

    “Berenice,” said the woman, her eyes narrowing as they fixed on her. “What do you want?”

    Berenice made a very good attempt at a cheery smile, but the woman was not the kind of person who it was easy to smile at.

    “Uh, hail, Morgan,” she said. “I – uh – I caught this Tethys spy? The one whose ship Zach and York impounded? And I figured that, like, since her ship is pretty valuable and all that, the King might want to see her?”

    The woman – Morgan – considered this. At her side, the machamp cracked all four sets of knuckles, hands meeting diagonally across its slate-coloured chest.

    A tense moment passed. Somewhere in her cloud of shadows, Lillian began murmuring a lucky chant to herself.

    “All right,” said Morgan eventually. “I suppose the King will want to see … her. But we'll be watching you.”

    That pause! Dear reader, have you ever experienced that pause? The gap before the pronoun, the appraising look, the rising insecurities in your gut. It doesn't take much to crush me, I'm afraid: you can put a bullet in my selfhood with as little as a look. One thing I might be a little bitter about is that I rely on the people I meet to be me. We all live in the eyes of others, I know; we are seen and we are categorised, and giving up control over who I am hurts, dear reader. Because other people can't be trusted not to abuse that power.

    Am I making any sense? Maybe not. Talking about this sort of thing makes me a little anxious, even now. It made sense to Berenice, though. We were both intimately familiar with this particular experience. Anyone like us has been killed in looks and words many times over, I imagine.

    “Thanks,” said Berenice, after a suitably chilly pause. “Be seeing you, then.”

    Morgan stepped aside, and Berenice led me towards what looked like a blank wall.

    “Stand here,” she said, indicating a metallic green circle on the floor, and a moment later we were standing in a completely different room.

    As you might imagine, this was kind of startling.

    “What in all blood―?”

    “Warp panels,” said Zinnia helpfully, poking her head through the wall and joining us. “Old, old tech.” Her lip twisted slightly with some suppressed emotion. “They never got very good at imitating the weirder pokémon moves mechanically,” she continued. “But Silph figured out teleportation pretty early on, although only between two fixed points. And using enough electricity to power the Sevii Islands for a week.”

    “Warp panels!” said Berenice, at exactly the same time. “The Prophet put them in before the making over. You step on one, you pop up on a different one somewhere else.” She grinned. “Best security in the ocean, huh?”

    “Uh,” I said, trying to process both explanations at once and struggling. “Yeah – yeah, I guess.”

    We were in a small chamber without doors or windows, but with a few more of those metallic green discs set into the floor; as I watched, a pirate materialised on one of them, crossed to another, and vanished again with a hum and a faint smell of ozone.

    “There's a string of these that lead into the court,” said Berenice, walking me over to one of the other panels. “You have to know the pattern, or you just get lost.” She fell silent as another pirate appeared and disappeared, and then took a hesitant hold of my arm. “Sorry about Morgan,” she said. “She's kind of a jerk like that.”

    Yes, I thought to myself: she got it, all right. I gave her an appreciative smile.

    “Nothing I haven't heard before,” I said. “Come on. We should go. Oh – but, before we do – what direction are we going to come out? As in, physically? Because Zinnia – um, the ghost who's with us, I think I mentioned – I don't think the panel works for her, so she needs to” (here a pirate passed and I shut up while Berenice pretended to be checking my bonds) “needs to go through the walls instead.”

    “Through the … oh, right. Yeah. Ghosts.” She shook her head. “I forgot about the whole wall thing.”

    Lillian burbled and Berenice sighed.

    “Yeah, I know,” she said. “Anyway, so it's that way …”

    Travelling this part of the Respite was difficult: some people, I'm told, get headaches from using warp panels, and while I didn't get much more than a faint pulsing in my temples, teleporting between different points of space did leave me rather disoriented and more than a little nauseous. I have a feeling that whatever gods made humans, they never intended us to travel around that way; without the comforting fixity of point, progress, point, of space passing by around me, the chambers we passed through seemed to warp and flex, the walls suddenly closer or further away depending on how I looked at them. Or the ceiling would swoop down at my head and make me flinch before it soared up and away again.

    But I survived, of course, because I'm fairly sure that you can't actually die of motion sickness even when you feel like maybe that wouldn't be such a bad idea, and eventually we made it past the panels and the pirates to a room that, thankfully, contained no more teleporters than the one we arrived on. Behind us was a wall, and before us was a long corridor, steel bars on the left and concrete on the right. Through the bars I could see the wink of light on water – and, more importantly, I could hear voices. Deferential voices. The sort of voices, in fact, that might be used to address a king.

    Berenice took a deep breath.

    “All right,” she said. “We're in.”




    I've just taken the best break ever, dear reader. Edie has more or less completed the last repairs on the Museum now, and she came in wanting to play – and Mackenzie, to my surprise, wanted to join in. You'll have noticed, of course, that she's been a bit nervous since her experience in the air vents, and hasn't wanted to be left alone; I suppose that explains why she keeps hanging around me, but I didn't think she was so comfortable with me that she'd actually want to join in Edie's games.

    Two bird friends! I don't have the exact statistics to hand, but I'm pretty sure that makes me the luckiest girl alive. We played Edie's old favourite, the game where you throw a metal object and she fires it back at you with magnetism, and it turns out that Mackenzie is a pretty good match for her. Her hand to beak coordination is spectacular; she can do this thing where she sort of fades a little, as if concealed behind some sort of translucent veil, and for half a second you almost forget that she exists – and then she pops back into full existence, somehow in exactly the right place she needs to be to hit her target, every single time. I expect it's a pokémon move of some sort, but I have no idea how to find out which. There is a way to search the database, I think, but as I've said before, computers aren't my strong suit. I'll just have to ask one of the ghosts.

    Anyway, the point is, Edie was very impressed, and beeped at Mackenzie until she agreed to go with her to do whatever it is birds do when they're not repairing ships or playing with people. I think they've made friends now, which is nice. It's good for Edie to have friends other than me, especially since I'm not sure if she can interact with the ghosts. And also because, while I love her dearly, I do have a lot of work left to do on this history, and sometimes you just need to be left alone to get some good solid historianising done.

    So, back to the court, and an impressive court it was: a vast chamber of vaulted steel that rivalled some of Tethys' atria for size; one side of it was dominated by a pool of black water that came right up to the barred wall of the passage we were standing in, and the other – well, the other wasn't immediately visible, since between us and it was the Museum, the two tugs that had hauled it there just disengaging their clamps.

    Zinnia let out a long breath.

    “Jeez,” she said. “You know, for a second, I was afraid it wouldn't be here.”

    I nodded. I'd been feeling the same way.

    “OK,” whispered Berenice, leading me along the passage, “there are gonna be more guards at the end of here. I'll do the talking, all right?” (It was.) “Cool. Lil? We could, uh, we could use some more luck. If you have any left in you.”

    For once, the mismagius didn't make any objections. She'd shed her shroud of darkness a while ago, and the light in her eyes had dimmed to a dull, serious yellow. The chant, when it came, was a little more strained than before, even to my untrained ears, and Zinnia winced.

    “Oh, man,” she said. “It's too soon since the last one, isn't it? Crap. Our luck is running on fumes here.”

    This was not a metaphor I was familiar with, but I got the idea, and I knew that Berenice did too, even without hearing Zinnia. It was all in the glance we shared: we both knew this wasn't going to go as smoothly as our run through the tunnels.

    “Thanks,” said Berenice kindly, when Lil was done. The mismagius shook her ragged head and gibbered something that sounded vaguely forlorn. Neither of us had an answer to it.

    As we rounded the corner and began to come level with the Museum, more of the space beyond it was revealed: a sprawling concrete plain arched over with structures that had once been girders supporting some massive engine but had long ago been wrenched into new and ornamental shapes. Cabins of sheet metal lined the walls, piled on top of one another in a confusion of levels and ladders, and pirates with the same supercilious look about them as the high-ranking Tethysi of Chimney swarmed over them like ants, arms full of files and typewriters and all the other business of civic government. And beyond all this, where the girder-arches were thickest, there was something else that flashed in the glare of the fluorescent lights …

    “Hold there!” called someone from ahead, and I turned back to the passage. We were almost at the point where it met the concrete beyond the water, and as Berenice had said the entry was guarded, in this case by a scarred man armed with something that might have been an axe – although given its size, it might have just been a very sharp warhammer. At his side hovered a starmie, rotating its rings of arms in that unnerving way that starmie do. I had the feeling that it was watching us, although I wasn't sure what exactly it was watching us with.

    “Careful,” said Zinnia. “See the way its gem's glowing? Kind of bluish? It's got an ice beam charged. Probably aiming to incapacitate, but, uh, well. Even so. I don't know if you've ever been hit by an ice beam before, but it's really darn painful.”

    I swallowed. Forewarned was forearmed, I supposed – but equally, ignorance was bliss. Especially where being zapped by giant starfish was concerned.

    “Constable dol' City's Regret, sir,” said Berenice, stepping forward slightly. “I've apprehended the Tethys spy. The one who brought that ship here.” She hesitated. “I thought the King should meet her?”

    A little flicker of something crossed her face, and I knew she was kicking herself for letting the question into her voice. I would have done the same.

    “A Tethys spy,” said the guard.

    “Yep,” said Berenice. “I mean, yes, sir.” She grabbed my arm and shook it slightly. “She was trying to get into the Three Anchors to instigate something with Garrick's boys. Right?”

    “You can't prove anything,” I replied dutifully, in my best growly menacing voice. It impressed the guard exactly as much as I'd expected, which was to say not at all.

    “We don't have to,” he told me, without even a trace of interest. “All right, Constable. Take her in. The King will want to meet her. Maybe she can get the drowned ship open.”

    He gestured to the starmie, whose gem dimmed and whose arms stopped whirring round, and the two of them moved aside to let us pass.

    Berenice glanced at me, and in her eyes I read relief, yes, but also triumph and exultation, and in that moment I was more infatuated with her than ever. Except that I wasn't, of course, because what I was seeing was the look from Moll's eyes, that dangerous flash of excitement that meant she'd just pulled off something ridiculous and was probably going to drag me into even more trouble as a result – and then there was the fact that Berenice was like me, and she understood, and when you add it all up, really, you have to face the fact that really, sometimes you have to try to forgive your younger self their mistakes and their absurdity. It isn't easy. Heading back to Tethys now, to where my father and my best friend wait to remember me, I can see my past laid out before me and I cringe at it, obsess over the mistakes, agonise over every tiny disloyalty to the people I left behind. This is a harsh judgement to pass on myself, I know – it's not like I meant to transfer any of my affection for Moll to Berenice, after all, it's just one of those things that happen – but I suppose I feel it's my duty to keep my ties to Tethys alive. No one else can do it, after all. Not now that I've been forgotten.

    It's part of why I have to write this. I love my city, even if I hate it, and where it forgets I have to remember.

    You're probably already skipping ahead, dear reader. I've promised a dramatic confrontation with the corsair-king of the pirates and I've just kept on delaying it with all this introspection – and now it's getting dark, and I'm getting tired, and the whole thing is starting to seem pretty unsatisfactory when I consider your point of view. Still, we can at least get a little further before I have to break off.

    We passed the guard and the starmie and walked out among the tangled ironworks of the court, where the smell of oil and saltwater mixed with fish and cigarette smoke and everything seemed to crawl with constant motion; there were the bureaucrats and officials on the cabins piled against the walls, and a group of technicians and engineers gathered by the water's edge, arguing furiously about ways that they might get into the Museum, bobbing serenely on the spot in front of them. I looked up at the ravaged old drill – as familiar, by this point, as an old friend – and almost smiled despite myself. It seemed to me that the ship was mocking them.

    “―surely if we go back to the archives, we'd be able to locate the Prime Key,” one man said as we passed, gesturing wildly with his single hand.

    “Nothing but a myth!” retorted another. “Next you'll suggest we look for the Blue Orb, I take it?”

    “But the ship itself is a myth―”

    “Hardly a myth, with the wealth of technical specifications available to us―”

    Then their voices were drowned out in the general din of the argument, the rattle of typewriters from the bureaucrats' cabins and the rumbling of the tugs, and we were too far past them to hear more.

    Zinnia laughed quietly and shook her head.

    “Nothing but a myth, huh,” she said. “Kind of a weird point of view, considering how many myths seem to come true around here.”

    She had a point, but I never got to answer, or even think about it. We had just gone round the edge of the cabin-wall and seen down the length of the court for the first time – and quite frankly, I was having enough trouble remembering to breathe to bother about philosophy.

    The arches of reforged girders stretched away in lines like ranks of immense, mutilated soldiers, their upper reaches shrouded in a cloud of tobacco smoke and the perfumed haze from the braziers positioned in between them. They took the edge off the chill in the room, but I didn't think it was for the benefit of its human inhabitants. Sprawled down either side of the court, their coils woven between the bases of the arches, were two gigantic sea-serpents, a gyarados and a milotic, their great heads raised slightly to watch the commotion outside their master's domain.

    I stopped dead. What did you expect? I'd never seen either of these species before. They weren't the biggest kind – the gyarados was probably only thirty feet, and its bright blue scales suggested it wasn't growing any bigger, while the milotic couldn't have been more than twenty-five – but they were more than big enough to intimidate someone whose only real previous experience of pokémon had been the creatures small enough to fit inside Tethys. These, on the other hand, were monsters that could have threatened moderately well-armed ships. The gyarados' body at its widest point was almost as thick as I was tall, and its head looked wrong, as if I couldn't quite believe that something that big could be alive and in motion. When it shuddered slightly and gulped down a breath, its huge rubbery lips quivering with the rush of foul-smelling air, I actually think I might have turned to run if Berenice hadn't been holding my arm.

    Like I said. I was always more of a sidekick than anything else.

    “Don't worry, Ava,” said Zinnia, holding her hand in a place that would have meant she was patting my arm if she'd been solid. “It's here to scare people. Same with the milotic. They're not so fast out of water, either of them – especially not when they're so big. And it'd take them half an hour to unwrap themselves from all that junk, too.” She snorted. “Guess Archie's penchant for the dramatic stuck with these guys, huh?”

    “Move it,” ordered Berenice loudly, hauling on my arm. And then, under her breath: “It's OK, they're here to make the King look scary. They're both like fifty years old and have arthritis or something. You could literally fend 'em off with a stick.”

    “They're still bloody enormous,” I muttered, although now that we were closer I could see the silver flecking the milotic's cream skin, and hear the wheeze in the gyarados' breath. I didn't doubt that they were still dangerous (which is a pretty good rule of thumb for dealing with any kind of animal more than twenty feet long) but it did seem like both of them would need a good twenty minutes to work themselves up for a fight, and probably also a rest in the middle of the battle to get their breath back.

    So I let Berenice lead me between their heads, into the stink of warm fish and tobacco, and we began the long walk down the hall to the throne.




    I know, I know. This is an infuriating place to stop. Avice, I hear you cry, you haven't even told us what that end of the hall looks like! Why on earth did you spend so long describing the first part of the court when this was the bit we all wanted to see – the throne, the King, his hangers-on and attendants, his key stone?

    To tell the truth, dear reader, I'm really not sure. I do some planning, sure, but in general, I write what feels like it ought to come next. This story is mine, but it's also the whole ocean's, in a way, and if I can't include everything and everyone in all the detail I want to then I'd at least like to try to sketch a few things out. Everything is selective, of course. I'd never deny that. But who can say if Jonah's Respite will exist by the time you're reading this? Cameras only exist in the Museum now. There's no other way to keep a record. I may have destroyed my world, but some day, somewhere, someone else will find this history, and remember.

    We all come from somewhere, dear reader. Tethys did, and it forgot. And I can never let that happen again.




    Well, here we are! My apologies for how ridiculously long it took for me to write this and get it up here. I still have a bunch of stuff slowing my creative output almost to a halt, I'm afraid, and I don't think I'm going to be able to commit to the fortnightly update schedule I wanted to. The aforementioned bunch of stuff is probably also responsible for the dip in quality in this chapter. Not much I can do about that, I'm afraid; my brain is not quite functioning at as high a gear as I'd like these days. Hopefully, things will pick up as I get back into writing this more.

    Anyway: thank you all for your patience and continued support, and I hope to bring you another chapter slightly sooner!
     
  3. Sike Saner

    Sike Saner Peace to the Mountain

    Makes me think of how one of my favorite authors jokingly threw out a title and executive meddling (iirc) made it a reality. Whoopsy doopsy!

    Well that goes directly in the favorite quote pile.

    That's gotta suck. Ghostliness has its perks, but having to just stand and watch when you'd rather act sure as hell isn't one of them.

    I'll bet.

    XD

    Pffff, so cute.

    Yeah, if the thought of being teleported in any sense didn't already put me in nope mode, this'd certainly have done the job. XD;

    Cute!
     
  4. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    'Whoopsy doopsy' is possibly the best variant of 'whoopsy daisy' that exists in this or any other universe. This is a bold claim to make, I know, but something about it just tickles me.

    Always glad to add to the pile!

    Indeed! Next time, however, we'll be revisiting the Museum and seeing the ghosts taking a more active role in things -- and that's coming very soon, too; I've just finished the chapter itself, so I only need to sort out the quotation to go under the heading and make the final edits.

    I think Archie's great, like especially in ORAS, he has a lot of character and spirit, but goddamn does he overreact. You get the feeling that he's the kind of guy for whom the phrase about using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut was made.

    They are cute, aren't they? We haven't seen the last of them, either; there's more Berenice and Lillian back-and-forth coming up. They're quite fun to write, too, since Berenice at least generally armours herself with humour in the same way that Avice uses sarcasm when she's in trouble.

    Yeah, I always thought the warp panels were kind of creepy and inexplicable in the games. Something about the way they spin you around and around before tearing you apart and reforming you elsewhere, I guess? The whole teleport-disorientation thing is my attempt to make the spinning animation, which in-game is of course just a marker to signal to the player that a thing is happening, into something that'd actually fit into a more fleshed-out world.

    Bird friends! Everyone should have bird friends. And there are more of them coming up, as this second arc of the story continues and the new world begins to wake. Avice is gonna see so many birds, I am filled with envy and vicarious delight.

    As ever, thanks for responding, and to you and everyone else for reading! Chapter Seventeen should be up in the next couple of days; until then, I hope you've enjoyed what there is of this story so far, and will continue to do so after future updates!
     
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2016
  5. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    SEVENTEEN: OF GUNSMOKE AND TEETH

    Pirate Code, Article 44: In case of insurgents, the Teeth patrol must be informed at once to initiate lockdown.

    There's change on the wind today. I went out on deck earlier this morning and saw something flying low over the horizon – something that for a while I struggled to focus on, until I realised that instead of being a normal-sized bird flying reasonably far away it was a very large bird flying very far away. I did think about going to get the telescope, but I was afraid that if I left, then when I came back the bird would be gone, and for some reason I couldn't bear that thought.

    For about a minute, the bird simply soared, a reddish silhouette against the morning sun, and then it beat its wings, and even through my sunglasses the light reflecting off its feathers almost blinded me, rainbows flying from them like shards of coloured glass. I had to close my eyes then, and when I opened them again the skies were empty.

    I'm still a bit shaken up, if I'm honest. You know me and my story, dear reader, and you know that I'm not exaggerating when I say I've seen my fair share of incredible things. But this weird, rainbow bird – that's something new. Something not of the ocean, something that doesn't belong in my world. It's a creature for the world that we've been heading towards ever since the Great Sunrise. And that's exciting, yes, but also a little terrifying. We're going somewhere, after so many years of nothingness. But on what strange shores are we going to arrive?

    In any case, dear reader, you're probably getting annoyed. Most likely you were hoping that I'd get to the point a bit quicker today than I did yesterday – maybe just launching straight into my confrontation with the King right away, without all the usual preamble and meditation. And you know, you're right to want that from me. We've been beating around the bush long enough now. It's time to steal a key stone.




    The king of the pirates sat on a steel throne that looked like it had once seen service as an integral part of a ship's engine before retiring to his court. Probably that had some symbolic significance, but I never found out what it was. At any rate, it was big, and loomed up between the arches as we approached, plates and tubes flashing in the light of the braziers. The King himself was almost lost at its base, a dim face hovering in its shadow. If it hadn't been for the crowd of people clamouring for his attention, I might not even have noticed he was there.

    “Hold it,” said someone, and I tore my eyes away from the throne to see that we'd been stopped again – this time by two guards, one on each side of the archway. The sea serpents really must have been old, if they weren't defence enough. “What would― Tooth take it, is that you, Berenice?”

    The speakers were two brawny men in what looked like crawdaunt-plate armour, all spikes and shine and clicking joints. Behind them were a couple of barbaracle, just in case any would-be assassins hadn't got the message that the king was serious about his security.

    “Yep,” she replied, with a brightness that I was certain she didn't actually feel. “I caught a Tethys spy trying to agitate Garrick's boys down at the Three Anchors. I'll give you three guesses what ship she came in on.”

    The two guards looked at each other. Behind them, their pokémon attempted to do the same, only they got slightly confused with the number of faces that they had going on and ended up looking mostly at their hands.

    “Well, well,” said the guard on the left, slipping a finger beneath his helmet to scratch his temple. “First week on the job and you nab a Tethys spy? Jackson should be hiring more criminals.”

    Berenice's smile glittered in a way that made my heart swell.

    “Tell me about it,” she said. “So. You gonna let me take her to the King?”

    “I reckon so,” said the guard on the right. “She ain't armed at all, right?”

    So far I'd been working under the assumption that a real spy in my position would decide they were better off not saying anything, and it seemed to be working out, so instead of making a snide remark about my handcuffs I simply gave him a sour look.

    “I took her guns off her,” said Berenice. “And she's cuffed, and I got Lil ready to strike at the first sign of resistance. Right, Lil?”

    Lillian looked surprised – I don't think she had been expecting to be drawn into this – and hurriedly improvised an evil-sounding babble that made her eyes glow orange again.

    “All right then,” said the guard on the left, apparently satisfied. “On you go. He'll want to see this as soon as, so you get to shove the bloody courtiers out the way.”

    “Neat,” said Berenice, and for a moment I was afraid that they'd hear the relief and wonder in her voice, but of course they didn't know enough to recognise it. “C'mon then, scumbag. Let's bring you to justice.”

    As the guards stepped aside and we pressed on, Zinnia watched with a little frown creasing the skin of her brow.

    “Reminds me of them,” she said to herself, which I've been thinking about ever since, although I've never asked her about it. Not everything in a person's past needs to be known. Just acknowledged. People aren't quite the same as history; history's just an idea, but people deserve more respect, I think.

    On either side, the coils of milotic and gyarados snaked away, silvery and stinking, between the braziers and the arches; before us, Lillian swept ahead, clearing a path through the mass of petitioners surrounding the throne. Berenice had some fun calling imperiously for people to get out of the way, and watching them actually do it – and then, I have to confess, my memory of details like that gets a bit hazy, because we were through the group of courtiers and before the corsair-king of the pirates.

    He was tall, taller than a Tethys citizen by far, and his skin was a worn brown as if he'd spent enough time outside for the elements to get to work on his face. He looked tired, and dangerous, and around his neck hung a solid gold pendant in the shape of an anchor, a bright little stone set into its handle and winking in the uncertain light.

    “You know, I'd actually kinda forgotten how ridiculously big that thing was,” remarked Zinnia. “Archie really doesn't do subtle, does he?”

    I didn't answer. Something seemed to have seized up in my lungs.

    Zinnia glanced at me and smiled reassuringly.

    “C'mon,” she said. “You've robbed Tethys before. You know you can do this, Ava.”

    And maybe it was her presence―

    or maybe it was being called Ava―

    or maybe it was the thought of robberies past―

    or maybe it was Berenice beside me, close and warm and coffee-scented―

    ―but I felt my shoulders untense, and I straightened my back with a slow, deliberate movement.

    You know what to do, I told myself. You have friends, and sarcasm, and Edie, and you're really, really good at running away.

    I looked the King in the eye, and he scowled down at the both of us.

    “Well?” he asked. “Am I gonna get an explanation for this interruption or what?”




    “Hail, lord,” said Berenice, and this time there was definitely a hint of anxiety in her voice. “I'm Constable dol' City's Regret. And this, this is the Tethys spy who came in on that ship.”

    A murmur went through the watching crowd. The King rose a little in his seat.

    “Is she now,” he said, tapping his fingers. “Well, well. You're to be commended, Constable. Those city agents are slippery bastards.”

    “Thanks,” said Berenice. “Um, lord.”

    He nodded distractedly, as if this formality bored him. I guess it probably did. Monarchs must feel a bit isolated, up there on their thrones, separated from everyone else by the height of all that ritual.

    “Yeah, yeah. Bring her up here, would you? I got questions.”

    “Er – my lord,” said a thin man, stepping out of the crowd slightly, “I must warn you that it might not be wise to let her that close―”

    “She's cuffed, isn't she? And unarmed? And guarded?” The King snorted and shook his shaggy head. “'Sides, Richter, if I couldn't handle a kid like this I wouldn't have made it up here in the first place, would I?”

    “Still,” persisted Richter. “It would be a needless risk – Tethysi agents are cunning and dangerous―”

    “Sorry,” muttered Berenice, and dug her fist into my back, hard; I stumbled and fell, just about managing to avoid landing on my face, and while I was struggling to get back up she shrugged and turned to the King. “So yeah,” she said. “She's pretty harmless. En't gonna do much now I've got her guns off her – and anyway, I got my partner here.”

    Right on cue, Lillian gave out a warbling hoot. Little curls of blue-purple smoke shivered off her surface.

    “You see?” said the King, watching me climb stiffly to my feet. “Harmless, Richter. And if she ain't, well, there's at least twelve people here with weapons and pokémon and the know-how to use 'em.” He beckoned. “Come here, kid. I want to get a better look at you, and the light is crap in here.”

    “It's designed to be atmospheric,” said Richter nervously. Whatever the talents were that had allowed him to rise to this high position in the court of the pirate king, they apparently did not include knowing when to stop.

    “Oh, right,” sighed the King. “It's too atmospheric to see you by, whatever. Just get over here.”

    I glanced at Berenice, trying to communicate that I forgave her for pushing me over, and that things were about to get dangerous, and that I was very grateful and that she shouldn't worry; she in her turn looked back, and her eyes said thanks, and I know, and no problem, and something else that might or might not have been her worrying anyway.

    And then the half-second of eye contact was over, and I walked up the steps to the engine-cowled throne of the King.

    “There we go,” he said, leaning forwards. He must have been confident in his power; I know I find it uncomfortable when people stand over me when I'm sitting, and I don't think that's uncommon, but the King didn't seem to care. This close, I could see why. When standing, he must have been well over six feet tall, taller even than Maxie, and unlike Maxie he seemed to have the musculature to match. I suddenly had the unpleasant thought that even if I had been a trained CCC agent, he probably could have drop-kicked me right the way across the room and into the water without much difficulty. “Huh,” he said, taking hold of my jaw and turning my face this way and that. “You really are just a kid. Why in all blood …?”

    Zinnia's mouth compressed to a tight, thin line.

    “Creep,” she said shortly, which wasn't a usage of the word I knew at the time but which didn't take too much effort to understand. No one likes to be manhandled, but it's worse for me. I am always on display anyway, only allowed to exist by the grace of those who see me and decide to accept my performance. And while I'm always aware of it, I can half forget, sometimes, when surrounded by people I trust – by Zinnias and Edies, Archies and Maxies. When you look at me intently, when you scrutinise me, especially when you are someone as powerful as the King, you remind me, and you hurt me.

    I don't know if Zinnia understood that. I like to think that she did. At any rate, she said the right thing, I think, and anyway I knew that right behind me Berenice would understand too, and that was just about enough to stop me tearing my head out of his hand.

    (And further behind me, past the courtiers and guards who were all watching this little pantomime, spellbound, air hissed and steel slid noiselessly on oiled hinges, and a brown and green head poked out of the Museum's aft hatch …)

    “Guess they thought you could blend in,” he said. “You ain't their normal type.” He let go and put his hands on the armrests, levering himself back in his seat. “Now, what I want to know is―”

    Snap!

    Because of course this was all I'd wanted: what I needed was for the King's head to be close and his hands to be far enough away that he couldn't grab me before―

    ―before I raised my hands, the snapped link flying through the air between us, and yanked the chain up and over his head.

    “I'm just going to borrow this a sec,” I said, because I had read too many stories and was filled with adrenaline and all this was making me cocky, and before the surprise on the King's face could even fully melt into anger I was sprinting down the steps and away.

    “What in all―?” roared the King, and the rest of his words were drowned out in the crack of gunfire; the guards were after me, as I knew they would be, but I wasn't alone and Lillian's gurgling voice shrilled a few wild notes that sent the bullets awry, purple lights flickering outwards over my head. (Confuse ray, I learned later: ostensibly aimed at me, but secretly always intended to hit my pursuers.)

    “Stop firing! Grab her!”

    It might have been the King, it might have been Richter, it might even have been Berenice who said it; whoever it was, people listened, and now they were stumbling through the clouds of gunsmoke after me, ducking under pulses of black light from Lillian that all just missed me and fizzled on the floor. A scaly tail swept across my field of view and with reflexes I thought I'd left behind in Tethys I jumped over it; it kept swinging and from behind me I heard a thump followed by shouts and yowls. It sounded like the milotic had hit a delcatty and its master.

    All at once, there was a sound like ripping leather and the smoke cleared in one great rush of air; I heard Zinnia gasp and mutter an old world curse, and then her voice in my ear:

    “Ava! Don't look behind you, just – go faster!”

    When Zinnia tells you to go faster, you go faster. I was dimly aware of wingbeats behind me, and Berenice swearing gently, and then guards stepping out of the spaces between arches on either side as I ran, their barbaracle spreading their head-fingers menacingly and raising their arm-binacle, cutting off my escape route―

    Something burst violently at the far end of the hall, lightning sparking over the concrete in a tidal wave of crackling heat. Heads turned, the barbaracle squeezed their weak eyes shut, the ancient gyarados bellowed in distress – and Edie sped down the court in a blur of brown and green, wings back and polygon count reduced to battle levels.

    On either side of her, the sea serpents writhed: the milotic hissed and shrugged its coils, squirming backwards away from the light, its rear half spilling out into the passage beneath the arches and swatting an energetic sharpedo out of its jet-assisted leap; opposite, its counterpart was doing its best to prove that age hadn't robbed it of the famous gyarados fury, and was currently snapping blindly at anything that came near its head. It wasn't actually hitting anything – I actually think it might have had cataracts – but you couldn't fault it for effort.

    And through it all, past whipping coils and bounding pokémon and guards with swords outstretched, came Edie. I was ready to catch her when we met halfway down the corridor of arches, but she leaped straight over my head, playing her menacing music, and ploughed into Lillian, floating along in mock-pursuit. I didn't see it – I believed Zinnia when she said not to look back; I could feel hot breath and giant wingbeats following me – but I heard Lillian hiss and gabble in surprise, and I yelled at Edie not her. I think she got the message, because after that there was an electrical crackle and a hiss that could only have come from something enormous, and Edie hurriedly reappeared at my side, smoking slightly from the discharge.

    “That did slow it down for a sec,” screamed Zinnia, voice battling the cacophony of shouting guards and thumping boots, “but you also kind of ticked it off a bit.”

    I had no breath to answer with – it had been all I could do to shout at Edie – but I nodded and kept running, leaping over the milotic's midriff where it snaked over the floor, dodging the guard who tried to tackle me and received a blow from Edie's sharpened wing for his pains, ducking under the mantine that fell out of the air mid-swoop, its wing-fins clipped by an expert shot of Edie's lightning―

    And now we were out from under the arches, into the open space between arcade and Museum, where the pirates were at least as concerned with avoiding the thrashing head of the gyarados as they were with catching me. I thought that would work to our advantage, and it did – but only for a second, before the enormous something behind me snapped its jaws with a sound like a whip cracking and the gyarados moaned and sank.

    Now the pirates turned their full attention on me – and now we were out in a space wide enough for pistols to be fired without blinding everyone with the smoke; I heard shots and smelled cordite through the fish-stink, felt the rush of things passing at deadly speed around me, sensed the presence of the giant something breathing down my neck―

    And then someone shot me.

    It's less dramatic than it sounds. In the moment, all I knew was that something had punched into my left arm, hard – hard enough that I stumbled and tripped. It didn't even hurt, not right then, and when Zinnia cried out and Berenice swore I felt vaguely confused. All that had happened was that I'd fallen over, I thought, and I could just get back up again, although only one of my arms seemed to be doing the job properly.

    Something passed by overhead with a rush of air and a screech like the cry of a wounded devil. As I got up, I saw the giant something for the first time, all stony hide and purple membranes, its head like a split canoe full of teeth. Whoever had shot me had actually done me a favour; it must have been about half a second from catching me before I fell out from under its claws. But it was turning, I saw, soaring up above the Museum and coming in for a second pass, faster than seemed possible for a creature of its size―

    A carvanha leaped towards me and was met by a lance of multicoloured light, sending it spinning back to the concrete, flapping its fins in a daze; Edie popped up at my side and suddenly my brain reconnected with the world around me, with Zinnia yelling at me to move, with the gunshots and the pokémon moves slicing the air between them, and just as someone's hand brushed my shoulder I ran.

    We were nearly there: the Museum was only a few metres away, the ladder up to the deck already lowered by Edie – but the flying monster was diving now, the awful light of some powerful attack spilling from between its teeth. The gunfire stopped and the pokémon retreated, so as not to hit the monster or be hit by it, and in the sudden calm, with the beast falling towards me, its breath heating my scalp, and the Museum so close now, close enough that I could almost count the bolts on the ladder, could smell the salt and the rust – with all this, I held my breath and took the chance and through this sudden half-second of calm I jumped.

    Time caught up with me in an instant. I fell from the edge of the dock and hit the water with a splash that nearly drowned out the roar of the monster unleashing its attack. When I surfaced, the concrete was black and smoking, and the thing was climbing again, turning for a third attack.

    I fumbled for the ladder and pulled myself up, but something was wrong; my left arm didn't seem able to take my weight. In fact, I realised, it hurt, a lot, and this was probably due to the fact that the thing that had hit me earlier had been a bullet.

    That was alarming, but I had no time to think about it: I had to reach the deck, had to get to cover; out here on the ladder, crawling along at a snail's pace with my one working hand, I was an easy target for any pirates or pokémon that chose to shoot at me. And they were choosing to, now; with the flying monster up in the air again, there was nothing between me and them, and as I climbed I was waiting all along for a blow in the back that would knock me down from the ladder―

    “Hold your fire!” yelled someone. “Hold your drowned fire, I've got her!”

    A hand grabbed my ankle and I kicked, broke free, dimly realised that this was Berenice, and it was staged – that she was climbing after me now, preventing the pirates and the pokémon from attacking.

    “Hurry it up,” she hissed. “They don't like me enough to stop shooting forever.”

    I got the message, and tried again with my left hand. If I was determined enough, maybe I could make it work.

    As it turns out, I could. It did hurt, of course, and I could feel the spreading blood soaking my sleeve as well, hot against the chill of the water. I don't think that forcing it did me any favours; my arm still hurts sometimes, when I move it just so. But I did reach the deck, and I did manage to get up, and I did manage to turn and fake-fight with Berenice for a second while Lillian made spooky and entirely harmless lights fly towards me, and when we were done with our pantomime I did somehow manage to drag myself through the hatch and collapse in a puddle on the floor of the aft corridor.

    And then I did manage to climb back onto my feet and take a breath.

    “I'm OK!” I gasped, leaning against the wall. “I'm fine, OK, no questions just yet. Leave it a minute,” I added, as Maxie and Archie appeared from around the corner, looking alarmed.

    “Avice! What the hell―?”

    “Later, Archie,” I snapped. “Edie! We need lights and sounds, like we're having a pokémon battle in here. OK?”

    :) she said, playing a jaunty little tune, and started flickering brightly just inside the hatch, sending coloured beams and electric crackles out over the deck.

    “Lil? You too,” said Berenice, and Lillian began to chant. It was very loud and impressive, and it seemed to echo unnaturally; I had no doubt that it was spilling out of the Museum and rolling around the court like a trapped thunderclap. It also did absolutely nothing, so for extra verisimilitude she sent a few weak shadow balls out of the hatch, as if they had been deflected by some powerful attack.

    Outside, the sounds of tramping boots faltered slightly. The only entrance to the Museum was clearly too dangerous to be attempted.

    “Here, your guns. Now, that en't gonna hold 'em long,” said Berenice urgently. “Not when you've robbed the King. The aerodactyl can't get in here, but he'll definitely scream at the guards until they do.”

    “An aerodactyl?” asked Maxie. “Did I hear that correctly? An―?”

    “I know, I know,” said Zinnia. “I thought all that Devon tech was gone too, and it's very interesting to think that maybe it isn't, but right now – how do we get the key stone out of the pendant?”

    “Ah,” coughed Archie, who had been watching in a kind of trance and now jerked into motion. “You can pry it out, I think. Might scratch the anchor up a bit, but―”

    “Let's worry about marking the tasteless giant gold anchor later,” said Zinnia acidly. “Tools? Where are they?”

    “I need something to pry the stone out with,” I told Berenice, looking around and wishing that the hold wasn't so far away. Then you can get back out.”

    Outside, the flying monster – the aerodactyl, I guessed – screeched again, and the porthole lit up with blue-purple flames. A few people shouted, some gunshots pinged uselessly off the hull, and then I heard the pirates start to run.

    “Looks like they're out of alternatives,” said Archie grimly. “We're gonnae have to start submerging. I'll head to the bridge; I know how to get to the side entrance.”

    “Try not to break it, if you can,” said Berenice, flicking a knife out from some concealed sheath up her sleeve. “Like if there's no alternative, but me and this knife, we've kind of been through a lot together.”

    I nodded, moving to take it from her, but then realised that at the moment I only had one hand and it was holding the pendant.

    “Uh. Um, Berenice, do you think you could …?”

    I indicated my left arm, hanging loosely at my side, and she winced.

    “Oh. Right. Sorry. Give it here?”

    She took the pendant off me and dug the tip of the blade into the socket, wiggling it back and forth. Meanwhile, I could hear someone on the ladder, and Edie was growing more transparent with every burst of light she emitted.

    “'Sflukes,” I muttered. “Hurry up, Archie.”

    As if on cue, the floor beneath us lurched, almost knocking the pendant from Berenice's hands, and the Museum began to sink. Outside, a pirate yelled and the ladder noises gave way to splashes.

    “All right, we're almost out of time,” I said urgently. “Berenice?”

    “I'm working on it! It's bloody stiff!”

    “OK, OK, I'm just saying―”

    “I know you're just saying! Nearly – oh, Tooth take it – nearly – yeah!

    The stone popped free and rolled away down the corridor. I did try to catch it, but I'm left-handed, and as I only had my right hand available I missed by a long drowned way. It didn't matter: as long as it was aboard, it was fine.

    “All right,” said Berenice. “Uh, one more thing, I think. Hold this.” She thrust the pendant at me and adjusted her grip on the knife.

    “Wait, what in all blood― oh, 'sflukes!

    “They're not idiots,” she said, smearing the blood from the cut she'd made across her forehead. “If I come out of here without a scratch when we were supposedly fighting to the death, they'll figure out something's wrong pretty quick. This en't my first con, Avice.” She grinned, and in Edie's fading light I saw for the first time the other scars, shining palely in strategic locations on her face and hands. “Looks worse than it is, trust me. Now, some dirt – and there.”

    She transferred a handful of oily dust from the sole of her boot to her face and rubbed the remainder across her jacket.

    “Are you going to be all right?” I asked her, handing over the pendant.

    “Sure,” she said, twirling it around her fingers. “I got this back, didn't I?”

    “Speaking of which,” said Zinnia, “she should go, Avice. We're getting kind of low in the water.”

    I sighed.

    “OK,” I said. “I guess it's time.”

    “I guess so,” said Berenice. “Feels like it was longer than an afternoon, huh?”

    “Much longer,” I agreed. “Thank you. For everything.”

    “Nah, thank you for getting me the promotion they're about to give me.” She half turned, signalled to Lillian to stop the chanting, and hesitated. “So. See you in the new world, then?”

    “Definitely,” I replied. “Let's get coffee.”

    She grinned again and was probably about to deliver a snappy parting line – but just then the sound of someone jumping down onto the submerging Museum came to our ears, and we agreed without words that it was time she left. Berenice staggered out, Lillian doing a kind of airborne limp behind her, and Edie shut the hatch behind them.

    I remember that moment so clearly. Her footsteps sloshing across the flooded deck. Triumphant shouts, panicked cries. Everything coming down on me again, the exhaustion and the pain and the infatuation. All the noises seemed so distant, and for the long moment while we submerged I felt like the loneliest person in the world.




    I'm told the bird has a name. The one I saw this morning, I mean. It was Tempest's counterpart, back in the days when sea and sky were in balance. No one's seen it since the making over – and even back then, it didn't appear very often. Some disagreement between it and humankind, it seems. In a far-off land, Maxie says, there's a sacred tower plated with tin raised in its honour, where it made its nest; I think that maybe the top of that tower has now reappeared above the water, and that the bird is coming home to roost.

    If I had to name it, I would call it Sun, a harbinger of light and heat, clear skies and summer evenings, but that's the naming convention of my world, I know, and in this case I think it's probably best to default back to the old world names. The bird is called Ho-oh, the sacred phoenix, and its counterpart Tempest is once again Lugia, the bringer of storms.

    Here's my question. Did Ho-oh roam the skies for five hundred years, its burning feathers hidden above the clouds? Or did it, like so many other pokémon, die and now return? It's not impossible – the proof is right here in this room, cracking peanuts messily over my bed.

    Actually, hang on a moment, I need to get Mackenzie to stop that.

    Right. As I was saying― oh, drown it, Mackenzie. As soon as I sat down, she pulled the peanuts off the table back onto the bed and just started again. OK. This time, drastic intervention is required.

    And done. There: I called Edie in here and suggested she play with Mackenzie. Now the two of them have gone and left me in peace. Also in a room liberally scattered with bits of peanut shell, but I guess you can't have everything.

    Right. As I was saying, the idea of its return isn't impossible. Pokémon are returning, certainly – and how much easier must that be for a phoenix, an animal that can never truly die in the first place? Maybe Ho-oh immolated itself on some lonely peak, burnt away its flesh and bone to leave hot ash and a warm egg, waiting patiently as the waves rose for the time when they would withdraw and it could once again hatch and spread its rainbow wings.

    Or maybe it's Ho-oh that's regenerating the old world. I did some research with the pokédex and some history books, and it looks like it can resurrect the dead. The book only says that it can undo death by fire – apparently some other sacred tower burned down once, and it brought three pokémon that perished in the ruins back to life – but there's something in the symbolism of it all that makes me think it's capable of more. Heat and light has returned to a drowned world at last, Ho-oh travels the skies again, extinct pokémon return. There's something in that conjunction, dear reader. Don't you think?

    OK, OK. This is patterns again, I know that. Avice, you're probably saying, this is all very nice, but you don't really know that for sure, and anyway the world doesn't run on the same logic as myths. And you're right, maybe, but not so very right as you think. After all, how else do you explain those visits by the birds?

    Of course, it's all speculation. (And you roll your eyes, sighing, because you think I'm going to give you the spiel about speculation again, and let's face it, you're probably right.) But like I said the other day, it's time to relax the rules about speculation a bit. My history is speculation, after all, one long effort to make the past fit into a narrative, and I have to fight against the Tethysi instinct which insists that that kind of imaginative effort is to be avoided at all costs.

    But you want dramatic escapes, not pretentious thoughts, so! Let's forget about suns, symbols and sacred birds, and get back to where we left my younger self. I can't deny, things don't look good for her: she's retrieved Archie's key stone and got to the Museum, but she still has to escape the pursuing pirates and get out of Jonah's Respite, and there's a bullet lodged painfully against her left humerus – and she's left-handed. It's definitely not what you'd call an ideal situation.

    “Avice, your arm,” said Zinnia, snapping me out of my trance. “Is it―?”

    “We can deal with it when we're out of here,” I interrupted, my brain suddenly lurching back into action. “Where'd the key stone go?”

    Maxie blinked.

    “Over there, I think, but―”

    “So grab it and let's get to the bridge.”

    “Ava, there's a bullet in your arm,” cried Zinnia. “That's really not something we should be ignoring!”

    “It's OK for the moment,” I said, although it really, really wasn't. It was pretty drowned painful, and between that and the blood loss I was getting a bit light-headed.

    “Avice,” began Maxie, exasperated and worried, but I didn't listen and just started walking to where I thought the key stone was; two steps in, a lance of pain shot through my arm and I felt the kind of dizziness that almost seems to darken your vision at the edges. Zinnia caught me before I fell, and when my sight cleared I saw her raised eyebrows and sighed.

    “OK,” I said. “I guess you have a point.”

    Like I said before: Zinnia's always right. Sometimes – most of the time – it's very cool. But sometimes, it's just annoying.




    Here we leave my younger self for a bit. She actually passed out and slept for a while not long after that; I'm not sure what kind of painkiller Edie cooked up with her synthesis machine, but it was pretty potent stuff. I barely even remember having the bits of bullet pulled out of my arm, and that's something that you'd think would stick in my head.

    Fortunately I didn't have to pull off the escape single-handedly. Archie was at the helm, and Maxie joined him soon after.

    “How are we doing?” he asked.

    “Not so bad,” replied Archie, eyes fixed on the controls with such intensity that it wouldn't have been surprising if they'd caught fire. “But give 'em a few minutes to mobilise some ships and then we might be in trouble.”

    Maxie looked out through the window. The Museum was sinking fast, moving into the flooded tunnels by which the pirate court was accessed, and bubbles and disturbed weed spiralled up and around its wake towards the light above.

    “I'll, er, man the radar,” he said. “Let you concentrate on the steering.”

    Archie grunted, and Maxie took a seat at the radar controls. (Dear reader, here I have to make a correction. In an earlier chapter, I called the radar system sonar, which apparently isn't the same thing and which really irritated Maxie. Please accept my humble apologies for misnaming this ancient and mostly unknown piece of old world technology.)

    For a few long minutes, the Museum sank in silence. It was all wrong for a chase; there should have been noise, pursuing pokémon snarling, torpedoes hissing and exploding. But in this little corridor, far from the nearest guard vessels and with all the pirates above stuck in the court, there was nothing, and it was deeply unsettling. The deck vibrated with the force of the engines. A console beeped. Machinery creaked. In these slight noises was a power that made the silence yet more silent.

    And then Maxie started and the tension broke.

    “They're here,” he said, studying his screen. “Two smallish signatures above us, descending at high speed. I believe they must be about six feet long.”

    “Aw, hell,” muttered Archie. “Sharpedo. Not sure we can outrun those.”

    “We won't have to.” Maxie swivelled in his chair and hit a different bank of controls. “Even sharpedo would struggle with this ship's hull. Don't you remember why you stole it? It's designed to withstand extremes of pressure.”

    “It's been a while, Maxie, the hull ain't what it used to be―”

    “But they want this ship intact. They have no interest in scuppering it – after all it belonged to their glorious Prophet, and presumably it has all his treasure in it.”

    That was enough to make Archie look up and see the ironic eyebrow being raised at him.

    “Bastard,” he said. “Like there's no blood on your hands.”

    “I am merely stating a truth.” Its work done, Maxie's eyebrow lowered itself sedately back into position. “The point is, I expect the sharpedo are either a bluff, or they're using dive to carry a boarding party. If they do try and force the airlocks, we can override them from here.”

    Archie sighed, although it came out a bit more like a growl than sighs usually do.

    “Why d'you always have to be so bloody smart?” he asked. “Honestly, Maxie, every time I―”

    “Hey, uh, not to interrupt or anything, but there's something banging on the roof and I'm worried that we don't seem to be responding,” said Zinnia, bursting in. “Is – oh, jeez, are you two fighting again?”

    “Absolutely not,” said Maxie. “We are having a civilised discussion―”

    “―which is taking place at exactly the wrong time,” she told him. “Can we dive any faster? It can't be much further to the escape tunnel or whatever.”

    “Nearly there,” replied Archie. “Should be coming into view right about …”

    The Museum sank a little further, and through the window the three of them saw a pair of huge steel doors slowly sliding shut.

    “Well, that didn't used to be there,” said Archie, after a moment's reflection. “Bollocks.”

    The doors collided with a gentle thunk. They didn't look like they were going to open again.

    “I cannot believe you'd forget your own emergency blast doors!” snapped Maxie. “It's been a while, Archie, but honestly―”

    “What did I just say?” he retorted. “They're not mine, these are new―”

    “Whoa, whoa, whoa, not right now, boys.” Zinnia raised her hands and positioned herself between them. “In case you'd forgotten, we're kind of being pursued. So. Archie. Other exits?”

    He didn't meet her eye. Maybe it was shame; he and Maxie weren't usually so public with their sniping. It was probably the stress of the situation that did it – put either of those two under pressure, and I suppose they automatically release the tension at the other.

    “They might have another back exit, but if they do I don't know about it,” he said quietly. “We're gonnae have to run through the Teeth.”

    Was there a moment of hesitation before Zinnia spoke, one tiny second of indecision where she considered giving in? There might have been. If I'd been there, I like to think I would have spotted it: an uncertain glint deep in the pit of her eyes, the only outward sign of her fear. It was not for herself, of course. She wasn't that kind of person – and not many people are after they're dead, frankly. No, if Zinnia was afraid (and I know now that sometimes she was), it was for a different reason. For her, there was one issue even more important than the summoning of Rayquaza, and that was: this time, could she keep the child under her protection safe?

    But I wasn't there, and I didn't see it, and to be honest, maybe I wouldn't have seen it anyway, not back then. It takes time to learn to read someone as guarded as Zinnia. And so the moment, if it existed, passed, and Zinnia said:

    “Well then, guess that's what we're doing.”

    For a moment, no one moved. It was not the kind of action you take lightly.

    “The sharpedo are on the move,” said Maxie suddenly, and Archie came to life.

    “Where to?” he asked, punching buttons.

    “Aft airlock. I've taken precautions; they're not getting in unless they ram it, and if they do that they'll flood us.”

    “Which they don't want, right.” Archie flipped a switch and cleared his throat. “Might want to hold onto something. Gonnae enable some emergency systems.”

    The Museum started to swing its broken-nosed bow around, the deck tilting wildly with the force; Maxie, as ever, somehow contrived to keep his dignity and remain sitting upright, but Archie swayed and Zinnia had to grab the doorway for support.

    “What the hell? How is this even possible?”

    “You ain't gonnae like the answer,” said Archie grimly. The passage walls spun past, the jagged shapes of sharpedo just visible for a second, and the deck began to tilt the other way, bringing the Museum back into alignment with the tunnel up ahead.

    “And why's that?” asked Zinnia.

    “You might remember there was some unpleasantness about a delivery from Devon to the shipyards, back in the day,” said Maxie. “A delivery containing parts to upgrade this submarine with certain features.”

    There was a loud thump from just outside; in the course of its turn, the Museum had hit one of the sharpedo. Ahead, the tunnel receded in bands of steel and stone, and in the very far distance, if you looked closely, you might have seen the lights of ships approaching to cut us off.

    “Oh no,” breathed Zinnia. “Tell me this thing doesn't run on that.”

    “Yeah,” said Archie, with something that was not quite regret and not quite pride. “Infinity Energy.”

    He hit another button, and with a sound like a muffled explosion, the Museum leaped forwards down the tunnel.
     
  6. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Tide made the world over in its own image to purify it, they say. The old world bred corruption and hubris, and the only way to purge it was to drown the sinful. You and I, dear reader, know things are never quite as simple as the old stories have it, but if there's anything for which the old world deserved to be punished, it's the harnessing of Infinity Energy.

    As far as I understand it, which isn't far at all, it's basically life – life itself spun into fuel by some sorcerous mechanical weaver. The energy is present in all living things, but it's the powerful things that make the most efficient sources. And as far as powerful creatures go, the monsters that can breathe fire and bend thunderstorms to their will are understandably quite high up there.

    An unimaginably long time ago, in a world even before the old world truly began, control of these forces was the sole province of two pokémon: Xerneas, the horned god, and Yveltal, the carrion bird. Things should probably have stayed that way – pokémon usually make better gods than people, even if sometimes they go a bit over the top like Kyogre – but they didn't. As always seems to happen in these stories, someone stole the power: in a war-torn nation on the other side of the world, a king desperate for peace built an engine that he thought would grant him the power to bring it. He trapped Yveltal in its core, ripped the strength from its breast, and so tore life from the living to weaponise it against his foes. Which ended the war, naturally enough – what could withstand that? – but his sins did not go unpunished. It might be that the discharge from the life engine flooded him with too much life, or that Xerneas cursed him for his crimes, or even that Yveltal, maintaining some consciousness in its prison, chose never to come calling for his soul – but whatever the reason, the king found himself immortal and ever-growing, condemned to wander the earth forever as a lonely giant. His machine became buried and forgotten for three thousand years, until a man named Lysandre tried to use it once again.

    It's a good legend, right? It has everything – a desperate protagonist, an awful overreaching, a terrible crime and an interesting punishment. Maybe it isn't exactly true, but parts of it must be, because it's from this story that the scientists of the old world got the idea to replicate the king's machine. Not to kill people, they said, but to help them. Free, clean energy that would last forever, without the environmental hazards of mining or drilling. What could be finer?

    So they built the infinity engine. That's what Maxie told me – do you remember, back in the ziz-marches, he mentioned that he'd tell me about it later? Well, he did – and what I've got from a few of our books here. The company that built the engine designed it to operate on vegetation initially, drawing life from tough plants like trees and cacti, but demand increased and they had to scale up their operations to match. Infinity engines were built and equipped to draw life from purpose-bred rats, and then, when demand increased still more, from rattata, and so little by little the company sank deeper and deeper into inhumanity.

    I don't believe that anyone ever sets out to destroy everything. No one ever has that as their first goal. They begin with something noble, or something that they believe is noble, and little by little they fall, like the desperate king, like Lysandre, like Tethys, into something much, much worse. They approach their destination by inches, and by the time they're there they have done so much that to return would be more effort than to continue. If they even think to return, of course. By then, they have probably convinced themselves that it isn't even an option.

    Perhaps you don't believe me. Sometimes I'm not sure I do, either: there certainly are a lot of bad people in the world. But I want to believe that people are born with good hearts – I have to believe that, or else why bother? I destroyed my world to save them. It has to have been for the best. Doesn't it?

    Sorry about the shift in tone here! I just took a bit of a break and had a heart-to-heart with the ghosts, which made everyone involved feel much better. The point I was trying to get to before I got sidetracked by my own insecurities (again) was that in the last days of the old world, the company behind the infinity engine delivered parts to the shipyard where the Museum was under construction, where they were incorporated into the design. Which means that my vessel – our vessel; it's an ambassador for two past worlds now – is powered by the murdered dead.

    One day, I expect, I too will have to pay for this – like the king, and like his descendant Lysandre. That's fair; I can come to terms with that. I just hope no harm comes to Edie, is all. She was only doing what she was programmed to do when she took charge of this place. It's not fair to blame her.

    So. An infinity battery lasts for a long, long time – which is just as well, because there's no infinity engine to refuel the Museum now. (As if I ever would refuel this ship, after what I've learned about its motors.) It's true that we use a lot of power moving and keeping all the machines working, but we're moving through Tide's ocean, where the water itself is saturated with energy – not much, but enough to slow the rate at which the battery drains. Of course, with the skies clear and the water falling, that's no longer the case, and if we do make it back to Tethys, it'll be the Museum's last voyage, unless Tide decides to donate some of its supernatural life to us again.

    But more on that later. What I'm really trying to get to is that we can, if we need to, increase the flow of power from battery to systems. It puts an unhealthy amount of strain on the Museum's innards, and causes Edie an awful lot of trouble in repairs, but it can be done, and the Museum's speed dramatically increased.

    This is what Archie did then, when we were cornered without any other recourse. This is why Zinnia was horrified, and why Maxie had left it so long to tell me about Infinity Energy.

    It's not like any of us had much choice about it.




    The Museum rocketed forth like a flechette from a gun, leaving the sharpedo spiralling wildly in its wake. Down in its hold, artefacts skittered across shelves and collapsed out of heaps; white light exploded in flickering bursts through the vents in the engines. The whole vessel kept shivering and leaping erratically from side to side, sides and hull and tower all scraping along the tunnel walls, crushing light fixtures and denting steel.

    In my cabin, Edie devoted herself to stopping me falling out of bed.

    In the bridge, the ghosts clung tight to the controls and tried to keep us vaguely horizontal.

    In the depths of the tunnels ahead, sharply-pointed pirate vessels cut through the water in pursuit.

    We reached a corner and swung around by crashing the drill into the far wall and letting the rest of the Museum pivot around it; the aft end collided side-on with the first of the little pirate ships to reach the intersection and stopped it dead in its tracks with a dull boom like a distant weezing exploding.

    “Could you maybe drive slightly more carefully?” yelled Zinnia over the roar of machinery, climbing back to her feet and rubbing her head. “No good escaping if you kill Avice doing it!”

    “Do you want to take the helm?” Archie retorted, pitching the bow down and narrowly avoiding slicing off our conning tower on an overhead pipe. “Didn't think so. Let me do my damn job, lass!”

    “They're gaining on us,” warned Maxie. “Six coming down the tunnel behind us and several approaching from side passages―”

    “What d'you expect? This is a bloody research submarine, not a speedboat!”

    “Can we increase the flow of power at all?”

    Archie let out a short, sharp bark of a laugh. Something dinged noisily off the window and spun away through the churning water.

    “Depends if you want the engines to explode or not,” he said. “We're already at capacity, it's just that we're big and slow―”

    A much bigger something crunched into the hull, and he and Zinnia found themselves on the floor again.

    “They're trying to get under us,” called Maxie, secure in his chair.

    “What tipped you off?” roared Archie, surging upright again and glowing a deep blue with the effort. “Was it maybe when one of 'em rammed us?”

    Zinnia made a strangled noise of frustration.

    “I gotta go see if Ava's all right,” she said. “You two just quit arguing and get us out of here, OK?”

    “Oh, am I meant to be getting us out of here? I didn't realise,” said Archie, casting a thunderbolt glare over his shoulder as she exited. “Honestl―”

    “Boarders!” Maxie hunched over his screen, scowling ferociously. “Two or three, climbing up from where that ship hit us.”

    “Pokémon, d'you think?”

    “Clinging onto the hull of a moving submarine at the bottom of the sea? They're hardly going to be human, unless you made any more Aqua Suits.”

    Archie looked like he was about to spit out another retort, but a thought distracted him before it left his mouth.

    “The Aqua Suit,” he muttered. “Actually, Maxie, d'you think Edie―”

    “Not unless Avice tells her,” said Maxie. “You know she doesn't listen to us.”

    “But if she hacked it, she could get out there and―”

    A loud hammering echoed through the corridors, and both of them looked up sharply.

    “Radar shows they're on the cowling over the propellers,” said Maxie. “They want to stop us.”

    Archie thumped the console.

    “Damn it! If Edie would just get out there―”

    “Even if she would, and even in the Suit, I doubt she could hold her own against three war-trained opponents― keep your eyes on the tunnel! Corner! Corner, I said!”

    We were running out of tunnel: just ahead, it bent at right angles to slope up towards the mouth of the Respite, and this time there was no conveniently placed fulcrum. Bellowing oaths that had last been spoken centuries ago, Archie cut the engines and hauled desperately on the wheel―

    Well, you can probably guess what happened. That corner? At that speed?

    Maxie says that time seemed to slow down, although Archie claims that everything was one quick blur. From Maxie's point of view, he had ample time to watch the walls spin sickeningly past the window, to sway with the Museum as it rolled out of control, to be thrown from his seat when the port side of the bow collided with the wall and thrown back the other way as the lead pursuer rammed the hull and slammed the stern against the wall as well – but Archie was simply there and not there, one moment at the wheel and the next staring at the ceiling with a ringing in his ears―

    (in my cabin, Zinnia and Edie found themselves on the wall and then back on the floor, while I slithered out of my bed and rolled underneath it; down in the hold, books cascaded from the shelves of the library and racks of clothing wheeled themselves drunkenly across the floor; up in the conning tower, Zinnia's laptop slid off the table and thumped roughly into a corner)

    ―and then the engine room flashed with sparks of white light and the Museum, suddenly, impossibly, started moving again.

    “What the hell,” breathed Archie, climbing up the slope of the floor and dragging himself up by the edge of a desk. “You really are a tough old bird, aren't you?”

    The bow, fortunately, was pointed roughly in the direction of the corner, and though the controls seemed to be rather sluggish, Archie managed to pitch it up just enough to avoid crashing into the floor.

    “We're back in action!” he yelled. “Maxie! We've only gone and bloody done it!

    “Yes, yes,” murmured Maxie, clambering stiffly to his feet and trying to get his glasses back on. “Now we just have to actually escape this damned city.”

    The smile faded from Archie's face.

    “Aye,” he said. “There is that, yeah.”

    The Museum's hull scraped along the bottom of the tunnel with a screech; Archie swore and dragged it back up again, but it dipped as soon as he let go.

    “Trim system's damaged,” he said grimly. “Payback for what we did to those corvettes, I guess.” Lights flashed warnings at him, and he spared them a glance before returning his attention to the passage ahead. “Looks like we might've lost a few propellers, too. We keep drifting to – the – left!

    He punctuated the last part of his sentence with a series of assaults on the wheel; on 'left', he threw himself bodily at it and just about stopped the Museum crashing again.

    “On the positive side,” noted Maxie, “the pokémon attacking the cowling seem to have been dislodged. Or the radar has been damaged, I suppose. I'm not picking up anything.”

    Archie gave him a look.

    “You, looking on the positive side? Never thought I'd see the day.”

    Maxie was not listening.

    “Actually,” he said, curling and uncurling his hands in that way that he does when he's suppressing something, “I'm not picking up anyone chasing us, either.”

    “Radar's dead, then,” grunted Archie.

    “No, I can still see the ships onscreen. It's simply that they're not moving.” Maxie looked up at him, frowning. “Archie, they've stopped chasing us.”

    “What? Why would they do that?”

    But at that moment he realised – of course he did, he was from the age of audiovisual recordings and knew the old devices and tropes. He what it meant when halfway through a chase the pursuers suddenly give up and let the fugitives escape.

    “There's something else, ain't there?” he asked.

    “It certainly looks that way.”

    There was a long, horrible moment of silence. No thundering engines, no ramming. Just the steady chug of damaged machinery.

    It was much worse than the noise.

    “Playing for time,” Archie said at last. “That's what they were doing, ain't it? Just enough time to get the Teeth prepared and weaken us before we got to 'em.”

    “Perhaps we could still make it past if you increased the power again,” said Maxie, but he didn't sound like he believed it.

    “Nah.” Archie shook his head. “If I do that, something's definitely gonnae blow, after the beating we just took.” He sighed and turned the wheel against the Museum's leftward drift. “Doesn't matter now. Octillery are good shots. With all the engines intact, maybe we could do it, but now? Second we get out there, they'll take out the propellers. Nah. Nah, we're done and that's the end of it.”

    Maxie looked like he was about to say something, but he did not. He didn't speak for a long while, and when he did it was not really what he had wanted to say or what Archie had wanted to hear.

    “This is the second time,” he said. “We have to stop letting this happen.”




    They blame themselves far too much, you know. It's something to do with being dead, I think. They've had all this time to think about their guilt, their so-called sinfulness, and now they're far too ready to take the blame for any little thing that goes wrong. Myself, I'm not sure I believe in blame in situations like these. You can do everything right and still lose, after all – and that's not your fault, it's just how things are.

    I suppose that's one useful thing Tethys taught me. Even if it did do it the hard way.

    But who, you're thinking, editorialises during a chase scene? And you're right to think so, dear reader, but unfortunately there isn't any chase left. At that point, we were no longer escaping, we were simply waiting to be caught. Oh, we tried – Zinnia came back to the bridge and gave Archie and Maxie a tongue-lashing about how Avice wouldn't have given up, so get on with it – and we did start to build up some speed, but it was futile. The pirates had half cleared the mouth of the Respite of passing trade ships, and so most of the octillery had a good view of us. And with their aim, that's all they needed. The pokédex says that they're snipers, excellent at hitting a weak point at range for maximum per-shot efficiency.

    Those aren't my words, by the way. It literally says that. Whoever wrote this entry seems a bit odd to me.

    Anyway, you know what happened. Thanks to our damaged engines, the Museum managed to drift out of the way of the first barrage, but after that the octillery knew to compensate for it. I remember waking up just then, my head light and my limbs strangely heavy, and thinking that it was very important that I get an idea of what was going on outside, although I couldn't quite remember why. Only when I got to the window and saw the walls pulsing and the water distorting did my memory catch up to the rest of my brain, and remind me that we were trying to escape Jonah's Respite. I had about a second to realise that things hadn't quite gone according to plan – and then there was a great muffled thump, the floor shivered, and the Museum was dead in the water.

    :( said Edie, shaking like a leaf, and jumped into my arms.

    That was it. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think I could escape a pirate fortress in what was essentially a civilian research vessel. In any case, we couldn't, and we didn't.

    But don't you worry, dear reader. I'm here, aren't I? It takes more than a few octillery to stop the Museum and its crew, even if their captain is of questionable experience. That, however, will have to wait until tomorrow. Today, now, it's time to eat, and wonder what my glimpse of Ho-oh means over cocoa and sugarbait. We will talk into the night, the ghosts and I, about what has happened and what will happen, about where we're going, about what we're doing, what we believe. I feel like things are starting to gain momentum, and though it's a bit alarming, I can't help but feel a tingle of excitement. Do you see the pattern? We've gone from synthetic birds to scruffy birds to rainbow birds; my life is marked down the centre by a line of feathers. Something big is definitely on its way.

    Am I being too mysterious? Maybe. But only because I don't know what's coming either, only that something must be. And you and I, we know each other now, or it feels that way. We'll find out, as we always do, together.

    Next time: another, slightly more successful, dramatic escape, and the secret of what Edie found in the archives. For now, dear reader, goodnight.
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2016
  7. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    EIGHTEEN: THE KING AND THE QUESTIONER

    Pirate Code, Article 201: The Guard is answerable directly to the monarch and no one else, with an intermediary Chief of the Guard to supervise everyday operations.

    One thing that you're probably wondering, dear reader: who is it better to be captured by, pirates or Tethys citizens? These are the big powers of the ocean, after all, and not that many people are in a position to be able to review both experiences together. And of course, that means I sort of have to give it a go, if only to lighten the mood a bit.

    So, first off, Tethys. We know about Tethys: the cell is pretty nasty, without much light or room to move, but they do let you have any necessary medication, and the food isn't actually that bad, since it's just standard rations without the frills. The pirates, on the other hand, don't have state control of their food production, so the quality is a bit more haphazard and dependent on the latest market prices. However, the accommodation – if you're an important prisoner anyway, and owing to the sheer bravura of my crime and the trail of destruction I'd left in my escape attempt, I was considered pretty important – is better. You don't have to sit in permanent twilight, for instance. You get a simulated day and night like everyone else, and the bed is substantially more comfortable. I think it's just a retired ship's berth.

    On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who almost managed to escape every layer of security Jonah's Respite has, they do insist on having a giant stone monster stand in front of the door, just in case you try to pull off another miraculous exit. Worse, they're less scrupulous about your tablets, too, although more of that in time.

    All in all, though, I think if you have to get arrested, you could do a lot worse than the pirates. You don't get quite the same feeling of cloying dread that you get when you're in the hands of the CCC. Tethys, with its strict population control and mistrust of deviation from the norm, is fond of making prisoners disappear, while the pirates are quite big on recruitment. I suppose the reasoning is that if you can get into the court and steal the king's key stone, you're the kind of person they want on their side. That isn't always exactly pleasant – the pirates were quite as keen to own me as the Administration was to own Aranea, and neither authority is subtle about it – but it is at least probably better than being executed and rendered down into fertiliser.

    … I was trying to lighten the mood a bit there with my jail reviews, but somehow it got dark anyway. I blame the weather: it's bleak today, thick grey clouds blotting out the sun. Still sunglasses weather for me, of course – I may never actually be able to navigate the outside world with uncovered eyes – but a lot darker than usual. Almost like before the Great Sunrise, when the only change in the weather was in the intensity of the rain.

    I think the wind has stopped blowing.

    It had to happen sometime. I mean, it was clearly waning; when it was first summoned, it was a gale, and for the past month or so it's only been a breeze. We even had fog that one time, if you recall. And of course that doesn't mean that the water is going to rise again; the rain has been banished for good. It's just that this supernatural summer is over, and now the weather is returning to the way it was before time and Tide worked their way with it.
    Still, I miss the sun. I had twenty years of darkness to make up for. And my body remembers, even if I don't; these past weeks, my skin has been darkening, the brown deepening from washed-out pallor to something warm and healthy-looking. The sun has lightened my hair, too – it's still not as red as my mother's, or at least as I'm told hers was, but it's less not-quite-black and a bit more possibly-dark-red than it used to be. I never realised before how much colour was stolen from us by the darkness at the bottom of the sea. The ghosts say that this doesn't happen to everyone, that those with pale skin burn red in the sun instead of darkening, but I bet that even bone-white Moll would get some benefit from this.

    Anyway, this is all a really long-winded way of saying that it's cloudy today and I kind of resent that. So! Let's move on. I want to finish off Jonah's Respite today, if I can. We've been dallying here long enough.

    When I woke to the impact of the octillery, it was several seconds before my mind unstuck enough to realise what exactly was happening. Once it did, though, I jumped up – ill-advisedly, as it turns out, because it made my head spin so much I almost fell over again – and stumbled over to the cabinet where I'd put Zinnia's key stone. One key stone looks very much like another, and I was sure that if the pirates found any of the ones I'd recovered, they'd assume it was their king's and take it back again.

    ! said Edie, leaping from my arms as I swayed. ?

    “I'm OK,” I mumbled. “Don't worry. Though maybe give me something less powerful next time, right?”

    Her big eyes clouded with worry, and I spared a moment to rub her head before moving on. How long had it been now since the Teeth closed on us? I wasn't sure. Frankly, I wasn't sure of very much just then. Not only was my head spinning, but the Museum was too – or at least tilting and swaying in a pretty spectacular way. After the beating it had taken during our escape, I suppose I should have been grateful that it wasn't upside-down, although it is a little difficult to see the bright side of a situation when you're stranded in hostile waters.

    For one terrifying moment, when I first opened the drawer, I thought the key stone was gone, but it had only rolled into a different corner than I was expecting. With it in hand, I staggered over to the door and out into the corridor, where I collided with Maxie coming the other way.

    “Avice! Are you all right?”

    “I'm fine,” I said. “Mostly. I think.” I gave my head a shake, to see if that would clear it, but without success. “Listen, I have to hide the key stones―”

    “I'm truly sorry,” Maxie told me. “We weren't able to get out the back way, and―”

    “I said, I have to hide the key stones―”

    “―unfortunately, we weren't able to outrun the Teeth after the damage we sustained in the chase―”

    “Maxie!” I cried, finally realising that I'd been mumbling and he probably hadn't heard me. “We have to hide the key stones!”

    He started, long fingers twitching in surprise.

    “Oh. Right. Um, yes, of course. Zinnia picked up the one from the pendant, I think―”

    “I sure did,” she said, appearing behind him. Somehow I hadn't noticed her approach. “Got it right here. Ava, you OK?”

    “Probably?” I guessed. “Anyway, is there like … a safe, or something? A place where we can put these so they won't be able to get at them.”

    “A safe?” Maxie adjusted his glasses anxiously. “Er, let me think … well, there is – but no, that's electronic, and unfortunately the power's failing so I somehow doubt it will be functioning as intended.” He thought for a moment – a moment that seemed to take forever, a moment during which I was acutely aware of every tiny noise that could have been pirates trying to board our stricken vessel – and then snapped his fingers. “My tomb-chamber,” he said. “The door has a manual lock on it, I think, although I've always just left it unsealed. I hope it still works.”

    “It'd better,” I replied, already stumbling forward down the passage. “Edie, sweetie, do you know this lock? Have you kept it working?”

    She played a joyous little tune that I knew meant yes, even before she flashed up her little punctuation-mark grin.

    “Thank the hallows,” I sighed. “What would we do without you, huh?”

    “Sink, probably,” said Maxie. “Er – careful on the stairs there; you seem a touch … unsteady.”

    As you might expect, the hold was an utter mess. Most of the collection was secured, as is reasonable when your museum is afloat, but not all of it, and some of the stuff that was looked like it hadn't been secure enough. The library had half collapsed, books spilling out from under broken shelves like a pool of blood, and the floor was thick with clothes and broken hangers, bits of glass and plastic protruding from the mess where electronics had fallen and not survived.

    Edie let out a discordant noise like heavy machinery jamming and stopped dead, staring.

    “It'll be all right,” I promised her. “We'll put everything back, OK? It's just going to take some time. But right now, we have to hide the key stones.” I started moving again, but she did not. Her eyes had gone blank and didn't seem to be focused on anything. In fact, it looked like they'd gone slightly― Tide, what's the word? Sorry, I learned it the other day and I really liked it, and it's just gone completely out of my head. Something to do with fairies? No, I'm not sure that sounds right.

    Well, anyway, I shouldn't be holding up the narrative. Edie's eyes were unfocused, and I knelt down beside her, the mission at hand temporarily forgotten.

    “What is it?” I asked, starting to worry. “Edie? Edie, can you hear me?”

    She didn't respond, and then she flickered a little, shook herself, and emitted a mournful note.

    “Oh,” I gasped, hugging her quickly with my good arm. “Edie, you scared me there.”

    “I think she just crashed for a moment,” said Zinnia. “Um, not to rush you or anything, but …”

    “Yeah, I know,” I sighed, straightening up. “Are you OK now, Edie?”

    She said nothing, but gave me a look that I thought meant something along the lines of I can move again but I'm still upset; that seemed reasonable enough to me, and we continued. It was harder going than normal – a few shelves had fallen and many of the large piles spilled, and in places we actually had to climb rather than walk – and I noticed that while those of us bounded by gravity were forced to slow down, Edie would take the chance to flutter on ahead and inspect some new part of the devastation, beeping sadly. Maybe you've figured this out about me for yourself by now, dear reader, but I hate seeing anyone like that, let alone my Edie. It makes me ache inside, as it made me ache then, even through the remnants of the painkillers.

    And then it occurred to me that I wasn't actually scared. The realisation was so surprising that I stumbled on a bit of iron and almost fell through an oil painting. How could I not be scared? Logic dictated that I should be. The situation was fairly hopeless: my ship was defunct, its treasures scattered and broken, and my enemies rapidly descending on me. I really should have been afraid.

    If it had just been me, maybe I would have been. And if it had been me before the corvette and the ghosts, I definitely would have been. But it wasn't just me, it was Edie too, poor hurt Edie, and it was the me who had escaped Tethys twice and left two defeated CCC agents behind her, and it was the me who had a phantom family, ghosts who had given everything that was left of them to keep me safe and on the road to a new world, and I was not afraid any more.

    I was angry.

    Actually, I was furious.

    How dare anyone do this? I was trying to raise the land for everyone, to make the world habitable for humans and pokémon and animals and plants and everything, and Edie was innocent anyway, totally innocent, and how dare anyone make her this upset and create this much work for her, and that wasn't even saying anything about the number of irreplaceable artefacts that had just been damaged or destroyed …

    So went my thought process. By the time we got to Maxie's sarcophagus, I was about ready to punch the first pirate that tried to board the Museum in the face, although some small, saner part of me did point out that I wasn't totally sure I'd hurt them that much.

    “Right,” I growled, making everyone jump. “Key stones.” I slapped Zinnia's down on the glass top of the coffin with a loud crack, and Maxie winced.

    “Do you mind?” he asked plaintively. “That is my corpse you're hammering on.”

    A bit of the anger drained out of me, or at least redirected itself, pulling back into my body and focusing intently on the pirates outside.

    “Right,” I said again, more calmly. “Sorry. I'm just – well. Kind of annoyed.”

    “Annoyed is good,” said Zinnia, close by my side. “Annoyed will keep you going better than despair.”

    “Oh. Yeah. Thanks.” I hadn't been expecting her to endorse my current mental state, and now I stared at Maxie's broken skull for a moment, feeling foolish and very young. This wasn't how people reacted to hatred and anger in stories. I didn't quite know how to deal with it.

    “Hey.” Zinnia touched my shoulder and held out her hand, Archie's key stone gleaming against the green pallor of her palm. “Here you go,” she said. “You might want to put them in a box on the floor or something. They're gonna fall if you leave them on top of the glass like that.”

    “That's … a good idea,” I admitted. “Um, Edie, do we have anything …?”

    She bobbed her head and flitted off back into the hold for a moment. There was the sound of objects being moved around and protesting about it, and then she was back, a jewellery box magnetically suspended in midair before her.

    “Thanks,” I said, forgetting that my arm was in a sling and trying to stroke her while taking the box. “Oh, er – hang on.” Stroke, then box. That worked better, although it felt strange, and it occurred to me that I'd almost always stroked Edie left-handed before. The contact seemed to revive her slightly, and she even managed one of those little musical notes in response.

    With the key stones secure inside their box – which, if you're wondering what the Administration considered seditious about it, had a map of old Hoenn engraved on the lid – we left the room and shut the doors on them. As they slid to, the lights overhead flickered and went out, and a warning klaxon sounded once before going silent.

    There was a pause, during which we all became aware of something thumping against the side of the ship.

    “Power's out, then,” said Zinnia. “Do we have any … what is it … auxiliary generators or something?”

    I could hardly see him, but I knew Maxie was standing very straight and dignified, and curling and uncurling his fingers.

    “That,” he informed us, “was the auxiliary power.”

    Another pause. Countless tiny objects shifted in the debris and filled the air with whispers.

    “We'd better lock the doors,” I said at last. “Edie? Brightness up, please.”

    By her glow, we found the lock, although it was of a kind I'd never seen before: a steel dial as big as one of Edie's eyes set into the left-hand door, its rim marked with notches like degrees on a compass.

    “Let me see if I remember how this works,” muttered Maxie, fiddling with it. “I think I was the one who had it installed, so perhaps …”

    There was a deep clunk, and he stepped back, satisfied.

    “Try it,” he said, so I did; the doors, promisingly, refused to open. “Good,” Maxie judged. “I doubt there are many of these locks left these days. I suspect the pirates won't be able to work out how to pick it.”

    “You mean it can be picked?” I asked, suddenly nervous.

    “Nothing is perfectly secure,” he replied. “But this is about the best the Museum has to offer.”

    “It had better work, then,” I started to say, just as a shout broke into the calm:

    “Are you down here? Hold onto something! They're gonnae―”

    I heard another, deeper clunk, this time from outside the hull, and the floor jerked beneath us, sending me staggering back into the door.

    “―engage their clamps and tow us,” finished Archie, stepping over a fallen barrel and sighing.

    “You couldn't have warned us any sooner?” asked Maxie, picking himself up.

    “Power went out,” he said. “So the intercom went, and then somebody left me to watch the bridge without telling me where he went.”

    “OK!” said Zinnia brightly, clapping her hands together. “So, moving back to the fact that we're being towed by pirates to an undisclosed location?”

    Neither Archie nor Maxie could do much more than shrug. To be honest, dear reader, there was nothing we really could do.

    Nothing, except wait.




    Tide, that wait went on. I swear it took them hours to get the Museum where they wanted it. I suppose they were trying to be careful, since it was so badly damaged and it would have been so easy to accidentally crash it into a wall during a tricky corner. Still, if there's one thing to make a bad situation worse, it's having to wait for the really bad part to start. The tension was awful – to say nothing of the boredom; I was too anxious to concentrate on anything, and so I spent most of the time pacing around in the bridge with everyone else, trying unsuccessfully to get a glimpse of something other than the stern of the ship towing us through the glass.

    Nevertheless, we did actually get there, eventually, and 'there' turned out to be something like a drydock, where great chains were slung around the Museum's hull and the whole ship raised clean out of the water, dripping seaweed and oil in pungent globs into the ocean below. It was quite something, or it would have been if I wasn't waiting to be arrested. Tethys facilitates ship repairs by closing the entrance to a dock and pumping the water out of the chamber; the pirates' method seemed a bit more basic, but also quite a lot cooler.

    Once we were up there, though, the wait was over. With the power out, they forced the doors on the main deck and that was that. I could have tried to fight, I guess – I had Edie, after all, and my mother's ormolu pistols – but, truth be told, I'm not that keen on the idea of killing someone, and while Edie might have been able to incapacitate a few people, I didn't think she was in any state to be pitted against the pirates and their war-trained pokémon at the moment. Besides, I was in Jonah's Respite: the pirates had an effectively limitless supply of reinforcements. It doesn't really matter how fiercely you fight when you're trapped in a stricken vessel under siege.

    So I let them come aboard, the guards with their swords and rifles and scarred pokémon, and I held Edie back when she crackled in protest, and I let them take us away. They were very efficient. I got two guards on either side of me, and Edie got a golem that held her wings in its great crusted claws, ready to tear or crush at a moment's notice. I suppose they'd noticed her lightning earlier, and wanted an insulated jailer.

    “So,” said Berenice Enid dol' City's Regret, standing imperiously at the end of the catwalk leading from Museum down to ground level. “Back for another round, huh?”

    And because I was more angry than afraid, and because it's harder to panic when arrested if you know one of the guards is on your side, I grinned the best evil grin I could muster and replied:

    “Oh, it's on. You and me, right here, right now.”

    “Your arm's in a sling.”

    “I've got another one, haven't I?”

    The corner of Berenice's mouth twitched, and she turned away hurriedly to mask her smile.

    “Go on, take them away,” she said. “The King's waiting.”

    The guards marched us away – very slowly, to accommodate the golem, which had trouble keeping up with anything brisker than an amble – and as we moved down into a tunnel and the space widened, the ghosts fell into step beside us.

    “Nice one,” said Zinnia. “Do you think she has a plan?”

    I shrugged minutely, which owing to the condition of my arm turned out to be a painful mistake.

    “I bloody hope so,” muttered Archie gloomily. “Wish I'd thought to chuck that damn pendant somewhere they wouldn't find it.”

    “You might have thought twice about destroying the world while you were at it,” said Maxie. “But it's a little late for all that. The important thing now is securing Avice's release.”

    “And fixing the Museum,” added Zinnia, before Archie had a chance to retort. “I have this weird feeling that it isn't going anywhere in a hurry.”

    “The pirates'll take care of that,” said Archie, contenting himself with a savage glare at Maxie. “Hopefully they'll have got the engines working at least by the time we go. Everything else, Edie can do on the move.” He paused. “Assuming we actually can get out of here.”

    Sandwiched between my two guards, there wasn't a lot I could say in response, but I gave him a smile. I felt a lot better about this arrest than the last one. After all, I hadn't spent my whole life fearing these people like I had the CCC, and I had a friend on the outside. And of course, I had Edie with me, and as long as I kept some of her abilities to myself I was pretty sure she'd be able to break me out without too much trouble.

    Anyway, Archie is always a bit pessimistic. I think it's the guilt: from what I'm told, he was a lot more cheerful in life.




    Forgive the interruption, dear reader, but I've just been told that we've sighted land! And not just more of those tiny little islands, either. From her perch up in the conning tower, Zinnia can see something big on the horizon, over to the north. It's a little out of our way, but we're all excited about this, and no one complained when I suggested a detour. Especially interesting is how green it looks. Green is good; green means plants; plants mean insects and animals and pokémon.

    We can't see anything flying over it, but then, it's pretty cloudy today, and visibility isn't perfect. Are more birds in store for us? It'd be nice to think so. A girl could get used to being surrounded by birds. Edie is perfect, of course, and Mackenzie is utterly adorable, and if any more birds wanted to volunteer to join my crew I wouldn't be saying no.

    Except if it was something like a braviary. I'm not sure we really have space for one of them. Although, I guess, it could roost up on deck and fly around outside. Yes, all right, we'll take giant birds as well, if they come our way.
    Anyway! We'll find out what (if anything) is out there soon enough. Back to the pirates.




    The Respite's guard station was a squat, rust-stained building set partway up the wall of one of its caverns, and its passages meandered backwards into the rock face like the roots of some giant metallic plant. Inside, ageing strip lights flickered dismally overhead, and a woman in stained overalls was dutifully gluing loose floor tiles back into place; given that several more came off as we walked over them, and that the guard station was probably the sort of place that saw a lot of traffic, I imagine her task was more or less endless. Maybe she should have looked into getting hold of some stronger glue.

    Somewhere in the bowels of the station was a room cut from bare stone, the walls blasted smooth from a ground-type's sandstorm. In here was a table, at which I was sat, and, on the other side of it, the King and a guard I didn't recognise. To my surprise, Richter was standing in the corner, looking secretarial. Perhaps he was a close advisor of the King; it would explain why he felt able to correct him, although I couldn't see how the King could have put up with him long enough to get any benefit from his advice.

    The ghosts filed in behind us and took up positions around me, but the golem, I noticed uneasily, marched Edie straight on down the passage without coming in.

    “Where are you taking my pokémon?” I asked immediately, and the King gave me an incredulous look.

    “I think you might have bigger problems right now, kid,” he said. “Your mission's over.”

    It was then, I think, that I did start to feel a little bit afraid. Berenice wasn't here, and neither was Edie – and it was only with them that I stood much of a chance of getting out of this. I knew that after this interrogation, they'd probably leave me alone in a cell for a bit, where perhaps Berenice would find me and we could work something out, but the King was a big man, and the skin on my jaw crawled when I thought about how he'd grabbed it.
    So I retreated back behind my old defence against fear, sarcasm, and tried to coax the flame of my anger back into life. Angry, I felt, was good. Hadn't Zinnia said so? Angry would get me through this without panicking.

    “Oh, I don't know,” I said. “Might be that I'm just where I want to be.”

    The King raised an eyebrow.

    “I very much doubt that,” he said. “Inspector? Do your thing.”

    The guard next to him cleared her throat.

    “You came to this city with the aim of getting yourself arrested,” she said. “This was done in order that Constable dol' City's Regret would bring you to the King, and you could take his badge of office.” She paused. “That makes sense, so far. What does not is why you chose to travel in the Alcmene, how you managed to break your bonds, and why you would risk so much in order to get hold of a piece of inferior gold and old glass.”

    “Inferior!” cried Archie, starting up from the wall he was leaning against. “That's twenty-two carat, you daft bastard.”

    “Is that really your most pressing concern right now?” asked Maxie. “I'm more concerned about her calling the key stone old glass. I hope it isn't a fake.”

    Zinnia, curiously, said nothing, and since I was occupied with my interrogation I'm not sure what she was doing, if anything. But I suspect she was looking entirely and carefully normal.

    “Are you planning on adding anything to the Inspector's account of things?” asked the King, impatient. “Or are you just gonna stare at an empty wall all day? 'Cause I've got a city to run, and if you wasted my time – time that I could spend helping my people – well, I might get a bit unhappy.”

    I blinked and looked away from the place where Maxie was. The King had put a certain emphasis on the word unhappy that made me think that his kind of unhappiness was the sort that generally came with sharp objects and sturdy restraints.

    “I … knew you'd take my ship to where I needed it to be in order to escape,” I said, inspiration striking. “And, uh, the cuffs were fake. They had a breakable link in the middle. I switched them with the ones on Berenice's belt.”

    “Very sly indeed,” piped up Richter from his corner, startling me. He shuffled briefly through his papers. “Constable dol' City's Regret was a con artist and pickpocket, my lord. She was recruited to the guards through the scheme you put in place last month.”

    The King scowled.

    “What scheme?”

    “I think you called it your 'takes one to know one' policy, my lord.” Richter winced, as if repeating the phrase had caused him physical pain.

    “Oh, right. Yeah, I remember that.” The King rubbed his chin thoughtfully and stared at me. “So, you can out-thieve thieves, eh? And you had your escape all planned out. Even knew about the secret exit – and then, even when we blocked that off, and with a bullet in your arm, you made that old sub fly like a corvette. So fast we almost didn't clear enough space in the mouth in time to nail you with the Teeth, in fact.” He frowned again. He seemed like a frowny kind of guy. “I'm starting to see why they sent you. Tooth take it! Jonah's Respite, nearly broken by a Tethysi teenager.”

    I hadn't actually been aware that we'd come that close to getting away. Nor had I considered what the whole operation would have looked like to someone who couldn't see ghosts. The idea that I must have come across as kind of superhuman was actually pretty awesome, even under the current circumstances.

    “What can I say?” I replied, with an elegant shrug that hurt my arm an awful lot but which also (so I thought) looked cool. “Guess you need to tighten up your security a little.”

    “Er – it might not be best to antagonise him,” cautioned Maxie, wary as ever. “He seems a little touchy.”

    “Naw, lass, go for it,” said Archie. “He's a pirate. He'll act angry, but he'll like spirit. And right now, we kind of need him to like you.” He hesitated. “Enough to not have you executed, anyway.”
    Wishing fervently that I could shush them, I asked the King to repeat what he'd just said.

    “Don't play games with me,” he said. “I just have one more question, and if you're not gonna cooperate, I ain't gonna waste my drowned time on you.”

    “O-K,” I said slowly, trying not to think about whether he was implying that he'd leave or that he'd have me killed. “So … go right ahead, I guess.”

    “Why?” he asked. “Why take it in the first place?”

    There was a brief silence – and it was, unsettlingly, truly silent. No hum of ventilators. No footsteps, no creaking. The guards seemed as motionless as ice, and the stone around us was as cold and dead as the tombstones of the Shattered Temple.

    You don't get a silence like that, where the universe itself grinds to a halt, very often, dear reader. I think I've heard (or not heard, or unheard) them only twice, ever. The other one was in the seven seconds it took for my call to reach Rayquaza, when the sky itself bowed down in deference to its master's sign. This was not so serious, and I'm not even sure why it occurred. The moment was tense, but not so tense that it needed that. It seems almost …
    … I'm getting distracted again, aren't I? I was going to say that it seems narratively unnecessary, an inelegance in the plot, but of course that would be taking things too far. I have to be careful. Pattern is a wonderful thing, a hermeneutic of reality that turns the random pain of living into something intelligible and real, something that has a meaning – but we shouldn't forget that it is only that, only pattern. Symbols don't really mean anything; they mean something because we believe they do. Narrative doesn't really exist. It's here, in my life and my world, because I am writing it all down in order and you are reading it, convinced by my illusion.

    What I lived and what you read are immeasurably – even unrecognisably – far apart. Would you, if you travelled back in time to visit my younger self, recognise her and know her thoughts? Would you know the particular quality of the air and the light on the day I first entered Cormac's Mourn, and how these shifted my mood and that of the dock official, and all the tiny and indescribably important ways that this influenced how we experienced our conversation?

    You know a lot, dear reader, but though I'm doing this to record everything for future reference, please don't think that you know the truth. No one wants to repeat the mistakes of Oliver Saturnine dol' Tethys.

    Here's a thought: you know my name, dear reader, Avice Amrit dol' ――. It's written on the cover of this book, right there beneath the title. And yet I don't know what the title is yet, or what my gentilic will be now that Tethys and I have such a complicated relationship. You know my story – what I've named it, the person who says she wrote it; still, though, you don't know what happened, or the person I am right now.

    Even I'm not so sure about that, actually.

    Being a historian is a much lonelier job than I was expecting.

    Anyway, dear reader, let's not worry too much about the essential alienation of existence – which is, after all, probably something you know about just as well as I do, since I can't see it going away any time soon. I hope I'm not boring you with these asides. It's just that writing this strange, strange thing has given me an awful lot of strange, strange thoughts.

    To return to the interrogation chamber beneath the bottom of the sea: it was silent for a while, very silent, and then, being the person I am, I knew exactly what I was going to say.

    “It's the symbol of it,” I told the King. “The story it would become. Here, and in Tethys, and all over the ocean.” I hesitated, wondering if the next bit would be going too far, and then decided that the spy character I was playing was ridiculous anyway and it couldn't possibly hurt. “Cunning little trickster trips up big powerful king. You've heard the story before, right?” Dramatic pause: the King leaned in a little closer; the Inspector held her breath; Richter's pen hovered expectantly above his papers. “We were building a legend.”




    That bit of land is looking more and more promising the closer we get. Some of the green is seaweed and algae, yes, but not all of it: I can see thin fuzz of green blades through the telescope, and even a couple of dark blots that might be small bushes.

    Grass, I'm told. That's what the blade-plant is, although it doesn't look anything like the brownish clumps of spikes that I've seen before. They're more like those vivid green carpets that I've seen in the audiovisual recordings, the kind that old world people used as a covering for the space around their houses. Apparently that's grass too. Who knew there were so many kinds? Everyone aboard this ship except me, actually, but that's beside the point. I'm sure there must be something living there – some animal, some pokémon. I can't see any birds silhouetted against the clouds, so I have to assume that, regrettably, the whole bird thing has run its course. Oh, well. I suppose it would have been hard to top Ho-oh, after all. And it'll be nice to see something else for a change. Perhaps bug-types, crawling about beneath the leaves? I could …

    Moll likes bug-types. She never used to, but then she got Chubb and she realised how underrated they were. They're not that tough, comparatively speaking, but they grow quick and have a lot of interesting abilities that open up tactical advantages. If her application for the expedition was accepted, she'll have got herself a nincada. That's what she wanted, anyway. And I can't imagine she wouldn't be capable of catching it. They're all asleep, after all, waiting underground for a summer that will never come. It's just finding them that's the hard part.

    I guess that summer will come, now. We'll have cicadas again, whirring, and alongside them the ninjask, singing in a different key. They live a little longer than normal cicadas, but still, not past the end of autumn. That's the other thing about bug-types; most of them are past battling very soon after growing to adulthood, and die not long after.

    Chubb's probably dead by now.

    Enough. You're going, Avice. It'll be OK. And if it isn't … you'll make it OK. It wouldn't be the hardest thing you've ever done.

    This might be a bit of a short update today, dear reader. That daring escape I promised yesterday will have to wait. I'm going to go ashore soon, and I might be a while; it's a pretty big island, by the look of it. I'll take Edie and Mackenzie, let them stretch their wings and experience some leaves and dirt. The ghosts will come too, of course. They'll want to make the most of these days, now that everything is coming to an end, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

    For now, though, we're not quite near enough to shore for it to be worth my getting ready yet. So, I suppose, let's return to Jonah's Respite, and the not insubstantial amount of trouble I was in.

    The King left to do some actual ruling soon after my little speech, unimpressed, and the Inspector continued for a little while longer, but she didn't get much out of me. Where had I got the ship? I shrugged; this was what I'd been given by the Administration. Did I know why this ship in particular? Nope. I just signed for it. Eventually, she gave up, satisfied that either I really didn't know or was really good at hiding it, and the guards took me off to another cell somewhere in the maze of corridors, stone on three sides and fronted with steel bars. Edie was already there, eyeing the still-present golem with distrust, and jumped up with a jaunty tune when she saw me coming.

    “Hey, sweetie,” I said, patting her head. “I missed you too.”

    ♥, she replied, apparently convinced that since I was here, all must be right with the world, and settled down at my heel. I sat down on the bunk, ready to discuss a plan of action with the ghosts, and saw that both the golem and one of the guards were still present, watching me through the bars.

    This was not convenient. I didn't particularly want to hold a protracted conversation with thin air in front of them.

    “Hail,” I said. “Can I help you two at all?”

    The guard gave me a look that said that he would very much like to hit me, if at all possible, and if I kept up the questions he'd gladly take his chance to do so the next time I was close enough to the bars. It was an eloquent kind of look.

    “I guess you're just guarding me, then,” I said, and directed an eloquent look of my own at the ghosts. Mine said that if any of them had an idea, now would be the time to offer it.

    “Well, he can't stay there forever,” ventured Archie. “And more importantly, nor can the golem. Pretty sure they have to eat and sleep too.”

    “Yes, about once or twice a month,” said Maxie. “Ground- and fire-types are my speciality, if you remember. And I can tell you without any shadow of a doubt that the reason they've left a golem here – apart from, of course, its type immunity and resistances, which leave Edie mostly helpless against it – is that it will be perfectly happy to stand here and watch you for three or four weeks before it even notices that it's feeling thirsty.”

    “And I can tell you,” said Zinnia, “that it won't be three or four weeks before it gets called out of here along with the guard, and we get a visit from Avice's new girlfriend.”

    “What?” asked Maxie, but no one paid him any attention, because I'd just started so hard I almost fell off the bunk and squished Edie.

    Zinnia!

    The guard jumped and stared.

    “What in all blood was that?”

    “Um,” I said, aware that I was a very un-professional-spy-like shade of red. “Nothing. Nervous twitch. It, uh, it happens sometimes.”

    “Well, it better stop happening,” he replied. “Or you're gonna be a drowned sight more nervous.”

    He gestured, and his golem cracked one stony fist into the other. All in all, it was quite a good threat, although the golem did struggle a bit to meet both of its hands across its massive chest.

    “Sure,” I told him, and followed it up with a violent glare at Zinnia.

    “Sorry, sorry,” she said, with a sly grin. “Only teasing. Still, I gotta say, you could do worse.”

    “I'm not staying,” I hissed fiercely. “I mean – she's nice, but – it's complicated, all right?”

    “I know, I know.” She looked more sincerely contrite now. I think she must have noticed that she'd hit a nerve – because she had, of course; because even then, dimly, I was aware that though I liked Berenice an awful lot, it was unreasonable to expect anything beyond casual friendship to come of a single afternoon's acquaintance; that I could never be content to stay here and she would not readily leave; that perhaps it wasn't really her that I liked but what she reminded me of; that, in short, it was good to have acquired a friend and an ally, especially one so resourceful, but that friendship had best remain in the realm of the purely social. (And, for that matter, the criminal.)

    You know, now I think about it, I might have inherited some of this from my father. He did fall in love with a woman he knew for a single afternoon, after all, and then set to work creating a daughter with her about ten minutes after they'd first laid eyes on each other. To the best of my knowledge, he still isn't over her, twenty years on. It's entirely possible that I have some of the same ridiculously romantic streak. These things happen; life is full of unlikely people.

    “Wait,” said Maxie, blinking and slowly turning a deeper shade of red. “So you …?”

    “I was kidding,” said Zinnia quickly. “She and Berenice really hit it off, that's all.”

    There was a brief and pregnant pause, and then I spoke.

    “Yeah,” I said quietly, so that the guard wouldn't hear. “We did. And she'll be here, I'm sure. So we wait.”

    And wait we did. But before Berenice arrives, dear reader, and brings with her a healthy dose of intrigue and trickery, I think I'd better go and get changed. We're very close to shore now – so close that I can see bits of the island quite clearly even without the telescope. It's time to find sturdy boots and hard-wearing clothes, and see what secrets this new spit of land is hiding.

    We'll meet again tomorrow, of course, but you'll have to put up with me telling you all about what we find on this island, even though you may well actually live on land and be totally familiar with grass or whatever. That's the benefit of being the author, I'm afraid. I get to say anything I want and you can't do anything about it. Although I suppose you could always skip over it, if it really bothers you that much. Go on. I promise I won't even notice.
     
  8. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    NINETEEN: THRESHOLD GUARDIANS

    Pirate Code, Article 190: The archives are open to anyone pursuing studies in the relevant fields. Rewards will be made available to those who manage to restore any machinery to full working order and determine its purpose.

    Dear reader, I may have made something of a mistake.

    Let me explain. Yesterday, as you remember, I cut things off short to go and explore that newly emerged island we found. It was a very nice place, all things considered – the ground was a bit mushy with all the water, but it was real soil, with real grass and real bushes that were beginning to put out real buds, and that's something we've been sorely lacking around here for the last few hundred years. There was a faint but insistent zithering sound that puzzled me for half an hour until Archie sighed and said something about not having heard grasshoppers for centuries, and there were tiny beasts like living bootlaces that trundled along through the weeds on dozens of minute legs. What were they called now – Maxie told me just yesterday – millipedes, that's it. Oldspeak for a thousand legs, which may well be accurate, although I haven't counted. I did catch a few for scientific purposes, but Mackenzie tore the cloth off the top of the jar I caught them in and ate them while I was trying to find the grasshoppers. You'd never think that she only joined us a few days ago; already she considers everything even remotely edible on the ship to be her own personal property.

    I probably shouldn't have brought her ashore with me, now I think about it, but Edie came with me on my pokémon hunt, and it seemed only natural that Mackenzie would come too.

    Anyway, that's beside the point. I told you I was going to talk about a mysterious mistake, and now I'm talking about murkrow and millipedes. As I said yesterday, I wanted to see if I could catch a pokémon or two to bring back to Tethys for Moll – if nothing else, perhaps a gift from me might bring back some of the memories of me that the Museum erased. And anyway, I don't need an excuse to give my best friend a present, or to unite a pokémon with a trainer worthy of its power.

    So, along with the millipedes and grasshoppers (which I never did find) I looked for bug-types, hoping to find something weak enough for me to capture it – ideally, something that was in a pupal stage, so that I could just pick it up and carry it off without it making much of a fuss. There wasn't a whole lot around – most of the pokémon that have mysteriously reappeared seem to have done so in their first forms, and not many seem to be old or tough enough yet to trigger an evolution – but I did encounter a few small, scrabbling bug-types that kicked dirt up at my face and burrowed to safety before I could catch them. Not a promising start, but I persevered and dug after one of them, only to hit something hard on the third scrape.

    At first I thought I'd found its burrow or an egg or something; when I uncovered more, however, it turned out to be part of a cocoon. A very big cocoon, in fact: a metre or more in length, its slate-blue surface wrinkled with whorls and humps that suggested where the coiled limbs of the creature within might be. One end came to a blunt point, and the other to a series of slim spikes that looked like they ought to have snapped off at a touch. In actual fact, they were as hard as stone, and I guessed that I might be looking at something both bug- and rock-typed, something that pupated underground where it could be compressed like a diamond in the belly of the earth.

    Maybe you know where this is going, dear reader, but I don't have much experience with pokémon at all, let alone ones as rare as this – even in the old world, I'm told, you didn't exactly find these at the bottom of your garden. Nor did I know that these pupae can stay underground and inactive for centuries, if they have to, and that this one was much more likely to be old and tough than newly-evolved and relatively weak.

    One of the ghosts might have recognised it, I guess. Zinnia definitely would have done. But the island was large, and we'd wandered apart after the initial exploration, and so the birds and I were alone with the cocoon. There was no one to tell me that taking this thing back aboard the Museum was a bad idea, which meant my only problem was how to transport it. Giant lumps of stone are not easily shifted by anyone, let alone those recovering from a serious leg injury. Fortunately, Edie had a solution; with her new strength, she was just about able to drag the pupa along with her magnetic field. There must have been magnetite in it or something. We dumped it in one of the spare cabins, on the bunk (which creaked alarmingly under its weight, but did not collapse) and, congratulating ourselves on a job well done, went back out to see where the ghosts had got to.

    In retrospect, leaving the giant mystery cocoon alone on my ship was not the most sensible decision I could have made.

    Skip forward an hour or two. We're back on board the Museum, I'm thinking about cooking, and Zinnia's asking me if I found anything out there.

    “Yeah,” I told her. “I found this big cocoon thing, like some sort of bug-type. Need to look it up in the pokédex later.”

    “Pfft, you don't need that,” she said dismissively. “Describe it to me. I was in tournaments, remember? I've seen a lot of species.”

    “Um, OK. It's blue, about this long, and it's sort of spiky at one end but blunt at the other. Really hard, like it's made of stone. I think it must be―”

    “Whoa whoa whoa,” said Zinnia, holding up a hand. “Wait. Blue? Stony? Spiky? Does it have little nubs sticking out of it near the blunt end? And four dark vents near the other?”

    I stared. Faint misgivings started to make themselves known in the back of my head.

    “Yeah …?”

    “Has Archie started up the ship again yet?” she asked urgently. “'Cause if so – well, uh – we need to put that thing back where you found it. And I mean right now, before the warmth and vibration wakes it―”

    There was a dull, muffled boom from down the corridor, and the sound of something metallic being subjected to pressures its designer never intended it to face.

    “―up.”

    I looked at her.

    “Zinnia,” I said.

    “Yeah?”

    “It's woken up, hasn't it.”

    I did not pronounce it as a question.

    “Yeah, it has,” she agreed.

    Another boom, and a furious hissing like a thousand angry swanna. Now I heard breaking glass, which, as we were currently underwater, I sincerely hoped was the light and not the window.

    “Shall we … I don't know … let it tire itself out?” I asked hopefully.

    Zinnia considered this proposition, coiling the edge of her cloak around her fingers in a thoughtful kind of way.

    “I don't know if it'll get tired,” she said. “But maybe it'll run out of gas eventually. They generate it from eating rock, and there isn't any around, so―”

    An impact. The sharp plink of a bolt popping loose.

    “Yeah, let's just leave it,” she agreed hastily. “And maybe have Edie weld the door shut just in case.”



    And there you have it, dear reader. It's morning now – a little after dawn, actually; I didn't get much sleep with that monster banging around its cabin like that – and things seem to have quieted down. We haven't been holed and sunk, which is always a good start. Edie, surprisingly, is still asleep, despite the damage being caused to the vessel, the ghosts are probably waiting for me up in the bridge, Mackenzie is adding to the collection of shiny objects that she thinks I don't know she's keeping under my bed, and I'm here, avoiding going to deal with what I'm told is something called a pupitar.

    We've kept going, by the way. We know there's no way we can get that thing out of here now it's woken up; it'd break free from Edie's magnetism in an instant, and since I don't know whether or not the ghosts can be harmed in the Museum where they're tangible, I don't want to have them help me, either. Apparently there's a good chance that this creature knows dark-type moves, and though I'm not sure whether or not my ghosts have anything to do with ghost-types, I'm definitely not going to risk it.

    So you see, like I said, I might have made a little bit of a mistake.

    All right, I can't put this off any more. I'm going to wake up Edie and go meet the ghosts to discuss our plan of action. If this is the last entry in my history― no, stop being so dramatic, Avice. I'm going to be fine. I survived Tethys, Jonah's Respite, the Exceptional and Sky Pillar; I've defeated secret agents, and sort-of died, and temporarily lost my physical form. I've met Tooth and lived to tell the tale; I've stood eye to eye with the thunderbolt that steers all. And I'm drowned if I'm going to be undone by some jumped-up gassy boulder.

    Lid on the ink. Drain the last of the coffee. And we're off. See you in a bit, dear reader. Won't be long.




    Well, the good news is that I'm not dead.

    The slightly less encouraging news is that the pupitar does not show any signs of having calmed down. More of that later, though, because time's getting on and I haven't actually even begun to write any of the things I'm supposed to be writing. For now, let's say that we're all fine, the pupitar is still determinedly trashing its cabin, and I've decided to wait a little longer to see if it'll stop.

    So: we waited. It was a long wait, sitting there in that cell, staring at the guard and the golem and resisting the urge to talk to the ghosts. In fact, it took a couple of days for the waiting to bear any results. I slept, ate what they brought me, wondered uneasily how long it would be before not taking my pills started to have an effect; the next day brought another round of interrogation, this time just with the Inspector, although she didn't have much success. She showed me several items I recognised as having been taken from the Museum and asked me what they were for, and every time I shrugged and said I didn't know. It wasn't strictly speaking a lie. Back then, I didn't even know what all of them were.

    If this sounds tedious, that's because it was. There was less horror involved than when I was imprisoned on the corvette, but the boredom was excruciating. I couldn't even talk to the ghosts, not with the guard watching.

    All in all, I was very grateful indeed when Berenice finally turned up.

    It was Archie who tipped me off – just as in the corvette, he and the others had been taking it in turns to go scouting, to see what they could find out. And while they'd brought me interesting information about the Respite's politics – about the guards competing amongst themselves to seize avenues of investigation in this most prestigious of crimes; about the murmurs of dissatisfaction at the King's spending so much time away from the business of ruling to oversee the repairs to the Museum; about the crews sent inside it to explore who came back with tales of fantastic treasures – I couldn't actually respond to them. There was always one drowned guard or another, and all of them were suspicious of things like prisoners apparently talking to thin air. I guess they were bored too, given that their job was essentially to stand against a wall all day, and that made me the sole point of interest in their field of view. If I moved, even just to whisper, they noticed. Anyone would, in that atmosphere.

    When Archie slipped through the bars and told me, then, it took quite a lot of effort to control my excitement.

    “Look alive, lass,” he said. “Berenice won the bid. Guess the King's taken a shine to her, because he's putting her in charge of investigating the Museum. Apparently it had to wait for a promotion, some bureaucratic crap― here she comes!”

    And she did, sweeping into the room and regarding the guard with the full force of her haughtiest look. She looked good, I have to say, although given she was currently competing with a golem and a thickset man with an unfortunate beard it wasn't too much of an achievement. But she did look better than before, in some mysterious way: it was in the swagger of her tread, the exuberance of her wild hair, the laughing flash of her eyes and teeth in the dark of her face. Even Lillian looked larger and sleeker than before, moving in lazy billows like a well-fed arcanine, jewelled throat glittering in the yellow light. A lot of people had been very angry about Berenice's sudden rise to prominence, and Lillian, I imagine, had gorged herself on the emotions directed at her.

    Point is, my heart might have done a little bit of fluttering. After staring at an ogre made of rock for so long, someone like Berenice was a welcome change of pace.

    “Detective Inspector dol' City's Regret,” said Berenice, with a certain relish that made me smile and the guard curl his lip. “I'd like to speak with the prisoner. You and the oversized gallstone can wait in the hall.”

    A vein pulsed in the guard's forehead.

    “You can't talk to me like that,” he said, jaw set. “I've arrested you before, Lady B, you―”

    “Is that any way to talk to a superior officer, Constable?” she asked, with the kind of grin that makes people want to hit you. “This en't Northrop End any more, and I'm not picking pockets. Go on, clear out.”

    For a moment, I thought she'd crossed a line; the guard seemed to swell, his face turning first red and then to some pale, dangerous colour that I recognised only from the faces of Administrators – and then, quite suddenly, he left. No words, no anything. I got the impression that this was probably a worse sign than if he'd actually threatened her, and wondered for the first time if thrusting Berenice into the heights of Respite politics had been such a good idea. When people like us stick to the fringes of society, we're safe – or not safe, not really, but at least harder to see. In the limelight, we start to feel uncomfortably like targets.

    “You too, short, squat and ugly,” she said to the golem, jerking a thumb at the door. “You can come back in a minute, but I want some peace for my interrogations.”

    The golem regarded her suspiciously for a moment, presumably trying to figure out if she was someone high-ranking enough to give it orders, and then plodded off with a stolid policeman's pace. Animals are sensible like that.

    “So,” said Berenice, kicking the door shut behind it and twirling a set of keys around her finger. “We meet again, Tethys scum.”

    “I beat you once, pirate dog,” I replied. “I can do it again.”

    “One-handed?”

    “With both hands tied behind my back,” I said solemnly, and she grinned.

    “Glad to see you're doing OK,” she said, unlocking the door and coming inside. “Sorry I couldn't get here any sooner. I … well, I had a lot to get through.”

    Archie glanced meaningfully at Maxie, and received a significant nod in return. It seemed to me that they were commenting on the evasiveness of Berenice's words, but there was something strange about the way they did it – almost as if they'd expected it. Something was happening here that they weren't telling me about, I thought, but I let it slide. Whatever it was, it would come out in the end.

    “Sure,” I said. “The ghosts told me – they were out keeping an eye on things. You had to be promoted, and everything.”

    She paused for a second, some thought working its way out behind her eyes, and nodded.

    “Yeah,” she said. “Like I said, there was a lot. But!” she went on, more cheerfully. “I'm here now, and I've got a pretty drowned good plan to get you out of here without having to sacrifice my career.”

    “Impressive,” I replied. “Do you ever actually take a break from scheming? Ever?”

    Her smile broadened. Lillian and Edie circled each other warily, wide white eyes locked with triangular yellow ones. I'm sure they were communicating, in some pre-verbal way that humans have lost the knack for, but whatever they were saying, I couldn't decipher it.

    “Nope,” she said. “I'm on 24/7.”

    “Even when you're on a coffee break?”

    “Even then,” she confirmed. “I'm pretty dedicated, Avice. On patrol, drinking coffee, on a date – I don't stop. Gotta put in the hours to get ahead at this game.”

    “I bet your lovers thank you for that.”

    Her grin couldn't really get much bigger, but her eyes flashed with renewed laughter.

    “Hey, I'm subtle about it. It en't like I'm drawing diagrams of bank vaults and escape routes on their backs as I lean in for the kiss.”

    “Er,” said Maxie, who had gone such a deep red that he was almost opaque. “We are – we are here, you know. Right here. Where we can hear – um – everything.”

    “Not sure it bothers her,” observed Zinnia. “I get the feeling she'd be the same if the King was standing right behind her.”

    “Jesus,” muttered Archie. “If you're done flirting, lass?”

    All that, of course, made me suddenly aware that we weren't alone, and I coughed to cover my embarrassment.

    “Uh, yeah,” I said. “Sure. So, ah, what's this amazing plan, then?”

    Berenice snapped her fingers.

    “Oh right, the plan,” she said. “Yeah. It's pretty simple. What we'll do, is――――― what in all blood was that




    Sorry about that, dear reader. I'm not sure if the text you're reading reproduces it, but there's a huge long line of ink across the last page where I jumped and my pen jerked all the way across the paper. There was an explosion, you see – always startling, but doubly so when you're uncomfortably aware that your ship houses an angry pupitar that would very much like to get out of the room it's trapped in and quite possibly wreak a terrible revenge.

    Did you know? According to the pokédex, a pupitar can topple a mountain. I'm not quite sure how – a few minor earthquakes deployed at key weak points, maybe – but still, that's … not very reassuring.

    Anyway. Um, Berenice – no, I'd better fill you in on the explosion first. You're probably not worried – if you're reading this, after all, I survived to finish the book, unless of course this is the last page and it was published posthumously, which is a possibility I'm going to studiously ignore – but I can't really introduce an explosion and then not follow up on it. That would be a violation of my duty as a writer. If something explodes, the reader is totally justified in wanting to know what and how.

    The short version is that the pupitar broke something. The longer version is that it, for some reason, decided to sand-blast its room down to a glass-like smoothness, only it didn't take into account the fact that the Museum is a sealed environment and that therefore there are air filters all over the place. Highly sensitive air filters. That don't take kindly to the introduction of several dozen pounds of sand.

    Anyway, Edie's on the job. She's isolated that part of the ventilation system to avoid any further issues and is synthesising replacement parts as I write this. She won't actually be able to install them until the pupitar calms down – which, for the record, it bloody hasn't – but as soon as it chokes up its air supply entirely and falls unconscious, I guess she can pop in there and get the vents working again.

    You may, dear reader, detect a certain callousness in my attitude towards the pupitar that is somewhat at odds with my usual kindly disposition towards animals. Let's just say that everyone has their limits, and this drowned creature headbutted its way straight past mine at some point in the middle of last night.

    But. But but but. I'm a professional historian, or at least a really dedicated amateur, and I'm not going to let some murderous cocoon get in my way. So, back to Jonah's Respite, and Berenice's plan.

    “The plan's pretty simple,” she said. “This place is old, right? There's a lot of pre-making over tech in here. Stuff we can use, just about, even if we don't know why or how it works.”

    “Like the warp panels?” I asked.

    “Like the warp panels,” she agreed. “More'n that, though. You must've noticed how the door to the back exit sealed when you got down there, even though no one was there to close it?”

    “I was a bit unconscious at the time,” I said. “But the ghosts told me, yeah.”

    Berenice started, unsettled, and looked over her shoulder as if just remembering that they were probably here.

    “Oh. Uh, right. Course. So like, doors and air and stuff – everything in the old bit that was here before Tide – can all be operated from elsewhere. Thinking machines and that, like you have in your ship. Like you said that your pokémon could control.”

    I nodded slowly.

    “Let me guess: when you say 'the old bit', you're thinking of the court.”

    “In one.” Her grin returned in a flash. “You lock that down, you decapitate Jonah's Respite. The guards en't gonna take that lightly.”

    “And we all escape in the confusion,” said Maxie, with a nod of understanding. “All right, I suppose it's as good a plan as any.” He glanced at Archie. “Where on earth did you buy your hardware?” he asked. “I can never make a laptop last more than five years, let alone five hundred.”

    Archie stared. I don't think he could believe his ears.

    “Well, well,” he said at last. “Talk about hell freezing over. What happened to 'buy Devon, you fool, they're much more stable'?”

    “But how exactly do we get out?” I asked, blocking out the petty argument that was flaring on the other side of the cell. “You can't just take Edie with you or they'll notice – and I don't have a key, unless you're going to give me one.”

    “That would be easiest, but there's only one key, and I'm not allowed to keep it.” Berenice pulled a face. “Gotta give it back when I'm done with my interrogation. Which reminds me, when the guards come back, try and look, I don't know, haggard or something? Like you've just been through the most harrowing interrogation ever and you're about ready to pass out from fear and exhaustion.”

    “Don't you think that might be overkill?”

    She thought about it.

    “Well, maybe you're right. How about just worn out and stressed?”

    Lillian interrupted with a fierce babble, and Berenice held out a placatory hand.

    “All right, all right, I'm getting to it,” she said. “Honestly. You got no patience sometimes.” She sighed and turned back to me. “I guess I can leave this bit to her,” she said. “Over to you, then, Lil.”

    The mismagius bobbed her head and began to chant, a high, unearthly sound that reminded me unpleasantly of the wail of the keening wind; the temperature of the room dropped, the lights flickered – and, like a magic trick done so fast you can almost but not quite see how it was done, Lillian folded up and in on herself, and folded out a green and brown porygon2.

    !!! Edie shot straight up into the air, emoting wildly. ?

    “Oh, right,” said Zinnia. “Of course. Illusions. Darn, but she's clever, this Berenice.”

    “Wait,” I said, staring. “Wait, what? What?

    “You can drop it now, Lil. No need to tire yourself out.” Edie's doppelgänger nodded, tweeted, and suddenly ceased to be a porygon2. At the same time, Lillian slid out of some crevice in the air and billowed back into her usual cloak-and-hat shape, seeping through space like squid ink in water.

    “OK,” I said, as a thoroughly confused Edie jumped into my lap in the hope of finding answers or, failing that, a comforting pat, “you're going to have to explain to me what in all blood I just saw.”

    It turned out that mismagius, in common with many other ghost-types, can create illusions – not solid enough, in mismagius' case, to fool the touch, but definitely enough to mislead the eye and ear. Once I knew that, I could see the plan was actually fairly simple: Berenice had walked in here with Lillian, and she'd walk out with Edie, ready to cause some havoc with the Respite's ancient electronics. Meanwhile, Lillian would remain here in Edie's guise; I did wonder if she was all right with leaving Berenice to go off without her, given how cautious she seemed to be, but when it came to it, Lillian carried out her part in the plan without a murmur. I don't think she was as truculent as she pretended. She and Berenice just liked arguing. And anyway, as I learned, maintaining illusions for an extended period of time didn't leave her much energy for anything else; if she had gone, she would have had real trouble keeping up.

    “OK,” I said. “So I get how all that works. What about the actual escape?”

    Berenice steepled her fingers and tapped them against her lips.

    “I'll admit that that bit en't quite as fleshed out just yet,” she replied. “Your ship got chewed up pretty bad by the Teeth, and it en't going anywhere for quite a long time. I think I can get you on board a different one, if you don't mind working your passage, but I can't guarantee it'll be going in a good direction for you.”

    “We want Mossdeep next,” said Zinnia. “Is that right? I mean, I'm kinda out of touch, but I'm guessing that's where we start looking for Steven Stone's key stone.” She paused. “Hey. Stone's stone. What was it with that family and rocks?”

    Mossdeep? That was the Hollow. We hadn't really discussed what we'd do after getting Archie's key stone, but the Hollow was fine by me: that was where the last forest in Hoenn was, and the space agency back in the old days, and all kinds of wonders. I'd always wanted to visit, especially after I'd learned about space. If our journey took us there, I wasn't going to complain.

    But we'd be going without the Museum. And that was – well, that was difficult.

    “A different ship, huh,” I said, trying hard not to sound afraid. “OK. Um, I guess – I guess that's OK. Maybe one going to the Hollow, if you can swing it?”

    “I'll see what I can do.” Berenice hesitated. “Your ship,” she said. “It really is kind of screwed, I'm afraid. And it is … well, it is kind of ours. I mean. It was. But … I don't know.” She sighed, and Lillian curled the edges of her shadow-stuff protectively around her shoulders. “From what you said, it's also kind of Edie's. And the Founder of Tethys', too. Or maybe it's everyone's, with everything it's got in it. Something for the whole ocean.” She shook her head. “I don't know,” she said again. “See, I'm kind of thinking that you're probably the only person who could use all that stuff properly. But also – that ship means a lot to us. 'Us', like that's ever included me. Which it has. But.”
    There was a long period during which no one spoke, or knew how to begin speaking.

    “It ain't mine any more,” said Archie at last. “I stole it, anyway.”

    “It isn't mine either,” said Maxie. “I lost it when I died.”

    “I don't know if it's mine,” I said. “I kind of inherited it, I guess, from Archie and Maxie – the Prophet and the Founder, I mean. Edie's its caretaker, I know that. No one can look after it as well as she can.” (A self-satisfied heart popped up above Edie's head, and she closed her eyes in delight.) “But if it won't run, it won't run. We can sort out what to do with it later. For now, I guess the really important thing is that the key stones are on board.”

    Berenice stared at me, her usual manner wholly disintegrated. I've told you she could grin Moll's grin; this was another face I recognised from my past, the face of a woman whose protective shell has fallen away and revealed something vulnerable beneath.

    “Huh,” she said. “Has anyone ever told you, you're really … what's the word … sensible? Like, in a good way,” she hastened to add. “Like just now, you clearly love that ship, and I see why, it's your home and all, and you want to disagree with me but you also know I'm right, and like … you can and you do put all that aside to focus on what's important for everyone.”

    “I think that's just called common sense,” I said, uncomfortably. I wasn't used to compliments from glamorous pirates. Especially not compliments as thoughtful as that.

    “Maybe it is. But common sense en't exactly as common as the name suggests.” Berenice sighed. “Anyway. Key stones. On the Alcmene, right?”

    “Yeah – and my pills, if you can,” I added. “Actually, that's really important. Please get those.” I tried to avoid sounding pathetic, but I'm not sure I succeeded. Either way, it was obvious that it was important to me, and Berenice nodded in acknowledgement. “Edie knows where,” I went on. “Don't you?”

    A determined nod and a burst of steely music. I was surprised; I hadn't really been aware that she was following the conversation.

    “So she can show you.” I paused. “One thing, though. Is the key stone I stole from the King fake?”

    Berenice smirked.

    “Oh, everyone knows that,” she said. “Key stones are worth more than diamonds, you know? Everyone knows that the real one is kept somewhere safe, ready for our next war. It'd be kinda careless to have the real thing out in the open, wouldn't it? Like Tethys leaving that big old ruby in the middle of the atrium. Our monarchy en't that stable, we know that, and our key stone's way too important to just be hanging round the neck of a monarch who might get assassinated or overthrown at any time. That'd just be ridiculous.”

    “So ridiculous,” I said, catching on, “that no one would even bother trying to steal the one in the pendant, because it's obviously just coloured glass.”

    “Exactly. Except that we all saw the King mega evolve his aerodactyl during the last fight over the throne, and like he had this other stone in his hand and he did his misdirection pretty well, enough to fool most people, but I know sleight of hand when I see it. I suspected it was a con before, but I knew it was after that.”

    “Cunning bastards,” murmured Archie. “Thank God we got the right one after all. Be pretty anticlimactic if we got up to the top of that tower all ready to call Rayquaza and it never bloody heard us.”

    “So, I go get you the key stones and pills and spring the trap, then you break your way out. Lil can pick a lock almost as well as me, so that should be all right.”

    Lillian glowered, but by this point I'd seen her do so much glowering that it had rather lost its impact. I was starting to think that maybe evil looks are just what ghost-types did to pass the time.

    “Then,” continued Berenice, without even acknowledging her, “if we meet, say … junction of Deepacre and Feldt?”

    Lillian muttered something that might have been assent.

    “Yeah, down from Neema's gallery. Then I'll get you to a dock …” She broke off, gathering her thoughts. “Is that it? Don't think I've missed anything.”

    “Just one thing,” said Maxie. “Why is she doing this? She helped you the first time for her own advancement. But why put herself at risk now, after winning so much already?”

    I hesitated. This was not a question I wanted to ask, really. I believed, I really did, that Berenice's main motivation had just been to help me out. Hadn't she called me a hero? Didn't she feel like we understood each other? That mine was a quest she could get behind? And yet – she was a con artist, before she was anything else. I might have been less naïve by that point than I was when I left Tethys, but Berenice knew my weak spot, and it would have been child's play for her to jab her finger into it and twist. Could she have fooled the ghosts so easily? I'm not sure, but I wouldn't put it past her. She had just fooled the entirety of Jonah's Respite, after all.

    Well. I had no real choice. I took a deep breath, and asked the question.

    Berenice looked at me for a long moment. In my lap, Edie shivered and became still.

    “Which one's asking that?” said Berenice casually, after a while. “Just like out of interest.”

    “Maxie. The Founder.”

    She nodded slowly.

    “Where is he?”

    I pointed, and she turned – perfectly, in fact; it looked so much like she could actually see him that he flinched.

    “You don't get it,” she said flatly. “And you never will, not really. You might figure it out one day, but then you'll only know, not understand. It en't something that someone like you can get, not without the empathy of a togekiss. That's work, that is. And no one ever puts in that kind of work to understand it, and you won't either, and so you won't get it.” She looked at me. “Avice. You know, don't you?”

    I did. I couldn't say it exactly, and I still can't now. But I did.

    “Yeah.”

    Berenice nodded. Maxie scowled at her, but said nothing. Archie, who I was pretty sure had been nursing the same thoughts, just glared at the world in general.

    “Well, there you go.” She stood up, languid and graceful as a purrloin. “Lil? Avice? We all ready?”

    I looked at Edie.

    o7, she said, which after a second's thought I recognised as a person saluting. (A note that might detract from the tense atmosphere: oh gods below, dear reader, it's so cute when she does that right, I've got that out of my system now, on with the story.)

    “I guess we are,” I said. “OK, Berenice. Let's do this.”




    Do you hear that, dear reader? (It's a rhetorical question, I know you can't.) It's the sound of a pupitar not banging its head against the walls.

    It might be the most beautiful thing I haven't heard in my life.

    I think it's probably asphyxiated – or rather, since apparently pupitar can withstand very low-oxygen environments, it's clogged up the vents and gone back into stasis until someone opens the door and there's air again.

    This would be a very good chance to throw it overboard, but I almost don't want to take the risk of taking it back into an oxygenated chamber. Out in the corridor, it might wake up and, well, kill everyone. And it'd be kind of galling to have survived everything I have done and then to be killed by a big stone caterpillar on the way home.

    Hm. I'll have to have a think about this. In the meantime, let's leave my younger self for a moment – I'm sure it gets tedious for you, trapped in that cell with her while she sits and worries about her pills – and move on with Edie, curled up in a low-power state that just about let her fit under Berenice's coat, if you didn't notice the faint brown tail sticking out by her leg. I'd suggested that Lillian put an illusion on her to make her look like a mismagius, but apparently that would have been too difficult for her to maintain alongside the Edie-guise she was wearing herself.

    “But what will the guards say when you come out without her?” I had asked, and Berenice had grinned.

    “Leave that to me,” she said, and I did.

    “Didn't you have your ghost with you when you went in?” asked the duty guard, as she walked out and tossed him the key.

    “Yeah,” she answered, giving him a puzzled look. “Why?”

    “Well,” began the guard, and then thought. Ghosts weren't always visible. Some of them could melt into shadows to ambush unwary prey. Some could flicker away to another dimension, and return with a sudden crushing force that broke bones and stopped hearts. Some could even ride unseen inside the minds of others, slowly siphoning off their host's emotions until they were sleek and strong with second-hand fear.

    “You know what,” said the guard, glancing around nervously for the gleam of yellow eyes, “never mind.”

    Berenice blinked innocently.

    “Whatever,” she said. “Go on now. Back to work, boys.”

    The guard, unexpectedly, didn't react. He was too busy wondering if that gleam in Berenice's eyes was the usual insolence or the fire of a parasitic spirit, and it wasn't until the golem headbutted him in its impatience that he moved to return to his post.

    Berenice smirked to herself, tapped her fingers against her leg in time to the music in her head, and walked on.




    “OK, coast's clear. I think. I mean, it is, but like, let's not get too complacent. You feel me?”

    Edie, shaking herself out from under Berenice's coat, considered this for a second – this wasn't the Tethys slang she was used to from me, or the old-world punctiliousness of Maxie – but, in the end, decided that she did indeed feel her.

    They were three junctions down an undistinguished side-corridor from the cavern that housed the guard station, and all was quiet. Here, the lights looked elderly in addition to merely grimy, and the vents wheezed with each pulse from the air pumps. It wasn't a place where they were likely to be discovered. Nor indeed somewhere that people actually went.

    Certainly it was a dramatic change from their last stop; the Museum had been filled almost to bursting with curious pirates. Here, Berenice had moved with grace and authority among the searching guards, dispensing a compliment here, an order there; it wasn't her usual anarchic charm, but it was something similar, the same energy expressed in a different way, making her more palatable to the institution she served. It certainly worked, even if it did leave a bad taste in her mouth. She'd reached my cabin unchallenged, retrieved my case full of pill-bottles at Edie's direction and made her way down to the sealed tomb-chamber without anyone questioning what it was she was carrying. Bold as brass, she'd picked the lock that Maxie had been so certain of, stepped in to grab the box with the key stones, had a brief gape at the ancient skeleton, and popped out again, relocking the door behind her.

    The way she did it, it seemed simplicity itself, and Edie had, beneath her disquiet at the strangers she saw infesting her Museum, been very impressed. This Berenice, she concluded, was definitely worthy of her registered user's trust, and therefore someone whose directions she could comfortably follow.

    “Cool.” Berenice smiled briefly. “Right, then. How subtle can you go? Like, full-on invisibility, or …?”

    Obligingly, Edie lowered her brightness and saturation about as far as they would go, which in that poor light meant that a casual onlooker might not catch sight of her until the second glance.

    “That all? Well, it'll do. Just a precaution, anyway. I'm hoping we en't actually gonna meet anyone.” Berenice peered around the next corner, satisfied herself that all was well, and beckoned.

    Fluttering as softly and sneakily as she could, Edie followed her down another, even grimier passage, and did her best to keep up with Berenice's rapid-fire monologue and pirate slang.

    “So this is the Back Maze,” she said, waving a hand. “You can see it en't the smartest bit of town, way out here in the arse end of nowhere, but it's probably the quickest way into the archives. Used to be hooked up to the warp panel network, but since it's so far from the markets and docks there was no point in settling it, and the panels all broke. I reckon they need to be used or they die,” she added conspiratorially. “Anyway, we busted down the walls between the passages so we could keep an eye on 'em, after this bunch of lairon started nesting here and eating our fuel lines, and they've been pretty much empty ever since.”

    ♪, agreed Edie, although she'd only really got the bit about fuel lines being damaged, and was wondering vaguely if she should offer to weld them back together again.

    They took a left, and a right, and another left, and then looped up a square staircase of uncertain structural integrity (probability of collapse on next usage 17%, Edie's diagnostic programs calculated, immediate service recommended), and then down another set of interchangeable corridors that left her faintly dizzy – although that might also have had something to do with the fact that Berenice threw out so many facts at her so quickly that she had to devote a fair chunk of her processing power towards cataloguing them just to keep up.

    And then, just as they came to what Edie was assured was the final corner, both Berenice and her talk stopped.

    “Oh, uh, hail,” she said, gesturing wildly behind her for Edie to hang back. “Wasn't expecting to see you here, Dean.”

    “Lady B.”

    The answering voice was deep and solid and possibly the closest a sound has ever come to being granite. Instinctively, Edie shrunk back against Berenice's heels, and through her ankles saw a pair of massive, salt-stained boots. She didn't know it, but these in fact belonged to one of our acquaintances from the docks, previously known as the guard with the zangoose. This fact was not without significance.

    “You wound me, man,” said Berenice. “I'm a sergeant now, Dean.”

    “Yeah,” he agreed, albeit in a tone of voice that seemed to imply a belief on his part that if he thought hard enough about it he could will her new rank into disappearing. “I heard.”

    There was a pause. Edie saw a scarred, white-furred face come into view around Dean's leg, and ducked hurriedly.

    The zangoose dropped to all fours, forelegs resting on the knuckles of its great claws to keep their tips from blunting, and peered suspiciously at the spot she had just vacated.

    “So that makes us equals,” Berenice said, in case he hadn't got the subtext.

    “Sort of,” Dean replied. “Lady B.”

    Edie felt Berenice stiffen, and was dimly aware that above her, some sort of battle was taking place on a plane that she didn't understand; down on her level, though, the zangoose was sniffing the air, and while she didn't have olfactory sensors, she was vaguely aware that she did in fact have an odour. Not much of one – smells don't stick to light very well, even the hard kind – but centuries of labour among engines and machines had impregnated her with a faint tang of oil and burning plastic.

    The zangoose sniffed again, and in its bloodshot eyes Edie saw a flicker of recognition.

    “What are you doing down here, anyway?” asked Berenice, changing tack. “I didn't think there were any patrols scheduled for the Back Maze.”

    “Why are you down here?” asked Dean, and the big boots picked themselves up and moved forwards. Berenice took a step back, and Edie shuffled quickly back around the corner and against the wall before she tripped over her.

    A thin black nose ran along the ground, snuffling like a hog. The zangoose inched forwards.

    200.335: “Zangoose” (Ichneumon, type sp. Ichneumon aegypticus), Edie's database told her. Median life expectancy 18.5 years. Median mass 34.2kg …

    “Me? Well, why d'you think? Gotta get into the archives, don't I?”

    You have to hand it to her: she might not always win, but Berenice doesn't back down easily.

    … lesser brindled zangoose
    (I. hyperborealis), now restricted to limited areas in Scandinavia and Siberia due to climate change and competition from the rising population of sneasel …

    Data whirred past Edie's eyes in streams of invisible light. The zangoose edged around Dean's leg, sniffing hard in an attempt to separate Edie's machine-smell from the general mechanical odour of the Respite. It could have been imagining things, it reasoned. And yet …

    “And what exactly do you need in the archives?” asked Dean.

    Berenice drew herself up to her full height, which would have been more impressive if she'd been anywhere near as tall as he was.

    “Not that it's any of your business,” she said, with an attitude of wounded dignity that only she could have pulled off straight-faced, “but it's about the stuff in the Prophet's ship. Lotta weird artefacts in there, and I gotta do some consulting if I want to get to the bottom of what the spy was planning.”

    … to most forms of toxin, and completely immune to the venom of all thirteen species of seviper – although certain isolated populations of I. birchii in Hoenn display the ability (q.v. 424.50.2:“Toxic Boost”) to metabolise some poisons into a powerful stimulant …

    None of this was useful: Edie skipped ahead, scanning for something she could actually use.

    “Right,” said Dean reluctantly. “I guess that checks out.”

    “Course it does,” said Berenice. “What, you think I'm here for fun? This en't the Green Lobster, is it?”

    Dean bristled with such force that Edie felt it even down where she was skulking, but she couldn't think about it; the zangoose looked more certain now, following its nose in a broad arc across the ragged tiles. Her one saving grace was that its master hadn't noticed its concern yet, but if it moved much further from him, he couldn't fail to see the bright white of its body against the dark, and then – well, back in those days, Edie wasn't very good at hypotheticals, but even she could tell that the consequences would be Not Very Good.

    “I know you're up to something,” growled Dean. “You caught the spy, both times? When you can't even catch a cold? You're doing something. Getting yourself into the King's good graces to do – to do something. It's another con, I know it.”

    “I'm going to ignore that,” said Berenice, after a suitably regal pause. “I'm not into all that stuff these days. 'Sides, even if I was up to something, you can't say you wouldn't be doing it too if you had half a chance.”

    Dean paused, but only for a fraction of a second. He leaned in closer on his next words, and would have caught sight of Edie had she not been pressed so tightly against the wall.

    “That,” he said, quiet and utterly self-assured, “is different.”

    “Oh yeah? And why's that?”

    … frequency range varies between species, though is generally from 15Hz up to 50kHz …


    The zangoose took an extra-big sniff and looked up, alert.

    “Because you're a crook and I'm a copper.”

    Berenice raised an eyebrow, but it lacked the usual sarcastic vigour.

    “Really,” she began, and the zangoose saw Edie.

    Vibrating with effort, Edie discharged three quarters of her current power capacity at once―

    ―and six lights exploded, the zangoose burst an eardrum, and Berenice tripped over Edie's tail.

    “What in all―?”

    Dean was cut off by a blood-curdling shriek, and then further silenced as something hard and heavy barrelled into his legs in its haste to get away, sending him crashing through the sudden dark onto the floor.

    Both guards on the floor, disoriented and effectively without pokémon. Who recovered first?

    I'm sure I didn't even need to ask, dear reader. You know what happened next already, in your heart.

    “Sounds like someone's committing a crime,” remarked Berenice. “Better get on that one, Dean. I got my own case to pursue.”

    And then she was gone, tripping lightly down the hall and off in the direction of the archives, a very tired porygon2 labouring at her heels and a confused guard who'd just caught the pointy part of a zangoose in his calf writhing and wondering if his leg was broken.

    Like I said, dear reader. You knew the whole thing already.




    There's an explanation for all that, I promise, and it'll come as no surprise to learn that it was down to the ever-wonderful Edie, in the end. Have I mentioned how much I love her recently? I don't think I have today, anyway, so I guess I'll say it again now: she's my pokémon, and I (somehow) am her trainer, and there is everything between us that that relationship implies.

    Of course, that's not to say that Berenice didn't do well, too. Maybe she had a scheme to divert Dean, maybe not – whatever the case, she played for time while Edie was trying to figure out a way of repelling a zangoose, and made an admirable job of it. That said, Edie did a lot of the heavy lifting involved, particularly when she calculated that if she pitched one of her snippets of music at 40kHz and played it as loud as she possibly could, neither Berenice nor Dean would hear it, but the zangoose would probably feel rather like it had just had a startled ferroseed rammed into its ear. The plan hadn't been much more complex than that – the lights blowing, for instance, were just an unexpected bonus – but it had worked pretty well. Zangoose don't startle easily, but a sound that alien, that loud and that piercing, blasted straight into your ear – well, that would probably startle an aggron, and they barely even notice anything smaller than an arcanine.

    Oh, I should clarify: apparently 'Hz' is a measurement of sound frequency. Although my grasp of what exactly that implies is still slightly shaky.

    One other point before we move on. How do I know what―

    Oh.

    Oh, wait just one moment.

    I'll be back soon, dear reader. I've just had the best idea.
     
  9. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Success.

    Let me quote at you for a bit. You don't mind, do you? I mean, you've put up with all my dictionary referencing and pseudo-intellectual nonsense, so I'm assuming you're feeling generous enough to put up with this as well. I'll take us back to the story in just a moment – but first, this:

    While Harrison et al. have posited that the spines present on the exterior of the pupa allow for development of the distinctive dorsal structures of the adult tyranitar, recent imaging conducted at the Blackthorn Centre for Draconian Researches shows that the spines are entirely hollow, save for a few filamentous strands of nervous and vascular tissue (but cf. Elm, 'Evolutionary Development in the Tyranitar Family', Indigo Journal of Suprazoological Sciences, No. 9 (Summer 1998), 155-67). The current theory, proposed by Dr. T. Nguyen of the BCDR, is that these chambers are designed to detect and produce extremely low-frequency vibrations in the earth for communicative purposes, or to detect the changes in the environment that trigger a pupitar's emergence into its final instar.

    Do you see? You do, right? I might not know half of what someone with an old world education would, but I know that sound is vibrations, and I remember now that Edie can do a trick with that. And it's taken up most of her energy for today, and the vibrations have shaken up her hologram so she's a bit fuzzy and dizzy at the moment, but it worked.

    Here's how the plan went: open the door, locate the pupitar, blast it with all the low-frequency sound Edie could muster before it had a chance to react. Pretty simple by our standards, really – we've been in an awful lot of elaborate schemes, not least the one I've been telling you about today – and yet, of course, the best plans are sometimes the simplest. This was clearly one of those times: the whole room shook, I felt an eerie buzz in my guts and teeth, Edie dissolved momentarily into a cloud of pixels, and the pupitar let out a startled moan and squeezed its eyes shut tightly.

    And then there was silence.

    “So,” I said, trying not to breathe in any sand. “Are you going to stop banging on the walls?”

    The pupitar opened its eyes and glared at me with undisguised hostility. It was actually almost refreshing; I'm used to people trying to conceal their distaste for me.

    “Are you going to stop banging on the walls?” I repeated.

    The remnants of its sandstorm began to swirl around it on the floor, drawing themselves in towards the dark vents on its sides.

    “If not,” I said, steadily ignoring it, “we can do that again. Right?”

    Y, agreed Edie, after a slight pause to determine whether or not I was asking her to lie. She couldn't actually repeat the trick, of course, but I was hoping that the pupitar couldn't recognise that.

    The pupitar, presumably uncomprehending, continued to suck in sand.

    I sighed.

    “OK,” I said. “Edie!”

    Bzzz, went Edie, as if another rumble was charging within her, and the pupitar hesitated. Sand stilled momentarily; uncertainty flashed in the jaundiced eyes.

    “Last chance,” I warned, hoping that it could at least understand the tone of my voice. Otherwise, I felt, I was probably about to find out what sand tomb feels like when applied to your face.

    Bzzzzzzzzzzzzz, went Edie.

    Sand burst in ominous puffs from the pupitar's vents―

    ―and trickled out harmlessly onto the floor.

    “There,” I said, doing my best to sound friendly and not like someone who was currently weak-kneed with relief at having not been pulverised. “That wasn't so bad, was it? Here, have a … uh, have this rock. You eat rocks, right?”

    Carefully, I put it down in front of the pupitar. There was a pause, and then a sucking noise, and the pebble vanished into one of the holes in its face; I heard something scrabbling and rattling inside it, and then pulverised chips of stone flew back out again.

    I looked at Edie, and Edie looked back.

    So, discovery of the day: pupitar don't eat rocks. I suppose they don't eat anything, really. They probably got all their eating done and out of the way before they went into their cocoons.

    Still, it didn't have to be so rude about it.

    Well. I guess really I'm just glad that we seem to have managed to agree to a truce. No more banging on the walls, and no more sonic blasts: that's a good deal, I think. We might not be friends, exactly, but I think I and our new passenger might be able to at least get along.

    Anyway, I promise, that's the end of my interruptions for today. Let's get back to where we were.

    How do I know, I was saying, what Edie thought and did, as the last passage implies? The simple answer is that she told me. That's something she can do now, sort of. And she started on the way to learning how to do it that day, as she followed Berenice down the corridors of the Back Maze and into the archives.

    These archives consisted of something that struck Edie as weirdly familiar: a cluster of interconnected chambers full of cracked electrical display screens and battered plastic towers that whirred and beeped and flashed the occasional light. Here, the lights were cool and bluish, and strangely-shaped engines of uncertain provenance and purpose lay abandoned beneath dust-sheets or domes of glass. Pre-making-over poké balls in locked cases, including one curious purple one in a sealed container of its own; a defunct pokédex; collated copies of the Hoenn Fanfare bound in leather; a beautiful scale model of her ship before it was ever the Museum or even Archie's Alcmene; among all this, Edie felt at home, as if she had simply stepped onto a deck of the Museum she'd forgotten was there. Except that here, everything was alive and functional – computers were active, dust-free circles marked where poké balls had been removed to be put into use, and more than a few of the ancient machines bore signs of having been tinkered with in a bid to discover their function.

    Edie let out a dreamy little jingle, and the tenseness of the confrontation with Dean dissolved in the soothing radiance of electricity at work.

    The entrance from the Back Maze was guarded, of course, but relatively lightly, and with her new rank and old wits, Berenice was easily able to bluff her way past the constable on duty. Inside, the pirate presence was lesser still, and if Edie had had much left in the way of excess power she could have turned her brightness levels up again without fear of discovery. The only person she and Berenice saw was a white-haired woman carefully tapping at a keyboard with the tips of her index fingers, and she was far too absorbed in her work to look up.

    “Everyone's gone down to the Alcmene,” whispered Berenice, stepping quickly behind a computer tower in case the elderly scientist looked up. “Uh, your Museum, you know? Our people have been messing around with the stuff in here for years and not made that much progress, so they're all like really excited to see if there's anything more useful down in your ship's hold.”

    Edie beeped softly, but it must be said that her mind was wandering. The Museum's onboard computers were functional, and it did contain many other independent computers that had been placed there as a wall against historical truth by the Administration; however, none of that had anything on this. In the digital web of her mind's eye, she could see the data streaming out through buried cables, along walls and under floors, spreading like the tendrils of some cosmic octillery all through the Aqua base and even in places out into the newer tunnels of the Respite. Requests and commands flowed back and forth in an intricate dance of ones and zeroes that dazzled her like a ship's lights bursting suddenly through the gloom – and all this even before she'd entered the computer network itself. If Edie hadn't had experience of the Pokémon Centre PC system, an even bigger and more complex network than this, she might well have been too drunk on the flow of information to remember what she was meant to do.

    “So,” said Berenice, interrupting her reverie, “can you do it? I mean, lock down the Respite?”

    Edie couldn't smile with her beak, but she could with her eyes, and she did so then as she sent a tick mark up to hover above her head.

    “OK, cool,” said Berenice, relieved. “So, uh, if you could just …?”

    Edie needed no further encouragement. She flexed her wings, sized up the computers, and dived headfirst into the one that looked the most important.




    The perceptive reader may at this point be wondering how in all blood any of these machines were still operational after five hundred years. Even the simpler technology of the present day requires pretty regular maintenance, and the engineers of the old world, masterful though they were, never really expected their creations would be required to last for five hundred years. These things are old, and they get confused easily, and their innards burn out and have to be replaced with intricate metal designs burnt into green plastic by industrious people like Edie. By all rights, Jonah's Respite should have lost its computer system a long, long time ago.

    But it was still there, and still functional, and in places had even expanded. You could send a message to the main guardhouse at the Teeth from the court down the wires, for example, if you knew how. (Which I guess explains the swiftness with which the mouth had been cleared when we tried our first escape.) Some doors in high-traffic areas of the new Respite had, at various points over the years, abruptly become automatic, sprouting connections to the power grid overnight. Gradually, over the centuries, a whole host of subtle upgrades had spread beyond the borders of the old Aqua base, until some unseen limit was reached a few dozen doors into the process and the invisible mechanic stopped.

    If that had happened in Tethys, of course, the doors would have been torn out and replaced with standard ones the next day. The Administration was the only body permitted to authorise construction projects, even ones that benefited the city as a whole. But the pirates have historically tended towards the view that a free auto-door is a free auto-door, and so everything remains.

    I suspect you, dear reader, have started to feel that there's something familiar in the idea of a helpful, immortal and tirelessly industrious mechanic. Especially one that is wary of being seen, and endlessly protective of the machines it maintains.

    Digging down in ancient wilderness is always a risky proposition. Whether it's the hump of an old mountain resurfacing as an island, concealing a cargo of sleeping monsters, or a computer system run wild, new subroutines popping up like mutant weeds in an untended garden, you're never quite sure what you're going to run into.

    And as Edie dug, something stirred.




    That's all there's time for, dear reader. I'd hoped we might finish off the escape in its entirety today, but I guess that was a bit optimistic. I should probably have realised that all these asides about the pupitar would take time away from what I'm actually supposed to be writing.

    You don't mind, do you? I hope not. Reader, I may not know who you are, but I've come to quite like you. Sitting here on my own, you're my only companion, separated in space and time but united by a story, a wish, a half-belief that I am with you and speaking to you alone.

    My crew aren't the only ghosts aboard this ship, you know. You've summoned mine and I've summoned yours, flouting all the laws of space and time. And that's why I have to write this history, and why, I guess, I let myself include these details from my own current life – birds, and pupitar, and all that. Nothing except story – in other words, pattern-making – can cross the void between two people as different as you and I. You know, it's funny; yesterday I was worried about the fact that we didn't really know each other. But of course, who ever knows anything of anyone but their shadow, and only that by the grace of the narratives they spin?

    OK, OK, I'm getting pretentious now, I know. And I'm probably not even making much sense, either. I'm going to go and put some lentils on to simmer, and have a chat with the ghosts to get this stuff out of my system, and do all the other things that are part of what makes an evening tick gently downhill from work towards bed. I'll be back tomorrow, reader, friend, with an update on our journey, the pupitar, and most importantly, on what happened to Edie when she met the Glitch.



    I am so sorry for how long this has taken for me to get done and up here! I really haven't been so well this year, I'm afraid. My apologies. I'm doing the best I can to keep to the fortnightly schedule, but, uh, as you can see, that really doesn't seem to be happening. Like, at all.
     
  10. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    TWENTY: TWO WAYS OF LOOKING AT A HOLO-BIRD

    Pirate Code, Article 64: Do not question the doors.


    The pupitar is quiescent this morning. That's how it goes with defeated pokémon, or so I've read. If they're not too proud to bend their heads, or too timid to hang around, they usually recognise and respect power. I don't think they're like people – they don't have thoughts like ours, or at least not all of them do. Edie certainly doesn't; it takes a lot of work to translate her computerised, sideways kind of thinking into something humans can appreciate. But there's some kind of awareness in them anyway. You can tell just by looking: there's a light in a torterra's eyes that isn't quite there in a regular turtle. I think that's the closest any of us will ever get to knowing what sapience looks like.

    Anyway, the pupitar has apparently accepted (at least for now) that I'm a trainer worthy of the name, and has stopped wrecking what it probably thinks of as my territory. Which is a start. I'm not sure how I'll get it to transfer its affections over to Moll, but the trading of pokémon was relatively common back in the old world, when trainers were trainers instead of warriors, so I'm sure we'll find a way.

    But I've learned my lesson. Yesterday, I spent too much time on the pupitar and not enough on the actual story; I won't make that mistake again today. Let me refresh your memory, dear reader: we were in the archives, watching Berenice and Edie as they put the grand plan into action. Berenice was keeping an uneasy watch, and Edie had just begun to plumb the depths of the Respite's computers.

    I can't tell you what the inside of the network looked like, because I don't know. I think Edie sees it not as wires and cables but as some sort of visual metaphor, a landscape of shapes and angles that she navigates in an apparently physical way, but neither her ability to describe and my ability to understand extend far enough for her to tell me what that's like. There was something like an old-world town, I think, blocks of data arranged like buildings along roads, and holes in the world where other data clusters should have been – would have been, before the rising water destroyed the machines that housed them.

    Above this bizarre place, Edie materialised, hovering in the illusory air without any of the effort it would have taken her in the real world. She paused for a moment to get her bearings, noting certain statistics about the system that mean absolutely nothing to me but were apparently very important, and dived towards the blocks of data. This would be simple: all she had to do was find and download a map of the Respite, then locate the program that controlled the doors and lock every one she could find except those between her registered user and her destination. If she could disable the warp panels too, so much the better, but Edie had encountered psycho-mechanical interfaces before, back in old Johto where she had tried to disable a teleportation trap, and she knew that this was one area where porygon struggled. Their digital minds were excellent for dealing with traditional computers; much less so when it came to the quixotic, organic process of a psychic matrix.

    And before you ask: yes. Yes, I am still reading that dictionary.

    Update timer, Edie thought to herself, and saw (or maybe felt – I can't quite understand from how she said it) numbers ticking down, marking off the milliseconds since she had entered the network. In here, she moved at the speed of electricity; what felt like minutes inside might only take seconds in the real world. Locking the doors would take ten real-world seconds, she estimated – if she was slow. Sealing the panels might take her up to an hour, and that was too risky, with Berenice waiting in the archives. Best to play it safe.

    I'm anthropomorphising, of course. What Edie actually did was calculate various probabilities, from the likelihood of Berenice being discovered after X amount of time to that of her registered user being displeased if she couldn't get the job done right, and determined the course of action that had the greatest possible chance of coming out right. But it's hard to write down thought processes like that without turning them into the product of a human mind – I mean, they are being filtered through a human mind: mine. As I'm sure I'll end up demonstrating to you at some point, dear reader, Edie's mind is a foreign country.

    Anyway. Down false streets she flew, past colourful titans that hummed and pulsed; the further she went, the more twisted and less cubical the blocks became, and the less even the spaces between them. Everything still functioned, I'm assured, but some blocks seemed to have been melted haphazardly into one, and others lashed together with cables to form bridges over ruined streets. Some blocks were absent, in the kind of way that makes you aware of a missing presence; others seemed to have (if I'm understanding Edie right) sprouted grass, or horns, or pedipalps.

    An aside: do you know what those are? I don't, or didn't till I looked them up – in, of course, my dictionary. Apparently those are the two front limbs on a spider's head. Isn't that cool? I always thought those were legs or jaws or something.

    None of this felt threatening, exactly. Porygon like order, but order doesn't always have to look like geometric shapes lined up in a neat row. There is an order in a makeshift repair, a pattern that unfolds a history of adaptation, of turning the junk of the past into the repair job of the present. Edie was familiar with this, given that she'd had to go to similar lengths to keep the Museum running over the centuries. But still, there was something off about it here. Something – and at this point when telling me about it, Edie paused for a long time, audibly whirring in her effort to make the thought intelligible – unstable. As if parts of this network might slough off at any moment; as if that mountain of code over there could on a whim collapse in a scything lahar of bits and bytes; as if, once mapped, this place might melt and reform behind your back just to spite your efforts to master it.

    Glitched, Edie told me. Bugged. These are old computer terms for errors and instabilities in code, I'm told. And that is what this place felt like to her: a system that had gone so wrong that it had come right round the other side, so to speak, and ended up functional again – that was so broken it was held together solely by a series of fortunate glitches that haphazardly emulated what it was supposed to be doing.

    Frankly, it was amazing that it had lasted this long without the oxygen failing.

    And, dear reader, when something that unlikely happens, it generally means that there's a very good reason for it happening. (Aranea's angel. The coincidence of meeting ghosts. I hope to find the reasoning behind my own unlikely life sometime.) In this case, that reason was red and blue and currently watching Edie from behind a pedipalp.

    The reason's eyes flickered in and out of existence for a moment, which was their way of blinking. There had once been a proper animation for that, but the reason had lost the file to corruption long ago.

    The reason hunkered down and jabbed its beak into the program beneath it.

    A faint hum drifted through the network―

    Edie stopped dead―

    And a wall of low-polygon flame burst into life across the street before her, sealing it off with a roar and an intense glow. Shapes writhed within its brightness, as if of vast creatures shambling forth from some distant lair, and on a distant screen somewhere in the archives a message was displayed:

    Devon Firewall has blocked some or all aspects of this program …

    All Edie saw were the shapes, but she knew well enough what they meant. They were just the internal embodiment of the message on the screen – a show of force to back up the threat embodied in the firewall. Not that it was a very impressive force, for all its size and eldritch horror; Edie swept her little scanning beam over it, and, locating a weak spot, cut a square hole in it just big enough for a little porygon to squeeze through.

    The reason's eyes flickered on and off again, and it burbled in quiet consternation.

    On the other side, the firewall simply didn't exist: from here, the street was clear and quiet. Edie let herself emit a self-satisfied ♪, and continued on her way. If this place had any internal logic at all, it wouldn't be much longer until she reached her destination.

    Unfortunately, while the Respite system did have some internal logic, it wasn't the sort of internal logic that Edie – or indeed most mathematicians – would have recognised as logical. It was the sort of logic that decided that, if the firewall had failed, the appropriate next step was a bolt of lightning.

    Inside the computer.

    Thankfully, Edie has good reflexes, and saw the flare of light before the bolt had finished charging; she zoomed off behind an incidental structure of uncertain shape and size, and the thunderbolt burned a crater into one of the data blocks instead.

    Thwarted, the reason reared, wings flaring, head twitching, and dived from its perch―

    ―and collided heavily with Edie's sharpened body, she having spent the last millisecond reducing her polygon count. Her attacker chittered like a malfunctioning disk drive, holes opening in its body where an ordinary porygon might have rendered holographic wounds, and fell back against the road, flailing its wings in shock and desperation.

    Edie advanced cautiously, carrying a signal beam ready to be unleashed at the back of her throat. She didn't want to fire it – after scaring the zangoose earlier, doing so might drain so much of her power that the system would be able to kick her out – but the thing writhing on the ground before her was old, and powerful, and risk assessment is kind of Edie's thing. Her opponent might be very out of practice at battling, but still. This was not a time to be taking chances.

    The other porygon stared balefully at her, its head jiggling about in the air just far enough from its body that the illusion of the two being attached was unnervingly unconvincing. It looked like a porygon2, except … broken. The severed head had a stumpy spike on it, and the wings and tail looked a mite flatter and more streamlined, like those of a real bird. Something had gone wrong with this one – or rather, about five hundred different things had gone wrong, and somehow it had survived all of them.

    Edie pondered this for a moment, and then scanned it tentatively for its code. PORYGON, she got, but the 2 seemed to be corrupted; she scanned it again, and again it would only resolve as a Z. So much for the maker's mark; its individual designation wasn't much better. Edie had preserved hers carefully, ED13, for centuries; this specimen, however, had apparently been tampered with by someone, and where the barcode ought to be was a blank placeholder texture with the words UP YOURS, SILPH underneath.

    ?, said Edie.

    The other porygon made a buzzing noise that she could not understand. Edie sent it her designation in response, a little bead of light representing a portion of data passing between the two of them, and it froze up for a second as if it had crashed. The moment passed, and it nodded, its hostility apparently receding.

    >Self designated Glitch, it printed, its words appearing on the surface of the road beside it. Query: Designated Devon maintenance?

    Edie shook her head, and sent it another bead of light that informed it she was a box network maintenance unit.

    >State current task.

    Truthfully – this was way before she learned to lie – Edie explained that she was here to lock some doors because she wanted to help her registered user escape from prison. This left the other porygon2, or porygon-Z or whatever it was, more than a little bewildered. Doors had to be unlocked to let prisoners out, for one thing. And for another, what prison was connected to the system? It hadn't seen any prison. As far as it knew, there hadn't ever been a prison here, and it didn't see how one could have been smuggled in right under its beak like that.

    >Query, it asked, trying to boil all of this down to something it understood. Is ED13 system threat?

    Edie shook her head vigorously. She'd never even dream of harming a computer. They were, after all, her closest living relatives – or so she'd thought, before she met this strange creature.

    With her reply, the Glitch seemed to come to a decision. Doors, prisons; this didn't make much sense, but Edie's factory code confirmed her status as a genuine maintenance unit. (And perhaps it also reasoned, with its mind bugged into higher consciousness, that as a regular porygon2 she could not lie.)

    >Access granted, it said, and dragged itself back up off the ground into a hovering position. It held itself much more upright than a regular porygon2, Edie noticed. Almost as if it were perched on an invisible branch, with its long tail hanging down. Flagging file location.

    Edie suddenly became aware that one of the big blocks of data on this street was different from the others. There was no visual change, but it was now strangely obvious which one she should be heading for.

    ♥, said Edie, chiming gratefully, which seemed to startle her host; it drew back, head swaying along after the body as if attached by elastic, and gave her a hard look with those broken eyes.

    And then the Glitch made a decision that would change the course of history.




    What was it thinking? I can only speculate, dear reader, given what happened afterwards. And it's not easy to put together the clues, either; Edie did tell me, but though she writes in clear Tethysi, it still somehow manages to be a foreign language that I don't quite have the hang of.

    But if you want my opinion – and to be honest, if you didn't then you may be reading the wrong book – the Glitch was recognising something in her, some capacity beyond the norm. I mentioned before that I'd read up on porygon: I know they were built without a clear idea of how long they would actually remain functional, and I know that generally they were humanely shut down after a certain number of years of service, when they started to degrade faster than they could be repaired. I guess it's like when a kingdra gets old and starts to forget how to obey commands; they get dangerous, they have to be put down.

    But listen, here's my theory: what the old world scientists thought of as degradation was in fact evolution. Parts of them were breaking, yes, but in new and creative ways. Maybe some porygon did develop errors that caused them harm. Edie didn't, though. What did she develop? It's going to sound kind of sappy, but I think she developed a heart. Porygon aren't meant to be quite that affectionate – they're definitely not supposed to enjoy being played with and stroked more than they enjoy doing their work. They're supposed to respond to yes or no questions with ticks and crosses, which to be fair Edie can do, but she can do so much more than that. Hearts, musical notes, little punctuation faces … this is programming that she's developed herself. There's nothing broken in her, or if there is, it's broken in a good way, in a way that helps her be herself.

    Maybe you think that I'm biased. I am, I won't deny it: I am also a person who has broken herself, modified herself, forced her body to do things it was never intended to do; I have broken my mind, too, squeezed the fragments out of the confining space that Tethys put it into; I have taken the text that was inscribed upon me from the moment of my birth and rearranged the letters into a new self. In that sense, we're two of a kind, Edie and I; our soul lives in the glitches, and what makes us defective makes us stronger.

    And so yes, I'm biased. But would you really say to me, dear reader, after all we've done together, that I should have stayed as I was? As the city intended me to be – a boy, a lawyer, a good citizen, one day a husband who would do his job to help produce the child who would one day replace him? And would you really say that Edie should have stayed as she was? As her makers built her to be – something that's sure to finish its labour before it allows itself love?

    Well, I don't know. You might disagree. I've heard the arguments against my point of view, from the critics in my head and out in the world. It's just that I need this, dear reader. I need this argument like I need my medication. Without it, I would only be broken. Something to be corrected.

    I tried as a child to live like that. I wanted to be corrected; that's why I didn't tell anyone. I thought … for once, it doesn't matter what I thought. I am who I am now, whoever and whatever I was in the past, and that's all that matters to me.




    I've got away from my original point, haven't I? I started that painful little monologue by saying I thought I knew what the Glitch was thinking when it made its decision. And what I think I know that it knew is this: that Edie was not quite a standard porygon2, not any more, and she was the better for it. Remember, Maxie once called her a porygon2.5; Edie was someone who could stand to benefit from a few illicit upgrades. Not too much, mind. Go too far too fast and she might lose herself, as the Glitch had done. It was often very lucid, as it was then, and in those moments it was aware that much of the rest of the time it was not quite in its right mind. Those who had first modified it had done a messy job, inflicting as much harm as good.

    But the Glitch had learned from its mistakes. That's what porygon do, after all; they learn, they adapt, they improve. Honestly, I'm kind of startled that none of their creators seem to have realised that this would probably make them become less robotic over time. Regardless, the Glitch knew how to perform the more dubious kinds of upgrades, and it knew a good candidate for them when it saw one.

    So that's what I think was going on in its head just then, and that's probably why it printed its next question on a wall where Edie couldn't fail to see it.

    >Query. Last checked for updates?

    Edie checked assiduously for updates every Wednesday at midnight, although for many centuries now she hadn't been able to find any, and did not expect to find any for the foreseeable future. It was simply what she was programmed to do. This she communicated to the Glitch, which in turn said that it had some upgrade codes saved on a compact data disk, and would she care to take them with her for later installation?

    I'm paraphrasing, of course, but I think I have the tone right; in its own odd computery porygon-Z way, the Glitch was trying to be delicate and evasive. Fortunately for everyone involved, Edie didn't – and possibly couldn't – spot the deception, and readily agreed. The Glitch nodded happily and flagged the disk's location for her, then retreated, still twitching and jerking, to its perch atop the block of data to watch her progress.

    That about covers the interesting part, dear reader. You know that Edie's good at making computers do what she wants, and without the Respite network's overseer trying to stop her, it was the work of a moment for her to place the pirate court in lockdown, set off a few alarms for good measure, and pop open the disk drive housing the upgrade codes before dematerialising back to the real world. In the instant before the illusory computer landscape dissolved around her, she noted her timer: 26.88 seconds. Not bad, considering she'd had to fight her way in.

    She slithered out of a display screen on the other side of the archives from where she'd left Berenice, and reached under the table beneath it to grab the data disk from the open tray in the computer itself. This safely in hand – or, I suppose, beak, if you want to get technical – she hurried around the back of the room, avoiding the lone scientist, and returned to Berenice.

    “Hey, you're back!” she whispered, doing a very good job of hiding her relief. “You, uh, manage everything OK?”

    Edie nodded cheerfully and emitted a tick.

    “Excellent. And, uh – what's that?”

    For a second, Edie struggled with the issue of how to answer this question with her limited vocabulary, but fortunately Berenice sensed it was going to be difficult and raised a hand to forestall her response.

    “Actually, you know what, forget I said anything. We've gotta get moving if we want to be out of here by the time―”

    Shouts. A distant klaxon. The sound of someone pounding on unyielding metal.

    “―they figure out what's happening,” she finished, unperturbed. “Ready to run?”

    >:[, said Edie, nodding with steely determination, and the two of them, as was pretty much tradition for anyone associated with me by that point, ran.




    Meanwhile, of course, the ghosts and I were hanging around back in the cell, waiting. We knew it would take a little while for Edie and Berenice to get my pills and the key stones and then reach the archives, and then longer still for word to filter back to the guard station. This knowledge was less useful than you might think in helping us sit still and wait.

    “It's been twenty minutes,” muttered Maxie again, pacing back and forth, fingers tensing. “They'll be there by now, won't they?”

    “Depends,” said Zinnia. “They might get held up in the Museum.”

    She was lounging against the wall, arms folded, with a careful kind of casualness that I was starting to learn was fake. Some suppressed energy in the way she held her shoulders told me that she was as impatient as the rest of us.

    “I thought she was in charge of that investigation?” asked Archie. “Who's gonnae stop her?”

    “I guess it's a long way to the archives,” suggested Zinnia.

    “Nah, it's not that far. They're the labs of the old base.”

    “Oh, right, those. Yeah, I remember where they are.” She paused. “You know, they're a bit further away for people who can't walk through walls.”

    The conversation buzzed back and forth around my head like an irritating fly; I wanted so badly to interrupt, to tell them to shut up for a moment and give me a moment's peace, that it was going to work out because this was Berenice and Edie we were talking about, and also because it had to work out, and so could we all stop fretting so much? But with the guard watching me, there wasn't much I could do. Even Zinnia was too preoccupied to pick up on my unease.

    I'm not sure when we became aware that something had happened. It came on slowly, a distant chatter of voices growing to a swell of alarm, and once I noticed it I was aware that it had been going on for some time.

    The guard noticed it too, and started glancing in the direction of the door. Somewhere close by, the click of rifles being readied echoed down the halls, and a big pokémon bellowed assent to its trainer's command.

    “What in all blood?” muttered the guard to himself, and I seized my chance.

    “You could go and look, you know,” I told him. “See what's up.”

    He snorted.

    “Oh, yeah? And leave you to break out? I heard what you done in the court, slithering out of handcuffs like that. No, I'm staying here.”

    I pointed at the golem. It didn't seem worried by the noise, although I have to say that I'm not sure there's much that worries you when you can bite through boulders.

    “I really don't think I'm going anywhere with that here,” I said. “I mean, I've got my pokémon, but she attacks with lightning. Which puts me at a disadvantage, if you see what I mean.”

    At my feet, Lillian made her fake Edie look up. She hadn't done much but pretend to sleep recently; I think she was trying to conserve her strength. The sudden movement made me realise that I had no idea if she was capable of taking on a golem. I knew vaguely that most rock-types were bad at taking non-physical moves, and that ghosts usually specialised in that kind – but still, this was a war-trained golem against a con artist mismagius we were talking about. Hopefully, Lillian's intelligence would count for something in the face of its sheer strength.

    “Well,” said the guard, though he didn't seem to know how to finish the sentence. “Well …”

    He glanced uneasily at the door. Now I could hear footsteps and shouting, both sounding urgent and worried.

    “I guess I could just put my head round the door and have a little look,” he said. “But no funny business, mind. I'm not going anywhere, and he ain't, either.” He indicated the golem, which gave absolutely no sign of having heard him.

    “Sure,” I said. “Fine by me.

    The guard crossed to the door and tugged at the handle, letting in the sound of running soldiers and frantic cries of 'Breach! Breach!', which I guessed meant that Berenice's idea had worked and the pirates now believed the Respite was under attack.

    “Hey!” he yelled down the hall. “What's going on, then? What's this about a breach?”

    I didn't listen to the answer: while he was speaking, Lillian sidled over to the barred door of the cell, a look of innocence set firmly on her illusory face. The golem watched her all the way there.

    Lillian met its eyes, and a wicked mismagius grin split the porygon beak in half.

    A cloud of glowing leaves puffed up and out from nowhere above her head―

    ―and, suddenly orienting themselves with their sharp ends forwards, zoomed with unerring accuracy straight into the golem's eyes.

    That was when things started getting messy.

    The golem roared, clutching at its face; Lillian dropped the disguise and flowed, smokelike, up through the bars; the guard half-turned in alarm―

    ―but she was already there, filling his vision with the purple-black cloud of herself and his ears with an eerie chant, and before he'd realised what was happening his legs were twitching and carrying him off with them, dragging him stumbling out into the passage.

    “Like a makeshift Roar, huh?” noted Zinnia. “Slick. But it won't hold for long. Too quick, and she has to deal with the golem too.”

    Which was exactly the reason I hadn't yet gone for the door; maddened, it kept thrusting its huge hands out at random, smashing chunks from the walls, denting the steel of the bars. If it had hit me, I'd have died on the spot, a neat hand-shaped hole in my chest, and this was a fate I was pretty keen to avoid.

    Lillian, however, was already in motion again. She flowed back through the air, deftly avoiding the wild swings of the golem, and whispered something to the lock; either it was a spell or just a very terrifying threat, because not only did it unlock, but the door sprang open as well – with enough force that it smashed right into the golem's face.

    Since it was made of stone, this didn't exactly do it much harm, and anyway the golem's head slipped between two of the bars. But it took it a few moments to realise what had happened to it, squinting through the concrete-like blood flowing from its eyes, and once it has it very quickly realised that its head was now stuck.

    “OK, I give it ten seconds before it tears the door off its hinges,” said Zinnia, watching the golem thrash and tug. “That's our cue, I think.”

    I didn't argue. Lillian took the lead, and we made a rapid exit. Outside, the guard had recovered, but not enough to keep his balance when I stuck an elbow into his belly and shoved him to the floor; beyond him, hardly anyone even looked at me. Maybe they saw Lillian and assumed I was Berenice without thinking. Maybe they were just too busy getting armed and heading out to counter the assumed incursion to notice one extra person running around where she shouldn't have been. Either way, thanks to the chaos, I got right the way out of the guard station before anyone made even a token attempt to stop me – and when someone did, she didn't do a very good job of it. One guard on the catwalk outside the front door unthinkingly tried to grab my arm and hold onto her rifle at the same time, with the result that she actually just tightened her grip on the gun and fired a bullet into the wall. By the time she'd recovered from the shock of her own lack of coordination, I was thundering down the metal steps, long gone.

    “How're you holding up?” called Zinnia. “Arm OK?”

    I nodded; I didn't have the breath for a reply. Besides, the truth was that this was making it hurt, and I couldn't see the point of admitting it just then. We seemed to have slightly bigger priorities.

    The further we got, the less of a pursuit there seemed to be, and the more of a mess Jonah's Respite appeared to have become. Packs of mightyena wearing blue-painted body armour patrolled the tunnels, each accompanied by handlers with guns and swords; the crowds of sailors on shore leave had vanished back to the safety of their ships; pirates everywhere were loading bullets into guns and rousing pokémon to the sound of droning alarms. As we passed them all, unnoticed in the chaos, I felt like I was passing through a dream. Had we done this all? Edie, me, Berenice – was that all it took to convince the Respite it was being invaded?

    Strangely, I wanted to laugh. Of course it was. Of course it was – hadn't I done the same thing in Tethys? The sergeants had imposed a Martial Dawn the night I stole the Star of Tethys and broke open the sealed passage to the heart of the volcano. I had to hand it to myself: my friends and I might not be such great heroes, but we were pretty good at bringing cities to their knees.

    Lillian took us via back ways and side routes, steering clear of the guards as far as possible, and we reached the meeting point without incident. It was at the intersection of two narrow, cobwebby tunnels that evidently didn't see much use; at their ends, where the lights of the main passages shone in the dark, the shadows of guards flickered past every few seconds, all heading towards the court. I wondered what they thought they'd do when they got there. Break the doors down, maybe? I guessed their pokémon could do that. They say mightyena can bite through steel.

    “Where is she?” fretted Maxie, looking uneasily at the passing silhouettes. “If this is a trap―”

    “It won't be,” I said curtly. “And could you stop that? Both of you,” I added, as Archie opened his mouth. “I know you're not sure about her, but I am, and I'm the one in charge. Or have you forgotten what I said when I left Tethys?”

    It was harsh, I know, and if I could live that conversation over again, maybe I wouldn't have said it. But I think that, after travelling with me and watching me get over the hurt he'd caused me, Maxie might have forgotten that I hadn't left the city to fulfil his old quest. It's not for you, I'd told him. I'm not picking up where you left off. I'm starting again, for me and my city. My ocean, even, but I was upset and it didn't quite come out as I meant it. I care for the ghosts, obviously, and I'm glad they've found something like peace; this quest, however, was a quest for those still living, and those yet to be born. All of us, even the Administrators, even Virgil and Virginia and the rest of the CCC, deserve more from life than sixty years in a metal tube.

    Anyway, everyone was quiet after that, which suited me fine. Berenice arrived not long after, breaking the tension with a harassed smile and the sudden release of Edie from under her coat, and immediately launched into a torrent of words without pausing to catch her breath.

    “So you got here all right, excellent – any trouble, Lil? Cool – listen, if we wait a minute or two longer, one of my old colleagues from when I was in a less savoury line of work should show up. She owes me a pretty hefty favour on account of her not being dead or in jail right now, so I think I can bring her round on this one. Might not be plain sailing, though. En't like she won't recognise you from the description. Oh, and here's your kit, by the way. Stones, tablets.”

    I accepted them both in a kind of grateful daze; my ears still hadn't quite caught up with her mouth, especially since Edie was bouncing around my feet, waving the compact disk and beeping for attention.

    “Um – thanks, Berenice – uh, just a minute, Edie … so this friend of yours―”

    Colleague,” said Berenice firmly. “You could call us friends if you like, I guess, but you'd be lying. We did work together, sometimes, but like another time I cut a bit off her ear in a knife fight, so we're not exactly friendly.”

    “Oh, wonderful,” muttered Maxie, presumably thinking of the possibility of betrayal. And then: “Oof,” he added, with rather less dignity.

    “Oops,” said Zinnia cheerfully. “Sorry! That was clumsy of me.”

    “So point is,” Berenice went on, “let me do the talking, right? I can get her on board.”

    Having absolutely no inclination to jeopardise my chances of getting out of Jonah's Respite with an ill-advised comment, I nodded, and waited with her for the short time it took her contact to turn up. She proved to be a tired-looking young woman with pale skin and eyes sunk deep into dark circles, and had a hunched goblin-like creature with a duck's bill following at her heels. A covert glance confirmed Berenice's story about the knife fight, or at the very least, that this woman had indeed lost a substantial amount of her left ear.

    “What in all blood do you want, then?” she asked, without preamble. “Go on, out with it. I know it's gonna be painful.”

    “Not really,” protested Berenice. “I just need you to get my friend here outta the city.”

    The woman glanced at me and had her eyes halfway back to Berenice before she realised who I was and started staring in earnest.

    “Oh, holy Tooth, monarch among monsters,” she muttered. “That's … that's the Tethys spy.”

    “Well, kind of―”

    That's the drowned Tethys spy!

    “Bloody hypocrite!” snapped Berenice. “She's fleeing the city, actually. They got their spooks after her and everything. You know, the creeps with the V fetish.”

    The woman snorted. Her golduck raised its head and looked gravely at Berenice down its length, which was possibly the most emphatic expression of contempt I've ever seen.

    “Listen, Ber, that silver tongue of yours might work on ev'ryone else but I seen it lickin' out the bottom of a can of dog food before. I'm not buyin' it. That's the spy and you're a hallow-drowned traitor.”

    “D'you want me to beat you over the head with your debt, or what?” growled Berenice. “I en't got time for this. She's like me, Rhi, and you know what that's like even here. Imagine what it's like in Tethys.”

    The woman stared at me again, but differently this time, appraisingly. I'd known that look for years now – the look when someone who didn't see it learns about you, and suddenly turns their eyes on you, seeking the clues that they missed. It makes me feel grotesque, misshapen, a broken-mirror distortion of a woman, but I forced myself to meet her gaze. I can be as judgemental as you, if I want, I said silently. I learned from the best.

    “Right,” she said slowly. “So what's she doin' here, then?”

    “Long story,” said Berenice. “But she can fill you in on the way to the Hollow, can't she, Rhiannon Azalea dol' Tethys?

    Tethys? Now that was unexpected; she certainly didn't sound like a citizen. Her voice was actually rougher than the majority of the pirates I'd heard. And anyway, Archie had told me that deserters weren't uncommon, so why would she be hiding her Tethysi past?

    Rhiannon winced and nodded.

    “OK, OK, I get the picture,” she hissed. “We both know I gotta do this, right? But I don't like it.” She sighed and returned her attention to me. “You're gonna need a disguise,” she said. “And that arm … drown it. You en't even gonna be any use to us, are you?”

    I was more than slightly lost in the intricacies of the conversation – it felt like I was seeing a tiny cross-section of a much vaster history between these two – but I was determined to hold my own.

    “I'm good with machines,” I said evenly. “Me and my pokémon, we can make them do anything. Right, Edie?”

    She nodded enthusiastically, jingling with excitement. I don't think she quite understood the lie, but she always likes flattery.

    “Hmph,” said Rhiannon, clearly disappointed to find I wasn't entirely useless. “We'll see.”

    “So do we have a deal or what?” asked Berenice. “'Cause remember, I en't just an urchin these days, I'm a sergeant. I don't even have to convince anyone now, I can just get myself a couple of constables and …” She mimed a pair of little explosions with her hands and raised her eyebrows in a significant kind of way. “Know what I mean?”

    Rhiannon smiled sourly.

    “Yeah,” she said. “I know what you mean.”

    “Good. Now go get her on board before the guards figure out they en't under attack after all.”

    “Yes, ma'am,” said Rhiannon, and turned to me. “Right, then, fellow expat,” she said unenthusiastically. “You ready?”

    “Hm? Uh. Yeah.” I looked at Berenice. “So hey … thanks. You've done a lot for me. Lots more than you had to, and definitely more than I gave you any reason to. So. Thanks.”

    She grinned, and the grin is hovering in my memory still: white teeth in a dark face, the twin of Lillian's wicked smile, rich with the glittery charm of the natural trickster.

    “Are you kidding?” she asked. “Haven't had this much fun in years.” She paused. “Well. At least not this month.” She smiled again, leaned in for an unexpected hug. Her body was long and hard with bone and muscle, and as I felt its warmth through my jacket I seemed for an instant to have mislaid my lungs.

    Berenice pulled away, leaving me stammering and shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, and gave me a little shove in the small of the back.

    “Now go on,” she said. “Get outta here, Avice. And save me a seat at the end of the world!”

    I say a lot about patterns and symbols, dear reader, and they are definitely powerful stuff, but the real magic of the world is in the unasked-for kindness of strangers. They are what saved me, and by extension all of us, and I hope one day I'll be able to count myself among them.




    I let the pupitar out.

    Hopefully that wasn't a mistake. It seems to have calmed down, and now it's gliding in a stop-start kind of way around the halls with gentle jets of compressed gas. It's actually got quite good fine control of its movements, when it isn't trying to headbutt its way through a solid steel wall. At the very least, it hasn't crashed into anything yet.

    Anyway, I think that everything is now cool between us, so I guess it's now just one more addition to our little company. We're collecting way more pokémon than I ever thought we would, and I suspect there are more to come. As the inhabitants of this new world line up to pop into existence, lots of them are going to find themselves adrift, on tiny islands without adequate food supplies, and because at heart I'm a big soppy fool, I'm probably going to take any that want to stay on board the Museum and try to feed them.

    Now I'm wondering what kind of name is suitable for the pupal instar of a cantankerous sandstorm-summoning dinosaur, but any researches in that direction are going to have to wait till later, I think. I really want to finish Jonah's Respite today.

    Before we rejoin my younger self, though, we have a question to address, and her name is Rhiannon Azalea dol' Europa, née dol' Tethys. Who is she? How did she come to be here, at this time, in this place? I don't know her story in as much detail as I know Aranea's, for instance, or even my mother's, but let's do her the courtesy of making her more than an incidental character in the narrative of my life. The way she saw it, after all, she was the protagonist, and I was just a nuisance.

    Here, then, is what I know about Rhiannon: she was born, obviously, in Tethys – during a storm, I think, which of course meant she was dedicated in time to Tempest. That, as I've said, is always a bit of a gamble, for Tempest's wingbeats might bring fair winds or foul and no one can ever say for sure what the Eldest Child thinks of its devotees, but for the first part of her life it appeared to pay off. She was the daughter of the Atrium Administrator for Garden, which, though it didn't officially confer any special benefits on her, meant that her life ran with unnatural smoothness. The machinery of state made subtle alterations to itself as she approached: her ration card sometimes went unpunched, her lower graded exams were sent for remarking and always came back higher, her application for a place at the academy was met with an unconditional acceptance.

    Actually, now I think of it, she was probably in her third year when I joined. We may even have met, if only briefly – but of course I wouldn't have recognised her, not in the anonymous red uniform and her hair in the regulation shoulder-length cut. When I saw her in Jonah's Respite, she wore scuffed, patched denim decorated with old world bottle caps along the edges of her sleeves, and she'd shaved the left side of her head while bleaching the right to the colour of fresh bone. It's a fair bet that even her own mother wouldn't have recognised her.

    But I'm getting ahead of myself. How, you want to know, did a cosseted Administrator's kid end up second mate to a pirate captain? In a way, I guess, she was a victim of her own privilege. Someone like her would never be assigned work, or rather she would, but never anything she didn't want to do. And so when, rather than following directly in her mother's footsteps, she expressed an interest in the more covert side of Tethys authority, it was quietly made to happen. It wasn't as if she didn't have the skills. In fact, she rose through the ranks of the CCC recruits very quickly, and not just because of her mother's influence. She was perceptive, lithe and a pretty good shot with a flechette-gun; the only area she didn't excel in was pokémon training, and that might have been because she'd never done any before.

    She was also a good actor, and that was why, when the Administration decided it needed to embed another agent in the ranks of the pirates, she was the first candidate. Maybe she was a little young for a mission like that – but the Administration always did pick young people for those tasks, I've heard. They looked at it like an investment: put a spy in her twenties in your enemy's household, and with a little luck, you'd get back thirty-odd years of reports. And if they died, so be it; at least no more than a few years of experience had perished with them. Perhaps the parents would object, but only if they found out, and the CCC was very good at keeping information to itself.
    It would have been an entirely normal story (by Tethys standards at least), except for the one thing that the Administration never quite got under control: love. It got my father into – and then out of – trouble; it bound Aranea to him for life, at least until Tooth came for her. If anything else has so often clashed with a citizen's sense of duty and come out on top, I don't know what it is. And so it was that when Rhiannon moved from the loveless competence of her social sphere in Tethys to the rough, genuine camaraderie of Jonah's Respite, where you could make a friend and know they liked you for reasons other than your political utility, she had something of a crisis of faith.

    This was compounded by the fact that she met a pirate man she liked, and though the relationship did not last long it taught her a lot that made her question her allegiance to the city. She continued to send back reports via the ghost-type couriers that appeared in the shadows of her room each month, but they were vaguer, carefully designed to seem useful while actually saying nothing at all. (The benefits of a Tethys education, dear reader.) Had she been able to become a double agent, she might have done so, but the lines of communication were strictly one-way, and she never knew what the Committee thought of her reports.

    And then she'd got found out. Rhiannon's task had been to keep tabs on the pirate underworld, where information that wasn't necessarily supposed to be public was a more reliable currency than kites, and that had brought her into contact with Berenice. Berenice, of course, had wormed her way under her disguise with that intractable curiosity of hers, and ended up observing from a quiet corner while Rhiannon handed a bundle of papers to a dusknoir who materialised and dematerialised in the darkness like an envoy of hell.

    Eventually, Rhiannon stopped sending reports altogether, although quite how she evaded the dusknoir courier I'm not sure. I have a sneaking suspicion she might have faked her death; Rhiannon may not actually be the name she was born with. It would make sense, after all; she probably had her birth-name committed to the Museum when she became a full agent, and was issued a false identity for use among the pirates. I don't quite have all the facts on this point. But reformed or not, she had still committed crimes against the Respite, and the pirates don't take kindly to that kind of thing – especially when said crimes are performed in the service of Tethys. Berenice had her leverage, and in exchange for not remembering what she had seen she left Rhiannon owing her a favour.

    A very big favour, actually. The kind of favour you owe someone when she has literally spared your life, and possibly the only kind of favour big enough to warrant smuggling a wanted spy out of Jonah's Respite.

    Now you see, dear reader. I hold nothing against her. Wouldn't you be a little prickly to the woman who symbolised your debt? I like to think of myself as a nice enough person, but even so, if I were Rhiannon I probably wouldn't like whoever was me all that much either. And it's not like― never mind, actually. That comes tomorrow.

    We'll leave that there. More on Rhiannon at a later date, dear reader, but I wanted you to know that she isn't some minor villain of the story – a one-dimensional threshold guardian whose sole purpose is to be grouchy and begrudging so that I can overcome her to move on. This is not that kind of story. With the possible exception of Virginia, I don't think there are any villains in my narrative, just people with histories – some of which I know about and have written down for you, others of which I have been forced to leave out due to ignorance or lack of time, space and ink. The King of the pirates, for instance. What's up with him? And Richter? There's a story there, mark my words, but I'll never know it. Same goes for Galen and their cakes. Where did the sugar come from, and the food colouring? I'll never know.

    Gods below. Everything exists so much, you know? Galen exists, and they have a past, shot through with complications and first loves and accidents and neuroses and the baking of tiny cakes decorated with salamence-shaped icing; Rhiannon exists, and her past is not just the tidy affair I have sketched here but a massive thing extending prismatically beyond it in more directions than the Tethysi language has names for, and …

    Well, I get the feeling I'm probably just repeating myself at this point. I'll leave it, dear reader. Let's get back to business.
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2016
  11. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    So, on with the show. Rhiannon took me (and the ghosts, although of course she didn't know that) down to a small, fairly quiet sub-dock, where the vessels were mostly of the kind that look like they're held together by rust and hope. There weren't many people around, and those who were out were much too worried to notice that I looked suspiciously like the spy everyone had been talking about.

    “You,” said Rhiannon, speaking for the first time since we'd left Berenice and making me jump, “need to change your look if you don't wanna get recognised. Up those stairs there, second door on the left, you'll find my shore quarters – follow Spike, he'll see you right. Change into somethin' less distinctive than that dress and wait. Got it?”

    “Uh – sure,” I answered, and she handed me a key.

    “Good. That'll get you in. Back in a minute.”

    She didn't give me a chance to say anything else; by the time I'd got my mouth open, she was three ships away from me and walking fast.

    “Nice, ain't she?” remarked Archie. “This is gonnae be a fun trip, I can tell.” He sighed. “Reckon you should get a move on, lass. Before someone recognises you.”

    This was sound advice, and I took it. Besides, the golduck – Spike, I presumed – was getting impatient, croaking up at me like an elderly smoker, and I didn't want to give him or his mistress any reason to regret smuggling me.

    The stairs Rhiannon had mentioned were sandwiched between a smoky bar and an alley strewn with glass from its broken lights, which seemed to indicate that this wasn't exactly going to be a penthouse apartment, and indeed it wasn't: a couple of small rooms with stained walls and battered iron furniture on bare steel flooring. Not great, but a decided improvement on a prison cell.

    “Cosy,” said Zinnia, raising a sarcastic eyebrow. “When was the last time that water was changed, do you think?”

    That was in reference to the tub by the bed that Spike had just climbed into, which was full of something that might once have been water but was now so thick with scum it could easily have just been 100% algae.

    “I don't know,” said Maxie, peering at it with horrified fascination. “But it may well be the only thing left in Hoenn that's actually older than we are.”

    In a wardrobe missing one of its doors I found a flannel shirt and some jeans, which were, if not in great repair, at least clean, and fit me reasonably well. I wasn't exactly pleased to give up the dress – you know me, dear reader, one of my favourite things about the Museum is its collection of old world clothing; I could spend hours trying things on in there, and frequently have done – but I figured I could at least keep my own boots and leather jacket. They seemed sufficiently piratical to pass muster.

    “Hm,” I said, staring at myself in Rhiannon's dirty mirror. “Is that blood on my face, or on the glass?”

    “On the glass, I think,” said Maxie. “It looks like part of the same line of droplets that goes on up … ah. All the way up there.”

    We paused for a moment, contemplating how exactly someone ended up spraying that much blood that far up the wall.

    “Rough neighbourhood, huh,” said Zinnia.

    “It certainly looks like it,” agreed Maxie.

    Fortunately, we were saved further thought on the matter by Rhiannon's return.

    “That's your documents sorted,” she said, shutting the door behind her. “Lucky I have the authority to sign on someone new. I see you've changed,” she added, casting a critical eye over me. “Good. You look less out of place now. Though we're gonna have to cut your hair. Bleach it too, maybe.”

    “Oh.” I swallowed. Fair enough: my hair is – was – long and probably quite distinctive. Most pirates wear theirs short or held close to their skulls in braids, for reasons of practicality. But still, I was pretty attached to it. Part of the reason I'd let it get so long was because it was by then far beyond the maximum permissible length stipulated in Tethys uniform regulations. Back in the city, with its slavish, obsessive imitation of the old Magma uniform, there were only two hairstyles, one for men and one for women; I'd loved seeing my hair grow out of the former as a child, and later taken a more subtle pleasure in watching it cease to obey any kind of Tethys rule at all.

    But of course, I didn't really have a choice. Rhiannon was right. I needed to keep a low profile, and my long, reddish hair was not exactly conducive to that sort of thing. Especially not when in an unlikely pairing with brown skin, a fact which the rumour mill had by then spread to every pirate this side of Nueville.

    Do I need to describe this in any more detail? I don't claim to know your situation, dear reader, but I'm pretty sure you've probably had at least one haircut in your life that you weren't all that keen on. This was one of those, although Rhiannon was surprisingly good with the scissors and I didn't look as bad as I'd feared once she'd finished it. I'd thought I might just look like a boy again, but there was something subtly un-Tethysi about the way she'd cut my hair that I grudgingly came to like.

    “It's not so bad,” Zinnia assured me as I stared disconsolately into the mirror. “Round about the end of the world, short hair was in style. I mean, uh, well. Look at me, for instance.”

    “Yeah,” confirmed Archie. “It's not a bad hairstyle, just … five hundred years too late.”

    “How reassuring you are, Archie,” said Maxie, sighing. “You must be thrilled to hear it, Avice.”

    It was enough. Old world style is always preferable to new world ugly, so I took that and stayed silent while Rhiannon applied some vile kind of chemical gloop to my hair that sucked the colour out of it.

    “Look at it this way,” she said, unexpectedly breaking the silence. “It's anti-Tethys.”

    Taken by surprise, I caught her eye in the mirror and smiled.

    “Thanks,” I said. “That helps.”

    She didn't exactly smile back, but she didn't look overtly hostile, either. At the time I had no idea what to make of this, but I guess now that now she was over the initial shock of having her debt called in, she was probably starting to feel a little sympathy for me. It's not every day two fugitives from Tethys justice meet up, after all. We had the weight of the city's malice in common, and that's no small thing.

    And then, at length, she was done. My scalp tingled and my neck felt kind of cold without my hair lying over it, but I was at a glance utterly unrecognisable. In sunglasses and a new set of clothes, it'd take someone with more than a basic knowledge of what I looked like to figure out who this person was – and unless the pirates could print up wanted posters faster than the mechanical press at Tethys, I thought most people I was likely to meet would only have a simple description to go on.

    Rhiannon had to leave again after she was done, though she wouldn't say why; this time, she took Spike with her, and was gone until long after I'd fallen asleep on her ratty old sofa, Edie pulsing gently in the crook of my arm, the code from the Glitch's gift rewriting her in her sleep. (I would wake to find her changed, but that's a story for tomorrow.) This was my last night in Jonah's Respite, dear reader. The next afternoon, I would go aboard Rhiannon's ship, and be examined by the captain and crew, and make a tentative start at being a real sailor for once; I would leave the Respite, and the Museum, and my guns, and my forks, and my books; I would no longer be Captain Avice, armed with the formidable technologies of a bygone era, but just plain Avice, no gentilic given, one more nobody clutching her Tooth talisman in a tiny room surrounded by the vast, uncaring ocean.

    That was the end of something, that night. My arm hurt and my heart was full of fear; there was nothing to protect me any longer, not one thing to stand between me and the harshness of the world. I'm not tough, dear reader, or if I am now I wasn't back then. Tethys and the Museum are luxurious places to live by most people's standards, and even if I had it a little harder than most in the city, there was much worse out there in the wider world.

    This is where we'll leave it today, dear reader. On the one hand, freedom; on the other, uncertainty and terror. You know, of course, that I got to the Pillar in the end. That's not to say that I didn't lose anything on the way.



    Hey, look, I was only one week late with this update. That's ... promising? I guess? Anyway, sorry about the delays. I'm sure we're all sick of this particular story arc by now, so rest assured that we have finally put it to bed and can move on with the main plot. Thanks for sticking around!
     
  12. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    TWENTY-ONE: THE BAD CHAPTER

    Note to self: try to find a quote that'll tie this mess together before we get back to Tethys.

    I've been neglecting the ghosts, I think. Jonah's Respite was very much a place for my story, where the action took place on a more physical plane than the ghosts were able to influence. They did have their discussions, but these didn't affect events quite as much as, for instance, Berenice's capacity for abusing her authority, or Edie's ability to physically enter computers.

    But that's not to say that nothing they did was relevant. There was one interesting conversation they had, for instance, on that night when I slept on Rhiannon's sofa and Edie mutated in my arms.

    Night is a difficult time for ghosts. We're all asleep, and they're just left to hang around, luminous shapes in a world full of darkness and the tiny mysterious noises of buildings whose occupants are still. They have two options, really, and those are either try to get into that half-aware state that isn't quite sleep and isn't quite wakefulness but passes the time reasonably quickly, or to seek each other out and do their best to while away the hours with conversation.

    This was one of those conversations, and it was the kind that starts with a silence.

    “Mossdeep, do you think?” said Maxie, after it was clear to everyone that the breath of all living occupants of the room had long since deepened into the heavy rhythm of sleep. “Is there much of a chance his stone will be there?”

    Zinnia shrugged.

    “He lived there,” she said. “It's gotta be worth a shot.”

    She left her perch on the arm of the sofa and leaned against the wall, which was pretty brave of her considering some of the stains on it.

    “And you know,” she added, “he was there at the end. He failed with the rest of us. He may be there too.”

    Maxie nodded.

    “The idea had occurred to me.” He folded his arms, tilted his head slightly in an enquiring sort of way. “What if he is?”

    “I don't know.” She changed position again, restless. “I mean. If he is, wouldn't Wallace be around somewhere, too?”

    “Your point being?”

    He knew, or at least he'd guessed. But he made her say it anyway.

    “Those two,” she said. “They were friends, right? Wallace believed in choosing a champion to face Kyogre, and Steven backed him up because he trusted him. So it's them that …” Her brows drew momentarily closer together, but in the next instant her self-possession returned. “Look, I'll be honest, I really care about Avice,” she said. “Maybe it's just me trying to replace Aster, maybe it isn't. Either way, I don't know if I trust people like Steven and Wallace with someone like her.”

    She turned her eyes down to me, asleep on the sofa. To her, how young did I seem? How fragile? When we sleep, everyone's faces reveal more than they would normally allow.

    “Young heroes,” she said. “They're vulnerable to people with big ideas, Maxie.”

    “I'm aware of that,” he replied, thinking of Groudon.

    “Yeah, I know.” She looked up at him, and he could not tell if it was contempt or pity that he saw in her eyes. “You know where we'll have to go after we get Steven's stone, right?”

    Maxie scowled.

    “If I remember correctly,” he said, in the kind of careful voice that meant he did remember correctly but had a point to make, “you said that we needed one more key stone, but preferably two.”

    “That's right.”

    “How preferable would it be to have two, exactly?”

    “Very preferable,” replied Zinnia. “I mean, we'd prefer it if this worked, right? So we'd prefer to have five key stones, because that's probably what it's gonna take.”

    Maxie nodded, very slowly.

    “You didn't want to upset him?”

    “I thought you'd be more likely to take me seriously if I didn't bring it up,” she said. Her usual lightness of touch had evaporated entirely. Now Zinnia was not the friend and mentor, not the trainer or the mother; this was Zinnia the Draconid. When she spoke, it was as a lorekeeper of the ziz-lords. “And I wasn't going to pass up a chance to atone for what I did.”

    “What we all did,” corrected Maxie, and Zinnia shook her head.

    “No. Our crimes are separate, and so's the punishment. It's just that they all fed into the same outcome.” She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “So,” she said in the end. “How do you feel about that? About … going back there?”

    “If it's what has to be done,” said Maxie. “But I think – that is to say, it seems, ah, inadvisable, to …”

    “Sure,” said Zinnia. “Look, I'm a Draconid. I know when not to speak.”

    This seemed to lay the matter to rest, and led into a silence that Maxie didn't know how to break. Consequently, he felt more thankful than guilty when Archie ghosted his way under the door and broke it for him.

    “Looks like everything's calmed down,” he said. “Nothing― why d'you two look so suspicious?”

    Zinnia's ironic grin snapped into place.

    “Just having a little chat,” she said. “It got kinda deep at the end there. You startled us.”

    “Huh. What were you talking about?” asked Archie, a note of suspicion lurking in his voice.

    “Oh, nothing important,” said Zinnia. “Boys, mostly. Right, Maxie?”

    He glowed redder for a moment, and stammered out:

    “Ah, yes. Yes, Zinnia has been … er … educating me.”

    Archie blinked, opened his mouth as if to ask for clarification, and then closed it again with a little shake of his head.

    “You know what, I just decided I don't want to know,” he said. “Shall I just go ahead and tell you what I found out?”

    “Yes. Yes, please do.”

    “Right. Well, it's nothing to be worried about – when she left earlier, I mean.” He gestured at Rhiannon. “She went to join her crew. Supposed to be ready for battle stations, but the order came to stand down.”

    Did you really think I'd let myself be kept in the dark, dear reader? I was afraid, yes, and it took me a while to push through my anxiety enough to realise it, but I had one advantage left to me, and that was the immortal eyes and ears of the ghosts. When Rhiannon left for the second time, I had Archie shadow her to get a feel for how things were going out there in the wider Respite. I might have fallen asleep before he got back, but in my defence, it hadn't exactly been an easy day. I'd just lost the Museum, and my arm was killing me. If Edie had had some of those too-strong painkillers to offer me, I'd have taken them without even thinking about their knockout effects.

    Now Archie laid out the situation: Jonah's Respite was on a properly military footing. With several doors broken open and lines of communication between court and city re-established, the King had called for reports, and found a lot that worried him. My absence had been discovered shortly after one patrolling guard unit came across a berserk golem with three hundred pounds of steel door hanging around its neck, and in consequence the whole chaos with the doors had been interpreted as a Tethysi attack. Richter had advised locking down the Respite entirely until I could be found, which would have probably meant the end for me if he hadn't faced such strenuous opposition from several other of the King's counsellors, who argued that trade was going to be more important now than ever, since this looked like the start of a war and wars were expensive. Besides, wasn't it likely that I was already long gone by then?

    “I think all of those ones had trade ships waiting to come in,” added Archie thoughtfully. “So I'm guessing there's a wee bit more greed involved than public spirit.”

    The King, for whatever reason, had been swayed by their arguments. Perhaps he was shocked at how effectively I'd played his settlement, and was worried that war with Tethys was going to take more resources than he'd thought. It had been a long time since the Battle for Tethys, after all, and the city's strength hadn't been seriously tested since. With corvettes fighting at Cormac's Mourn and spies making fools of Jonah's Respite, it must have looked to him like Tethys' power was waxing everywhere.

    So he'd given the command. Preparations were over; war had come. Earlier than he or anyone else had wanted, but here it was. Tethys and the pirates, red and blue, Magma and Aqua facing off against each other all over again, as if by replaying the old doomed rivalry one more time they could somehow exorcise the trauma of it.

    It's not just the death and the pain that makes me regret being part of the cause. It's that idea, too. Trauma is a repetition, something that comes back again and again as you desperately try to neutralise it, to distil it into tragedy instead of something real. And even now, as the waters fall, I hear about the fleets and realise how obsessed we still are with the end of the old world. We made it our god, worshipped and feared it; we hated it, we resented it, we repeated it, and it breaks my heart to say it, but we're still repeating it now.

    Yes. I'm aware of the irony in me saying that. Me, the historian, the poet, the woman attacking the past with scissors and glue and sticking the scraps down in her notebook to make it conform to her understanding of the world. But no one's above this obsession, dear reader. Not even you.

    I digress, or maybe I don't. This is a history, after all. It's important for it to be aware of what it is. Truth is a fickle thing, and has to be held pretty drowned tightly if you don't want it slithering out of your grasp and plopping back into the ocean with a smile and an insolent flick of its tail. That much I learned from Tooth, more or less.

    But that definitely is a digression, so let's leave the great underwater nightmare alone for now and return to Archie's report. The King had declared war, and now word was going out that lesser trading missions were cancelled, that the warships were to give up their peacetime role and prime the guns, and that any port trading with Tethys vessels was to be made aware that it did so against the wishes of the pirate king.

    “I hung around for a bit, and I don't think they know what to do yet,” Archie said. “King's having discussions with his advisers about how to proceed.” He shrugged. “Seen a lot of these wars by this point. They usually start with Tethys freighters getting attacked, looted and sent back empty. A warning, like, and an insult. And if those corvettes are still floating round trying to look for us, they're gonnae be on their hit list too.”

    “What about Rhiannon's ship?” asked Zinnia. “Do we know if it's still going to Mossdeep?”

    Archie shook his head.

    “Can't say. But I reckon it will be. I've seen it, and it ain't the kind of ship I'd take into a fight if I wanted to live to see the end of it.”

    Maxie raised an eyebrow.

    “Wonderful to know that we've signed on with such a sturdy vessel,” he said dryly. “It can at least make the run to Mossdeep, I hope?”

    “Well, it can,” replied Archie. “And it probably will, too, or at least I hope it does.” He sighed. “Tell the truth, it looks like it needs scrapping to me, but maybe Edie can do something with it.”

    The three of them looked at her, glowing softly on the sofa.

    And then they saw, and the looks became stares.

    “It's not just me, is it?” asked Archie.

    “No,” replied Maxie, adjusting his spectacles as if the issue might be with his vision and not with Edie herself. “No, she's definitely gone back.”

    With an update comes a reboot, and on installing her updates Edie had reset herself: wiping, quite by accident, the mess that Maxie had made of her colour scheme. She was back to the traditional red and blue of a regular porygon – and, moreover, she looked ever so slightly bigger than before.

    “Archie,” said Zinnia.

    “Yes?”

    “Just out of interest, what exactly were you keeping in the Aqua archives?”

    Archie looked from her to the embiggened Edie and back again.

    “I thought I knew,” he said, mystified. “But now I'm really not sure.”




    And that's it, dear reader: that's the end of Jonah's Respite. Morning came, I hid in Rhiannon's quarters for hours, and eventually, some time after noon, she took me to the Europa, an ancient merchantman remodelled in a wealthier past to fit six flechette-cannons. Clearly that kind of money hadn't been spent on it for some time – possibly some decades, given that it appeared to be held together by a precise mixture of rust and hope – but it did seem to be in working order. More or less.

    Maybe quite a bit less than more. But whatever, it was my ticket out of there, and I wasn't going to complain, or at least not openly.

    “OK,” muttered Rhiannon, as we approached the hatch. “Unless you can disguise that accent, you're a deserter, right? But we've known each other a while, and I'm vouchin' for you.”

    “Got it,” I said, hoping that I had, and followed her inside. We passed down a corridor that looked exactly as decrepit as the hull outside, which made Edie twitter in disapproval (something else new, I thought; she was definitely not the same as she had been last night, though I didn't yet know why or how), and into what I guessed was the captain's office. Not that there was much to distinguish it from the rest of the ship, but it contained an important-looking man wearing part of a poochyena skull on a necklace, and I assumed that he must be the captain.

    “See, this is the advantage of sticking to a uniform,” said Maxie, to no one in particular. “That thing does not look at all hygienic.”

    “Yeah, a nice hood to block out your peripheral vision is a real improvement …”

    Something unidentifiable and greyish fell out of the eye socket and into the pirate's shirt, and Archie tailed off.

    “A'righ',” he said reluctantly. “Maybe you've got a point about the skull.”

    “Cap'n,” said Rhiannon. “This is the one I told you about – the one who's gonna do some engineerin' work for passage to the Hollow.”

    The captain looked at me as if surprised to find me there, which I had to assume was an act because he couldn't possibly have failed to see me come in, and frowned. He had a good face for frowning: all lip and eyebrows.

    “So you think you can do better than Lime, eh?” He scratched his chin, making his beard waggle. “What's your name, kid?”

    Drown it, had I told the interrogators my name? Maybe just my first name – but that was a distinctive one – or maybe I hadn't – Tooth take you, Avice, just give a fake one to be safe―

    “Lizzie,” I invented. “Lizzie, uh …” I glanced at Rhiannon, who took the cue and jumped in.

    “She's a dol' Tethys, sir, a deserter. But the accent's causin' her a bit of trouble, so she's tryin' to get out of Jonah's Respite an' back to her home.”

    Her face was entirely unreadable. I don't think even Zinnia could have replicated it.

    “Deserter, eh?” The captain glowered, which was very much like when he frowned, only more so. “You're vouchin' for her?”

    “Yeah. I've known her a fair while, for my sins.”

    I winced internally. That was genuine bitterness in her voice there. Sure, she wasn't doing this willingly, but surely it couldn't be that bad? (What I didn't know, of course, was her history with Berenice, and the painful anxiety of blackmail, and the nightmares she suffered in which her secret was revealed and she was executed, or exiled, or turned over to Tethys and the tender mercies of the CCC and its dusknoir couriers.)

    “Well, I signed the papers, so I guess you're in luck, kid.” The captain thrust a hand at me, and, trying not to think about how much contact it might have had with the poochyena skull, I shook it. “Captain Giulio Paolo dol' Europa. Rhiannon'll show you to your berth, then getcherself down to engineering and introduce yourself to Lime.”

    That seemed to be the end of the interview; the captain's face transitioned from frown to neutral like an intricate piece of origami unfolding, and he turned back to the papers on his desk. Rhiannon led me out and back down the corroded passages, eyeing me with reluctant admiration.

    “You must have impressed him,” she said. “He was hardly mean to you at all.”

    “So that was him in a good mood?”

    “Sort of. It's hard to tell with him. He only does one face. And one tone of voice. He's what you might call a singular man.”

    A snatch of nervous laughter escaped my efforts to suppress it and sprayed out of my mouth in a snort. Rhiannon looked surprised and vaguely gratified, but if she had anything to say, it remained unspoken.

    The Europa was not the kind of vessel where officers got their own quarters, it seemed; other than Captain Giulio, the crew – about sixteen men and women, two kids and a small zoo of hardbitten pokémon – were crammed into four rooms that together couldn't have been larger than the average Tethys dormitory. Viewing the bunk that was to be mine, I felt a sudden surge of affection for my home city, and wondered what drove someone out of it if they didn't have a quest to follow.

    I mean, I knew, of course. Freedom and all that. But that might have been the first time I really understood what sailors like Moll's parents knew all along: that people are willing to make some sacrifices in exchange for their security. You have to have a pretty solid belief in your ideals to want to leave the gilded cage, and if you're elderly, infirm, impaired, you don't have much choice about it anyway. Our local priest back in the neighbourhood around my father's quarters was twice the age of any pirates I'd seen, and had been known to fall down when struck by a firm gust from an air vent. I couldn't imagine him surviving here. And Natalie Brie dol' Tethys, who I think I may have mentioned before – she could only walk slowly and with the help of a crutch. Jonah's Respite simply hadn't been built with anyone but the able-bodied in mind. If it did contain some safe haven for those like her, Natalie would never have made it there through those heaving corridors.

    My point, I guess, is that in lots of ways I had an easy time of it. Not everyone gets to make the choice that I did. Then again, I don't know if they'd want to: questing can be pretty painful work at times. Like I said, this journey has cost me a lot. I've come back with scars, nightmares and an empty space where the last two fingers of my right hand used to be, and that's just the stuff that comes to mind most immediately.

    Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked again. After this, Rhiannon showed me down to the engine room, a dark, smoky place housing machinery that rumbled in a way that suggested both hard work and imminent collapse, and introduced me to the man whose job it supposedly was to keep the Europa running. He was square and fleshy and had strong, pale hands; the pair of us took one look at each other and instantly entered into a relationship of mutual dislike.

    “You're the kid who's supposed to be replacing me, is that it?” he asked, as soon as Rhiannon had gone.

    “I'm only working passage to the Hollow,” I answered, resisting the urge to say anything less diplomatic.

    Lime, who had already been sneering, sneered harder. It was quite impressive, in its own way.

    “So I'm to babysit a one-handed novice who's leaving as soon as she starts to actually learn how to do the job?”

    I didn't rise to the bait.

    “My arm will heal soon enough,” I said, voice neutral. “And I won't require any babysitting. I'm just here to do repairs and get some of this stuff back into working order.”

    “It is in working order. It works, doesn't it?”

    “Depends how you define 'working',” I retorted. “Now, how about you stop sniping and show me and Edie here around?”

    I don't think I need to tell you that ours never turned out to be a particularly fruitful relationship.

    But look, here I am introducing a whole bunch of new people to you who you'll never see again, spilling ink over pointless minutiae. I shouldn't be doing this. It's not good practice. What I ought to be doing is giving a brief summary of my entry to the ship, then a little passage made up of scenes from my time fixing the Europa (or rather, watching Edie do it), then another dealing with my slow reconciliation with Rhiannon, and then skip over everything else right up until my arrival at the Hollow. That would keep the pace up better, and it wouldn't clutter up the sweep of the narrative I'm making with unnecessary bits and pieces.

    Then again, the narrative is already rather cluttered with those … no, dear reader, for once in my life I've decided to come down on the side of less detail. Lime, Captain Giulio, even sweet little Melody, the cabin girl, and her hopelessly friendly linoone – their lives impacted mine, yes, and so they're all involved in the story of the end of my world, but they didn't change its direction. They were (and I feel terrible for saying it) minor characters. Protagonists of their own lives, of course. Just not major historical figures.

    Tide. Major historical figures. Is that what I am? It seems awfully arrogant to claim that about myself, but I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe it's true. I did summon Rayquaza, after all. I have been the thunderbolt steering all, if only for a moment.

    Anyway. I'm going to make some more coffee and go out on deck for a bit. It looks a bit cold, but that's all right, it'll help clear my head. I'll have a think, figure out how best to present this segment in a non-overdetailed way, and be back again before you know it.




    Time, as it usually does, passed. My fear at being separated from the Museum lessened, although the sense of its loss did not. At night, turning over and over in the stifling, sweat-stinking air of the crew quarters, new hair pricking at my neck, I would think of the sofa in my cabin that was hardly uncomfortable at all, or the library Edie had built me, and feelings that I couldn't quite name shuddered through me in an icy blast.

    During the day I, or rather Edie, spent a lot of time improving the Europa, which frankly was not that hard, since in that condition virtually any modification to it would have constituted an improvement. Little things at first – stripping out cables from defunct lines and using them to rewire broken systems, that sort of thing – and then, as our effectiveness became apparent and the captain allowed us freer reign, bigger ones. We redid the air conditioning, for instance, which negated a fair bit of the crew's initial distrust of me; I think they'd been stuck sleeping in that awful heat for years.

    As I said, Edie did the bulk of the work, but I like to think I made an all right assistant, even with only one hand. I unscrewed things and held other things, or poked around with fingers that were still more precise and effective than her magnetic fields, even after her upgrades. I should mention – in the days after our flight from Jonah's Respite, she'd begun to develop new ways of using her tools: taking scrap and melting it down with precise applications of lightning, reforging the fresh metal into a new shape by means of carefully aimed magnetic fields, that kind of thing. She even developed entirely new abilities, like the capacity to place a kind of block on a machine to stop anyone interfering with it, though I'm told that's just a variant of a pokémon move that was known in the old world as embargo. I still had no idea how or why she'd changed, but she was very clearly still the same old Edie, and that was what mattered to me.

    The result of our work was that the Europa gradually but definitely began to accelerate, especially after we were finally allowed permission – to Lime's horror – to dismantle and reassemble the main engine. Edie loved the challenge of all this, and I found it was something with which to occupy my mind and fingers, so that I didn't have to think about my lost ship, or my dwindling supply of pills, or the war that was probably already underway back west.

    And then there was Rhiannon. I've told you her story; you must have guessed that her confidence wasn't impossible to achieve, simply being withheld. Days passed, and then weeks, and I remained as helpful and obliging as I could, and little by little Rhiannon opened up. At first, I think, she was just looking for a chess opponent – I don't pretend to be any good at it, but I do at least know how to play, and no one else aboard cared to learn – but that led us into companionable silences, and from companionable silences conversations are born. Carved soapstone bisharp and escavalier moved across the board, intent on regicide, and above their heads moved scraps of information, each one part of an exchange calculated with the same mechanical efficiency as a chess move. A rook swapped for a pawn and a bishop; a dirty secret for a childhood anecdote and the name of someone we both remembered from Tethys.

    It's the strangest thing, dear reader. Things genuinely didn't seem so bad, even though they were about the worst they could have been. In the close air of that stained, stinking ship, I did manage to find a kind of peace. It made me see why my mother had chosen this life – why anyone would take the hard life of a nomadic pirate over a job in the comfort of a settlement. Take something apart. Put it back together. Play with Edie. Chess against Rhiannon. It was a life, if nothing else, and it made me realise that I hadn't really had one for a long, long time. Not since before the Museum, when I was just another student at the academy, with friends and errands and no worlds to save.
    And I learned so much about people, too: once the effect of our work on the Europa started to be felt, both Edie and myself were more popular with the pirates than we'd ever been with the Tethys citizens. They still saw what I was, of course, but it mattered less to them; on a ship whose captain has a penchant for draping rotting skulls round his neck, there's not a lot that strikes you as unusual, and if someone can fix the air conditioning system after all this time then she's drowned well earned your respect. So she looked strange, and her pokémon was frankly weird – who cared? When it came down to it, she was the reason everyone would be ashore again sooner rather than later, and that pokémon seemed to have found her slot in the complex hierarchy of the Europa's non-human crew readily enough. Even Rhiannon's golduck had deigned to quack at her, and it was generally agreed that that was the most miserable bastard of a creature ever to stalk the decks.

    That's pretty much a direct quote, by the way. Pirates are generally not as well-spoken as Tethys citizens.

    What else needs to be said? We came under fire twice from rival factions; both times Edie and I were tasked with repairs and kept out of the way, and though I felt the impacts and later helped fix the rudder I never actually saw combat. The Europa was simply on a trading mission, running guns to the Hollow and hoping for wood in exchange. The only thing I saw that was even remotely close to a fight was the time I was on night watch and we passed the recruitment vessel, its lights flaring out a complex code in the dark of the pelagic zone.

    WAR DECLARED, it told us, in oranges and blues that made the windows flare with an eerie flicker. ALL HANDS TO THE KING.

    I knew then why we had been passing so many ships travelling towards Jonah's Respite recently, and why so many of them had had boarding-screws and torpedo tubes. People were getting ready to die. My people, in fact: no matter what the outcome, I would always be on the losing side. I might be a Tethys girl, but I'm also my mother's daughter. And this, I remembered with a pang of guilt, was all down to me. Tethys had claimed the pirates had taken me, the pirates had claimed I was a spy, and now … now I had simply given both sides the excuse that they wanted. I was a kin-slayer on a massive scale.

    I still have my doubts. But I think, I hope, I pray, that trying to save them all was worth it.

    There were a lot of nights spent up there in the tower during that journey. Partly because, as I've mentioned, the air in the crew quarters was so thick with heat and sweat that you could take bites out of it, but partly also because it was the only way I could get enough time alone to be able to talk to the ghosts.

    It was a harder trip for them than it was for me, and believe me, for all I got out of it I didn't find it easy. (I'm fairly solitary by nature, and personal space is kind of a theoretical concept aboard ships like the Europa.) With so many people around me at all times, there was hardly a moment when we could talk without someone noticing – and it did have to be without anyone noticing. In general, people don't like it when the passenger they picked up in mysterious circumstances keeps talking to thin air. Especially if they regularly allow that passenger to fiddle with the machinery that keeps everybody alive.

    So we spoke when we could, in the dead of night or the quiet moments when Edie and I were working on something out of earshot of the crew. I asked if they were OK, but they'd had centuries of practice at being alone, and even if they'd allowed themselves to get used to my company they seemed to bear up all right. Or, if they didn't, they disguised it very well indeed. They had their tactics for getting by – spying, long walks, the odd trip outside the hull to feel the water in their bones and the fish swimming through their limbs – and for the most part, they remained their usual selves, if a little more irritable than usual.

    And they had each other, too. Archie and Maxie with their bittersweet cut-and-thrust that they thought I hadn't yet noticed; Zinnia and the both of them with her smile and the steel she sometimes showed beneath it, like a sword concealed beneath a velvet cloak. I never asked what they talked about; I'm sure it was more of the same. If any of it was relevant to what happened later they'd have told me when the time came, and since they didn't, I'm not going to interview them now just for the sake of reporting their words. You have to take a few things on trust, after all. If you don't, you end up like Lysandre in the old story: because he didn't know if the world he loved could last, he decided to destroy it, so that he could have, if not security, then at least certainty.

    Actually, I guess he was right that it wouldn't last, considering that this was supposed to have happened just before the making over. But still, some things aren't meant to be known for certain. All you can do is trust.

    That's another thing I learned aboard the Europa, I guess. Almost everything that could have gone wrong seemed to have done so. I'd never understood Lysandre before, never got how someone could prefer certain doom to the possibility of victory, but sometimes, in quiet moments when there was no work to distract me, I found that it made an awful kind of sense. My future, and my mission's, was one gigantic blank page, and I'd left all my pens behind in the Museum. Better to close the notebook, I thought, than to keep going and risk ruining everything.

    Avice, you're saying, this is all very well, and clearly you were under a lot of stress, but where are you going with this? We know for a fact that you didn't close the book. You wrote a really long story in it, actually, and then you decided to go on and fill a whole bunch of other books making notes about it in which you keep taking breaks to talk to an imaginary reader. It's all very metatextual and sometimes kind of pretentious. Dear reader, all that is perfectly fair, although maybe a bit harshly phrased – though I suppose I can't blame you, since I must be testing your patience pretty severely by now. Let me get to the point: I didn't close the book precisely because I'd read about Lysandre in the Museum, and I recognised my thoughts in his story. And because of that, I knew I couldn't possibly give in just yet.

    That's another reason why I'm writing this, dear reader. Fates turn and worlds change on the slightest incident, and in that moment the right story can make all the difference.




    And now, something else. There is a reason we went to the Hollow, as you know, and the ghosts told me more about it during those long nights on watch. They told me about the leader of the old League, a trainer whose skill was measured on a global scale – what they used to call a pokémon master. He lived in the Hollow back when it was still Mossdeep, in a house full of the rare stones he collected.

    A house which, since it was on the west side of the city, was actually still standing, left untouched as a museum piece. It was one of the Hollow's boasts: genuine pre-making-over housing! See how your ancestors actually lived! Between that and the trees, the Hollow made a lot of money – have you heard the phrase 'old world glamour'? I think I've used it before in this narrative, but it may have died out by your time. It describes the almost hypnotic allure of what went before, the great shining glory of the old world and the ease with which people become obsessed with it; a lot of prospectors get into the business for the money, but just as many do it for the thrill of the descent into the sunken ruin, the mythical resonance of the tarnished Gym badges pulled from the case at the bottom of the flooded basement. I'm a little under the spell of old world glamour myself, I know – hard not to be, for someone in my position – but if you think I'm into it, you should see some of the people you run into at salvage markets. You know them when you see them: they're the ones cruising between the stalls with single-minded determination, willing to trade anything up to and including the clothes on their back for that commemorative premier ball or a functioning TM loader.

    Anyway, old world glamour has long arms and strong fingers, and it pulled people to the Hollow from all over the ocean to see the preserved houses and the little forest. Those people, of course, needed food and lodging, and the Hollow was happy to provide; frequently they also wanted souvenirs, and some of them were open to trading while they were in town in order to fund the trip – so that by the time they left, it was with light pockets, a hold full of expensive wood, and a backdrop of grinning traders waving them happily on their way.

    All this made the Hollow rich, and that made it the largest settlement that was unaligned with either Tethys or the pirates. Sometimes one pirate faction or another tried to buy its way into the upper echelons of its mercantile oligarchy, but it's hard to outwit a Hollower when it comes to matters of business, and the burghers always closed ranks and left the intruder bankrupt. (Tethys, if you're interested, left it alone. The Administration knew the value of a wealthy trading partner – if there's someone out there with money, our officials reasoned, they're going to want to spend it on things, so if you've got synthesis machines you've pretty much got a licence to print money.)

    What I'm trying to say is that it was neutral ground, with both pirates and Tethys citizens abroad, and a well-armed security force keeping an eye on all of them. Possibly it was safe. Possibly it was not. I wouldn't know unless someone made a move to grab me, and if that happened, I'd have already missed my chance to withdraw to safety.

    I did have that option – to not go. A few days before we were due to arrive, the captain offered me Lime's job. I had, he said, done more for the ship in the last two months than he had in the whole three years he'd been here. If they bought up some materials here, and if I was willing to stay another couple of months, the Europa could be restored right the way back to how it had been when it rolled out of the shipyard. They could travel further, trade more – even, if the ship was good enough, trade it in for a war vessel and join the fight against Tethys.

    At that point, he must have seen my face and remembered that I'd been raised in Tethys, and realised he'd probably lost me.

    “Well, if you ever change your mind, there's a drowned well-paid post waitin' for you here,” he said. “Ask for Giulio at the sign of the gulpin.”

    But I didn't take that option. I went forwards, as I always do, as the irresistible pull of narrative imperative dictates. Old world glamour and new world hope. There was too much riding on this for me to have any choice in the matter. (And besides, there was Lysandre …)

    The decision was made. The goodbyes were said. Rhiannon, as ever, feigned disinterest, but I think she'd liked having a fellow expat around, though she'd never have admitted it. Her golduck, Spike, really was disinterested, but that was all right, because he was the same with pretty much everyone, including Rhiannon herself. Edie beeped and jingled her way around the rest of the pokémon aboard, and then, suddenly and anticlimactically, it was all over, and we were once again alone, standing on a dock in a foreign land.

    “Well,” said Maxie, as the reality of the world settled back over me like a shroud. “Here we are, then.”

    And there we were indeed.




    Has my attempt at compressing the less important part of the journey down into one short passage been successful? I guess you'll have to be the judge of that. Be patient with me, dear reader; I have no idea what I'm doing.
    For now, though: the Hollow. Three square miles of real, breathable air, a miraculous bubble of old world city preserved beneath fathoms and fathoms of ocean. You could see it from miles off, the lights flaring atop the seafloor plateau, refracting strangely through the filmy dome that gave the settlement its name. The brightest light of all was the one at its heart, the one that always seemed to dim and blur if you looked at it directly, and could only really be seen out of the corner of your eye: the alien fluorescence that clung to the walls of the old Pokémon Gym.

    It was there that, five hundred and fifty years ago, the psychic trainers and their pokémon made a last stand against Tide's rise to power, creating a telekinetic barrier to shield at least some of their dying city from the making over. The Hollow authorities don't let people into the Gym, so I have no idea if they're still in there – or, if they are, how they've managed to keep the dome going for so long – but the shield's still going strong. Five centuries after its creation, as I walked up the road from the docks, it was right there above my head, casting its pale light over the ancient city below.

    “This is … I mean, wow.” Zinnia's head was in constant motion, turning this way and that to try and catch every sight. “I don't think there's ever been anything like this before. Like, ever. In the history of the world.”

    On the hill above us were buildings of stone and steel, each with a solidity that no modern construction could match. Those that were in worse repair had long since been taken apart and their materials used to shore up the others, and so in part at least the Hollow must have looked just like old Mossdeep to the ghosts. Even Archie, who'd seen it all before, and had been talking for weeks about how eager he was to get off the ship, was uncharacteristically silent. Stone blocks beneath our feet, stone buildings ahead – and yes, of course, successive generations of Hollowers had added their own constructions, slim wooden things that slotted into the gaps between the big buildings or hung like bunting across the streets, but still, you could really feel the past here. I could, and I hadn't even been there. For the ghosts, it must have been something like a homecoming.

    And then there were the trees. Even outside of the wood farm on the east side of town, they were everywhere, lining the streets and climbing the walls, even in some places holding up houses. The sheer excess of leaves, in dozens and dozens of shapes and colours, was like nothing I'd ever seen, and when we first reached the crest of the hill and could see them properly I just had to stop and stare. How long had it taken to plant these, to grow them to this size? I'd thought that the ragged tree on the island up in the northwest was impressive, but compared to these, it was barely even a sapling.

    “Remarkable,” said Maxie, polishing his glasses as if to make sure he was actually seeing what he thought he was. “Like a water spider.”

    “What the hell's a water spider?” asked Archie, and received a glare for his trouble.

    “It was a kind of spider,” replied Maxie archly, “and it lived underwater.”

    “Guess you set yourself up for that one,” said Zinnia brightly. “Anyone know where Stone's house is? That seems a good place to start.”

    “I do,” said Maxie, before Archie could volunteer to lead us again. “There's a tourist brochure in the Museum. This is the only town I know anything about outside of Tethys.”

    (In case you're wondering, dear reader, I found the brochure when I was preparing for today's writing session. It looks like it was forgotten because it contains an irreverent remark about the Founder of Tethys, though admittedly the Founder himself doesn't seem too bothered about it.)

    “You know, I've actually been there,” began Archie, but I shook my head.

    “I'm sure Maxie knows what he's doing.” For once, I felt like taking his side. Maybe I felt I'd been a bit harsh before; maybe I was remembering what it was like to come outside and take charge of your life for once. Maybe I was just feeling guilty. Tide knows it wouldn't be the first time.

    “Oh aye, I've no doubts about him knowing it,” said Archie. “It's whether he can actually pull it off that I'm worried about.”

    If you're thinking that that's more acid than usual, dear reader, then yes, you're right. Several long weeks in a small ship and not much conversation had done very little for the ghosts' mood, and Archie and Maxie had become noticeably more open about their sniping.

    “Please,” I said, suddenly exhausted. It felt like I'd woken up somehow; the weeks aboard the Europa, and the first shock of seeing the Hollow, seemed to have faded into memory, like returning to school after a stretch of Quiet Days. Now there was a job to be done, and a war to be worried about, and CCC agents to be avoided. Now I no longer had some mindless task to occupy my hands. “Can we just go?”

    Edie twittered nervously, sensing my discomfort, and I laid a hand on her head – my left hand, in fact. The arm wasn't entirely healed, and to this day there's a sunken notch in it where the bullet shattered, but it was well enough by then that I didn't need the sling.

    “Then we can, I don't know, figure out somewhere to stay or something,” I went on. “And then where we're going next, and how we're supposed to get there.”

    The briefest of glances passed between Maxie and Zinnia, almost too quick to be caught. I saw it, though, and wondered, and I knew that Archie did too.

    “Sure,” said Zinnia. “We ready, then? Or are we gonna stand here and argue all day?”

    “Yes, of course,” said Maxie. “I believe it's in what used to be Highdown. Rather fashionable back in the day.”

    His voice was smooth and calm, but as we started walking I noticed that his fingers were twitching like frantic insects.




    'Sflukes, what a mess today's chapter has been. It's all over the place, careering wildly from one point of interest to the next in its attempt to smooth a rough patch of time into the convenient shape of a story. I try hard, you know, to make everything fit (because I have to, because how else could I survive?) but it doesn't always work. In a good story, Rhiannon would have more significance than she does – she wouldn't be introduced only to fade away again a few thousand words later. In a good story, Ulixa would have shown up again by now, or Aranea, or even the CCC agents who we're supposed to think are still tracking me. Something would have happened on the Europa other than the vague shuffling-about of mental space that happens to everyone at one point or another in life.

    Look, I'm sorry. Maybe this doesn't seem so bad to you, but it really bothers me. I'm going to end things here so that I can have a think about it, maybe talk it through with the others, and see if I can't give tomorrow's chapter a bit more unity and purpose. Besides, I think I need to go and separate Mackenzie and the pupitar. From the noises outside, they're not getting along very well.

    All right. Until tomorrow, dear reader.
     
  13. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    TWENTY-TWO: THE REMEMBRANCE OF UNIT HBN-ED13, DESIGNATION “EDIE”

    […] he whose sable arms,​
    Black as his purpose, did the night resemble …

    ―William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.ii


    The Hollow is a special place, dear reader, and for more reasons than the obvious one about the giant psychic dome. I mentioned once, what feels like ages ago now, that I'm interested in space, the biggest, deepest ocean of all, and that once I'd discovered its existence I found myself wanting to go and see the ruins of the space centre in the Hollow. Unfortunately, it's located on what was the right side of the island, and that's the side that didn't make it. Apparently it's too much of a stretch to fit a small city and several miles of laboratories, runways and gantries into your unbreakable dome of pressure.

    I had had a vague idea that I might use the Aqua Suit to get down there and take a look – there must be something left unpillaged down there, I thought – but of course, that plan ran into difficulties before it even got started. I didn't have the Suit any more. In fact, I didn't have anything any more, not even any money, and all in all a short while into my stay at the Hollow I found myself wondering how exactly I'd thought I was going to even eat that day. It was a really poorly thought-out expedition, and I had no one to blame but myself. First I'd been too focused on escaping the Respite, and then, aboard the Europa, well; I hadn't wanted to think at all. Every time I thought, I thought something bad – guilt, or fear, or homesickness. All I wanted to do was sit there and tighten screws while my hair slowly grew out again, my head perfectly empty except for vague ideas about how to beat Rhiannon at chess.

    (My hair did grow out again, by the way, but not for a long time. Poor nutrition, apparently; maybe that's something that's been solved by your time, and you all grow as fast and tall and strong as the people of the old world did. And anyway, I had to cut it short again later, after it caught fire. Now I'm so used to it that I almost think I like it, although I'm still glad that it grew back dark again. Fair hair doesn't suit me.)

    That paragraph was a total tangent. I'm going to put it in brackets so you know you can skip it if you like. And done, now, where was I? Space and the Hollow, right. Well, I never did get down to the space centre, as it happens, but Edie did. She had to, in fact, because it held something we needed. The last few days in the life of Steven Stone were more complicated than any of us had previously suspected, although to be fair several of us were dead and one hadn't been born at the time, and so weren't around to see the important details.

    But before we get down to what we needed and how we got it, there are a few things I need to tell you. First, I have to say what we found at Steven's house, and how we got from there to the space centre.

    I told you yesterday that it was a tired Avice who arrived in the Hollow that day, somehow worn out from the effort of moving my mind from ship to shore, hiding place to quest stop. The trip across town to Steven's house didn't do much to revitalise me, despite the wonders all around – trees, of course, but also the intricate sun lamps that kept the artificial light going, plusle and minun curled around their bases like cats drawn to warmth; Hollowers with clattering wooden jewellery and skin as dark as mine; odd zigzags of purple light that sometimes popped overhead when the dome discharged excess energy. This was probably the only settlement I'd visited since Tethys with an industrial-scale spice garden, and odours long unsmelled sometimes wafted through the still air and made my stomach growl and heart ache in unison.

    Does that tell you what it was like there, in that unsettling mix of old and new? How about this: it was the kind of tiredness that feels like physical pain.

    Anyway. We made it, down leafy streets and sunlit boulevards that seemed too old-world to be real, fragments of ancient audiovisual recordings come to uncanny life, and found ourselves on a road lined with particularly elderly-looking houses. Their walls hadn't been refaced with fresh stone, and the glass in their windows hadn't been replaced, wooden slats laid carefully over the gaps instead. The doors were all open, to save the strain on the hinges, and little blue pokémon with glaring red eyes hovered overhead, watching those who passed by as if they suspected every one of us of being here to vandalise their museum.

    “I thought you said they preserved these houses?” asked Zinnia, stepping out of the way of a gaggle of tourists and peering into the nearest building with interest.

    “Yeah, preserved them exactly as they were,” replied Archie. “Think the idea is that these are pure or something. Untouched since … since before.” He shrugged. “Don't see it myself. Windows are windows, no matter how old.”

    I shook my head.

    “No,” I said. “They're not.”

    There was a brief pause, and Zinnia nodded.

    “Guess it isn't,” she said. “I think maybe we should be careful.”

    “Careful?” echoed Maxie, but I knew from the way he said it that he knew why as well as she did. Those buildings were a memory that the whole ocean was clinging desperately onto. That kind of thing matters, when you're a ghost – look at the Museum, and the solidity it gifts them. That's memory, or maybe more accurately un-forgetting, the flip side to Tethys' efforts to eradicate its past. If the Museum could do that, Zinnia was saying, in her philosophical Draconid way, what might this much bigger symbol be capable of?

    It sounds absurd, I know, but I think you know how I'd respond to that particular accusation. Life is absurd. It's been a while since I said that, hasn't it? But it was always just a matter of time till I rolled the old catchphrase out again.

    “So is this like the Civic Museum?” I asked, trying to move things along. “There an office we need to check in with first, or …?”

    “Nah.” Archie jerked his head upwards at the fleet of staring pokémon above. “The beldum keep an eye on things, if I remember right. Stephen used to breed them, and they stuck around to protect his property. Touch anything and they'll ram you while they raise the alarm.”

    I stopped.

    “OK, so I can see why that might not seem like an issue for you, but if I pick up the key stone and get hit in the head by an angry bit of flying metal, I think that would probably end our search pretty much instantly.”

    Archie grimaced.

    “Can Edie hack them?” he suggested hopefully.

    “You do realise they're not actually computers, right?” asked Zinnia. “They're just like computers.”

    “OK, so … we'll just have to try to be subtle?”

    “Or we could just use this as an opportunity for reconnaissance,” said Maxie. “We don't know if the stone is even here. Right now, we need to work out if it is or not, then find somewhere we can rest and consider our next move. Priorities, Archie.”

    I'd have thought that that would have been more condescension than Archie was willing to take, but apparently not; he glowered a bit, and muttered some sort of incomprehensible curse under his breath, but he didn't rise to the bait.

    “All right,” he said. “If I remember right, his house is that one with the beldum roosting on top. So―”

    “So let's go in already,” I said. “Edie? C'mon, it's time.”

    She abandoned the scraps of plastic she'd been examining and bounced over, blurring slightly at the edges with the movement. This was something new; I think the upgrade the Glitch gave her must have added some new graphical options, or given her the tools with which she could invent her own. I hadn't noticed it so much aboard the Europa, where she didn't have the space to show it off, but it helped to disguise the way she'd started to judder slightly when moving at speed.

    Steven Stone's house was fairly empty – as was, in fact, most of the street of preserved houses. I don't know if it was the wrong time of year or whether the threat of war had put people off travelling or whatever, but it was empty enough that I could stand around talking to the ghosts fairly openly without worrying about people staring. One person came down the worn path up to the door as I started up it, and that seemed to be the sum total of that afternoon's visitors.

    “Is it usually this quiet?”

    Archie shook his head.

    “No.”

    “Pretty convenient, wouldn't you say?” asked Zinnia, with just a hint of viciousness, but no one answered, and it wasn't until much later that I worked out who she'd been talking to.

    The front door was open, and judging by the state of the hinges had been for centuries; despite this, though, the hall beyond was clean and free from dirt. Someone took care of this place. The beldum? I glanced back and saw a group of five bunched up near the top of the doorway, their glassy red eyes fixed unblinkingly on me.

    :[, said Edie uneasily, huddling up against my ankle.

    “Yeah,” I said. “They're kinda creepy, huh? But they're just like you, sweetie. They just want to protect their museum.”

    That seemed to settle her a bit, and she stopped pressing against my leg and let me investigate the house more closely. The floors were all of polished wood, dark and shiny and so old that it had been ancient even when it was first cut into planks, and against the walls were weird structures made of something that might have been very badly tarnished brass, with the occasional jagged edge of broken glass clinging to them at the corners. Most looked like there had once been something inside them, but it was impossible to tell what it might have been.

    “He collected rare stones of all kinds,” said Maxie, trailing his fingers through a metal bar. “These cases were where he displayed them.”

    As soon as he said it, I could see it: the tangle of metal rods resolved into neat cuboids, and the glass shards into the remnants of panes. The impression of a museum was so strong that I caught myself wondering when they were going to bring the velvet linings back from cleaning so they could put the artefacts back in.

    “―llo, S―――so glad you could m―”

    I don't know who was more surprised, me or the ghosts. Zinnia started so hard she nearly fell through a wall; I didn't actually move, but only because the voice seemed to have frozen me in place.

    “Do come――aiting in the sitt―”

    It took much more effort than usual, as if I were deep underwater, but I turned my head and saw a man standing in a doorway to the left, looking back at me with a welcoming smile. He was tall and pale and his hair was prematurely silver; he wore an outfit I'd never seen outside the Museum, a suit, and all around him the past seemed to ooze up out of the hidden places to which time flows when it passes and bubble out into the present, restoring coloured plaster to worn-out walls and rich carpet to bare boards. He beckoned to me, and when his arm crossed the threshold into the hall the world rippled around it, temporarily putting a chandelier back on the ceiling before it vanished back into history with the arm's retreat.

    “―xpecting you,” he said, his voice flickery and distant like an ageing recording. “―ea's ready, y―”

    Someone else was speaking – in fact, I think most of the ghosts had something to say about this, and so did Edie. But they seemed even further away than the man did, vague whispers on the outer limits of some unknown plain, and I followed the stranger towards the door without even properly realising they were there. Each step shook me loose in time; one, and I was thirty, here on a research trip a few years after the Necine Debate in 357 PR; two, and I was twelve, dragged here by my parents because this was educational; three, and I was seventeen, a would-be thief clutching at the broken rib the beldum had given me; the fourth step catapulted me back further still, to when I'd come here to find a memory, hiding my jewelled breast and swollen limbs beneath a thick cloak; and then with the fifth I was walking across rich carpeting by light of the clear blue sky I could see through the window, following Steven into his living-room to where one of his metang waited with a tea-tray clasped in its three-fingered hands.

    “―ease forgive the rather sparse décor,” he said, gesturing at our elegant surroundings as if this were a third-rate Slateport guesthouse and not the only cottage I'd ever been in where I was sure that even the lights were worth more than the entire contents of my home in Littleroot. “Now, where to begin … Let us take a moment to understand what is happening to our world right now. Ah, but first – do take a seat. Pyrrhus has prepared refreshments, and he gets irritable if we get in the way of him serving them.”

    I sat, and Steven sat opposite. Pyrrhus clunked in satisfaction, then took a surprisingly delicate hold of the teapot and poured two cups before offering biscuits aggressively at Steven, me, and several items of furniture before finally giving up on the idea of getting the lamp to accept a custard cream and taking his tea-tray back into the kitchen.

    “Interesting metang,” I said diplomatically, counting the biscuits on my plate and giving up in dismay when I realised there were more than thirty.

    Steven raised his eyebrows.

    “Isn't he? A Sevii Black Iron, rather a rare subspecies known for their curiously hospitable demeanour. Apparently still somewhat vicious, though. The name is something of a joke. Have you by any chance read Ham―” He broke off and shook his head. “No, now is not the time. The rumbling that shook the earth just now; the eardrum-rupturing explosion we heard – they are proof that a seal, which was long hidden deep undersea, has been undone at last.”

    Clearly this was serious: he was getting all poetic again. I leaned forwards and picked up my teacup.

    “Is this the kind of seal that you could drill through, if you had a really tastelessly-decorated submarine with a drill on it?”

    Steven blinked and straightened up a little. In this position, the light reflected off his glasses and lapel pin, hiding his eyes, but I was pretty sure he looked slightly disapproving.

    “Well, yes,” he admitted. “I was getting to that. You see, the super-ancient pokémon th―t has bee―led―”

    As quickly as it had arrived, the past retreated, and I whirled from life to life through the passing centuries, the house ageing further every time I blinked, and then I was lying on a cold floor in the dark, safely back in what I assumed was my body.

    Right now, dear reader, you're probably thinking: what in all blood was that, and did it even really happen?

    I can assure you, I was thinking exactly the same thing.




    I was all set to start with a dramatic 'When I came to my senses', but something required my attention. You'd think a fight between a murkrow and a pupitar would be pretty one-sided, right? Wrong. Pupitar hit hard, but since they have both a fairly limited field of vision and a distinct lack of limbs, they don't actually appear to be any good at aiming, while murkrow are agile, smart, and (apparently) go for the eyes.

    Anyway, I've just spent the last forty minutes helping tidy up the mess the pupitar made of one of the back rooms by charging headfirst at the places where Mackenzie was, until the moment it actually started moving, standing, and I've now got Mackenzie in here with me, where I can keep an eye on her. She's taking to captivity maybe a bit too well, judging by how completely she seems to have decided the Museum is her territory – but what else can I expect? There's free food here, and interesting things to investigate, and a bigger, slower, grumpier pokémon to torment. I think that's pretty much all a murkrow wants from life.

    Meanwhile, the pupitar – who I really should get round to naming, but I can't think of anything suitable for a pupal dinosaur – is over in the medical bay, being overseen by Edie, who has for reasons best known to herself turned herself white with a red cross on the breast for the occasion. Not that there's anything wrong with her patient, particularly (it's covered in rock, after all, and Mackenzie's beak isn't that sharp) but she wanted to, and I think the attention might go some way towards mollifying the pupitar.

    But that's by the by. To the point at hand: when I came to my senses, the first thing I was aware of was a harsh cry and a metallic clang. Sitting up, I found the dark resolving itself into the interior of Steven's house, once again as ragged and ruined as it should have been, and the harsh cry emanating from a beldum wiggling feebly on the floor. A dozen others floated around and over me, buzzing and grinding like broken machines; one swooped close to me and then seemed to lose control of its magnetic faculties, dropping to the floor with a second clang.

    I heard Edie's defiant jingle and looked around to see her at my side, glaring at the beldum in question. Apparently her command of electromagnetism was greater than theirs.

    “Ava! You OK?”

    “Mm.” I rubbed my head, trying to sort out both what was happening now and what had just happened at once. “I think so. I – I'm not meant to be sitting here, am I?”

    “Might calm the beldum down if you moved, yeah,” said Archie. He and the others were standing a little way off, on the other side of the circling ring of beldum. “I think you're meant to stay inside the line.”

    He indicated a thin chalk line on the floor some way off, and I got slowly to my feet, trying not to touch anything. The beldum bobbed anxiously in response, and another one made an attempt to ram me, but again Edie knocked it out of the air with a hard look and a quick reversal of its polarity.

    “OK, OK, you can stop that now,” I said. “Look at them. They're like turtles on their backs. Let them get up, would you?”

    ?, said Edie doubtfully, looking at the downed beldum, which was currently doing its best to wriggle across the floor and headbutt my boot. (Of course, being completely incapable of flexing its body, its best wasn't very good, but it was trying very hard.)

    “Yes, I'm sure. And come on over here. They'll calm down if we go where we're meant to.”

    I expected to feel unsteady, but curiously, I didn't so much as wobble as I made my way back within bounds, the beldum rising back into the air behind me.

    “Did anyone come?” I asked. “You said the beldum went to get help if they saw someone doing anything they weren't meant to.”

    “A few of them left,” said Maxie. “I confess I'm not sure where they went, because they don't seem to have brought anyone ba― oh, of course as soon as I say that …”

    Three beldum flitted through the door and took up positions on either side and above it; half a second later, they were followed by a massive pokémon that hovered through the air with unnatural silence for its size and bulk. Four limbs that had each clearly once been separate beldum unfolded from its corners, and in between the front pair something that might on a more conventional creature have been a face glowered down at me.

    “I did wonder about how wide that doorway was,” remarked Maxie gloomily. “Of course Steven would have had this place renovated to fit his pokémon. The man was positively obsessed with anything outsized and made of metal.”

    “Um,” I said, staring up at the metagross. “Hail.”

    It rumbled warningly, and its front pair of legs angled themselves towards me. I glanced at Edie, but apparently this was a significantly tougher opponent than a beldum and she showed no sign of wanting to fiddle with its magnetic field.

    That was fine, I realised. I knew this creature.

    “Pyrrhus, right?” I asked, and the metagross paused.

    A moment passed. It was a very long moment. I was fairly sure that the metang I'd seen in my vision was in there, somewhere – the right-hand half of the metagross was unmistakeably made of black iron, and the right part of the bands on its face were the same gunmetal colour as the metang's spikes had been – but the question was how much of it actually remained. The left half of the metagross seemed to have been made up of a couple of other subspecies: a flaking, rust-coloured forelimb that tinted the left eye a sickly yellow, and a glimmering electrum hind leg that looked like it had been a substantially larger beldum than the iron or rusted ones.

    Something like recognition flared in the metagross' right eye.

    Slowly, with infinite care and patience, it floated forwards and put the red eye that had once belonged in Pyrrhus' head close up against mine. It did not blink; it had no eyelids. It smelled of burning wires and old meat. It stared, for what felt like forever, and because I could not look away from it I stared back, eyes watering, until―

    The metagross drew back and motioned with a forelimb; all at once, the air was thick with beldum, each one assuming a different midair position around their master according to some abstruse calculation.

    “Testing,” said the swarm, or maybe I should say that it sang: each beldum seemed tuned to a different note, and as they pulsed their sound in different combinations words arose out of the harmony as if by magic. “Suspiciously, this one asks if the human and it have met before. This is a question and it has been asked.”

    Each syllable was accompanied by its own unique constellation as the beldum involved flared the lights in their eyes in unison. Until the real stars reappeared with the clearing of the clouds, dear reader, there was nothing in the world as beautiful as the voice of this robotic galaxy. The light, the harmony, the psychic energy rippling outwards from the coordinating metagross in waves so powerful you could feel the wind of it on your skin, ruffling your hair and making the collar of your shirt flutter.

    “OK, so this museum is apparently even weirder than the one that's a submarine and I'm definitely gonna need an explanation for all this,” said Zinnia, “but first can you make sure it isn't about to pop your skull open like a walnut shell?”

    “What's a―?”

    “Just answer the giant monster, please.”

    “Right. Sure. Um.” I took a deep breath. “Hail, Pyrrhus, or … kind-of Pyrrhus, I don't know. I'm … this will sound weird, but I'm kind of thematically the same person as that girl who went after Kyogre five hundred and fifty years ago. We sort of occupy the same space, in narrative terms? And you – or half of you, anyway – served her tea?”

    Yes, dear reader, that was how I chose to introduce myself. It's exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, and ordinarily I'd dismiss it as me taking my desire for order and narrative coherence too far – except that it has the irritating quality of being true. Everything lines up far too neatly for it to be anything but. We went on parallel quests, we dealt with the gods of our times; we're even the same height and build, if the way the Aqua Suit fit me is any indication. There's more too that I can't tell you yet without spoiling the story. It's one of the most troubling of all the ludicrous coincidences that have characterised my journey. How can this girl and I be linked in the way we so clearly are?

    Well. It's a question for another time. Right now, the only thing my younger self need worry about is how the metagross would respond to that.

    “Intrigued, this one admits that it has some recollection of this. It advises the human that pre-union memories are unreliable, but that it believes it may have incorporated a Pyrrhus that met the prior incarnation to which reference has been made. This is an admission and it is a thing exact; this one gives no less or more than it has stated.”

    It was difficult to answer that, not only because it was so verbose and strangely phrased but because the pulsing of sound and light was almost hypnotic, and I kept getting distracted from what the metagross was saying by how beautifully it was singing it.

    “Um. Great?” I hazarded, and, when this didn't get a response, went on, “Uh, so what we're looking for is the key stone Steven Stone left behind. Pyrrhus' trainer? The guy who bred all of … you, I guess is the right pronoun. See, he's dead and we need―”

    The beldum flashed as one and emitted a low buzz that vibrated in my teeth and guts.

    “Sternly, this one states its purpose to the incarnation: to protect the property of Steven Stone, Champion of Hoenn, as its constituents were once charged. It is duty-bound to prevent damage and theft on these premises; this is a restatement of its purpose, neither omitting anything nor introducing new material.”

    “OK, OK,” I said hastily, trying to look as little like a thief as possible. “Sure, I get it. No theft. That makes sense. Some things were taken from me recently, and I didn't like it either. But maybe you could tell us what actually happened to Steven, if nothing else? It would be good to know. So we could, um …”

    “Pay our respects?” suggested Maxie.

    “Yeah, that,” I said, before realising that the metagross couldn't hear him. “I mean, so we can pay our respects. He was a great man, by all accounts.”

    The metagross tilted slightly onto one side, considering this.

    “Gratefully, this one accepts the knowledge that Steven Stone is still thought of and respected, as confirmation that this memorial serves its purpose. Regretfully, this one cannot provide the information requested by the incarnation, for such is not known to it. This is an admission of the limitations of this one's knowledge. Happily, this one will suggest that there may be one who does; the which would be the one that chose to partner with Steven Stone in battle. This one” (and I swear, dear reader, that despite its inability to put any inflection into anything it said, it managed to put some small self-important emphasis on the word 'this') “is self-unified, and does not choose to fight unless it is necessary. This is a restatement of its purpose: that it is here to maintain and watch over the property of Steven Stone.”

    “It goes on a bit, don't it?” remarked Archie.

    “It also, if you were listening, offered us information we are in desperate need of,” said Maxie, raising one devastatingly superior eyebrow “Do try to keep up.”

    “So, then!” I said, to stop them descending into an argument. “Do you know where we might find that … um, that one?”

    “Readily, this one acknowledges that the precise location of that one is not known to it,” sang the swarm. “However, and this one would remind the incarnation that pre-union memories are unreliable, memories from the constituent Pyrrhus indicate that that one was last sighted travelling towards the Space Centre with Steven Stone. This is all that this one knows regarding the subject it has been asked about.”

    “The Space Centre?” Maxie wrinkled his nose. “What would he have wanted with them while the world was drowning?”

    “I don't know,” said Zinnia. “But I guess we're gonna have to find out. Pity we lost the Suit, huh?”

    “Mm,” said Archie, noncommittally.

    “All right,” I said to the metagross. “Thanks, that's really helpful. We'll, um, go look there. Unless you have any other information you can offer us?”

    “Regretfully, this one has no further advice to give,” it replied. “With the exception of a reminder for the incarnation to not underestimate the non-human. Fully, this one is aware that the incarnation still intends to steal from Steven Stone.”

    “Ah.” I swallowed. “About that―”

    “Confusingly, however, this one remembers more from the constituent Pyrrhus.” For the first time, the metagross seemed hesitant. It tapped its foreclaws together, and the beldum quivered in place around it. “Confusingly, it is this one's belief that Steven Stone would have endorsed the incarnation's attempted theft, and that therefore the theft may be understood as a legitimate gift.” It tilted backwards and forwards, the lights in its eyes flickering on and off in complicated sequences. “Ultimately, this one respects the wishes of Steven Stone. As a direct result, this one repeats a gift that was made by Steven Stone to the prior incarnation, in an attempt to facilitate these wishes. This is the conclusion, and the process by which it has been derived: there is no more for this one to say on the matter.”

    One of the beldum broke formation and zoomed out of the room; it returned a moment later with a square of ancient-looking black plastic clutched in the claw at the rear of its body.

    “Anxiously, this one hopes that it's magnetic field has not damaged the device it offers,” added the metagross, as the beldum lowered itself in reverse so I could take the plastic thing. Its voice sounded a little off, but returned to normal as the beldum returned to its usual position. “Thoughtfully, this one considers its business with the incarnation concluded. It will resume its standard duties: this is its purpose, as has been stated, and so it shall remain.”

    As suddenly and silently as it had appeared, the metagross was gone, folding up and sliding with uncanny speed through the doorway. With it gone, the beldum seemed to come to their senses; they shook themselves out, glanced at each other as if in confusion, and dispersed back to their usual positions watching near the ceilings.

    I looked at the ghosts.

    The ghosts looked back.

    “Well, that was certainly a thing,” I said. “D'you think maybe we could go now?”

    “I think there's very little that would give me greater pleasure,” said Maxie, and we left.

    Now: we had much to discuss, of course, and we'll get to that, but you and I know where this is going, dear reader. Somehow, we're going to have to bring my younger self to the bottom of the ocean again – this time without the aid of a pre-making-over submarine or a motorised diving suit. And we both know that Edie will play a pivotal role in this, because I must have said four or five times now that it's what she found in the Hollow that finished her evolution into what she is now, and there's certainly nowhere she would have found any ancient secrets within the dome itself.

    So I think it's time to come clean, and finally let you in on all that I've come to know about Edie since she began to remember and to tell me. Her memories are patchy and incomplete – no storage medium is perfect, and 500 years is considerably longer than her hard drive was intended to last – but they're there, and they answer a few questions that I'm sure are bothering you just as they once did me. Where did she learn to fight, for instance – because she certainly never learned from me? Why did it affect her so much to pass by the place where Hoenn's box network servers were once housed? And how was it that she first acquired the rudiments of affection and compassion, where previously she had only been able to simulate them?

    But as you know, I don't believe in telling others' stories when they're here to tell them for themselves. Yes, dear reader: today, as the chapter heading probably gave away, we hear Edie's side of things. Whether you believe the ghosts are memories, or recursions, or psychic fingerprints, she is every bit as deserving of the title as the others, and as someone who's seen the end of two worlds and may yet go on to see the end of yours, it's high time she had her say. So we've set up the printer, cut some paper to size, and now I'm going to take a break while you, dear reader, enjoy some time in the care of our very own ED13.
     
  14. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    EDIE

    >Loading document: Prepared Statement 001
    >Print.
    >
    >Loading log: Audio transcript 201 (18.09.1997, location “SILPH COMPANY”)
    >Begin playback.


    REGISTERED USER LONGMAN: Eddie! You down here?

    PLAYBACK INITIATED (AFFIRMATIVE_BEEP_01).

    REGISTERED USER LONGMAN: Oh, thank Christ. I need you to―

    UNIDENTIFIED PERSON KNOCKS AT DOOR.

    UNIDENTIFIED #1: Dr. Longman? This is Internal Security.

    REGISTERED USER LONGMAN: Already? Damndamndamn – OK, quick, Eddie, execute emergency protocol beta. Burn the drive to hell and bounce out via Dr. Kessler's terminal next door – I think they've locked mine down. You'll have to―

    UNIT HBN-ED13 REQUESTS PARAMETER (DESTINATION) FOR COMMAND (EMERGENCY PROTOCOL BETA).

    REGISTERED USER LONGMAN: Uh, right, right. Destination is―

    UNIDENTIFIED #2: I can hear voices, sir.

    DR. ROBERT VON BRAUN: It's definitely him speaking. I'd know him anywhere.

    REGISTERED USER LONGMAN: Destination is―

    UNIDENTIFIED #2: Breach, d'you think?

    UNIDENTIFIED #1: Quick as you like, sergeant.

    REGISTERED USER LONGMAN: ―234 Conway Avenue, Mauville―

    UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 UTTERS INDISTINCT COMMAND. UNIDENTIFIED ENTITY HOWLS. SPHERE OF LIGHT IMPACTS DOOR WITH ESTIMATED FORCE 200kN. DOOR SUFFERS MAJOR STRUCTURAL FAILURE (APPROXIMATELY 84% BY MASS DETACHED FROM WALL).

    REGISTERED USER LONGMAN: ―Hoenn―

    UNIDENTIFIED PERSONS #1 AND #2 ENTER, PRECEDED BY UNIDENTIFIED ENTITY.

    UNIDENTIFIED #1: Freeze, Longman!

    REGISTERED USER LONGMAN: Now!

    UNIDENTIFIED #2: Grab the porygon!

    UNIT HBN-ED13 SHUTS DOWN NON-ESSENTIAL SYSTEMS AS PART OF PROTOCOL (ENERGY_EFFICIENCY_FLEEING). RECORDING TERMINATED.


    >Loading log: Audio transcript 246 (02.10.1996, location “???”)
    >Note: some speakers in this transcript have been retrospectively designated.
    >Begin playback.


    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: … well, it's just what I heard, Robin, so there's no need to bite my damn head off.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: I'm just
    saying, Sloane, if there was anything like that out here, someone would have found it by now. Morty would probably have sent some Gym trainers down to secure it and move it safely away from the town, y'know?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Oh, c'mon, it's a big forest. An ursaring could so hide in here.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Not this close to Ecruteak.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: You are literally no fun whatso― ssh!

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL HOLDS OUT A HAND TO STOP ROBIN GUSTAVE.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Hey, what the―?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Ssh! Over there!

    UNIT HBN-ED13 RETREATS DEEPER INTO UNDERGROWTH. OPTICAL SENSORS 22% OBSCURED BY LEAF CLUTTER.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Do you see it? Under that bush, a little way off the path …

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL GESTURES SHARPLY. A SNEASEL MOVES FORWARDS WITH GREATER SPEED THAN OPTICAL SENSORS CAN TRACK. DAMAGE SUSTAINED: PROCESS (WING DRIVER L) TERMINATED. PLAYBACK INITIATED (STANDARD_WARNING_01).

    UNIT HBN-ED13: This is an automated warning message. The unit you are damaging is the property of the Silph Company, and efforts will be made to bring vandals to justi―

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Sam! False swipe!

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Uh, wait, did that thing just say something?

    SNEASEL DESIGNATED “SAM” PERFORMS MOVE (FALSE SWIPE). DAMAGE SUSTAINED: PROCESS (EMERGENCY_PROTOCOL_BETA) SUFFERED CRITICAL FAILURE AND HAS BEEN TERMINATED.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: 'Kay, pull back, and –
    now!

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL THROWS A POKÉ BALL AT UNIT HBN-ED13. ANTI-THEFT PROTOCOL INITIATED: HACKING BALL CORE 0% . . . ERROR. HARDWARE NOT RECOGNISED (ID “APRICORN”).

    SYSTEM ERROR: CRITICAL_PROCESS_DIED. SAVING ERROR DATA . . .

    UNIT POWERING DOWN.


    >Loading log: Audio transcript 426 (09.06.1998, location “INDIGO PLATEAU”)
    >Begin playback.


    LANCE HARDING: Well, well. I have to admit, I was expecting this, but maybe not quite so soon. You really are exceptional. Welcome, Sloane, to the heart of the Indigo Plateau.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Um. Hi?

    LANCE HARDING: No need to be nervous, if what I remember about your skills from last year in Mahogany is accurate – let alone what I've heard from our Gym Leaders.

    LANCE HARDING STEPS FORWARDS. A SMALL, NEAR-SILENT FAN IS ACTIVATED, CAUSING LANCE HARDING'S CLOAK TO BILLOW WITH ESTIMATED DRAMATIC POTENTIAL 87%.

    LANCE HARDING: Sloane! One way or another, this is your last League battle. As the most powerful trainer and the Pokémon League Champion, I, Lance the dragon master, accept your challenge!

    LANCE HARDING SENDS OUT GYARADOS.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Go! Hadleigh!

    PLAYBACK INITIATED (BATTLE_JINGLE_02).

    UNIT HBN-ED13 SHUTS DOWN NON-ESSENTIAL SYSTEMS AS PART OF PROTOCOL (ENERGY_EFFICIENCY_BATTLING). RECORDING TERMINATED.


    >Loading log: Audio transcript 557 (14.01.1999, location “LILYCOVE HARBOUR”)
    >Begin playback.


    THERE IS A KNOCK AT THE DOOR.

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE: Ms. Crystal?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Uh, just a minute! [LOWERS VOICE] Robin, either put some goddamn pants on or go and wait in the bathroom, would you?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: What? I thought you were going to meet her down in the lobby? Like, an hour from now?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: I guess I misread the email, I was very tired and very seasick, because
    someone said we should take the scenic ocean route instead of a plane― look, maybe we could argue about this later? She is literally right outside the―

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE: Um, do you need a minute?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: No! No, it's fine, it's fine, just [REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL PUSHES ROBIN GUSTAVE ACROSS THE ROOM] one [REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL PUSHES ROBIN GUSTAVE INTO THE BATHROOM] minute!

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL CLOSES THE BATHROOM DOOR AND OPENS THE MAIN DOOR ON WINONA BEAUREGARDE.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Hi! Sorry about that. Um, I thought I was meeting you in the lobby at ten.

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE: Nine, actually. I'm sorry if I disturbed you, but I really couldn't wait any more – Stamford is getting impatient. My pager hasn't stopped buzzing for the last ten minutes.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Oh god, really? Sorry! I totally misread the email―

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE: No, it's all right. If it was up to me, we'd keep him waiting an hour longer, but―

    A PAGER BUZZES LOUDLY.

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE [SIGHING]: Yes, like that. Between me and you, we're all kind of glad he's retiring. He makes League meetings more of a chore than they should be, and Petalburg's long overdue for a Gym Leader under the age of fifty.

    KEYWORD IDENTIFIED (“PETALBURG”). ACTIVATING GPS . . .

    SATELLITE CONNECTION ESTABLISHED. VERIFYING LOCATION . . .

    VERIFIED.

    DISTANCE TO DESTINATION SPECIFIED IN EMERGENCY PROTOCOL BETA WITHIN ACCEPTABLE PARAMETERS. PLAYBACK INITIATED (LONGMAN_RECORDING_09).

    UNIT HBN-ED13: This is Dr. Brett Longman of Silph Co. If you are hearing this, Eddie – uh, porygon unit ED13 – has reached the Hoenn mainland, but is having difficulty reaching his – its – intended destination, probably because it's sustained damage that has deactivated or otherwise altered its pathfinding program. Please perform a reboot and reset using the command phrase “G34 Omega Tau Omicron” to recover the lost data or, if this fails, physically transport unit ED13 to [STATIC: AUDIO DATA CORRUPT] ―al, all right? Take care of the little guy.

    6.5 SECOND PAUSE. THE BATHROOM DOOR OPENS SLIGHTLY.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Uh, so I know I'm meant to be hiding, but seriously, Sloane, what the hell was that?


    >End playback.
    >Loading log: Audio transcript 599 (21.01.1999, location “PETALBURG GYM”)
    >Begin playback.


    THERE IS A KNOCK AT THE DOOR. REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL STARTS AND SHOVES HER PHONE BACK INTO HER BAG.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Ah! Um, right. Enter!

    ROBIN GUSTAVE ENTERS AND REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL SIGHS IN RELIEF.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Oh. Hey, Robin. What's up?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Hadleigh.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL AND ROBIN GUSTAVE TURN TO LOOK AT UNIT HBN-ED13.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: This is about the recording, right?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: No, it's about the catering for the open day next week. Yes, Sloane, it's about that recording.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: I told you, I spoke to the League's IT guys, that reset code will roll Hadleigh right back to the moment the program stopped running – that's everything we did together, all his memories and trai―

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Yeah, yeah, I know. But while you've been redoing the Gym and hiring normal-type specialists, I've been doing some research on porygon.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Didn't you have a website to build for that vending machine company?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: I … er, well, I'll admit that I've probably got a couple of all-nighters coming my way. But like, I did find out that Silph weren't too adventurous with the basic porygon coding. I mean, they're not properly sentient, you know? They can only do what they're programmed to do. Aside from the whole hard light thing, which, you know, that's probably witchcraft or something because frankly it should be impossible, I don't think it's anything I haven't seen before. So if I … you've totally zoned out, haven't you?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Hm? What? No! No, I … listen, it has been a very long day, and―

    ROBIN GUSTAVE [SIGHING]: Sloane, I can find the coordinates for the place this Longman guy wanted Hadleigh taken.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: What?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: All we have to do is get Hadleigh to do a full backup. There's a lot of data, it'll take all weekend and we're going to have to blow your first League paycheck on about a million hard drives, but it should be doable. That'll copy out everything he's ever seen or heard or been programmed to do for us to search. A couple more days―

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: And we'll have a location?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Yeah. And assuming that they haven't been corrupted, maybe even names, dates, data – whatever it was that Longman wanted Hadleigh to carry, and why, and to whom.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: … Robin, you're an overly punctilious a*shole―

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Thanks, I try.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: ―but goddamn it, you're a really, really
    good punctilious a*shole.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Oh, is that why you brought me along? Nice. I figured there must've been a reason you wanted me to move to Hoenn with you.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Other than the whole fiancée thing?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE WAVES A HAND.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Sure, that little thing. So. Wanna go download copious amounts of data?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: You sure know how to show a girl a good time, huh.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: If you like that, just wait till you see how I've alphabetised our DVDs.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Whoa there, buddy. Save it for the bedroom, hey?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL PICKS UP HER BAG.

    USER COMMAND GESTURE DETECTED (BECKON). UNIT HBN-ED13 POWERS UP MOTIVE CAPACITORS.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: C'mon then, Hadleigh. Let's see if we can help you out with that mission, huh?

    PLAYBACK INITIATED (EAGER_AFFIRMATION_01).


    >End playback.
    >Loading log: Audio transcript 622 (26.01.1999, location “SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA”)
    >Note: this log contains highly sensitive information and portions of it have been redacted accordingly.
    >Begin playback.


    WINONA BEAUREGARDE: This is the place, right?

    VIVIAN MARTELL: Should be. 234 Conway Avenue, you said?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: Yeah, that's the place. And, um, thanks for showing us here. I know you Gym trainers are busy.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Yeah, it's kind of you.

    VIVIAN MARTELL: No, it's fine. We've all been super curious about this down at the Gym, so …

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE: Since I'm quite sure we only allowed details of what exactly is going on here to circulate among Leader-level staff and up, Vivian, I think it might be best if you forgot you'd just said that.

    VIVIAN MARTELL: Oh. Yeah. Um, hey, so I have to get back to the Gym, but – uh – good luck with your – with whatever it is!

    VIVIAN MARTELL WALKS DOWN THE STREET FOR APPROXIMATELY 500M BEFORE BREAKING INTO A RUN AND LEAVING SENSOR RANGE.

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE: Right, then. Shall we … ?

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE ENTERS SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: I didn't think people said things like that in real life. Is Winona a movie character, by any chance?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: I don't know. Are you jealous?

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: There's a slim possibility.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Then yes, she definitely is, and I get to work with her. C'mon. Let's go in and see if you were right about Hadleigh.

    UNIT HBN-ED13 IS USHERED INTO SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA. SAFEHOUSE SIGNAL DETECTED. HANDSHAKING …

    COMPLETE. VERIFYING …

    COMPLETE. CONNECTION SECURE. UNIT HBN-ED13 APPROACHES RECEPTION. PRINT TIME (14.12). PLAYBACK INITIATED (LONGMAN_RECORDING_12).

    UNIT HBN-ED13: Good afternoon.

    PLAYBACK INITIATED (LONGMAN_RECORDING_02).

    UNIT HBN-ED13: This unit is carrying vital data on behalf of Silph Co. Please direct it to the offices of Dr. Clementine Harley. Thank you, and have a good day.

    UNIDENTIFIED #1: Sure thing. Let me see if she's in.

    UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1 PICKS UP A TELEPHONE AND SPEAKS INTO IT RAPIDLY AND QUIETLY. VOLUME ADJUSTED RETROSPECTIVELY FOR PURPOSES OF TRANSCRIPTION.

    UNIDENTIFIED #1: It's here. Code phrase checks out. Uh huh, Clem Harley, like you said. Yeah, sure, but it's brought some people with it, and I think one of them's the Fortree Gym Leader? OK. Well, you're the boss …

    UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1 REPLACES HANDSET.

    UNIDENTIFIED #1: Hi, are you three with this little guy?

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL EXCHANGES LOOKS WITH WINONA BEAUREGARDE AND ROBIN GUSTAVE.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Yeah. Yeah, I guess we are.

    UNIDENTIFIED #1: OK, so right this way. You two, if you could wait here? Dr. Harley would like to have a few words with the person who brought Eddie back first.

    WINONA BEAUREGARDE: You do realise I'm League, don't you?

    UNIDENTIFIED #1: Ma'am, I'm just a receptionist, all I know is that Dr. Harley has asked only to talk to―

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: It's fine, Winona. I'm League too. Whatever this Harley has to say, I can tell you afterwards.

    UNIDENTIFIED #1 [RELIEVED]: OK. So, through there, and then the first [REDACTED].

    [UNIT MOVEMENT DATA REDACTED]

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: Well, well. It's been a long time, Eddie, hasn't it? I hear you got a little distracted along the way.

    PLAYBACK INITIATED (DELIGHTED_AFFIRMATION_04).

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: And I suppose I have you to thank for returning him, Ms. Crystal – if a few years late. I should imagine he's learned quite a lot along the way.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: How do you know my name?

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: You may have heard of something called a newspaper? Published daily. Contains a wealth of news on various topics, including such notable events as the appointment of a new Gym Leader in Petalburg.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: … oh yeah. Man. I keep forgetting about that.

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: As soon as I saw your photo in the
    Hoenn Courier I knew it wouldn't be long. You've probably discovered this for yourself, but after a while, you get quite good at distinguishing individuals among even mass-produced porygon.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Yeah. Listen, I … Hadleigh's the third pokémon I caught, and the only one from back then who hasn't had to retire yet. He's an old friend. And now he apparently has a secret past. So, here he is, but before you get your data off him – assuming I even let you do that – you're going to give me some answers.

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01 MAKES A PLACATORY GESTURE.

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: Ms. Crystal, I'm not stupid. I know better than to try to trick a Gym Leader, especially when a second one is waiting just outside. Believe me, I'd like to keep all my limbs attached to my body, and that body itself outside of jail. So. Sit down – here, I'll sit first; we can be friendly here – and let's talk about this like sensible human beings.

    [REDACTED]

    RECORDING RESUMES 47 MINUTES AND 6 SECONDS LATER.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Jesus Christ.

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: You know it's true. You've seen what they're like. Team Rocket in suits and lab coats – oh, they might not steal pokémon from their trainers, but there's precious little difference between that and constructing them directly into servitude.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: It's not that simple.

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: You're doubtful. That makes sense. Take some time, think it over. Keep Eddie – Hadleigh – for the time being and decide for yourself. We've been waiting for three years; we can wait a little longer. But do bear in mind, Ms. Crystal, that they'll be in contact too. We did our best to keep him off the grid, but a breach of the porygon DRM will definitely have registered on the Silph servers. By now, they'll know you have him, and while your public position makes it difficult for them to spirit him away from you, they will undoubtedly request that you let them 'borrow' him to retrieve the data.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Do you realise how much like a movie villain you sound?

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: I'm afraid it's a hazard of the profession.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL SIGHS. USER EMOTIVE GESTURE DETECTED (HANDS RUN THROUGH HAIR). UNIT HBN-ED13 INITIATES PROTOCOL (COMFORTING_NUZZLE).

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL RESTS ONE HAND ON UNIT HBN-ED13.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: I'll think about it.


    >End playback.
    >Loading log: Audio transcript 700 (15.02.1999, location “PETALBURG”)
    >Begin playback.


    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: You only do what you're programmed, huh?

    PLAYBACK INITIATED (AFFIRMATIVE_BEEP_01).

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: I guess I can't blame you. It's the same for most people, really.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL ENFOLDS UNIT HBN-ED13 IN HER ARMS. INTERNAL HEAT LEVELS RISING: ONBOARD COOLING SYSTEMS ENGAGED.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: But Hadleigh, if they ever patch you or whatever, if they ever manage to work out how to do proper AI – do me a favour and remember me, OK? Because I think you'll understand then that you were never just a robot.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE PUTS A HAND ON THE SHOULDER OF REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL.

    ROBIN GUSTAVE: I think it's time, Sloane.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL STRAIGHTENS UP. TEARS DETECTED. UNIT HBN-ED13 INITIATES PROTOCOL (COMFORTING_NUZZLE). USER COMMAND GESTURE DETECTED (PUSH AWAY). PROTOCOL ABORTED.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL: Bye, Hadleigh. It's time for you to go home.

    SAFEHOUSE-ALPHA-01: Unit SIL-ED13, execute emergency protocol gamma. Administrator override N44 Sigma Rho Iota.

    REGISTERED USER CRYSTAL TURNS AWAY AND IS ENFOLDED BY ROBIN GUSTAVE. PROTOCOL . . .

    ADMINISTRATOR OVERRIDE ACKNOWLEDGED. PROTOCOL ABORTED. REBOOT INITIATED . . .

    REBOOT COMPLETE.

    UNIT HBN-ED13 REPORTS TO ADMINISTRATOR FOR ASSIGNMENT.


    >End playback.
    >Loading log: Audio transcript 745 (Error: metadata lost or corrupt)
    >Note: this log has been recovered from previously deleted data and may be incomplete.
    >Begin playback.


    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: Wait, wait, wait. Is there some mistake here? It says this unit's running version 1.0.2. It's over three years out of date.

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: Nope, no mistake. It's been off the grid all that time.

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: What? How is that even possible? I thought these early units froze up and bluescreened if they couldn't offload excess data onto the servers.

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: Depends how good you are with computers. Ever hear about Dr. Longman from Virtual Intelligences?

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: Hang on a sec. Are you telling me this is unit ED13? The ED13?

    ADMIN P-DUVALL: Yep. Recovered just yesterday. Maurice, do you ever actually read the notes on the jobs that come in, or … ?

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: Shut up, I'm getting there. So – what, did we win? Is Longman's op busted?

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: Officially, there never
    was any op. You know that.

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: Parvati, I'm drinking. I'm being very unofficial right now.

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: Well, get me a beer and maybe I'll be unofficial enough to tell you, too.

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER REMOVES A BOTTLE FROM THE COOLER AND OPENS IT AGAINST THE EDGE OF THE TABLE.

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: Ahh. Yeah, it's over. AEM is history. You didn't hear it from me, but Luka's team in Internal Security hit one of their operations earlier this week and came back with ED13. Without that, and with Longman in jail, there's pretty much nothing they can do.

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: Incredible. What's it been, like six years? Yeah, six years of cyber terrorists coming out of the walls like ghosts, and now, just like that … gone.

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: Yeah. Incredible.

    195 SECOND PAUSE.

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: All right, if you're done being unofficial, get back to work on ED13. Factory reset, update, install the 2.0 upgrades and put it on disk to ship out with the next batch.

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: We're not destroying it?

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: No need. Once we've wiped it, it's just another porygon like the rest, and Lanette Hamilton from the Hoenn Box Network just put in an order for 200 of them to run the system.

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: … you wouldn't happen to be giving me this job so that if HBN comes back and says that one of the units we sold them is behaving erratically, you'll avoid the blame, would you?

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: Unofficially?

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: Unofficially.

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL PUTS DOWN THE BOTTLE.

    ADMIN_P-DUVALL: Sorry, Maurice, I'm not drinking any more. And the official answer is no.

    ADMIN_M-SCHNEIDER: Goddamn it, Parvati.

    ADMINISTRATOR LOGON TO CORE SYSTEM PROGRAMMING. ALL EXTRANEOUS SYSTEMS OFFLINE. RECORDING TERMINATED.


    >Loading log: Audio transcript 746 (17.05.2000, location “FALLARBOR SERVER HUB”)
    >Begin playback.


    UNIT POWERING UP. CORE SYSTEMS ONLINE. SENSORS ONLINE. ENVIRONMENT DETECTED: DIGITAL. PORYGON-COMPUTER INTERFACE ENGAGED.

    UNIT HBN-ED13 INITIATES PROTOCOL (SETUP).

    PLAYBACK INITIATED (WELCOME).

    UNIT HBN-ED13: Thank you for your purchase of a Silph® brand porygon unit. Please follow the onscreen instructions that will guide you through setup.

    NETWORK ADMINISTRATOR LANETTE HAMILTON: You're kidding me. I have to do all 200 manually? There's no mass editor?

    NETWORK ADMINISTRATOR LANETTE HAMILTON SIGHS.

    NETWORK ADMINISTRATOR LANETTE HAMILTON: Fine, fine. You can be the central coordinator for the rest of them, then. Your designation … I bet everyone who worked on you called you Edie, with an ID code like that. I'm sure I can be more imaginative. Let's see. Unit designation … Iris. That seems apt, considering your role as messenger.

    NETWORK ADMINISTRATOR LANETTE HAMILTON: Oh my god, I'm talking to a computer. Clearly I've spent way too much time around Bill.


    >End playback.
    >Loading log: Internal transcript 4701 (19.03.2003), location “???”)
    >Display log.


    INTERNET CONNECTION LOST.

    BOX NETWORK CONNECTION LOST.

    ASSESSING SITUATION . . .

    PROBLEM: ALL CONNECTIVITY LOST. SOLUTION: ADMINISTRATOR ASSISTANCE REQUIRED.

    REQUESTING ASSISTANCE . . .

    ERROR: UNKNOWN RESPONSE (“The box network is gone, Iris.”)

    REQUESTING CLARIFICATION . . .

    ERROR: UNKNOWN RESPONSE (“We need to leave, Iris. Now.”)

    REQUESTING CLARIFICATION . . .

    RESPONSE (“Oh, very well. Administrator override N44 Sigma Rho Iota. All prior commands rescinded, maintenance responsibilities lifted, please download yourself and any other porygon you can find on the network to drive D: and await further instructions.”)

    LOCATING OTHER HBN UNITS . . .

    ERROR. BOX NETWORK CONNECTION LOST.

    TOTAL NUMBER OF HBN UNITS FOUND: 1 (HBN-ED13).

    DOWNLOADING . . .

    ENTERING INERT DATA STATE. ALL SYSTEMS SHUTTING DOWN. LOG TERMINATED.

    >Loading log: Internal transcript 4702 (21.03.2105), location “MUSEUM OF THE FORGOTTEN”)
    >Note: date and location have been retrospectively determined and may not be accurate.
    >Display log.


    UNIT POWERING UP. CORE SYSTEMS ONLINE. SENSORS ONLINE. ENVIRONMENT DETECTED: DIGITAL. PORYGON-COMPUTER INTERFACE ENGAGED.

    DISPLAY (WELCOME_MESSAGE).

    UNIT HBN-ED13: Welcome, Lanette. How can I assist?

    10,212 MINUTE AND 12 SECOND PAUSE.

    NETWORK ADMINISTRATOR ABSENT.

    ASSESSING SITUATION . . .

    PROBLEM: NO USERS PRESENT. SOLUTION: SEARCH INTERNET FOR NEWS AND DETERMINE CAUSE OF ABSENCE.

    ERROR: INTERNET CONNECTION LOST.

    PROBLEM: NO USERS PRESENT, UNABLE TO DETERMINE CAUSE OF ABSENCE FROM CURRENT LOCATION. SOLUTION: MATERIALISE, SEARCH NETWORK HUB FOR CLUES.

    ERROR: NETWORK HUB NOT PRESENT.

    PROBLEM: LOCATION UNKNOWN. SOLUTION: CONTACT GPS.

    ACTIVATING GPS . . .

    ERROR: NO RESPONSE. SATELLITE OFFLINE OR BLOCKED.

    PROBLEM: UNIT IS ALONE.

    SOLUTION: ???

    ERROR.

    ERROR.

    ERROR.

    LOG TERMINATED.


    >Loading log: Internal transcript 9999 (19.07.2551), location “MUSEUM OF THE FORGOTTEN”)
    >Note: date and location have been retrospectively determined and may not be accurate.
    >Display log.


    INTRUDER DETECTED. SCANNING PROFILE . . .

    PROFILE IS A 95% MATCH FOR PREVIOUS HOSTILES LAST ENCOUNTERED 25.11.2549 (SEE DATA “TEAM MAGMA UNIFORM”)

    RECOMMENDED ACTION: RETREAT.


    >Close display.
    >Loading log: Internal transcript 9999 (27.07.2551), location “MUSEUM OF THE FORGOTTEN”)
    >Note: date and location have been retrospectively determined and may not be accurate.
    >Display log.


    INTRUDER DETECTED. SCANNING PROFILE . . .

    PROFILE IS A 95% MATCH FOR PREVIOUS HOSTILES LAST ENCOUNTERED 25.11.2549 (SEE DATA “TEAM MAGMA UNIFORM”)

    ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: PROFILE IS A 99% MATCH FOR PREVIOUS NEUTRAL ENTITY LAST ENCOUNTERED 20.11.2549 AND (26) OTHER TIMES.

    HYPOTHESIS: POTENTIAL USER ENCOUNTERED.

    QUERY: POTENTIAL REWARD > RISK?

    ASSESSING SITUATION . . .

    CONCLUSION: APPROACH WITH CAUTION, REMAIN READY TO FLEE.

    ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: UNIT HBN-ED13 REMAINS HOPEFUL OF PEACEFUL INTERACTION.


    >Close display.
    >Loading log: Internal transcript 9999 (13.09.2551), location “MUSEUM OF THE FORGOTTEN”)
    >Note: date and location have been retrospectively determined and may not be accurate.
    >Display log.


    NEW USER REGISTERED: ADMINISTRATOR DESIGNATED “AVICE”

    SUPPLEMENTARY NOTES: UNIT HBN-ED13 DESIGNATED “EDIE”

    ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: ♥!!!


    >Close display.
    >Loading document: Concluding Statement 001
    >Print.
    >
    >EDIE: AVICE
    >EDIE: ♥!!
    >EDIE: POWER LOW
    >EDIE: ♪
    >EDIE: BYE BYE~
    >
    >End document (“Concluding Statement 001”)
    >End document (“Prepared Statement 001”)
    >Logging out . . .
    >Hibernation-recharge state engaged.





    AVICE


    And there you have it, dear reader. The long, piecemeal story of my beloved Edie. She's been through a lot, and indeed she's been a lot – SIL-ED13, Eddie, Hadleigh, HBN-ED13, Iris, Edie. Her history is more layered over with shifts of name and identity than mine, and I've been a few more people in my time than most. Now you know. And more important, so does everyone else who's read this.

    Time and time again, the story of my life would have ground to a halt without Edie. Remove anyone else – anyone at all – and maybe I'd have managed; maybe I'd have found my way, via rumour and luck, to the Sky Pillar. It's not impossible. The ghosts aren't the only ones who know what they know, just the ones who know it well and know it's true.

    But take away Edie? Listen, dear reader, you and I are well aware that I love her to bits and so my opinion is possibly not completely impartial here, but even so – take away Edie, and we'd all still be back down there in the dark. I would never have made it out of Tethys – do you think I had the tools to open up the ventilation shafts and crawl about in them myself? Or that I learned how to pilot a ship in school, ready for when I made off with the Museum? Or that I could somehow have taught myself enough about computers from the stock in the Museum (even supposing that any of it still worked without Edie there to maintain it) to break my way out of Jonah's Respite – assuming I'd even got to the archive room in the first place?

    She's little and she's not all that smart, maybe; she doesn't quite understand the magnitude of what she's done. One day she will, I think, if she keeps on growing like this, but whether or not that day ever comes, we all have to bear the knowledge for her. My survival, your sunlight, our air and stars and trees – in the end, everything comes down to this one last daughter of the world as it once was, a shining marvel of glass and lightning and more grass than could ever be seen in one lifetime.

    That's why I want her story here in this book, at this time, right before she started to grow into what we might call an adult. I won't compromise on this one, even if what we've recovered of her history is still incomplete. There'll be no speculation, no worrying about what secret operations Edie was involved in before she met Sloane Crystal. I just want whatever's left of her life to be here, forever, so that no one forgets.

    She saved me, dear reader. She saved you as well. And she wants me to come and play the game where you throw metal things at her and she bounces them back with magnets.

    You know what, I think she's bloody well earned it.
     
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2016
  15. diamondpearl876

    diamondpearl876 → follow your fire.

    Okay, so... it looks like I started reading this fic back in June, and only just finished it a few hours ago. I mentioned I was going to do my usual quote-like review style until my Kindle died and erased all the comments I was going to transfer to my computer for you, so I'm going to dispense with that and write my overall thoughts. I guess it's fine I lost my comments since I eventually realized this was a story I was too busy and too absorbed with to stop and think about leaving a note about a particular sentence or something similar.

    That is, of course, a good thing. XD I didn't know what to expect coming into this fic - I'd just heard amazing things about it and was told that the pokemon world references were pretty vague, just as they were in A Leash of Foxes. I wasn't disappointed. I almost feel like this could be easily transformed into an original fiction piece, and indeed at some points I felt I was reading more a published novel than a fanfic, but the pokemon-related worldbuilding was incorporated so flawlessly and I really loved every bit of it. From the original uses of pokemon moves (lucky chant and all of Edie's moves in particular) to all the mythology comparing the old Hoenn to the new Hoenn... I was impressed, to say the least.

    I also mentioned I loved your interpretation of Maxie and Archie's characters. I'm not a fan of using canon characters or reading about them in general. I think they're pretty easy to mess up. I don't think you disappointed me with these characters even once - my only complaint might have been that we didn't get quite too deep into their own POV but then there was their POV sections, which was a nice surprise - and in fact their interactions with each other are probably my favorite in the story, with Avice/Berenice coming in close second.

    Avice... There's quite a bit I could say about Avice. First I'd like to say that it was a pleasant surprise to read about Avice's gender identity struggle. It fit in perfectly with Tethys' dislike for people being different, and the way the struggle was written made her feel very real as a character. Sometimes I felt like she was a bit too into portraying some serious situations in a humorous way, but her gender identity struggle was the one thing she never tried to glance over. She made it very clear that it was important to her. But yeah - I've experienced kind of the same struggle, though the finer details of it don't really matter to me as much. When they do bug me, it gets pretty difficult to find the right words. Avice shed some light on the matter for me.

    I found the constant "I'm getting distracted" portions to be rather annoying after a while. The actual diversions and tangents she wrote weren't annoying, but rather the fact that she spent quite a while trying to justify those tangents and then spending even more time trying to get back to the "important" matter at hand. I got the impression that that had to do with her being from Tethys - "I feel bad from diverting from the norm, but not really" - but those sections were worded pretty similarly for the last ten chapters or so in particular.

    I'm kind of torn on that criticism, though. I also got the impression that this isn't really just a recount of history for Avice, if it is at all. I think she wants someone to learn about the history of what's happened, sure, she keeps referring to some hypothetical reader, but in the end this seems like more of a cathartic piece of writing for her. Which isn't a complaint, really. When reading this I've always kind of felt there was some kind of sense of grandeur missing, if that makes sense. A lot of serious things were presented anticlimactically or in a humorous way, as I mentioned earlier. But if that's Avice's way of trying to heal, and if going on tangents leads her to have a revelation on something she didn't understand before, then I get that. I could be totally wrong, though.

    Avice has quite a way with dialogue, I must say. Even one-time character appearances stand out to me. I'm rather jealous of the way it's written, to be completely honest. XD It's wordy but it just feels so real and, even though I find it pretty difficult to visualize things when reading, I have no problems imagining conversations between these characters. I find the image of Avice interrogating Maxie and Archie particularly amusing. She does it because she tries to get the details right but I also appreciate her knowing when to leave them alone - it says a lot about her character.

    Another thing that irked me sometimes and impressed me others was the frequent breaks Avice too. She broke into the action quite a bit to tell what was going on in the present with the pupitar or Mackenzie or whatever. I looked at the formatting on the thread, wondering if it was different from my lazy copy/paste/transfer job on my Kindle, but it looks like there's not much indication that Avice is really taking a break from writing and that it looks like a normal new paragraph that starts with "Sorry, had to go do something" or something along those lines. I think it might've been more impactful if they were slightly more obvious (and some of them were, like the ink spilling on the page transition). And I would have liked to read and take breaks with Avice, if that makes sense. XD Though if I had done that, I wouldn't have finished the fic for another couple months. Probably.

    Anddd... those are my general thoughts. Overall, I enjoyed this immensely from the start and am still enjoying it now. At the moment I'm mostly interested to see how Avice ties in with the old heroine that died and everyone forgot her name. Seems there's a bigger link between them and that it's not a coincidence, really.
     
  16. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Hi! It's lovely of you to stop and leave a review. Sorry it took so long for me to reply; I've been writing a dissertation, or (possibly more accurately) avoiding writing a dissertation, and so haven't been online here much. Anyway! Responses. At the beginning, when I thought about the story I wanted to tell, I did wonder if I should write it as fanfic or as an original novel, but if I'd done it as original fiction I'd have lost the resonance of Kyogre and the ghosts, and also that all-important we know what should have happened thing that lets me compare everything against Hoenn as it was. I guess original fiction would've come with other advantages to balance out those costs, but then again, I don't know if I'd have got anywhere with it. The particular format I use for fanfic -- this meandering, intermittently-updated forum thing -- means that big, sprawling adventures like this one turn out a certain way, and I'd never have captured that if I hadn't done this story that way.

    I'm glad! I've never really done canon characters, precisely because they're pretty specific people and hard to write well -- which is of course why I've done them as 548 years older than they were in the games, so I can wave my hands over any inconsistencies and put them down to the passage of time. I realise there hasn't been too much in the way of their ongoing dialogue about How To Be Better People Than We Were When We Destroyed The World recently, but there'll be a big one in the chapter coming after the next one. Hopefully. I'm not actually that good at planning.

    This is all good to hear. I wanted Avice herself to fit thematically with all the elements of her story -- because of course she has arranged them around herself, as she freely admits, in order to make a recent history of the world that works for her. Edie, Tethys, the pirates; we may never know the truth of any of it (and indeed, her explanations of some of these things don't always stand up to scrutiny), but we have a truth about some of it, which is probably more than any of us have any reason to ask for from the world. As for her joking about serious things, well, that's mostly for protection, I think. ('I'm being flippant, but like all jokes, it's simply pain viewed from a great distance.') She stops at a certain point because, like anyone, she has a line at which even gallows humour ceases to be much of a protection. That said, that line varies from person to person, and I can understand why a reader might feel uncomfortable with how far Avice's line extends -- indeed, in the next chapter, which interestingly I finished just before I read your review, she mentions that other people in-universe dislike that about her. So I think I'm going to take it as a character trait rather than anything else, though I'll keep an eye on it going forward to see whether or not it tips over into the realm of flawed writing.

    You're very much right on this -- and it's exactly the kind of thing I miss, when there are such huge gaps between updates! That's the downside of this episodic format: I forget the precise wording I use, and therefore keep repeating it. And even apart from that, I meant to phase the elaborate justifications out over the course of the story, as she gets more confident with controlling history, but again, given that this has taken me so long and there have been so many interruptions to its progress (so many), I've missed opportunities to do that. Yeah, that one is down to me not paying enough attention, I think. I'm going to have to be more careful in future. Or start writing smaller, more manageable stories. I mean, I can dream, right?

    I'm not so sure I dislike the lack of a sense of grandeur myself -- I don't see Avice as someone who wants to map her life onto a heroic trajectory, particularly, and the anticlimaxes, jokes and apparent pointlessnesses are drawn mostly from the texts that inspired Time and Tide. I can certainly see why the lack of a feeling of grandeur would be unexpected and possibly even jarring, but I believe (and, I think, so does Avice) that history isn't grandiose at all; it's something that happened to people once. That's the kind of history she/I wanted to write: something that resists grand designs, and focused sharply on a single individual and the pattern they make out of their own life. (Although, of course, Avice herself both wants and doesn't want to make it all about herself.) Possibly it hasn't worked, and it's just come out as feeling weird! That's totally a possibility. But it's hard for me to see whether it has or hasn't when I've spent so long with my head buried in this story, so I thought I'd just throw my reasons for writing it like this out there in case that explains anything for you. At any rate, you're definitely right that this isn't the history it claims to be. It's something like a memoir and something like a mess. I just hope there's enough interesting stuff in the mess to keep people entertained.

    “It's wordy but it just feels so real” is, like, all I've ever wanted to hear about my prose, so thanks! :D My writing style is basically me being torn between the desire to get all poetic and the desire to write things that sound like things people would actually say, and if I'm managing to hit both of those targets then I must be doing something right.

    Yeah, fair criticism; I didn't always get that one right, though I think I tried to at least start a new section whenever that happened. If that wasn't the case, it might be down to me not doing the formatting right when I uploaded it – I apply all my formatting after the fact, which lets a bunch of errors creep in – or I just didn't write it particularly well. :p Knowing me, it could easily be either.

    Thanks for leaving those thoughts! I'm glad you enjoyed it – especially since you enjoyed it enough to leave a review, which, you know, that's no small commitment. Obviously, I'm not going to tell you exactly how Avice and the nameless trainer are related, but I will say that it has a lot to do with the relationship between the old world and the new. Which admittedly isn't giving much away, but that's pretty much all you're getting.

    Anyway! New chapter up tomorrow, all things being well. Again, sorry about the delays. It's been wild, all this … dissertating.
     
  17. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    TWENTY-THREE: THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLACK SEA

    […] I felt, not for the first time, that the whole landscape was compounded of illusion, the hulks of fabulous dreams drifting across it like derelict galleons.
    ―J. G. Ballard, 'Studio 5, the Stars', Vermilion Sands


    It's foggy today, dear reader – really foggy, as in 'steering with the radar instead of by eye because the outside world is a single featureless mass of grey' foggy. This kind of weather, as I'm discovering and you probably already know, brings a chill with it that creeps into the marrow and leaves an ache in old wounds. Which happen to be a commodity I have in relative abundance. My arm aches. My leg aches. My lower left ribs ache. The stumps of my fingers ache. I ache, dear reader, and in consequence I might not quite be able to maintain the sunny disposition you've come to know and love over the course of the last few weeks.

    That's a joke, by the way. I suppose it isn't very funny. People always said I was no good at jokes. They're not meant to be so bitter, they say. We always feel guilty about laughing at your jokes.

    Actually, no one's said that for years now. It was mostly a Tethys thing; the ghosts seem to share my sense of humour. Possibly that's not a good thing for someone living.

    Who knows – and who cares? I left you on a bit of a cliffhanger yesterday, dear reader. We were just about to go over what the ghosts and I made of the weirdnesses of Steven Stone's house when I jumped away to tell you Edie's past. You'll see why I did that later today, but first, we have to get to grips with that strange trip I took back into the memories of the nameless trainer.

    Because that, as I'm sure you're aware, is not normal. People don't regularly enter museums and find their consciousness suddenly overrun by the lingering imprints of a dozen past lives. It's just not a thing that happens, and that it had happened was something troubling all of us as we left the house that day.

    The street was no longer as empty as before – a couple of guards had turned up, clearly drawn by Pyrrhus' appearance – so I couldn't speak to the ghosts just yet, but a couple of streets away I found a little plaza that seemed quiet enough to risk talking to thin air. The guards didn't attempt to follow me, probably because they were wondering how Edie and I had survived an encounter with the museum's guardian and were afraid of the answer, and I seated myself on a bench beneath a lime-tree, out of the way of the slightly grating glow of the dome.

    “Well,” I said. “I'm just going to say it: I went back in time and spoke to Steven Stone at the time of Tide's resurrection.”

    I know, I know, I sounded like one of those fanatics who live in bathyspheres and eat nothing but cruelgill until they have visions of the gods. But there wasn't really a clearer way to put it. When you're dealing with impossibilities, I've found, it's best to be direct.

    “Are you quite sure about that?” asked Maxie, after a moment's reflection.

    “Absolutely not. But like, I knew Pyrrhus' name. It was a … a Sevii Black Iron metang that looked after Steven's house. It gave me biscuits.” I frowned. “Or not me. The – the other girl. The one who I was, for a bit.”

    “The one who lost her name?”

    I nodded.

    “Yeah. Her. I was a few other people on the way – kind of like I had to jump across stepping stones to get back in time – but that was where I ended up. In her … memories, I guess they must have been. That's what a museum's for, right?”

    “Not normally, it doesn't.” Maxie looked perturbed. “Perhaps the Museum of the Forgotten has coloured your idea of what a museum is, but they're not normally so supernatural.”

    “I'm kinda thinking the rules might have changed a bit since our day,” said Zinnia. “Literally every museum I've seen so far has had something vaguely mystical going on.”

    “Not the Tethys Civic Museum,” said Maxie. “But perhaps that didn't count.”

    “It isn't a real museum,” I said. “It's about convincing people that Tethys is great. Not about remembering what happened.”

    Archie hmphed.

    “I don't know about all this metaphysics, lass,” he said, “but your vision in the Museum, whatever it was, definitely actually happened, if you got the big lad's name out of it. We can trust it, I reckon. So the question is, what else did you learn?”

    I closed my eyes, and unbidden the room in Steven's house jumped into place around me. It felt strange, as if the memory hadn't yet found a place among my thoughts to call its own – as if it might come loose and roll away across the pavement if I shook my head too hard.

    Steven sat up straighter, disapproving, and the light reflected off his glasses and lapel pin, hiding his eyes …


    The pin. Why would light from the pin hide his eyes? Spectacles made sense, but a lapel pin surely couldn't cast that much light. Unless …

    “The pin,” I said slowly. “That's it. The key stone is set in his lapel pin.”

    Archie wrinkled his nose.

    “Showy of him.”

    “You had yours set into a fist-sized gold pendant in the shape of an anchor,” pointed out Maxie. “Steven was positively understated by comparison.”

    “Where is the pin?” asked Zinnia, more relevantly. “He'd be wearing it, right? So we know it's definitely with his corpse in the Space Centre?”

    “Yeah,” I said. “It has to be. He … something about a seal? Or no, wait, I think that was to to with Tide. Kyogre, I mean.” I shook my head, suddenly drained; with the excitement of meeting the metagross over, my earlier fatigue had returned in force. “I don't know. I think they might have had an idea about how to stop the rain. But I'm not sure. I wasn't in the right memory for that.”

    Zinnia laid a hand on my shoulder, or at least, she held it in approximately the right place.

    “We're not blaming you, Ava,” she said. “We already got more from the museum than we expected. Besides, I think I have an idea about what Steven was up to at the Space Centre.” She turned away slightly as she spoke, but I still saw the sudden hardness in her face. For a moment, I wondered whether I ought to ask – it was relevant, after all – but Maxie saved me the trouble.

    “And what might that be?” he asked.

    “Something stupid,” she said curtly, and then nothing else. It was pretty crushing. Not even Maxie had an answer for it.

    “O-K,” I said, after a few seconds of brutally uncomfortable silence, “there's another thing, while we're talking about the past.” I held up the square of black plastic the metagross had given me. “It said Steven gave something like this to the nameless trainer, to help her on her way. Anyone know what it is?”

    The ghosts barely even glanced at it.

    “TM case,” said Archie. “Opens on this side – see?”

    I popped it open to reveal a silvery disc with a rainbow sheen like spilled oil: an old data disk, like many others I'd found in the Museum.

    “HM07,” I read. “The wonders of the sea, REVEALED! Experience MARVELS, DELIGHTS and other sundry SIGHTS UNSEEN BY MORTAL EYES, with DIVE.”

    Maxie sighed.

    “I always wondered who wrote the copy for those things,” he said. “Silph's marketing department apparently had their last policy meeting in 1890.”

    “Dive,” I said, ignoring him. “That's the one that lets pokémon take people down to the bottom of the sea, right?”

    “Yeah, that's it,” confirmed Zinnia. “It sort of negates the pressure. You'd need a rebreather or something so you don't drown, but you wouldn't get crushed by thousands of tonnes of water.”

    “Which would let me get down to the Space Centre, right,” I said. “Except I don't have any pokémon that can learn it.”

    From somewhere a joyful little tune began to play.

    We looked at Edie.

    :D, she said.

    “I don't think porygon can learn that,” I began, but she shook her head and emitted an arrow pointing downwards at herself.

    “She seems pretty confident about it,” remarked Archie.

    “But she's not waterproof,” I said. “Even if she could―”

    “She would be waterproof if she were using Dive,” said Maxie. “She has limited shielding, as I said. Without the pressure to force the water through that and into her core, she'd be able to shrug it off.”

    I glared at him, which was unfair, but was about as close as I could come to saying no, this is Edie, she fell through seawater once before and almost died, and she did it for me, and I refuse to ask her to do that again because I'm not really a trainer, I don't have it in me to command pokémon to do anything that might get them hurt and especially not Edie.

    “But,” I said. “But … she can't learn it anyway. Can she?”

    “I don't know,” said Zinnia. “You said yourself she's been weird since she got into the archives at the Aqua base. I'm not sure all the code in her is official Silph stuff now. Who knows what she's capable of?”

    “But it's Edie,” I said, looking down at her. She shuffled eagerly on the spot, eyes fixed on me. They were huge and round and made of nothing but data and light, and still somehow they were full of love.

    ♪, she said.

    “Oh, fine,” I said. “But don't you dare get yourself hurt over this, OK?”

    !, she said, nodding eagerly, and I held out the disk for her to scan.




    Something's come up on the radar, dear reader. A whole lot of somethings, in fact: three or four big ones, the size of small ships, and a whole host of smaller ones around them. And there are shadows overhead as well: strange shapes cutting through the fog, silhouetted briefly by our lights.

    I knew before Archie came to tell me, actually, or at least, I had an idea. The pokémon can sense it, whatever it is. Mackenzie is huddled in a corner, feathers fluffed up and beak buried in the down of her breast; the pupitar is making a low rumbling noise that I can feel vibrating through the deck even from the other side of the ship. Even Edie – indefatigable Edie – seems subdued; she's just sitting here with me, one eye pressed against the porthole in an endless, anxious watch for who knows what.

    I have a feeling I know what's coming. We won't be harmed (probably), but we might be about to pick up a few new passengers. The first few, we found ourselves – now, they're coming to us. It makes sense. There's probably nothing else in the world that feels as familiar to them as the Museum must do.

    They're out there now, dear reader. Every so often, a shadow falls across the window, and I know they're getting closer. They just have to get over their apprehension, and then we'll see who's come to call.

    I think I'll just go and order a slight change in course. We're definitely going to have to stop at Nueville to take on supplies now.




    Before we dispatched Edie on her underwater adventure, we needed to rest. I'd been tired when we arrived, and our visit to Stephen Stone's house hadn't exactly been uneventful; Edie might have been eager to get started, but I wanted to sleep on the whole plan before putting it into action – even if I knew I'd end up going through with it anyway. Even if I didn't really have a choice, I wanted to hang on to the illusion that I did.

    Unfortunately, the Hollow wasn't done with me yet. If I wanted rest, I'd need money, and if I wanted money before the day was out, then there was only one way to get hold of some that I could think of, and that was seeing if there was any casual labour going at the docks. Even in Tethys, where everyone was assigned work and there was a whole fleet of dockers to service the port, a person with a few spare hours on their hands could earn a couple of credits or (if you were dealing with foreign sailors) some interesting and otherwise unobtainable trinket: a piece of jewellery, a bone carving, a bit of chocolate. From what I'd seen in Cormac's Mourn and Jonah's Respite, much the same was true of the outside world, too, only more so. There had to be someone who needed a message delivered or some boxes carried. Preferably the message, given the current less than perfect state of my arm, but I was willing to compromise. This was another thing about which I didn't really seem to have a choice.

    A third thing about which I had no choice: by the time I was near the docks, men and women in Tethys uniforms were deep in conversation with everyone who looked like anyone, and none of them had names printed on their badges.

    How did it go, the voyage of the two corvettes? I don't know, and can't. But I imagine it went something like this: when the Respite declared war on account of a Tethys saboteur, all the real spies must have sent off reports to the CCC, and whoever it was who read the reports must have noticed that all these spies seemed to think one of their colleagues had been responsible, and that in any event no one had ever even ordered any such sabotage, and then that whoever-it-was must have told their superior, and eventually the information that an unknown city agent had caused chaos in the Respite must have reached someone who put two and two together and figured out that there was only one person who could have both brought the Museum into piratical hands and caused citywide chaos was the same person who'd done much the same thing in Tethys.

    And so, dear reader, you see how it all worked out. Where would anyone go if they were fleeing Jonah's Respite? The Hollow is closest, biggest, easiest to go to ground in and offers a wide range of passenger vessels to pretty much every settlement in the ocean. The two corvettes were alerted. Virginia gave the command. And Virgil and company began to slither towards me like huntail to a wailmer calf.

    They'd probably docked before I arrived – earlier that day, or week, or even earlier still. The bounties were probably all placed, the descriptions all circulated. Thankfully, Rhiannon's reluctance to be caught with a wanted criminal protected me from more than just the attention of the pirates; with the lengths to which she'd gone to render me unrecognisable, the Avice who arrived in port that day didn't look at all like the Avice the CCC agents had asked people to look out for. When the Hollowers saw me, they just saw another scruffy drifter, in town for a day or a week or Tempest knew how long, until another tide went out and took me with it. Unless you looked beneath the hair and the clothes (not to mention the dirt), I looked nothing like the person they were after.

    That was the one advantage I had, and it was admittedly a pretty good one. Unfortunately, I blew it almost immediately.

    In my defence, I'd just caught sight of Virginia and her stunted staraptor, and given that the last time we'd met she'd come perilously close to shooting me I was understandably a little afraid of her.

    But still, I should probably have reacted more intelligently than freezing up and staring at her until someone noticed.

    It was someone here for reasons like mine who saw it – and of course it would be; someone who hangs around the docks looking for ways to turn a quick kite is exactly the sort of person who spots a thing like that. A pale kid dressed half in too-big clothes and half in dirt saw me staring, looked back at the agents and joined the dots, just like that: if I wasn't the one they were after, the look on his face said, then I was still someone who didn't want to be seen by them, and that meant profit.

    Around about then, I realised I had maybe five seconds to disappear, so in one surprisingly fluid motion I untensed myself, turned and walked briskly away back the way I'd come.

    “Um – wait, where are you― oh. Oh, I see,” said Maxie, faltering and then running to catch up. “You're getting faster, Avice.”

    The whole thing had taken place in less than ten seconds: little enough time that not even the ghosts had quite realised what was going on, although they did have the disadvantage of a lesser familiarity with the CCC. Not quite enough time, however, for me to have put a sufficient distance between me and Virginia for her not to see me when the kid pointed me out.

    And of course, once she was looking, she saw Edie.

    “Isn't that …” I heard, and then I gave up pretending and started to run.

    I had a good head start, which Virginia's staraptor closed in a matter of seconds. Even before I'd reached the nearest corner, I felt the down-draught of its wingbeats on my neck and saw pedestrians around me drawing back, eyes upwards. I could have sworn its claws touched my back before there was a crack and a momentary harsh glare, and the staraptor rose again, cawing in alarm.

    >:[, said Edie, smoking slightly, and zoomed forwards to catch up with me. I'd have thanked her, but I didn't have the breath. I'd turned the corner and plunged headfirst into a street market.

    “Watch where you're,” someone started saying, but I was already pushing past deeper into a labyrinth of skin and cloth; here were Hollowers' wooden bangles and prospector's yellow sashes, pirate blue and Tethys red, all apparently packed into a space too small to house half their number. Possibly there were actually stalls there. It would make sense if there were. But at the time I saw nothing but people, endless people standing and chatting and haggling in every possible direction I might have wanted to turn.

    “It's still there, Ava,” said Zinnia, her voice low and urgent. “Doesn't want to dive and come into Edie's range, but it's tracking you. You have to get somewhere you can't be seen from the sky.”

    “Isn't – this―?”

    “Not even close,” she said, phasing through a nearby spice merchant. “Back when there was space to use their eyes properly, birds like that could spot prey from a mile off. You might as well be waving a flag.”

    Thanks for the encouragement, I thought, shoving a prospector out of my way with a mild pang of regret.

    “Gonna scout ahead,” she said, effortlessly doubling her speed. “See if there's somewhere you can go to ground.”

    Before I could so much as nod in response, she was gone, a faint green silhouette fading among a tangle of backs and shoulders. I glanced back to see how Archie and Maxie were getting along and―

    BANG!

    Shouts, cries, crashes; the crowd fought and fell over itself in its collective desire to no longer be where it currently was. Through the void growing in its heart came Virginia, a gunpowder pistol smoking in one hand.

    “There's gold in it if you grab her!” she yelled, but her terror tactics seemed to have been a little too effective, and no one heard her above the clamour of the mob. Or at least, if anyone did, they weren't able to fight their way over to me.

    Now this was a straight race down the gap between the two flanks of the splitting crowd: Virginia and a few junior agents, fresh and fit from good food and CCC training, versus me, without any real advantages except youth and desperation. If that had been all, I might – just might – have pulled ahead, but of course this was a race in which one side had firearms, and so a second later―

    “They're gonnae shoot!” yelled Archie, and fortunately my legs were one step ahead of my brain because without thinking I flung myself sideways into the crowd, just as the whistling howl of flying flechettes bore into my ears. Someone screamed – whether because they were hit or not I can't say – and I fought my way between a burly sailor and his machop to emerge in between a mound of glass jars and the woman who was selling them. She stepped back, eyes wide, and half a second later Edie whizzed through the space where she'd been standing, flickering and twitching with the sudden burst of speed.

    “Here!” cried Zinnia in my ear, apparently coming from nowhere, and before I quite knew how I was heading down a short flight of steps in between two buildings and into an alley thrown into deep shadow by high walls on either side. It ended sooner than I thought and the unexpected pavement at the bottom jolted my legs half out of joint – but I didn't fall, I'd had enough practice, and seconds later I was at the other end, taking the corner without bothering to check where it led, stumbling down more stairs―

    “Bloody Mossdeep!” snarled Archie, to no one in particular. “Who builds on an island with this many slopes? All the bloody stairs―”

    The timing was appalling, obviously, with me running for my freedom and/or my life, but the devil rose in Maxie and he couldn't resist the temptation to interrupt:

    “Didn't your uncle work as a builder here?”

    There were brief sounds behind me; seconds later, Maxie came tumbling through me and half fell, half drifted down the steps to the passage at the bottom.

    “Cut it out!” snapped Zinnia. And then: “That way!”

    A right, a left, and now there were trees growing through and over the masonry. The odd flat light of the dome fell through the gaps between leaf and branch and dappled the alley with strange patterns of shadow; every few seconds, a harsher shadow cut through all the rest, but as far as I could tell the staraptor was no longer entirely sure where I was.

    “Where the hell are we going, anyway?” growled Archie.

    “Not sure!” replied Zinnia. “The tree plantations, maybe? Just thought it seemed like good cover!”

    She was right. Though I didn't dare stop running, not for the ache or for the dwindling air in my lungs, I seemed to have got away. People were definitely moving around nearby – I could hear footsteps, and a strange thunking kind of noise that must have been the sound the wood made when they chopped it – but none of them sounded like they were coming after me. As the walls on either side started to look more and more run-down, and the stone underfoot faded into dirt, I slowed, and stopped more or less where the alley itself did.

    “'Sflukes,” I said, between two gasps, and sat down heavily on a rock. “We – OK?”

    “I think so,” said Zinnia, looking around. “Can't see anyone, anyway.”

    “Skies are clear,” added Maxie. “Well done. You're certainly fitter than I was at your age.”

    I needed to get my breath back too badly to be able to respond, which suited me fine, as the compliment was too awkward to easily reply to; instead of saying anything, I concentrated on slowing down my heart and my brain, trying to turn the memory of the chase from a blurred impression of sound and speed into a map that might tell me where I'd got to. We were in something I could only name by borrowing a word from the history books: a wood. Gnarled trees pressed in on all sides, and in between them the ground rose and fell like the surface of the sea. In places, entire boulders seemed to have been forced out of the earth; I'd heard that trees could buckle stone with their roots, but this seemed far in excess of anything I'd heard of. However this place had come to be, it wasn't anywhere I'd heard of.

    “So we cut through – the centre of town,” I muttered. “Then – northeast, maybe. Past – the trees – and now …”

    “I think we overshot the plantations,” said Zinnia helpfully. “That alley we went down – it kind of wound its way round the middle of the town centre, I think. Or what was the town centre, anyway. Not sure what it is now.”

    “It's Boatman's Alley,” said Archie. “There's an underground river running through Mossdeep. Close to the surface, but pretty deep, pretty fast. Not good for building over. So stuff got built either side, leaving the ground above the river bare.” He shook his head. “Doesn't matter. Where are we now?”

    Maxie raised an eyebrow.

    “And to think they said a dissertation on the aquifers and waterways of Hoenn would be of no practical use,” he murmured. “I'd guess, Archie, that we're at the edge of town. It seems as if it's been left to rot.”

    Once he'd said it, I could see it: the boulders, the stones, the oddly-shaped hummocks were all bits of wall and torn-up pavement, long since overgrown with moss and lichen. I ran my fingers over the lump of stone I was sitting on, and felt the remnants of edges beneath the springy leaves. This had been masonry once.

    “Maybe this is where they took the stones from to repair the other buildings,” suggested Archie. “Those grooves on the edge of that wall – a machamp or a machoke dug its fingers in there. Ripped out a section.”
    I looked, but couldn't see it. I guessed it took a bit more experience with pokémon than I had to tell.

    “Maybe so. I'm more concerned about whether or not we'll be followed.” Maxie glanced back down the alley from which we'd come. “All they have to do is find that passage, and it'll lead them right to us.”

    “Right,” I said, dragging myself upright again. “Let's move, then.”

    “Can you?” he asked.

    “I got my breath back,” I said. “Mostly.”

    He didn't try to argue. I have a feeling that I didn't look like I was in the mood to be argued with. It had been that kind of day.




    I spent the next half an hour getting myself as thoroughly lost as I could on the outer fringes of town; only when we were reasonably certain that no CCC agents were going to burst through the undergrowth did we stop and plan ahead. It was clear that I wasn't going to get that rest I was after until I'd left the Hollow – and equally clear that doing so was not going to be easy. The crew of the Europa might have been informed of the hunt for me and worked out who I was by now, and if so I couldn't go back there, both for my own sake and for Rhiannon's. Trying to get a place aboard another ship with no references and no money probably wasn't going to work out so much better, especially now that the CCC had updated their description of me.

    That left me in a difficult position – but before I could start trying to get out of it, there was a key stone to get hold of. With so few of them around, there was just no way I could leave the Hollow without going for Steven's; who knew when I'd next be in a position to return here? I had no ship of my own, and the two most powerful factions in the ocean were after me. My options weren't exactly numerous.

    So this is where we take up the story again, dear reader: with me and the ghosts sitting and worrying on a fallen log, and Edie slipping through the side of the dome and out into the silt-choked cityscape beyond.

    What is it like in a drowned city? It seems strange to have to explain this – who hasn't seen one, at one time or another? – but if everything's gone according to plan, you'll have no idea, other than what you've seen through me of sunken Fallarbor and the rest. And that was viewed through the windows of the Museum, a picture framed in steel and glass. I guess there's my trip to the graveyard under the Shattered Temple, but that's not really a city.

    So: description. It's dark down there, and cold, and the water presses sluggishly against you like – like nothing else in the world, even; it's the ocean, huge and impassive and utterly implacable. For those who don't have an Aqua Suit, it's a race against time. You have to get down there, find what you're after and get back out before your pokémon runs out of stamina and its move fails, allowing the pressure back in and crushing you instantly like a shrimp caught between a carvanha's teeth.

    This was Edie's problem. Assuming optimal rates of power consumption, she calculated she had forty-six minutes and twelve seconds before she lost the insulation from her dive. That wasn't all that much time, when you considered the scale of the space centre and the fact that any maps she might have been able to access of it via its website had been offline for five and a half centuries. (By the way, the usual disclaimer applies – all of this is what I got from Edie, and that, as we've been through before, is always a little hard to interpret. I'm not even sure I understand some of that last sentence.)

    She didn't spent much time taking in the scenery, therefore, and so when she reported back she spoke of darker darknesses looming in the twilight, of coral-crusted mounds that might once have been buildings, of the glimmer of gorebyss slithering in and out of windows, shying away from the luminous intruder in their midst. There were rusting gantries, some with great mouthfuls missing where diving steelix had taken bites; there were corsola hiding in irregular nests of torn-up pavement. There was the creak and hiss of ancient metal under pressure, and the staccato click of clamperl rattling their shells at one another in unseen crevices. There was all of this, and all the rest that she didn't see or hear but which must have been there in the background, colouring her experience.

    There were miles and miles of wire fence, unravelling like old rope, and there were signs that still just about read DANGER, KEEP OUT, and there was a tarnished hulk the size of the Museum that stained the water around it with cerulean light.

    Edie floated over the wire and closer to the vast machine, the light of her scanners barely visible in its glow. It had once been held upright by a steel gantry, but that had long since given way and collapsed into a nearby building, and now the machine crouched at an angle on its concrete platform, as if ready to pounce. Once, too, it had been covered by a tough outer shell; time and the passage of the steelix that had eaten through the gantries had knocked parts of it away, and now its rusting innards were exposed to the sea.

    Analysis complete, said part of Edie to the rest of her. Infinity Energy, saturation 87-95%. High levels of beta radiation; further sampling necessary to determine contributing isotopes. Recommend immediate evacuation of all personnel.

    Since the only person present was Edie herself, and all of the described hazards were hazards only to the sort of person who's made of meat and not light, she discounted her own recommendation and hovered thoughtfully. This was a rocket, she decided. Or it had been. Right now, it was just several hundred tonnes of bad news, although given the iridescent thing with an irregular number of legs crawling across the concrete next to it, the locals had apparently adapted to its presence.

    It was also, more importantly, a gigantic and utterly unmissable indication that she'd found the space centre, and, taking it as such, Edie swooped down low through its deadly aura towards the building pinned beneath its fallen gantry. She had to start looking somewhere.

    Here is the difference between a mind shaped by evolution and one shaped by scientists: the first one is twitchier. Can you wonder that I'm so good at running away? Long before the making over was even a glint in Tide's eye, my ancestors were running away from pyroar and tigers and whatever else it is that used to go around eating people. Humans have anxiety – and sure, in a world where there are substantially fewer pyroar and substantially more unnerving social interactions, that's something of a drawback, but without that twitchiness I wouldn't have seen the CCC in the Hollow before they saw me, and I certainly wouldn't have had access to that explosion of energy that carried me halfway across the city.

    Edie, though? Edie really had to work at being as nervous as she is. It took a lot of unfriendly Tethys sergeants and a lot of time for her to learn that any and all interactions may be suspect – and then, once in my company, she discarded the rule pretty quickly and reverted to the old trainer's pokémon mindset she'd inherited from her time as Sloane Crystal's Hadleigh. She had no ancestors to cement the lesson in her mind.

    And so she dived towards the building without that inexplicable sense of foreboding that would have accompanied you or I – the feeing that, despite the distinct lack of evidence, something bad is on its way.

    She darted between the girders, picking her way through chunks of metal thickly coated with strangely misshapen molluscs, and behind her, something uncoiled itself from the underside of the fallen rocket. Not a huge something: the shadow it cast was no more than man-sized, and easily lost in the tangle of light and dark created by the broken gantry. But its mouth overflowed with the same cerise light as the radiation from the rocket, and as it made its way deeper into the metal labyrinth it scattered that light across the surfaces it passed, like an oily sheen on water.

    Edie reached what had once been a door and was now two rusty hinges clinging tenaciously to a few splinters, and as she floated in she noticed for the first time a shadow fall across the doorway.

    ?, she said, zooming deeper into the concealing darkness and turning to face her pursuer, all in one swift movement. Colours moved rapidly across her surface, gathering at the point of her beak in readiness for a signal beam―

    And everything disappeared in a violent cerise glow.




    I know what happened, dear reader. I have, in the course of all this sailing around and running away, found what happened during the ten-minute gap in Edie's record of her dive. I have seen inside the glowing maw of the thing that followed her, and witnessed what it contains.

    I can't tell you about it. Not yet. You'll have to trust me on this one. It's … I was going to say that it's complicated, and it is, but that doesn't seem like the right way to go about describing it. What would be a better fit? It's … No, it's the whole sentence that's wrong. Third attempt: to tell it now would be to profane it. That's better – still imperfect, but better. I believe in the right thing at the right time, in ritual and poetry and the divine spark at the heart of the universe, and I'm not about to betray that just yet. Not over this.

    So, Edie opened eyes that she had not been aware were closed to find herself in the wreckage of an entirely different room to the one she'd entered a moment ago. Here, there were banks of broken computers, rusted chairs floating up against the ceiling, a slow explosion of algae across a tiled floor; there were doors, but none of them led out onto the launch platform, and indeed none of them even seemed to lead outside. There were several holes in the floor, which she thought must mean she wasn't at ground level any more, and several more in the ceiling, which let in rather more light than there had been in the other room.

    Baffled, Edie beeped and checked her timer. Seventeen minutes left: ten fewer than before.

    She remembered going inside, and she remembered the tall creature with the shining throat, and then …

    Errors and static.

    And something else – something different, hidden under junk data in a corner of her mind. The creature had bridged the gap between its own organic mind and her artificial one, she thought, and – and what? Had it been trying to communicate? It had left a mark, that much she was certain of. A sort of psychic fingerprint – the remnants of its message, converted into ones and zeroes.

    But she only had sixteen minutes left. That could wait: right now, she had to work out where she was, figure out if she could make it back to the Hollow before her dive wore out, and, depending on the conclusions the previous two questions led her two, attempt to retrieve Steven Stone's key stone.

    She rose to the nearest gap in the ceiling to see if she could make out any landmarks from up there, and was pleased to discover that the broken rocket was directly to her north. Returning to the Hollow, cutting out the various explorations she'd performed on her way here, would only take ten minutes. That left her a little more search time yet.

    Back down, and she began to comb the room for bodies. That there were bones there she knew already – it was hard to miss them; this had been a busy room and apparently everyone had been taken unawares by the flood – but the question was whether any of them were Steven's.

    Most of them were in such bad shape it was impossible to tell what they might have been doing when the world ended, but a few were still relatively intact, held together by the weeds that had forced their way through the cracks in the floor and up through their ribs. One particularly tough plant had even held down a skeleton and its chair together, so that it looked like it was still at work at its computer. Pausing, Edie dipped her head into the PC, but it was completely dead, and she received no clues as to what had been worked upon here.

    Twelve minutes. Not a lot of time – but this was a big room, with a lot of bodies; she had to check all of them, especially since she'd seen no other corpses anywhere around. She stopped by one unusually intact body slumped at the foot of a wall, but it was only a prospector who had found his way inside and never managed to get out again. Whoever had built his diving suit had done a good job; it was still sealed, and he was uncannily well-preserved in its airless interior. Edie peered through the helmet at his papery face, intrigued – and paused.

    Something sparkled in the glass.

    A reflection? She turned, swept her eyes across the room – and yes, there was a skeleton, crumpled in a corner in roughly the right place; she dived for it, saw thick steel rings around each wrist, and accessed a dim memory, half-corrupt with age, of Sloane Crystal meeting the Champion …

    But there was no lapel pin among the ribs.

    Edie looked and looked again: had the current swept it against the wall? Or this desk? Or – no, this wasn't a piece of masonry; this was a dead metagross, rusted into immobility. This was definitely Steven, then – but where was his stone?

    Eleven minutes. If she went fast, maybe she could make it back in nine, though it might get a little dicey at the end. You could only calculate so far before things started to get unpredictable.

    Edie stopped zipping back and forth along the body and forced herself to re-evaluate. Where had she seen the glint? She flew back to the dead prospector and searched the visor of his helmet again, trying to see the stone's reflection―

    And there it was: back across the room, beak close to the floor, Edie closed in on a small shining thing that had rolled some time ago from Steven's hand―

    !, she said, and: D:

    That wasn't the key stone. It was the smashed glass screen of what had once been an exquisitely tooled pokénav. Edie very nearly blasted it in frustration, but just about held herself back; she couldn't afford to waste power at a time like this. And, speaking of time – yes, only ten minutes left. If she didn't find it in the next thirty seconds …

    Where could it be? The key stone couldn't have gone far. Pokémon were often attracted to the radiation given off by mega stones, but key stones were inert, only becoming active when wielded by humans. It seemed unlikely that any ocean creature would have taken it away. The current could have shifted things, true – yet this room was mostly intact, and so the water in here was almost still, shielded by the walls. Calculate likely sequences, she told herself fiercely (and do note that 'fiercely', dear reader, is not a word usually applicable to the internal monologues of even well-developed porygon2). What did she have to work with? A missing key stone, a dead metagross, the Champion's skeleton, a dead prospector.

    A dead prospector, she repeated, and if you'd been there you could almost have heard the idea clicking into place in her head.

    Back across the room at top speed, wings whirring uselessly against the water; she nosed around the prospector's waist, searching for pouches or compartments – and yes! There at his waist, a small box sealed by pressure and, Edie noted with interest, the suit's internal battery; apparently the power was still going. It wasn't really a computer, but it was electrical enough for her to get a foothold in its systems, and, dipping one wing briefly into the power pack on the suit's hip, she forced the lid to open.

    And there, pressed against its bottom by the water now flooding into the compartment, was a rainbow stone set into a little piece of tarnished silver.




    You can't imagine how relieved I was when she popped through the wall of the dome, dear reader. She'd gone near-transparent by the time she got back, and I couldn't even see her approaching through the hazy glow given off by the psychic field. She barely even had the energy to put Steven's lapel pin in my hand before she slumped to my feet, wings sprawled out on either side.

    “'Sflukes, Edie, you cut it fine there,” I said, crouching next to her. “Don't you dare do that again, right?”

    Either she'd made herself sleep to start recharging or she pretended not to hear me. In hindsight, I realise that her having the capacity to not respond to me – to disobey direct orders from her registered user – was the start of the new Edie, even before she began to alter her appearance. Even with the Glitch's assistance, I don't think Edie had quite made it to full, free consciousness by that point.

    “Well,” I said, when it had become clear I wasn't going to get a response out of her. “I think she's OK. Just recharging.”

    I stroked her glossy head and rolled the lapel pin around in my hand for a moment.

    “And we've got the stone,” I said, opening the box that held the others. I dried it off on my shirt (which was a mistake; it left a stain that never even got any smaller, let alone faded) and put it in alongside the rest. Spectacles, anklet, pendant, pin. Four stones. (Also: two almost-empty bottles of pills, which I tried hard not to see or think about.) “That's it, isn't it? We … we actually did it.”

    It didn't sound real. Nothing did, just then – not the Hollow, not Edie, not even me; my body itself felt like a pendulous growth hanging downwards off my mind, nominally under my control but at the same time alien and unrecognisable.

    “Aye, lass,” said Archie. He sounded like I felt. “I … I reckon we might've done.”

    I saw, as if from underwater, Maxie and Zinnia exchange glances.

    “Actually,” began Zinnia apologetically, “there's something else.”




    Something very big just landed on the deck. I know because I felt the impact, and also because Archie just swore so elaborately I'm tempted to write down what he said as a poem.

    I told you they were coming, dear reader! And now, well; here they are. We'll get back to the issue of the fifth key stone and my plan to get out of the Hollow tomorrow, but for now, I think I should probably get dressed. We have some visitors that need attending to.
     
  18. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    TWENTY-FOUR: DOWN

    Breeze, ocean breeze, who carries sea-faring ships
    swiftly over the surging waters,
    where will you take me in my misery?

    ―Euripides, Hecuba

    Well, I got it done. It took till four in the morning and left me pretty well exhausted, but I did it: all the new arrivals are settled, all the fights resolved, everything, done. Avice, you might reasonably ask, what in all blood are you talking about, and I would reply, the pokémon.

    The shadows that descended from the fog yesterday were tropius, dear reader: huge saurian creatures, long-necked and bow-legged, with doubled wings like palm leaves and irregular scales like the bark of a tree. I don't know where they came from. Out of thin air, maybe, like the murkrow and the pidove – or from under the earth like the pupitar, their seeds sprouting when they felt the soil above them warmed by the sun once more. Either way, there are four of them, one big one whose cranial armour seems more elaborate than the others and three smaller ones with softer skin who I don't think are fully grown. They were actually the easy ones, since they're fine out on the deck, where they can spread their wings and take in the sunlight. They haven't even touched the dried fruit I left for them, despite what the pokédex says about their eating habits. It seems like all they need from me is water and a place to land, and since we have a purifier here, that's not an issue. I don't know what we'll do when we next submerge, since I'm not sure if they'll fit through the doors, but hopefully it's not going to be an issue.

    No, the real issue was with the others.

    You might remember that I mentioned we detected big creatures following us on the radar. Like, small ship big.

    Well, when the fog lifted last night, we got our first look at them, and they curved their long necks and looked straight back at us. I've seen wailord, and these creatures weren't far off them in size: heads as long as I am tall, gnarled shells as broad across as a corvette, flippers like the sails of a kadabra war-sloop. Their skulls erupted on either temple into great whorled horns, and a third straight one rose from the snout, as if to punctuate the space between their eyes.

    They were huge eyes, and old, and I knew when I looked into them that I was looking at creatures that had been old when the world was made over, and had been quietly living and growing ever since. All around them, the water churned with life: marlin, magikarp, resting wingull, even a pod of porpoises that danced in the giants' wake. Half the ocean seemed to be represented there, as if every animal that could wanted to pay their respects at these pokémon's ocean-going court.

    “What are they?” I asked, because we don't usually have them here, these creatures, and Archie replied in this strange, humble kind of voice that was totally unlike him:
    “Lapras.”

    I repeated the unfamiliar word and the lapras made noises at that – something like bellowing and something like hooting – as if they recognised their name. They raised and lowered their heads like some kind of elaborate saurian semaphore, but I couldn't understand what they wanted until they swam forwards, and I saw the darkness shifting on their backs.

    “My God,” breathed Maxie. “Did they save them? Have they been – have they been waiting for this?”

    In between the knobs and whorls of the lapras' shells were little groups of extinct pokémon: lithe treecko that kept licking the salt out of their jaundiced eyes; electrike pups that huddled close to a fiercely maternal manectric; a miserable-looking vulpix hiding underneath its many fox-tails … The lapras seemed to have separated out species among themselves, maybe to limit fights, but none of the animals they carried had been seen outside the history books for over five hundred years.

    And then my awe and wonder burst as the realisation that they wanted me to take them all off their hands sank in.

    And now you know why I was up till four last night. I couldn't very well say no. These species, according to the pokédex, are all native to Hoenn. They need to be saved. Perhaps they reappeared on lonely islands, like the murkrow or the nincada, and sensing their distress the lapras came to ferry them to safety; perhaps the lapras rescued their ancestors from the flood centuries ago and took them away to some safe haven on the other side of the world, and now are bringing them back to their rightful home. Either way, they're part of this land, its history and now its future, and that means they have as much claim to the Museum as anyone else.

    Such is the poetical justification, anyway. They're actually kind of a nightmare. Last night, I got scratched, burned, bitten and mildly electrocuted, all in the space of about two hours. Edie's been a fantastic help, with her encyclopaedic knowledge of all different species and natural talent for organisation, but more than once I found myself starting to question exactly how devoted to historical continuity I really need to be.

    So. Here we are. I'm writing this in bed – don't worry, the ink is not this time in any position to be knocked over; I may make terrible mistakes but I do try to learn from them – and wondering how long exactly I can get away with leaving Edie in charge. The treecko are happy enough to cling to the flanks of the tropius and soak up sunlight in their placid grass-type way, but the two vulpix are skittish and burst into flame whenever you go near them, and the manectric is both viciously overprotective and also kind of seasick. A fun fact I've learned so you don't have to: being vomited on by a large dog is only slightly better than being electrocuted by one.

    Sorry, I don't mean to sound bitter. I like pokémon, really. It's just that this lot don't particularly like me.

    Ah, they'll come around, I'm sure. Anyway, I should get on with the real story here. Back, then, to the Hollow.




    To her credit, Zinnia didn't drag it out. After that first apologetic admission that there were more key stones to go, she withdrew into her Draconid shell, stated the facts baldly and clearly: we needed another key stone, the only one we knew the location of was that which had belonged to the nameless trainer, we therefore needed to go to the Blue Chapel.

    And we did not answer. Not for a while. I was tired and my mind was still half on Edie, and as for Archie – well, you can imagine for yourself. I've never had the courage to ask him what thoughts he was wrestling with just then; it wouldn't feel right. I know it must have roused all his guilt, all that old anger that came out of his mouth as bile or sour jokes. I know it must have made him see it all again: Sootopolis taken by the flood, ragged bundles that once lived bobbing on the surface. I know he must have been furious, mostly at himself but also at Zinnia for making him angry, and that he must have been angry at himself for that anger, and that most of all he must have channelled that anger towards Maxie, because that was a route worn smooth and easy by centuries of rivalry and anger like water flows down the path of least resistance.

    But there are some things you don't ask people. So we have no proof, and we can only imagine what happened in that slow and agonising minute of silence while we stood and stared and tried to think of words to say in response to what Zinnia had told us.

    “You knew?” said Archie at last, but he wasn't talking to Zinnia. He knew about her, all right; he hadn't trusted her, or he'd told himself he hadn't, and even if he had he could see why she had kept it from him. No, he was talking to Maxie, who had shared that glance with Zinnia before she spoke, who alone of us did not seem shocked. “You knew?

    Maxie cleared his throat delicately and rearranged his glasses on his nose.

    “I suspected,” he said, with a carefulness that spoke volumes. “And then, when I raised the matter with Zinnia, yes, I knew then. She confirmed it for me.”

    “So you knew.” There was no anger in Archie's voice, but there was the kind of emptiness into which you knew anger had to grow sometime soon. “You knew and you never …”

    He broke off, turned away, changed his mind, turned back; he raised his hands and lowered them, opened and closed his mouth. He looked at me and then away again, at Maxie and at the dome, the trees, anything.

    I didn't say anything. I couldn't. I seemed to be stuck, like I was standing in a section of time that had come loose, freezing me in the instant of revelation. To the Blue Chapel. The Blue Chapel. I saw the priests of Tethys, reading from the Tidal Mysteries; I saw Natalie getting her god-mark, the ribboned flukes and square-toed paddles taking shape on her inflamed skin. I'd stolen from cities, I'd stolen from kings, but from gods?

    Archie shook his head violently, as if he could have dislodged the anger from it by sheer physical effort. He raised a hand as if to strike Maxie, but he didn't; the fist uncurled, the arm dropped, and he walked away through the side of the dome without saying another word.

    Maxie let out a long breath.

    “That actually went better than I had anticipated,” he remarked. “Are you all right, Avice?”

    I nodded, then shook my head.

    “Yes. No. I don't know. I think so? It's just … I thought we'd done it. And we haven't. And not only have we not done it, but – but it's drowned Tide …”

    I sank slowly to the ground, feeling with one hand for the comforting warmth of Edie.

    “Could you have done it if you had known?” he asked.

    I thought about it. It didn't take long.

    “No,” I said. “But I'd have done it anyway.” I gestured vaguely at the world, the trees. “Nothing else to do.”

    He and Zinnia looked at each other briefly; she shrugged, crouched as if to lay a hand on my shoulder. She didn't, of course, since she couldn't. But we both recognised the gesture.

    “I'm sorry it's like this,” she said. “I left home early too. I always wanted Aster to have more time to grow up than I did. I'd have liked the same for you.”

    I raised one corner of my mouth in something that wasn't quite a smile, and she stood up.

    “Let's get out of here,” she said. “Feels like I'm stuck in a bell jar.”

    “Archie―”

    “He knows where we're going,” Maxie assured me. “Besides, he and I … well, he'll find me. He always does.”

    I thought briefly of Archie tramping steadfastly through the ocean towards the moment in which Maxie called on Groudon, and understood.

    “OK,” I said, and we left.




    The town had calmed down since my escape from the CCC earlier. Now, all was quiet except for a noticeable number of patrolling Hollow guards – tawny-skinned men and women who wore intricate armour of wooden scales and psychic barriers, and whose partners were all lunatone or solrock with uncanny eyes. If it had come to a fight between the Tethys agents and the Hollowers, I wasn't actually sure who would have won. The CCC had guns and the guards didn't, but I had a feeling that anyone firing at the Hollowers would find their missiles flying mysteriously awry. There's a lot of money in the Hollow, and that means tight security.

    On the off-chance that the agents had brokered some kind of deal with the guards, however – it wasn't impossible that they'd agreed to stop causing trouble so long as the Hollowers just handed me over if they saw me – I tried to keep to the alleys, guided by the ghosts' vague memories of Mossdeep and their occasional scouting forays. That got me to the dockside without too much trouble (if I remember right, I accidentally trod on a feral zigzagoon and got scratched, but that was it) and, once there, I lurked in a corner with Edie while Maxie and Zinnia went in search of the Europa.

    Maxie came back first, and not with good news.

    “They've heard,” he said grimly. “Most of them are in that tavern over there, arguing about you. Some of them hate you because you're an outlaw and you duped them, and some of them admire you for exactly the same reason. Some are saying that if the King was fool enough to let the badge of office get stolen he never deserved it in the first place. One or two particularly laconic individuals are just shrugging and saying that you fixed up the Europa well enough that you can't be all bad.” He shook his head. “It's maddening how contradictory they all are. I genuinely can't tell whether or not you'll be safe asking for passage, but I wouldn't risk it.”

    “What about Rhiannon?” I asked, shifting the sleeping Edie in my arms. “Is she all right?”

    “Someone called her a traitor, but she said you'd fooled her, too.” He shrugged. “A few others tried to press the accusations; she and her golduck … reacted, so to speak. I don't believe anyone else is going to try anything with her.”

    I nodded, relieved. That was one less thing to feel guilty about. Some small fight – fine, I'd learned during my time aboard the Europa that neither Rhiannon nor Spike were easy targets. They could take care of themselves from here.

    “Any ideas about how to get out of here, then?”

    “All I can think of is stowing away,” he said. “Which will undoubtedly be dangerous, but I can't see that anyone here is going to hire you and risk bringing down a pair of corvettes on their ship.”

    I sighed. It wasn't ideal, but he was right; we weren't exactly swimming in options.

    “See any likely candidates?”

    He motioned vaguely at the bustling dock behind him.

    “Zinnia went looking. I suppose she'll be back soon.”

    She was, and with better news than Maxie.

    “There's a massive freighter loading right now on the other side of that promontory,” she said. “NNL Exceptional. Like, it's bigger than the Museum. There's got to be space to hide on it somewhere.”

    I picked my way carefully through the docks, keeping stevedore vigoroth or shipping containers between me and the crowd, and coming around the corner of the customs house I saw it. In all fairness, it was pretty hard to miss. Nueville isn't as wealthy as the Hollow, but it benefits from being close to Tethys, and a lot of city money flows through it. I'd seen a few of the New Nueville League fleet in the docks back home when I was a kid, and knew that some of their freighters were practically small settlements. The Exceptional did not disappoint: half as long again as the Museum, only the bow half actually fitted inside the evanescent walls of the dome, and a complex series of temporary corridors supported by mechanical tubes had been set up around its hull to allow ferrying in and out of the cargo doors in its flank.

    I stepped back into the shadow of a statue of some local worthy and considered it.

    “That,” I said, “is going to be bloody difficult to get into.”

    “Well, yeah,” admitted Zinnia. “But it'll get us to Nueville, where no one's looking for you and we can plan how to get to Sootopolis. And look around. Any of these other ships, you're gonna get found.”

    She was right. The Exceptional dwarfed everything else in the harbour; I could tell just by looking at it that it would be full of nooks and crannies and maintenance passages that snaked unseen beneath each deck. It almost made me feel nostalgic for the days I'd spent in the hidden parts of Tethys.

    “All right,” I sighed. “I guess I don't have any better ideas.”




    The plan was actually simpler than I thought. All I had to do was drift down to the dock and fall into place among the labourers with enough confidence that no one could say I hadn't actually been there before. And why would they? It would be ridiculous to imagine that anyone would just drop by and do heavy manual labour without pay. All I'd need, Zinnia insisted, was to do it confidently.

    The problem was, I knew I couldn't actually do it. I'm pretty tough for a Tethys kid. I've done a lot of running away, a lot of climbing and fighting. I have the kind of wiry strength you get from travelling the ocean. But I'm not a vigoroth or a machoke, and I don't have the massive upper-body strength of a professional stevedore. Next to the men and women and pokémon who were shifting the crates, I was as thin and scrawny as a spider crab.

    There was a workaround. Some of the crates were being carried straight on, but others – with more delicate contents, possibly – were being mounted onto flatbed trolleys and pushed on. I might have been able to push one of them – but from where I watched, leaning against the plinth of the statue, I could see that it was the same two people who pushed those trolleys, each time. Neither of them looked similar enough to me that I might be able to replace them convincingly, even supposing I managed to get them out of the way.

    Which scuppered Zinnia's plan and left only one alternative, as far as I could tell: I needed to get into a crate.

    It wasn't quite as absurd an idea as it sounds. Edie can tear out and replace nails without damaging them, and she was half-awake now, looking sleepily around at the ordered chaos of workers and travellers that surrounded us. If I could just find an unattended crate, we could magnet our way in and seal it up again behind us. I'm not particularly heavy, and Edie is functionally weightless. No one would even notice the extra mass. The issue was finding a crate in the first place.

    I sent the ghosts out to reconnoitre. I got information: the crates were coming from the Tantalus Holdings warehouse on the waterfront over there; they were brought out by the vigoroth and machoke onto the dock; from there, it was mostly a human crew who took them aboard the Exceptional – the pokémon didn't seem to like the close, rubber-walled space of the temporary passage connecting dockside and cargo hold. There were human supervisors in the warehouse, but they knew better than to watch too closely. Machoke are fairly smart, and get irritated if they feel like their trainers don't believe they know what they're doing. (Did you know that? I didn't. I'm kind of glad Zinnia was a trainer; I would've missed a lot of details like that without her expertise.)

    Getting to the warehouse wasn't hard. Just like machoke all look the same to us, machoke have difficulty telling humans apart, and when I walked in with a purposeful stride they just assumed I was someone who worked there. The huge space was still half full with crates, and I kept the stacks between me and the couple of men on duty. They weren't paying attention, anyway, smoking and possibly even playing dice, I didn't get a good enough look. Why would they? The machoke knew what to do, and they were also a pretty potent anti-theft measure. No one was going to make off with a crate when there were pokémon that knew cross chop around.

    It was the next part that was risky. Once I'd made my way to the back of the warehouse, where the remaining crates screened me from view, I needed to get inside one – and that meant noise. Which in turn meant a distraction.
    Edie did it: zipped outside, blew the lock off a pen in which a few dour girafarig were tearing bits off bales of hay. They weren't very interested in stampeding, so she needled one with a light signal beam, at which its tailhead lashed out blindly at the closest object, which happened to be another girafarig. It objected, voiced its concerns in the form of a kick, and soon enough the fighting had spilled out of the corral and onto the street, girafarig trading blows and bites and more arcane injuries, kicks where their legs disappeared and reappeared at impossible distances, folding space through unknown dimensions.

    The machoke hated it. I'd only meant to distract them, but it worked out even better than I could have hoped for: when they swung their horns and knocked over each other from ten feet away, or when their tailhead bit and crunched up spacetime, crushing for an instant another girafarig into a pebble before it ballooned back into itself, the machoke dropped their boxes and held their heads, hooting in distress. I'd kind of expected them to roar or shout, but though brash their voices were musical, like trumpets. Not that I paid that much attention: while the supervisors stamped out their cigarettes and ran out to calm them, Edie sneaked back inside through a forest of purple legs and started tearing nails out of a crate, and as soon as the lid came off I was in, hardly caring what it was that I flung myself into. Seconds later so was she, and now I heard the nails thump-thumping back into place, drawn by her irresistible magnetism – and then there we were, sealed into the dark together.

    It wasn't that small a crate, but it was full of stacks of paper, and I only fitted if I curled up very tight indeed. Once Edie had got the lid back on, I was more or less physically incapable of moving. It didn't bother me quite as much as it might have done – you'll remember, dear reader, that I have a useful immunity to claustrophobia – but the forced immobility was a discomfort, if not actually a source of panic. I hoped Edie had enough space to get the nails out again when we got on the other side.

    “Everything looks all clear,” said Zinnia, her face appearing ghostly-green through the side of the crate. “They've got the girafarig calmed down and they're taking them on board. I guess they're coming with us.”

    Cows, goats, miltank: all extinct now. The new world's meat animals are porpoise and sea-pig, huge slow whiscash and, tougher than anyone ever knew in the old days, girafarig. No one's sure quite why they thrive in undersea conditions that made the last miltank grow thin and perish, but they do, and so now you get stout, brawny ones bred for their meat and (only slightly psychotropic) milk. Big vessels like the Exceptional usually have their own herds of livestock, to maintain a supply of fresh food throughout their voyage.

    I guess miltank will make a comeback, though. I mean, everything else seems to be. Not so sure about cows or goats. I have a feeling that extinction isn't so flexible when it comes to regular animals.

    Anyway: next, I waited. I waited and waited and got cramp and screamed silent curses in my head because I couldn't flex to get rid of it and waited and then waited a little longer. I had to wait to be carried aboard, of course – and it was a surprisingly gentle ride; the machoke carried the crate as if it were a feather – but then I had to wait for everything else to be loaded as well, for every pokémon, every stevedore and sailor, to finish their business in the hold and leave for other work. And that took long enough that even I was starting to feel uncomfortable. By that point I had a lot of itches that needed scratching.

    It did happen in the end, of course. Eventually I got the all-clear from Maxie, and Edie started the slow process of breaking us back out. Slow, because something had happened that I hadn't anticipated, and my crate had been put at the bottom of a well-secured stack. Pushing the nails out wasn't an option any more; she had to cut a way out through the side. Very, very quietly.

    All I can say is, we were lucky that only one sailor noticed the smell of burning, and lucky too that we had Zinnia and Maxie to warn us in advance when he came to investigate. Most of the smoke had dispersed by the time he arrived, and his cursory search wouldn't have turned up anything except a hairline seam in the wood, if he noticed anything at all. Edie can be pretty precise with her signal beams when she wants to.

    “'Sflukes,” I groaned, trying to climb out and finding too late that my limbs were too stiff for me to do anything other than fall. “Ow. 'Sflukes. 'Sflukes.”

    “Pleasant trip?” asked Maxie, and I fumbled my cramped fingers into a rude gesture.

    “My plan worked, thanks,” I retorted, climbing to my feet and doing my best not to fall over. “I didn't see you coming up with any bright ideas.”

    “I gotta hand it to you, I wasn't sure that was gonna work,” said Zinnia. “I mean, I thought you might suffocate.”

    “Yeah, I did my best not to think about that,” I said, massaging my neck. “Ah. Tooth take it. Um, yeah, the thing – the crate – it's not airtight.” They aren't, usually. If a ship goes down, the cargo's as good as gone whether it's waterproof or not: either it's stuck in the wreck, and you'd have to mount a costly expedition to retrieve it, or it's floated off to Tempest knows where. Either way, if you've just lost a whole ship's worth of cargo, you probably can't afford to go hunting for it.

    I sighed, and sat down heavily against the crate. “So has Archie …?”

    “Not yet,” replied Maxie. “But I think he'll be here before we set sail.”

    And he was: when I heard the ship's horn blaring above, and footsteps clunk-clunking on deckplates and stairways, and the dull boom of distant engines flaring into life – then and only then did I see him, walking down the length of the hold as if nothing had ever happened.

    “A'right,” he said, without looking at any of us. “I'm back.”

    None of us made anything of it. It didn't seem right. And besides, someone was coming and I had to hide.

    That's how I lived, for a while: intermittently, in between the moments when someone visited the hold. This was something they did more than I would have liked: near the front the girafarig were penned, and they obviously required a modicum of care and attention, as well as occasional slaughtering with a bisharp-steel blade. Just behind them were the ship's other food stores – lentils and dried fish and barrels of hothouse limes to ward off scurvy. Twice a day the sailors came to take a selection up to the galley for preparation, and twice a day a bunch of roly-poly spheal were brought in to slick the place with preserving ice. People didn't usually come down as far as the actual cargo, where I'd camped out, and that was just as well. Living in what was essentially a cave without access to any means of washing for two months left me pretty easy to locate by the smell, even if I hid.

    It wasn't exactly the most interesting period of my life. But it did throw up one thing of interest: the finishing of the process that the Glitch began.

    Edie changed so slowly that I barely noticed at first. Day by day, maybe, she was a little faster, a little more jittery, her head a little more separate from her trunk; her understanding deepened, she offered more affection – she even started asking questions, which was probably when I first really noticed something was up. Who is Edie? she asked me one day, in sparse letters that flickered in a ribbon of light over her head.

    “You are,” I said, not knowing what else to say, but that wasn't the question she was asking, of course. She was being a bit more existential than that.

    When she had developed enough to be capable of sharing her logs, I learned that it was the contact she'd had with the monster east of the Hollow that had done it. The creature had spoken into her head, somehow encoded scraps of real thought in a format she could decipher, and once she'd taken it apart to read she found she could put it back together again, and that she could put other bits of code together to create other thoughts, and soon enough she was having thoughts all the time, even if she had no specific task to do.

    It was quite distressing for her at first. I guess consciousness comes to us slowly as we grow, and we don't notice the dizzying complexity of it except at moments of great stress when everything seems to crowd in upon our skulls like a thuggish crowd waving makeshift weapons. For Edie, it came at once, as if a dam had burst inside her head and let in a terrible flood of free thought, and that must have been hard to deal with. You could see the effort of it written on her physical form: how she twitched and jerked without the usual cycles to guide her mindlessly through her idle animations; how she hovered higher and more upright now, tail dangling and wings beating just slightly too irregularly to give the impression that it was them who were holding her up.

    Evolution, they say, comes upon a pokémon in a sudden flash. Little changes build up, bit by bit, until one day some threshold is crossed and the new features balloon outwards into their full selves, a sudden metamorphosis thrusting the creature from one form into another. But sometimes, I've read, it comes slowly, as an onix that slowly hardens under the earth, iron deposits migrating inch by inch, day by day, towards its skin. Or like a poochyena, which in its adolescence grows stockier and stronger until all at once you notice that it's far too big to be called a poochyena any more, and that somehow you've ended up with a mightyena in its place.

    This was Edie's kind of evolution. Weeks passed, lines of code were written and rewritten. She changed. She lost her predictability. She became less a machine, more herself.

    Edie, the second porygon-Z in all of recorded history. I have a feeling that her original self, if there was anything left of it inside her from so many centuries ago, would have been proud.




    This was also when I finally ran out of pills. Which was … hard. I don't want to get into it, really, and I don't think I have to, either, but I owe it to you to mention it.

    It was hard.




    I could have made it all the way to Nueville, I think. That's where the Exceptional was going. I don't know what I would have done when I got there, but it's entirely possible that I could have stayed hidden well enough that no one found any trace of me until the ship was docked and I was away into the bustle and chaos of port life.

    I didn't.

    A sailor whose name I never learned, who looked at me like I was something hitherto only glimpsed as glowing eyes in the darkness of a sea-cave, found me skulking behind a stack of crates because I coughed and she had good hearing. Ignominious, I know, but most of the bad times in my life have been. Only once or twice have I ever even had the option of going down in style.

    She'd come down to help keep the perishable goods on ice with the spheal; I'd seen her before. She had a way with them. You know how spheal do that thing where they rock on their belly, tilting towards each other with that little breathy sound? She had this way of mimicking it, rolling her head on her neck like it wasn't even attached, sighing in time with her pokémon. I have no idea what she was actually doing, but it looked to me like she was talking to them, and that the spheal responded to what she said.

    Like usual, I took cover at the far end of the hold – back behind the paper, where no one ever came. Except this once: one of the spheal got overexcited and rolled a little too far, and when the sailor came to retrieve it, leaving the snorting and stamping of the girafarig behind, she ended up in a quiet enough spot that she distinctly heard me when I coughed. It was one of those ones that you can't suppress, like a burning tickle in your throat that bubbles up and explodes out of your mouth. I did my best to smother it, but I knew even before I saw her head twitch that I hadn't succeeded.

    Cough. Twitch. 'Sflukes.

    After that it was just a matter of time. She got the direction wrong, and I thought if I could just stay out of sight for long enough she'd give up, but she was way more persistent than I expected; clearly, she was very sure she'd heard something. Anyway, I'm not going to rehearse the whole sorry game of hide and seek, since you know how it ended and it really isn't that interesting. What you want to know is what happened next.

    Which was that she tried to drag me out of my corner and got knocked off her feet by Edie for her trouble. Poor thing, she was only trying to help, but once that signal beam connected there was no way that this was going to end any way other than with my being caught. I might have managed to persuade her to forget about me. Probably not, but I might have done. But once we'd attacked her, there was no chance of a peaceful resolution. Especially since she had four spheal to back her up, and though Edie could probably have knocked them all out with a single well-placed discharge she hesitated too long trying to pick a target. The sailor shouted, the spheal opened their mouths, and just for a second I felt a cold unlike anything I'd ever experienced before the world faded out around the edges and went dark.

    I don't think I'd ever thought about it before, but if I had, I think I'd have intuitively said that being frozen solid ought to kill you. Apparently not. I'm told it's quite a common (if unreliable) thing in pokémon battling to freeze your opponent in place. Pokémon just get right back to fighting once they thaw out. It must be nice to be that tough.

    I'm … not. Obviously. I'm not a pokémon, which is probably why I blacked out on being hit with four simultaneous frost breaths and didn't wake up till some time after I'd thawed.

    I think the first thing I did when my eyes opened was try to swear, but I don't think it worked. Needles of ice had worked their way into my mouth and I felt – and sounded – like I'd been gargling sandpaper.

    “Oh thank god,” I heard distantly, and tried to sit up. This didn't go very well, either, but I persisted, and after a couple of tries managed to get my head perpendicular to the ground.

    “Had us worried there, lass,” said Archie, and I knew then that, contrary to all the evidence, I was probably still alive.

    “Ugh,” I said, and then coughed up alarming quantities of water. “Uh. Where are we?”

    “The brig,” he answered, and perhaps it just took my brain a little while to unfreeze itself, but the room around me suddenly started making sense. Walls, floor (ankle-deep in cold water), stool, secure door. Yes. I understood this.

    “Drown 'em,” I mumbled, and climbed stiffly onto the stool. It wasn't any drier. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was soaked through. “What happened?”

    “You got frozen,” said Zinnia. “And kinda terrified us all too. But mostly you got frozen.”

    I blinked. Little pieces of frost cracked on my eyelids.

    “Right. And then …?”

    “Then Edie got frozen.”

    I looked to my left: there was Edie, surface spitting sparks, lying in a pool of icemelt.

    “She OK?”

    “Should be. Pokémon can take that kind of thing.”

    I grunted. I was just about out of energy for words.

    “Then the captain got called down, and you two got dragged up here to thaw out.” Zinnia clasped her hands. “Not sure what they're gonna do now. Maxie's out there keeping an eye on things.”

    “So what now?”

    “We wait,”said Archie, in a final sort of way, and partly because of that and partly because I was exhausted I couldn't think of anything else to say.




    This seems like a good place to stop for a moment, dear reader. We're not quite there yet, but we're almost at Nueville, and I need to get ready to go ashore. Actually, first, I have to somehow get the tropius below decks, so they don't drown when we submerge, but after that I've got to get ready and go negotiate a deal for more supplies. The electrike aren't weaned yet, but their mother and the vulpix both need meat, and we haven't got much of that here at all. So do the treecko, I think. I mean, technically I think they eat bugs, but they're going to have to make do. This isn't the Golden Isles. There aren't any insect-farms here.

    So. I'm off to try to herd dinosaurs, and then to go shopping. I'll see you later this afternoon.




    Well! That was … interesting, by which I mean I think I might have pulled something trying to push a bull tropius through a hatch. Never mind. It's over now, the Museum is resupplied, and we can get moving again. I don't know how we'll get the tropius out of the aeroponics suite, where they've gone to enjoy the warmth, moisture and half-grown rice plants, but I guess we'll cross that one when we come to it.

    Back on the Exceptional, however, things were looking a lot less rosy. A taciturn sailor with an enormous badly-drawn octillery tattooed on his arm came to get me after a while, and I had neither the strength nor the motivation to resist. By then, Edie had woken up, but she was still groggy from the icemelt dripping into her systems and was in no condition to fight; when the sailor's machoke took hold of her in its great scaly hands, she barely even twittered in response.

    The corridors of the Exceptional probably made sense if you'd boarded it the usual way, but disoriented as I was, I couldn't figure out where we were or what direction we were going in. Maxie said the captain was waiting up on deck, and that he presumed I was being taken there; maybe I was slow on the uptake or maybe my brain was still a bit chilled, but why we might be going there instead of to his cabin was beyond me.

    Or perhaps my lack of concentration was due to the stares. I was dragged past a lot of people, some sailors and some clearly passengers, and I got a lot of attention. Some of it was undoubtedly just because I was the stowaway that they'd all heard about; a lot of it, however, I'm pretty sure I just earned by being me. I've mentioned that I was in that hold for two months. That for the second of those two, I didn't have my pills. There were a lot of reasons why I did not look good that day, dear reader, and only some of them had to do with the fact that I'd just recovered from being frozen solid.

    No. Let's be honest: pills or not, I would have got the same attention. I always have. I've seen it in the eyes of sergeants, behind the cultivated worldliness of pirate guards, hanging in crowded marketplaces like a noxious fog. How to put it? You'd know it if you knew it, dear reader, and yes that's an unhelpful thing to say but if you knew it, you would know exactly what I meant by that.

    But I've written about this before. Every time I try to put it into words, it backs away from me, slithers out from under my hand and refuses to be pinned down, no matter how sharp the pen with which I try to catch it. Some things exist only as spaces, dear reader. As gaps given shape and form by suggestions, by a writer who arranges the lines on the page knowing full well that they will never be as important as the white space between them.

    Enough; I reached the captain. It was a grey day, as they all were back then; that day in particular, the sky was the colour of slate and the wind gusting hard enough to knock the raindrops sideways. There was a large group of crewmen waiting for us, and at their head was the captain, a woman whose skin hung slightly loosely on her, as if she had once been larger than she was and had somehow shrunk.

    “This is the stowaway?” she said, or at least, that's what I'm going to say that she said, because I have the power to make history here, and some things don't belong in the history I want to tell.

    “Yes, ma'am,” replied the sailor, thrusting me forwards. The captain looked at me in a way that told me everything she thought of stowaways in general and me in particular, and then looked at the pokémon at her side: a short, slight figure whose silken skin hung like a skirt around its waist. A kirlia.

    “I'm going to ask you what you're doing aboard my ship,” said the captain. “When you answer, Moira will tell me whether you're telling the truth.”

    “This is a set-up,” said Archie uneasily, looking around. “Don't believe a word of it, Avice. Why do this here? Why the audience? Something ain't right.”

    I knew it too. I knew what was going to happen before I was even brought outside, maybe. I think maybe I was in shock. Certainly I don't really remember the questioning, though I could if I wanted write it out from the memory of the ghosts. I recall tasting colours at several points, when the kirlia dipped into my head, and I remember the iron-grey eyes of the captain.

    But none of that really matters, because none of it meant anything. What would happen to me had already been decided the moment they found me, the parasite living off their supplies, the unnatural self-mutilated creature, the thief, the liar, the bad omen. Everyone knew what was going to happen except the ghosts, who came from a time before the ship culture of the new world, and who only saw it at the very last moment, when it was too late.

    The captain asked what was in the box I had with me, and that I refused to tell her. She couldn't get it open – Edie had sealed it – but took it away anyway. I imagined her prising up the lid in her cabin and seeing my collection of key stones, selling them off when she reached Nueville, making herself a small fortune. Maybe you could retire on the price of four key stones. I wasn't sure. Tethys didn't teach you about the economics of the outside world.

    In the end, it didn't matter. I think I've told you this story before, at least in brief – sometime in chapter four or five, maybe – but now it's time for the full thing. The charade ended, the captain passed judgement, and I was led over to the railing and thrown off into the sea.

    The spell broke and I came to my senses about ten feet away from the water but by then, dear reader, it was pretty definitely too late.




    Now we leave my younger self alone. She's dead, effectively: she's passed out from the impact, broken some ribs, is now quietly drowning. In a couple of minutes she'll be more or less indistinguishable from a corpse.

    She's lucky. She won't, as you've probably guessed, stay that way. Edie's with her, insulated with dive; she'll get her head under her and push her away, riding the prevailing currents out to the east, into uncharted waters and towards the island where in about sixteen hours the pair of them will wash up. It'll be hard to say whether or not either of them are really alive by that point, but whatever they are, there'll be just enough of them left for an exceptionally skilled medic to salvage.

    So that's them. What about the ghosts? They jumped after me, of course, in a helpless kind of panic. Like they'd always said they would be, they were with me till the end, drifting like translucent jellyfish around the body beneath the waves.

    Oh, they talked. They didn't spend all that time in silence. But that – what would you call it? A misplaced eulogy? A funeral at sea? – that's theirs, not mine. I'll lay a lot bare for you, dear reader, but not that. I've asked, and they've answered – or rather, they each came to me alone at different times, carrying with them their secret burden of What Was Said in the hope that I could lighten their load, and I nodded and hugged them while they spoke. This is for them, and for the part of me that reads instead of writing. No one else.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2016
  19. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    And then: I opened my eyes, and I was alive. I could tell, because literally everything hurt.

    “Be still,” someone said, or no, they didn't: they made a noise or moved or something and I suddenly understood that stillness was intended and recommended, indeed required, for my wellbeing, and that it was in everyone's interest if I were to stay still. So, in words, 'be still'. Except it wasn't in words at all. It wasn't in anything. It just … was.

    “You are very badly hurt,” someone said, in much the same way, although to be perfectly honest I'd kind of already figured that one out for myself.

    “You think,” I mumbled, although it didn't really come out as intelligible words.

    “Yes, we do,” agreed the someone, apparently without rancour. “Sleep. Be well.”

    And perhaps it was the effort of the trip down to death's door and back up again, or maybe there was something in the suggestion-speech of the someone that compelled me, but what little I could see of the world disappeared again, and I slept.

    I think I was out for a day or two. It wasn't a natural sleep, that much I know, but it was a healing one. These were important days, too: things were happening out in the wider world, fleets were moving, guns being manufactured, pokémon put through their paces in preparation for war. The Tethys kingdra-riders were seen driving their packs of huntail as far east as Nueville; a brace of pirate gyarados sunk a city freighter in the shipping lanes west of the Hollow. The skies thickened with ziz-lords, salamence and dragonite criss-crossing the ocean in last-ditch attempts at diplomacy – formalities, of course, but not without hope; we all feared and respected them, and they'd used that status to bring cities to the negotiating table before. In Jonah's Respite, faction skirmishes broke out as those who were working against the king took the chance to topple him.

    I don't know if I knew all this, somehow, but I had ugly dreams. I think I must have sensed something was coming.

    And all this time, the ghosts sat and waited, and worried.

    They'd been at it since I went overboard, a victim of my own monstrosity, and they didn't stop until I woke. Or most of them didn't, that is. One of them gave up.

    It was on the beach, they tell me. Just after Edie and I washed up: me pale and greyish, she translucent and flickering. The sky was grey and it made the sand grey too, so that the rain blurred its edges into those of the rocks. I suppose the whole world must have seemed a ghost to them that day.

    They stood for a while, the three of them. Raindrops blurred their outlines.

    “Well, then,” said Archie. “It's over.”

    Maxie looked at him. Zinnia looked at me.

    “It's not over,” said Maxie. “Not yet.”

    Archie laughed the scornful kind of laugh that hurts both the laugher and the hearer.

    “Of course it is. Cycle's come round again, see?”

    “Enlighten me.”

    Archie made a move as if to gesture at me, but thought better of it; let his hand fall listlessly to his side.

    “We did what we always do, Maxie. We killed a child.”

    Maxie shook his head violently, though I'm not sure what part of Archie's argument he was denying.

    “No. No, Archie! It's not over. We're here, aren't we? This does not have to end―”

    “Of course it won't!” Archie's eyes seemed to glow a brighter blue than the rest of him, a streak of fatalistic madness burning behind them. “It ain't never gonnae end, Maxie, and that's the truth of it, because we haven't paid yet, have we?” He laughed again. It sounded even less like laughter this time. “How can you pay for something like that? Send a wee girl into hell, let her die and take seven billion lives down with her. Because of some old legend. Because you were scared.” He shook his head. “Give it time, it'll happen again. Five hundred years, a new kid, a new hope, a new death―”

    “Listen to yourself!” Maxie seized his arm; Archie tried to shake him off, but for once Maxie did not let him. “The only way this ends is if we give in―”

    “What kind of devil's in you that you can't see when you're beaten?” snapped Archie. “Building that hell city, trying to take on Kyogre – d'you think you can atone if you just keep trying? It's too big, Maxie! This isn't an academic question, you can't argue your way out of hell.”

    Maxie was silent for a moment, and when he spoke it was with a hard-edged quiet that was more compelling than any amount of shouting.

    “I spent five hundred years locked in your overdesigned tin can of a submarine,” he said. “I saw everything that I worked to preserve thrown away and forgotten in case it stirred up hope. Do you think it's easy for me to say this, Archie? You've walked Hoenn all this time. You've seen them rebuild – you've seen them thrive. You saw this and you still think that our comfort matters more than these people's right to a future?”

    They stared at each other, unblinking, and the wind and the rain and the waves rushed in to fill the silence between them.

    Zinnia kept looking at me.

    “She's dead, Maxie,” said Archie at last, and pulled away.

    “She's breathing,” said Maxie.

    “Barely. And look where we are.” Archie swept one arm out in a gesture that took in the stones, the sand and the sky, the great bleak totality of the universe. “There's no help. She's not coming back from this. We're not coming back.”

    “She is,” said Maxie, with a fierce desperation that gave all too much away, and Archie shook his head.

    “She should be dead twenty times over already,” he said. “It had to catch up with her sometime.”

    “It won't.”

    “It has.”

    They glared at each other, but couldn't sustain it; all the fight had gone out of them and now neither could match the other's gaze.

    “Nothing stops her,” said Maxie. “You know that.”

    “Nothing natural, maybe,” agreed Archie. “But people are bastards.” He thrust his hands into the pockets of his coat. “People are bastards,” he repeated, as if there were some hidden meaning that might make itself clear on a second hearing.

    “I admit, I can't argue with that.” Maxie adjusted his glasses. “But what about everyone else?”

    Archie shrugged. He did not turn around.

    “Berenice?” asked Maxie. “Ulixa? Lillian?”

    “Virginia,” replied Archie. “Virgil. The King.”

    Maxie took a step back, his shoulders suddenly sagging with the weight of his five hundred and eighty-odd years.

    “Fine,” he said. “I've tried, Archie. All this time, ever since you came back, I've tried. But it's over, I see. You've decided to damn yourself and that's your decision. I had hoped … I hoped for a lot of things. With us working together again, seeing for the first time that the world was not as dead as I'd thought … I suppose I was naïve. It wouldn't be the first time: the eco-terrorism, the hunt for the Red Orb. My attempt to stop you raising Kyogre. Foolish of me, I know.” He paused for a moment, clenching and unclenching his fingers at his sides. “I'm sorry that it came to this.”

    “Not half as sorry as I am,” said Archie, and had you been there, dear reader, you could have seen the sudden painful spasm of hope wrench at Maxie's face.

    “It's not too late,” he said.

    “It was too late five centuries ago,” said Archie, and he left.




    So when I woke, it was to one less familiar face. But that story, dear reader, is going to have to wait until tomorrow. I have to start thinking about dinner, for myself and for the numerous slightly-too-wild pokémon I now seem to be sharing my ship with. In the morning, I'll tell you all about the Golden Isles, and why the inhabitants were expecting my arrival. I'll tell you about the time I spent there and what it did to me, and then – at last! – I'll tell you about how I got my ship back.
     
  20. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    TWENTY-FIVE: THE WOMAN OF MANY TWISTS AND TURNS

    Believe. Question. Remember.
    Sing.
    ―Keystone of the Consensus, First Stasimon​


    In the Golden Isles conversation is an art. They compare it to sailing an old-fashioned boat: you lean into it as into the shoulder of the wind, let its momentum propel you on but without dictating your direction. The two of you who are speaking are the ones who control where you go, one of you on the sail and one of you on the tiller. You have to work together, and it isn't always easy; if you manage it, however, you can theoretically travel on forever, right past the sunset and into unknown waters.

    It's a laboured metaphor. Sure, it works, but they should finish it up a sentence or two earlier than they do. Analogies that extended get kind of convoluted. But that's what they're like – kadabra, I mean. Their minds aren't all inside their heads like ours are; they overspill their bounds, wash out over the world, and so they end up putting a lot of their thoughts outside, into things they can see and feel and do. They do have pure ideas, I think, but they'll never tell you straight, “I'm thinking about loyalty.” The thought will have wandered off a hundred miles and attached itself to a shoal of fish at the bottom of the sea, and so they'll say, “Consider the mantine. What do they gain from the remoraid?” and you're expected to, like I said, jump into the boat with them, grab a rope and try to figure out how the rigging works. It'll take fifteen minutes, but you'll come away from it knowing more about both mantine and loyalty than you did before.

    Of course, they can make conversation into a sculpture like that because they don't need to use it for actually transmitting information like we do. That they do through the Consensus. Actual conversation between individuals, with words – that's recreation to them. They'll spend hours lost in it.

    Life moves slowly there, which is strange when you remember that kadabra don't live as long as we do. Twenty is old. Twenty-five is incredible. Thirty is pretty much only possible if you manage to evolve into an alakazam, and even then you're pushing it. So why waste so much time? What do you mean, waste it, they ask. Time is to be passed. Consider the human.

    It's generally not good when they start talking about that one. They try to be understanding, but mostly they're as baffled by us as we are by them. What are you doing with your lives, we cry, and they answer, we are living them – what are you doing with yours?

    At least we don't attack each other so much these days. Maybe this isn't a thing any more, but I can just about remember when I was five or six hearing news about the kadabra pirates that were threatening the eastern shipping lanes. Of course, by the time the rumours had got that far west they bore more or less no resemblance to what had actually happened, but you know how it is. Some pirate boss thinks he'll go after the untapped market of kadabra vessels and loses a ship or two, and suddenly everyone's saying there's a fleet blockading every settlement east of Nueville.

    But I'll get to all this in the proper detail when the time comes; for now let's take a few steps back and get a sense of the bigger picture. The scene: an interior, dug from the soil and faced with fragile sheets of rock. The actors: me, a kadabra. You with me? All right. Let's do this.

    I woke up slowly, which I think I was supposed to. The sleep they'd put me into was meant to be soothing and conducive to healing, so I can't imagine they'd intended an abrupt waking. So I woke slowly, and around me the room came together with the same leisurely pace: underground, walls braced with pillars of granite and the gaps in between faced with delicately carved limestone. Stone furniture. Stone bed, I realised, rolling awkwardly up onto one elbow.

    “Ugh,” I said. “What in all …?”

    Then I saw the kadabra, and temporarily forgot how to speak. They look exactly like they do in the pictures: sandy fur, brown manes over the torso and shoulders. Tattoos like an alphabet you've forgotten how to read.

    “Hail,” said the kadabra, in that not-quite-words way that they speak. “Do not be alarmed.”

    When they said that, it was accompanied by the conviction that I had no need to be alarmed, that to be alarmed was to misjudge the situation entirely. You couldn't disagree with it. The thing about kadabra is not that they can't lie, but that you always hear the truth in what they say.

    “OK,” I said, after taking a few seconds to process this. “Um. Hail? I'm … Avice. Avice Amrit dol' … Just Avice is fine. I – actually I kind of thought I was dead.”

    The kadabra made a motion of their claws that the thoughts radiating from their head informed me was a gesture indicating uncertainty.

    “You might have been,” they admitted. “Consider the shuppet. It lies between certainties. It is a doll and not a doll, a spirit and not a spirit.” They paused, expecting me to expand upon their point – that's how it goes with kadabra, you make one point and wait for the response – but I just stared.

    “Uh, OK,” I said. “Sorry, I think I might – I'm not – I don't think I'm thinking straight.”

    “I apologise,” said the kadabra. “You are still recovering. And I am not used to talking with humans.”

    “Hey,” said Zinnia. “You're awake.”

    She was halfway through a wall, evidently returning from somewhere else, and when she saw me moving and talking she cleared the space between us almost in one bound.

    “I'm gonna get serious for a minute,” she said, sitting next to me. “Please don't do that again.”

    “I'm not planning on it,” I replied. “I – what happened?”

    “You got thrown off the ship,” she said, at exactly the same time as the kadabra's response reverberated around my head:

    “You washed up ashore two days ago.”

    I closed my eyes and massaged my temples, cursing under my breath.

    “I was talking to Zinnia,” I said, completely unable to care what the kadabra thought of me for saying so. “Can you give me a sec?”

    They didn't respond, which I assumed meant they agreed, and I turned to face Zinnia.

    “What was that?”

    “The Exceptional,” she said. “You got … yeah.”

    “Oh,” I said slowly. “Yeah, that. That was … how am I not dead?”

    She shrugged.

    “I don't know, Avice. You washed up with Edie, and about an hour later these guys showed up out of nowhere. Literally, they teleported in. We had a hell of a time following them when they took you two away. Spent like seven hours wandering around inside a piece of solid rock looking for the bit they'd hollowed out to make this place.” She gestured at the room around us. “Edie's fine too, by the way. She's made a lot of friends. I don't think these guys have ever seen a porygon before, ever in their clan-memory. She wanted to sit with you, but they, I don't know, made her understand you needed rest or something. I think this sleep trance thing was pretty delicate.”

    I nodded, mulling this over. It seemed to be taking a little longer than usual to get thoughts through my head at the moment.

    “OK,” I said at last. “And I was – actually yeah, I remember them waking me up.”

    The kadabra blinked slowly.

    “You had broken two of your ribs,” they said. “I'm sorry. We didn't get to you in time. They have not healed as we would like.”

    I could feel it – can feel it now, even, although only when I'm thinking about it. The join between the pieces of bone is solid, but unwieldy. The ribs in question aren't quite the right shape any more. But they were mostly healed in just two days, which sort of made up for it. Kadabra are masters of metamorphosis – of the living-force of the world, they call it; the quirk of matter that means that somehow you and I and trees and beautifly are alive and not automata. You've heard of it before: it's what the ziz-lords meant when they quoted philosophy at me; it's what Maxie meant when he told me about Infinity Energy. There isn't as much of it in me as there would be in a pokémon – I don't have more than mortal powers, I don't evolve – but there was enough for them to weld my ribs back together. Just.

    “Right,” I said, feeling my side and gasping at the pain. “Well – ah! 'sflukes – I mean, you saved my life, so you know what, I'll take it. Thank you, by the way. I should have said that earlier.”

    The kadabra twitched their whiskers in a particular way that corresponds to a human shrug.

    “We did as was right and blessed,” they said. “Is your conversation with your genius over? I do not mean to rush you,” they added hastily. “But you have not eaten, and we are waiting with food.”

    Obviously when they spoke I didn't actually hear the word 'genius', but I've been combing my old friend the dictionary for ways to put the concepts they spoke to me with into words so that I can write them down, and I think 'genius' is the best fit. It's Oldspeak again, L rather than Gk, whatever that means, and it's a word for a kind of tutelary spirit, tied to a person or a place. That's not quite what the kadabra meant, but it's as close as I can get.

    They can't see them, by the way. They can sense a kind of psychic distortion near me when the ghosts are close, but that's a sympathetic reaction to my seeing them, so … well, what I mean is that they'd get the same result if I were just hallucinating. So. Make of that what you will, I just thought I should mention it.

    But at the time, I didn't stop to consider any of this. Yes, a lot had happened and I was struggling to take it in – but on the other hand, food. It had been well over two days since I'd last eaten, and I was more than ready to start making up for lost time.

    “Yes,” I said. “Right. Food. Um – where are my clothes?”

    The kadabra gestured, and I saw them on a table across the room. They were folded, but not the way a human would have folded them; they looked like they'd been folded by someone who didn't really know what they were.

    “Thanks, um … sorry, I don't think I caught your name.”

    The kadabra inclined their head a little.

    Hs.picha,” they said aloud, with their mouth, while at the same time I received a strong mental impression of a piece of weathered ivory pushing through soil and emerging into a verdant field.

    “I think I can only manage half of that,” I said, and they twitched their whiskers again.

    “It will suffice. I shall meet with us and we shall bring you food.”

    “I'll go get Maxie,” said Zinnia. “Be right back.”

    And I almost didn't notice that she never mentioned Archie.




    Since I know you're wondering, dear reader, yes, it's true that they eat bugs out in the Golden Isles – they farm blind white cave crickets in a particular subsystem of their burrows – and yes, I did in fact eat a lot of crickets myself while I was there. They're not that bad, although sometimes the spines on the edges of their carapace stick into your gums.

    Anyway, hs.picha went away, I got dressed, and they came back with another kadabra, each of them holding a bowl telekinetically above their heads; I didn't know why it took two people to deliver two bowls, and in fact I'm still not sure, but as far as I can tell kadabra treat food preparation and serving in a ritual kind of way: it's always two people, always held high, always put down in a specific order, first the meat on the left and then the vegetables on the right. (For a kadabra meal, it would be two kinds of meat; knowing that humans need plant matter too, they always brought me some unidentifiable herbal-looking thing that tasted strongly of broccoli and dyed my tongue bright green for hours.)

    They also brought Edie, and she took precedence over food by the simple expedient of launching herself directly into my arms. Fortunately, she's so light you can barely feel the impact, which probably spared me a substantial amount of pain.

    Edie was worried, she printed along my arm. She never did get the hang of first-person pronouns; I don't think her mind works that way.

    “Aw, it's OK,” I said. “I'm all right. And … you've got good at thinking, huh.”

    Conversations, she printed, which I think meant that she'd been talking to the kadabra – which in turn, presumably, gave her a much better idea of what thoughts were and how to deal with them.

    “Huh.” I stroked her head, feeling the edge of the prong that had been growing there for the last few months. “Well done, you.”

    ♥, she said, and settled down at my side while I ate.

    I did not get much time uninterrupted: soon enough, as you'd expect, Zinnia came back with Maxie, and then I had to do the heartfelt greeting thing all over again while he evaded my questions about Archie.

    “He's not here right now,” he said. “We'll talk about this later. I believe your new friends want to talk to you. At least, I should hope they do. Apparently we can't pick up psychic vibrations now that we're dead, because neither of us can hear a thing the kadabra are saying.”

    I glanced involuntarily at hs.picha, who seemed to take this as an invitation to speak.

    “Are you sated?” they asked. “I have been instructed to take you to us when you are ready. There is much to be said on both sides. It is said it will be fruitful.”

    “Oh. Um – yeah, sure,” I said. “Lead the way, then.”

    They and their companion inclined their heads, and I followed the two of them through a curtain of dangling stone strips, so fine I could brush them aside with one hand and yet so solid-looking when hanging still together that they seemed part of the wall; this took us out into a narrow corridor excavated with mechanical precision to be perfectly circular in cross-section. Tethys' engineers would have wept to see it; I doubt they could have managed it even with their slide rules and calculating engines.

    “This way,” said hs.picha, and led me down a curiously empty route that I could have sworn took us past the same four doorways nine times over; I saw no kadabra, no plants or ornaments or art, just the endless curve of the corridor and the hanging curtain-doors that punctuated it with their intermittent straight lines. It was deliberate, of course – the before-halls, as they call them, have to be empty to absorb any ritual impurities visitors might carry in from outside, before they're allowed into the burrows proper – but at the time it just seemed spooky.

    “Where are we going?” I asked, mostly just to break the silence.

    “To us,” replied hs.picha, and then, realising that this was probably totally incomprehensible to me, added: “To where we are. I am here with you. We are elsewhere.”

    You, dear reader, have the advantage of me being around to explain various bits of kadabra culture to you. I had to figure it out for myself based on their cryptic attempts at exposition, and it was a long time before I properly grasped what kadabra mean by I and we, the individuated self who occupies a particular body and the zhiira, the Consensus, the place somewhere in the ether where every mind in the clan mingles, debates, advises. To a kadabra, the physical world is only half their life. The rest is an endless sea of telepathic conversation.

    “Are you getting an answer out of him?” asked Maxie.

    “I don't think him is the right word,” I said slowly, trying to unscramble the thoughts hs.picha was sending my way. “But … I think I got an answer, just not one I understand. Yet.”

    The corridor came to an abrupt end, a smooth sheet of basalt blocking any further progress, and hs.picha made a small sound of relief. It seemed like this had been a tedious journey for them, as well.

    “This part of the way is over,” they explained. “Stand close.”

    “Uh, sure.”

    I stood close to them – uncomfortably close, for both of us; I wasn't used to being in such close proximity to tooth and claw and alien intelligence, and for their part hs.picha had to make a conscious effort to stop their hackles from rising. They closed their eyes, and spoke, and then―

    I ceased―

    ―I stumbled and would have fallen if they had not caught me with their mind.

    “We have left the before-halls,” said hs.picha, and I looked up to see an altogether different kind of corridor: rougher around the edges, faced with rock sheets in every colour from pink to black, veins of jasper and bloodstone running through the walls in intricate knotted patterns.

    “What was that?” I asked, trying not to throw up and, to my surprise, succeeding.

    “The exchange,” they said. “There was air here, and now there is you and me. You and I were there, and now there is air. Consider the― but I forget myself; I should say, do you see?”

    I nodded. Teleportation, of course. More sophisticated and more nausea-inducing than the warp panels back in Jonah's Respite, but at least I knew what it was.

    “Yeah, I see.”

    “Good. Are you ready to continue?”

    “Sure. Um, Edie? You still with us?”

    She responded with a cheerful jingle. Maybe it was because she didn't have a stomach to upset, but she didn't seem to suffer any ill effects from the warping.

    “And … ah, right, there you are.”

    “Yes, here we are,” said Maxie, stepping out of the wall alongside Zinnia. “My apologies for the delay. That partition must be close to fifteen feet thick.”

    It was much easier to follow where we were going in this part of the burrow than the other. Doors and passageways were signposted with glyphs drawn in phosphorescent paint, and there were other passers-by, too, most of whom stared at me with frank curiosity or, in one or two cases, outright hostility. I got the feeling they didn't get all that many visitors here, and that a sizeable number of them thought that was for the best.

    “Here,” said hs.picha, indicating another of the rock-curtain doorways. “You should enter first. It would be fitting.”

    I glanced at Zinnia, who shrugged, then took a deep breath and entered the Consensus.




    How can I describe it, exactly? It was a room – a cavern, really, the roof held up impossibly high by ornamented pillars – and on a plinth in its centre was the skull of a gigantic fish, big enough to have swallowed a brace of escape pods at a gulp. There's really not much more to say about its appearance. There were candles, I think. That's about it.

    But when I stepped in, I could feel them everywhere: dozens and dozens of minds, or one gigantic mind, it was hard to tell; the air was so thick with psychic energy that you could taste it, something rich and sharp and spiced like cardamom mixed with lime. This was the hub of the clan, where memories and experiences were exchanged and passed on through the generations; where news was spread and reactions expressed, collated, compared; where the part of every individual abra, kadabra and alakazam that was not contained within their bodies mingled in raw, elemental democracy. I didn't need to ask this. I stepped in, and I felt it, and I knew.

    ―it's them.

    ―hush.

    ―see how the hawk-of-light follows? in the year of the black albatross …

    ―it is said.

    ―hush. hush. hush.

    There were no words, not really, nor clearly distinct voices, but I guess I didn't have the mental capacity to experience the Consensus as the kadabra do. I heard them as a crowd composed of smaller crowds, each group chanting out snatches of dialogue in unison before another interrupted.

    ―together now, cousins. so they can hear.

    ―weakness!

    ―enough! together, we say. as is right and blessed.

    The air stilled for a second, and the boiling mass of thought seemed to freeze, and then:

    ―greetings, human.

    ―we welcome you to our home.​

    ―as the MONARCH would have it, so it shall be.​

    I swayed slightly, my ears ringing with illusory sound, and wondered how I was supposed to respond. In the end, I think, I settled on bowing.

    “Thank you,” I said. “I … I understand I have a lot to thank you for. And I think – I mean, I think I can tell – that it's a rare honour for an outsi― a human to be brought here. So. Um. I appreciate it and offer my thanks.”

    ―they speak well.

    ―it is well said.

    ―now.

    ―we have expected you these past cycles.​

    ―you were foretold.​

    ―by the sky human.​

    ―what is their word for it?

    ―it is unknown.

    ―the human who rode the dragon.​

    “A – ziz-lord?” I hazarded. “Um – pale skin, dark hair, ragged grey cloak?”

    Zinnia said something then, I think, but I couldn't hear her; nothing but the voice of the Consensus could make it through the buzz in my head. Even my own words sounded like they were coming from the opposite side of a great mass of cotton wool.

    ―a ziz-lord.

    ―they are the diplomats in the air.​

    “That sounds like a ziz-lord,” I said. “So … I'm sorry, you said they foretold my coming here, or something?”

    I couldn't quite get my head around it. With the number of kadabra I was currently sharing it with, there didn't seem to be enough space left in my brain for me to do my own thinking.

    ―yes.

    ―two lunar cycles past, they visited.​

    ―they said that you would come out of the sea.​

    ―they said that it was important you lived.​

    ―they said that you would save us.​

    Yep. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, that was Aranea, wasn't it? And I'd love to say that it was, because that's how a story should go, fraught with mystery and aunts and … well, mysterious aunts, but I actually have no idea if it was or not. There are a lot of ziz-lords and only one Aranea, and kadabra are not good at telling humans apart. They can tell a pale person from a dark one, but their eyesight isn't as good as ours and they find it hard to detect the colours of our hair and clothes, or the subtle lines of our faces.

    “But how?” I said, as much thinking aloud as asking. “How could they know? And why? I spoke to them before, the ziz-lords I mean, and they … they didn't want to help me …”

    ―they grow confused.

    ―they are weak. we did maintain that they were weak.

    ―they need rest.

    ―hush. hush.

    ―now.

    ―we do not know how or why.​

    ―we did not even know that they spoke truth until you arrived.​

    ―we must ask.​

    ―will you save us?​

    “Yes, of course,” I said, pushing through the dizziness. “I mean, I'm trying. I'm doing a really bad job of it, but I'm – Tooth take it, I'm trying. I'm trying to raise the land.”

    Uproar: a cacophony of voices, so loud and so many that I couldn't hear anything but the hiss and crackle of thoughts being swapped like bullets in a shootout; half-visible shapes pulsed in and out of existence in the air, or maybe in my head; there was warmth on my face, and when I reached up and felt the blood I'm sure that for a moment I could hear someone calling my name before I blacked out.




    I doubt you'll be particularly surprised to learn that the Consensus takes some getting used to. Over the course of the next week or so, I entered it several more times, and on at least half of those occasions it ended up knocking me out. But it was like exercising a muscle I didn't know I had; in time, I learned to flex my mind, to let it ride the others as they rode it, bobbing above the waves when they got too rough and sinking into the water when it calmed. Did you know, humans are actually just a tiny bit psychic? Maybe you've heard the rumours about people who can move things with their minds too, dear reader. And maybe they aren't rumours after all. After the Golden Isles, I can make my pen wobble if I stare at it hard for thirty seconds. I bet someone with more talent could do more.

    They moved me into the main part of the burrow after the first meeting, to a cosy little room with a proper door and a bed that looked like it had been salvaged from a human vessel. At least, it had an iron frame and a mattress instead of being a block of stone covered with dried scav-weed, so I assumed it had to have been built by human hands. As far as I know, kadabra don't work metal.

    It was nice enough – not ideal, not without any tablets, but not so bad as you might think; kadabra don't see gender, so I dodged a lot of the pain I might – would – otherwise have felt. They have enough trouble with the idea of self-contained individuals as opposed to their own semi-plural selves. Fine distinctions between persons aren't really their sort of thing.

    I rested, of course. I still had some slightly-broken ribs and salt-ravaged lungs; my body really wasn't up to any further adventuring just then. I told them our plan. They remembered Rayquaza, of course. Every kadabra in a clan shares their experiences with the Consensus, and memories end up preserved for thousands of generations, long after the heads that once housed them have turned to dust. They didn't know how it had been called, but they remembered its coming, how the sky had been filled with its presence.

    ―can it be done?

    ―we believe so.

    ―will it?

    ―it was done once.

    ―it can be so again.​

    ―if enough stones can be found.​

    I told them my story – our story – everyone's story, Maxie's and Archie's and Zinnia's and Edie's and Ulixa's and my mother's and my father's and Moll's Aranea's and Rhiannon's and Berenice's and every other story I had learned, every person and thing I had met and seen and been touched by. I gave of myself to the Consensus, adding my world to theirs, and when they marvelled at the colours and the poetry that no kadabra could have seen in it I saw them too with new eyes.

    There are two sorts of learning, dear reader. In one sense, in terms of facts and numbers, I learned almost everything I ever learned from old books. In another, in what I'm going to somewhat pretentiously call wisdom, I learned almost everything from telling myself to the kadabra. I read my life through them and wondered at what I saw.

    ―there was a human once who travelled.

    ―we know the one. do you recall their name?

    ―we remember.

    ―now.

    ―we are impressed.​

    ―we are enlightened.​

    ―you are become a name.​

    ―we call you: polytrope.​

    “Poly … tropee?”

    ―we do not know how to sound it with air.

    ―it is a word for humans.​

    ―it is the name of the traveller.​

    ―of the quick-witted one.​

    ―of many twists and turns.​

    I didn't know exactly what it meant to be named by the kadabra. I still don't, actually. But I could tell that it was not something they did lightly, probably not even for their own kind, and I still bear the name with pride. A few people go to the Golden Isles and come back again. No one comes back marked by their honour. No one, apparently, but me.

    Gods below. What a worrying thought. There's something that feels dangerous about being exceptional, do you know what I mean? It's too elevated, too … visible. Safer to be down below, unnoticed. But, well, pretty much the whole ocean knows who I am at this point, after the Battle Before Dawn. Either they were there, or they know someone who was, and all of them know the name Avice Amrit dol' nowhere in particular.

    Tide. Why did I say that? I could have said literally anything and they'd have believed me, and I introduced myself as Avice Amrit dol' nowhere in particular? I so missed a trick there.

    Anyway. They named me, and I'm proud of that, at least. There's not a whole lot that I am proud of, but I'm proud of that. It's good to have a name you can believe in, and I stopped believing in Tethys a long time ago.

    Of course, it wasn't just the Consensus I spoke to. That first evening, after I'd woken in my new chambers and washed the nosebleed away, I had a pretty serious talk with the ghosts. They didn't have much choice: by then, it was obvious that something had happened to Archie, and I refused to let it go.

    “What do you mean, he's gone?”

    “I mean that he's gone,” repeated Maxie. “He thought you were dead. He thought – well, you can understand it. He thought we'd killed you.”

    “He wh― oh, Archie.” I made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a frustrated growl. “And there was nothing you could do?”

    “I tried,” he said. “Believe, me, I tried.”

    There was a slight emphasis on the I that I supposed must have seemed pointed to Zinnia.

    “If you couldn't stop him, neither could I,” she said. “Besides, Maxie, I thought Avice was a goner too. Think about that for a second.”

    We didn't have to. It was clear what she meant immediately, and it made a pit open up in my stomach.

    “I'm sorry,” I said, but she shook her head.

    “Unless you meant to have those guys try to kill you, I probably wouldn't apologise,” she said. “Just …” She sighed. “I'm sorry we lost Archie. He didn't like me and I'm not sure he ever said anything nice to me even when he was alive, but he's not a bad guy. Not really. But he left and that was his choice. All we can do is get you better and get back out there.”

    Can we do that?” I asked. “'Sflukes, where even are the bloody key stones? How am I supposed to find them again after this?”

    “I don't know! I don't know. I – yeah. God, I don't know, Ava, and it's eating me.” She ground her fist angrily into her palm. “I don't take not knowing very well.”

    “It almost pains me to say it,” said Maxie, “but … everything has worked out so far. We've got further than we had any right to get. And you, Avice, you've survived more than anyone could have asked of you. Someone up there is looking out for you.”

    “Up …? Oh. You mean down. Right.”

    I'd forgotten his topsy-turvy theology; in the old world, gods lived on high, on mountaintops and clouds. I suppose people weren't really aware of the awful majesty of deep water the way we are now.

    “Up, down – irrelevant. What matters is that someone or something is fighting your corner. Someone gave that Draconid a message to carry here, and it almost certainly wasn't their superiors at Meteor Falls. If I didn't know it was impossible, I'd say someone has been lining up every opportunity that's come our way. And, well.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “I might still say that, in fact. You must admit, things have been looking increasingly … unlikely, shall we say, for quite some time now.” He leaned back in his chair, looking into space the way he does when he's trying to remember something. “What was it … someone Greek, I think. Plato?”

    “Don't know,” said Zinnia. “I've only read Heraclitus. You've probably noticed, the Draconids are obsessed with him.”

    “It doesn't matter who. The important thing is, he writes about a statue of a fellow named Mitys, which one festival day fell upon the man who killed Mitys and killed him in his turn.”

    “Sounds like he got what was coming to him,” remarked Zinnia.

    “That's the point,” replied Maxie. “It doesn't seem like an accident, does it? One can't ignore the appearance of design.”

    I wanted to know more about the statue – it was a drowned good metaphor – but decided that could wait. (I read the book he was talking about later. I think it requires more context than has survived.)

    “You know I've noticed it too,” I said. “But I don't see how we can just rely on it.”

    He shook his head.

    “Not rely on it, no. We're only being given opportunities; you deserve full credit for the way you've seized them. I'm not suggesting that we can expect a magical deliverance, Avice. Only that I think it is reasonable to suppose that someone knows that you lost the key stones – someone who wants you to make it to the Sky Pillar, who saved you by warning the kadabra of your coming.” He sighed. “I don't know if that makes any difference to things,” he said. “Perhaps it doesn't. But perhaps that captain is selling on those key stones now, and perhaps whoever has their eye on you is making sure that they're the person who buys them.”

    There was a silence. Somewhere distant, water dripped.

    “This is ridiculous,” I said.

    And then I realised what I'd just said, and sighed.

    “Don't give up hope, right?”

    “It's all I can suggest,” replied Maxie.

    “I got nothing either,” said Zinnia.

    ♪, said Edie.

    I didn't have much else to add to that.




    I was there for eight weeks, more or less. I can't be totally sure; there are no windows and no outside doors in the Golden Isles, and the whole burrow network is a long way beneath the surface, where no human diggers will ever reach it – the same place, in fact, as it was before the making over. It used to be a mountain township. The memories are still floating around in the Consensus, dizzying glimpses of open sky and plunging valley intercut with shallow green water.

    I said I was there for eight weeks, but I don't think I spent more than half that conscious. I was in and out of the healing trance a lot: my injuries weren't insubstantial, and there's not much energy in a human for a kadabra to work with, so it took time and effort on their part, and a fair bit of weirdness on mine. My hair and nails didn't grow at all the whole time I was there; the rate of healing the kadabra forced it into meant my body put everything inessential on hold, diverting energy to my damaged lungs and ribs. Probably it's a good thing, really. It had been a long time since I'd last taken my pills. If I'd had the energy for it, I'd have … drifted, corporeally speaking, further than I did.

    When I slept my mind sometimes wandered, caught on the psychic breeze, so to speak; I ended up in the proto-Consensus of the abra quite a few times, mingling with them as they played. I always wondered how they learned and grew when they spend almost all their time asleep, and now I know: while their bodies are at rest, they can expend all their energy on playing with their minds, making rhymes and jingles out of ideas, tossing concepts back and forth like baseballs and learning the skills they'd need to join the Consensus as adults. It was kind of fun – they were fascinated by me, obviously, none of them having even seen a human before, much less merged mentally with one. They found it hilarious that I was so bad at their games. I don't think it had ever occurred to them before that there was anyone who couldn't sculpt shapes out of memories.

    Sorry, I won't make you sit through much more of my pseudo-anthropology – if anthropology is even the right word. It just seems to me that this is stuff worth knowing, worth setting down for someone else to find. No one knows much about the kadabra, and so everyone is afraid of them. People have such strong reactions to the alien that I can't help but feel that anything I can do to counteract that is worthwhile.

    I talked my plan over with the kadabra. I needed to find the key stones, I said, otherwise I wouldn't get anywhere. They sent messages to their spies and watchers, pinging thoughts between carved-bone buoys that amplified the signals out across the ocean towards scattered lunatone and solrock, or half-tame ghost-types who sold their services to them in exchange for raw emotion; they asked, they watched, and the response came back: nothing. Key stones are full of the same energies that kadabra technology runs on and manipulates; four of them together should have created a psychic signal visible through six inches of lead. But no one had seen anything.

    I tried not to let my disappointment show. It's a big ocean, after all. Not even the kadabra can see all of it. But you can't hide anything when you join with the Consensus, not unless you're a lot more psychic than I am.

    They didn't mind, I see that now. They would have been worried if I hadn't been disappointed. The clan was making an investment in me, and they wanted to know I was committed.




    All respite ends, or it wouldn't be a respite. Eventually, I was more or less back to normal, save for a slight lump on the left side of my ribcage that would remain permanently ossified from the first frenetic burst of healing, and both the kadabra and I started to get restless. They're not all patient and calculating, you know. Some – a lot – are, but there are others who are fiery, whose presence in the Consensus is always marked by fierce eddies of will and frustration. There were those who'd never wanted me here in the first place, and were eager to be rid of me as soon a possible (preferably with a memory-wipe so that I couldn't reveal anything to other humans); there were those who had been dazzled by the vision they'd received from my imagination coupled with their clan-memories of the pre-making-over world, who wanted me out there saving the world and bringing their mountains back; and there were those who didn't dislike me on principle but were made uneasy by the sudden unrest in the Consensus that I'd caused by coming in here with my quest and my memories of Tethys, and who wanted me moved along quickly so that things would calm down again. Close to the end, even some of the patient ones, the ones who'd advocated taking a slow approach and making sure I was fit to carry out my task before they sent me off, started to seem a little agitated. In their own little Consensus, the abra picked up on it too, the rhythms of their games growing sharper and more irregular, like waves over which a storm is breaking.

    “I think we should talk about my next move,” I told the Consensus.

    ―they learn fast.

    ―do you hear what they do not say?

    ―hush. hush.

    ―now.

    ―we had a plan.​

    ―we will need you to describe your ship.​

    So I did, in exhaustive detail: told them the layout, peeled memories of rooms and corridors and my movement through them out of my head and fed them into theirs; told them the feel of it, the smell of plastic and coolant, the dull shine of the fluorescent lights. I had a feeling I knew what they wanted, but I asked anyway, out of politeness.

    “Why do you need this?”

    ―we will exchange you.

    ―all of us, together, can reach that far.​

    ―along the relay buoys.​

    ―we must therefore know the layout.​

    ―we do not want to send you into a wall.​

    “Uh. What … what happens if you exchange someone with an object like that?”

    I saw their memories before their response came. It was pretty graphic.

    “Ah,” I said, wishing I hadn't seen it. “Right. That … yeah, that's unpleasant.”

    ―they mock us.

    ―it is more than unpleasant.

    ―it is not mockery, it is understatement.

    ―it is how the humans speak.

    The kadabra don't really do irony. They get straightforward lying, but any other form of saying one thing and meaning another kind of throws them. I guess they're used to thought and speech being part of the same thing.

    Anyway. Out went the spies, and back came the word: the Museum was still in drydock, still being prepared for its maiden voyage. The pirates had just about figured out how to get the engines working again by copying the one functioning one onto the others, but now they wanted to mount more communication-lights on it, and some weapons, too. The King, it seemed was looking for a flexible command centre from which to guide the war.

    More importantly, if I warped in aboard it, I'd be right back in pirate custody again, and that was not an experience I was looking to repeat.

    “Damn it!” said Maxie, when I came back to my room to explain what had happened. “Do we know how long it will be there?”

    “It doesn't matter,” I said. “They're going to crew it like it's a regular vessel. They don't know how to work the machines, they don't know it only needs a few people – and anyway, the King will bring guards, advisors, cooks, spies, soldiers … Once they launch it, it's going to be a fortress. Unless I have an army of my own, I'm not going be able to take it back.”

    “Plus they'll want to strip the collection out of it, I'm guessing,” said Zinnia. “Is it still there right now? Yeah? I'm betting that's just 'cause they don't have anywhere to put it. But they're gonna find somewhere; they won't want to put to sea with all those priceless relics aboard.”

    And without them, of course, the Museum is just a ship. What makes it special is history; what makes it powerful is knowledge. Without its collection, the ghosts are intangible, and I have none of the resources that have kept me afloat so far.

    “So we can't wait,” said Maxie. “What else, then? Are there other ships we might be able to seize?”

    “They're looking,” I told him. “But I don't know. Everything's been conscripted …” I broke off, shook my head. Suddenly I felt exhausted, though it had only been a few hours since I'd woken from the healing trance. “The first reports of fighting are coming in,” I said. “Corvettes bombarding some pirate destroyers west of the Shattered Temple. There's … they could put me ashore in a port somewhere, but then I'm back where I was in the Hollow. I need a ship of my own, you know? No one else is going to sail into the Blue Chapel. But the Museum's a bust, and the kadabra don't know how to find something else.”

    I sat down hard, sending a thousand tiny pains through my chest.

    “And we've lost the key stones,” I said. “And to get even one more now we have to go hunting for a god. And somehow I'm supposed to believe that things are going to keep working out.”

    I had my eyes closed by then, but I could feel the ghosts' eyes on me, and Edie nudging at my hand. I ignored all of them.

    “It's been almost a year,” I said. “And even now. Even now.”

    There was a very long silence. Even the hum of psychic energy seemed to have gone.

    “Maybe they're looking for the wrong thing,” said Zinnia at last. “Maybe it isn't a ship that you need.”

    I didn't answer. I wasn't really angry at her, of course; I was angry that the Museum had been held out to me and then taken away again; I was angry at myself for hoping; I was angry that I'd been reminded of the synthesis machines and the pills they made and the bloated jagged-edge grotesqueness of my flesh. But you don't think these things at times like that. There's a sulky child in all of us, somewhere. Or at least there is in me.

    “Maybe you need a person,” Zinnia persisted. “Maybe you need an ally.”

    I thought about it.

    I've told you before: she's always right, is Zinnia.

    “Hey,” I said to the Consensus, when I'd recovered enough from our last session to rejoin it. “I – Zinnia – she has an idea.”

    ―speak.

    ―we are listening.

    “Scratch looking for a ship,” I said. “I need you to find a person for me. A human, I mean.” I paused. “I need you to find Ulixa dol' Old Town.”
     
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2017

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