Imagine If... is the third installment in a series. To read the previous stories, please see Imagine This (Part 1) and Imagine That (Part 2). Reading them will not be necessary to enjoy this third part, but I encourage you to read them in order to obtain maximum involvement and excitement! =)
---WARNING: RATED "R" (COARSE LANGUAGE, MATURE THEMES)---
---WARNING 2: ABOVE AVERAGE LENGTH (139,010 CHARACTERS)---
A lone girl, who looks to be about fourteen or fifteen years of age, stands with her back to a round concrete pillar on the fifth floor of an old parkade. Her coarse blonde hair is shaved almost bald, and her grimy grey t-shirt and black sweatpants both bear the stains and tears of her rough day-by-day existence, as do her tattered and dirty white runners. Her slim body bears tell-tale signs of not enough to eat: collarbone and hip bones faintly visible through her skin; cheeks slightly sunken in; limbs too thin. She peeks around the pillar, scanning the next level of the parkade; it's empty except for a few dust-covered cars with shattered windows, languishing uselessly in their parking spaces.
The girl's fists are clenched with tension, her dirty fingernails digging into her palms almost hard enough to draw blood. The next part of her escape is essential. If her accomplice doesn't show up soon, she'll be caught; and that would mean being 'blacklisted.' Blacklisted slaves were watched far too closely, and if that happened, she wouldn't be able to try another escape for years.
A quiet shuffling heralds her ally's arrival, and the girl appears to relax, just a bit.
"W-what do we do now?" asks the newcomer, a brown-haired boy of about the same age, whose build would be bulky if he weren't so emaciated. His ripped black t-shirt hangs partway open, exposing his malnutrition-swelled stomach, and his voice trembles with barely suppressed terror when he speaks. "They'll notice we're gone soon, and we can't hide from the fliers if they send them out to get us—"
"I have a plan," the girl snaps, cutting the worried boy off. "There's no guards up here, so we can use this." She reaches down to a small indent in the concrete pillar and pulls out a makeshift grappling hook: two short steel rods that look like they've melted together in a fire, tied to a coil of rope made out of tough-looking green vines. "It'll get us into another building through a window."
"That sounds risky..." the boy mutters, his haunted expression making it clear he's having second thoughts.
Not on my watch, he isn't, the girl's expression seems to say. "Riskier than putting your life back in the hands of those Trainers?" she whispers harshly, spitting the last word like a curse.
"I... I guess not."
"Thought so. Follow me."
The two crouch and make their way across the empty concrete, both constantly scanning their surroundings, the girl with wariness and her companion with open fear, as if something terrible could spring from any dark corner without warning. After a minute or two, they arrive in the protective shadow of a smashed-up, dust-covered car lying next to the glassless parkade window, which consists of a ten-foot-long, four-foot-tall gap three feet up the concrete wall. The window lets in the grey sunlight of the cloudy day and provides a view of the city streets far below.
The streets in question are as quiet as the grave, with not a living soul or moving vehicle to be seen. The two fugitives seem unperturbed by this; in fact, movement below would have been notable, a departure from the norm. The days of city streets populated by chattering passersby and roaring, honking vehicles are long gone.
The building immediately next door to the multi-storey parkade is an office complex, its glass windows a mere stone's throw away. Many of the windows are shattered or have large holes in them, including the wide one directly across from the gap in the parkade's concrete wall. Through the jagged-edged hole can be seen a large room that was clearly once filled with cubicles, the remnants of which form a pile of debris in the middle of it.
"So that's why you picked the fifth floor..." the emaciated boy murmurs, earning himself a scornful glance from the girl.
"Of course. Do you want the Boss to send Steelbird to check out the sound of breaking glass? This is the best way. Now hold this, and don't let go." She hands him the end of the vine rope, then tugs on it to make sure his grip is steady.
"I can't believe this is happenin'..." the boy groans quietly. "We're gonna fall. We're gonna be pancakes way down there, an'—"
"Shut up." The girl has finished testing the knot connecting the other end of the vine to the grappling hook. Grasping the makeshift rope a few feet down from the grapple, she begins to swing it in circles above her head, faster and faster. After several orbits— one... two... three!— she releases her grip, sending the crudely welded grappling hook flying across the gap between the buildings.
It flies through the hole in the window and lands somewhere inside with a loud clang of metal on metal. The boy looks around, frightened of any attention the noise might bring, but the girl wastes no time, seizing the other end of the vine from him and pulling on it, reeling the grappling hook in until the rope suddenly pulls taut with a faint twang. The girl breathes a sigh of relief; the hook has caught on something. She gives her rope a few more sharp tugs to make sure it's secure, then ties it to the bumper of the smashed car beside which the two are standing and starts to climb up onto the concrete edge of the parkade's window.
"Get up here," she says, gesturing for the boy to follow.
Haltingly, with terror written across his face, he does. Glancing down at the street five storeys below, he begins to tremble and clings to the cement. "I... Oh God, I can't do it, it's too high," he whimpers fearfully.
"Oh, suck it up," the girl snarls. "We can't turn back now. It's this or a short life of drudgery until some Trainer gets tired of your face and bashes it in. And I need your help for the next phase. You have to get on that vine first, because if I go first it'll get all frayed and won't take your weight; I'm lighter, so I can go second without as much danger."
The boy hesitates, glancing down again and biting his lip to keep from crying.
"Go on..." The girl's voice takes on a gentler tone for a moment, as if she's realized her companion is nearing his breaking point. "I'll be right here to make sure you don't fall."
It's an empty assurance and they both know it; but the boy nods, then reaches out, tears running down his face as he grips the taut vine with first one hand, then both. All at once he swings his body out, putting his full weight on the vine, which creaks loudly, straining with the sudden weight... and then quiets.
"That's it," the girl says encouragingly, "Keep swinging across it, it's only ten feet or so."
For a nerve-wracking minute, the boy inches himself hand-over-hand across the vine, quietly crying and whimpering every second of it. Reaching the spot where the makeshift rope stretches over the office building's window sill, he reaches a hand over and grasps the edge; ignoring the tiny cuts that appear on his fingers from the remaining glass, he strains his undernourished arms and manages to haul himself over the side, missing the broken window shards on the floor and nearly tumbling into the mess of trashed cubicles and ruined swivel chairs that fills the centre of the large room.
The girl glances back into the parkade, for the first time showing the nervousness that she wouldn't allow onto her features in her companion's presence. It's been too long since the two left their tasks— surely they've been missed by now. "I'll have to hurry," she murmurs to herself.
Instead of gripping the vine with her hands, she takes a deep breath and then steps up from the raised parkade window onto the vine rope, thanking whatever god might be listening that it's wide enough to give her feet some purchase... and trying to ignore the alarming creaking noises starting to come from the vine as its far end rubs against the shards of broken glass on the office building's window sill.
She takes one step, then another, holding her arms out for balance; a five-storey-up tightrope walk with no net. Her fellow fugitive, seeing what she's doing, looks like he's about to call out but thinks better of it, instead holding his breath and watching with disbelief as the girl takes another step into space with only a rapidly fraying rope for support.
There are only a few steps to go, and it's looking like the girl is going to make it across... Then, without warning, there is a creak and a SNAP! and the vine shudders violently, nearly sending the balancing girl tumbling to her death. The boy looks at the office building's sill and sees that the glass shards have sawed most of the way through the vine... and the stringy fibers that make it up are continuing to part bit by bit.
Another creaking noise emanates from the vine rope; the boy doesn't have time to think, but instead reacts, leaping forward and seizing the end of the rope with both hands as it breaks entirely. His chest is yanked against the wall of the office building below the window, but he holds on tightly.
The vine rope goes slack as it breaks, then tautens again as it strains to pull itself out of the boy's hands, making him cry out involuntarily at the pain in his arms. In the instant the rope tightens once more, though, the girl leaps, using the help of the rope's returning tension to catapult herself over the boy's back and onto the glass-strewn ground of the abandoned office, where she lands heavily in the middle of a mess of the window-glass shards that litter the floor.
"Are... Are you all right...?" stammers the boy, picking himself up uncertainly and glancing over himself and the girl for injury. His chest is a little bruised from its jolt against the window sill, but that seems to be it.
"Yeah, I'm okay," the girl says, picking herself up. She doesn't look okay— little pieces of glass are embedded in her skin all along her right arm and her right side, her flimsy grey t-shirt having provided no protection at all. Small droplets of blood begin to appear on the injured arm and a red stain appears on the grey fabric of her t-shirt, but she ignores them. "Let's go."
The two turn towards the door marked "Stairwell" at the other end of the room, but freeze as a loud, tinny avian shriek, like something one would expect from a cross between a huge eagle and a chainsaw, sounds from somewhere on the street below. The boy and the girl look at each other, then break into a run, dashing for the doorway to the stairs.
A moment later, the entirety of the wide office window shatters as something large and heavy hurtles through it, wings spread. The two escapees hit the door to the stairwell at a run, praying it's not locked— fortunately, it's not, and it flies open. The two stop, turn and slam it shut.
Standing with their backs to the door, the two barely have time to process the sight of a concrete landing with two sets of stairs leading both up and down, before they're nearly thrown off their feet by a heavy impact that strikes the other side of the portal. Stumbling forward alongside the boy, the quick-minded girl grabs his arm and whispers something in his ear.
He looks confused for a moment, then nods. He dashes to the left, down the stairwell, while the girl goes upwards.
There's a brief moment wherein the only sounds audible in the abandoned office building are the faint slaps of feet against stairs...
Then a gust of impossibly powerful wind smashes the stairwell doors open, spraying refuse from the office room across the landing. A creature stalks onto the concrete, talons clacking. It looks like a six-foot-tall bird of prey clad in steel, with the addition of a spiked triangular crest atop its head: its entire body is covered in silvery lightweight armour that creaks faintly as it flexes its wings; its plumage consists of three red metallic 'feathers' on each wing, which possess enough articulation to spread and flap but can also catch the air like a jet plane's wing when locked together; and its metal beak bears a set of jagged toothlike tines. The hundred-pound bird looks like it shouldn't be able to walk under its own weight, much less fly, but its movements are graceful, and the creature has an almost humanlike quality of assurance as it glances first down the stairwell, then up it. The metal bird opens its beak and lets out a brief, tinny call, which is answered by a chorus of shrieks and howls from the streets. Confident that its allies now know approximately where the runaways are located, the creature spreads its wings and takes off, flapping its way swiftly up the staircase in search of the more elusive of its two quarries...
The girl has reached the roof of the office building; exiting the small structure housing the top of the stairwell, she heads immediately for the edge of the roof. A storey below, the flat top of a derelict apartment building looms. It's a fifteen-foot drop, but she knows she can make it; given that her ally— now, regrettably, only bait— is down in the ground floors of the office building, maybe in the alleyways by now, her best bet is to hide and lie low. She takes a deep breath, and prepares to take a running jump across the gap between the two buildings...
Then, behind her, a loud smashing noise heralds the arrival of the first thing to go wrong with her plan. The creature, known as Steelbird to the many members and slaves of its Trainer's gang, lets out a piercing shriek and then flaps into the air, preparing to dive-bomb the girl.
She responds by dashing to place her back against a metal smokestack that juts from the edge of the building. Unperturbed, the bird locks its wings and plummets, swooping at the girl with talons extended, seeing her frozen by terror like so many others...
At the last second, the girl throws herself out of harm's way, revealing that her terror was only an act; she rolls, and comes to her feet in time to see the bird smash straight through the smokestack with a rattling series of metallic crashes. Its momentum hardly reduced, Steelbird begins to climb again, banking in a wide circle for a second pass. This particular prey, however, has a trick up her sleeve.
Reaching into a small , crudely sewn hidden pocket on the inside elastic of her sweatpants, the girl retrieves the one possession she's managed to keep secret for just this occasion: a small slingshot made with a rubber band, and four peanut-sized seeds as ammunition. The girl raises one of the seeds to her mouth, and spits on it, praying that the scant moisture she can expel from her parched mouth will be enough...
The winged menace has finished its slow circle, and is accelerating down at the girl. She stands her ground, waiting for the right moment... she can't afford to miss.
Scant moments before the bird's razor-sharp wings and steely talons rip through her, the girl dodges aside and lets loose with the weapon she had held hidden by her side. The seed hits the bird, and sticks in its side as it swoops past with a faint whistling of sliced air.
The girl turns and waits, watching the steadily receding bird glide higher into the sky. Shouldn't something have happened by now? she wonders, fear coiling in her stomach with a sensation like a cold fist clenching her insides.
The four seeds the girl has in her possession, stolen at great personal risk from the Trainers' quarters on the forbidden lower floor of the parkade, belong to a creature with power over plants. She's seen its Trainer command it to fire several of these seeds at one of the non-Trainer servants, at which point the walnut-sized objects burst immediately into rapid growth, enwrapping the unfortunate man's entire body and holding him upside down for the entertainment of the laughing, jeering Trainers. The girl can only hope they work the same way when they're activated by water.
Abruptly, the far-off bird's smooth glide seems to falter. A moment later its banking turn towards its quarry veers off track, carrying the bird away towards the distant horizon, and against the grey backdrop of clouds the girl can faintly see the silhouettes of snaking vines covering the bird and fighting to pin its wings against its body.
Time to get going.
The girl takes a running leap from the office building's roof onto that of the abandoned apartment and rolls to break her fall, heading immediately for the rooftop stairwell. There, she'll find a place to hide until the Trainers stop searching. A small smile appears on her thin lips, and stretches into the first real grin her face has played host to in more than five years. Her plan is still on track, and she's finally, finally free.
---Imagine If... Part 1 — 2013 SWC Entry---
Imagine if every place you'd ever called home was underground. Imagine if the feeling of the sun on your face equated with danger. Imagine if your idea of a successful day was not getting your legs broken. Imagine if any group of people you met could all die tomorrow, and no one would notice. Imagine if you could die tomorrow, and no one would care.
Imagine if you didn't even think you would care.
All of those things describe the world I live in... Except for the last one, which is starting to. And that scares the shit out of me.
My name is Larissa; I don't really have a last name, because my parents didn't live long enough to tell anyone what it was. For the same reason, I don't actually know how old I am (although my reflection looks about seventeen or eighteen,) or when my birthday is. Not that it would matter. What am I gonna do, bake a cake out of ashes and rubble?
You see, I live in a world that's nothing like your own; it's different in every way, but all of those differences come from a single, shitty source.
It's been fifteen years— more than three quarters of my life, from what I can guess— since the creatures started appearing. The ones that people call Pokémon— short for Pocket Monsters— in hushed tones of fear. Pokémon are mysterious creatures with frightening powers, powers that can turn you into a smear on the pavement in seconds flat. There are over six hundred known kinds now, and it seems like that number is only going to get bigger. I'm not old enough to have clear memories of what life was like before it happened, but the appearance of such dangerous creatures changed the way the world works. The globe was plunged into fear and terror; the mere existence of Pokémon threw society into chaos. All across the globe, people cowered and waited in vain for the worst to pass. Instead, the shitstorm rolled over them like the trampling feet of an angry god.
Some people— the ones who didn't just roll over and bury their heads in the sand— tried to get rid of them. In those early days, the stories say, anyone who frightened or threatened a wild Pokémon tended to die horribly. Having seen some of the bullshit these unnatural creatures can do, I personally don't doubt it. Most people just stayed the fuck away from them; hoped that a wild Pokémon wouldn't make its home in their front yard; closed their eyes to the fact that feral animals were taking over the world and that we were powerless to stop them.
Some, however, survived by befriending the beasts, even going as far as learning to train them. They were by far the best off. Nowadays, the world is ruled by Pokémon Trainers, ruthless criminals who take what they want and go where they please. No one can stop them, of course; they wield the power of creatures that can breathe fire, electrocute with a touch, or even rip you apart with just the power of their mind. It's no good trying to fight Trainers with Trainers, either— the streets are ruled by gangs that defend their territory viciously against other gangs, but being in the territory of a gang is no protection— it just means they get to do whatever they want with your homes and belongings, provided they can find them.
Me, I survive by staying as far away from Trainers as possible... but that's no easy feat. Take right now, for example.
I'm half kneeling and half lying on my stomach, most of the way up the roof of what used to be a hospital. That isn't as big a feat of climbing as it might sound like— the roof is all that's left, lying in the midst of the rubble. All that matters, though, is that it's the highest vantage point available in this particular area, at the same time as providing cover while I peek over it. Nothing fucks you over faster than making a recognizable silhouette on a horizon.
A wasteland stretches out in all directions, bathed in the early afternoon light; rubble-strewn streets crisscross between blasted, torn buildings and piles of shattered concrete. Some of the ruined houses still have a couple of walls standing, while others are indistinguishable from any other pile of burnt wood or smashed cement. Everything's covered with small plants and even a few saplings— most of the husks (that's runner-speak for blasted or torn-down houses) in this part of town have been abandoned for years. Closer to the city centre, some of the bigger buildings are still standing, especially the ones made out of concrete, but smaller houses and things are basically a thing of the past. Too much valuable-as-shit metal in the walls.
I peek over the top of the roof again, rising a little higher this time so I can see the ground closer to the base of the destroyed hospital. They're down there— the Trainers. There are about five of them that I can see, with their Pokémon; a tight group, about a half mile to my east, heading straight north. Probably a patrol. That would make sense, because I can tell from their faded purple shirts that they're members of the Quickstep gang that's in charge of the area east of today's route.
I'm downwind, and far enough away that I'm not particularly worried this bunch will notice me, especially since they don't look like they have any Psychic-types to detect my mind from afar. The real danger is that they probably have a scout or two, away from the main group or in the air. I scan the skies— they seem clear, so I relax a little... but only a little. If I'm caught, the best case scenario is losing the valuable supplies in my backpack; if the Trainers are in an especially bad mood, which they are most of the time, they might decide to break my legs and leave me for the carrion-eaters.
I'm a Runner— one of a few people who have learned to survive topside by staying clear of Trainers. Runners normally work alone, and we earn our meals transporting supplies between the suburb farms and the scavengers and craftspeople who manage to eke out a living in the city ruins. Usually I'll run one way with food from the farms, trade it for tools and other necessities the city-dwellers make or find, then run those back the other way. We generally don't play the part of merchants— trying to find buyers for our goods would take valuable time out of our day. Instead, our clients place orders and we arrange a deal with whoever has the requested goods.
A Runner has to be small and fast— hard to spot and harder to catch. We do one of the most dangerous jobs out there, because in the eyes of Trainers, Runners are bugs to be squashed: bugs that carry big bags of free stuff. We're paid pretty well by our clients... Not with money, of course— that paper stuff stopped being worth anything long ago, at least in [I[this[/I] part of the world— but we charge a steep commission of food and tools. Because of that, we live in relative comfort. Unfortunately, while a Runner's life might be comfortable enough, it also tends to be short... because sooner or later the Trainers will catch up with you, take your shit, and leave you to die.
I have no intention of letting that happen to me any time soon. I scramble back down from the hospital roof, dropping the few feet from the edge to the rubble-strewn ground as quietly as possible. Sound carries surprisingly clearly over the ruins, and there's still a danger that the Quicksteps might have a scout somewhere around here, so silence is key.
I sprint off to the south, along the wide, relatively clear street that's my planned route, which fortunately takes me in exactly the opposite direction from the Quickstep patrol. After a couple of minutes, I slow down to a light jog, breathing deeply but not too quickly. I've got a good eight miles to my first delivery spot, and there's no way I'm tiring myself out by running that entire distance; dashing is reserved for getting away from Trainers.
Ahead of me, the road ends abruptly; rubble is thick on the ground, and from here on I'll have to pick my way carefully up and down piles of shattered concrete and charred wood. If I could, I would only do my runs at night— less chance for Trainers and their Pokémon to see me, that way— but navigating places like this in the dark would be an easy way to get my legs broken, so that's a no-go.
It takes another fifteen minutes or so, but soon I'm approaching the first location: one of the Warrens I supply. A Warren, by the way, is Runner-talk for a hidden place where a group of people live, usually underground or in some way rendered indistinguishable from the surrounding ruins.
There's nothing here to indicate that the spot is at all different from any other stretch of wasteland, but as far as I can remember, it's the right place, so I find a relatively out-in-the-open area and sit tight (which would usually be a very bad idea if there were Trainers about.) Almost immediately, I know I've found the right location, because a young boy wearing homemade trousers of beige curtain cloth, a makeshift rope belt, and a faded black t-shirt with an illegible logo on it pops up right next to me, apparently out of nowhere. It's all I can do not to jump out of my skin. How the hell did he get so close without me noticing? I'm supposed to be aware of everything that goes on around me.
"Rizz!!" he shouts exuberantly, his sky-blue eyes shining with excitement. "You're early! What'd ya bring us?"
I look down at the boy, frowning faintly and trying not to reveal how badly he scared the shit out of me. "Quiet, kid," I snap, careful to use a hushed tone. "You'll bring the Quicksteps down on us from ten miles north with a voice that loud."
The kid, whose name I think is Matt or Manny or Malo or something, winces and ducks his head, as if I'd hit him. I'm guessing the anger of an adult usually means a sound beating in his makeshift homestead. "Sorry," he apologizes in a subdued whisper. "This way."
He leads me around a knee-high pile of metal scraps and digs at one side of it for a second, then grabs hold of something and pulls. A trap door, cleverly disguised with nailed- or glued-on tin cans and metal scraps, swings open silently on well-oiled hinges; Matt-Manny-Malo's folks are veterans of the wastes, and it shows in the care that goes into keeping their Warren secret and safe.
A quiet male voice calls from inside the door. "Marcus? Is Rizz here already?"
"Yeah, Dad!" Marcus— right, that was his name— shouts, forgetting to use his outdoor voice again. I scowl. This is exactly why I'm not fond of kids, and I'm sure as hell not sticking around if the boy brings down a bunch of Trainers on his family's heads.
"Well, bring her in," his father responds, "And don't forget to whisper when you're outside."
Marcus shoots a guilty glance at me, mouths 'Oops,' to himself, and scampers down the steep stairway into what used to be a cellar. I follow, reaching back to quietly close the trap door behind me. I have to duck my head and lower my shoulders to avoid catching my backpack on the low slanted ceiling until I reach the bottom of the stairs, finding myself in a familiar room.
Stone-walled and about ten feet by twenty feet, this Warren is pretty nice for a scavenger place. The stone walls have been dug out in two places, and earth-walled tunnels lead out of both holes. One tunnel ends with an exit I've used before to get into and out of the Warren; the other is unknown to me, and probably leads to living quarters as well as a similar escape route— after all, why have one back door when you can have two? Aside from the tunnels, one wall holds a set of shelves bearing cutlery, bowls and other eating utensils. A small but serviceable table stands in the middle of the room, cluttered with a few more odds and ends. In one corner there's a plastic sink basin resting on a rusted metal frame, with a couple of buckets of water sitting next to it. I'd enjoy knowing where this group gets their water, but it's none of my business. Everyone has their way of surviving, whether it's trips to a nearby stream, a secret well, or just collecting rainwater, and because every asset is worth stealing in today's world it's both rude and suspicious to pry.
On the opposite side of the room, leaning on walls or sitting in chairs of assorted styles, are six of the ten people who live here: Toby, Marcus's father, a tall slim man in his late twenties; Helen, the mother, who's in about the same age range; the boy himself; and three young men whose ages I guess to be between nineteen and twenty-two, who are basically the muscle of the operation: they're likely the ones who do the bulk of the scavenging for things amongst the ruins, like the chairs they're sitting in, tools like hammers and nails, and edible herbs or roots.
Everything is lit by a faint but clear light from a single dirty grey cellar window at the top of one stone wall— or, more likely, the window is intentionally painted grey on the outside to disguise it and reduce its shine in the sun. Smart, keeping the window useable— saves candles and lamp oil.
"Well?" Toby says gruffly, gesturing for me to come over to the table and planting himself solidly in a chair on the other side of it. "Have you got what we asked for?"
By way of answer, I thump my huge backpack down on the table and pull out a large bundle wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag. "A pound of beef jerky, half a pound of dried fruit— figs and cherries, this time— two whittling knives straight from the blacksmith, an old-style metal knife sharpener, a chisel, twenty candles, and a ten-inch-across, foot-long section of rock cedar heartwood," I recite from memory, unwrapping the bundle and laying out the named items. "In return, I asked for two good-quality wooden bowls, two full sets of wood cutlery, two fishing rods minus the twine, half a gallon of water in a sealable container, and a handle for the dagger blade I showed you last time I was here."
Toby is an expert carver and whittler. In today's world, you're either a scavenger, a craftsman, or too young to walk— otherwise you can't feed yourself. Everything I asked for is something Toby can spare, and he agreed to the deal last time I visited. That's how Runners operate— you don't ask for too much, but you get as much you can for yourself from every run, make sure you have everything for your orders, and aim to always have a full bag. The fishing rod is for a group that lives off of fish from a lake just past the edge of the city; the bowls and cutlery are for a family I'll be visiting later today.
The dagger handle is for me. A little weapon like that wouldn't be very useful against a Pokémon, probably, but it pays to have some way of defending yourself from more normal threats. More than one runner has been robbed because they made the mistake of ignoring the greedy eyes of their "friends" on their pack of supplies. On that note, I briefly look over Toby and the three scavengers, the latter of whose names I've never had reason to learn. I scan their eyes; reading people's emotions in their eyes is something I've always been good at. I see longing in their undisguised stares at the backpack— a Runner's bag is a rare prize indeed— but no open hostility, as well as a certain amount of trepidation. Good; having a reputation for being able to defend yourself is an important asset for a Runner.
Toby disappears into a back room, and returns with a fourth man who is helping him carry the things I asked for. They place the assorted items on the table across from me— the water is in a large plastic bottle with a screw-on cap, not a makeshift waterskin, which is a pleasant surprise— then the two back away to the far wall, careful not to make any threatening movements or cut off my way out. That's just common courtesy— trust is an even rarer commodity than food, and my bag is full of the latter.
I methodically stow everything in my backpack, economizing for space, except for the incomplete fishing rods— two long slim sticks with wooden loops all along them— which I strap to the back of the bag. Then I back away from the table in turn, leaving all the stuff I brought on it. Toby and Helen move forward and give it a cursory look over, ensuring that everything is indeed there. Toby stops when he realizes I've left the plastic garbage bag on the table along with the meat it was wrapped around, and looks at me quizzically.
"Keep it," I say. Durable plastic like that garbage bag is a rare and often valuable commodity, but about a year ago I was lucky enough to find an entire untouched industrial storage closet. I have plenty to spare, and the bag is about a fair trade for the useful plastic water bottle they've given me. Generosity is deadly, but fairness tends to reap its own rewards, I've found.
Toby just nods; I take the dismissal for what it is, and leave quietly by the trap door through which I came. Business as usual; no need to stick around once my job's done, especially since I've got four more stops to make today alone. The sun's still high in the sky, but it won't be for too many more hours: the days are growing shorter as autumn wears on, and I don't want to be caught out after dark.
Hey. I'm Borden, and this is Buzzer, my Pokémon. Together, we're part of the Grayout gang, the best gang in the fuckin' city. You tell me any different, me and Buzz will have to teach you better. And that'll hurt. So don't say nothing about the Grayouts, okay?
Just so you know what me and Buzz look like: me, I'm a big guy, so you better not get in my way or I'll knock you out of it! (Out of my way, that is. You got what I meant, right?) I wear my gray gang sash 'round my arm, to show my pride as a Grayout! As for the other stuff I wear, well... I don't get cold, even in the winter, so I mostly wear my long-sleeve shirt with jeans, and maybe a coat over it all on the really cold days. If there's a coat to spare. If Dorian or Jess or Marty haven't hogged all the spare coats... Actually, I mostly just don't wear coats 'cause the higher-ups are hogging them all. But whatever. Maybe I'll get lucky one of these days, and one of my scavengers'll find a real coat, then it'll be all mine and no one'll hog it.
Buzzer, or "Buzz" as I sometimes call him, he's a tiny li'l spider all covered in yellow fur, maybe half the size of my hand... but don't let that fool you. He grabs static electricity off me when I walk, and then when you least expect it BAM! you're on the ground! You can usually find him on my shoulder or up my sleeve, on account he's pretty shy. Boss says Pokémon shouldn't be kept too close like this, on account they're supposed to be tools and not friends, but I got an exemption 'cause he stores up more power when he's with me and I walk around! Long as I don't act too friendly with him, none of that affection bullshit you see from those kiddy gangs across the street, it's all good.
I'm pretty low on the rungs in the gang, but that's 'kay. They don't tell me much about nothing, but I get to be on scavenging duty— make sure the scavengers are doing their jobs— and that's kinda fun. Actually, I'm out on a scavenge right now! I'm also kinda looking around for anything good, but my main job is to make sure the normals (that's gang speak for anybody who ain't a Trainer) ain't slacking or keeping shit they find. This bunch is pretty well-trained, so I ain't got nothing to worry about, but that don't mean I can slack off myself. If Dorian finds you slacking, you get twice the punishment one of the dumb normals would get! That ain't fair, but Dorian ain't fair neither.
Right now, most of the scavengers are digging around in the rubble what's left of when Dorian's 'mon tore out the wall of this mall place. Going in the door woulda been too slow, so now we got a convenient way in 'n out. After a couple more hours of finding useful shit like metal rods (good for bashing shit but also food for the Steel-type Pokémon us Grayouts are famous for having a lot of,) we'll move on into the old place. In there should be plenty of stuff that was too big for rogue (that's gang speak for non-gang) scavengers to carry back to their little hidey-holes. Maybe a not-completely-looted clothes shop...?
Normally I like being on scavenging duty, on account I get to keep any clothes they find (everything else has to go to Boss, of course) but lately I've been a little on edge. There's been rumors going around, nasty rumors that mean it might not be all too safe to hang out too far from HQ. I ain't too far away, but I'm still antsy, and I'm glad I ain't on the border patrol. Them guys are the ones with the strongest 'mons, and usually patrols are a walk in the park (the hell are those Quickstep babies gonna do, cry at us?) but now them patrols've started getting...
"Hey! Bore!" someone shouts from the other end of the street.
Oh, shit. That voice belongs to Dorian. He always calls me "Bore" or "the Bore," and he loves kicking me around. He loves kicking anyone around, really, but Buzz and I ain't exactly the strongest out of the gang, and everyone knows it. "Yeah??" I yell back, starting to look around real quick, so's I look extra busy.
"Better not be, Bore! Don' make me come o'er there!"
Dorian must be on patrol on this part of our turf. Shitty luck— he hates patrol duty, so he'll be in an extra bad mood when he gets back. I'll have to keep my head down tonight, if I don't want it bitten off...
"...Uhh, should you really be so hard on the kid?" chimes in Marty's stuttering voice, quieter than Dorian's and with that whiny sound that gets on everyone's nerves. "I mean, for a new member, he's doing pretty well—"
"Shut the fuck up, Marty. The brat's been with us fer three years an' I've yet to see 'im pull 'is weight in a scrap. Fuckin' waste o' space..." Dorian's voice fades into the distance, and I wince. Worse luck, because Dorian's always in a really bad mood after spending any amount of time near Marty.
What Dorian said about me is pretty much true, though. Buzz and me, we ain't the best in a fight— he builds up enough static in a day for a real good ZAP or two, but in a full-on territory scrap with the Quicksteps to the east or the Smashers to the south of our turf, we use up those zaps and then we gotta turn tail and run. It's shitty, and I keep getting told I only got given Buzz 'cause when they found him no one else wanted him, but really, Buzz isn't just "better'n no 'mon at all," like they keep telling me. He's a good bud, and I wouldn't trade him for nothin'.
I've been on scavenging duty for about five hours, so it's nearly time for me to trade off with Gabe so's I can take my break. I look back toward HQ, but I don't see him coming out. Problem is, if he don't feel like coming, there ain't shit I can do, 'cause I can't leave my spot to go find him. With anyone else he'd be too worried about what they'll do when they get back, but he can wipe the floor with me and Buzz and he knows it. Shit... If I'm still here when Dorian gets back, he's gonna find some excuse to rip me a new one.
One of them scavengers drops his armful of metal rods from the debris, and the clang as it hits the ground makes me jump outta my skin on account I weren't paying attention. I whirl around, real fuckin' angry.
The guy cringes and stares at me with plenty of fear. He should be scared, 'cause I'm having a shitty day already and now he had to go make it worse.
"Get over here," I tell him. Moment he hesitates, I stop playing mister nice. "I said, get the fuck over here!"
He dashes like he's being chased by motherfuckin' Steelbird, coming to a stop right in front of me, eyes down on the ground like they should be.
"Buzz, let him have it."
There's a SNAP! and a tiny sizzling sound, and the guy crumples down, twitching a little and making little whimpering noises. I smile, feeling better. It's always nice to have a reminder that even though I'm on the bottom of the heap in the gang's pecking order, I'm still better than these lowlifes.
"Get up and go back to work," I tell the guy, as his twitching calms down to a kind of shiver. "When you can stand, I mean," I clarify.
The other scavengers, who've all turned to look at me as I lay down the law, get back to work, shoulders all hunched up. I grin, my worries briefly chased away. It feels good to be on top.
One uneventful stop later, I'm headed southwest towards the edge of Quickstep territory, moving slowly since for safety's sake I have to keep my silhouette off of the myriad hills of rubble and pick my way through the mess of jagged garbage at the bases of them. Before long, I can tell I'm exiting Quickstep territory and entering Grayout land, mostly from the fact that I occasionally cross fifty-foot stretches of empty road that have been cleared of debris for quick travel by the Grayouts. I have to look both ways carefully and dash across each of these 'highways,' because getting caught in the sights of the Grayouts' fucking Pokémon-vehicles guarantees a quick death at best.
My Run— that's the name of the group of Warrens a single Runner supplies, sort of like claimed gang territory but only claimed against other Runners— overlaps the territory of three different gangs: Quicksteps to the north, Grayouts in the middle and to the northwest, and Smashers to the west. Which gang's territory I enter the city through depends on which part of my Run I'm headed for, but if I'm mostly supplying the center area of my Run, I prefer to approach through the Quicksteps' territory like I did today. The Quicksteps are less vicious and are generally dumb fucks— less likely to catch me, and less likely to end my Running career permanently if they do.
Hmm... I should explain further. Like most Runners, I got my Run from the one who was here before me; that's how things usually go. In the two years or so between my escape from slavery and my successful capture of this Run, I was a scavenger and lived off of stolen veggies, old preserved canned food, and a scattering of the edible tubers that grow among the ruins. Now, I live comfortably— maybe even as comfortably as some Trainers, albeit only those who're part of a sub-par gang— at the cost of doing basically the most dangerous fucking job there is. Trainers might ignore a scavenger; those rarely have much on them. They'd never ignore a Runner.
Maybe someday, if I don't die out in the ruins with my legs broken and swollen with gangrene, gasping for water and watching the vultures circle overhead, a younger and stronger Runner will come and push me out of my Run... or kill me herself, before starvation has a chance to do the job for her. She'll start small— supplying one or two of the Warrens in my Run before I can get there, so that I arrive to find that they no longer need the supplies I was bringing. Slowly, she'll supply more and more of my clients, until we're competing to get to each group first. Finally, one of us will get fed up and leave the other a message with one of the Warrens: a challenge, of single combat— or perhaps a Pokémon-aided curbstomp by a Runner who has the patronage of a gang. The winner takes over the Run; the loser gets lost... if she survives.
Did I forget to mention that some Runners work for gangs? Sure, they'll pretend to be independent, but 'pet Runners' have a gang that they Run to as if it were a Warren, a gang that protects them from other Runners and gives them a place to stay when they need it. It sounds like a great arrangement in theory, yeah, but you wanna know why I've never gone for that deal with one of the gangs around my Run? Because it's a trap. Because sooner or later, they'll take you for everything you've got and find a new Runner. And, entirely aside from the practical shit, because Trainers are the fucking scum of the earth.
I'm still moving southwest, but turning a bit more to the west now. My next stop is a mile or so ahead. As I approach my target, I slow down significantly. This is one of the most dangerous stops in my entire Run; even though the likelihood of a chance encounter with a ground-based Grayout patrol is low in the roadless part of the wasteland, fucked if I'm going to assume that'll hold true. I switch to a quiet, steady tiptoe as I approach the last concealing pile of rubble before my stop.
I flatten my back against a slanting wall made of concrete chunks and rusted metal bars, and peer around the edge of it. About ninety feet away, in the middle of a large empty area, is a single intact house, undamaged except for the wear and tear of fifteen years without a proper paint job. Its roof is shingled— actual shingles, like they made in old-world factories— and its walls show white paint under the dust and a few spray-painted gang tags. The windows have shutters covering them, and one even has a whole pane of real glass in it, glass so transparent you'd actually have to touch it to be sure it's there. Through the glass window, threadbare but brightly coloured blue curtains can be seen, a month's food's worth in high-quality machine-made fabric.
A big enough Pokémon could level a house like this in seconds flat... but none have. That's because the family that lives here has a deal with the Grayouts. I don't blame them for making that arrangement... well, not much. I have to respect them, at least: I bet it takes a lot of diplomatic skill to get Trainers not to fuck with you, given that there isn't a lot you can offer them that they can't just take by force. Unfortunately for the family in there, though, you don't have to be a genius to figure out what you can offer a group that has enough of everything but pairs of eyes. No one in the surrounding Warrens will have anything to do with the Sutton family, for fear of being ratted out to the gang.
No one except me, clearly. God, Larissa, you're a dumb fuck, I think dourly. I'm exaggerating, of course— I'm careful not to reveal anything personal when I make my Runs here, and the fuck are the Grayouts going to do with the knowledge that I do give their informants? "A Runner will be here sometime in the next day or two?" It'd be a waste of their time to go out of their way to lay a trap; while I'd be fair prey if I got caught out in the open by chance, in the long run a good Runner in the area just means the nearby Warrens have more stuff for the Grayouts to steal if they find them. The gang leader will know that; gangs led by stupid people get crushed fast as fuck. And, it's not like I'd just walk into a trap, anyways, if there were one. First rule of Running is plan for the worst.
That's why, despite my near certainty that half the fucking Grayout gang isn't lurking nearby in wait, I'm not about to just flat-out walk across that empty space around the house. There aren't too many options, but there are enough. I've picked up a few tricks from watching Runners in other parts of the old city, back when I was living by scrounging for scraps and they would actually let me close enough to observe them (and, if I was lucky, trade them something useful I'd found for a bite to eat.)
The first thing I learned was that there's always a "back door." Not usually a literal one, more like a simple fact: anyone making a plan can only be ready for what they know or suspect might happen... so if something unexpected or unknown goes down, their plan ends up in the shitter. If there's a trap out there— which, I remind myself, is unlikely as fuck— it won't work on someone who has something the trap-maker has never seen before. So, my best bet has always been to think outside the box... which I happen to be good at.
I pull a small string on the side of my bulging backpack, and a secret compartment folds out. Inside is a folded-up piece of thin, sheer cloth painted the same mottled grey and white colours as the concrete rubble strewn all over the ground: my own little invisibility cloak. I unfold it to its full ten by ten feet and carefully drape it over myself and my bag. Then, crouching low to the ground and moving slowly, I take my first few steps out into the semi-clear space around the house, crossing to the nearest one-foot-tall mound of smashed cement bits.
There's no sound but the whistle of the breeze, and after half a minute of creeping warily towards the house I begin to relax, increasing my pace just a little. The rubble-strewn clearing is obviously empty, and there's no pile of debris large enough for anything bigger than two or three feet tall to hide. Still... some kind of sixth sense tells me to keep my wits about me, and I stay low to the ground, still holding the sheer fabric of my invisibility cloak close...
A moment later, a feeling like walking out of a doorway and into a mist of rain droplets hits me. I freeze, and glance to either side to find myself halfway through a thin, previously-invisible barrier of pinkish energy. I'm immediately glad I stopped moving, because suddenly I can see the Trainers who were hidden behind the psychic barrier.
Less than ten feet away, with his back to me, stands a heavyset, shaved-bald man, who's wearing a thick ankle-length winter coat partially unzipped to reveal a grimy collared shirt underneath— a fairly standard version of the usual hodgepodge of garments needed to keep warm in the chilly autumn winds this time of year. He doesn't seem to have noticed me— rather, his attention is on another man, this one a skinny guy wearing a black t-shirt under a beat-up purple windbreaker with a broken zipper and black ski pants. The two are arguing, their voices clearly audible despite the fact that just a second ago I couldn't even hear them.
"...Fuckin' leaves us ta watch out fer 'er here, even though the damn royalty in the house dunno when she'll be back. Tells us ta wait a week if'n we have ta. That fucker."
"Calm down!" the other one pleads in a nervous tone. "N- Not so loud! You know the boss w-wouldn't hold with that..." he gulps, "W-with that kind of t-talk! And we need to catch the girl before—"
"I fuckin' know the boss don't like that kinda talk," The stoutly built man cuts his compatriot off, "But who's gonna tell her I said it, huh? You? Yeah, I didn' fuckin' think so," he finishes as the other man quails visibly.
Nevertheless, the shrimpy, beleaguered-looking man manages to gather the courage to speak up again. "I wouldn't ever...! But... I just... We do have to be here, you know we do. If she's responsible for this, the Runner has to be brought down! What if she strikes again?"
Heavy-set scowls. "That's what I'm fuckin' scared of. After seein' what Don looked like when they brought him back, are the two of us gonna be enough if'n it is her that's doin' this shit? I mean, he was barely fuckin' alive!"
"I... Well... We'll see anything coming from half a mile off with this barrier up, so..." Shrimp stammers. Then he gives a start as a far-off noise carries to where I can hear it as well. "Wait, here comes your Pokémon." Sure enough, I can hear the grating, scuffing sound of something big approaching from the distance beyond the two Trainers.
My impulse to turn around and flee in terror wars with my better instinct. Just from listening in to this little conversation, the answer to the question of why two trainers are camped out at my stop is answered, but a bunch more questions have popped up in their place like ruins-weeds. It's obvious they're hunting me for something that I didn't do... but it sounds like whatever's actually responsible, it's capable of taking out a Trainer. If something like that is in my Run— maybe some dangerous new wild Pokémon in the area, or a rival gang's scout— I need to know as much as I can about it, for my own safety. And the best way to learn about it might be to grill the family in that house.
The slow approach of whatever it is that's appeared on the horizon, making that nasty gravelly scrape as it drags itself through the concrete rubble, forces me to decide quickly. Instead of taking the less risky, easy way out and running the fuck away, I slowly and silently begin to move towards the house, trusting my safety to my concrete-coloured cloak and the Trainers' distraction as they turn their backs on me to watch the Pokémon as it arrives.
I cross the remaining forty feet without any problems, arriving on the faded white paint of the doorstep; then, with a brief glance over my shoulder to ensure that the two Trainers still arent looking this way, I ease the house's door open and slip through it, stuffing the grey-and-white cloak into its pouch as I go, and tying it shut with the same slip-knot that held it before.
Inside is a scene straight out of a story book... One of those little paperback novels that describe a family living happily in a time before Pokémon existed; the kind of book whose main source of conflict is usually something absurdly beatable like schoolyard bullying. The people here live in luxury: the walls and floor aren't strewn with litter, and they're cleaner than any surface I've ever seen; shiny metal light fixtures with actual glass light bulbs line the walls, useless ever since the power plant went down at least seven years ago but impressive in the fact that they match perfectly, like only factory-made rarities can; there's a long brown-and-red rug— only slightly stained and ragged— running down the centre of a short hallway that ends in a doorway into another corridor. There's also a doorway to my right that's blocked by a real, hinged wooden door. I've always wanted to just try swinging one open and shut; doors are a novelty in a place where even standing buildings are rare. After all, the war twelve years ago completely totaled most of the...
Without warning, another door slams somewhere in the house, startling me, and suddenly I'm hit by a flood of unpleasant memories. Crap. I shouldn't have started thinking about the war...! I struggle briefly against the tide in my head, gritting my teeth and digging my fingernails into my arm to anchor myself in the present, but still I feel myself getting swept away, images flashing through my brain like a slideshow I can't stop seeing even if I close my eyes...
People are running past me through the orphanage hallway, screaming and shouting incomprehensibly... Dumbass kid that I am, I'm just sitting here in an alcove, hugging my knees, while the walls shake with the heavy rumbling sound of the buildings all around the orphanage crashing down... The memory takes over, and all sense of being anyone but a scared five- or maybe six-year-old disappears. I see Mrs. Mannagan, the only employee at the orphanage who's ever nice to me, running down the corridor towards me... I see, in slow motion, the sudden explosion— a stray artillery round that strikes the side of the orphanage just so— blasting the wall right next to Mrs. Mannagan and scattering pieces of her everywhere... I feel the tears of impotence and terror running down my face as I wait to die just like that, alone and powerless to stop my death... Time speeds up as I wait here for hours and hours, just sitting here against this wall, until the explosions stop and the Trainers arrive to drag me out of the ruins, just one more survivor to be inspected and then abandoned...
"..unner? Runner girl, can you hear me?" A voice, distant as if it's calling me from far away, intrudes on my reality. A few moments pass, then a growing ache in my left arm calls me back to my body and brings me partway out of my stupor. My eyes have gone out of focus; I refocus them, and find that I'm staring to my right, straight at the orange door-hinge... I see what they did there, says a detached voice in my head, which I only partially register. The next thing I notice is that the pain in my left arm is growing stronger and sharper; I glance at it, and find that my fingernails, digging deeply into my forearm, have broken the skin; I'm bleeding from five small wounds, and getting blood on my nails.
"Girl?" says that distant voice again, in barely more than a whisper. I look up to find Mrs. Sutton, the mother of this house's family, staring at me, wringing her hands. She's a slim lady, bordering on underweight— no doubt due to the stress of having a family living so openly in gang territory— wearing a faded floral-print dress. "Are you all right?" she asks.
Her concerned tone confuses me for a moment; but looking into her eyes, I can see fear rather than concern. That makes more sense— she's afraid for her and her family's safety. If the Grayouts are hunting me, my presence here puts them in danger, so she'll want me gone as soon as possible.
I can use that, I decide, if I need to apply some pressure later on. "Mrs. Sutton," I say diffidently, acting as though nothing is wrong and holding my arm level so as not to drip blood on her floor. "I'm here to make a delivery, as promised..."
"Oh... the cutlery and the bowls? Our last ceramic one got broken last week, but you really shouldn't be here..." she trails off, wringing her hands.
There's a brief pause, so I prompt her. "I can be gone soon, if you have the items to trade?" I'm carefully watching her eyes, and there's something other than fear there... Some kind of indecision. I instinctively tense up a little. What does she know that I don't...?
"About that..." she seems to come to a decision, and abruptly a kind of solid resolve replaces the indecision hidden behind her expression, though the fear in her eyes doesn't go away. "We'll have to negotiate somewhere... other than the kitchen. They've left a... creature there, the one that's making that eerie barrier. I don't think it would be safe for it to see you."
I catch myself before my eyes can narrow suspiciously... But as far as I can tell, there isn't any likelihood she's betraying me to the Grayouts by taking me elsewhere in the house. If what she says is true, and there's a Pokémon in the kitchen— which sounds believable— she could have just walked us in there with me none the wiser, and it'd have been too late. Chances are she'll want something in return for her silence— a better deal or something— but I'm willing to satisfy her that way if it'll count towards keeping me safe from the Trainers.
The woman leads me quietly through the door at the end of the hall, then turns left instead of the usual right (the right-hand end of the hallway leads to the kitchen) and precedes me down a set of stairs into a small concrete-walled basement. Normally the children of the house can be seen peeking around corners at me, but presumably they've been banished somewhere safer given the Trainers outside and a Pokémon's presence indoors. I wonder again, with a frown at the woman's back, why she hasn't just turned me in yet. Does the risk really outweigh the benefit...?
The basement is empty except for some unoccupied shelves and a dusty old water cooler, on top of which sits a neatly arranged bundle of mixed stainless steel cutlery in a homemade woolen bag. This family grows their own food year-round in a garden and small greenhouse behind their home, so they only need my services when something breaks, and they can make do by trading away the remnants of their old life, like the valuable metal cutlery. I pull my backpack off and remove the wooden bowls, knives, forks and spoons that I got from Toby's Warren; stacking them carefully on the shelves, I then cross to the steel cutlery and empty the bundle's contents into a pouch in my backpack, deliberately leaving Mrs. Sutton's homespun bag.
Glancing to see Mrs. Sutton's reaction to my 'discount,' I notice that her eyes are still scared, rather than holding the expected satisfaction.
"Are you sure you don't need that, dear?" she asks in a worried tone of voice.
Still a little put off by her sudden generosity, and growing more than a little suspicious, I shake my head. "No, thank you." Maybe I should spell it out for her. "It's the least I can do after you hid me from the Grayouts."
"Oh..." she frowns. "Well, that cutlery is meant for someone else, I assume... So I'd hate to see you leave without anything for yourself. Wait here a moment."
She turns and leaves. I do a quick calculation in my head: if she's gone to alert the men outside, it should only take me ten seconds or so to get up the stairs, around the corner and out the glass-free living room window... But the question is, do I want to? I haven't had an opportunity to ask why the Grayouts are waiting for me outside Mrs. Sutton's home, and based on the woman's actions so far, I doubt she's just stalling for time while she alerts the Trainers that I'm here. It seems like there's still something she wants from me.
Less than a minute passes before she returns, bearing two things: a small box of rare, machine-made adhesive "band-aids," and a book. She offers me the band-aids first, and I glance at her oddly before taking out five of them and quickly applying them to the bleeding fingernail-marks on my arm.
"You didn't have to give me these," I say, handing the box back.
"I can't have you dying of infection, girl, it might take months for another runner to realize we're even here," Mrs. Sutton points out matter-of-factly. "But if you want to consider us even, I have something to ask you... and I'll give you this book in return for a complete and honest answer." She's referring to the small, well-worn green volume in her hand, which, from the faded illustration of a cornucopia on the front, looks to be a gardening guide of some sort. She holds it out for me to take.
I accept it reflexively, before I can even think to refuse. "I... How do you even know I can read?" I ask defensively, wondering just how much the woman has found out about me that I never told her.
"I've seen the way you looked at the bookshelves on the way to the kitchen, when we were negotiating and you thought I wasn't watching. I know it can't be easy to find them... out there," she finishes with a gesture at the stairs out of the basement. "So please, take it, if you have room."
With the wooden bowls gone from my bag, I do actually have room for the book, but...
"Thanks, but no thanks," I say stiffly, glaring at her. Fucking observant woman. I underestimated her, I realize, angry at myself. It's dangerous to reveal too much, to give people knowledge they can use against you. Books aren't necessary for survival, and the unnecessary is a liability if you have to pay for it. Even if you really want it.
"You're wrong," I continue. "I can't read or write, and back then I was only thinking about how nicely those books would burn on a cold day. Sorry to disappoint you."
Mrs. Sutton frowns. When I offer her the book back, she takes it and holds it protectively against her chest. "I'm sorry, too. I'd forgotten how hard it can be to learn even the basics, out there."
If she only knew, I think. "With all due respect, Mrs. Sutton, you can't eat books. If you've any spare vegetables, I'd like those instead."
"I see..." Mrs. Sutton says. "I've got some mushrooms and cherry tomatoes here." She opens the water cooler and pulls out a handful of each.
"Thank you, ma'am," I say respectfully, taking out a hard plastic container and removing the lid for her to drop the food into. "I'm all ears." Maybe now we can get down to business, and see why Mrs. Sutton is so eager to earn my favour.
She closes the cooler and clears her throat. "The... The Trainers came to visit us a few days ago, asking about you... They wanted to know if we had scheduled a meeting with you, but we told them no. They said..." she hesitates, as if convincing herself that it's all right to tell me this, "They said you had attacked two of their members, that... that those members and their Pokémon had turned up nearly dead." The woman's eyes have taken on a haunted look, and I take a moment to remind myself that she lives a very different life from the rest of the world, to be so affected by even the idea of someone dying. The rest of us? We live with the reality of death hanging over us like a fucking cloud.
"And?" I say impassively.
"Did you do it?
I wish I could say yes... But Mrs. Sutton's already purchased my honesty, and besides, a reputation for honesty is valuable, so I don't make a habit of lying unless it's going to benefit me greatly. "No," I respond, "And I don't know who did, though I was hoping you would."
"I see." Mrs. Sutton straightens, most of the suppressed fear leaving her eyes. It makes more sense, now, why she's been so afraid this whole time; being in the same room with anyone capable of nearly killing Trainers is frightening on a very instinctual level, though logically she knows I could probably beat her handily in a fight regardless. "Then you'd best be going."
"Hold on," I say. "I'll go, but only after I've got answers to a couple questions of my own. Do you know exactly what happened to the trainers? Anything about what they looked like?"
"I..." Mrs. Sutton's gaze locks with mine, but I can tell from the resignation mixed with her irritation that she knows I've got her over a barrel; she wants me out of her house, but if I won't leave she can't force me. "I only know that they looked drained, whatever that means. It's the only description I overheard."
"All right. One last thing," I say. "Is there anything you know about other ways the Grayouts are trying to find me, or about any other suspects?"
"Nothing. I only know about the two camping out at my house. You think they tell me anything?" the woman asks, her voice calm but anger sparking in her eyes. A moment later, the anger fades, and she resumes speaking in a more patient tone. "I'm sorry. I understand that you're just looking out for yourself, and you're a good Runner for us and the others around here, so if I knew anything else, I'd tell you. But that's it. I swear."
Offhandedly taking this opportunity to push the plastic container of vegetables into an empty space in my backpack, I nod appreciatively. It's pleasant to work with someone who understands how necessity works, even if she's never had to live with starvation or the fear of imminent death. "Do you have any further need of my services at this time?" I ask in a professional tone. When Mrs. Sutton shakes her head, I continue, "I'll come back and check in a week, then. Tie a white cloth to somewhere near your door and I'll come inside to talk."
"I understand," she says, her posture relaxing as it becomes clear that I'm about to leave. "And, girl?"
"For what it's worth, I hope you stay safe."
"So do I," I respond curtly.
Then I turn and walk back up the stairs, emerging into the long corridor with its tattered brown-and-red rug and long-disused light fixtures. I step quickly toward the doorway to the entrance hall, but a trace of movement in the corner of my eye draws my glance just before I step through it.
A pink-skinned, chubby creature stands in the doorway at the far end of the corridor. Its body is shaped like that of a huge salamander standing on two legs and coming to about my height, but it has yellow markings around its mouth and protruding nose, and long, flat yellow scales covering its lower belly like plate mail. Behind it, the bipedal creature drags a huge, grey shellfish shaped like a four-foot-long spiral shell, attached to its tail by sharp teeth that ooze some kind of numbing poison. The animal looks like nothing nature has ever created, and I recognize it instantly as the "composite Pokémon" known as Slowbro; unfortunately, the thing is infamous amongst the Warrens for its prowess in sensory manipulation, allowing the capture of unsuspecting teams of scavengers, men and women whose lookouts would normally have seen the gang members coming and given the signal to scatter. But lookouts do no good when your assailants sneak up on you invisible and inaudible, so, thanks to the creature I'm staring in the face, the Grayouts have managed to expand their force of slave workers to never-before-seen proportions.
I take all this in with just a glance before turning to run, but almost instantly I feel something happen to my mind... And my senses of sight and hearing are suddenly ripped away. My vision tunnels for half a second, then blacks out entirely, and every sound disappears, right down to the distant rumbling sound of the autumn wind against the outside of the house.
I stagger into one wall of Mrs. Sutton's entrance hall, feeling the sting of my bandaged left arm hitting the wall but not hearing or seeing anything. I feel a faint vibration in the floor through the thin soles of my leather boots, from somewhere behind me and to my left, indicating that the Slowbro is advancing towards me with languor appropriate to its name. But its speed, or lack thereof, isn't going to benefit me if I'm unable to see or hear well enough to run away; I fight against a rising panic, telling myself that this blind-and-deaf state can't be permanent. I just have to get far enough away from the Pokémon that its powers can't affect me any more...
I lurch forward, keeping my left hand against the wall and using it to guide me, and walking more steadily with each step as I get the hang of not trying to use my sight to balance. I take it a step at a time, trying to ignore the progress of the dragging shellfish on the floors as I leave it behind... Step... Step... Step... Step...
As I take my fifth step, the texture of the wall changes, and I can feel the surface of the living room door under my fingertips. I fumble for the doorknob, then turn it, pulling the door open but nearly overbalancing. I steady myself by seizing the doorknob with both hands, then feel my way across the door and through the doorway, pulling it shut behind me. The lack of a sound makes me nervous, and I reach back and pull at the door's knob to make sure it's closed. Fortunately, it is.
A little bit of wind is blowing in my face, the small amount that gets through the living room shutters. From what little memory I have of the living room, the windows are on the right-hand wall, and there's a couch somewhere between the door and the windows... but that's all I remember. I move out in that direction, one shuffling step at a time, hands outstretched low in front of me to avoid bumping into the couch. My hand hits something soft at the same time as my foot hits something harder— one of the sofa's legs. I stifle a yelp of pain and grit my teeth, shuffling my way around the sofa to the right, and proceeding in the direction the wind is coming from.
All of a sudden, my sense of hearing returns, and I can hear the wind... As well as a faint scraping sound, audible through the wall of the living room. The Slowbro is in the hallway. Feeling around for the source of the slight creaking the shutters make, I find the latch and swing them quietly open.
Now's the moment of truth. I'm out of options and I have to hurry; I can only hope the Trainers aren't nearby, or at least that they're looking the other way. I climb over the window sill and carefully drop the couple of feet to the empty flower bed outside. Then, throwing caution to the wind, I begin to speedily shuffle out into the cleared space surrounding the house, my feet shifting small chunks of concrete but fortunately not encountering anything too substantial. I just have to get far enough away...!
I hear a shout from somewhere to my right, though with the wind blowing from me towards the sound I can't judge the distance accurately.
"Th... That's it! The signal!" I recognize the shrill, stuttering voice of the man I called Shrimp.
"What signal? Shut th'fuck up an' tell me whatcha see!" Heavy-set shouts back grumpily.
"Over there, by the d-d... By the d... door! The flashing light!"
"Fuckin' stupid signal, why couldn't he just message ya with his damn mind?" complains Heavy-set loudly.
Shrimp ignores him. "Hey, look, the door's opening. It's my 'bro! Hey! Slowbro! What's up, why'd you signal?"
I shuffle faster, smacking my shin painfully against a protruding piece of concrete but stumbling straight over it and continuing on. It sounds like I'm just about out of time...
"Wha? Fuckin' pair a dumbasses, I swear ta God! Tha girl's here somewhere, an' yer stupid creature's lettin' her escape!" Heavy-set shouts, his voice getting louder and quieter as though he's looking around wildly. Scuffing my feet in front of me to make sure the ground is clear, I drop flat, but continue crawling; anything to get far enough away from that fucking...
A flicker of late afternoon light appears in the centre of my field of view, illuminating a small, foot-tall pile of wood and concrete debris. I can't tell how far away it is, with nothing to compare to; but I crawl for it as fast as I can go, scanning up and down with my tiny tunnel of view to ensure that there's a clear space between me and it; fortunately, there is. As I crawl forward, away from the house and the Slowbro, my tunnel vision slowly lifts, and I glance to my right to see...
The two Trainers are running towards me, Heavy-set's multiple layers of winter clothing bouncing up and down in the lead while Shrimp follows, his broken-zippered purple windbreaker and baggy black ski pants flapping in the wind. I leap to my feet and dash off in the opposite direction, which the angle of the sun tells me is northwest. My nearest personal safehouse is a long distance off in that direction, but there is one hidden place nearby that I can go to... But only if I can get far enough ahead that I won't lead these two Trainers right to it.
The men's angry shouts fall behind slowly as I dash, not even bothering to look back, but another sound grows louder: a deep rumble that comes from the ground more than from any direction. In fact, if I didn't know better I'd almost say...
I leap to my left, getting out of the way just in time as a pair of wickedly sharp metal spear-points burst from the solid concrete where I was just standing. The silver metal points are followed almost immediately by a huge metallic forehead-plate and hinged metal jaw, like a biker's helmet with a jagged spike protruding from the front, plates of neck armour fanning out behind it, and two holes in the forehead: holes from which those pointy spears— the creature's horns— emerge.
With a powerful thrashing motion that sends branching cracks through the concrete in all directions from its hole, the Pokémon digs itself the rest of the way out of the ground, clambering onto the surface and revealing its true, terrifying size: it stands almost seven feet tall on two legs, and its monstrous, dinosaur-like body— except for the metal head and two rings of silver metal armouring its elbows and knees— is composed of heavy slabs of dark grey stone. Two blunt-ended spikes of the same grey rock extend from its shoulders, each 'hand' ends in three wicked silver metal claws, and bright blue eyes glare at me from under the overhanging brow of its helmetlike head.
I can't read those eyes. I can see emotions in people and animals through their eyes, and in both cases the level of intelligence doesn't seem to matter... But Pokémon are different. They're not fucking natural, and they don't operate by the same rules; they seem to somehow just resist being read. I can't explain it any other way. It creeps me out, and I hate it. Even back when I was a slave, I didn't like dealing with the Trainers' companions; I used to trade Pokémon-feeding chores to other slaves for harder, more taxing labours, just to avoid having to interact with the damn things.
The aggression written plainly across this Pokémon's body language is clear, though; not only is every part of its huge, seven-foot frame designed for a brawl (right down to the metal elbow and knee "pads" and the shoulder spikes,) its arms and three-clawed hands are spread menacingly wide and its battle-ready crouch indicates that it could spring at any moment once it sees which way I'm going to run.
I don't think so much as I react; in a split second, my mind cycles through every available option— most of which consist of running in one direction or other and praying I don't get squashed— and settles almost instantly on the one that leaves me the greatest chance of survival. I reach into the hidden pocket on the inside waistband of my pants, a pocket I've sewn into every pair I've owned since I escaped my captors three years ago. I've only had occasion to use the contents one other time since my encounter with Steelbird; every day of my life, the three— and later two— remaining walnut-sized seeds have been a subtly comforting pressure against the front of my right hip bone, reminding me that I have an escape route that's never failed me.
I lift the walnut-sized object to my mouth and spit on it, then lob it underhanded at the seven-foot monstrosity five feet away from me. The huge creature, moving with surprising speed for such a bulky animal, tries to bat it aside with one clawed hand, but the seed sticks in between two of the slabs of stone that make up the surface of its forearm. A second passes where the creature, spurred on by my apparently offensive action, gathers itself to leap... But it's too late. Vines begin to spew forth from the beast's arm like jets of water, wrapping ropelike around that arm and racing to cover the rest of its body. The seed itself could never have held so much mass; as far as I can tell, the seed draws the energy to grow directly from its target, producing the mass as if from nowhere in that quasi-magical way Pokémon-related things sometimes do.
I've seen enough; I turn and run, due west, leaving the huge creature to be entangled by vines that seem to sense their prey's rocky nature, digging viciously into each crevice and crack in the stone monster's dark grey body while mostly ignoring its metal head. For several minutes, the beast's roars of frustration follow me, roars that are echoed much more faintly by Heavy-set as he hurries up to his Pokémon companion. Glancing back, I can see him trying to wrestle the vines away from his monster's body while Shrimp dances about anxiously nearby; smiling grimly, I can't help but hope with a certain vindictiveness that the vines tear both of those fuckers apart.
But I'm not sticking around to see whether that happens. I've got my head start; time to capitalize on it.
A few minutes later, I'm still hurrying towards my destination— heading northwest now, towards the border of Grayout territory— and praying that the two Trainers haven't rallied themselves to come after me yet. Up ahead, the landmark I'm looking for can already be seen.
Four huge, ruined walls, each at least a half mile long, thirty feet high at the least torn-down spots, mark the skeleton of what was once a truly massive library. I can't help but shiver every time I walk up to this relic of the past, imagining what it must have looked like when it stood. It boggles the mind that a place that big could have existed; large-scale construction is a thing of the past, and where would you even get all that metal and wood? Especially to construct a building that doesn't have any practical use— a house full of books doesn't feed anyone, and no one sleeps there at night! It's times like this that I let my practical frame of mind slip a little, and think wishfully... I'd really love to have lived my life in a world like that... A world where a bunch of people could make a building that huge and not have it even serve a practical purpose, and no one would go hungry because of it. Imagine if...
...No. Thinking like that gets depressing after a while, when I follow the thoughts to their logical conclusion and remind myself that the world I'm fantasizing about will probably never exist again. I chase the wistful thoughts out of my mind, refocusing on the world I do live in. The gutted building isn't nearly so impressive any more; the walls are pretty much all that's left, and even the detritus covering the concrete foundation has been picked clean of any pieces of wood or paper large enough to burn. But underneath that concrete expanse littered with burnt wood and smashed stone, there's a secret that may prove my salvation if those Trainers are giving chase.
In one corner of the huge lot, hidden beneath a fallen, moisture-warped and fire-damaged wooden door that hasn't been taken away because it's too heavy to carry, there's a five-foot-deep pit in the concrete, interrupted by a set of six steps leading down to a doorway. I shift the door with some effort, then walk down a few of the stairs and pull it back over the hole, shutting out daylight and disguising the secret entrance.
I retrieve a candle and a spark-maker— a piece of flint held against the bottom of a rough metal cup by a pair of fused metal rods— from one of the many side pouches on my backpack, and light the candle by squeezing the rods so that the flint rakes across the cup and rains sparks on the wick. In the light of the candle, I see the familiar concrete tunnel that disappears into the darkness of the library's basement.
Walking through the empty doorway and into that tunnel, I finally relax, glad beyond words that the Trainers didn't follow me closely enough to prevent me from coming to this place. If they had, I'd have had to just keep going; it would be a disaster if they found out about this entrance to the library's basement. At the other end of this tunnel is a secret place, a throwback to times gone by that I consider my one guilty pleasure.
I emerge onto a walkway, part of a network of such walkways that hang above the storage hall. Black-painted metal railings line each walkway to prevent anyone from accidentally falling off the narrow paths, because the cement floor of the storage hall is more than twenty-five feet below. Massive industrial shelving stretches from that floor to almost level with the walkways, and on those shelves are boxes upon boxes of books. The building above used to be a bookstore as well as a library, a place where you could either borrow or purchase books. This is where all the books that weren't in the upper floor are stored— overstock, duplicates and the like. The aisles between the shelves have "forklifts," machinery meant for lifting and lowering the boxes, which run on gas and still work... Though that'll only last as long as the gas does. It hasn't given out yet, since they're used once in a blue moon by... Well...
I discovered this place about three years ago, shortly after I fled the Grayouts' hideout. It was here that I learned to read and write (I lied through my teeth to Mrs. Sutton earlier about not being able to.) It's here that I decided that I wanted more out of life than just food and water. Without what I've learned here, I'd probably be dead many times over... But I didn't find this place or learn those things on my own; I had a little help.
"Ah, Larissa! You've returned!" The tremulous, aged male voice reverberates only slightly in the vast space below, the echoes dampened by the shelves with their endless boxes of books. I turn to my right to find an elderly man carrying a candle, wrapped in a threadbare black housecoat over black sweatpants and a white t-shirt, hobbling towards me along the web of pathways from the direction of the mattress in a concrete alcove that serves him as sleeping quarters. This old-timer is the closest thing to a father I've ever had, and the name he prefers is Old Adam.
"Yes, Old Adam, I have," I say, smiling ever so slightly. "I'd intended to stop here today in any case, but my... schedule got bumped up."
"Ah, good! I'd been wondering when you'd return, girl... I've found the next book in that series you were reading!"
I groan. "You didn't have to do that! I could have gone and found it myself, and you can't just go clambering all over the shelves at your age!"
Old Adam smiles. "But your time is valuable, whereas mine... Ah, I've too much of it, just sitting down here in the dark, reading and watering my mushrooms."
Old Adam grows mushrooms in the smaller, disused storage rooms deeper in the basement. Some of them, which he brought here more than ten years ago when he still scavenged for a living, glow faintly until they're picked, which is valuable because it lets him read to his heart's content without needing to use candles. Since he can't subsist on just mushrooms, he trades the surplus to me and to another Runner— all I know is that she's a girl and that her Run picks up where mine leaves off, to the west of here— for necessities. Even an old man has to do something to make ends meet... Though I must admit, I always give him more food than the mushrooms are worth. He's done a lot for me, right from that day three years ago when I was camped out in the library ruins, shivering and alone... and he chose to shift the door that hides the entrance to his personal Warren and invite me in, even though I was just some kid he didn't know. He offered me a place to stay, and food if I helped him with chores like watering his mushrooms and scavenging for other edibles. I pretty much owe him my life.
"I've got some food I can trade for that book," I tell him. As always, packed away in my backpack is some spare food that I set aside for whenever my day's Run will take me past the library. "I also need to ask... Can I stay here tonight? I've... run into some trouble. I'll supply my own food and sleep somewhere out of the way."
"Certainly," Old Adam says, his smile fading as he shoots me a look of concern. "It's been some time since you last stayed here, but as you're well aware, space is something I've plenty of. You can set up wherever is comfortable, Larissa."
I can't help but smile, an expression that feels strange on my face. "Thank you. I'll tell you everything later."
"A full account is no less than I expect, as payment for staying here in a home of knowledge!" Old Adam says, a beaming smile returning to his wrinkled face. "We'll see if your spoken grammar has improved, and that tendency of yours to omit detail!"
I roll my eyes with mock exasperation, but somewhere in my heart there's an unfamiliar warm feeling. It's as though the two and a half years since I stopped living here never happened; maybe this is what "home" feels like... even if I can never let it be permanent, since this place's distance from the suburb farms and its single exit make it extremely impractical as a home base for Running. It would be far too easy to be cornered here.
Still... one more thing to imagine during those wistful moments. Imagine if I never had to leave this feeling behind!
Night is falling, Dorian and Marty aren't back, and Boss is livid.
"Everyone out!" she's shouting, sending Trainers and normals alike scattering. Steelbird's shrieks, backing her up, are enough to get everyone practically panicking. "No one gets to sleep in HQ 'til that little bitch is found!!"
I'm already safely at the exit of the big-ass concrete parkade that's host to Grayout HQ; I dash out before anybody can trample me. I guess being the whole gang's punching bag has its perks— you know when someone important is in a bad mood, and you're ready for when it goes sour.
Everyone's spilling outta HQ fast as they can, which is pretty fast given the big doorway at the bottom of the parkade. A few last stragglers trickle out... then a big-ass wind, Steelbird's signature move, blasts out of the building, sending a bunch of garbage flying out the door, followed by a couple normals who got trapped in there as everyone scrambled for the exit. The two normals flail their arms in a funny way as that wind carries them out the door way too fast... then they land with two nasty CRACK! noises, and stop moving.
The big group of people outside HQ goes deathly silent. Nobody can stop looking at those motionless normals. Boss walks out of the place, with the light of the setting sun turning everything the creepiest bright red color, even her grey leather jacket. She looks like she's covered in blood, head to toe. Her shoulder-length black hair blows in the breeze, and I swear you can hear each strand fuckin' moving, it's that quiet.
She speaks up, and we hang on every word. "Not a single person other than me is allowed in that buildin' unless it's to tell me you got the girl. If you get tired, you sleep wherever you fall down exhausted, and if you choose a dumbass spot and get your ass shanked, it ain't my problem. To anyone who ain't up to speed... Dorian and Marty are missin', and they ain't at the rest house where I told 'em to stay. Until somebody brings that girl to me— alive— and I make her beg me for death before she tells me who sent her, you ain't got no right to my protection."
Murmurs meet that statement, and she fixes us— all of us— with the scariest glare you ever done seen. "This shit is gonna destroy the Grayouts if it keeps on, and if the TA's involved then God help us all." Her drawl is getting thicker the longer she speaks, a sure sign that we're all in danger. A few brave people start backing away slowly as she continues, "Y'all are gonna go search till you drop, and if you got a problem with that, talk now, and I'll take it like I would any challenge to my au-thori-tah."
No one speaks.
Boss nods once, real quick. "Good. Now git."
Trainers and normals alike scatter. I start running, trying to cross paths with somebody, to find someone, anyone, to join up with... But they're all gone too fast, and I'm left running south, away from HQ, alone.
I start to tear up, and Buzz, clinging to my earlobe, makes a tiny whirring noise of comfort in my ear.
"Keep your damn comfort," I growl at him. "I ain't no weakling, I don't need nothin' from you!"
Another noise, this one obviously sarcastic.
"Shut up!" I object. "I don't gotta be a coward to be scared, I got a real reason to be shittin' my pants right about now! There's somethin' out there what maybe took down Dorian and Marty, and it's either this Runner girl we done heard of or it's somethin' else, and if I run into it I'm fucked!"
Buzz quiets down, then lets out a tiny little chirp, followed by a small pop of static. He's saying he'll protect me.
"Aww..." I say, smiling a little even though a moment there I wanted to cry. "Thanks, little buddy."
I look around, paying attention to what's around me again. Dark is falling already, and I ain't found shit. Maybe it's time to find somewhere safe and hidden. "All right, little buddy, time to hit the hay..." I tell Buzz, all the while wondering just how the hell I'm supposed to know where's safe and where ain't. It's not like I ever had to sleep outside the HQ before!
Buzz lets out a forlorn chirp. I feel bad, but I ain't supposed to be all nice with him in HQ... That said, this ain't HQ. "Aw, don't worry, everythin'll be better soon, Buzz."
My little buddy whirrs in my ear, sounding doubtful.
"Well, maybe the Grayout gang ain't long for this world, but I damn well ain't gonna let that stop me. Maybe someday we'll go it together, just you 'n' me, how about that little buddy?"
A little spark flies out of my ear, and Buzz makes a sound I ain't heard before, kinda like a purr. I can't help but smile again.
"You like that? Go off somewhere, live in the forest, never have to get pushed around again?"
Buzz's happy purring intensifies.
"Yeah... It'd be nice, wouldn't it..." I say.
I ain't gonna tell him it'll never happen. I done heard forests are dangerous: full of wild 'mons and, sometimes, even wilder Trainers. The rumours say some forest Trainers done started cannibalizing tresspassers. And even if there ain't crazies in there, I ain't got the know-how to live off a bunch of plants. Probably poison myself. Everywhere else's out, too; if you ain't got the powers to find normals and the strength to take what you need from 'em, you ain't got shit. And no normal's gonna ever trust you if you just say you ain't in a gang and you don't wanna hurt 'em. Nah, there ain't no way to survive out there without a gang, and anything else is wishful thinking.
But still. It'd be real nice not to have to answer to anybody but ourselves... Maybe someday, if Buzz and I get strong and smart enough, we can think of some way to make that happen, and leave the Grayouts once and for all.
Imagine if I could actually leave this fucking bullshit behind!
It's morning outside— waking yourself up every couple of hours throughout the night to go check is a skill you learn if you live alone and underground— and I'm eager to be off. Hopefully the Grayouts have lost me, since I'll have simply seemed to disappear as far as the two men following me are concerned... But odds are, if they want me badly enough, they'll be out looking. Either way, I can't afford to stay here much longer; since I had to skip one Warren in yesterday's flight, the people at yesterday's remaining stop, a distance to the south, will be wondering where I am.
"I could use some mushrooms," I'm saying to Old Adam. "Fresh, not dried, if you don't mind— some farmers to the north of here could really use the spores, to start their own basement colony, and the other delivery isn't far from here. I'll pay extra for the hassle of having to go down there and pick them fresh."
We both know that I'm just trying to justify my generosity, but it helps to have an excuse— I don't like to think of myself as a fucking bleeding heart, and I'm sure as hell not about to try to pay off a debt he never said I'd owe him.
"As you wish, my girl," Old Adam says, nodding amiably and smiling for a moment, just a flash of the few teeth he's got left. "But first, indulge an old man. You stayed here through the night for the first time in, what, two years? And you mentioned that yesterday's schedule was... shall we say, accelerated out of necessity? There's a story there, and you've promised to tell it. Come, talk as we walk, and I'll get those mushrooms for you..."
I tell him about the unexpected hitch in yesterday afternoon's plans, with the appearance of two Grayout trainers lying in wait for me, making sure to pay special attention to my descriptions of people and places— Old Adam's a very picky listener, and he won't hesitate to point out things that are lacking in my narrative, in the interests of forcing me to do it right or not at all. I don't mind; I've never understood people who can't take criticism, and I enjoy opportunities to improve my skills in general... even useless skills like storytelling.
I'm most of the way through the story by the time we reach the bottom of the spiral stairs that connect the walkways to the storage hall floor. "...So, as soon as I got far enough from 'Slow-bro,' I got my sight back. But I'd been spotted! The moment I looked over to where I'd heard the voices, I saw the two men running toward me. I... fought off Heavy-set's Pokémon, and booked it to the west instead of coming straight here, because wasn't about to lead them in a straight line to the library."
"Is there any reason you're omitting details about exactly how you fought off a Pokémon?" Uncharacteristically, this is the first time Old Adam has interrupted the story, and here's a slight hint of sharpness in his tone. I stop walking. He turns to glance at me, and in the light of our two candles I look into his dark brown eyes and detect something I've never seen there before: suspicion. "That was rather a spot of vagueness in the middle of a detailed story."
My mind races. What is he getting at? I wonder, nervous.
"I used an old trick that I don't tell anyone about," I say evasively, wishing, not for the first time, that I could read a reason for a sentiment or emotion in someone's eyes. "Why?"
"There have been rumours," he responds slowly, as though weighing each word carefully before uttering it, "Rumours that someone or something has been... preying... on Trainers hereabouts."
Ah... Now I see, I think, as it all falls into place. "That's the same thing they were suspecting me of," I murmur, partly to myself, knowing that in the silence of the underground Old Adam will hear me clearly. "That's why they were lying in wait for me at the Suttons' house."
"Then it isn't you?" he inquires, his gaze suddenly surprisingly intense and fixed on mine, searching my eyes for sincerity.
"I'm just a Runner, I'm no match for any Trainer and I know it," I retort with bitter honesty. "Why does everyone seem to think I'm behind this bullshit?"
Old Adam seems to relax a little, the suspicion slowly disappearing from his eyes, to be replaced with concern. "Because it's clear that you don't like the gangs, and equally clear that if... someone... were to give you the power to defeat Trainers, you would use it. I'm glad to know you're not responsible."
"I'm not," I say, my voice still heavy with bitterness. "I wish I had that kind of power. I'd make them pay."
"For what they've done to you?" Old Adam asks, his tone conversational... But there's an emotion in his eyes that I've never seen before, one I've never experienced myself... making it incomprehensible. It's cool and slow and quiet, like a still pool... Maybe this sentiment is an old-person thing, and I simply haven't lived long enough to feel it? The thought gives me pause, and I consider for a long moment before responding.
"For what they've done to everything," I answer finally. "They fucked everything up in the... the war, and they didn't fix it afterwards, so now there's no one left who can fix it. That's why I'm pissed, and that's why the gangs can fucking go to hell."
"Hmm." Old Adam breaks eye contact with me, and resumes walking. Somewhere in my stomach, I get the sinking feeling that I was just tested... and found lacking.
The rest of the walk to the small storage rooms, which are at the end of a corridor leading out of the storage hall, is completed in uncomfortable silence— uncomfortable for me, at least. We reach a cold, damp corner where a wide crack in the concrete wall trickles clean water that's been filtered through feet and feet of soil. A plastic painter's bucket, more than half-full of collected water, rests beneath the trickle, with another empty one resting beside it. Old Adam pushes the empty bucket into the place of the half-full, picks up the latter one, and precedes me through the first doorway we come to.
It's been a long time since I've been down here; when I first came to his Warren, Old Adam invited me to stay as long as I needed to, and I helped him with the watering of the mushrooms, but after a few months I moved out into my first safehouse and only visited occasionally, such as when I was near starving or when I had something I'd scavenged to give him in exchange for something more to eat. But this place still feels familiar: on each side, a row of doorways— the thin metal doors themselves long since removed from their hinges to be made into tools— open onto rooms that are empty except for a few dusty shelves and a carpet of white mushrooms that crowd the damp floors and climb up the walls. Up ahead, a faint greenish glow from two of the rooms indicates that those are the ones where the inedible, bioluminescent fungi grow.
"Wait here, please; I'll be but a moment," Old Adam says. He walks to a storage room a few doors down, and goes in, disappearing from view. I hear a sloshing noise as he splashes the water on the floor and walls, supplying the moisture the mushrooms need to grow.
I take this opportunity to carefully set down my candle, and swing my backpack off. I dig out the plastic container of vegetables Mrs. Sutton gave me, a similar container of dried cranberries from one of the farms up north, and a bundle of beef jerky. I empty them all into one of the folded-up garbage bags I keep in a side pocket of my backpack, and roll it up into a neat bundle. Another minute or two passes, then the old man returns with the bucket half-full of white mushrooms.
"Here," I say, handing him the bundled-up veggies and meat. Then I transfer the mushrooms from the bucket into the now-empty plastic containers, put on the lids, and stow those in my backpack. "Pleasure doing business with you."
The old man smiles at me, picking up the empty bucket with his free hand as I retrieve my candle. "Likewise, Larissa. It is always good to see you."
I can't help but be glad that he's not angry any more, though logic tells me he shouldn't have any reason to be. Just what was that all about? I get the feeling I'll be thinking about Old Adam's comments for a while if I don't figure this out now, so I decide to just ask straight out. "Why did you seem so disappointed when I said I was angry at Trainers? Don't I deserve to be?"
Old Adam smiles, and in the flickering light of our candles I can see sadness in his eyes. "Ah, I suppose so. Don't mind me, I'm probably just a throwback to a time when hating someone didn't mean you had to kill or injure them. I suppose today's world is different, and I've been left behind like so many other old relics."
His passive-aggressive tone rubs me the wrong way, which I realize too late was probably his intent. "With all due respect, that's no way to deal with these fucktards," I burst out. "Trainers will just keep on living that easy, comfortable life they don't deserve, until someone stops them from breaking the backs of everyone around them for their own comfort. There's no other way for justice to happen, because if you leave them alone, they win by default."
Old Adam's eyes glint, interest replacing his fleeting sadness, and I can see that he's achieved the reaction he was looking for. "Will stopping them make any difference?" he asks me. "Even if someone drove out or killed an entire gang, would life get better? After all, there's no shortage of other gangs ready to take their territory and make it their own."
He is, of course, insufferably right, but he's missed the point. "No," I say through gritted teeth, "Nothing would get better, but at least that one gang would get what's coming to them."
"I see. So even if it did no good, if you had the power you would do evil unto them for revenge's sake."
With a bunch of Trainers probably crawling to 'do evil unto' me, I'm in no mood to be lectured. "Looks like someone with some power thinks the same way I do, if gang members are turning up half-dead and no one knows who's doing it. I just wish it were me. And if wanting someone to hurt the way they've hurt everyone else around them is 'evil,' then I don't want to be good."
Old Adam is nodding, a smile growing on his face. "Well said, girl, well said. I can't say I agree with you... but at least you've developed a sense of the difference between justice and spite, even if you've not yet learned to temper justice with mercy."
"Must you always have the last word?" I gripe, irritated.
"Always," my mentor retorts.
We return to the walkways above the storage hall, and Old Adam hobbles away to his concrete-alcove dwelling place to drop off the food I brought. When he returns, he's carrying a lovely, mint-condition hardcover book with a brightly decorated plastic sleeve wrapped around it. The cover art is of a man wearing deep blue robes and holding a staff; he's standing on a floating disk of light that hovers above a huge battlefield. Armies of men with mud and blood on their steel armour are clashing far below, and wisps of magic swirl in the air around him. Large letters read: "The Last of the Pathfinders."
Fantasy novels are my guilty pleasure. In the mornings, when the gang patrols are most active and it's too dangerous to go out, I'll spend hours reading. That's where I get most of my vocabulary, and I think that without these books my imagination would have died long ago. So I rationalize my hobby as helping me think outside the box, a skill which has helped me enough times to be worth it... and maybe I'm even right. "It's lovely," I tell Old Adam as I place it carefully in the remaining space in my backpack, and am rewarded with the old man's beaming smile.
Old Adam and I say our reluctant goodbyes, and I depart through the tunnel. I can almost feel the world's weight settling back on my shoulders with every step away from the old library basement.
Late-morning sunlight assaults my eyes as I carefully shift the door an inch, and I wait for my vision to adjust before looking out through the crack I've created. The ruins are quiet, and nothing moves. Shifting the door a little more, I slither out of the hole and let the warped wood settle back over the steps, making sure that any hint of the basement's entrance is completely covered. Satisfied, I step back... and nearly jump out of my skin.
Standing no more than ten feet away, hidden from me until now behind a pile of debris, is a young man wearing a grey t-shirt and black sweatpants, poking dejectedly at some detritus on the ground with a stick. His back is to me, and he clearly hasn't noticed I'm here yet. He's chubby, and I know for a fact that no one eats well enough to get like that unless they're a Trainer. As I stand here, frozen, wondering whether my best bet is to dash away or quietly slink into hiding, he turns around and almost jumps out of his skin.
"Oh motherfuckin'...! Who in the hell—" he bursts out, but cuts himself off, eyes widening. "Y... You!"
Thinking quickly, I hold out one hand toward him in the most commanding and magical way I can think of, making full use of the threat of whatever this gang thinks I've been doing to their Trainers. "Don't come any closer!"
He frowns, seeming more confused than scared. "What? Ain't it you, Larissa? I thought ya were fuckin' dead."
Where do I know this person from? I wonder to myself. He doesn't look familiar, but he knows my name, and his accent is local. "Don't come any closer," I repeat threateningly.
The young man stares at me, mild surprise behind his brown eyes. "What's wrong? It's just me, ain't it?"
An image flashes through my mind, a three-year-old picture of this same pair of brown eyes meeting mine for a brief second as he grabs a vine rope, preventing me from plummeting to my death. Oh. Well, shit... Bait boy. What was even the kid's name? Boleyn, or something? "Oh, sorry... I didn't recognize you for a moment, there," I say, stalling for time and trying to force a smile.
"Yeah, well, I'm a lot different, now," Bo-something replies, looking pleased with himself. "Thanks to you."
"What?" I ask, confused.
"Well, y'see, when they caught me, instead a gettin' mad, they done said they 'liked my spunk,'" he explains. "I kinda took the credit for the whole thing, since... well, you weren't there, so I guessed you were either gone free or dead."
"And?" I'm still racking my brains for the best way out of this, because sooner or later he's going to realize he should be capturing me. His Pokémon— whatever it is— hasn't made an appearance yet, though, so it's not safe to use my last remaining leech-vine seed.
"And they gave me a Pokémon. Buzz ain't the strongest, but he's a good buddy and I ain't wanted for anythin' since!"
Of course. The answer to everything: become a Trainer, live on the backs of everyone who can't fight back against you, and all your problems are over. What a fucking stroke of luck, Bo-kid. "Good for you," I say, unable to keep the sourness out of my voice.
"Yeah... Good for me," the boy says, a bit of a harder tone to his voice. "Looks like you missed out. Y'know, sendin' me towards the Trainers, while you booked it the other way."
Damnit. I'd hoped he wouldn't have caught on to that. "I did what I had to, Boleyn."
The boy pauses. "It's... It's Borden." He looks at me, really looks me in the eye, for the first time since noticing I was here, and I catch a glimpse of something snapping. Then he breaks eye contact, before I have a chance to really figure out what's going on in his head.
"Y'know," he says in a light, conversational tone, looking everywhere but at me, "This whole time... I kinda held onto the hope you really cared, back then. Hoped you didn' plan on using me as bait 'till things got so it were the only way. Even now, I was really, honestly thinkin' about just runnin' off with you and gettin' as far away from the Grayouts as we could. But when I was thinkin' that, I kinda assumed you'd, y'know, remember my name??"
"Shut up!" Borden's eyes are on fire with rage, but he's also crying. "I cared 'bout you! I went an' risked my life 'cause you needed my help, even though I were terrified the entire fuckin' time! When you told me t'go down the stairs, I weren't so dumb as you thought! I knew what it meant! And I did it 'cause I fuckin' wanted to!" The young man clenches his fists, knuckles turning white. "And you never cared enough ta even check if I were alive, not once! Was I just some throw-away thing to you? I THOUGHT YOU CARED!"
But I didn't, I think, a deep horror settling into my stomach. Back then, I never once thought of the boy who accompanied me in my escape as anything more than bait. But he was a person, and has been this entire time... and he's right. He thought he was my friend, but I threw him aside like a discarded tool without even a word of explanation, and I never looked back.
Sure, he never asked straight out for friendship... and it's not like I'd have owed him anything even if he had, but... Didn't he deserve simple, basic respect as a fellow human being? And I didn't even give him that, because the whole time, to me he was only bait.
Only bait. Bait, bait, bait, bait, bait, bait, bait...
"Stop it!" I shout, more to myself than at Borden. "You're right, I messed up! I never thought of you as a person with real feelings, not once, and I messed up! I'm... I'm sorry," I finish in a quiet voice, almost a whisper.
Borden stares at me woodenly. "Do me a favor? Pick up that little piece of burnt wood by your foot."
I glance down uneasily; nothing seems to be in any way unnatural about the wood, so I kneel down and pick it up.
"Now break it."
I snap the stick of charcoal cleanly in half.
"Now apologize to it."
I look at the charcoal and mouth the words, "I'm sorry," meaning them for Borden.
"Is it still broken?"
My anger kindles at the childish attempt at a lesson, and my gaze snaps up to fix him with my best glare. "Okay, I get it. Sorry isn't enough. But I can't do anything to fix what I did wrong, and what's even the big deal? You obviously love being a Trainer."
"Being a Trainer is shit," Borden says bluntly, "Unless yer the strongest. Me 'n' Buzz, we ain't. Now I think it's 'bout time you came with me."
"What?" I ask, with a sinking feeling in my chest. "You don't mean—"
"You can walk back to HQ with me, or I can drag yer unconscious body," Borden says flatly. "Your choice."
Panic rushes through me, replacing my earlier waves of anger with pure terror. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, okay?? I know you're mad, but you can't take me back there!" I shout hysterically. "Please, I didn't do anything to those Trainers, you can just let me go—"
"Goodbye, Larissa," Borden says quietly, cutting me off.
I'm about to turn to run when I feel something on the back of my neck, under my hair. A faint whirring noise from somewhere back there is all the warning I get that something's wrong; half a second later I hear a loud SNAP and everything goes black.
True to what I done said, I throw her on a piece of wood and drag her the whole fuckin' way to HQ. I'd thought it'd make me feel better, to see her get some bruises from bumping against shit on the way back, but all that happens is I feel even shittier by the time we get there. Anyone ever tells you revenge is sweet, you call him a fuckin' liar and kick his teeth in.
The place is deserted when I get there. Nobody'd dare come within a mile of this place without the Runner— who I was damn surprised to find out was Larissa, on account they don't tell me fuckin' anything— nice and fuckin' well captured.
I drag the girl in through the door and into Boss's audience chamber. She heard me comin' in, and her eyebrows just about get lost in her hair when she sees it's me who done captured her super-important prize. So why ain't I proud of myself?
"This the right bitch?" I ask Boss shortly, too fuckin' tired to care about being respectful.
It's obvious boss ain't too interested in nitpickin' my language right about now, neither. She leaps outta her seat and grabs Larissa's face. "This's 'er!" she whisper-shouts ta me. "Well done, kid, well fuckin' done!! Steelbird, go let everybody know they can come back and hang around outside, just don't let 'em in here. You and I got some interrogation to do when the girl wakes up, and we'll want some privacy!"
Steelbird flies out through a window, and Boss turns to me, her face suddenly damn ugly with a threat. "You better not've used too much power, hey? She dies, I gotta make an example of you."
My heart just about stops. "Buzz is... pretty good with usin' the right 'mount o' power, uhh, Boss," I choke out, trying not to let my damn traitor voice shake too much.
Just as quickly as she went all threatening, Boss is totally happy again. "Good to hear. Hope for yer sake yer right!" she says, as she grabs a rope from some supplies in a corner and starts trussing poor unconscious Larissa up good, tying her head, hands, legs and feet with rope wrapped tight around one of them concrete pillars. "Anyhow, since you done so well, why don't I tell you a bit about all this while we wait for the girl to wake up?"
"Uhh, sure. Boss."
"You heard o' the TA?" Boss asks me, sitting down on her big throne of metal stuff.
"Yeah, Boss. A little. They're some kinda huge gang what's takin' over everything up north and west, right?"
Boss grins wide, like that's the funniest shit she ever heard. "Yeah, somethin' like that. TA stands fer Trainer's Association, they got some prop-a-gander—" Boss drawls the word extra hard for emphasis— "...'bout gettin' rid o' gangs an' givin' equal rights ta normals an' Trainers... Dunno why they're tryin' to get the useless normals on their side, 'stead o' offerin' us shit, the dumbasses... but yeah, yer right; they're just this big gang that's actin' all high 'n' mighty, an' they know we ain't lettin' 'em just roll over us.
"That's where the girl comes in. They given her some kind o' Pokémon, I dunno what, 'n' sent her ta soften us up. I'm gonna find out from her where they are, 'n' what 'mon they gave her that's beatin' up all our guys. Then, I'll go to the Quicksteps an' the Smashers, show 'em what's what, an' we'll shut down this TA bullshit once an' fer all."
I got some second-guesses 'bout that theory. "But what if it ain't her doin' this shit?"
"Who else is it gonna be? She obviously hates our guts. She's a Runner, but she ain't supplyin' us jack shit, like most runners do, and she don't want our protection. Motherfuckin' TA would love a recruit like that."
"Shut up," Boss says, cutting me off. "I think she just moved."
I wake up slowly to the distant sound of voices, my head aching abominably and the rest of me feeling like I've been dragged behind a horse for eight miles. The first thing I focus on is the ground right in front of my eyes; it's covered with old yellow paint that's faded away in parts to reveal the grey concrete underneath. There's the feeling of concrete along my spine; I seem to be leaning against a wall. I blink a few times, and more comes into focus. I'm in a horribly familiar place; every concrete pillar holding up the cement roof is just like I remember it, and the windows, nothing more than holes in the thick concrete wall, are letting in just enough early afternoon light to illuminate a scene plucked straight from years' worth of waking nightmares.
A woman is sitting on a 'throne' of sorts, an oversized seat made of fused-together metal reinforcing bars of the kind that would be wrenched from shattered concrete. One of the throne's arms expands into a giant, makeshift "perch" on which a particular Pokémon is known for resting. The woman has straight, greasy black hair that falls to shoulder height, and she's wearing a grey leather jacket with fur lining the neck and sleeves. In the light from the windows, I can see a nasty expression on her face as she glares straight at me.
"Looks like she's comin' 'round, eh, boy?" the Boss says in her thick Southern drawl.
"Y...Yeah," says Borden's voice from somewhere to my left. I try to move my head to look in his direction, but can't for some reason. He sounds shaken, but that's probably got more to do with being in the Boss's presence than any kind of remorse for dragging me into my worst nightmare.
"Uh-huh. Well done, you actually brought 'er back alive, like I said, so I don't have ta make an example o' you or nothin'. Now git lost."
Borden scrams, leaving me alone with the Wicked Witch. Normally the parts of the Grayout HQ nearest to her lair would be bustling with people, but I'm guessing everybody's been banished outside for now, as the Boss has been known to demand from time to time in fits of anger. I take stock of my assets quickly, and find that my forehead, neck, hands and feet are secured by a rope that wraps tightly around the pillar at my back... and my backpack is nowhere to be seen. I can't move, can't even look around freely, but even worse I feel naked without my bag of tricks. The only thing that keeps me from panicking instantly is the feeling of my one final secret weapon— my last remaining leech seed, in its secret pocket against my hip. I've got no way to get it out or use it, but at least it's still there, a kind of talisman warding off the sensation of complete helplessness.
"Well... well... well," the Boss drawls ever so slowly, leaning forward in her throne. "Ain't we got a prize here. D'ya know, we been lookin' fer ya more'n a week now?"
I meet her gaze and say nothing. Frustratingly, the biggest window in this part of the parkade's first floor is behind her, and her face is in shadow, so I can't read anything from her eyes.
She seems disappointed that I didn't take the bait, though, because she continues with a distinct tone of irritation to her voice. "Well, now that we got ya, I've got a few questions for ya. We're gonna have a proper ol' girl talk now, woman ta woman, an' yer not gonna lie ta me, got that? If ya do, I'll know, an' this—" she twitches a finger, and a steel blade flashes past my face, drawing a line of hot pain across my left cheek— "...Will seem like a love tap. Nod if you understand."
I glare; she twitches another finger, and this time I feel the wind of Steelbird's wingbeat from somewhere near my head, and a moment later the razor-sharp wingtip slices a second line into my cheek.
"Understand, or no?" the Boss asks, slowly, as if she were talking to somebody mentally impaired.
I nod, biting my lip to keep from letting out a whimper of pain.
"Good. Now, tell me. Who sent ya?"
"No one," I say quietly.
I don't even see the signal; a third gash is sliced into my cheek, and I thrash involuntarily for a moment, biting my lip almost hard enough to draw blood.
"No, really," the Boss drawls in a bored tone, "Who sent ya? An' answer using 'ma'am,' ya stupid li'l bitch."
"No one!" I repeat angrily. "Why the fuck would I lie?"
Steelbird's wing whips past me again, twice, and my right cheek suddenly erupts in the pain of two parallel gashes. I yell, more from surprise and shock than from the pain at first... But, as if that first shout broke the back of my composure utterly, I can't seem to stop. I scream, again and again, fueled by a seemingly endless pool of pain, and frustration, and the terror that's been eating at my insides since I woke up in my worst nightmare...!
As abruptly as it started, the uncontrollable urge to scream passes. I go limp in my bindings, feeling numb everywhere, as though the pain and terror belong to someone else. I look at myself from outside, and I realize I'm a wimp. I've read all sorts of stories where the hero goes through far more than just some cuts to the face, and still holds out... but it's so different in reality, where I know that no one's going to come and rescue me, and the only thing worse is knowing that maybe a hundred people are hearing me scream and not one of them thinks anything but, "I'm glad it's not me."
A tear trickles down my left cheek, the salt of it stinging in each wound individually. I look up hollowly at my tormentor, eyes barely even focusing on her.
"Now, let's try again," she says mock-politely. "Who sent ya?"
"No one, ma'am."
The bladed wing cuts into me, but I barely feel it through the numbness that's gone through my body and mind, and I couldn't even tell you if it was my right cheek or left, this time. It's like everything's happening to somebody else, and I'm grateful for it.
"Now, why're ya goin' and lyin' ta me for 'em?" the Boss asks me, slumping in her seat and seeming a little put out at my lack of response to this last gash. "Ya know, we know who it is already. We know who it is what gave you a Pokémon. We just gotta find where that Pokémon's hidin', an' we'll find it, don' you worry, li'l missy."
"That's funny," I say quietly, "Because I don't have any idea what you're talking about. Ma'am."
She stands up angrily and makes that hand signal again, twice; Steelbird cuts two new gashes, right up my jaw on both sides. It hurts, but in my numbness, this new pain is just a distraction from the other four lines on each cheek.
The Boss strides aggressively across the room, and shoves her face close to mine. "Don' lie ta me," she whispers. "I know the TA sent you, so you better start talkin' or I'll do far worse'n just cut up yore pretty li'l face."
"I haven't lied to you yet," I retort, equally quietly. "Go fuck yourself."
The Boss, her facial expression showing that she's just about lost control of her famously short temper, pulls her face back from mine, and raises her hand to make some new signal, probably for my death. Dumbass. If I did know anything, you'd have just lost yourself the info you wanted, I think calmly, the numbness of shock saving me from even caring that I'm about to die...
A commotion from somewhere outside, followed almost immediately by the shuffling of approaching footsteps from the doorway to outside, distracts both me and the Boss. She whirls, rage painted across her face, ready to rip into whoever is responsible for interrupting her interrogation...
Then she stands there, slack-jawed, as the two supposedly missing men— the ones who chased me at the Suttons' house, whose names Borden said were Dorian and Marty— shuffle into this section of the parkade. They look ghastly: their faces are pallid, they're moving like zombies, and their eyes are wide open and staring sightlessly at nothing. Okay, definitely creepy.
The Boss opens her mouth to demand an explanation, and as if in response, the two men open their mouths— wide. A pulse of pure darkness, like a shockwave, seems to blast from their mouths, accompanied by an unearthly, wailing screech like a combination of warping metal and screams of pain. The moment the sound hits my ears and the shockwave passes through me, my vision goes black, and the ropes binding me suddenly fall away. From the yelp of surprise that I can only faintly hear from the Boss's direction, and the slightly more audible screech from Steelbird, I'm guessing the same blindness has affected them. A second pulse strikes me, the sensation of it like a wall of slightly thicker air brushing past and through my body, at the same time as I hear a brief intensification of the awful screaming noise. It doesn't hurt, but it is mildly disorienting.
Still moving with that detached calmness that I recognize from my books as a symptom of shock, I stagger to my feet and dash headlong in the direction I remember held the exit, careless of the possibility that I'll miss and crash headlong into a pillar or something. Fortunately, instead of the pain of impact, I feel wind on my face and hear the shouts and aimless stumbling of many others affected by the dark pulse. Still trusting luck to guide my footsteps, I keep on running, hearing and feeling the combined waves of sound and sight-stealing darkness pulsing through me from behind, fainter as I get farther from the source.
All of a sudden, my sight returns, and I veer out of the way of a rapidly approaching pile of jagged concrete. That was lucky, I think coolly. I'm not even sure which direction I'm running— somehow, right now it's a bit beyond me to look up and determine the time from the sun's position— but every little detail of the ground in front of me is perfectly clear: each small pebble on the cracked and pitted asphalt is defined with perfect resolution, down to the tiny scrapes on the surface...
I lose track of time, but I know I've been running for a while because, in that distant place where I'm feeling pain, I notice an ache in my legs and my lungs. I can also hear the sounds of people shouting and running, behind me and to either side. My feet, controlled by instinct more than anything, have taken me to a maze of alleyways between partly-demolished houses in the southern part of Grayout territory. Maybe I can lose them here...
I trip and go sprawling, rolling reflexively and stumbling to my feet a few moments later. Glancing back, I see a smear of far too much blood on the ground where I landed. Uh-oh. Maybe I can lose them, but only if I don't pass out from blood loss first, I think clinically. As I run, I tear a few strips off of the front of my now-tattered t-shirt (when did it get this ripped up?) and wrap them haphazardly around my head a few times, knotting each one at the back. The pressure makes my face sting distantly— all pain is distant, still— but it holds the blood in.
There are shouts and calls all around me, now, and I know I'm well and truly boxed in. A yell from behind me signals that I've been spotted, and I duck into a random gap between two buildings, following the run-down walls for as long as they stand only to emerge into an open space that has four or five Grayout scavengers dotted across it. They stare at me for a moment, and I stare at them... Then they start shouting, calling my pursuers.
I turn and dive into a different part of the maze, but the shouts are all closer now, a noose tightening around me. My breath is as ragged as my t-shirt, and although I can't feel the discomfort in my lungs and legs I can tell that my strength is about to give out. The shouts behind me are close, too close, and I turn a sharp corner to lose them...
A flickering green light emanates from a crack in the ground. As I run towards it, the crack reveals itself to be wider and wider, until I can see that it's got steps leading down into it. I would mistrust something like this in the best of cases, as it's clearly the creation of some Pokémon or other; some tool of my pursuers', to cut off my path? But suddenly, my body doesn't seem to belong to me any more. My feet miss a step, then fall into a new rhythm that I didn't choose; I struggle wildly in my head, but none of the messages I'm sending to my body are getting through. Something has taken control of me, and my feet are carrying me straight toward those steps leading down into the green-glowing chasm.
All of a sudden a woman, whose stained and tattered grey semi-formal pants are the item she's chosen to mark her as a Grayout, rushes out of a gap between two fire-damaged but mostly standing houses in between me and the gaping hole in the ground. Trailing behind her and struggling to keep up is a little foot-tall yellow lizardlike Pokémon that's got a dull-black, round metal shield a foot and a half in diameter growing from all sides of its head.
Neither seem to notice the green glow from the hole behind them; instead, they whirl towards me, and the Trainer opens her mouth to instruct her creature to attack—
All of a sudden, a small plume of purple gas bursts out of a crack in the rubble-strewn pavement between me and the Trainer. Instead of blowing away, it coalesces into an opaque cloud which hovers four feet or so off the ground. Then a gap opens in one side of the cloud of purple gas, revealing a small, dancing emerald-green flame in the centre.
All of a sudden, the Trainer lets out a scream, and falls to her knees, shuddering uncontrollably. Her Pokémon begins to rush forward as if to charge the gas cloud, but then it collapses headfirst to the ground, quaking as well.
The Grayout woman is kneeling with one hand on the ground, her face stark white and pallid as her very life-force is sucked out of her. Her Pokémon thrashes about, but its struggles too are growing more feeble. In the space of less than a second, both of my would-be assailants are squirming and groaning on the ground, unable to move otherwise.
The bright green flame inside the gas cloud is tiny and dim, now, as though its strength has been almost expended. The gas surrounding the fire suddenly rips itself away and streams back down into the crack in the ground from which it came; then, the flame floats over to the downed Trainer— who now appears to be unconscious— and disappears into her slightly-open mouth.
My footsteps, which didn't even falter during the few seconds it took for the Grayout and her Pokémon to be reduced to unconsciousness, are still taking me down the steps and into a green-lit, stony tunnel...
My perspective warps as my head falls below the level of the pavement outside; where I could have sworn there was a gaping hole above my head just a few moments ago, there's an unbroken ceiling of deep chocolate-brown rock, lit from below by that ubiquitous flickering green light. I look back; a distant circle of natural light, far behind and above me, maybe twenty feet up a long flight of brown stone steps— impossibly far for the five or six forced steps I took to get here— is all that I can see of the place I came from. I hear faint, bewildered shouts from that distant hole as my pursuers search in vain for me... Then, distantly, I hear the discordant wail of the same Dark Pulse attack that struck Grayout HQ, and the circle of sunlight disappears.
A moment later, I have to turn my attention to my more immediate surroundings, because my feet have started to walk without my permission again. Moving at a more leisurely pace, my involuntary strides take me off the final step of the long flight of stone stairs I don't remember descending, and down a short corridor, whose walls and floor are of the same chocolate-brown rock. The flickering green glow that lights everything is coming from a cave exit up ahead, and I squint as I approach, my eyes adjusting to the odd brightness...
I emerge into a slightly larger cavern; it's a dead end, and empty except for what appears to be a cylindrical stone well with a foot-long stone bearing a mysterious sigil set into the front. From the well gushes a torrent of green flames, engulfed and enshrouded by a cloud of the same light purple, opaque gas as before. Again, rather than dispersing as would be normal, the gas seems to cling to the well and the flames alike, blocking the emerald brilliance from showing through except in rapidly shifting patterns.
After a second, the patterns of fire showing through the purple cloud start to stabilize and come together, until they form the unmistakable appearance of a slit-eyed, noseless face with a jagged gash for a mouth. Then the "mouth" moves, giving voice to a buzzing murmur that seems to come from more than one voice, echoing in the cave and in my head— the echoes in my head are an uncomfortable sensation, as if something were tapping lightly against various parts of my skull from within.
~Welcome, seeker of strength. You hold much darkness within you.~
I shuffle my feet, just to be sure I have control of them again; thankfully, I do. But running away doesn't seem to be an option, and trying to fight would probably just trap me in this eerie-ass place, so I default to sarcasm instead. "And that's supposed to make me feel just great about myself, right, talking-fire-head Pokémon?"
~You hold much darkness within you, Larissa.~
"If you know my name, it's only polite to tell me yours," I say matter-of-factly, clinging desperately to sass as my only alternative to hysterical screaming.
~We once had many names. But you may call us Spiritomb. Your inner darkness calls to us.~
A memory passes through my head, the shade of Old Adam telling me I shouldn't wish evil on Trainers. "You're not the first person to call me evil in the last couple of days," I tell the Pokémon with an harsh smile.
The voice tapping at the inside of my head takes on a genuinely bewildered tone. ~We spoke naught of evil. You hold much darkness within you.~
"What's the difference?" That cool, logical part of me is taking over, and I surrender to it with relief. "Talk is cheap, but no matter what story you're reading, dark is bad. Ask anyone."
~Dark is the unknown, and it is oft frightening and difficult to navigate. But dark is also calm, soft, nurturing, where light is stark and unforgiving. The soothing darkness of night gives succour and rest after the scouring light of day.~
"Is that where we're going with this, then?" I ask coldly, feeling more in control as long as I'm doing the talking. "You're some kind of ghost, or devil, or demon, that's supposed to tempt me to do bad things, and call it just a darker way of doing the right thing?"
~You hold much darkness within you. It is a part of you, regardless of whether you accept it. We but offer you a way to use it as your greater nature dictates. You carry within you the desire to seek, and emulate, those responsible for the mischief visited upon your tyrants; you have found us, and we offer you our strength.~
It seems that this Spiritomb creature is responsible for rescuing me from the Grayouts after all, and confirms my suspicion that it's the thing that's been taking out Trainers in Grayout territory. "What's the price?" I ask distrustfully. "There's always a price."
~You would be required to wield power, while remaining true to your chosen path and avoiding the temptation to stray into selfishness. You will need to fight for what you believe in, and expect no one to shoulder that burden for you. We expect nothing of you that you do not willingly choose for yourself. Oft, holding great power is its own price.~
Huh. "So... No soul exchanges, or blood pacts, or anything? I find that hard to believe."
~We have no need for another soul. We desire no blood offering, nor aught else in payment. Our wish is to return this land to how it once was.~
That has my interest. "You want to get rid of all the Trainers?"
~We came from our world to yours by choice, following the many who came without it. Even now we hold open a tenuous portal that connects the two worlds. We seek the ones who can reverse the Aperture, and send all to whence they came.~
"You're going to send the Pokémon back where they came from? You can do that?"
~You hold much darkness within you. We require a kindred spirit for that which we intend. Will you accept our trust and our power, and give us your word that you shall not falter? Much will rest upon your decisions.~
It takes me only a moment to decide. This is my chance to take some power into my own hands, and finally do as I please with all those fucking Trainers, instead of spending the rest of my life scuttling around in fear of them. "Only if I really do get to make the choices," I say, just to clarify. "We do nothing I don't allow. No coercion, no possession. Promise me that, and your answer is yes."
A whooshing sound, like the release of a long-pent-up breath, emanates from the Pokémon.
~As you ask, so it is promised, Larissa Spirit-Wielder. We trust in you, for you hold much darknesssssssssssssss...~
The hissing of the Pokémon's voice continues, then intensifies, and the cavern itself seems to shake with the echoes. Inside my head, the hissing reverberates as well, pressing painfully against the inside of my skull until I double over, wrapping my arms around my head as if to keep it from exploding. The pain in my head and the sound in the small cavern reach the edge of my tolerance, and I begin to scream at the same time as the Pokémon lets out a ghostly wail of suffering. Our voices echo in the small cavern, creating a discordant cacophony of suffering that makes the pain even worse—
Abruptly, the pain ceases, and all is quiet and dark. Spiritomb's green flames are dim, now, the gas surrounding them seeming to almost choke the otherworldly fire.
"What was that about?" I ask, my voice unsteady but echoing eerily in the cavern.
In response, a voice, a quiet and whispery shadow of Spiritomb's echoing murmur, speaks in my head. ~The bond is not something we were meant for, but bind ourselves we did. We apologize for the pain, though we too endured it.~
"Bond? What bond?"
~It takes a great deal of our power to send even a small extension of ourselves out from this sanctuary. It took us weeks to amass the strength to possess the two men we captured, as they were so far away from this place, and the use of our Dark Pulse required them as living conduits. To pass more than that small amount of power through you, a more profound bond is needed, similar to that between lesser Pokémon and their Trainers.~
I don't like the sound of that— this 'bond' thing has too many unknowns to it. But... I'll take it, if it's the price I pay for the power to beat Trainers. Still... If this Spiritomb creature has a gateway into my mind, now, does that mean it can listen to my thoughts? "You used my name earlier. Can you read my mind? Does the... bond... allow that?"
~We cannot. We learned your name from listening remotely to discussions amongst the Grayouts. We have the power to see much, but until now we could affect events only a little, and not often.~
"Other than giving me power, what does this bond do?"
~We will feel your emotions faintly, and we can speak to your mind. Also, with your permission the excess power generated by your strongest emotions will be available to us, to recover trace amounts of strength.~
"Fine. What about this power you were talking about? How do I use it?"
~Our essence will remain in this cavern, hidden from all, but our power will travel with you. You will wield it through your own body, and we will instruct you in its use. Your body's strength will increase, as will your endurance and the speed of your reflexes and movements. With our protection, you will be all but immune to the encroachments of the psychic or ghostly upon your mind. And lastly, you will wield a measure of our power to harm in the palms of your hands, to shape as you please.~
A strange but pleasant sensation hovers in my consciousness for a moment, a feeling best described as the essence of a pleased smile, before Spiritomb speaks.
~As you wish, Spirit-Wielder.~
I smile as well. Better watch out, you piece of shit Trainers.
Here I come.
End of Part 1
---JOLTIK, SKARMORY, SLOWBRO, SPIRITOMB---
---MEDIUM + 3x COMPLEX (100k to 140k characters)---
Length: 139,010 Characters