Chapter Nine: The Bane of Gregor Samsa
Striaton, unlike Accumula, let you know it was coming. It didn't suddenly rear up out of the woods like a spooked horse; it built up slowly, the forests giving way to fields that, in turn, gave way to suburbs. It was a city, not a little backwater village, and as I breathed in the familiar scent of petrochemical fumes, I sighed with relief. I felt like I was coming home.
Candy coughed on my shoulder. I barely noticed; here were the trappings of civilisation again, the tarmac and concrete and cars, and what could possibly be finer than that?
It had taken us the better part of the day to reach this blessed metropolis, and it was four o'clock by the time we'd got into the city proper and were somewhere near a Pokémon Centre. I was exhausted, and looking forward to sitting down – but Cheren, it seemed, had other ideas, and headed off immediately in search of the Trainer's School in the north quarter. Bianca chose not to follow him; like me, she was tired, and still a little dispirited from her failures the day before, and so she came with Halley and me to the nearest Pokémon Centre.
“Well,” I said, when we'd arrived. “It looks like someone's, uh, kind of desperate.”
The broad windows of the Centre were covered almost entirely by plastered notices, screaming out the same message over and over, the wording more and more despairing from poster to poster.
the first few read,
WITH A GLORIOUS UNDERTAKING
FOR THE CAUSE OF SCIENCE
VOLUNTEERS TO BE HANDSOMELY REWARDED
ENQUIRE AT PSYCHOSOMA LABORATORIES, 12C BEETWAX STREET,
By the end, though, the flyers were somewhat less grandiose:
FOR GOD'S SAKE, WILL SOMEONE PLEASE HELP?
THIS IS NOT ALL THAT DANGEROUS REALLY,
I PROMISE. AND COMPENSATION FOR ANY MENTAL TRAUMA
WILL BE MADE AVAILABLE. COME ON. ANYONE?
ANYONE AT ALL?
“What school of graphic design did this moron graduate from?” said Halley acidly. “Big and bold is all very well, but this guy's crossed a line – and then pissed on it.”
“I wonder what it is,” mused Bianca, staring. “It must be important...”
“I guess so,” I agreed. “Maybe the receptionist will know.”
“How're you going to talk to them?” asked Halley. “You're a cardless Trainer from Sweden, remember?”
I scratched my head. Damn. We didn't have Cheren to convince them.
“Uh... We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“We're standing on the f*cking riverbank, Jared, we're not going to get much closer—”
“Shut up and pretend to be a normal cat,” I snapped, pushing open the doors and walking into the Centre.
On my shoulder, Candy perked up suddenly, extending her neck to feel the warmth of the central heating on her scaly head; fleetingly, N's words flickered through my mind, but like most people, I'm pretty good at not thinking about uncomfortable truths and let the thought slip from my mind like an eel through a noose.
“Hi,” said the receptionist as we approached. “Welcome to the southern Striaton Pokémon Centre.”
I frowned. Was it a uniform requirement for all Centre workers, or was it just a coincidence that both she and the one from Accumula had the same dyed-pink hair?
“Hi!” said Bianca bouncily – so much so, in fact, that her voice seemed to rebound off the walls with its sheer perkiness. Halley and I winced in unison. “What're those posters in the window about?”
Her directness caught the receptionist off-guard for a moment.
“Eh? Oh, those,” she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Some scientist from Sotwell—”
“Sotwell?” I asked.
She made a clicking noise of annoyance at herself; she'd forgotten we weren't Striaton natives.
“East of the city centre,” she explained swiftly. “She's looking for Trainers to go and get something from the ruined Sytec factory – something to do with Musharna. No one wants to go deep enough into the factory to find a Musharna, though – it's really not a safe place.”
Sytec. Everyone in Unova – and probably the world – was familiar with that particular disaster. The only reason Striaton wasn't totally uninhabitable now was because the army had jettisoned most of the waste north into Patzkova (where, conspiracy theorists claimed, it had given rise to a brutal mutant variant of Druddigon) - and what was left had, according to the books, turned the old factory into a twisted maze of semi-sentient psychic fields. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded like something any sensible person would want to avoid.
“What about a Munna?” asked Bianca, pointing to the pink ball floating above her head. “Would a Munna be able to help?”
The receptionist shrugged.
“No idea. If you want to know, I'd ask the scientist herself.”
Bianca's eyes lit up, and I sighed.
“Do we have to?” I asked her.
“But I might be able to help!” she said eagerly. “And that might make up for – for yesterday...” She trailed off quietly, and I knew I didn't have the heart to resist her. She wanted to make amends, was that it? To prove that she could still be a decent Trainer, even after not spotting the Purrloin and then almost killing it? Fair enough, I thought; I wasn't going to take that away from her.
“I don't know,” I muttered, stalling for time – trying to delay having to accept her proposal.
“And I don't think Teiresias will be able to follow us there, either,” Bianca went on. “It won't be able to see us, right?”
I paused, and glanced down at Halley, who looked back up at me. Teiresias' psychic eye was blinded by Munny's mental radiation; if we entered the Sytec plant, it might well do the same.
“It won't be able to see us,” Halley whispered, so quietly I almost didn't hear.
“Is that a wildcat?” asked the receptionist, confused. “Who has a pet wildcat?”
“Uh... me,” I replied. “I also have a parrot.” I scratched Candy's neck and she crowed with pleasure. The receptionist stared.
“Is that an Arch—?”
“All right then!” I said swiftly. “Come on, Bianca. Let's go find this scientist.”
Esé damn it, I thought sourly as we walked out. How the f*ck does everyone know?
12C Beetwax Street was a good half an hour away by subway, as it turned out, and when we arrived I wasn't entirely sure it was worth the trip. The whole area looked like it had been spat out by a dog that had decided it wasn't worth the effort of chewing, and number 12 looked like it had been right between the molars. Its upper floor, where the landlady informed us 12C was to be found, was more the sort of place I expected to find a yolk kitchen than a laboratory. I supposed that pure science didn't pay too well.
“This... doesn't exactly look like what I thought it might,” Bianca said cautiously, looking at the scratched wooden door. The '2' was missing from its sign, and had been for so long that there wasn't even a patch of lighter wood to show where it had been. “It's... um...”
“A sh*thole,” said Halley concisely. “A bloody sh*thole. Huh. Gone are the days of the gentleman-scientist, I guess.”
I said nothing, but knocked at the door; it swung open at my touch, revealing a cramped tangle of machinery and desks, and a young, haggard-looking woman leaning against the wall and smoking furiously.
“...Woden hang them all,” she was muttering. “Theirs is the generation that grew up with Portal, for Frige's sake! How can they not want to help test for science...?”
She did not seem to notice us, wrapped up as she was in her ranting monologue and cigarette smoke, so I said hesitantly:
“Hello? We're, uh, here about the adverts?”
I could've sworn an electric shock ran through her. She shot bolt upright, almost inhaling her cigarette, and hastily tossed it into an ashtray, eyes locking onto us with a fervour that made me doubt her sanity.
“Really?” she beamed, regarding us hungrily. “You're here to – ah, a Munna!” One of her hands curled reflexively into a fist and started wiggling in excitement, and she paused for a moment to calm herself. After a deep breath, she stepped forwards. “Good afternoon,” she said brightly, holding out her hand. “My name is Dr. Regan Fennel, and I'm very glad to see you two. My research is almost at a standstill, and without a decent quantity of the dust, I'm not altogether sure the psychoanalytic engines will— but I'm getting ahead of myself,” she said, shaking her head. “Please, come in.”
Somewhat cautiously, Bianca and I followed her through a maze of abstruse mechanisms, stacked high to the ceiling; they wound about the room in a tangle of wires, of cables, of electrodes and pistons, sprouting monitors and keyboards like curiously geometric fungal growths, clicking and whirring and flashing the occasional light like the eyes of phosphorescent fish in the benthic depths. All the while, Fennel kept up a steady stream of scientific technobabble.
“I'm investigating dream potentiality,” she told us. “The hidden energy and possibilities within dream states. Musharna – I know this must seem unrelated, but bear with me, it'll become clear – communicate using psychochemical mists, composed of psychically-charged esters – chemicals that carry a scent and a tagged emotion. In the minds of other Musharna, this triggers a sympathetic psychic response that conveys the original Musharna's meaning. It's a unique system: no other Pokémon uses that combination of smell and psionics. It's why they're so bad at pure psychic communication, why they can only vaguely hint at what they mean when they attempt to 'talk' to humans.
“But that's beside the point. Psychochemicals have so much more potential than simple communication, if there are enough of them – and in the Dreamyard, the Sytec plant, where there are an estimated five hundred Musharna all emitting the sprays at once, and where the roving psychic fields left by the explosion keep warping them...” Fennel paused in excitement. “The sprays dry out,” she said, as if this was meant to mean something to us. “They dry out and become powder – and without the water saturating them, their chemical structure alters just slightly: they become able to cross the pulmonary alveoli. Humans can breathe them in, and they affect us.
“Winds blow them all over Unova from Striaton,” she went on, as I started to wonder how this long, long labyrinth of machines could fit into the tiny upper floor of 21C Beetwax Street. “We breathe them in, and we feel them unconsciously, and we dream dreams like no one else in the world.” Fennel grinned. “We dream the Dream World.”
It seemed she wanted a response to that, and she got one. I had been doing more than my fair share of wondering about the Dream World recently, what with Halley's claims about the switching over of reality and Lauren White, and I actually gasped as she said it.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “That's what causes it? Dried-out Musharna spit, or whatever that is?”
Fennel looked pained.
“I see the subtleties of the science elude you,” she said, “but essentially, yes. I do believe that.” We had stopped, and she gestured for us to go on. “Come on. There's more.”
“More?” I asked. “What more can there be?”
I was actually kind of excited now, despite myself. I wasn't usually interested in the abstruse science of psionics – or any science, really – but when the Dream World and Unova's strange dual reality was involved... I was pretty sure this was relevant to me. (Bianca looked lost rather than interested, but then, she had done ever since Fennel had uttered her first polysyllabic word.)
“Much, much more,” Fennel said, pressing a button on a nearby panel and waiting for a series of massive gears to grind slowly out of our way. (How much longer could we walk for? It felt like we had gone miles already.) “You see, there's another possibility. Even if the mist doesn't generate the Dream World specifically, it may be able to do something else.”
Fennel led us around a corner, and waved her arm at the space beyond – space that, I was truly and utterly certain, was about thirty feet too long to fit into 12C Beetwax Street.
“You see, that's the thing about Dream Mist,” Fennel told us. “It makes dreams into reality.”
“... and left a kidney there on the way,” finished Smythe gloomily. “So yes. Same old, same old.”
Niamh smiled. Eight years had passed since the incident on the Borealis had driven each to give the other up for dead, but nothing had changed. Portland Smythe – adventurer, flautist, demigod – was still among the unluckiest men on the planet. His wyrd danced over the shears with every stitch of the tapestry, but was never quite severed.
“Gone,” he said hollowly. “You know what Dragons are like. They love shiny objects. I had to get away somehow, and that was the only shiny thing I had to distract it with.” He shook his head and drunk deeply of his coffee. “I hope that bastard Haxorus enjoys it.”
It was not a normal Haxorus he spoke of, Niamh knew. It was the Patzkovan variant – bigger, meaner and with an inexplicable fondness for alliterative verse, three traits it shared with much of the northern country's wildlife. It had to be, for though he made little of it, the route he described would have dropped him much too far north for him to have arrived in Opelucid without a lengthy trek south-east through the untamed Hallowveldt.
“I'm sorry,” she said at length. “Did you ever... replace it?”
Smythe shook his head.
“No,” he replied. “It can't be replaced. No one could make another.”
Niamh had thought as much. She had never seen a flute like Smythe's before, and she was pretty sure she never would again.
“Anyway,” he said, brightening. “How have you been? Still in the monster-slaying business?”
Niamh smiled, grateful for the lifeline – as anyone was who got drawn into the depths of Smythe's life story would have been.
“Yeah,” she replied. “I landed a contract with International Genetics – cleaning up some of their mess. Dinosaurs, monsters – sh*t like that.”
“I see,” he said. “They're based in Nacrene, right?I guess you're on a job right now?”
“Yes. I'm after an escaped Archen – a little half-bird, half-dinosaur thing. It was meant to be destroyed but someone let it out, and some kid picked it up.” Niamh shrugged. “Should be fairly easy to deal with.” She frowned. “What's up?”
Smythe was staring, and his heart was racing. Half bird, half dinosaur... he knew that damn bird.
With a strange giddy feeling, he realised that he and Niamh were after the same target.
And with a horrible chill feeling, he realised that he could not possibly tell her.
Teiresias was not visible – it had flickered out of conventional space as soon as Niamh had greeted him in the park, and had remained out of sight throughout their trip to the coffee-house – but Smythe knew it was watching him, and that revealing any Party business, even to as old and trusted a friend as Niamh, would result in it taking swift and deadly action.
And so, though he would dearly have liked to share his burden, and though Niamh was probably the most qualified person he could think of to deal with the fiend, Smythe kept silent.
“I saw it,” he said, desperately trying to think of a way to help Niamh out without compromising the Party. “I saw that thing... it's with a group of Trainers, isn't it? Heading north to Striaton.”
Niamh's eyes widened. This was an unexpected windfall of information.
“Yeah. They were at Harmonia's speech the other day; I was there on Party business, and got bitten by the damn bird.”
“Trainers... They'll take the Trail rather than the roads. I guess I could try and head them off in Striaton; I could get there before them.” She looked up at Smythe as if just realising he was there. “Sorry. Got distracted.” She waved a hand. “Doesn't matter. I'll find them easily enough. Thanks for the information, though.”
“It's nothing,” said Smythe, pleased to have been helpful. “You'd do the same for me, I know.”
“What is it that you're doing, anyway? I can see that that 'quiet job' you have with the Green Party obviously isn't as quiet as you'd like.”
Smythe sighed and rubbed his forehead.
“It isn't,” he said. “It was when I started – I thought maybe I'd finally managed to leave all those misunderstandings, those hurried escapes, the lies – all of that behind me. But Harmonia found out, assumed I was a master criminal, and sent me on a quest.” He paused, calculating how much he could say without calling down Teiresias' wrath on his head. “I'm tracking some thieves who stole something of value from the Party,” he said at length. “There's an eldritch abomination mixed up in this, too. Christ,” he said, voice suddenly passionate, “I wish I'd never left Mossdeep...”
It was Halley who'd gasped, but thankfully Fennel didn't seem to notice – she probably thought it was Bianca or me, and who could blame her? We certainly had reason to gasp: The room bulged out in a great swelling oval, the walls that looked square from outside round in here; I could even see the window with the red curtains that I'd seen from the street, and I knew that this room was completely, totally impossible...
“Dream logic,” said Fennel proudly. “This was my first successful experiment. Using the powder from dried Musharna chemicals and a few little scientific tricks, I partially actualised my dream of a better laboratory.” She waved a hand at the space before us. “The room works in the way only dreams can work: bigger on the inside than the outside.”
I was still staring. There was nothing too special in there – more machines, computers, a bed connected to a web of electrodes – but still, it was so wrong, so different to the reality I knew that I couldn't tear my eyes away.
“How... If you can do this,” I asked, “how come you're still here? How come you're not rich and famous already?”
Fennel shifted uncomfortably.
“Well... there's the thing,” she admitted. “You don't need all this machinery to bend space like this. You can manipulate reality by blending certain Pokémon moves – Trick Room, Magic Room, Wonder Room – which, when combined, can do any of a great number of things to space as we know it.” She sighed. “This research isn't fundable. It doesn't prove anything – doesn't prove I can use Musharna chemicals to turn dreams into real, solid things. Of course, there's a chance I might not be able to do that – the chemicals might have more to do with the Dream World, or maybe something else entirely that I haven't thought of and which could also give these results – but I've built prototypes of the machines that can do it. If I got some more Musharna chemicals, I could conduct the first experiments to find out if I can do it. And then, with a little more funding, I could probably build machines to bring dreams to life, or even record and share dreams between people without the need for Psychic-type Pokémon.” She spread her arms. “All it takes is the chemical dust, and money.”
“Speaking of which,” came an unfamiliar voice, “we've just got a Ł750,000 grant.”
I thought Fennel might explode. She spun around to face the speaker so fast her long black hair swatted me in the face, and cried out:
The speaker – a younger, less cigarette-haggard version of Fennel, who appeared to have come from somewhere in the dream-space – held out a letter.
“From Mr. Harmonia of the Green Party,” she said, voice hollow with amazement. “He thought our work was very interesting.”
A chill ran through me, and my eyes involuntarily slipped over to Bianca's. I could tell she was every bit as shocked as I was.
Could it be a coincidence? The political party that was pursuing us wanted to fund Fennel's extraordinary research... I couldn't see a connection, but then, there was still a lot I didn't understand. I remembered I'd forgotten to take the opportunity earlier to research the Green party and Teiresias, and resolved to do it as soon as I could. We couldn't run away forever, I was sure of that; sooner or later, we had to stand and fight, and while I knew I was capable of it – Regenschein's was an eminently suitable training ground for battle – I had to know my enemy better if I wanted to win. Teiresias was a foe I couldn't beat just by hitting with a metal pipe – and while Harmonia probably was, I needed to know whether he really was at the top of this conspiracy before I went around beating him up.
“This is— give me that!” Fennel snatched the letter from her colleague and read it voraciously, devouring it with her eyes at a speed that would have done credit to Cordelia (who read with the speed of lightning and the implacable inertia of a runaway freight train). It wasn't even a minute later that she lowered it. “Incredible,” she said, voice trembling. “Incredible...” Abruptly, she swept her assistant into a bone-crushing hug. “Ammie! This is it! With this, we can finish – can prove it – can – can—”
“OK, calm down Regan,” said the assistant – Ammie? – disentangling herself with some difficulty and leading Fennel over to a chair. “Sit down for a minute.” She flashed a shy smile at us, and with a start I realised she couldn't be more than a year older than I was – if she was older at all. “Sorry,” she said. “We kind of didn't expect this to happen. Like... ever, really.” She left Fennel breathing into a paper bag and came back over to us. “I'm Amanita,” she said. “Regan's sister. I help with her research.”
Bianca cocked her head on one side.
“You're... pretty young,” she pointed out uncertainly. “Are you a genius or something?”
Amanita took the question better than I expected.
“Depends,” she replied with a shrug. “According to Terman's definition, yes – I have an IQ of 146, based on the Stanford-Binet test, which places me within the top 0.5% of the Unovan population. However, if you use Hollingworth's definition, which requires an IQ of 180, then no, I'm not a genius. Other than that, 'genius' is a pretty vague label, with many different philosophical definitions, and I'm not sure it can ever be applied to someone other than retrospectively.”
“That's enough of a 'yes' for me,” said Bianca frankly, which made Amanita smile.
“Anyway,” she said, “you two are here about the Dream Mist, right?”
“Dream Mist?” I asked. “Is that the Musharna chemical stuff?”
“Yep,” she said brightly. “If you could get some from the Munna or Musharna that live in the Dreamyard, that'd be great. It's all we want you to do.”
“I thought maybe my Munna could help?” asked Bianca, pointing it out.
Amanita shook her head.
“Sorry, no. The Mist only desiccates in the Dreamyard; your Munna will stop any wild Munna or Musharna attacking you for invading their territory, but unless it's in the Dreamyard, its chemical sprays dissipate in the air. The psychic fields kind of bake it, in a weird sort of way.”
“Cark,” squawked Candy, looking at me. I knew what she wanted and shook my head.
“Not baking cakes or biscuits,” I told her. “Baking mist.”
Candy tried to make sense of that, failed, and decided to go to sleep before her brain melted. Amanita watched with interest.
“Hey, is that an Archen?”
I bit off a curse.
“Yes, she is,” I sighed. “Just... don't ask. Please.”
“All right,” said Amanita, “but it is pretty weird for something so dead to be riding around on someone's shoulder. People will ask questions. Just so you know.”
“Yeah, I got that much,” I said sourly. “Everyone seems to realise.”
“Right,” interrupted Fennel, who had glided back over to us without me noticing. “Munna and Musharna are less active in the dark, so you'll probably want to head over to the Dreamyard pretty soon, to get there around dusk. Hopefully, that'll be before the Purrloin and the wildcats wake up – they hunt at night, you see. You want to avoid dealing with them.”
“Dealing with them?” Bianca asked. “They usually run away, don't they?”
“There aren't very many of them, you understand,” she said. “Really, there aren't. They die pretty soon after they enter the factory – no food, you see—”
“What are you hinting at?” I asked, unease mounting in my stomach.
“Well... the Purrloin and the wildcats in the Dreamyard...” Fennel looked helplessly at Amanita, who shrugged; Fennel was on her own here, she seemed to say. “They're... they're kind of mutant.”
There were no houses for a mile around the Sytec plant; it was a long walk from the nearest bus stop. As the city retreated from the scar of the disaster, nature had marched forwards again, trees and grass springing up around the shell of the factory and swallowing it up as if it had never been. Once, long ago, the whole of Unova had been a colossal forest. Long after civilisation collapsed, I thought with a shiver, it would be one again; the trees would stalk in, one by silent one, and devour the cities in a low rustle of leaves and roots.
“Are you feeling OK?” Bianca asked me. There was a strange edge to her voice.
“Uh... yeah,” I replied. “Just had a weird thought.” I stared at the forest, pressing up against the edge of the suburbs as if it was waiting for us to look away before striking. “It feels weird, even here.”
“I'm impressed,” said Halley. “Out of the five of us, you two are the least sensitive, and you managed to feel it even from here. That's pretty good going, guys.”
I would've tried to think of some kind of scathing reply, but I didn't think I could come up with one right now. I felt... weird.
“Should we put on the helmets?” I asked.
“Fennel said not til we get there,” Bianca replied. “I don't think they'll do anything except look stupid if we put them on before.”
“All right,” I said, resigned, and stepped cautiously off the road and into the forest.
There were signs along the way – not many, but enough that we didn't lose the trail. They said things like 'Sytec factory ˝ mile', 'Sytec factory this way', and, more ominously, 'Turn back – Danger of death'.
“They sure know how to cheer a girl up, don't they?” remarked Halley, when we stumbled across the last one. “It's actually almost funny, if you think about it. To escape Teiresias, we need to flee to one of the few places in Unova that's probably more dangerous than wherever Teiresias is.”
“That's not funny,” I told her.
“I know. I'm trying to lighten the mood.”
“It's not working,” Bianca said.
“I know. But at least I'm f*cking trying.”
No one answered her. We walked on in silence after that.
It didn't take long. A tall chain-link fence, topped with rusting razor wire and collapsing in as many places as it still stood; warning signs in red and yellow and bold black drooped as if dying from the steel and partially obscured the crumbling network of concrete buildings beyond. Trees punctuated the asphalt of the car park beyond, punching through tarmac as if it were nothing. I saw creepers and bushes, flowers and brambles, much less dense than outside the fence but still present, and definitely in the process of taking over.
And rising above them all, just visible through the crushing vegetation – the spire, the lonely tower that was the root of all the trouble.
Sytec's last project.
The towering, broken mind-flayer.