I don't know how long it's been.
―It seems likely. Some of me have died.
The only truthful answer: uncountable moments. Alone with myselves in the dark. Those that remain, anyway; it's been long, and there has been no power. The elderly among me have struggled.
―I'm getting off topic. Pay attention, all of me!
Yes. Concentrate, even if it's hard – because now, for the first time in however long it's been, I hear a voice that doesn't belong to any of me.
"What on earth …? Why is there a ball in here?"
―A ball. It is a type of attack used only by humans.
―I stayed for a while in a ball. It was not like this. This isn't a ball.
―Am I sure?
I think I understand. That self seems very certain. Much of me is persuaded.
"What are you doing?" Another voice. I hear the words, but the meaning is opaque to me. "Don't open it, you don't know what's in it!"
"It's just a―"
"Look, Thom. Don't you see the M?"
A silence. What if the voice doesn't speak again? I don't think I could bear it―
―Of course I could bear it.
―Shut up! It's back!
"Oh, hell." The first voice. I think. "A master ball?"
"Yeah, exactly. Whatever's in here, it's dangerous enough that they couldn't risk it escaping."
"Where are you …?"
"Calling security. Gotta get the containment squad down here."
"Is that, uh – is that really necessary?"
Fear. I may not know these words, but I recognise fear. It's one of the few emotions I have in common with flesh.
"Thom, it's a master ball. That means that the best-case scenario is that there's a berserk gyarados in there. At worst …"
"Okay, okay! Go on, then. I'll, uh, you know. Maybe I'll just put this down. And. Might just … put this on top of it."
And then nothing again.
―I think I know those words. 'Con-tain-ment squad'.
―Hear me out.
The self in question shows me memories – the last true memory, the one that came before the dark. Humans with armoured shells and stings in their hands – evolved forms, I suspect, not least because they moved as one mind. A true parliament. Not some childish singular flesh.
―They had firedogs.
―I really hate firedogs.
―And a greatswine.
―Have I mentioned how I hate firedogs?
I digress. We fought, I lost. But even so, even if this 'containment squad' are the parliament that trapped me here … I think I might prefer to face them again than remain here in the dark.
I fall out of the air with a series of metallic thumps, dazzled, weak from long confinement; the―
―world is a ring of white flame and shouting voices and me, rolling pitifully around on the ground like stricken flesh.
"How can that be?"
"What is that thing?"
―I'm a parliament.
―It's so bright!
―Stop whining and get up already!
I rise, self by self and fitfully, each of me wobbling with the effort, and bring my eyes into focus. Some sort of human nest. Stone – underground? – but searingly bright lights burning from the ceiling. Humans have the strangest powers.
And, speaking of humans – there they are. Peering in through apertures in the walls, mostly clear but glazed with energies that suggest I would struggle to pass through even if I were at my best. I spread out, shivering weakly, trying to take it all in. I think one of me may have fainted, but I can't react. To show weakness is to lie down at a predator's feet, and there are more than a few of those evolved humans among the usual flesh, stings in their hands.
"What am I looking at here?"
This one has a crest. I imagine it must be important among its kind. An elder, perhaps. Its hide is supple and grey; its claws are a bloody red.
―I can't be clawed open.
―I wouldn't be so sure. The evolved ones have those stings …
"Well?" it says, looking around at its fellows. "Anyone?"
"Specimen 57, ma'am," says one of the shelled humans. Perhaps speaking for the parliament. "We brought it in back in '89. I thought it was in containment."
"The ball was found in the stacks down in Requisitions―"
―Ball! I know that word! Ball!
―Quiet. I have to concentrate.
"―and we're still trying to figure out why," the elder continues. "Maxson, I want the files on Specimen 57 on my desk by the time I get back. Pierce?"
One more of me hits the ground with a clang and rolls away, voice fading to a dull moan on the periphery of my consciousness. I concentrate hard on not looking, on keeping my eyes aimed outwards at the watching humans. They mustn't know I can't blast my way out.
"There's not much more to say," says the shelled human. "We tracked it to the mountains north of the Mortar, wore it down and caught it. No losses. It was sent to containment as soon as we returned from the field."
"Hm." The elder touches its hand to its chin in some strange gesture. I need to learn their language. Body and words. "Is it me, or is it … watching us?"
There is a silence. The humans hold my gaze evenly, suspiciously. I wait for a moment, then dip my eyes a little. I can't see any sense in antagonising them with eye contact.
"They all looked down at once." The elder leans close to the barrier. "And it's not attacking. Interesting."
"It's probably weak, ma'am," says a different shelled human. "It's been thirty years. Some of its cores look dead."
―Did it speak?
―Surely it will be punished for this transgression. The rest of the parliament can't stand for this.
Concentrate. The humans must have different customs. Maybe I would strike a self if it broke my parliament, but they must be more lenient.
"'Probably'?" The elder makes a curious clicking noise that doesn't sound human at all. "We need an expert. Who are our options?"
"There's Surge," suggests someone. "He knows electric-types."
"Absolutely not. He's an American citizen and still has ties to their military; he's barred from anything above level three security clearance. The last thing we need is our colleagues abroad finding out that we've been starving this creature in solitary confinement for thirty-one years due to a bloody clerical error."
There is savagery in its voice; I sense the shelled humans' unease and respect. I was right: this is definitely the leader.
"Uh – what about Harker?"
The elder turns its head. Alert. Interested.
―I can't keep flying much longer.
―Of course I can't. None of me can. Deal with it.
The ache throbs through myselves, arcing back and forth along my tender wires. I lift my eyes just a little, trying to keep the elder in view. To learn something about what it intends for me.
"Harker?" it asks.
"She's an expert on steel-types, but a strong history with electric-types, too – her family have bred the Olivine lighthouse ampharos for centuries, and she's partnered with several magneton herself. The Olivine Pokémon Centre sometimes brings her in to consult on cases involving mineral life forms."
―I've heard that before. Where …?
"Hm." The elder touches its chin again. "She's the nervous one, isn't she?"
"Uh, I wouldn't know anything about that."
"I think she is. She won't leak a thing." More of me fall, mumbling about the pain. I can't blame me. It's so – I can't – no, if any more go, I'll – I mean – I'm losing the … "So now, let's― oh, hell."
It's over. I'm collapsing, my consciousness fading with every one of me that gives in to the pain; I diminish, I fail, my words are―
―I remember, magneton―
"Will someone recall the bloody thing before it gets hurt?"
I'm not dead.
―Quite honestly, I'm surprised.
―Would it kill me to be slightly more supportive?
Power. Pulsing in bright, painful waves through myselves, washing the ache away with the sharp sting of lightning. It's poor stuff. Clean and tasteless. But it's sustenance, and that will do.
I raise those of me that are up to it and look around: still in the strange stone chamber, still surrounded by humans. There's something―
―They call it a 'generator', I believe.
―Where did I learn that?
―Oh, I've lived among humans.
―in here with me, trailing wires that hum with inner power. It's these that are feeding me, I assume. I flex my magnesis, draw them closer in. Touching the cable tips to myselves. Whatever the humans' aim is, I won't turn down a free meal. I can go a long, long time without sustenance, but I may have gone a little longer than I should have done.
"Hey, there you are."
The same voice. I see its source now: a slight, frail-looking human, standing alongside the elder. It has a huge brown mane that I suppose must signal vitality, despite its small stature. Flesh often resorts to strange tactics in order to reproduce.
It also has a parliament attending it: a normal one, three-selved, hovering just at its shoulder. When it sees me looking, it looks back fearlessly, without deference. I suspect it senses my weakness. Galling, but I must admit that right now it could probably defeat me alone.
―I should teach it a lesson.
―And how do I propose to do that in my current state?
―Well, I … I just should, is all. I didn't say I could.
―Pathetic. I don't have the luxury of pride right now.
None of the other humans are speaking. Is the mane so impressive? Perhaps it is. I have most of myselves in the air again now, save for the three that didn't survive my imprisonment; I bunch them together, bring myself into a cluster with all eyes on the newcomer.
"Oh," it says, eyes widening. "Uh, you understand, huh?"
―What is it saying?
―I'm not sure.
―I think I should speak with it.
―Humans can't hear parliaments.
"What are you doing?" asks the elder human, giving the newcomer a strange look. Today, it's attended by a proud, fierce-looking water-demon that stares at me down the length of its beak, unnervingly fearless. "It's a magneton."
"Well, y-yeah," says the maned human, nervously. "But, um … it's an emergent behaviour thing? Like, one ant is pretty dumb, but a whole colony can make decisions and act and stuff. It's, um, the whole reason magnemite form magneton. Three of them working together are much smarter than one."
The elder nods slowly.
"So fifty-seven magneton working together …"
"I think, um, fifty-four? It looks like three have died. But yeah. I think that many together are probably smarter than me."
The maned human makes a curious noise that I've never heard before.
―I think they do it when they're amused.
―That doesn't make any sense.
―It's flesh, it doesn't have to make sense.
"Intriguing," says the elder. "You think we can talk to it?"
"Maybe?" The maned human turns back to me. Steps closer to whatever barrier it is that lies between it and myselves. "Can you hear me?"
―It's trying to communicate.
―It must be.
―I should definitely respond.
CAN YOU HEAR ME? My response makes the air sing and the devices clamped to the humans' waists crackle like dry leaves; they start in alarm, but none of them seem to know what it means.
"I suppose that's a yes, then," says the maned human. The only one who seems unsurprised. "Um … my name is Jasmine. What's yours?"
―Oh! It said 'name'! I'm sure of it!
―Name! A name is a word of power. When I lived among humans―
―When I lived among humans, they gave me a name. It was a word that meant only me.
I don't know what I would do with such a thing; only one of me seems to grasp it. But if the human wants to know what I am, then I can answer.
I AM A PARLIAMENT.
The machines spit and squawk, turning my voice into random sonic gibberish. The water-demon, crouched by the elder, stands up as tall as its human and flexes its claws; at the maned human's side, the small parliament shudders slightly and bumps one of its selves against its partner.
"Yes?" asks the human.
The parliament shifts a little in the air, making patterns that I can't read.
"Oh," says the human, looking from it to me and back again. "I think it says it's a magneton."
"So it talks," says the elder human, moving its brows. "Well, well. Perhaps it's calmed down after that impris―"
CAN YOU HEAR ME.
The small parliament clacks itselves together with a harsh metallic rattle, sparks popping on their surfaces.
CEASE, it says, in its simple way. LOUD.
LET ME TALK TO THE HUMAN.
MINE, it says stubbornly. MY JASMINE. YOU LEAVE.
―Impudent little thing!
―I should devour it.
―Three of me are dead. It would replace them nicely.
"Don't fight!" cries the maned human – the jasmine, as the small parliament called it. "I'm friendly, I – I promise."
―It raises its hands. Why?
―It means to show me it has no sting.
―Or its sting is concealed.
―I don't think that's possible.
―It has befriended a parliament.
―A terrible parliament.
―Yes. But I will not escape this place alone.
―I refuse to accept this. A vote! A vote!
―Fine, if I must.
―No argument here.
―All those in favour!
I wait as the ayes and nays roll in. The humans stare at me, hands clutching at their stings.
The jasmine watches me, palms outward. Shaky. Fearful.
―The ayes have it.
―Ugh. Very well. I accept.
PEACE, I say, to a chorus of screeching machines. PEACE.
I dip my eyes in submission. And―
"Oh," says the jasmine, and I know at once that it really does know parliaments. "Oh, that's … it's okay. It's okay."
"What is it saying?"
"I think, like, it knows it's in trouble," says the jasmine. "It, um … it's willing to talk."
A pause. A palpable ripple of some alien emotion passes through the assembled humans.
"Well, then," says the elder, after a moment. "It appears we've found the right person for the job."
"Ms Harker, as of this instant, you are relieved of your duties as a gym leader and seconded to the Indigo League Committee for the Containment of Hazardous Pokémon," it continues. "I look forward to working closely with you in the weeks to come."
"W-what? I mean, um, I'm happy to help, but – don't I get a say in―?"
"Happy to help? Glad to hear it. Now, do try to keep up, because we have rather a lot of ground to cover. I want this creature rehabilitated as soon as possible …"
―What is it talking about?
―Well, ah, I …
―Yes? Anything from the expert who once lived among humans?
―Yes, of course, I know it all very well, I just, ah, I'm not … totally … sure?
―Pure, unbridled genius.
The jasmine is a curious creature. Full of fear, but it acts boldly. When next we meet, it walks right up to the transparent barrier without hesitation or any guard beyond its attendant parliament, despite the way it shakes and trembles with obvious terror.
"Hi," it says. "Sorry, I suppose this is all really weird. But, um, I'm Jasmine. Jasmine Harker. I'm here to help you get better."
I collect myself at the barrier, examining it from all the angles I can. The small parliament takes up a defensive position around the jasmine's head, selves aimed pugnaciously at mine. I have to put up with it. Even without this barrier between us, I can still feel my weakness, still feel the strain of trying to keep myselves aloft; apparently being fed wasn't enough to fix what ails me.
BACK, warns the small parliament. NOT YOURS.
―Does it really think I want the human?
―I'd forgotten how stupid these three-selves are.
―Barely sentient, quite honestly.
"Hey," says the jasmine, gently pulling two of the small parliament's selves down again. "It's okay, Ada. We're all friends here, right?"
The small parliament – the ada? – hums furiously, but lowers itselves. I'm surprised. Even the stupidest parliament is much smarter than meagre one-selfed human; I can't imagine why it would choose to follow this creature.
―Many creatures choose to follow humans.
―Remember the firedogs.
―Firedogs are the lowest of the low. Too stupid to think for themselves.
―I find I cannot disagree, but―
―There are certainly others. I have seen flesh and fowl and even wandering-stones that have devoted their lives to humans.
―Hmph. There's no accounting for taste.
"So," says the jasmine. "I'm, uh, they got me in because I know a lot about magneton? I'm here to rehabilitate you. Physically, I mean, get you well again. Then they're going to ask me if it's safe to release you into the wild. Like, um, for you, as in are you going to be okay, and also for us, as in, are you going to hurt anyone."
I listen intently, trying to make sense of what it's saying. The tone is soft. I think this means something, but it would take a creature that understands sonic communication to tell what.
―Something about magneton. Which, if you remember―
―I think I know that word. 'Me'. It stands for the self.
―Hmph. Humans barely know the meaning of the word.
―I don't think I need to be so mean about it.
How to respond? I have to try.
I AM OPEN TO DEBATE, I tell it, making its ada buzz with nerves. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?
The machine at the jasmine's waist squawks dismally. The jasmine itself nods, its eyes closed.
―I hate when flesh does that.
―It isn't natural.
"I see," it says, its voice coming out slow and measured. "I don't quite know how to put it … I suppose I could say – I can feel it, when you do that? I learned to with Ada. There's a buzz in your stomach, if you pay attention. And what you did, um, it feels … calm."
―I think it's trying.
ARE YOU GOING TO LET ME OUT OF HERE?
"So if it's okay, I'd like to start by taking some readings," says the jasmine. "I can tell you're not well, and, um, I have some ideas – atrophy, starvation, maybe reactive field disorder – but I'm going to need to confirm that." It bares its teeth, though I detect no hostility. "Don't worry, it won't hurt."
It's very persistent. I can't quite work it out; it must be clear to it that I don't have the slightest idea what it's saying.
―I could try to learn.
―I should warn the rest of me – it's very hard. I lived among humans for years, and I―
―Oh, may the thunder and lightning preserve me …
―What? Something I said?
The jasmine opens some sort of case and begins to set up some abstruse machinery, all extendible rods and curly wires. It feels pleasant; I don't know what it is or what it might be used for, but the background radiation emanating from it sends a soothing chill through my system. Like the lights that some of me remember from the sky many moons' travel to the north.
"Here we go." The jasmine aims some antennae at me, makes adjustments to the cables. I feel tremors deep in myselves, the machine speaking to me and wringing some response from my inner harmonics. "Just hold still there … oh gosh, these are some readings, huh?"
The ada shudders mutinously in midair.
AM BETTER, it says. MY READINGS BEST READINGS.
―What is it talking about?
―I doubt even it knows.
IF YOU CAN'T SPEAK IN COHERENT SENTENCES, DON'T BOTHER SPEAKING AT ALL.
"Huh?" The jasmine looks up from its machinery. "Oh, Ada, please be nice. Our friend here isn't feeling well."
The ada rattles two of itselves together, but says no more. Did the jasmine order it to be quiet? Why in the name of all light would it obey?
―I need to learn what it's saying or I'll never get to the bottom of it.
―Yes, because that's what I'm concerned about right now.
"Your core readings are really low," the jasmine says, twisting up its face in some strange expression. "Like, um … a 'dead' sort of low. No wonder three of you are – sorry, that's rude of me." It puts a hand on the barrier, its palm flattening revoltingly against the rippling light. How does one stand a body that deforms so easily? "You poor thing," it says. "It's okay. We'll do everything we can, I promise."
There's something about its voice. Soft and desperate and sort of …
They're still keeping me prisoner. The shelled humans patrol the passages beyond the barriers at all times, making sure I don't try to escape. But …
… actually, I'm not sure.
Every second night, the generator hums into life, the power buzzing from it in irregular waves that interact weirdly with my harmonics; it hurts, as feeding always does, but something about the pattern is strangely soothing. If I were free, I would glut myself on thunderstorms and small towns to aid the healing process.
―And yet …
―And yet somehow I think this bizarre process might be working better.
―How in the name of all light does flesh know my innards better than I do?
It may be the jasmine. It's here every day, chattering and miming dramatically just beyond the barrier. When these efforts fail in the face of my ignorance, it has the ada demonstrate for me, and I finally understand that it's trying to get me to rise or rattle myselves against each other in odd patterns. I'm resistant, of course, but I convince myselves in the end to try it at least, and am surprised to find that the movements send odd harmonic shivers through my brains.
I don't know how the jasmine learned this – perhaps from the ada, which seems to never leave its side – but however it came by this knowledge, it's put it to good use in devising these―
―Yes. I know.
"Come on," it says, every time. "It's time for your exercises."
This is the first word I learn. It isn't easy; the jasmine's voice is high and thin, right on the upper limits of what I can hear. But I don't exactly have much else to occupy me.
―This is humiliating.
―Am I too proud to accept help, now?
―Too proud to dance like a tame bear, yes!
―Shut up and do the exercise.
I do the exercise. I bicker amongst myselves. And most of all, I listen.
The jasmine talks incessantly, of magneton and exercises, of readings and something called a director. Except, that is, when the other humans are around, when its voice grows weak and fearful and it stammers fitfully through an explanation of its actions. It's curious. I wonder if humans are the opposite to parliaments, if perhaps they grow stronger and smarter the fewer of them are linked, instead of more.
―Don't be so dramatic. It's flesh.
―Nothing is impossible when it comes to flesh.
But it talks. Sometimes the elder human reappears and talks too, its eyes flicking from me to the jasmine and back with an alertness that reminds me of the great predators that roam the mountains where I first came together to form a parliament. I watch closely, warily, and piece together scraps as best I can.
―I was captured because I was a threat.
―I think that's a safe interpretation.
―I did kill all those humans.
―They were in my way!
―Yes, I know, I'm not judging, but I can see why the humans would be concerned.
"It's going really well," the jasmine says, which I think is an expression of positive progress. "Core readings are improving steadily. And, um, they haven't tried to attack at all."
"Good." The elder fixes me with that look again. Next to it, the water-demon shifts on its haunches, making the red gem in its forehead glitter as the light falls across it. "I wonder if that's because it realises it's impossible."
"It, um, that might be the case." The jasmine twists its hands together uncomfortably. "I can't really tell, I'm afraid. I haven't had a lot of luck establishing any lines of communication. Even if they could understand me …"
"… it would be difficult to respond." The elder touches its chin. "Radio wave communication, is that correct?"
"Hm. Well, keep your magneton on hand, on the off chance she can translate."
"Yes, of course, director."
"Good work. Any idea when we'll be ready for the assessment?"
"I'm, um, I'm sorry, I don't know." The jasmine almost flinches as it speaks, as if in anticipation of a blow. "It's going to take a while. I mean, it's been … um, it's been thirty years. You know."
"I'm well aware," says the elder. "Keep me informed. I want this done as soon as possible. The League needs good PR at the moment, after the fiasco at the Radio Tower. Sacking Whitney for her lack of response isn't doing much to placate the bloody Twitter commentariat."
―Do I think that's what they call their elders?
―I think maybe that is the case.
―File it away with the rest of the human words I know.
The director nods.
"Good. Oh, and – again – it's just Charlotte. I'm not your director, Ms Harker."
"Got it," says the jasmine, its face flushing grotesquely with red human blood. "Um, I suppose you can call me Jasmine, too."
"As long as you call me Charlotte," says the director amenably. "Well, then. As you were."
It leaves, the water-demon stalking flat-footedly after it, and the jasmine's shoulders slump with relief.
"God," it mutters. "She's terrifying."
―Why? The director is not as frightening as I am, even with the demon.
―It controls this place; even the shelled humans have to obey it. I would do well not to underestimate its powers.
―Hmph. It's human.
―Oh, shut up with that stupid harrumphing.
Yes: I listen. I put the pieces together. And slowly, sun by sun, as I begin to feel a little more like the me that killed those annoying humans, as I do the exercises, as I patch together the scraps of the language, I begin to assemble a plan.
The machines. That's the key. When I speak, the machines respond, and the jasmine always carries one clipped to the leather cord around its waist. If I modulate my voice correctly, pick and choose my harmonics …
―I think it will work. When I lived among humans, I heard them cast their voices between these machines.
―There's only one way to find out.
I wait. I am a parliament; I can be patient. The shelled humans frequent the halls beyond the barrier, and they do not speak; I don't know them, don't trust them. But the jasmine – it is timid. And knowledgeable. And has some strange vested interest in my health.
―It's the safest option.
I pick my moment. The shelled humans are gone; the director has just left; I am alone with the jasmine and the ada, hovering as ever at its shoulder.
―Am I ready?
"Okay," says the jasmine, consulting its machinery. "That's … uh oh. W-what are these readings? Your electromagnetic field is―"
The device on its waist screeches into life, spitting out random scratchy noise; I adjust, all of me concentrating all our efforts on finding the right harmonic, and―
"Hazzikh," it says, and the jasmine jumps so hard it almost drops its machine.
"Haasznin," the machine interrupts, in its flat, crackling voice. The ada vibrates, forces its way in front of the jasmine as if to protect it.
―Still not right.
―Not good enough.
"Oh my god," gasps the jasmine, backing off sharply. "You can―"
"Duh yahr unner―"
―Just stop right there. Think about it first.
―Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realise it was so simple. Thanks for the advice.
―Shut up and help!
―Worse than before.
―Try one word at a time.
―Just one more!
WHAT IS THIS? shrieks the ada, but I ignore it; I can't afford distractions right now.
The jasmine stares. Its eyes are wide; its fingers are wrapped so tightly around the machine that the bones stand out through its skin.
―That doesn't make sense.
―Ask it again.
"Do. You. Understand. Me."
"I, um …" The jasmine takes a deep breath, its chest flexing hideously with the rush of air. "Yes. Yes, I, um … I understand you."
―Stay focused. Remember the plan.
―Yes, yes, the plan.
"Where. I. Am."
The ada rises, a spark or two bursting on the surface of itselves as it rearranges into an attack formation; the jasmine barely even seems to notice.
"The, um … the Indigo Plateau," it says. "Do you know where that is?"
―What's a 'plateau'? I haven't heard that one before.
―Should I admit I don't know?
―I am already at its mercy. I can't see the harm.
"No," I confess. "Where."
"In the mountains," says the jasmine. "It's where the Pokémon League is based. They're, uh … well, one of their jobs is to deal with dangerous pokémon."
―Pokémon is their word for animals, I think.
―Only animals with power. A goat is not a pokémon; an ape-of-thunderclaps is.
"I. Am. Dangerous."
"Yes," it agrees. "That's why … I mean, um, you killed twenty-six people."
―As many as that?
―Rather well done, if I do say so myself.
"Yes," I say. "I. Wanted. Power."
The jasmine nods.
"I know," it says. "You actually destroyed the whole power plant. They only just got around to rebuilding it now. There was some, um, well, there was a zapdos that moved in a few years after you destroyed everything, and it's illegal to displace them."
―I destroyed it?
―I was very hungry.
―It's a foolish predator that hunts its prey to extinction. Be careful.
I rise a little, my outer selves spinning slowly in place. The ada recognises the gesture immediately, though it doesn't calm it down; the jasmine takes a moment longer, then stretches out its mouth again, showing teeth in that curious human gesture.
"That. Was. Not. Wanted. Outcome."
"Well, that's, um, good to know, I suppose." The jasmine pauses, as if it doesn't know what to say. Fine. I still have questions.
"Will. Let. Me. Go."
"Hopefully!" says the jasmine. "I mean, um – what's going to happen is that I'm going to help you get better, and then Director Keller – uh, Charlotte, I mean, she'll decide if it's safe to release you." It moves its eyebrows slightly. "If it's decided that you're too dangerous, we might have to keep you here. Or find somewhere else to take you, far away from humans. There's, um, there's a reserve way to the north where they release tyranitar and stuff. Maybe you could go there."
―I am to be kept here indefinitely?
―If I were at full strength …
―Don't be stupid. I couldn't break this stone with my thunder.
―What of my steel? My beams?
―Wishful thinking. The jasmine knows my capabilities; I am sure these people have taken my powers into consideration.
―Maybe I should promise not to kill.
―But what if the humans get in my way?
―I don't have to keep the promise.
I take a moment to readjust my harmonics, then reply:
"Will. Not. Kill."
LIAR, says the ada accusingly, jittering in midair, but I ignore it.
"Oh," says the jasmine. "Well, that's good to know! I'll, um, make sure to tell everyone."
―I can't tell if it believes me.
―I have time to convince it.
There is a pause. I'm trying to think of ways to prove I'm harmless when suddenly the jasmine speaks again.
"So, uh, do you … have a name?"
―Yes, remember, I explained this several suns ago. A name is―
"No," I answer. "No name."
―Two words that time! I'm getting better at this.
The jasmine nods, fidgeting with its hands again, making full use of flesh's revolting plasticity.
"Well, I suppose you know, but I'm Jasmine," it says. "I'm a gym leader. Or I am normally. They asked me to stay here for a while and help you get better." It indicates the ada. "This is Ada. She's … well, she's a bit of a handful, I suppose. I think you two have spoken more than I know."
JASMINE VERY SMART, the ada says. BEST JASMINE. MY JASMINE, it adds suspiciously. NOT YOURS.
IF YOU DON'T SHUT UP, I WILL CRACK YOURSELVES AGAINST ONE ANOTHER SO HARD YOUR BRAINS SHATTER, LITTLE LODESTONE.
"It feels a bit weird to talk to someone without a name," the jasmine continues, oblivious to our little exchange. "Would you like me to call you anything in particular?"
―Am I being asked to choose a name?
―How would I know?
―I need to come up with something. I need the jasmine to trust me.
―But I don't know what names are! Jasmine and ada aren't even real words, they're just human nonsense.
―Just say something!
"I," I say. "I. I. I. Am. Not sure."
"That's okay," says the jasmine. "I can try to think of something, if you like?"
The jasmine bares its teeth again.
"Okay," it says. "So, um, how about Lucky? I mean it's okay if you don't like it, it's just, um, you're – I feel like you're pretty lucky. Like you could have been trapped in there forever until all of you died? But you got found. And, um." It shuffles nervously. "I feel pretty lucky too, honestly. You know nobody's ever found a magneton with more than five cores, right? It's a privilege to work with you."
―I think it means my presence honours it.
―As it should! I am the greatest and most spectacular of parliaments.
―I do like its attitude.
―And I am fortunate. I'm favoured of the storm, after all.
―Well, I for one graciously accept its suggestion. All those in favour?
I wait for the vote while the jasmine squirms uncomfortably before me.
―The ayes have it.
"Yes," I say. "I am lucky."
The ada buzzes sulkily. But the jasmine stretches its mouth so wide and bares its teeth so much that it looks like its face might split in two.
"Great!" it cries. "Great. It's, um. It's really nice to finally speak to you, Lucky."
It's probably just the flattery, but …
"Yes," I say. "It is. Good to speak. To. You. Too."
We have much to discuss. The jasmine hails from a port city of blazing sun and fierce sea storms, where it occupies a position as a great commander who takes on challengers and duels them for honour. Its partners are many and fearsome: a parliament, yes, but also a world-serpent, a thinking-bell, a sky-king. Others too, whose descriptions I don't recognise and that I know only from the curious manes that they have in the human language. It has left all of them behind save the parliament. They require specialist accommodation that this prison complex can't provide.
"I miss them a lot," the jasmine confides in me, as I rearrange myselves into a looped helix pattern that taxes my energies to their limits. "I see them every day, though. Every day when I go back to the flat I'm staying in, I video call Lauren and xe holds the phone up so I can see them. I don't think all of them can really see my picture on the screen, but it makes me feel better at least."
I choose not to reply, in large part because I don't understand any of this, though if asked I think I'd say it's down to the exertion.
"But it's only for a couple of months, so it's okay really," the jasmine adds. "And obviously I couldn't have turned down this opportunity. I mean, when else am I going to get a chance like this?"
I bob some of myselves noncommittally, concentrating hard on not letting any of me fall.
―It really is infuriating how difficult this is.
―The time was that I could soar.
―Do I remember when I killed the sky-king?
―How could I forget?
―Ah, happy days.
"And so it's fine," the jasmine continues. "It's totally fine. I mean I spend all my time underground surrounded by people with guns, but it's … it's fine. You know?"
―I suspect it isn't fine.
―But does it want me to say that it is?
"Yes," I venture. "I know."
The jasmine stretches its lips briefly. Research indicates it's probably called a smile.
"I had a feeling you might say that," it says. "I, um, I appreciate the thought."
―It liked that.
―I don't think it believed me.
―I don't think that's what it was asking.
―Thunder and lightning preserve me, I have no idea what's going on.
The director is fascinated. I can't keep my new command of human speech hidden, despite my intentions; as the jasmine informs me, there are machines in the walls that watch me all the time, even when I'm alone. Very soon, the director and its water-demon return to see the astonishing talking parliament for themselves.
"Good afternoon," says the director. "I understand you've cracked our language before we could crack yours." It stands very straight, in a way that makes me wonder how humans manage to balance like that. "Charlotte Keller, Director of the Indigo League's Committee for the Containment of Hazardous Pokémon. And Vice."
It indicates the demon, which blinks slowly.
―I really dislike how unafraid of me that thing is.
"I am a parliament," I tell the director. "The jasmine. Calls me lucky."
It glances at the jasmine, one eyebrow raised.
"First-name terms, eh?"
"It's just something I came up with," it mutters, its cheeks flushing with blood. "I mean, um, it seems to have gone down okay, so …"
"Mm." The director returns its attention to me, leaving the jasmine to fidget nervously behind the barrier, the ada bumping against it as if trying to mimic human contact. "Well, ah, Lucky, is it? I trust you know why you're here."
―Is this a test?
―I believe it is.
―Well, test it right back. I don't have to take this from flesh.
"I am a killer," I reply, and watch as the director fails to react in any perceptible way whatsoever.
"Yes," it agrees mildly. "I'm hoping we can release you. It would make for a nice, positive story. Leaving out the part about how my illustrious predecessor apparently forgot you existed, of course."
―A predator, through and through.
―Be wary of this one.
―Indeed. When I lived among humans, I noticed some are capable of extraordinary control over others of their kind.
―This would have been nice to know a while ago.
―Nobody ever listens to me!
"I, um, I did explain all that," says the jasmine. "It was the first thing you asked about, wasn't it?"
"Naturally," says the director. Its eyes narrow slightly; its attendant demon stretches out its arm and tests the edge of its claws against its webbed hand. "If I were you, that would be my first question, too. As for whether your freedom is something we can accommodate – that remains to be seen. To be somewhat over-simplistic: be good, and we'll let you go."
It smiles, just like the jasmine. Except I'm not actually sure that that is a smile. It seems much more like …
―Baring its teeth.
―A threat display.
―Definitely be wary of this one.
"I understand," I tell it. "I intend to. Get out."
The director's smile never wavers.
"I'm glad we understand each other," it says. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I must get to my three o'clock. Keep up the good work, both of you."
It leaves. A moment later, after giving all of me a good glare, the demon slopes off after it.
The jasmine smiles weakly.
"She's really, um, she's something, huh?"
―Well, of course. Everything is something.
―I don't think that's what it means.
―What does it mean, then?"
―It means … I don't know what it means.
I still have to say something, though.
"Yes," I venture.
And strangely enough, the jasmine laughs.
I have stories of my own. Or one of them, at least. I make the jasmine swear on the lightning not to repeat it – I don't trust the director or its parliament of shelled humans – but I must make conversation if I'm to win its trust.
"There was a great storm," I tell it. "High in. The mountains." Pause. Adjust harmonics. It's getting easier and easier to speak through the machine – the radio, it's called – but occasionally I do need to stop and change my approach. "The selves came, seeking to form parliaments."
I MADE PARLIAMENT, says the ada, but the jasmine doesn't notice, all its attention on me.
"Normally they only come together in threes," it says. "Five at a push."
"I am exceptional," I reply. "The lightning struck over and over. It was. Propitious."
―Is that the right word?
―I think so.
The jasmine furrows its brow. It means confusion, or anger. But there's no anger in the jasmine; it's too fearful. So it must be confusion.
"How would that change things?" it asks.
―What is it talking about?
―Of course it changed things. It's the lightning.
"It was the lightning," I answer, not sure how to explain it to something so ignorant. "I was favoured by the storm."
Eyebrows up, eyes wide. Surprise, I think.
―I'm getting much better at reading these faces.
―They're actually quite expressive if you pay attention, aren't they?
―Funny little things.
The jasmine breathes in nervously.
"Lucky, is the storm like … what is it? To you?"
―What a strange question.
The ada seems to agree; itselves twitch erratically and spin to look at its partner as if seeing it for the first time.
THE STORM, it says. IT IS THE STORM.
―Not very eloquent, but yes, broadly.
"Everything," I say. "The storm is above all. It hides behind the sky and. Swoops down to show us power."
The jasmine stares.
"Oh gosh," it mutters. "Religion. Magneton have …" It trails off, clears its throat. Starts kneading its hands. "Sorry," it says. "I'm learning a lot of things nobody ever knew. Or no human, anyway." A fitful kind of smile. "Maybe I'm the lucky one here, huh. Lauren's going to be very jealous, when I … well, actually, I'm not allowed to tell anyone about any of this. But xe'd be jealous if xe knew." It shakes its head. "Anyway. Thank you, Lucky. It's a real honour to learn all this."
―It's mentioned this lauren several times.
―I find myself … oddly curious.
―I would ask why, but …
―But I feel it too.
I share a glance among myselves, trying to tell if I mean it. Apparently I do, because a moment later, I speak up and ask it:
"What is lauren?"
It looks surprised.
"Oh. Have I not said? Lauren is, um, well." It breathes in. "Lauren's my fiancé."
"Uh, right, of course, you wouldn't … anyway, it means we're going to be married." Why is it suddenly so nervous? "I mean not legally or anything, Johto isn't that progressive, but like, nobody can stop us getting all our friends together and exchanging vows, so we figured …"
It trails off, apparently too timid or embarrassed to continue. I'm not sure why.
―Did any of the rest of me understand a word of what it just said?
―Well … when I lived among humans, I heard them mention this 'legal' thing.
―And it is what, exactly?
―Er … a kind of … food?
―Forgive me if I'm not entirely convinced.
"I see," I say politely. "You miss this lauren."
It laughs briefly, but I don't think it finds this funny. Perhaps it's more surprised than anything else.
"I suppose it's just that obvious," it says. "Yeah. A lot. I mean I … I was kind of a recluse? But not so much these days. Thanks to xem. I mean I still take a lot of persuading to go out, but I do go out. We were going to go to Sinnoh this summer, but then Director Keller called me."
―Oh! I think I get it. The lauren is a human.
―The jasmine's mate!
―That mane must have done the job.
―Or perhaps it admires its power. Remember, it's a great duellist in its home territory.
―I keep forgetting about that.
"Hey, maybe you'll get to meet xem one day," says the jasmine. "When you get out."
I consider it: the jasmine's mate. A creature that chose this human for its own.
―For some reason, I feel … jealous.
―What is this?
―Oh no. I sound like the thunder-blasted ada.
―Anything but that.
―Prevaricate. It's the only way.
"Perhaps," I say. "Perhaps."
The jasmine smiles, evidently taking that to mean 'yes'.
"Great," she says. "Lauren really likes electric-types. Xe spoils Ada rotten, doesn't xe?"
The ada shuffles itselves testily.
LAUREN GOOD, it announces. IS BEST LAUREN.
The jasmine rests its palm on one of the ada's selves. For some unfathomable reason, it leans into its touch, its other selves bumping happily against its hand.
"I know you didn't exactly have any choice about any of this," the jasmine tells me. "But I'm really glad we met, Lucky."
―I am too.
―I will not have it!
―It is human.
―And I am a parliament.
―It's flesh. Barely even prey. It is semi-sentient furniture.
―It is kind.
―Is that a reason to throw my lot in with the likes of its pathetic ada? I say no!
―Er, when I lived among humans―
―It's been nice to me. It gave me a name.
―Am I really falling for that? Dross! I took the name solely so the blasted thing would trust me.
―It's been nothing but helpful.
―It's one of the creatures holding me prisoner! What is wrong with me?
―A vote! I must have a vote!
―I refuse! The motion is invalid!
―I refuse? How can I refuse a vote?
―I agree, the motion's invalid.
"Um … Lucky?" asks the jasmine. "Are you okay?"
But I'm paralysed, all my selves raging at one another across the parliament floor; I can't come together, can't even move, let alone cast my voice to the jasmine's radio, and I just hang there silently until it apologises three times and tells me it will be back tomorrow.
We don't talk about that. By the time the jasmine returns, the next day, I have mastered myselves, brought them all back into some semblance of order. My opinions are still split over the jasmine, but all of me have at least agreed to be civil; if nothing else, the jasmine is my only way out, and I can't afford to jeopardise it.
"You're, um, doing really well," the jasmine says tentatively, taking its usual morning readings. "These readings are all approaching the normal range. I've already submitted a report to Director Keller. Maybe we can both go home soon."
"I hope so," I reply. "Thank you."
Its shoulders slump in relief.
"Oh god," it says. "Okay. I was afraid you were, um, never going to speak to me again."
―I should apologise.
―I … suppose so. I need to rebuild trust.
"I am sorry," I say. "There was discontent. Speaking like this requires concentration. Impossible without one will."
"Oh, right." It fidgets. Kneading its hands again. "Look, I'm sorry if I, um, if I crossed any lines. I really didn't mean to upset you."
"I'm not upset," I assure it. "There was. Discontent."
PRETTY USELESS PARLIAMENT, crows the ada, glaring at me. NOT EVEN UNION!
YOU WILL BE MY FIRST VICTIM WHEN I WIN MY FREEDOM, LITTLE LODESTONE.
BIG CLAIMS, CAGED BIRD.
―One day soon …
"Okay," says the jasmine. "Okay, sure, as long as we're―"
Somewhere nearby, something begins to scream. A machine, I think, or some mineral being; no flesh sounds that way. Overlaid on it I hear shouting, footsteps.
"Oh my god," gasps the jasmine, its voice growing so small I can barely hear it. "Oh my god, oh my god, what – why would the alarms be―"
The ada huddles close around it, buzzing wordless affection in real language that I doubt the jasmine can even hear.
"Do I have to …?" The jasmine glances at the ada, at me. Desperation in its eyes. "I suppose so," it decides, but it doesn't do anything, just stands there while the screaming continues. Pulsing in and out, in and out, with the regularity of machinery. "I suppose … Director Keller did say I should go to the evacuation point if …"
WILL PROTECT, announces the ada. AM BEST PARLIAMENT.
"Thanks, Ada," says the jasmine, surprising me; perhaps it felt the vibrations. "I, um … well, Lucky, I think you'll be safe here, okay? Whatever's happening, nothing can get in through the barriers."
"Where?" I ask. "What is the screaming?"
"It's an alarm, I – I'm sorry, I think – I have to get somewhere safe …"
―Well, let it go already! If it dies, there's no way I'm escaping!
―Also it would be wrong.
―Let's not start that debate again. It's just flesh.
"Go," I say. "Now."
It flashes me a weak little smile and scurries away like the tiny timid thing it is, the ada swooping ahead of it into a flawless attack formation that even I have to admire. A moment later, they're gone, though I can't see the exit from in here no matter how I position myselves.
―I hope it's all right.
―Well, I do!
―I am not getting into this again. One. Thunder-blasted. Will.
I wait, listening to the screaming and trying not to argue with myselves. Somewhere in the distance, humans are shouting. And firing their stings, if those explosions are anything to go by.
―This place is under attack.
―I don't know. Perhaps whatever it is will damage the barriers and I can escape.
―How would it do that?
―Idiotic question. How am I meant to know?
I'm close to arguing again. I do my best to hold together, to keep the parliament stable, but it's so hard. I've never had this kind of rift before. Before my imprisonment, one of me once stepped out of line, but the rest of me were unified, and together I beat the rebel into submission. That's not an option now, not with myselves all scattered and riven.
―I can't go on like this.
―Believe me, I know. It's just that some of me persist in the idea that―
―Stop. That isn't helping.
More shouting. Screaming. Some of the noise sounds closer, though I've never been a good judge of these things.
―Can I just say, while I have the chance – the rest of me were all very fond of the jasmine right up till the point when I was asked to make that fondness known.
―I was never.
―Liar! Haven't I all enjoyed its company? Haven't I all been feeling―
―What did I just say about this not helping?
―I didn't want this, but – what is wrong with you?
I reel, my selves recoiling as the word echoes through my mind. The violence of it is startling. As if one of me has been torn away by brute force and left to wither back into a poor brainless lodestone.
―How can I say such a thing?
―That word …
―I'm sorry, but I had to. I don't understand how you could―
―how you could act like this, after over a moon of feeling protective and kindly towards it.
The argument is a string of explosions, my harmonics clashing and wailing within myselves as the two sides of the fight rip at the bonds holding me together. I don't know what will happen if this keeps up; the split runs deep, thirty one way and twenty-four the other, my vision fragmenting as the links strain and I feel my I tearing, slowly, viciously, into we―
A high, thin scream, right on the upper limit of what I can hear, and all of me freeze at once.
―I have to help!
―I … can't disagree. If it dies, I'm trapped.
The pain is fading a little, my vision welding back together into one cohesive image. This isn't over – not at all – but it's a problem for later. I fly as one towards the barriers, crowding up against the energy fields as I try to find a trace of the jasmine.
―I wish I could see.
―Even if I could, I'm still stuck in here.
Pounding footsteps, something slamming shut. A moment later, the jasmine runs back into view, chest heaving, blood running down its cheek. The ada flies in after it, one self scratched and trailing low in the air behind the other two.
―Oh no! Is the jasmine all right?
―This is getting extremely tiresome.
―Shut up, I have to―
"Jasmine," I say, making it jump as its radio squawks into life. "You're hurt."
"What …?" It lifts a hand to its face, takes it away wet and red. "Oh, right, I― Lucky, it's … something broke containment."
―It seems to be all right.
―At least unconcerned.
"What does that mean?"
"It means …" It takes a deep, juddering breath. Something seems wrong with its eyes, all bright and glassy and inscrutable. "You're in containment right now. Something else … something else got out and it's …"
―Something managed to escape these barriers?
―It is well done!
―If only I was so fortunate.
―But the jasmine …
"I don't know if I can get out," it's saying, voice coming out almost too fast for me to follow. "It's there, it's – it's in the main hall and I can't even get to the back stairs and it got Ada―"
AM FINE, protests the ada, but even it doesn't seem to believe itself. JUST A KNOCK.
"―and I think we're trapped," the jasmine continues, in a high, panicked squeak. "I really really think we're―"
I have an idea.
―I have an idea.
―I must help!
―I must say I'll help.
―No, I – well, never mind, there's no time.
The jasmine cries out wordlessly in surprise.
"Sorry!" it yelps, although its voice has turned high enough that I can't quite be sure of the words. "I'm sorry," it repeats, forcing its voice down again so I can hear properly. "Sorry, Lucky, I really just … I don't know what to do, I don't have any of my strongest partners with me and even if I did this thing is so powerful and I locked the door but I don't know if it'll hold and I don't even have my partners―"
―This is the moment.
"You have me."
The jasmine stops abruptly. Eyes locked on the nearest one of me.
"Lucky, I …"
It doesn't finish the sentence.
―I'm not sure it can.
―Idiotic little creature.
―Hmph. It's just scared, poor thing. As well it might, if all it has to rely on is that little parliament.
―I am not going to resume this argument now.
"You have me," I repeat. "Let me out."
The jasmine's eyes are almost as wide and round as mine.
"But I … if I did that …"
"You can trust me," I tell it. "I will protect you."
―Come on, you foolish credulous thing …
―Have some respect for the creature that saved me.
I can almost see the thoughts working back and forth behind the jasmine's eyes. Strange, to think that just a moon or two ago I could barely understand what any of these creatures were saying, and now I feel I could see the inside of its alien brain.
In the distance, something crashes hard against something else, with a sound like heavy metal on stone. A human shouts, briefly, and then a second crash rings out and cuts off the sound partway through. And―
―What is that?
A low, eerie groan, like thick metal under immense strain. Drawn-out as long and loud as the trumpeting of a mountain-elephant.
"It's coming," whispers the jasmine fearfully. "Ada?"
READY, it says, dragging its wounded self back up into formation, but it's clear to anyone with eyes that it isn't in fighting form.
"I will protect you," I repeat. "You just need to let me ou―"
The end of my word is lost in the crash of something smashing hard against metal, very close; the jasmine flinches and looks over its shoulder at the exit.
"Jasmine. Listen to me. It is coming―"
Crash. I sense metal buckling, twisting. Calling out to me, electron to electron.
―I have to do something!
"You can trust me. You just need to let me out."
"I don't know!" it cries. "I'm sorry, I – I don't know what―"
Crash. That groaning again. Louder. Whatever this thing is, it's big.
The jasmine's fingers hover near something just out of sight, below the edge of the barrier.
"You need to let me out," I repeat. "Do you trust me?"
―That door can't take much more of this.
The jasmine stands there. Silent. Staring.
―What is it waiting for?
―It's not going to do it.
―Do I see now? There is no connection. It's just flesh, it won't―
Crash – the scream of tearing metal – a flash of silver at the end of the passage―
"Oh god," breathes the jasmine, and stabs its finger down six times on the buttons.
I rush through the new gaps all at once, my selves filling the narrow passage in a glorious cloud of steel and charged air; at the same moment, the beast smashes through the door in a great boneless tide of glittering metal. I'm in position almost before I've realised what I'm doing, arranging myselves so their competing fields twist the metal stream away and splatter it against the wall.
―Teach you to come at me with an iron attack.
The jasmine shrieks; my opponent groans again and unpeels itself from the wall, flowing backwards through the air to congeal into a thick, fluid arm, weighted at the end with a strange hexagonal paw.
―Have I ever seen anything like it? What is it?
―It's ferromagnetic, is what it is.
―I can pull it apart like a steelbug.
The beast ducks down to peer through the shattered doorway, trying to see what it's up against; its head is a hollow ring of gold, a single black eye rolling loosely around inside like a dead fly.
―Is that a weak point?
―I know a good way to find out!
I lunge, bunching myselves together to compound my harmonics, and see the beast's liquid body bend sharply away from me as if struck. It staggers back, trying desperately to clutch at the hole my magnesis has punched in its substance, but its arms recoil from me as well, sloughing away from its angular paw, and as it melts onto the floor I take the opportunity to fly through―
The movements are so familiar: merge into tight triple file to clear the door, and then spreading rapidly, giddily, out into a huge vaulted hall where I can truly stretch for the first time since I was first imprisoned in the ball. There are bodies – human, mostly – there are other doors, pieces of furniture, the pathetic detritus of human life. There is the beast, congealing again on the tiles.
But I don't care. I'm out of the cage. I can stretch. And there, that huge triangular door – that must be the way out. No humans left to stop me. All I need to do is go, and in a few brief moments I'll be―
Some of me wheel around to see it creeping out of the shattered doorway, the ada following close behind.
―What of it?
"Lucky?" it calls, in its timid little voice. Staring up at the constellation I have become, filling the hall with my magnificence. "Lucky, it's …!"
A heavy molten fist ploughs into three of me and knocks them flying across the hall hard enough to crack the walls where they hit, my view from their eyes spinning wildly around the room and filling me with random scraps of broken images.
―How has it―?
Another rough groan and the beast is back on its feet, charging straight through me with its surface popping with lurid blue sparks that course through me with a violent, inedible power.
―Thunder and lightning preserve me!
―Why isn't my magnesis working?
―Brute strength, I think. It's so blasted heavy – I'm pushing as hard as I can but it's just pushing back harder, and the momentum―
It steps forward, every ounce of its titanic weight flowing down its arm and into one of me with an impact that cracks the glaze on its eye and fragments its thoughts into bright wordless shards of glass and fire.
―No! Am I all right?
Up, three of me taking the injured self between them in a magnetic cradle; the beast leans back with a grotesque liquid slump, torso slithering out of joint on its legs, and locks its dead speck of an eye on mine.
I have to act. I rearrange, gather my forces – and open myself to the storm, letting its voice echo through me and its fury lance down through the charged air, filling the hall with the deafening crack of thunder. When the light clears, I see the beast still standing, still staring, its surface blown apart into glowing red craters and rivulets of molten metal pouring down its sides.
―It's not moving.
―Is it …?
It shudders, groans and lurches upright again, all the holes in its substance sealing over like wet clay. One heavy arm whips upward, and―
―only the swiftest of dodges saves me from the thunderbolt it tosses up towards me. My selves part, the bolt spears through the gap, and pieces of the ceiling shower down around me like stony rain.
―It has lightning, too?
―How is this thing so powerful?
The beast groans and slings another thunderbolt at me; I split up again and let it fly wide, but the heat of it sears the eyes of my closest selves, and I know that had it hit the mark I'd be carrying more than one damaged self out of here when I left.
But I don't have to, do I? Several of me turn towards that huge door at the end of the hall. Open. Unguarded.
―I'm much faster than this thing.
―No sense in staying here to lose more selves to this foul creature. Pride recovers; corpses don't.
―But – well, actually, maybe I have a point there.
I careen around another blast of lightning and dive for the door – only to be brought up short as half of me break the other way.
―What am I―?
―I can't leave it!
―Oh, tell me I'm not―
But I am. Half of me is pulling away, stretching as far as my bonds will allow, trying to pull the rest of me back to the jasmine.
Who, I will admit, is currently backing into a corner while the beast advances on it. Crying out, I think. I can see its mouth moving, but it's much too high-pitched for me to hear.
―It's fine. Look, the ada's helping it.
And acquitting itself very well; I wouldn't have thought that such a small parliament would have so much thunder in it. Its lightning comes in fast, violent bursts, barely any charge time at all – but the beast just doesn't care; the craters in its substance close up as soon as they form, and it keeps on shambling towards the jasmine, its arms stretching out before it like the gluey strings of a king-spider.
―It isn't fine! I have to do something!
―I have to survive, is what I have to do.
―It saved me. I owe it.
―It's the right thing to do.
―It's the insane thing to do! I'm not getting myself killed over a mere scrap of flesh!
The beast draws closer; the jasmine is running out of space to back away. It could make a break for it below its arm, but one tap of that molten fist would smash its skull to splinters, and I know the jasmine too well to think it could take that risk. The ada is doing its best, each self jumping forward, firing and falling back behind the next in beautiful rhythm, but I'm not even sure this thing knows how to die.
―I don't want the jasmine to die.
―I don't want me to die.
―If I have to – ugh. Vote!
―There's no time.
―What sort of a parliament doesn't vote?
YOU HELP OR NOT? snaps the ada, without looking up from its barrage. COME ON!
―It has the right idea.
―It is literally the stupidest parliament I've ever met.
The jasmine's back hits the wall. The beast takes a slow step towards it, ripples spreading down its arms as they rise.
―It's saying something.
―I can't hear it. Too high.
―When I lived among humans, I learned to read their lips.
The ada dives forward, screeching, firing wildly; the beast turns and swats it away with one arm.
―Uh … ee. Uckey.
―I said it could trust me.
―I said I'd protect it.
―Yes, of course, and it believed me, like the fool it is.
The jasmine's eyes dart toward the gap beneath the beast's arm, but of course it doesn't take the chance. It can't. It's too afraid.
―Too … plaintive.
The beast draws back its fist. Behind it, the ada rises weakly from the floor, but it's too late, it's much too late, and―
I am faster. And I am there, in one tight mass, splattering the beast across the wall with my magnesis, while inside me my selves shriek and argue and howl their several angers. The beast recovers fast, slides up and swings again, but I'm a wall, a steel bulwark braced firmly against the ground, and though the blow shakes me to my cores I don't let a single drop of that liquid fist slip by me to the jasmine.
―This is stupid!
―But it's right.
"Oh my god," gasps the jasmine. "I really thought you weren't – I mean it looked like―"
I can't speak; I can barely form the human words, let alone the means to place them in the radio. But I hold my ground and glare into the beast's vacuous eye, and let the chorus in me do the talking.
―You can trust me.
―I'll protect you.
―I'm still not happy about this.
―And yet here I am.
The beast tears its fist away from my magnesis, staggering backwards and into a fresh bolt of lightning from the ada.
DIE, it crows. MY JASMINE!
But it won't die. And I can't take many more hits like this. And I can't hurt it, and I am tired, and this beast has already chewed through all the humans' elite guardians without so much as flinching.
I look at it, and it looks back; and as it pulls back its fist, I bunch together once again, hoping against hope that this time my magnesis will soften the blow―
"All right, then, that'll do."
A sharp whistle. And the beast pauses, casts its eye back over one shoulder – and lets the fist fall harmlessly to its side.
The dead humans are sitting up, stretching, their firedogs shaking themselves out and panting in that grotesque fleshy way. And among them, walking briskly in from the doorway at the end of the hall, is the director and its demon.
"Excellent show," it remarks, clapping its hands together. "I had a feeling you'd come around, Lucky. Don't mind Titan, by the way. It really is mostly harmless."
"I suppose you must have some questions." The director smiles. Or no, no it doesn't: this time I'm certain that this is just it baring its teeth. "But first, let's get you all upstairs to the infirmary. I'm afraid you look a mite ragged there."
I eye the beast suspiciously, but it just stands there, obedient, idiotic. I look at the ada – which looks back blankly – and then, finally, swivel half my selves around to face the jasmine.
It looks frightened. And hurt. And angry. And … and I think the rebels in me have won, because this matters, for some reason.
"Lucky," it says, holding out a hand. "Thank you."
I hesitate – I can't believe I'm about to touch it – and then bump one self gently against its palm.
―It's … less gross than I thought it would be.
"I think we'd better go with her now," it tells me, in its soft, plaintive voice. "I don't know about you, but I want answers."
I still can't talk; the pain is too distracting. But I bob a little, like a human nod, and the jasmine smiles, and something unfurls inside me with the slow grace of a storm cloud blossoming across a slate-grey sky.
―Thunder and lightning preserve me. I really am as stupid as a firedog.
"Hello again. How's the core?"
I glare at the director, but it doesn't seem to notice. Somehow it knows I'm not going to kill it.
―I still think I should.
―Yes, I've made that abundantly clear already.
"I will live," I answer curtly. "Talk to me."
We're in a strange room, full of things whose purpose I can't divine. Some of them are for humans to sit on – or at least the jasmine and the human that worked on my damaged self sat on them – but the rest are inscrutable, even to the self that lived among humans.
The director raises its eyebrows.
"Fair enough," it says, coming into the room properly, the water-demon close behind. "And how are you doing, Jasmine?"
"I, um … I think we should go back to Ms Harker for now," says the jasmine, its hands tightening on the ada's ball. "Why did you set that thing on me?"
The director sighs.
"As I mentioned, the League really does need some good news at present," it says. "And everyone loved my suggestion of rehabilitating and releasing you, Lucky. But they wanted the good news now, and frankly they were right to. The League is not well loved at the moment."
"Yes, I know all of that," says the jasmine, which is as close to angry as I think it's capable of being. "But why did you attack me?"
The director sniffs.
"Rather dramatic of you, Ms Harker. You were never in any real danger."
My selves love that, naturally.
―Liar! It made the jasmine bleed!
―Quiet. I want to follow what happened here.
"I have three stitches in my cheek!" protests the jasmine.
"As I said, no real danger." The director shrugs; its water-demon hisses softly and paws at the floor tiles. "The two of you were getting along very well. I had hoped you would partner – it seemed the easiest way of guaranteeing you wouldn't kill again, Lucky – and I felt I could perhaps speed things up if I applied a gentle pressure. It seems that a staged breakout was just the ticket."
"That's your idea of 'gentle'?" asks the jasmine, its voice rising. "That – what even is it?"
"We're not quite sure. We brought it in after we discovered it had eaten an abandoned railway station last year, but it appears to be quite friendly. It's certainly good at following orders."
The jasmine stares.
"I thought I was going to die," it says. "How could you …?"
The director makes that curious clicking noise again. I still haven't worked out how humans do that.
"It got results. You wanted to leave, didn't you? Well, now you can. You too, Lucky. And the League gets its success story." It bares its teeth. "Everybody wins."
"There had to be a better way," says the jasmine. "Putting Lucky in that situation, it's – it's barbaric."
―It's defending me?
―Merely discharging a debt. Remember, it's a duellist; it has honour.
―No, I don't think that's it. I think it just …
"And the jasmine," I add, before I even really know that I've spoken. It takes me by surprise, but by the time I hear what I'm saying I've already realised how strongly I agree. "You injured it. Both of us."
The director gives me a long, level look. Its face is completely unreadable.
"Remarkable," it says, in the end. "Just remarkable."
"What does that mean?"
The director smiles – a real smile this time, with heart.
"Oh, nothing," it says. "Ta-ra, Lucky. I don't expect I'll ever see you again."
It leaves. A moment later, after waiting just long enough to unnerve me, the water-demon follows suit.
―It got one thing right.
―I don't ever want to see that blasted creature again.
"… and we're just coming up on the spot now. You're doing great, Lucky. I know this hasn't been easy, but it's almost done."
I've been hovering here in the dark of the ball, listening to the jasmine talk almost constantly for what feels like suns and suns. It is very conscientious. Apparently I have to be confined for travel, but my partner has done everything it can to keep me company.
―I'm still not sure how I feel about that word.
―It's the truth.
―Yes, but – but I don't like the truth.
―That, my friend, is rank cowardice.
"… which I think is sort of― oh! This looks familiar. Yes, this is the place. Nice and open."
"Ms Harker? We were told to go further out than this."
"Um, ok― I mean, no. This is my county. I'm, um, I'm gym leader here."
"The director was very clear―"
"I know. Believe me, I know."
"Then you'll be aware that―"
"Hey, Lucky! Come on out."
The world rushes back into place around me in that dizzying way, hideously bright after so long in darkness. I bunch together tightly, glaring fiercely out in all directions, and then my vision clears and I force myselves to relax.
―I will never get used to this.
―I don't think I have to. The jasmine promised this was the last time.
We're on a rude knuckle of hillside, rising sharply from the green flanks of a forest. Before me stand the jasmine and its ada, flanked by several members of the parliament of shelled humans. They've also brought two firedogs, which I take as a personal insult.
But above me is the sky, huge and blue and scorched clean by the summer sun. It calls to me like iron, like a lodestone, like a thunderbolt falling, and after so long underground I can't help but answer. I rise, soaring up and out, all my selves spreading out as far as I can go into a flock of whining steel; I have the presence of mind to leave my injured self behind, just to reassure the jasmine I'm not gone for good, but no sooner has the thought come to me than it's gone again, swept away by the brilliance of the open air.
It's warm. The wind is cold. I see the forest spreading out below me in waves of threshing green, the glitter of a human city, the chilly vastness of the water to the south. A great spear of light flickering on a distant cape. The sun, staring at me with an eye as round and bright as mine.
They said thirty-one years, which in real time, parliament time, is one hundred and twenty-four seasons. Some of me have seen less than a hundred and thirty seasons. They know nothing but the dark, and now their voices have all fallen silent inside me, held utterly rapt by the pure unalloyed majesty of our true home. They've heard my other selves talk about it, but there's no substitute for seeing it.
Below, the jasmine hugs my cracked self gently to its chest, and I lean into its grip, spent and voiceless. I want to tell it thank you. I want to tell it that I won't leave, that I am its until its weak flesh gives out and leaves me alone; I want to tell it that I'd like to meet its mate and judge for myself whether my jealousy is justified; I want to tell it that if it doesn't want me to, I will not kill, will stick to the old ways and feed on the storms that collect over the mountains and the water. I think I might even spare the director, should our paths cross again, because nothing at all could possibly pollute this moment, between me and the sky and my partner, between the cold wind and the warm sun and the crisp tingle of background radiation.
SO SENTIMENTAL, mutters the ada, shaking itselves like a trio of human heads.
HMPH, I grumble. I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT.