Disclaimer: Pokémon? Not mine. Original concepts, characters, and so on? Mine.
Author's Notes: This one is very different from what I normally write, at least in terms of chaptered fiction. I don't know how well it's going to work and it's been a very difficult style for me to write, but I liked the concept so I thought I'd give it a whirl.
This fiction should not interfere much with Clouded Sky, as it's already mostly finished aside from final proofreading and actual posting. So, uh, I guess just sit back and hopefully enjoy this one.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
-- Thomas Stearns Eliot
Chapter One: Birth
Item #00377C: A fragment of a text found near the largest of the gateways. Badly preserved, it is written on what appears to be an animal skin of some sort, using ink of unknown chemical composition, but probably a natural plant dye. A great deal of the writing has been rendered illegible, but the translation of the readable portion is as follows:
…is the beginning. The Traveler would do well to remember that the gate opens in both directions…
The first was panic.
It welled up from some unseen depths he didn't even know he had, a nameless urgency that screamed unintelligible commands to every cell in his body. His consciousness fled, scattered into gibberish at the touch of terror and confusion that closed in from all sides. He knew that something was wrong, terribly wrong, but he could not tell what; it screamed to him its importance and gravity, but still he could not comprehend it. He flailed blindly in the dark, knowing only his desperation and helplessness in the face of it, confused signals coming to him from every direction and falling unheeded upon deaf thoughts. The panic burned down into the deepest reaches of his mind, awakening instinct that had long been hiding in the darkest core of his being.
The first breath was like a gulp of cold fire; it swept into his untried lungs in a rush so sudden and violent that it was painful. He choked on it, the wordless screaming in his mind continuing, then desperately dragged down another lungful of the burning air. And this was followed by another, and another after that, not so urgent and needy now. It no longer hurt to breathe, or not at least in the way that it had in those first few horrible fractions of a moment. The waters of panic receded, giving way to other sensations. He realized that he had been struggling as violently physically as he had mentally, for there were dark, uncertain sensations of desperate movement, directionless and random and unashamed in their futility. Now he knew, too, that though the terror had seemed to last for dire minutes on end, it had been mere seconds, a comparison which to him was an unfathomable eternity. The pain in his chest, however, continued, demanding the attention of his newfound brain.
The second was a terrible, crushing pressure.
It was doubly horrifying for he that had never felt himself constrained to a physical form before and knew nothing of its limitations and sensations. Even the pain was something with which he was unfamiliar, and yet so ingrained into his deeper mind that he never questioned what it was. He had heard them speak often of pain, and even with only their hazy descriptions of the sensation to go by had connected it irrevocably with the indescribable sensation of discomfort that lanced through his chest.
Again panic began to rise, floating on the upward surge of adrenaline that thrummed through his veins, but his rational mind, having gathered its scattered dignity and reestablished itself as master of the situation, would not be so easily unseated again. He clamped grimly down on his fear, forcing himself back to a more calm state. Carefully he sifted through the information being given to him by his senses, senses utterly new to him and eager to report all that they took in. He realized that the crushing sensation increased when he drew a breath, especially a deep one, and was relieved when he exhaled—such a preposterous thing, he thought absently. His mind scrabbled about for a possible explanation for the strange pattern to his suffering, quite unused to dealing with problems of so solid a form and understanding, but at last it dawned upon him.
There was something on top of him. Whenever he took air in, he reasoned, his lungs must expand (and that was the situation, they were only too glad to report to him), and press harder against whatever it was that was holding him down against…against the ground. Experimentally, he tried moving his front legs. They rose only a few inches before they smacked into something solid and hollow that boomed as it was struck. For a moment he just reveled in the sound—it was so different than what he had imagined sound would be—but then set about exploring further. He continued to press upwards with his feet, and was rewarded as he felt the weight atop him shift, the pressure recede slightly. His muscles reported a slight strain, but nothing more. Curious, he threw all the power he had into upward motion, and with a terrible crash the weight fell away from him. He lay on his back as the echoes died, at last feeling somewhat comfortable, and wondered what was missing.
The third… the third was a strange sort of awe.
It was a strange feeling, the sensation of sensation. Before his awareness had encompassed a mere two dimensions, that which was before his eyes, and that which was behind: his sight and his mind. But now he could feel and smell and hear, and sometimes there were things that were some combination of them both, like the heartbeat that seemed to throb inside his head and in his ears at the same time. He'd wondered, sometimes, what made them so anxious, why they said it was too like being dead, to have no heartbeat, to not have to breathe or eat or sleep—to not be able to do so, except for sleep, and even then to have no realization of your dreams and only the faint awareness that time had passed. Now he thought he could understand, lying there. It was a comforting thing, to feel the blood surging through your body and the air rush in and out of your lungs. Perhaps he would even miss it, if he ever went back. But still, there was something missing.
He soon realized what it was. Of all these strange senses, he was still missing the only one to which he was accustomed. All that lay before his eyes was blackness, a curious blankness the likes of which he had only seen once before, when they had started disappearing all of a sudden, leaving holes in the world. But they came back soon enough; internal error, they said. Fixed now. But this sort of blackness was not that of total nothingness, some unrendered area that merely showed the fabric of the server through, without anything painted on it. This was a warm sort of blackness, a part of himself, and after a moment of pondering, he realized what he needed to do.
He opened his eyes.
It was not quite the revelation that might be expected. After all, he had seen before, though he had never heard or touched. So the basic concept was familiar to him, though what he observed remained totally alien.
The first thing that he noticed was the light. It was not like the light he was used to, which came from everywhere and nowhere at once. You didn't notice the light until you saw the shadow, which itself was nothing more than a smattering of darker pixels. The light was constant, never dim and never bright, even when you looked at the sun—or what they called the sun, at least. It was simply a lighter-colored circle hanging quietly in the sky, or an orangey glow along the horizon, depending on what time they said it was. He noticed that the others never looked directly at it, perhaps out of habit, but he had contemplated it more than once—it was so peculiar, that disc of whiteness hanging from the empty blue ceiling of the world.
Here the light had direction, and it stabbed down from one end of the room, tumbling over the various objects littered about the floor, and pooled in a corner. It had varying levels of brightness, fading off into dimness in the far, quiet reaches of the place. It left real shadows, dark and intriguing, wherever it passed but did not touch. The darkness did not worry him, only intrigued him, but the light itself was far more fascinating still. He felt an urge to go to it, and a sense of adventure in the notion of getting there.
The first thing would be to get off his back. For a moment he only pedaled his legs helplessly in the air, wondering at the sensation of gravity constantly attempting to drag them down (they called it gravity, right?), then awkwardly tried rocking side to side, shifting his newfound weight until he rolled awkwardly onto his side and, from there, onto his paws.
When he tried to stand his legs seemed unwilling to support him, protesting the weight of his rock-plated body and folding up again. Undaunted, he braced himself and tried again, holding himself uncertainly in the air and trying a shaky step. Slowly he grew more accustomed to moving his body around in this world. It was really not so different from the control that you had to exert to animate the digital construct that you inhabited in the computer system, but now there were forces that you had to work against and you could actually feel yourself moving. Feel; such a funny word, such an odd… well, feeling.
He lumbered unsteadily into the sunlight and squinted up into it, trying to pinpoint its source. It was trickling in through a cracked window set far up in the wall, but he could not focus on it for long, his eyes watering and protesting his looking straight into the intense brightness. Snorting, he lowered his snout and swung his head side to side, observing the room around him.
Nearby was the metal desk he had materialized under, now tipped over. The intricate computer equipment that had been stacked on top of it lay smashed on the floor, bleeding tangles of wiring and shards of broken plastic. There were similar desks, still intact, arranged in neat rows across that side of the room, each bearing a dark computer screen and accompanied by a rolling chair. Mounted on the far wall was a set of what appeared to be more computers; they had screens, at least, but these were different. Each was set into its own cubicle. He was puzzled, as the computers were far out of his reach. For a moment, he wondered briefly what sort of creatures would use them, but after a quick moment of contemplation, a grin spread across his rocky face. Humans, of course! How could he have forgotten?
There was really nothing else of interest in the room. A cluster of comfortable furniture was huddled across the room in front of a bank of windows, and a large counter dominated the center of the room. All manner of electronic equipment was huddled behind it, mysterious machines of unknown function without any attendant to operate them. All was silent and dark; dust drifted lazily through the motes of sunlight that were the only illumination in the room, the fluorescent lights in the ceiling as dark as the lifeless computers that dominated the strange environment.
Suddenly, he felt at a loss. He had never experienced a feeling of aloneness before, for there were always plenty of other pokémon in storage with whom to talk and play. It was not that he was afraid—for there seemed nothing sinister about the empty place, or at least nothing he could pinpoint, though he wondered why everything was so dark—but some feeling of comfort had left him, the comfort of knowing that if anything went wrong, there was always someone there to come running and save you.
Shrugging the strange sensation off, he turned to make his way over to the large counter, intending to investigate some of the electronics behind it, when he stepped on something that slid and rocked beneath his foot. Panic gripped him for the briefest moment as his already tenuous balance was thrown off and his heart briefly made its presence in his chest known with its frantic throbbing, but his body adjusted rapidly and compensated in a fashion so natural and instinctive that he was fascinated. It was strange how his body could already cope so well with this world despite the briefness of its existence here, he mused as he removed his foot from the offending item and backed off a pace.
The object that had tripped him up was initially unimpressive. No larger than one of the bigger pebbles that adorned the ground in some areas of the storage system and roughly the same shape, the only thing that initially interested him about it was its bright coloration: half-red, half-white. Such bold colors, he though. Why did his mind seem to insist that there was something important about them that lurked somewhere in his memory, just out of reach?
Puzzled, he put his face down as close to the strange object as he could and inspected it more closely. It was split down the middle, he decided, and there was a button on the front. How very odd…
And then the realization struck him with such force that he actually jerked his head up and stepped back again. Red-white, round, small, they said, small but dangerous. Pokéballl. That's what they've got you in, right now, that's how they caught you. But don't you remember being captured?
He shook his head. Why was that always the first question that they asked. "How did they get you?" He'd heard them discuss capture stories often enough, but never had one of his own to offer. And for all their stories and their earnestness, he'd never really believed that he'd had a pokéball of his own until just a little while ago (if it had been that). Here he was, then, looking at one from the outside for the first time.
Bending down again, he squinted at the small ball in fascination. But it was so tiny! He slid his foot next to it for comparison. Why, it wasn't even as large as one of his foreclaws. How could something so small ever hold something his size, or the size of a rhydon?
He wanted to know how it worked, burned to experiment, and yet was strangely reluctant to try anything. If there was one thing that he feared, it was going back to that place, if you could even call it that.
Some time ago (it seemed such a short while, but there was no way to tell—time was fluid in storage, as in any of the computer systems that were used to hold pokémon) he had abruptly been cut out of the server. At first he had been excited, joyful, even. Finally, he had been withdrawn! He would see the real world at last!
But as he soon found, the pokéball was not so luxurious as the vast storage grid. Although he still had no substance, he somehow felt cramped. There was no light, no computer-generated reality to entertain him, only flat blackness populated by his consciousness. Time stretched on for eternity in his unsleeping mind, and sometimes he worried that he had died and become lost in the Dark place, as the others called it. Sometimes he cried voicelessly into the blackness, begging to be released. Though he had no body, hazy ghosts of physical sensations began to assault him. Hunger, thirst gnawed at him, increasing his unease. He began to throw himself at the blackness that surrounded him, hurling himself against whatever mechanisms might be holding him within the horrible emptiness. They had said that it was possible to break out of a pokéball, if you could just learn how. And with a determination born of fear, he learned. At last something seemed to give in the darkness, and he exploded out of captivity, found himself in the world at last.
How long he had been trapped within his pokéball, he could not even begin to guess. It might have been days.
It might have been decades.
But now here he was. He was large, and the pokéball was small. If he needed to, he could escape again. What was the harm in trying?
Tentatively, he reached out with one of his foreclaws and pressed the button on the front of the pokéball, then leaped backwards. Nothing happened. No horrid energy whipped out of the device and tried to drag him within, no sucking vortex appeared to compress him to an impossible size. Inching cautiously forward, he peered into the now-open pokéball.
It was empty. The interior was just grey metal, a few sensors embedded in its surface. Surprised, he stuck his claw into it. Nothing there. No one there, he realized, discovering the unadmitted hope that had lurked in the depths of his mind.
Looking around, peering more closely at the ground now, he saw that there were many other pokéballs lying around. They were of every color and make, from the basic kind like the one that lay before him to the black and golden ultra balls and a few that were more fancifully decorated, lovingly decked out by the trainers which they belonged.
Then he realized what had happened. The others had talked about it, sometimes. A purge, they called it. When the power went down to the computer storage system, there was a special generator that would come online, just for enough time to void all pokémon from the server, dumping their pokéballs out into the last center at which they had been deposited. If the storage system was to ever lose power entirely, the information on any pokémon inside would be lost and the creatures themselves quietly vanish, lost forever to places unknown.
So this was a pokémon center, he realized. Strange. Hadn't they always said that the centers were bustling places, always full of life and energy? All trainers came to centers to heal their pokémon and chat and get a good meal… so where were they now?
No answer seemed forthcoming, the room remaining as silent and lifeless as ever. A strange feeling of unease washed over him, but he shook it away, turning his attention back to the pokéball before him. At least he wasn't alone. Other pokémon had been let out with the purge; the one that had occupied this ball must just have gotten free already.
Eagerly, he stomped over to the nearest pokéball and opened it. Empty. All right, the next one, then. Nothing. Well, what about that one over there?
Now beginning to feel almost frantic, he dashed clumsily over to the next pokéball, opening it. A hollow space gaped up at him. The next was the same, and the one after that, and the one after that. He had a moment of fright when he found his own pokéball. The instant he opened it, he was engulfed by a red light that abruptly imprisoned him in darkness once more. But now that he knew how to break out, he was free again almost immediately, hurled back into the world with a thrumming heart and rattled nerves. Kicking the pokéball away in a flash of fearful anger, he continued his search.
He looked high and low, opening every pokéball that he could find. All were mysteriously vacant, with no clue left of what had happened to their occupants. Surely they had just gone off somewhere else, he told himself. They were free and roaming around, and had seen no reason to stay in the center. But he couldn't be the last one to break free could he? He couldn't be the last…
Soon enough, though, there were no more pokéballs that he could find, and he stood in the middle of the center, peering agitatedly in all directions. No one else here. Why should he stay? Uneasiness was twisting his insides. He couldn't say why, but the center suddenly felt terribly wrong to him. It was not the lack of lights or the silence, but an emptiness that seemed to fill the building as it filled the pokéballs. He felt a desperate need to escape even as he chided himself for his foolishness. There was nothing to be afraid of, after all. But at the same time, there was no reason to stay.
He started towards what he thought must be the doors, for they were the only sections of wall that seemed to have divisions in them. The environments in the storage system were all natural, so he had never experienced the inside of a building before, and the others had had to explain the concept of doors to him several times.
Stepping up to what he hoped what was the door, his eye was caught by a red sticker affixed to the frame. He knew how to read, of course. Communication in the storage system was all text-based, as there was no sound. Intrigued, he read the urgent-seeming letters on the sticker.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, PUSH TO OPEN
Emergency? he thought. Well, perhaps this was, and perhaps this wasn't. But there was no one around to reprimand him anyway, so he set his snout against the door and pushed gently. It gave easily and he raised his head, peering into the boundless sky above him. He stepped out, the last child of a dead world leaving the womb at last.