Chapter Two: Alone
Field Journal, Day Three
The excavation continues to go well, as the desert has shown surprising mercy and not forced us to retreat into our tents to ride out any of the particularly violent storms for which it is renown. Not only that, but the hot, dry conditions near the surface of the sand lead to a remarkable level of preservation, and thus far the artifacts discovered have been simply stunning.
Most stunning of all, however, was the discovery of evidence that an entirely different culture had settled here in pre-Braillian times, before the climate became arid and the land desertified. In fact, some of the ancient buildings being studied now appear to have been actually built on top of the foundations of some older settlement, as though early Braillian colonists managed to drive off the indigenous people and then took over a large portion of their city for themselves. There have long been stories, of course, about an ancient civilization in this area that worshipped baltoy and claydol, but no concrete proof of any such culture until now. Strangely, however, there has been no evidence found of any struggle occurring during the period in which the Braillians settled the area, which makes the decline of their predecessors puzzling, as though they had already moved on or died out by the time the Braillians arrived.
However, just today a remarkable discovery was made in the form of what appears to be an ancient, pre-Braillian building, left remarkably intact. One of the first artifacts unearthed in the area was, intriguingly, fragments of an ancient wooden sign of some sort, decorated with traditional Braillian script that, when translated, reads "Do Not Enter Here, Ye That Value Your Immortal Soul."
The silence didn't bother him. He'd never experienced sound before or understood how a series of vibrations could be meaningful to a creature, and therefore was not unnerved by the quietness of the great city. Even the faint sighing of the wind around the solemn, quiet buildings was enough to startle him, sounding loud and clamorous to his untrained ears. It would have been far more terrifying for him to step out into the roar and rumble of a city awakened and full of life than it was for him to emerge into the great stillness of one that was no more than a corpse.
He clomped uncaringly down the deserted street, staring wide-eyed at the strange sights that surrounded him. The first was the pavement beneath his heavy feet, fissured and uneven and caked with decades of discarded bubblegum. The gravel and flecks of mica mixed in with the concrete fascinated him, and he stopped and inspected it more closely. After a while he shivered and looked away; no matter how hard he tried, he could not find where the pattern of gravel tiled and repeated. It seemed random, totally random, without rhyme or reason. The fact intrigued and somewhat disturbed him, for he was used to complete regularity in his environments, where you could, with a little observation, tell where one patch of grass met up with the next and determine the repeating pattern of leaves on a tree branch.
The cracks that snaked through the tortured cement worried him as well, for he had no concept of decay or broken things, used to a perfect pixilated world that never aged and never failed. It had not occurred to him, and would not for some time yet, that he was now bound to the death of this material world, that his own body and mind would fade and crumble and fall away to nothing beneath the heavy hand of time.
Tufts of grass and scraggly weeds had forced their way up through the old pavement in several places, and the sight of the thin green shoots reminded him of the hunger that had driven him to abandon the safety of his pokéball. He'd occasionally seen one of the herbivorous pokémon ruminating on a bit of the digitized vegetation or munching on a bit of fruit pulled from one of the trees, looking a little embarrassed about the whole thing. They felt no hunger, and had told him that of course they could not taste anything, but going through the motion of eating was somehow comforting in its own right.
Initially, he approached the plants with a wary curiosity, sniffing at them and puzzled by their unfamiliar scent. Instinct and need quickly drove him to try them, however. As he bit through the blades of the tall, unhealthy-looking grass, he experienced the sensation of taste for the first time. It was, he thought, some strange combination of smell and touch, indescribable and yet very familiar at the same time. The sound of his molars grinding together reverberated in the inside of his ears in a way that was somehow not unpleasant, and he wandered slowly from one clump of vegetation to another and, cropping each short in turn, savoring the sensation of eating. The others had been right; there was some sort of comfort in the process.
The sight of water glimmering in the depths of an ancient pothole attracted his attention, and he lapped the brackish liquid with the same sort of wonder that he had applied to eating. Thirsty as he was, he found only pleasure in the taste and texture of even the gritty dregs of the forlorn little puddle.
At last he found himself relatively sated and able to turn his attention away from the ground once more. The street stretched on for an eternity before and behind him, going he knew not where and he knew not for how far. He wondered briefly how far this world stretched. It was possible, if you were determined, to walk from one side of the storage grid to the other in not much time. You simply pointed your snout in the direction you wanted to go and let your feet take you in a straight line until the landscape started to look more familiar and repetitive than normal and you realized you had walked off the edge of the world only to be shunted back to the other side.
The sheer vastness of this place, in general, fascinated him. The digital world was built on a pokémon scale, but here the buildings dwarfed him and they seemed all the wrong proportions, tall and narrow and rigid, where he was low and broad and rather bumpy. It was not a world designed to cater to his needs, but to the needs of another kind—the humans. Again anxious excitement rose within him. Perhaps he would get to see one soon, just like he'd always wanted.
They had told him how the humans lived, in huge metal hives shot through with streets and wires and walkways, always swirling with activity. The largest hives were called cities, they said, and the smaller ones towns or villages. All of them were crawling with people and pokémon, each playing out their small life in service to some greater purpose or entity. But though the pokémon had observed the humans, some of them for all their centuries-long lives, none had ever discovered what exactly this was, what hive mind drove the humans through their short, frenzied lives. There was none of the precision and order of the beedrill colony, only hurried chaos and apparently arbitrary sprawl.
He would do anything, he thought, to see a human. To him the strange creatures held the same connotations as the vanished legendary pokémon: rare, mysterious, and powerful. As with most things, the others had had trouble describing them. They were something like Mr. Mime, and the females like jynx, they agreed, but taller and longer in the torso. Or most of them were, anyway. And they came in many different colors, with fur of all shades and maintained at different lengths and styles. Their eyes varied in color as well, and they wore different pelts over their bodies so that their real hide could not be seen.
How a group of creatures could ever be so varied, he couldn't imagine. But maybe all pokémon were like that as well. All the pokémon on the sever looked exactly like the others of their species. A meowth was a meowth was a meowth, unless one was a rare alternate-colored individual (they had tried to explain to him the concept of "shiny" pokémon, but he had never understood), and the only way that you could tell them apart was their manner of speaking and the way that they moved.
But here everything was so wild, untamed, varied. There was no regular pattern or unifying theme. The buildings crowding in on all sides seemed placed at random, wildly diverse and all crammed up next to one another without any apparent sense of purpose.
The longer he looked, though, forced himself to contemplate and consider the larger picture, the more he recognized that they fell into two distinct groups. Some of the buildings were clearly old—age, he thought, such a strange concept—with crumbling brick facades and a forlorn look about them. Gargoyles with faces pockmarked by acid rain and bodies caked with grime from the city air leered down at him with expressions far more monstrous than their carvers could ever have imagined, twisted by time into something even more hideous than they were once. They watched from the roofs of sprawling, ancient brick buildings, many of which were boarded up or half-consumed by fire. He could not recognize this, however, and stood for a while, fascinated at the sooty streaks that licked out from the remnants of one doorway, and wondered what might have caused them.
And from amongst these dead hulks sprouted gleaming, streamlined structures that streaked in smooth lines up to the sky, proud and straight-backed in contrast to their crippled neighbors. For the humans, he realized, never bothered to properly remove their dead—simply moved on and surrounded them with new growth, occasionally returning to reduce an older building to ruin if it was in the way of new construction. He saw a building growing up, its gleaming metal skeleton surrounded at the base with the dry, broken bones of some ancient predecessor, whose remains had not yet been entirely hauled away.
So this was the way of the world, he thought. Such a strange place, and somehow unsettling. He thought he preferred his undying home on the server, where the old and the young appeared alike and the environment was never-changing but always fresh and green.
The streets themselves were another old thing that had fallen into disuse and simply never been removed. They were cracked and filled with potholes, and here and there was the rusted hulk of a car still parked at the disintegrating curb, which no one had cared enough about to have hauled off or scrapped. At first he gave these a very wide berth, thinking them the corpses of some large pokémon like himself. And indeed, they resembled him in some ways: they were about the same height, had the same low, wide structure, and were covered by a tough outer shell. When his curiosity eventually overcame his revulsion, however, and he cautiously peered in through a broken window, he found that this was never any living creature at all, or not in the same sense that he was, but one of the human's fabulous machines.
Not so fabulous now, its dashboard a mass of gaping holes where the CD player and radio had been stolen, and its seats rotting away from exposure to the elements, its windows having been smashed long ago. It was being eaten by rust, though it had acquired several vibrant coats of new paint in the form of graffiti, and one door hung at an awkward angle. Nevertheless, he rested his head on the windowsill, not noticing the splintered glass that crunched beneath his armor-plated chin, and daydreamed of seeing the car in all its former glory, with a human in its driver's seat as it sped down the smooth, well-kept road into the distance. The human would have sat right there, he mused. They must be smaller than him, humans, or at least much thinner, and built differently, if they were to fit into a seat such as that.
Turning away, his eyes distant and dreamy, he left the car to its slow decay. He drifted down the street for a good while in that state, wrapped up in his own thoughts. They had told him about cars once, and said that years ago, perhaps when he had been just an egg, they drove on the streets and moved on wheels. Now, though, there was a new kind of car, one that sped through the air instead of over the ground, and the streets were left to the trainers, who almost always traveled on foot or by bike, and other pedestrians.
But these streets were empty now, he thought. The lack of humans and pokémon was starting to bother him. Surely in a colony this big there would be more of them about. Unless he was wrong, and this wasn't a city—perhaps this was only a town or village. They had said those had fewer people in them. But if this wasn't a city, then what great sprawling hive would one be? He stared absently off into the sky, smiling slightly as he imagined.
There were signs that humans had been here, however. The newer buildings were kept up well enough, and tucked into the corners and old doorways of the city were the occasional nest of old cloth or stash of odds and ends. Something lived here, or had lived here not so long ago.
He came to a great intersection, a massive, silent five-lane road crossing the one that he currently followed. The traffic signals, long obsolete, were dark, like everything else in the city, it seemed.
Intrigued by the vastness of this new road, he turned down it. It stretched out east to west, unrolling into eternity in either direction, and as he looked down it he had to squint. In this strange world, even the light was always changing, he thought. The sun had lost its grip on the top of the sky and was now sliding down to the horizon, and the light it shed seemed to have taken on a thick, golden color as it did so. He started down the road towards it, nibbling on some grass along the way. Given what happened in the storage grid, the funny colors streaking the sky and the way the sun was sinking meant that the day was waning and that night would be upon him soon. He ought to find somewhere to sleep.
He smiled as he thought that. Sleep. They'd spoken of it often, and he was eager to see what it was like. They said the eternal awakeness of the server bothered them, where when you were rotated back into hibernation you couldn't tell that time was passing and when you were shuttled back to the great simulated world you could hardly tell you had been gone. You felt as though you had merely closed your eyes for an unusually long blink, and opened them again to find the sun in some different position and the pokémon around you entirely new. Sometimes, you'd be talking to someone, only to have them blink out of existence before your eyes, their "recreation period", as they said it was referred to by the storage system's manager, having run out.
Sleep, sleep and dreams. He couldn't imagine what they'd meant when they'd talked about dreaming. Strange pictures in your head, like a world where nothing made sense? It was one of many things that had confused him, but now, maybe now, he'd finally be able to understand.
Quite unaware that the excitement and adrenaline thrilling through his veins at the thought of slumber would actually keep him from it, he clomped over to the nearest building. Something about sleeping on the street bothered him; he wanted to feel sheltered, and somewhere entertained the notion that there was a certain kind of place where he should go to rest. The notion of beds were alien to many species of pokémon, but most scraped out a comfortable spot of some sort when preparing to sleep, and echoes of instinct were prodding him forward.
The building that he had picked was one of the newer ones. He didn't know how to distinguish what this particular one was for, but supposed that it would suit, whatever the case. He had the vague idea that different kinds of structures had different purposes, but, really, how many different things could you do with a load of concrete and metal? As he neared the building, he slowed to admire the way its mirrored windows reflected him in perfect detail. He shoved his snout up to one, delighting in the way it fogged with each of his exhalations. Between the periods where it was whited out by condensation, he studied his reflected face with interest. There it was again, the disturbing asymmetry, tiny flaws throwing off its perfection. Even his horn, scraping up against the glass, was slightly off-center, just a wee bit crooked. At the same time, there were wonders about it—the way he could see the tiny reflection of his reflection in the pupils of his eyes, and the faint, shuddering movements of his body with each breath, each twitch of a muscle producing a faint but noticeable change.
On the storage grid, movements were always dramatic things, and almost always related to locomotion or interaction. But here, shivers and twitches and the faint shifting of weight from one foot to another were visible, adding a whole new layer of depth to body language. He thought, making a few faces at himself in the window, unable to resist, that what this world lacked in perfection, it made up in subtlety. But could you call that a fair trade?
Turning away from his reflection, he soon discovered that he couldn't find the building's door. It was all smooth window, with no visible break. Exasperated, he snorted and puzzled at why anyone would bother to build something with no way in. He trotted on to the next, unaware of the landing platform protruding from the windowed building's side above his head, offering access to airborne travelers, though not those on foot.
The next building that he tried was much older. It was shabby-looking and dented, its bricks discolored and in some places crumbling. Clamping down on his anxiety at the sight of such decay, he nosed at the, fortunately present, door. The peeling paint crumbled off on his rocky face, and he snorted, shaking his head in attempt to dislodge the flecks of yellow-white from his muzzle. Apparently, this wasn't one of those doors that you could just push to open. And indeed, looking up, he spied a handle.
Unfortunately, a handle made for a human was quite a few inches out of his easy reach, and as he shakily got up onto his hind legs, bracing his broad paws against the door itself in an attempt to steady himself, he wondered again at the peculiarity of humans. What sort of creature would invent a way to shut themselves away from others and from their world like this?
He grabbed the metal handle in his mouth and attempted to shove it down, but it refused to budge. After wrestling with the thing for a while, he remembered another concept they had told him was associated with human doors. Locks.
Growling to himself, he gratefully slid back down to all fours and glared at the barrier. By now, the light was beginning to fade from the sky, and the door was almost lost in the shadow of its own frame. How long would he have to wander the street, just looking for a place he could actually get into? It was ridiculous.
He stared at the doorway a while longer. There was one other way in, of course. A thrill of strange excitement went through him as he contemplating doing something that he knew was wrong, as a giddy child schemes with a guilty smile on their face to raid the cookie jar. He backed up a pace experimentally, and then another.
In the server, one of his favorite pastimes when he was bored was to go charging through one of the simulated forests, toppling all the trees in his path. There was some sort of strange pleasure in knocking things over, and if you waited around long enough, you could even catch the trees in the process of raising themselves upright again as the server discreetly reset itself, and then there you had it, all of them ready to be knocked down again. This was different, though. This was… real.
Resolved, he turned about and trotted back a few feet. Facing the door again, he lowered his snout and dramatically scraped one armored foot across the crumbling cement, snorting warningly in the way he had seen tauros do before charging. Springing forward, he lost himself in the joy of the rushing movement, experimentally opening his mouth and attempting to coax the largest sound he could from his throat.
The resultant roar that echoed down the empty street was so loud that he startled even himself, and almost missed a stride as a result, but the splintering smash as he connected with the door and the dull boom it made as it slammed to the ground were nearly as glorious. He had to dig his short claws into the wood of the door, which was now beneath his feet as he barreled on across the threshold, to prevent from slamming headfirst into the bottom of the stairs that rose on the other side of the small foyer.
Breathing heavily and reliving the glorious feeling of impact, of the door giving way before him, in his mind, he reflected that he'd never imagined that his body could be so loud.
Stepping forward and off the remains of the door, he nosed around at the bottom of the stairs. The smells that emanated from the worn, shabby carpeting meant almost nothing to him, as he had no concept of what creatures or things he should associate with them, but something deep and primal in his mind made him jerk his head back, deeming the overall scent intensely unpleasant.
He loitered a while at the bottom of the stairs, sure that some human must have heard the noise of his charge and hoping that they would come dashing out to investigate, but none manifested themselves. There was even a door right to the side of the stairs, huddled dejectedly into the wall as though hoping none would notice it, but it remained shut.
Well. He grunted haughtily. Fine then. Let them find their smashed door later; he'd just look for them somewhere else.
Up seemed the best option, really. He put a forepaw on the first step and raised his head to stare up at the staircase above. He'd never climbed stairs before, but how hard could it be, really?
After a while, he had to concede that it was a bit more difficult than he had expected. His limbs were thick and stocky, not built to take steps up such great distances. Rocky joints and heavy armor plates made bending his knees this far somewhat difficult, and climbing was an ordeal, at best.
Not only that, but the building was remarkably dull on the inside. It seemed to be made up of nothing but floor after identical floor of rooms, each of them numbered in a depressingly similar style. Nowhere did he see a suitable spot to rest.
Nevertheless he continued, inspired by a new thought: that he might make it to the roof. Just imagine all that he would be able to see laid out before him. The whole city, surely, and maybe more! With this in mind, he steeled his resolve and continued his long, arduous climb.
But when he reached the last level, he was dismayed to see that he had emerged, not onto the roof, but onto another same-looking landing. This, apparently, was the last floor, but there was no clear way to reach the very top.
There was one difference here: aside from the numbered rooms and the strange set of double doors that appeared next to the stairs on each level for reasons he couldn't fathom, there was a small, unmarked door off to his left. Curious, he heaved himself up onto the final floor proper, glad to be off the stairs, and trotted over to it.
This one had a funny sort of round bulge instead of a handle. A "knob", he deduced. Grumbling nonsense sounds to himself, he raised himself awkwardly on his hind legs once more, snapping hopefully at the knob until he managed to catch it in his jaws.
What ensued was several minutes of awkward wriggling and twisting as he tried to turn the device. The slick metal kept sliding back through his jaws, though, no matter how hard he clamped down on it. Giving a snort of frustration, he jerked his head viciously, and was surprised and delighted as the door budged slightly. Unfortunately, it budged in the wrong direction—back towards him.
Delicately tugging the door open while shifting his weight off it proved a disastrous attempt; he overbalanced and toppled backward, the knob of the door slipping from his mouth, though it jerked open a bit with the shift in his weight. He managed to jab the tip of his foot in the narrow space between it and the wall before it shut again, at least.
So there he was, back in the same position he had been when he came into this bizarre world. Only now, he had to somehow pull himself up without shifting his foot out of the door, lest it swing shut and force him to repeat the awkward process of teasing it open if he should hope to see what was beyond. Nevertheless, he was successful, contorting his body in ways quite impressive given his bulky, stiff armor, managing to catch the door with a forepaw and shove it the rest of the way open before rolling over and into the space beyond it.
He found himself staring up into a shaft of pure black. A windowless passage, with not even the fading light of sunset to show him the way. For a moment, he frowned, hesitated. A strange fear woke within him, uneasiness in the face of the dark and the unknown. When the door clicked shut behind him, how would he be able to find it again in the blackness?
But his innocent, curious spirit prevailed quickly enough. What true danger could there be, after all? And almost as quickly as he had felt the deep-seated terror of the darkness, he began to feel its strange allure. Rolling awkwardly back to his feet, he tentatively took a step forward—and banged his claws against the side of another step.
Well, then. He'd found his way up to the building's very top—"roof?" Stairs he knew. Stairs he could deal with. These felt different beneath his feet, rougher, not cushiony like the others had been, but he didn't let it bother him. Stairs were stairs—mere means to an end. Nothing to worry about.
He let the door swing shut behind him as he began another slow ascent, the going made harder by the fact that he couldn't see where he was stepping. Several times he slipped, but always he managed to dig his claws into the gritty surface beneath his feet, hold fast until he could catch his breath and right his balance. And finally, after what seemed an eternity, his nose bumped gently against a tall barrier rising in his path. The end of the passage.
Not feeling in the mood for fooling with this door, he simply shoved it open with a craggy shoulder, the latch giving beneath his rocky bulk. Cool air swirled into his nostrils as he poked them around the edge of the portal, dim light reawakening his temporarily deadened eyes.
It was almost cold up on the roof, what with the disappearing sunlight and the melancholy breeze that swept through the chinks in his armor, chilling the skin beneath. Nevertheless, it smelled different up here, a strangely clean scent carried on the wind that swirled above the city. And between gusts, he could catch other scents, too—sweet and strange and new.
Even up here it was rapidly growing difficult to see, the last ruddy glow of sunset fleeing swiftly over the horizon. Nevertheless, he could make out the coiling tendrils of plants spilling out of long boxes on the roof, silhouetted against the dying light, and strange human contraptions as well. They had the tangy scent of what he had determined to be metal when he sniffed at them, and one another strange aroma that was sweet and spicy and yet somehow dirty. More pleasing, albeit less interesting, scents rose from flowers in the strange containers, and he briefly buried his face in a clump of more aromatic ones before trotting over to the low concrete barrier that ran around the edge of the roof.
Excitement thrilled in his veins as he reared onto his hind legs and planted his feet firmly on the top of the railing. Now was the moment of truth—all this strange world spread out before him.
It turned out that his building was not as tall as he had previously assumed. Still larger ones loomed darkly against the sky, and to his surprise, he couldn't make out where the city ended.
Not that he had much to go by. Perhaps the strange unevenness of the earth far out from his perch was some sort of natural landform. There was nothing to distinguish buildings from ground, really, except their peculiar topography. The city was dark. Perfectly dark. As his eyes swept across that great expanse of blackness, he began to feel true doubt sprouting in his chest for the first time.
Hadn't they always spoken of the lights, the glimmering beauty that created a halo around the buildings and snuffed out the stars above? The first way to tell where there were humans, they said, was by the light that they brought with them. Here the night was total, however, weak shafts of moonlight and the pale candle-glow of distant stars the only illumination.
He swept his head side-to-side almost desperately, scanning the panorama with dying hope. There was only darkness in the city, rising up to craggy mountains beyond.
And there… he gasped, seeing light at last. It was not as he had imagined it would be. Red and flickering, it streaked up from the distant peaks in great glowing flumes that faded slowly into the blackness of the night sky. The glow seemed to flow down to one point, a small irregularity in the jagged, toothlike mountains, where a red beacon shone brilliantly at the epicenter of all the light.
A strange feeling awoke in him, deep and painful and strong. He looked out at the light and yearned, knowing instantly where it was he must go. It was calling him, tugging at something deep within his being.
Still, he forced himself to turn away for the moment. Though empowered by a new sense of purpose, at the moment his body felt heavy and unresponsive. This, he thought, was fatigue. Now was not the time to pursue such distant goals. As he lowered his head, preparing to drop back to the roof and find a place to rest, another light caught his eye.
Where the first was strong, brilliant, this was tiny, feeble and flickering. No, not flickering, he realized as he watched it for a spell, but flashing: on and off and on again in a steady rhythm. This small speck was red as well, even less brilliant than the pale, distant stars. But it came from somewhere within the city's limits, not far, not terribly far. Though it did not cry out to him as the other light had, he nevertheless felt his curiosity aroused. Maybe, just maybe, there were some that yet lingered in this city. There had to be someone to make the light--hadn't there?
He stared at the tiny red speck for a long time, trying to memorize its location. In the darkness, there were few landmarks he would be able to recognize the next morning and at street level, but he tried at least to understand its direction, hoping that he would be able to find it again the next day.
With a weary sigh, he lowered himself back to the cold concrete roof. He felt ready to drop where he was, hardly able to go another step. Unresisting, he flopped down and huddled up against the balcony, curling into a near half-circle as he lay on his side. Closing his eyes, he willed the dreams to come.
In the far distance, the red light flickered and danced. A more worldly wise observer might have likened it to a great conflagration upon the mountaintop, burning bloodred into the void.