At first, she thinks she is dying.
She feels the coldness of wires in her skin, tastes galling rubber in her throat. She isn't breathing. Why am I not breathing?
She remembers how to open her eyes. She floats in an amniotic haze, a world enclosed by the play of light and shadow on glass. Faint sounds. The gleam of light. Was there laughter? She has no certainty, but still more memories flicker by, leaving rivulets of knowledge on her mind.
Questions, no answers. Where am I? Why am I here? Only silence for reply. Dim sight, muffled hearing, no scent at all to know for herself. She cannot remember, and she realises she remembers nothing at all.
More questions, but hesitant now. Who am I? Or what am I? …and why am I? Anxiety. Fear. She struggles to feel.
She feels the world. She feels warm, wet, weightless. She feels droplets of memory land on her mind – the sound of her master reading to her, the glint of a lost coin at night, the metallic smell of blood. Thinking is exhausting. Where there had once been a torrent of thought, now there is barely a trickle.
I do not understand. Is this all a dream? Is it even real?
More memories drip into her mind, this time from before. She saw humans wearing white, felt the prick of needles, heard the hum of machines. She remembers confusion, chaos, strange terror, and then a stranger peace when terror faded away.
There is pain. Insistent, gnawing pain, an itching buried in her skin, as her body does – her body is –
She cannot think what. She knows the pain, but does not remember why it is there. It persists, grows, tugs at her flesh.
A plethora of pain, tugging, aching, throbbing as her body…
What is happening to my body?
Pain as her body tears itself apart.
Her throat tears open in a ceaseless wail. She screams, and screams, and cannot stop.
She woke with a gasp, the sharp coolness bliss to her mouth. She gulped air, closing her eyes against the sudden brightness of the room and clenching her stomach against the wave of nausea that passed over her. She growled through gritted teeth.
When her hyperventilation ceased, and she could bear to open her eyes, she realised she was flat on her back, laying on a soft but firm leathery surface. She tried to rise, but felt her limbs restrained. She pulled vigorously at the unseen bindings and tried to get a look around her, though the nausea had not subsided.
When she looked up, she immediately curled her lip and hissed, her ears flattening against her head. Seated comfortably not far from her was a human, arms folded in his lap and legs crossed, smiling breezily. She kept her stare fixed on him, still tugging vainly at whatever held her there. The room was small, clinically white and empty, save for a small, metal table and the human she hissed at. Even the table was almost bare – a pile of neatly folded clothing lay there, alone.
"Please, there's no need to snarl at me like that," the human said. "I'd like to talk to you, okay? Nothing else. Just a chat. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
She felt her ears ease back up, and she contented herself with glowering at the human. She gave up the useless squirming, but flicked her tail back and forth in irritation nevertheless.
"You might want to calm down a little. You might be in shock," the human warned.
She did not blink.
He bit his lip, and sighed. "Whenever you're ready, I guess. Now, in your own time, look down at your body."
She looked down.
And then she froze, tail fluffed, ears flat and teeth bared in a silent scream at what she saw, at what she now was. She frantically struggled to move, writhing desperately against the straps holding her still, screeching and wailing all the while. She finally managed to squeeze one foreleg free and ran her paw over her face. Her warped and twisted face.
She clawed at her jaw, eyes wide and darting from her legs (too long), to her torso (too misshapen), to her paws…
She had always wanted fingers.
She squeezed her eyes shut, and took sharp, shallow breaths.
"Sorry about the surprise," the human said, sheepishly. "You'll get used to it pretty quickly. Think of it as evolving, but a different form to the one you were expecting."
She shot him another look, not knowing what to do.
"You can talk, you know. Try it. How about telling me your name. Do you remember your name, at least?"
She realised she didn't. She blinked and looked away, unnerved by her unawareness, which expanded until all clear thought evaporated. She panicked again, fearful of having lost all her memories, and dug her claws sharply into her palms.
"It'll come back, don't worry about it. Just might take a while. Now just think… you should remember your name pretty quickly."
Her name was… Sa? Sal…? Sale?
She swallowed, intensely aware of the dryness of her mouth.
"…Salem," she whispered.
Salem felt a tiny shuddering thrill run up her spine at having spoken. She'd spoken, in human tongue, clearly and without awkwardness. She grinned. The facial movement was awkward and unfamiliar, but it seemed to come naturally.
"Well, Salem," the human responded. "You're recovering pretty quickly, all things considered! If you like, I'll undo those straps for you, now. They're just there so you wouldn't scratch my face off in a blind panic when you came to." He grinned, warmly.
Salem looked back at him, more appraisingly this time. He was a pale, thin creature, not long out of adolescence, with an awkward, angular face and bright eyes half-hidden by too-long blond hair. He dressed simply, in jeans and an unmarked shirt. She stared at him for a moment longer before realising she was expected to respond.
"…thank you," she managed.
The man nodded, and walked closer to undo the straps round her limbs. "I'm Mark, since you told me your name. I'm just here to make sure your first awakening goes okay and to answer any questions you have..."
He unfastened the last binding, and stepped back. "Let's start with the obvious. Yeah, you're now part human. It's mainly changed your stature and possibly your mind, so you're still mostly meowth. And yeah, it's permanent. You may find your head's a bit fuzzy for a few days, but you should remember everything eventually. You want to take a walk, see how you feel?"
Salem nodded slowly, sitting up, and gripped the bed she lay on, slipping her lower body off it and onto the floor. She wobbled, nauseous after the sudden movement, her limbs weak, and abruptly sat down again. She put a paw to her aching head and it brushed against something hard and cool. Realising she still had her charm, she breathed a sigh of relief; she didn't think she could have dealt with losing it.
"Here, take my hand."
She reached out to take it and completely missed, her paw finding his arm instead – he was scrawnier than she'd expected. She felt it odd to need support from a creature not half as strong as herself. He laughed, and helped her to her feet, apparently unbothered by her claws pricking his skin.
"You'll need some time to get used to your new body," he cautioned.
Salem nodded, and took a step. She'd tried walking on her hind legs plenty of times before, so it wasn't totally unfamiliar to her. A few paces later, and she could take full steps without losing balance. A few more, and she'd stopped wavering entirely. She shrugged off the supporting arm of the human and took her first unaided step. Despite herself, and the strangeness of human expression, she smiled.
Mark gestured across the room to a full length mirror which stood against the wall. Salem nodded in vague understanding, and crossed the room tentatively to get a better look at her new form.
There was plenty that hadn't changed, she thought to herself. The charm was untouched, perched on her brow (thank goodness). Her eyes retained their slit-pupils and remained extremely large in proportion to her face, her whiskers had grown if anything, and her ears remained triangular and furry, positioned high on her head, just as they should be.
The changes were mainly proportional. She felt like she'd been stretched on a rack; she was so tall now. At least, taller than before. Her limbs looked – and felt – much more substantial, and her torso, she realised, had nothing like the flexibility she was used to. A more major change was the… enlargement of her chest area. She supposed she'd get used to that, too.
She relaxed her stiff shoulders, after noticing how tense she looked in her reflection, and scratched the back of her neck. All in all, it wasn't a massive change. She'd been shocked by the unexpected nature of her transformation, but she was still largely her old self.
She stopped her scratching, paused for a moment… yes. She still had her tail. Should've checked earlier, she chided herself. Tails are far too important to forget.
The man pursed his lips, motioning vaguely towards her. "You should probably get some clothes on, now."
Salem tilted her head quizzically, then realised what he was indicating.
"Clothes? Oh… yes?" she ventured. The words came with some difficulty, she realised. Why was she so tired?
The human shrugged, and gestured to the garments lying on the table. She examined them at arm's length. A plain, short-sleeved, shirt, cream in colour and loose fitting, and similarly plain leggings, designed to fit animalistic legs like hers. Unsurprisingly, there was no footwear, for her hindpaws had remained largely unchanged. Lastly, a black beret, with slots for her ears.
She struggled with the garments, partly due to her unfamiliarity, partly due to the lack of energy in her body. The human simply sat back in his chair.
"You'll have a few sets of uniform like this, so don't worry if you ruin this one. They're pretty sturdy, though, so you should be fine. The beret's for parades and the like, you don't have to wear that most of the time…"
Salem stood proudly in her new clothes, looking down at herself bemusedly. She opened her mouth to say something, but paused when she realised she was unsure of how to say it in human tongue. The loss of concentration spoilt her balance, and she wavered again, nearly falling.
"Hey, watch yourself!"
Salem steadied herself before the human needed to intervene, but he took a hold of her arm anyway.
"You need some rest before you start pushing yourself. This is a new body, and you'll hurt yourself trying to use it before you're ready. I'll take you to the barracks and you can sleep there for a while."
Salem nodded mutely, her head pounding again.
Mark helped her through the door, into a wide, curved corridor, still speaking in his soothing manner. His tone was relaxed and he was easy to listen to, she thought. As she started to walk more than a few steps at once, she began to feel a leaden aching in her limbs, but she pushed the feeling out of her mind.
"…you'll know me as Nurse Proctor for the most part," he was saying. "I'm your assigned counsellor. You know, just to help you get comfortable with your situation, sort out any problems you have, that sort of thing. You can talk to me if you have worries, you can trust me with that stuff. It's my job."
Salem could only follow half of what he was saying, and decided it wasn't important to listen. She tuned him out, focusing instead on walking without stumbling. The floor was hard and cold beneath her bare hindpaws, concrete perhaps. The air smelt dry and stale. Mark continued to babble to her in his inane manner, but she'd stopped hearing the words, instead pricking her ears for any other creatures. She thought she heard voices, in pokéspeak no less, not far from her.
It occurred to her that she should probably be terrified, having woken up in a different body, in a strange and alien place, talked to with perfect informality by a human she did not recognise. Yet she felt nothing of the sort.
The corridor was breached by a much shorter, intersecting corridor, down which Salem could see a large room. Mark turned and led her towards it. Once inside the floor changed – becoming soft and warm – Salem purred appreciatively and clenched her paws. They started aching in response, as if she'd been walking for days.
"…but if that happens, just- Oh, you like the under-floor heating, huh? We use underground geothermal power for that, makes us totally self-sufficient, too…"
The room was carpeted, in muted red, hence the softness. It smelt of dozens, maybe hundreds of different people and pokémon, and that was just the fresh scent. She could hear several talking together at that moment. Looking around, she realised the room was one very large sitting room, or something like it. It was furnished heavily with leather-bound sofas, chairs and low wooden coffee tables like the ones she'd seen countless times in her master's college common room. She noted she could not smell any coffee.
She turned to Mark and cut straight through whatever he was saying.
"What is this place?" she asked, silently congratulating herself for not slipping on the unfamiliar words.
Mark stared owlishly at her for a second before recovering. "It's the 'morph lounge. You and other like you can relax here, socialise, that sort of thing. It's separate from the regular lounge, just to reduce awkwardness…"
"No," Salem insisted. "What is… all of this place?"
Mark's brow furrowed. "What, the base? You don't remember anything, do you?"
Salem flicked her tail by way of reply, but when he didn't continue, she shook her head.
"Oh, gosh, I'm going to have to do a lot of explaining for you. And you're probably going to need a trip to Medical to get checked up on…" He groaned theatrically.
"I'll give you the short version, I guess," he sighed. "This is a subterranean complex… uh, sorry. This is an underground base owned by a human organisation called the Perihelion Syndicate. It's a test site for the pokémon hybrid project. Here, the Syndicate creates, raises and trains pokémon/human hybrids. That's what you are: a pokémorph. We picked you up off the streets of Saffron City, and you opted to go through the process to make you what you are now."
He paused, allowing Salem a moment to digest what she'd heard.
"You've agreed to have some tests run on you, and to go through the same basic training as all the morphs," he continued. "You don't have to do anything after that if you really don't want to, but there're plenty of choices for a graduate morph. Sorry if this is a lot to take in all at once."
Salem shrugged, uncaring.
"Maybe that's why you're not freaking out?" Mark said, more to himself than to her. "Cause although you can't remember anything, you still expected all this?"
Salem looked away with a non committal flick of her ears. She couldn't be bothered to respond either verbally or in human body language.
Mark pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm supposed to show you to your barracks now. You have a couple of days, more if you need it, to get accustomed to your body and the base, and then you'll be expected to go through basic training. In the meantime, feel free to come to me any time, with any problem. It's my job, after all. You have five other new morphs in your quarters, so it'll be pretty cosy in there. …huh, Salem?"
Salem nodded vaguely. She stared at the other hybrid figures talking in the lounge. All, like her, had roughly human proportions, but all, like her, had physical traits utterly in contrast with their humanoid shapes. They had fur, scales, feathers… most had tails. Given the similarities to humans already found in many species of pokémon, they did not seem entirely alien, but there was something vaguely disturbing about their uniformly consistent anatomy, contrasted by utterly distinct features.
One or two of them glanced her way, but they didn't pay her much attention. They were speaking, she realised, in human tongue, with only occasionally interspersed pokéspeak. She clawed her palms again, though she was not entirely sure if it was from agitation or anticipation. Soon, she thought, she'd be speaking like that too, as easily as she would her mother tongue…
Mark interrupted her train of thought – which he was by now an expert at doing – with a gentle hand on her shoulder. She flinched, reflexively, and he withdrew sheepishly.
"Sorry won't do that again," he said, and she relaxed. "I figure that since you'll still be tired after the morphing process, and with your memory as it is, you should get some rest. You can stay here if you want, or you could go to your quarters… I think a few of your group are already recovered, so you might meet them there, and if not you'll see them at curfew. …is that okay, Salem?"
"…what? Yes," she responded, sluggishly. "That is okay."
She was tired. There was a dull aching in her muscles. Her mind was fogged. She clawed her palms deeper, trying to go back to ignoring it for a little while longer.
"Mark. I want… to know things," she expressed to his open, curious face. It was a struggle to keep the human words clear. "I want to understand who I am, what I am. I can wait. But I need to know now… why am I here? What was my choice for?"
Mark's face took on the sheepish look again and she felt like giving up and going to sleep right there on the floor.
"I'm sorry, but I haven't read your file yet. I should know, but I don't… I'll find out for you later, though, okay?"
She was already turning to walk with weighted steps to the nearest sofa, ignoring Mark, ignoring the other hybrids, ignoring everything but the pressing, throbbing fatigue.
She slumped into it, tried to curl up tight and failed miserably. Her body was too awkward, too inelegant to do something like that, and she dug her claws in tighter in frustration. She stretched out on her side, lying her head on one paw – one hand – and blinked wearily.
Her head hurt. Not physically, nor with the strain of forming so many questions, even ones so utterly alien to her… There was something else, behind the fatigue. Something wrong. Something her failing memory could not fathom, but that she felt was there. She could not remember why she had chosen to become a 'pokémorph,' to become a hybrid, to become something – someone – entirely different to her old self. A self which she could not even remember…
The rush of thoughts were white-water rapids in her mind, and she closed her eyes against the migraine they brought. Every time she tried to recall, she suffered a pang in her temples. But she knew. Somewhere, buried in her mind, she knew why she was here.
No answers came, merely a yawn. She could start searching her mind later. For now, she let herself fall into an uneasy slumber.