the cat is mightier than the pen
The Days of Miracle and Wonder
“The way we look to a distant constellation that’s dying in the corner of the sky.
These are the days of miracle and wonder, and don’t cry, baby, don’t cry.”
-Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble
Thing is, Goldenrod’s a cosmopolitan city. With all the new train lines coming in thanks to the Modernization Act and the constant stream of ships through the harbor, you run into all sorts. This is just to say in my defense, I didn’t find it staggeringly odd that day when I took the subway home from work and couldn’t understand a single word anyone was saying. The conversations washed over me like a load of babble. Foreigners—what can you do? Plenty of people here would call me a foreigner, coming from the mining town of Pewter. Two nations made into one big family since the unification, but it was amazing how landlords could spot a Kantonese drawl a mile away.
I leaned more heavily against the metal pole as the train jerked abruptly into the station, occupying myself with what flavor of bubble tea I was going to purchase on the way home. It’s the little treats that keep you going from day to day, when work means 8:00-8:00 shut down in the smallest basement office of the department store, and life outside of work is, as I scrolled on so many item intake forms—N/A.
As I veered off down the side-street, some murkrow were gossiping loudly on the wires.
“Another miltank-faced bint,” cackled one, and I don’t know what came over me—usually I let this kind of stuff roll off of me like water off a golduck—but I wheeled around and snapped back, “You aren’t exactly lovable-looking yourself, Sweetheart.”
They really weren’t. I’d hardly seen two more disreputable looking samples of the species in my life. Feathers askew, dusted with gray asphalt from some construction site, with beady, mean little eyes that narrowed as they examined me.
Did I normally exchange barbs with passing murkrow? No, I did not, but a difficult day at work will do that to you. I stomped onwards, ignoring the taunts at my rear.
My bubble tea place is easy to miss. It’s tucked between two large buildings and the entrance looks like it was made for the maintenance man. The bell performed its half-hearted jingle as I stepped in, and Aiko looked up from the dating sim she was playing on her phone. Aiko was about my age, somewhere in that swamp of the twenties where the path of ambition narrows from ‘change the world’ to ‘meet monthly rent payments for an overpriced and crumbling flat.’
She was small—small hands, small pointed face, and had a kind of natural drabness that dying her hair a violent red hadn’t been able to mitigate. If anything, the color emphasized her thin, pink-gray lips, and bloodless face. Her heart clearly wasn’t in customer service—she was never rude, but she often seemed lost, humming bars of verse like a sentret at work on a nut. She didn’t look surprised to see me, though. I was predictable enough.
Aiko mumbled something as she stood, and I smiled at her, more broadly than I do at work, maybe out of relief. End of the day, bubble tea, bed. You look forward to things if they’re even a little better than other things, the same way a marble rolls down a slightly tilted floor. It’s not like the marble’s in some kind of hurry to get to the other end, but gravity’s irresistible.
“Hey, I’ll have a matcha freeze with red bean and pudding,” I said.
Aiko’s forehead creased as she stared at me. Shit. Had the menu changed since yesterday? I glanced hurriedly up at the badly laminated wall hanging, but I didn’t see any new corrections scrawled in sharpie.
“हत दिद योउ सय्?” Aiko said. My turn to squint at her in confusion. Not a single syllable had been comprehensible, but something in her intonation told me a question had been asked. “अरे योउ ओकय्?”
“Sorry, what was that?” I said quickly, and this time I listened to myself as I spoke. Sorry what was that. It was exactly what I’d meant to say, but at the same time, it didn’t sound right at all.
I backed out of the boba place and came out into the side-street, my breath heaving.
“You think this is funny?” I demanded of the two murkrow who had been tailing me since our little altercation.
The one to the left, which was slightly bigger and sported a jaunty red string around its stunted tail, tilted its head to the side and croaked, “Yes?”
That’s when it finally sank in that I was actually talking to a pokemon. I stumbled backward, fell hard on my bum, and sat there, as what was hopefully oil run-off stained my pants and the murkrow entered into a fresh fit of hilarity, thinking to myself, “Well, shit.”
Eventually I pulled myself together enough to take off towards home, convinced everything would revert to normal once I got in off the streets. I unlatched the front gate, vaulted up the seven floors to my flat, and shut the door behind me, breathing hard. The first thing I did was look into the musty mirror that overhung my small bathroom sink.
I looked . . . normal. Not good, but when did I ever look good? The daring haircut I’d gotten cheap at the hairdresser’s academy was still a bad mistake, with the right side annoyingly long and the left beginning to grow out in irregular tufts, since I hadn’t had the money, will, or time to maintain the close crop there. Acne had once again begun to spring into bloom on my chin and forehead, a field of red, putrescent lumps coming into flower. My nose was too broad, my chin too square, and my eyes were baggy enough to get stopped by the metro police. I don’t think I’d ever describe my face as a relief, but all the same I was glad I hadn’t metamorphosed into some kind of pokemorph like you saw in cheap light novels.
“My name is Po,” I said experimentally to the mirror. (Po being short for Poppo, which meant ‘little bird’ in my parent’s dialect and also meant, in my opinion, that they seriously needed their heads examined.) It was the same as in the boba shop. I knew what I was saying, but the sounds weren’t the right sounds.
There was a scuffling noise outside the window and then a light tap. Reflexively, I removed the grill so Cabbage could poke her head in. The hoothoot had turned up last winter, a small, pathetic mop of feathers huddled in the light well outside my bathroom. I’d let her inside on the days the temperature dipped well below freezing. Other than that, we didn’t have much to do with each other.
Her head swiveled from side to side, harvest moon eyes questing around the room. At last her eyes fell on me.
“I am called Picella,” she said in a tremulous hoot. “My pleasure to formally introduce.”
When my mouth fell open, she clicked her talons together anxiously.
“You-your address was aimed at me? If I offend, I will depart.”
She hopped back onto the sill.
“No, wait,” I blurted out. “Hold on, you thought I was talking to you?”
The hoothoot inflated and deflated with each breath. “I heard Speech . . . It is my mistake. Remiss to interrupt, with gratitude I depart.”
“Hold on.” I squinted hard at the hoothoot, Picella, or whatever she’d said her name was. I’d heard a lot of noises from her in the months since she’d taken up residency in my light well. Normal bird sounds, hoots and screeches. Not a hint of fully formed words. “You can understand me?”
Picella coughed delicately. “Dialect is rough, however meaning is clear. This I do not say to offend.”
“No offense taken,” I said to reassure her, since she seemed one harsh word away from collapsing into a pile of fluff. It hit me that I was probably the closest thing she had to a landlord.
I tried to gentle my tone as I said, “Look, I’m pretty confused. Have you always been able to talk? Or am I just now able to hear you? And how do you know what I’m saying?”
“These answers are above me. Until now, I heard from you no Speech. I have always spoken. Many times, my gratitude I have sung.”
“You’d better come in,” I said. It was one thing to be carrying on a conversation with a pokemon, it seemed another thing altogether to carry on a conversation with a pokemon perched awkwardly on my windowsill. I held out my arm and conveyed her into my cramped little galley kitchen. When I sat down on my stool, we were at least eye-level. Though not really eye-equal. It was amazing to me that such large, bulging eyes could end up on such a small body.
“Is this, uh, usual?” I said, after drawing in a calming breath. “Having a little chat with a human? Is this something that happens all the time?”
Picella tilted her head quizzically. “Not all at. You are very strange. It is known, the Rainbow Guardian took the Speech from your kind. Long ago, very sad. Perhaps upon you the Rainbow Guardian has showered great blessing?”
It wasn’t too hard to guess just what she meant by Rainbow Guardian. Even with its progressive reputation, Goldenrod had its fill of prayer rooms and Ho-oh murals on alley walls. I seriously doubted, though, that Johto’s resident deity had randomly picked me out for some kind of special favor.
“Perhaps,” I said, to humor her. “Any other ideas, though?”
Picella considered this for some time. I kept quiet, half so as not to disturb her, and half because I was just too baffled by the whole situation to say much more. Here I was, waiting on tenterhooks for advice from the hoothoot that up until ten minutes ago I’d called Cabbage on account of the unpleasant odor that wafted in off her wings when the weather turned wet.
“You must seek the Guidance Counselor,” Picella said suddenly, with a note of finality to her voice that hadn’t been there before.
I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it. Guidance Counselor. Like those bastards who parachuted into my high school a few years from Saffron or Celadon to nudge us minutely away from the looming dumpster fire of our futures, only to vanish back into the same ether they’d emerged from.
When I’d recovered from my laughing fit, I found Picella eyeing me with clear disapproval.
“Sorry,” I said, “Uh, I get allergies sometimes. Okay, I’ll bite. Who is this guidance counselor and how can they help me?”
Picella sniffed. She was beginning to remind me of my fifth grade teacher, who never came to school without a clean handkerchief, melon sucking candy, and a sun parasol, even at the peak of mudslide season. “The Guidance Counselor is very learned, very wise. All go to him, questions in their heart. He waits by the big water, under the bridge, where the red stick stands. He cures many ills.”
As I considered this, Picella shifted from foot to foot and said suddenly, “Imposition upon your hospitality extreme. Allow me, please, to depart.”
There was an urgency in her squawking tone, so I didn’t argue, just carried her back and set her on the windowsill. I understood what was going on a little better when white goop began to dribble out her behind. I averted my eyes, mumbled “Thanks,” and closed the window hastily.
Curling up in bed, I made a few more tests—calls to the ramen place where I got takeout, to the power company, to the customer service line at work. Each call I heard only gibberish, and clearly I sounded the same to them, because the hang-ups came quickly.
My ability to write, at least, seemed intact. I jabbed out a quick email to my boss:
I will not be able to come in tomorrow on account of my being very sick. I am so sick I have lost my voice. I do not know if I am contagious. Tomorrow I will be seeking consultation on my sickness. I hope to recover soon and return to work.
I congratulated myself for getting all the way through without any real lies. Well, except for the last sentence, but lies like that were the hinge-grease of the world.
After that, I fell asleep. I didn’t have work tomorrow and I had the vague outlines of a plan. Believe me, I’ve fallen asleep to worse.
It was a little past nine in the morning when I bolted up in bed, my heart pounding. Rain was falling lightly outside—Goldenrod was entering its rainy season. When I unlocked my phone, it opened onto the message I’d sent off last night.
I stared at it for a moment, then dialed my home number. Everyone would be out at work at this hour, so there wasn’t any risk of them picking up. The phone clicked and I waited expectantly for the familiar answering message.
“भििय, थयगुखभ चभबअजभम तजभ ाभलन जयगकभजयिम। उिभबकभ िभबखभ ब कजयचत फभककबनभ बातभच तजभ तयलभ बलम। . . .”
That was my mother’s voice for sure, but it was distorted into something strange and alien. I knew what she must be saying, but the sounds were completely wrong.
So maybe it hadn’t all been a bad dream, I thought, sinking my head into my pillow. I dressed quickly and set out towards the hospital, wondering if my health insurance plan covered exotic pokemon-speech maladies. It was the tail-end of rush hour and with the rain falling increasingly heavily, no one seemed to be about, not even the murkrow.
When I ducked into the intake room, I was at once surrounded by babble. One of the receptionists caught my eye and said something incomprehensible. I managed a weak smile in return, wondering how the hell I was supposed to even communicate my problem.
Nicking a sheet of paper and a pen from the counter, I scrawled, “I’ve lost my voice. Also, I can’t understand what you’re saying. Can you help?”
I held the paper up to the receptionist, whose eyes went wide. She took the paper from me and wrote, “What language do you speak? We will get a translator.”
As I was pondering just how to answer that, someone bumped into me.
“Holding up the line, for shame,” the big pink thing muttered darkly as it pushed past.
I was so relieved to hear something intelligible that I spoke without thinking. “Hey, wait!”
The chansey wheeled around, frowning. Its small eyes narrowed as it scanned the room.
“I was wondering if you—”
Before I could even finish, the chansey had grabbed me by the hand and led me through the revolving doors out into the hallway. It marched us past rows of offices, pushed into the stairwell, and finally turned to face me.
“What are you playing at?” it snapped. “A ditto, are you? Don’t you know it’s dangerous to play at being human? Don’t go thinking they won’t find you out. They will, and the instant they do, it’s prison for life, my friend.”
I blinked, thoroughly dazed. For some reason all I could think was that chanseys had always sounded quite pleasant to me. People played their lullabies for small babies and things. But this chansey had a voice like nails on a chalkboard.
“No,” I managed to say. “You don’t understand. I’m a human. I’m just—”
I trailed off as the chansey crossed its stubby arms, its gaze skeptical. “A human, huh? How come you couldn’t understand the other humans, then? How come you’re talking to me right now?”
“That’s just what I’m trying to figure out!” I was shouting now, my voice echoing through the stairwell. “I don’t know how I got like this. I need help.”
Help! my tinny echo chimed in.
The chansey stared. Then it began to poke and prod at me, squeezing my arms, heaving itself closer to give my pulse a listen. The egg on its belly lit up with a glow that spread through its body, down its arms to the point where the two of us were in contact. When it reached my skin, the light fizzled and died.
“Huh,” the chansey said. “You’re a human.”
My breath came out a relieved whistle through my nose. “Exactly. That’s exactly what I was trying to tell you. So what’s the diagnosis? Is there a way you can tell the nurse . . .”
I faltered again in the face of the chansey’s gimlet-eyed stare.
“You should leave. Immediately.”
“What?” My voice leaped an octave in indignation. “Hey, what gives, you’re a chansey! You’re supposed to help me.”
“I am helping you,” the chansey said seriously. “My advice is get away before you’re noticed. Nothing good happens to hybrids here.”
Something in her tone made me shiver. I didn’t think I wanted to find out what ‘nothing good’ meant. Still, I held my ground, reluctant to leave without getting any answers. “If a hospital can’t help me, who can?”
“There’s one who solves problems and heals ails,” said the chansey reluctantly. “But you’re not his responsibility.”
“Are you talking about the Guidance Counselor?”
It was a complete stab in the dark, but the chansey’s face went slack and then furious. “How do you know about the Guidance Counselor?” it demanded, pressing uncomfortably close. “He’s not for your sort to know.”
I backed away, unsure of how to handle the suddenly enraged chansey. “A f-friend mentioned him. In passing.” Was Picella the hoothoot a friend? It was the sort of existential question I didn’t have any brain-space free to tackle. “Thanks for the advice,” I told the chansey and lit it down the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time.
I was panting as I pushed back into the wet, open air. Had I really just dashed out of the hospital like that chansey was a horde of beedrill? I glanced dubiously back at the building. Nothing good happens to hybrids, huh . . .
No, I didn’t think I wanted to give the hospital a second go.
That seemed to leave only one option—Picella’s mysterious Guidance Counselor. Whoever that was and whatever that meant.
When the street split, I headed left, in the direction of the wharf. I’d thought my morning couldn’t get much worse, but at that moment I noticed the damn murkrow were back, watching me from a nearby phone line.
“It’s the freak!” one chortled. “Where are you going, Freak?”
“Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?” I muttered, keeping my head ducked low, so that I didn’t look like I was having an argument with a couple of birds. After what that chansey had said, I didn’t want to attract any attention.
“No!” they answered in unison.
The wharf was crowded as always. The morning ships were still being unloaded and tourists were flocking to the chowder stores that lined the strip. I cut through the mob towards what I suspected to be Picella’s “red stick.” It was an old flagpole, the paint chipped but still recognizably red, rising up from the rocks that led down into the water.
At the pole, I hesitated. A dock stretched out to my left. Could that be Picella’s “bridge”? I picked my way slowly down the rocks, watching the waves wash in and out.
“Hey,” I said to the murkrow, who had quieted down as we approached the red pole. “Is this the right way?”
I didn’t expect a helpful answer, just more taunting, so I was surprised when I heard, croaked out behind me, “Yes.”
So down it was. The rocks became larger and harder to scramble between. I was half-expecting someone to stop my descent, but that was the one thing you could count on in Goldenrod—other people’s apathy.
The dock was over my head now and the water was worryingly close. But as I craned my head left, I saw that the rocks smoothed out into a kind of shore, which rose inwards towards a cavernous opening. Cautiously, I made my way inside.
The cave was spacious and surprisingly dry, despite the intensely salty smell of the ocean. The floor sloped steeply upwards, narrowing into a thin corridor. At the end of it, long strips of seaweed hung from the ceiling, like a crudely made curtain.
“Um,” I said, the rocky sand crunching under my feet as I stepped closer. “Hello?”
A pang of doubt hit me, as I remembered the chansey’s extreme reaction. This place had a secretive, secluded feel. If I wasn’t supposed to be here . . .
“You may enter.”
The voice came from behind the seaweed curtain. It was low and deep, with a slow, ponderous intonation. Drawing in a breath, I pushed aside the dried-out seaweed and stepped through.
The gigantic slowking standing inside the room blinked at me. “Oh,” he said. “Very interesting.”
I’d seen pictures of slowking before, obviously, but the pictures hadn’t fully conveyed how big the thing was. It towered over me, at least seven feet tall. (Though to be fair, a few feet of height were coming from the giant shell that adorned its head like a turban.) Its skin was a rosy pink and had a moist, hydrated look that wouldn’t be out of place in a skin lotion commercial. A jingle formed irresistibly in my mind, “Slowking lotion! Treat your skin like royalty.” I pressed my hand over my mouth before I could let out a completely inappropriate giggle.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, when I thought I had my hysteria under control. The slowking hadn’t said anything since its initial exclamation, watching me calmly with pupils that swum in the enormous whites of its eyes. I wondered if something more formal was required from me, like a bow. It hit me that I could have brought Picella along. She might have served as a kind of character reference—like hey, this human’s not entirely an asshole!
“Well met,” rumbled the slowking finally. “Your kind is not, as a rule, welcome here. However, you appear to be the walking definition of an exception.”
His speech had a slow, rhythmic quality that reminded me of waves. The effect was soothing and I felt my breathing slow in response.
“Right,” I said. A lot of questions had bubbled up in my head as he spoke. Namely, who are you and what exactly do you do? But I decided to stick to the matter at hand. “Well, to state the obvious, I am a human. But I’m also, uh, talking to you. I guess my problem’s pretty clear.”
I felt like an idiot after making that little speech, but the slowking nodded.
“The manifestation is clear. The cause not immediately so. Have you interacted recently with any powerful psychic?” When I shook my head, a visible frown emerged on his face. “Strange. The power needed to re-scramble the language centers of the brain is great. The knowledge needed is also great.” He fell silent for a moment and then asked, “Have you interacted recently with an object of great power or of holy origin?”
And that’s when it hit me, like the roof of a collapsing mine-shaft.
Maybe now’s a good time to explain what exactly I spend my time doing. My official title is Curio Evaluation Associate. See, people sell all sorts of things to the Goldenrod department store. There’s a dark little corner on the first sub-level floor where they’ll take almost anything at a bulk price. What’s sold there eventually makes its way further down to my office. We’re the first, low-level pass, sorting between the obvious junk and the stuff that might have a hint of value. Everything gets logged, filed, and recorded.
As I stood in that cave, trying to close my nose against the increasing pervasive smell of seaweed, the memory of the silver wing came back to me. It had been heavier than the usual plastic trinkets, and sharper. I’d cut myself against its edge, in fact. Filling out the intake form, I’d hesitated over what to mark down for the material. The weight, sharpness, and coolness suggested metal, but the smell hadn’t been metallic at all. At the time, I couldn't put my finger on what it smelled like, but standing here it was suddenly clear.
That feather had smelled like the bottom of the sea.
Look, maybe I sound really dense relating this. Of course it was the mysterious silver feather! How could you not put the dots together sooner? Well, when you spend all your time shifting through junk, the idea there’s value in it stops occurring to you after a while. It’s as simple as that.
A cool draft snaked in off the sea, and I shivered. “Um,” I said slowly, “would a silver wing that may or may not have been the genuine article count as ‘something holy’?”
The slowking’s eyes widened, his tiny pupils shrinking to pinpricks. “A feather from the Silver Guardian herself?” he whispered. “Present it to me, at once!”
His voice was loud now, shouting. I felt it on the inside of my head as well as the outside.
“S-sorry, I can't. I don't have it. It's just something I handled briefly at work.”
The slowking closed his eyes. Maybe he was counting to ten or something, though that's never worked well for me. I’d gotten to fourteen seconds in my own head, when he said, “You must obtain the feather. Present it to me, and I will be able to divine the origin of your malady, and its cure.”
I blinked. Simple enough, except—“I told you, it's at my work. And like this—I can't understand other people and they can't understand me. There's no way I could get it in this state.”
My heart sank as I spoke, thinking back to my complete helplessness in the intake room. I was trying to game it out in my mind, but there was no way to get to the wing without talking to somebody.
“That is a difficulty,” said the slowking. “But difficulties can be surmounted. Return to me at the close of the day.”
Then he shut his mouth like, that’s it. The oracle has spoken. I scrambled back up the rocks, relieved to escape the smell of seaweed.
I wasted the rest of the day doing lame, touristy things around the wharf and eavesdropping on the pokemon. A wingull was taunting a flaaffy in an accent so thick I couldn’t make out the words. The flaaffy clearly could, though, because she was swearing up a storm in response. That pink fluff-ball had the foulest mouth I’d ever encountered, human or pokemon. Her trainer was a preppy looking girl, who chattered with her friends, completely oblivious to the filth the flaaffy at her feet was spewing.
The pokemon didn’t devote much conversational time to what I thought of as the three pillars of conversation in Goldenrod: fashion, celebrities, and tournaments. But they flirted, boasted, and teased each other, and in the later afternoon, I came across a forretress and an electrode locked in an oddly intense discussion of what came after death.
A few times, I caught sight of the murkrow from earlier perched on the roof of the chowder shack or some ship’s rigging. They were clearly watching me, but they kept their distance. When the light began to weaken and the harbor began to clear, I set back off towards the rocks.
“You have arrived.” The slowking’s voice boomed out before I’d even pulled back the seaweed curtain. “Good. We have been waiting.”
The Guidance Counselor wasn’t alone this time. A small kadabra stood at his side. Its tail was almost entirely covered in strange markings.
“This is Zahnan,” the Guidance Counselor said. “He will aid you in retrieving the silver wing.”
I may not know much about pokemon, but even I could figure out that having a psychic pokemon on my side would be a significant advantage.
“Awesome!” I said. My voice was a little hoarse from disuse after a day of listening. “My name’s Po. Nice to meet you.”
I was just trying to be polite, but the glare the kadabra gave me communicated with extreme clarity that he did not find it nice to meet me. Without answering, he waddled past me and out into the cave. I followed, keeping my pace slow enough not to overtake him. From this angle, I could get a better look at the markings on his tail. They were small pictographs, dyed into the tail fur like tattoos. The only one I could immediately identify looked like a spoon bent beneath a feather.
“Enjoying yourself?” the kadabra asked icily. I’d come almost to a stop craning my head to examine his tail. His voice was thin and nasally and seemed to come from somewhere inside my head.
“Sorry.” The apology was reflexive, though I didn’t know what I was apologizing for. “I didn’t know pokemon got tattoos.”
“Of course you didn’t. As a human, your basic state is ignorance.”
The nastiness in his tone seemed entirely uncalled for, but I decided to let it go, since he was the one helping me. When we reached the rocks, Zahnan lifted himself to the top of the incline in one movement, leaving me to scramble up the rocks. His glare seemed a little less icy when I finally reached the top, panting heavily.
Egoistic ass, I thought to myself. I was pretty sure it was my struggling that had improved his mood.
“Where to?” the kadabra asked. And when I blinked in confusion, he added impatiently, “Where is the silver wing held? Lead on, human.”
“You want to go right now?”
I shouldn’t have been caught so off-guard by the idea. It was only a little past 6:00 and the department store wouldn’t fully shut down until midnight. My boss always ducked out promptly at 5:00, so there wasn’t much risk that I’d run into him if we went now.
“Of course. There’s no point prolonging this.”
So we set off into the streets. Somewhat from spite, I upped my pace, forcing the kadabra into an ungainly waddle as he tried to keep up. It was only when we stopped at a street light and I caught the heaviness of his breath that I realized I was being as much a jerk as he had been at the rocks.
“So,” I said, as we crossed the intersection, “I get the sense you don’t like humans very much. Is there a reason you’re helping me?”
“Two,” spat out Zahnan. “Though the premise of your question is incorrect. I am not helping you. First, I am helping the Guidance Counselor, who has asked this favor of me. Second, I am helping the Silver Guardian, who must be shamed to have her relic fallen into human hands.”
It wasn’t an answer that invited further questions, so I kept my mouth zipped shut as we rode the subway and covered the three blocks from the station to the department store.
“To get the wing, I’m going to have to requisition it from Inventory. Which would mean talking. I’m guessing you can help with that?”
“What do you think?” the kadabra shot back, in a snide voice that sounded . . . an awful lot like mine. It was jarring, like hearing yourself recorded on the answering machine.
“Cool talent,” I managed after a moment. And then I told him what exactly he needed to say.
The woman at Inventory didn’t notice Zahnan, crouched moodily on the floor. She hardly noticed me—her eyes were fixed firmly on the clock, counting down the minutes until the workday ended. Luckily, I had been able to remember the right requisition number on my first try. All that time I’d spent puzzling over the wing’s material components hadn’t been entirely wasted. Zahnan communicated the corporatese excuse I’d thought up about quality control auditing, while I tried to make my mouth look like it was moving. I scrawled my signature on the form, and after eight tense minutes a generic-looking white box was thrust into my hands. I lifted the top, just to make sure there hadn’t been a mix-up. And there it was—gleaming silver in the cheap fluorescent lighting. Brine and kelp entered my nostrils when I inhaled.
In the elevator, I touched the wing, expecting something to happen. It was just as cool as I remembered. Other than that, I didn’t notice anything strange. The wing didn’t light up or move around in my hands.
“Can you still understand me?” I asked Zahnan experimentally.
Zahnan rolled his eyes, not moving his gaze from the wing where it rested on my palms, “Of course I can. You didn’t really think it would be that easy?”
I could tell my holding the wing bothered Zahnan, but I wasn’t going to let the only hope of regaining my speech out of my grip just to allay his hurt feelings. I kept the box clutched close to my chest as we made our way back to the Guidance Counselor’s cave.
By now it was past sunset. The harbor had fewer street-lights than the downtown did and I found myself standing uncertainly over the rocky incline, which seemed steeper and more threatening in the moonlight. The surfaces of the rocks gleamed and ran into each other in the silvery light, like they were an extension of the water waiting below. Zahnan vaulted himself down at once, and when I didn’t immediately follow, I felt a force edge me forward.
“Stop that!” I snapped. “I’m coming.”
The white box containing the wing made the descent even trickier, since I only had one good hand to maneuver with. Still, you couldn’t have paid me to ask Zahnan for help getting down. I wondered, as I climbed, whether my requisition would have any consequences. But if they’d had any idea that item 55708 was the genuine article, there was no way it would have been released so easily. As long as there wasn’t some surprise audit, I doubted anyone would even notice the item was missing.
“Finally,” huffed Zahnan, when I eased myself gingerly down from the last rock.
I held my breath as I offered the white box to the Guidance Counselor. He didn’t lift his arms, but the box floated out of my grip. The silver wing rose into the air as the box fell to the sandy cave floor. The slowking made a complicated gesture, not a bow, really—he extended his arms in a scooping motion and his head followed his arms to curl inwards and then out, like an offering.
Next to me, I heard Zahnan let out a small sigh. The slowking’s eyes were closed now, in what seemed like deep concentration, so I kept myself quiet, trying to prevent my breath from whistling out nervously. The cave was cold from the night breeze coming in off the sea and I found myself beginning to shiver in my light jacket.
“This is indeed a feather from She Who Watches the Waters, the Silver Guardian Lugia,” the slowking said at last, in a solemn voice. That had seemed a foregone conclusion by this point, but all the same I couldn’t stop my shiver—not from the cold this time—at the words. I’d never thought much about Johto’s twin birds. If we’d prayed to anyone back home in Pewter, it had been the CEOs in Saffron city, those technology gods who sent us ever-safer excavators, roof bolters, and scoops. But I couldn’t ignore the way Zahnan was looking at the feather. The hand that held his spoon was lightly trembling.
“What now,” I said after a minute. I didn’t want to break the mood, but the cave wasn’t getting any warmer and answers didn’t seem to be forthcoming on their own.
The Guidance Counselor blinked slowly at me, like he was just now remembering I existed. “In the same way that a conch shell carries the cry of the sea, each silver wing of Lugia calls out to be returned to her. This message must have entered your unheeding ears. But so great is the power of Lugia that your mind was made to understand.”
All that time I’d turned the feather over in my hands, the thing had been trying to talk to me? It sure wasn’t saying anything now.
“So what do I need to do to get back to normal?”
“The compulsion should cease once you have returned it to its source,” said the Guidance Counselor.
“Hang on, “ I said, “Once I have returned it to its source? What do you mean by that?”
Both pokemon looked at me like I was extremely slow.
“Once you’ve returned to the Silver Guardian what your kind took from the Silver Guardian,” Zahnan said impatiently.
“You’re saying I need to bring this feather to Lugia myself?” Neither of them laughed and said, ‘Of course not, silly human’, so I continued, “because that plan has some serious flaws. The main one being that Lugia is a mythic pokemon that lives somewhere in the bottom of the ocean? Can’t exactly stop by and slip the wing through the mailbox, you know?”
I could hear my voice starting to edge into hysteria.
“The wing will guide you,” the slowking said, seeming unruffled by my outburst. “And you will not need to go alone.”
There were a number of things I wanted to say in response. You’re crazy topped the charts. Also, it’s not fair. You realize I represent the very lowest rung of the corporate hierarchy, don’t you? It’s a complete coincidence I ended up handling this wing. I don’t know where it came from and I’m certainly not responsible for it being here, rather than wherever it’s supposed to be.
Also, I hate boats.
But I didn’t say any of that. The smell of kelp was clogging my nostrils, I was cold all the way through, and both the Guidance Counselor and Zahnan were looking at me expectantly. In a strange way, the silver wing seemed to be looking too.
“Okay,” I said into the widening silence. “What, exactly, do I need to do?”