Chapter 41 – Beyond the Glass
The human, or whatever he was, stooped to pick up the ball, minimizing it and tucking it away into one of his pockets. He swept a gaze over the dumbfounded crowd that shared the red-lit space with him, looking fairly nonplussed himself.
“Okay,” he said, sounding a bit shaky but managing to speak over the alarm regardless, “okay. What in the hell just happened?”
Silence. It was hard to do much of anything but goggle in disbelief—and suspicion. Yes, he looked like Ren. Yes, he sounded like him. But DeLeo had sounded and looked human, too. Solonn would have never guessed there was an ordinary meowth behind that façade.
What, if anything, was behind this one?
“Uh…” the swampert finally spoke up. “I could tell you, but you wouldn’t understand me, so…”
The human met the swampert’s gaze in an instant. His dark eyes were huge with alarm. “…Say that again,” he said.
“I, uh, said I could tell you what happened if you could understand me, but…” The swampert cocked his head at the human. “Are you telling me you can?”
The human didn’t respond right away. He glanced back over his shoulder for a long moment, his hairless brows tightening. Finally, “Apparently so,” he said, half-shrugging. “Apparently I decided to lock myself in a tube for some reason and came out of it able to understand pokémon.” He gave a strange little laugh. “Ordinarily I’d be celebrating. But again…” His hand rose to rub at his temple. “I can’t remember why I was in there. I can’t even remember building the damn thing.”
Solonn just stared, unsure what to think. Exactly what he was looking at was a question that still needed answering, and at this point he wasn’t even sure if it could be. But part of him was starting to sympathize with the man—he knew firsthand what it felt like to have missing memories. Missing memories and unexplained linguistic abilities.
Between that and the fact that the adrenaline was starting to fade, allowing the pain of his injuries to come to the forefront, it was getting a little difficult to care whether or not the human was as he seemed.
“And what the hell was a nullshade of all things doing down here?” the human went on.
“So,” Viraya said, “that’s what that was.”
The human stared at her mutely for a moment before nodding. He pulled the ultra ball back out and stared at it in consternation. “These things aren’t even supposed to exist anymore…”
“Neither are you,” Solonn thought aloud. The human met his gaze, the hand holding the ultra ball dropping to his side. Solonn bit his tongue, all but oblivious to the pain in light of all his other injuries. Even they were forgotten for a moment when he imagined flames shooting from the human’s hands, engulfing him and boiling his blood…
“What… Why the hell not?” the human asked.
“You… Your kind is extinct,” Evane explained softly. She sounded as if she didn’t want to believe it.
The human looked as though he honestly couldn’t believe it. As if he honestly didn’t know the Extinction had happened, that he should be long since dead and dealt with just like the rest of his people.
“That’s…” he began, the blood drained from his face. “No. That’s not possible.”
Evane started to respond, but a growing noise cut her off. It sounded like something heavy being dragged along, and it was coming from the tunnel leading back to the surface.
“More company,” Ren muttered. He stashed the ultra ball, readying a poké ball in its stead, and dashed toward the breach in the wall, just small and nimble enough to get past the pokémon.
Solonn was almost right on his heels, hope stirring inside him at the approaching sound—he was sure he knew exactly who was coming down to join them. That hope faltered when the noise stopped before its source could appear—Why’d he stop? Oh gods, please be all right, please…
The human stopped at the breach and unleashed a greninja. Solonn’s eyes went huge and his mouth dropped open, but not at the frog. He distantly remembered learning that Ren had one on his roster, though he couldn’t seem to recall anything else about Ren’s team. The greninja wasn’t much of a surprise.
The faces he saw looking back at him from the tunnel—two, when he’d only dared to expect one at the most—were another story.
“Wait, don’t!” he cried out as he came to a stop himself, looking up past the human with equal parts worry and astonishment. “They’re not enemies!”
They were anything but. A short distance up the tunnel, a claydol hovered unsteadily just above its muddy floor—a claydol missing one of their hands and part of their head. Somehow, incredibly, they were still alive. Further back, a steelix lay nearly motionless.
<We…> Oth said weakly, voicelessly, <we…>
The human stared at them, frowning. The greninja refrained from attacking, but glared up distrustfully as if ready to shift gears at any moment.
Solonn winced as Oth nearly dropped from the air. “Please, we’ve got to help them!” he cried.
“Not us,” Viraya said from nearby. “Her.” She edged her way as close to the breach as she could; the human and greninja both helpfully stepped aside. “Oth! You’ve got to call Quiul here!”
<I… c-can… cannot> the claydol said. Gods, they sounded like they were hanging by a thread… <Th—> They shuddered. <The… l-link…>
The human cast another glance back toward the hallway he’d come from. His mouth drew into a thin line. Then he recalled his greninja.
“I haven’t been down here in a while,” he said. He was starting to sound hoarse, presumably on account of the fact that he still had to compete with that alarm. “I think there might be medical supplies around here somewhere. I think I can remember how to get there. In the meantime…”
He produced and released another poké ball. There was a burst of light… and then, standing between him and the breach, was a kwazai.
For a moment, Solonn couldn’t help but wonder if it was Ntairow who’d just appeared in their midst. But no… no, this one was taller. More solidly built.
“Pain split,” the human instructed her, “for the claydol, at the very least. Try to fit in the steelix too, but only if you can handle it.”
The kwazai gave a quick nod, then dropped and scrambled up the tunnel on her many arms. Solonn looked past Viraya to watch the kwazai work. He should be concerned for her, some tiny part of him thought. Too much of the rest of him was worried about Oth and Grosh to allow it.
Pink-and-gold light shone around the kwazai and her first patient for a moment. The kwazai slumped, dark blood dripping from the side of her head and running off one of her hands, then wormed her way around Oth with a pained grunt and began crawling up toward Grosh.
As light swelled in the tunnel once more, Solonn took in the kwazai’s handiwork thus far. Oth… had still seen better days for sure. Their head was somewhat more intact than it’d been, but the eyes and hand on that side were still missing. Their levitation was a bit steadier now, and they proceeded down the tunnel with no further delay.
“Oth…” Solonn’s eyelight wavered as the claydol passed by. Though they were certainly in better shape than before, seeing their injuries up close in the pulsing red light made them seem even more horrific somehow. Soon Solonn could bear to look at them no longer, turning his gaze back toward Grosh and the kwazai.
“Oth,” Viraya spoke up again, “can you reach her now?”
The claydol gave a low, somber rattle. <The link was broken in the midst of my injuries. I am sorry.>
“It’s not your fault,” Solonn said quietly, still staring up the tunnel. The kwazai’s work was finished now, and Grosh was stirring. The steelix lifted his head, blinking blearily, and noticed the blue figure lying prone in front of him.
The human noticed, too. “Ah, Demi… I told you not to overdo it…” A red beam fired from out of sight to recall the kwazai.
Only to be deflected by the pile of dirt and stone that had suddenly dropped to block their view.
The human swore loudly, and he started to head up the tunnel himself—then backed right out as it continued to cave in, earth falling in a wave toward the red-lit room. The surrounding space rumbled, and Evane, Viraya, and the swampert made for the hallway beyond, but the room held.
The human stared at the resealed wall. “Come on,” he muttered, in a tone befitting a prayer, “come on…”
No sooner had he spoken than the breach burst back open again, a massive head flinging mud and small rocks all over the room and its occupants.
Once everyone was done flinching, and the last of the protect shields dropped, they took in the sight of the newly-arrived steelix. Most of him couldn’t fit into the room even if it weren’t occupied at the time; recognizing this, they began backing out of the way. Grosh let about a quarter of himself in, then lowered his head, opened his jaws, and let the kwazai he was carrying slide gently to the floor.
Demi was a mess. There wasn’t much of her that wasn’t caked in soil and blood that looked black under the emergency lights. It was clear she’d taken on more damage than she should’ve, and now the concern that had been absent finally made it to the surface of Solonn’s mind. “Thank you,” he said quietly, and bowed his head.
The light in the room intensified briefly as the human finally recalled Demi. That he’d managed to was a good sign. It meant she was still alive.
Grosh dragged a couple more feet of himself into the room; everyone else backed up further. He lifted his head, blinking in the flashing light. It shone off his armor as the filth began sliding away.
Then he spotted the human.
Grosh’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “You’re a fake,” he decided aloud, and began growling deep in his throat.
The human swallowed hard, looking up at the massive serpent looming before him. “No,” he responded, “I’m not. But listen: this really isn’t the time to argue. You’re hurt, all of you.” He started blinking rapidly all of a sudden, rubbing at his eye. It came away smeared with something dark. “All of us,” he amended, and as he turned back toward the hallway, Solonn could see more of the stuff beading up and running down the human’s forehead.
His thoughts skipped a beat. Could a robotic disguise bleed?
“Come on,” the human said, and he began jogging down the hall with a hand pressed to his forehead. There was a moment’s delay; then, the others began following as fast as they could. No sense losing track of him when there was still some doubt—albeit just a little bit less than before—that he was what he seemed.
There was no real risk of running him over. No one was in any fit state to proceed at full speed. Solonn suspected they were all at least as sore as he was.
“How much further?” Viraya asked from her place near the back of the line.
“Not sure,” the human—it was getting harder and harder not to think of him as Ren—responded, without pausing or looking back. “But…” His head turned from right to left and back again, and he slowed at a fork in the road only to keep on moving straight ahead. “I think it’s not too far from here.” He took a left at the next fork, leading them down a slope. “I think… There. That might be it.”
He finally came to a stop in front of a tightly-sealed door—so tightly-sealed that it was a little hard to distinguish from the same-colored walls around it, especially in the still-pulsing light. The pad set in the wall next to the door was even harder to make out, but the human found it fast enough. He studied for a moment, silent save for his panting breaths, then pressed his hand to it.
The instant he did, the alarm finally, blessedly cut off. The surrounding light turned steady and white; Solonn and Viraya winced at the brightness, and Evane let out a hiss. Solonn forced his eyes open again and saw a green beam lancing into the human’s skull from a lens that had appeared above the door. The human (Ren, Solonn finally decided, however tentatively) stood frozen on the spot until the beam cut off; his free hand had dropped to his side, the fingers more blood-smeared than ever. The lens disappeared behind a metal iris, and the door rose out of the way with a faint hiss.
Beyond, there was an arched hallway, just barely wide enough to admit the likes of Solonn and Grosh. Another, less remarkable door lay at its end; there was no pad this time. Ren made for it, a hand reaching out to brace against the wall halfway there. Meanwhile the door behind closed loudly a moment after the last of the pokémon had passed through it; all of the glalie turned toward the noise in an instant, while everyone else but Oth craned their necks backward.
“Damn. Good thing that didn’t close any sooner,” the swampert said, glancing back at his own tailfin, then turned his attention forward once more. Everyone else did likewise.
Ren gripped the handle of the second door, then slid it out of the way with relative ease. He proceeded into the vast, white space beyond, making a beeline for something out of sight.
The pokémon followed him. They fanned out once they were all in the room, giving everyone room to move—to fight, if need be. Solonn had a protect shield on standby; he imagined the same was true of the other glalie. The same might also be true of that strange half-serpent. Solonn could see the creature more clearly than ever now—including his mutilated hand. He shuddered hard at the sight, hardly caring how his own injuries complained at the motion. He knew a fire-induced injury when he saw one.
He heard a chime then; turning, he found Ren standing near an active rejuvenation machine, its screen glowing softly as it healed its lone occupant. Meanwhile the human was pulling out a first aid kit from a cabinet at its side.
“You’ve done enough,” he murmured to himself as he threw a glance at the single poké ball nestled in the machine. Then he turned to the pokémon who were there in the flesh, blood still glistening on his face. “There’s max potions in here,” he said with a wave toward the open cabinet. Sure enough, one of its shelves was lined with distantly-familiar, blue-and-white bottles.
The swampert stepped forward—there was no one else around with sufficiently prehensile hands other than Ren, who was already busy tending to his own injury. He reached up and scooped out an armful of the potions, laid them at his feet, and began treating the other pokémon one by one. Only once everyone else had been taken care of did he mend his own cuts and scrapes.
<We are in your debt,> Oth said—gods, it was good to hear their mindvoice so strong again, <Mister…>
“Jarl,” the swampert filled in. “It’s Jarl. And you don’t owe me a thing,” he said with a dismissive wave, then settled back onto all fours. “If it wasn’t for you guys, I’d have never seen a real, live human again.”
“If that’s what he even is,” Grosh said, his voice rumbling through the floor. He edged closer to Ren, lowering his head until he was almost eye-level with him, and sniffed noisily. “You smell like the real thing. You look like the real thing. But I’ve been fooled before. Our psychic friend’s even been fooled before.” He lifted his head once more, staring down his blunt, metallic snout at the man before him. “So why, pray tell, should we believe you’re actually human?”
Ren fussed with his forehead a couple moments more, then turned to face Grosh. If he was trying not to look unnerved by the steelix, he was failing, albeit only just. He licked his lips. “You shouldn’t,” he said finally. “I have no way of proving it. What you’re assuming I must be instead, I can’t guess, but…”
With a sigh, he let himself slink to the floor. “My name is Ren,” he said, “and I swear to your gods and mine that I’m legitimately human. Whether or not you believe me… that’s fine. But just so you know: I don’t exactly believe you, either. About the humans, I mean.” And maybe he didn’t, for the most part. But something in his eyes told that on some level, he feared they might be right.
“You’ll see for yourself once we get back above,” Evane said.
At her words, Moriel turned and looked upward, more or less in the direction they’d come from. “Yes,” she said hollowly, and Solonn realized it was the first time she’d spoken since the fight against the nullshade had ended. Since Alij was… oh gods… Solonn felt a sharp pang in his chest as he watched Moriel look around, presumably for a way out that wouldn’t require anyone to tunnel through the earth and risk another cave-in. He followed her gaze…
And then froze, as his own landed upon something in the adjacent room, beyond a glass partition.
There, hanging from the ceiling, was a pair of white-and-silver arms. Beneath them was a padded platform with presently-open restraints and a presently empty steel tray to either side.
All at once, he swore he could feel that platform against his back.