Cracked, or How the Love of Seafood Saved Unova
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October 1st, 2012 (3:19 AM).
Gone. May or may not return.
The Misspelled Cyrpt
Chapter Three: By the Pricking of My Thumbs
I stared at the door. Just like that, I'd run away. Run from the government man, harbouring someone they badly wanted to get their hands on. If I wasn't very much mistaken, I'd probably just become a criminal.
“Up here!” cried Halley, from atop the fence. “You can climb, right? If not, you're going to learn. Fast.”
climb,” I replied, slightly nettled; I might not be good at catching stuff, but I was a White Forester, born and bred. Most of my childhood had been spent up trees.
“Then prove it,” she said shortly, and dropped out of sight.
I sprinted to the fence, jumped up and easily vaulted the top; a moment later, I touched down lightly on the other side.
“OK,” said Halley, staring at me, “I thought it was cool when I realised
could do that. But
was f*cking awesome.”
“It's a White Forest thing,” I replied, looking out down the dirt track that ran along the back of the house. “We spend our childhoods running around in the woods.”
I felt a little shudder of panic rise in me, but pushed it down. Forget about what might be happening back in the house; those people wanted Halley badly, and that meant they probably also wanted me. I had to focus on getting away.
“Where do we go?” I asked.
“I don't know. Just away from here,” said Halley, crossing the track and loping past another house towards the main trail. “How big is this place?”
“Not very big. About six hundred houses.”
“Too small to hide in. We have to get out of here, then.” Halley thought for a moment. “Is there a train to other towns or something?”
“Yeah, but I don't have any money,” I pointed out. “My bag's still at home—”
“Sh*t. We're f*cked.” Halley slowed and sighed. “Unless we just run blindly into the woods, which is probably a bad idea, we can't—”
“Wait!” I cried, a good idea suddenly popping into my head and temporarily pushing aside any fear or reluctance. “We can go to Annie. If we explain the situation, she'll help us.”
“Annie.... that's Anastasia, right?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, setting off again with renewed confidence. “It's this way to her house—”
“What, uh... what relation is she to you?” asked Halley tentatively. “Because I think she was Jared's girlfriend, and—”
“Oh, she's mine too,” I said, slightly disconcerted; Halley's knowledge was definitely beyond what I thought it should be. I hadn't mentioned Anastasia at all yesterday, and yet she knew about her – and if she couldn't participate in the Dream World, maybe she really had slipped between realities yesterday.
“Oh. Ah, OK,” replied Halley, clearly surprised. “That – I didn't expect that. But I guess it makes sense, since everyone else apart from you seems to be exactly the same as in Jared's world. Cordelia was, and from the sound of it your mum was – so I guess Anastasia is too. Everyone has the same character, the same personality, the same relations... everyone except you.”
“Do you really think there is another reality?” I asked apprehensively.
Have you been listening to anything I've been saying at all?” she retorted. “I've been telling you that I've fallen into some weird parallel universe all morning!”
“It's actually only half past seven—”
“It's a turn of phrase!”
She stalked along in silence for a while, looking around at the trees and timber houses with mingled wonder and disgust, and I had a chance to think again about what had just happened.
I had fled the house because it had been invaded by sinister government operatives who wanted to get hold of Halley. There, I'd said it. It was crazy, but that wasn't what bothered me; I was happy to accept pretty much anything that I actually saw as being possible. (The druids at the temple always used to say that only fools and philosophers doubt the evidence of their own eyes.)
No, what really worried me was what those people might be doing back in the house. Would they hurt anyone, or arrest them even when they couldn't find Halley? I hoped they wouldn't; I didn't even want to
about that. And while I was certain that going with and helping her was the right thing to do – after all, she was going to need a human to speak for her, to avoid drawing attention to herself – it looked like it might be dangerous to be around her. From the sound of it, this Jared, my Dream World self, was the kind of person who could face danger and punch it with equanimity, but I wasn't. I was someone else: sixteen, shy, fairly ignorant about the world beyond the sleepy Unovan countryside... For her sake as much as mine, I wished Halley would slip back across the world of Jared Black. Lauren White wasn't nearly as much of a hero.
But I'd do my best, I told myself, holding my feelings in check. I'd help Halley as much as I could, no matter what the difficulty. It was the right thing to do and I'd see it through. And if I could help it, I'd try not to think about what the man in black and his acolytes might be up to.
“I just thought,” said Halley, sounding worried. “If there's a forest here instead of a city – what else is different? Is Unova still wealthy?”
“Wealthy?” I almost laughed, despite myself. “We only became independent twenty years ago. We haven't had a chance.”
Halley turned to look at me sharply. “Um... the Unova I know is a global superpower. It's right up there – more important than America. And it's had independence since the Second World War.”
“Really? This is Jared's world?”
“Well, that sounds nice,” I said. “But we weren't really sure about whether or not the country would be able to stand on its own, and we kind of liked the British after all that time, so we stayed until 1990 or something like that. Then there was a big traditionalist revival and a return to old-style Unovan culture – except the language, because no one really wants to learn it.”
actually speak Unovan – it was a compulsory subject in all schools – but very few were properly fluent, and even fewer actually spoke it on a regular basis. It consisted of ninety-two syllables expressed in various combinations of twenty-nine runes, and sounded a lot like a Swede speaking English while affecting a mix of Welsh and Romanian accents. Consequently, it sounded very familiar to everyone in Northern Europe while also being totally incomprehensible to them.
“This is some weird sh*t,” mused Halley. “What about the rest of the world? Is China an emerging superpower? Is the world in recession?”
“Uh... I don't really know,” I admitted. “It sort of sounds familiar, though.”
“So some things haven't changed.” She sighed. “I don't know. This is all just too confusing.”
“I know,” I agreed. “Do you have any idea why that man is after you?”
“No,” she replied curtly. “It's like I've been cut out of my own memories. I remember everything else, just not anything to do with me.”
“It must be hard,” I said sympathetically. “If you want to talk about it—”
“I'm not that sort of girl,” Halley told me frostily. “From what I can work out about me, I'm the bubbly, happy-go-lucky sort who sometimes indulges in a sh*tload of criminal activity and often murder. You know. Like in
“You don't get to see many movies here, do you?”
“F*ck. This is going to be a dull trip.”
“I'm sorry,” I said, feeling somehow like I'd done something wrong. “I—”
“Please, for the love of
don't apologise for sh*t like that. It makes you seem so much more pathetic, and believe me, you seem pretty pathetic already.”
I was about to say sorry and then thought better of it.
“Uh, turn right here,” I said instead, and rounded Elm Corner. In the distance, I heard the sound of the van starting, shattering the forest calm like a gunshot.
“Bugger,” muttered Halley. “They sound like they're coming this way.”
I listened, and had to agree. The van was coming closer, and fast.
“In the bushes,” I suggested, and turned to see a long grey-and-black tail vanishing into a shrub. “I guess that's a yes,” I said to myself, and joined her.
A moment later, the van rumbled past like a solid thunderclap, trailing music from the open windows in glistering streamers. I caught a snatch of conversation as it went past – “the hell did she go” – and then it was gone, heading south towards The Cornrow.
live like this,” moaned Halley. “Hiding in bushes. Ducking around trees. I should be driving the cars, not slinking about in the f*cking shrubbery.”
“You're a wildcat. How do you not like bushes?”
“Hell-o? Not in spirit. I was turned into a cat, remember? I used to be human. I think I used to live in a city somewhere. This is not the world I live in, and I'd rather not be here.”
I hadn't really thought about that. It hadn't occurred to me that there might actually be people who didn't like it here; White Forest seemed pretty much perfect to me.
“Let's just get out of the bushes and over to your girlfriend's house before those guys in the van think of going there.”
I got to my feet and back on the trail; Halley followed a moment later, rubbing leaves off her flanks on my jeans.
“Ugh,” she groaned. “God. The sooner we get out of this place the better.”
“It's not far to Annie's house,” I assured her. “We're practically there.”
One last corner and we were on Ash Street; Anastasia lived two doors down from the other end.
“Is this it?” asked Halley when we stopped.
“Yeah,” I replied. “You might want to stay out of sight at first. Just so I can explain things.”
“Right. Good idea. Will she be up, though? It's only... actually, I don't know what time it is, but it's not long after dawn.”
“It's half past six,” I told her, looking at my watch. “And she'll definitely be up. She doesn't like to waste time.”
I knocked softly on the door, trying to attract Anastasia's attention without waking her parents; I succeeded, and a moment later she appeared at the door in the swirl of minor chaos that usually attended on her, looking like a cross between an exquisitely beautiful Muscovite noblewoman and a train wreck.
“Lauren?” she said, surprised. “What are you doing here?”
“Annie!” I cried, hugging her. “I need help. Badly.”
“What? OK, uh, come in.”
“Before I do,” I said, disentangling myself, “I have to tell you something.”
Anastasia fixed me with a piercing stare that no one else in Unova could replicate; I think it might have been something she inherited from her Russian ancestors.
“What's happened?” she asked shrewdly. “Lauren, what's wrong?”
“Um, it's kind of difficult to say,” I began, but at that point Halley lost her patience and slid into view.
“I'm a talking cat, government agents are chasing me and they're after Lauren too because she's harbouring me. We need money for a train. Give it to us and let's get the hell out of here.”
“I can't help but feel I've done all this before,” she remarked. “All right. Let us in and Lauren will explain everything.”
“Um, this is Halley,” I said, indicating her. “Halley, this is Anastasia.”
“We established that some f*cking time ago,” she said sourly. “Can we just get inside before someone sees us?”
Anastasia looked at me with a helpless look in her eyes.
“Sorry,” I said, feeling bad for interrupting her morning. “But I – we – really need your help.”
“OK,” she replied, running a hand through her hair distractedly. “OK. I guess you'd better come in.”
I followed her into the hall and up into her bedroom, which was less of a place for sleeping and more of a haven for gaming; one wall was dominated by an intimidatingly large screen, and below it was a messy row of consoles, all connected by a tangled web of wires and cables. Anastasia wasn't quite as big a fan of the peaceful woodland life as most people in White Forest; she was always complaining about the lack of reliable Internet access, and seemed to acquire a new video game practically every other day. Right now, the vast screen was displaying a pause menu, but behind it I could see something that looked like the box of the Eostre gift I'd got her.
“I was testing out your present,” Anastasia told me. “Thanks, by the way. I've never been so glad to see a pile of dead animals.”
As far as I'd been able to work out from the packaging,
was a game in which you played a hard-bitten ex-cop panther whose family had been murdered by a Swedish mafia kingpin who also happened to be a bear. Apparently it offered hours of absorbing gameplay, most of which seemed to revolve around shooting a variety of cheerfully insane enemies.
“This place is
,” breathed Halley, looking around. “I so wish I had thumbs so I could play with all this.” She paused. “OK, so apparently I like video games. Not the most useful thing to remember, but it's a start.”
“OK, Lauren,” said Anastasia, looking down at her, “I think I need some answers now.”
So I told her the whole story – from finding Halley in the bushes yesterday to the escape from the government agents by way of Halley's conviction that she'd slipped across universes – and waited for a response.
Anastasia sat on her bed, fiddling with a thumbstick, and stared into space.
“Let me get this straight,” she said, obviously trying very hard to stay calm. “This girl's turned into a cat, lost her memory and is being chased by the government – and you haven't questioned it so far?”
“Well, I have a bit,” I replied. “But, you know, only fools and philosophers—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Anastasia sighed. “It's just that it seems... well, it's pretty crazy.”
“Uh, living proof sitting right here,” interjected Halley.
, but...” She broke off. “I don't know.”
“I know it's crazy,” I pleaded, “but I really need your help. We have to get some money to get a train out of here, and I can't go back to the house because those guys are probably watching it and—”
“Calm down,” said Anastasia, putting a hand on my shoulder. “You're babbling.”
“Sorry.” I paused and tried to collect my thoughts. “It's just... it's been a bit of a shock.”
“Understatement of the f*cking century,” put in Halley, but we both ignored her.
Anastasia sat there for a while, sliding her teeth back and forth across one another as she did when deep in thought.
“I could come with you,” she said, but I shook my head.
“That's not happening,” I replied firmly. “I'm not getting anyone else involved. Besides, I don't have time to wait for you to get dressed.”
Despite venturing into society slightly less often than J. D. Salinger, Anastasia was as fussy about her appearance as any high-flying socialite; it rarely took her less than an hour to be ready for anything at all.
“I...” She struggled for the right words for a moment, gave up and sighed. “Lauren, I can be fast—”
“That agent and his goons will probably be here soon,” Halley interrupted. “You know, asking if anyone's seen Lauren around. And it sure would be appreciated if you hadn't disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and could give a little false testimony to misdirect the agents. And then, pretending to get text messages from Lauren, keep feeding them false information as to our whereabouts as the search progresses.”
“I get it.” Anastasia nodded. “OK. But are you sure? I can come—”
“No.” The stubbornness in my voice surprised me; I'm not usually the strongest-willed person around. But now, for some reason, I was sure: we needed the cover Anastasia could provide if we were ever to get out of this tiny village, and I didn't want to involve any more people in this mad adventure if I possibly could, especially people who didn't actually have some means of defending themselves. If Anastasia had been a Trainer or something, I'd probably have taken her with me – as it was, she'd just be one more ordinary person like me, only without my gymnastic ability. “Think about it. We're going to be running and hiding, and making swift escapes and stuff. It's not exactly your forte.”
“It is if we're talking
,” she muttered. “No, OK. Point taken.”
“Then hurry up! We don't have time to argue about this—”
“Yeah, I get it.” She paused, then sighed. “OK, Lauren, I might not be able to help you as I'd want to, but... I trust you. Even when you're acting like your sister. “So...” She reached under her bed for her bag, pulled it out and blew the dust off it – there was nowhere to go in White Forest that really necessitated taking along a handbag – and extracted her wallet from within. “I've got £25 here,” she said, examining the contents. “That should be enough for a train to Nacrene City at least.”
“Thank you!” I cried, hugging her tightly. “Annie, you saved my—”
“Yeah, OK,” she said, gently prising me off. “But remember what you were saying right now: you don't have time for this. You need to move
. White Forest is tiny, and it's going to take them about five minutes to find you here.”
“Ah. Yeah. Right.” I looked at Halley. “I guess we should go, then.”
“You think?” Until that moment, I hadn't been aware that cats had eyebrows; however, it seemed they did, because Halley raised one. “Come on, Sherlock. We need to get moving.”
We went downstairs quietly, mindful of Anastasia's sleeping parents; if they woke, there'd be witnesses to prove I was here, and Anastasia wouldn't be able to do anything to throw our sinister pursuers off our trail.
I paused on the threshold of the door, and turned back to Anastasia.
“Um – bye,” I said nervously, suddenly realising that I was going to be leaving White Forest – and literally everyone I'd ever known in my entire life – behind.
,” replied Anastasia, kissing me. “Come back alive, OK?”
“I'll do my best.”
At my feet, Halley rolled her eyes and muttered something about there never having been a story of more woe.
“Shut up, cat,” said Anastasia sharply. “We're having a moment.”
“No, she's right – we have to go,” I told her. “The trains only leave once an hour, and I don't want to be stuck waiting on the platform while people are after me.”
“OK.” Anastasia smiled anxiously at me. “Good luck.”
She shut the door; both she and I knew that if it remained open, I'd take another fifteen minutes to leave – time that we just didn't have.
I sighed, and turned to the road. It seemed like all the doors of my life were slamming in my face.
“No going back now,” I told myself nervously, and set off at a brisk walk for the station, Halley padding along at my heels.
Portland Smythe was not a happy man. Not merely because he was called Portland Smythe – an interesting name to be sure, but not one that really suited him – although that did factor into it, as a minor irritation that formed a continual curtain of background anguish in his mind; no, the real cause of his unhappiness was that his quarry, a mysterious young woman known only as Halley, had somehow evaded him.
Portland knew that she had some sort of connection to the theft of the artefact, and he knew that she had gone to ground somewhere in White Forest; he also knew that she was currently, for reasons unknown, in the shape of an Unovan wildcat, and that she had been asking around the area for help. From a few witnesses, he had gleaned that she had been spotted in the society of one Lauren White, and this morning he had led four of the Green Party's agents on a slightly illegal raid of the property; however, neither White nor Halley had been on the premises.
This meant, he thought, that they had escaped. And that meant, he knew, that he was going to have to find them – and
, or he would have to face the consequences.
Portland sighed, and mused. White and Halley were probably trying to flee the Forest, he thought, which meant he ought to check the train station. There, the trains left hourly, and since it was coming up to seven, he need only wait around for a few minutes to make sure his quarry didn't get aboard.
“It won't take long to look,” he murmured aloud. “It can't be more than two minutes away, and the place is tiny.”
He turned the van around and headed back north.
“Get ready,” he called to the men and women in the back. “We've got a lead to follow up.”
This done, Portland glanced to the creature sitting in the passenger seat. It was long and tall and lithe, a creature of slim bones and taut muscles tightly bound in purple fur. You might have called it a Liepard – but no Liepard ever had eyes like those, smoking pits of white fire, and no Liepard ever sat so still and so upright, watching the world around it like some menacing totem.
And no Liepard ever spoke the language of humans before, and certainly not in a voice that reverberated in the air like the prelude to a landslide.
“She is here,” it said, and its voice came with the rank smell of grave-earth. “I feel her presence.” It sniffed the air deeply. “Yes, she is here,” it confirmed, its head sinking low between its shoulders and its eyes closing to ash-white slits. “And we are getting closer.”
Portland shivered, and drove on. Sometimes, his Pokémon scared the crap out of him.
When we arrived at the station four minutes later, there was a surprise waiting for us: Cordelia, standing by the single wooden platform that connected White Forest with the rest of the world.
“Dilly?” I asked, staring. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought you might go to Annie's house, so I got her number from your phone and called her,” she answered. “She told me you were heading to the station, and I realised I'd better bring you a few things before you forgot them. One: mobile.” She handed me my phone – and, because she was Cordelia and never forgot
, its charger as well (something I would never, ever have remembered myself). “Two: jacket. Your purse is in the pocket.” I was glad of the jacket: it was freezing at this time of year, and I really wanted more than a T-shirt on. As for my purse – well, it had no money in it, but it had a credit card that would give me access to my savings when we needed it. “Three: protection.”
Candy stuck her head over her shoulder, saw me and squawked with joy, hopping over onto my bare arm and almost slicing open an artery as she went.
“But I can't – ow! – take her,” I began, but Cordelia cut me off.
“Candy's main goal in life is to bite as many things as possible,” she said. “Add that to the fact that you're her favourite person and I think she'll be a good asset.”
“But we're meant to keep her secret – if Ingen find out—”
“Tell people she's an exotic parrot from South America. They're not going to contradict you.” Cordelia looked at her watch. “I need to get going. Everything's still in chaos back home.”
“Is everyone OK?”
“Yeah, just shaken up and worried about you. Don't worry, though – I'll keep an eye on them.” That was reassuring; Cordelia was as efficient and single-minded as Terminator, and when she said she'd do something you could bet your life she'd do it. “I can handle this end of things if you take care of yours, OK?” She gave me a reassuring smile.
“OK,” I said dutifully, squashing the rising concern within me. “Thanks.”
“It's nothing. The next train leaves in ten minutes; I bought your ticket already, so just get on board before anyone sees you.” She handed me a scrap of orange and green paper – it looked like we'd be saving Anastasia's money for later.
She didn't hang around. A moment later, Halley, Candy and I were alone on the platform.
“She's like the SAS of organisation,” whispered Halley, so as not to be overheard by the man in the ticket office. “And you say she's related to
“I don't know either. She's just... she's always been like that. When she was little, she had a rotation system for cuddling her soft toys. If you gave her the wrong one she set up a pretend court martial and executed it at dawn for treachery with a knife.”
“Jesus.” Halley clapped a paw over her mouth. “Oops. Too loud. I'm going to shut up now.” She jerked her head in the direction of the ticket office, and I nodded.
In the distance, I heard the van's engine rumbling.
“They're coming,” I breathed. “Hide!”
“Eh?” queried the man in the ticket office, looking out of his booth. “Is someone there?”
We dashed across the platform and into the bushes; in a moment, we had disappeared from sight. One of the advantages of living in White Forest is that it's incredibly easy to hide; everywhere you look, you see more shrubbery.
Once installed behind the bushes, I checked my phone's clock. One minute since Cordelia had left; nine to go until the train left. That meant seven and a half until the train arrived for us to board.
The van pulled up, and I heard the doors opening. Two sets of footsteps crunched across the leaf-strewn trail – a man and some four-legged animal, by the sound of it. Maybe a dog or a Liepard.
“Hey!” cried a familiar voice – the ticket man. I knew him well; I knew everyone in White Forest well. You have to actively try in order to
know everyone in White Forest well. “Hey, you can't bring that van here. It's a nature reserve.”
“This is official government business,” said the same man who had knocked on our door earlier that morning. “We would appreciate it if you did not attempt to hinder us.”
I peeked through the leaves, and saw that the man was tall and exotic-looking; he didn't have pale Unovan skin but the bronzed tropical variety instead, and his hair was long, black and carefully slicked back over his skull. Next to him was the Liepard I'd suspected, and it was a lean bruiser of a beast, the biggest I'd ever seen – and I'd seen quite a few. They were fairly common around here, and had a long-running feud with the wildcats that saw purple and tabby fur scattered over the village streets at least twice a week.
Beside me, Halley flinched, but I couldn't ask why without giving away our position. Maybe it was an instinctive wildcat response to seeing a Liepard, something that had seeped into her mind when she'd transformed. Candy was spooked too, but I clamped her beak shut in one hand and held her still with the other. The last thing I needed was for her to give us away.
“Oh, I, uh – I see,” stammered the ticket man. “Is there anything—?”
“Yes, actually. Have you seen Lauren White?”
“Lauren? Well, I think I heard her a minute ago – talking to her sister about something—”
“So they're here,” hissed a third voice, a slow dead voice like the pattering of earth onto a grave. “Yes, I think I detect...”
My eyes widened – it was the Liepard that had spoken, and though I'd met a talking animal yesterday, I definitely hadn't expected to meet another so soon.
The Liepard stalked across the platform, head sweeping back and forth across the ground, and I saw the white marbles of its eyes and the ashen smoke that wisped from them. Sweat pricked on my brow and a cold dread rose within me: those were not the eyes that should have rested beneath that brow, not the eyes of any animal that I knew...
Halley pressed a paw over my mouth, and the shock caught me just in time to stop me crying out in fear.
“What in the fields of Neorxnawang...?” breathed the ticket man.
“I don't have to answer your questions,” said the agent. “If I were you, I would ignore everything that is happening right now. You should try and spare yourself the effort of worrying about it; I'd rather not leave a trail of traumatised civilians in my wake.”
He sounded almost kind, and for the first time I wondered who he was when he wasn't hunting people for the government – a husband? A father? Even the bad guys have families, I thought, and—
The Liepard's face swung up just inches away from mine, separated by nothing but a few paltry leaves; I froze, breath dying in my throat, as the smoking eyes fixed on mine—
“They're gone,” said the Liepard in its corpse-mouldy voice. It sounded puzzled. “It's almost as if... No. I don't know.” It turned away from us and loped across to its master – or maybe colleague, since it seemed so intelligent. “They have left. I detect no trace of their presence.”
“What?” The agent seemed confused. “Well... Maybe they bought the ticket, then retreated, knowing we would come here to look for them. In which case, they must be hiding somewhere until the next train comes.” He stroked his chin. “That gives us an hour to find them,” he mused. “All right. Come on; I have an idea of where to start looking.”
He turned and walked out of sight, scratching his head; with one last demonic look at the platform, the Liepard followed, padding away silently as if setting out to hunt. The van started up and drove away, and then there was silence.
For a very long time.
“OK,” said Halley at length. “What the
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