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Old September 5th, 2013 (07:42 AM).
Cutlerine Cutlerine is offline
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 21
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Nature: Impish
Posts: 1,030
Previously, on Crack'd...

Lauren/Jared and the gang unexpectedly run across Alder on a train stuck on the wrong side of the Driftveil drawbridge, and convinced him to retake his position at the head of the League. After a brief and terrible battle with something that can only be described as 'f*cking nasty' in the caves that run under the Valroy Channel, they had reached Driftveil, where they received word from Iris that the League was going to try and quash the search for Jared/Lauren.

Meanwhile, the rebel demon Ezra and the monster-slayer Niamh had parted ways at the Cold Storage, as a messenger delivered an ultimatum: Niamh was to cease helping Ezra, and in return she would win Smythe's freedom. She had no choice but to accept, and was last seen entering the throne room of King Weland himself – not far from where Teiresias and Smythe were holding a mysterious discussion in the tomb-city's prison about matters unknown.

Ingen's retriever is closing in. Harmonia's strange press-ganged riot still closes off the Cold Storage, and the mysterious Caitlin Molloy is doubtless behind it all. What will happen next? Only time will tell. And your ability to read.

Look, just move your eyes slightly downwards. No, down, you dullard. OK, that's the ticket. Now, read on!



Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Quick and the Dead

“OK,” said Cheren. “The Cold Storage.”

It was, amazingly, a pleasantly warm spring morning, and we were crossing the bridge that led south to Welkan Island, more popularly known as the Cold Storage. The little island was almost entirely covered in a thick outgrowth of warehouses, clustered like enormous square barnacles across its breadth; lorries rumbled back and forth from them to the docks and back again, none of which looked small enough to be able to negotiate the narrow byways of southern Driftveil. I supposed that was probably what all the backed-up traffic we'd passed earlier was about.

“What about it?” I asked.

“There's a list of holdings online,” said Cheren, “which includes all the warehouses that don't belong to secret government departments, cults or other organisations that don't want their property made public. Surprisingly enough, the Green Party's warehouse is listed, which means I was able to print this map off from the website and make some annotations based on the photographs of the riots on the New Unovan website.”

He unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket as he spoke, and Halley shook her head in wonderment.

“Bloody hell,” she said. “Do you even sleep?”

“A little. You'll see here,” Cheren went on, “that the Party own this set of buildings here – an office, attached to this large warehouse in the southwest corner.”

“OK,” I said. “Halley, can you see from down there?”

“Oh, someone notices. No, I can't see the map that you're holding at chest height, you selfish bastards.”

I resisted the urge to kick her between the railings and into the sea and picked her up. Candy hurriedly climbed around the back of my neck to my other shoulder.

“How does this help?” asked Bianca, blinking at the map. “I mean, isn't the building surrounded?”

“It is,” agreed Cheren. “All around this fence – sorry, it's not completely accurate, but it wasn't on the original map and I had to draw it on myself based on Google Street View – there are hordes of apparent Liberation Policy protesters. Only, of course, these protesters haven't spoken to anyone, and they keep mentioning 'plasma' over and over.”

“So they're definitely Harmonia's doing somehow,” I said.

“Almost certainly. Now, the fence itself is chain-link with razor wire at the top, and I think there's a few Watchog as well.”

Watchdogs had never caught on in Unova; Watchog were alert to the point of clinical paranoia, and virtually never missed an intruder.

“I expect they've been removed, though,” he said. “They're very highly-strung; the protesters would probably give them heart attacks.”

“OK.” I looked along the bridge; I couldn't see any sign of discontent at the other end, but then, the Green Party's warehouse was on the other side of the island. “So how do we get in, short of beating our way through the protesters?”

“Here.” Cheren tapped a point on the map where the warehouse met the coastline. “There are no protesters standing here, so this is where we'll get in.”

We stared at the map.

“Er... Cheren,” said Bianca, “correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the reason no people are standing there because it's the sea?”

“Yes, actually. But I noticed on an aerial photo that there's a path that winds around the edge of the island – part of which passes between the cliff edge and the warehouse fence. It's not broad enough for any protesters to stand on, so there aren't any there.”

“I don't get it,” said Halley. “If this weak spot exists, why hasn't Harmonia guarded it somehow?”

Cheren shrugged.

“I expect he has,” he said frankly. “We'll find out when we get there.”

“Christ. What a f*cking plan.”

“Do you have a better one?”

“That's really not the point.”

Cheren sighed.

“Anyway.” He folded up his map and pointed south down the bridge with it. “Shall we?”

We did, and soon enough came to the unrelentingly grey and miserable expanse of cold concrete that was Welkan Island; it was drearier and more fume-stained up close, and the people here looked at us as if they would probably batter us over the head with metal pipes and throw us into the sea if we couldn't give them a very good reason why we were here.

I guess we did seem a little out of place.

We crossed the road, which, given that congestion meant that ninety per cent of the lorries were stationary, was pretty easy; on the other side, next to an enormous grey dinosaur of a building, we found a narrow asphalted pathway, bordered on one side by a fence of steel palings and on the other by a sandy slope that rolled down to the sea at a deceptively steep inclination.

It was also sealed off behind a padlocked gate.

“Well done, O master planner,” said Halley. “Behold our path to glory!”

“We're not done yet,” said Cheren irritably. “Bianca. Smoky?”

She let out the Tepig, and he immediately lay down to sleep.

Oh,” she said, puffing out her cheeks. “Smoky! Up!”

She nudged him with her toe, but to no avail; he twitched an ear, and farted loudly, but showed no desire to move.

“Classy,” said Halley. “Shouldn't we have checked that no one was looking before we started melting through locks?”

“We haven't started yet,” pointed out Cheren. “In fact, we've barely even got the tools ready.”

“Smoky!” Bianca picked him up and tugged experimentally on his tail; he opened his eyes then and grunted the grunt of a pig who does not wish to receive visitors today.

I looked around.

“Doesn't look like anyone's watching,” I said. “Mostly because the traffic's blocking us and hasn't moved for five minutes. So, uh, now would be a good time.

“I'm trying!” said Bianca, brandishing Smoky like a shotgun. “Ember, Smoky. Ember!”

He yawned, deliberated, and eventually burped a jet of flame at the lock – to absolutely no effect.

“Hm,” said Cheren. “Bianca – er – when exactly did you last have any kind of training session with Smoky?”

She looked guilty.

“If I said... yesterday, would you believe me?”

“No.” He sighed. “All right, recall him, then. Let's have a go with—”

There was a click, and the padlock opened.

We stared.

“What the—?”

“Boop,” said Munny, floating above Bianca's head. The last traces of blue light were fading from its sides.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Telekinetic, right?”

“Yeah,” said Bianca. “I forgot about that.” She recalled Smoky and patted Munny on its side. “Good Munna! Well done.”

“Boop.”

“No time for that,” said Cheren, unhooking the padlock from the bolt. “Come on – we need to get through before someone sees us. Or had you forgotten that we're technically trespassing?”

We didn't need any more encouragement. He pushed open the gate, and we went.

---

Niamh stared into the abyss, and the abyss stared back.

“What do you want, then?” she asked.

“A CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES,” replied Weland. It hurt to hear him; his voice shook Niamh's consciousness in her body, like the seeds in a metaphysical maraca. “WE ARE NOT FOOLISH. THIS WAR WILL GO WELL IF OUR ENEMIES ARE FEWER, AND THIS IS AN EXPEDIENT WAY OF THINNING THEIR RANKS.”

Niamh closed her eyes, took a deep breath, tried to quell the soulsickness rising within her.

“Why aren't I dead?” she asked.

“THIS IS DIPLOMACY,” Weland said. “DIPLOMACY ONLY ENDS IN AN AMBASSADOR'S DEATH WHEN IT FAILS.”

The hint was quite clear, thought Niamh; she'd do what he wanted, take Smythe, and go, or she'd be killed. And it was obvious that there was no way around it. No one had even bothered to relieve her of her weapons on the way in, and the only reason they would have done that was if they weren't threatened by them at all. Niamh wasn't used to negotiating from a position of weakness.

She wasn't taking to it.

“Let Portland go, then,” she said. “Just let him go, and I'll leave and you'll never see me again.”

“THAT WAS THE AGREEMENT, YES.” Weland paused. It could only have been a second or so, but it felt like an infinity. Niamh looked steadfastly at the dim and distant throne, and knew with terrible certainty that something had gone horribly, unimaginably wrong. “BUT YOU ARE SUCH AN EXCELLENT SPECIMEN OF YOUR SPECIES.”

“What?”

Niamh hadn't been expecting that, certainly. Death threats, yes, but not compliments.

“YOU HAVE SOME OF THE BLOOD, FOR A START. THAT PLACES YOU AMONG THE GREATS. YOU ARE INTELLIGENT AND RESOURCEFUL, FOR SOMEONE WHO CONTAINS THEIR THOUGHTS WITHIN A BRAIN. AND YOU ARE ONE OF THE FINEST HUMAN COMBATANTS WE HAVE SEEN IN A LONG TIME.”

Was it her, or was it getting darker? The gloom was thickening, filling up with those strange half-glimpsed shapes; they came like the ghosts of rooks, settling on invisible perches, windows for some malign eye.

“Look, I just came here to get Portland,” she said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

“AND SMYTHE WILL WALK FREE,” said Weland. “THIS WILL BE DONE. BUT YOU, NIAMH HARPER, ARE A SPECIMEN WE CANNOT LOSE.”

Sh*t. She had no idea what that meant, but it almost certainly wasn't good.

“I never—”

“IT DOES NOT MATTER, NIAMH HARPER. YOU ARE, AFTER ALL, ONLY HUMAN.”

And before Niamh could so much as blink, the dark came screaming down—

And then there was nothing.

---

We threaded our way down the back of a long row of warehouses, the roar of an unseen crowd growing slowly louder and drowning out the rumble of lorries; in fact, down at this end of the island, it seemed like all traffic had been suspended, because all I could hear was people chanting and shouting, and occasionally stamping.

However, with the sea on one side and blank concrete walls on the other, I couldn't actually see them, and it made me a little nervous. I liked to have any potential threats in view; if you knew where the enemy was, you could punch him.

“Ah,” said Cheren, stopping suddenly. “Er... That's the Party building.”

He pointed at a medium-sized warehouse just ahead of us – and just ahead of where the path turned sharply to the left and terminated in a locked shed.

There was about fifteen centimetres of dirt between the rear fence and the cliff edge.

“Cheren,” said Bianca. “I am not going down that way.”

“We can hold onto the fence,” he suggested. “And climb along the side—”

“Cheren,” repeated Bianca, “I am not going down that way.”

“Once we get a few metres along, we can get Justine to cut through the fence—”

“Cheren. Are you listening to me at all? I am not going down that way.”

“Hey Cheren, I don't think Bianca wants to go that way,” said Halley dryly. “Got another plan?”

“How else do you suppose we get in?” asked Cheren. “Look. Concrete wall – concrete wall – barrier fence. We can't break through a wall, but we can probably cut through enough links of the fence to get through that way.”

Bianca made a face.

“Yeah, but Cheren... there's like six inches of space between the fence and, uh, death.”

“OK,” said Cheren, trying and failing to sound calming and understanding, “why don't... um... I'll climb out there with Justine, and get her to cut the fence, and then open the door there that the path ends at.”

“That's not connected to the same building,” I pointed out.

“Ah. Right.” Cheren twisted his lip. “Bianca, it, uh, doesn't look like there's any alternative.” He glanced at the fence. “It's not so bad. One foot in front of the other and hold onto the fence with your hands. Unless you make some kind of enormous mistake, it's statistically very unlikely that you'll fall to your death.”

“Cheren, it's me,” Bianca said earnestly. “'Enormous mistake' is my middle name.”

“Don't put yourself down—”

“She isn't,” said Halley. “You know it's true, Cheren. She's like the proverbial f*cking bull in a china shop. Give her a goldfish to look after and she'll manage to drown it.”

Cheren sighed.

“You won't fall,” he said. “Not even you are that unlucky.”

“How about you go between me and Cheren?” I suggested. “We'll keep hold of you. Or I will, anyway,” I added, remembering how much bigger than Cheren I was. (Not that he was particularly weedy, but he looked like he had all the upper-body strength of a paralytic sloth.)

Bianca hesitated.

“OK,” she said eventually. “I'll do it. But you go first, Cheren, and cut the fence – I don't want to hang there and wait for you.”

“All right,” said Cheren. “I can do that.”

He sent out Justine and nudged her out along the gap with a foot.

“Go on,” he said. “Out there. I'm following.”

Justine did not seem to need the encouragement: she had, apparently, a cast-iron belief in her own balance, and cheerfully trotted out along the gap as if it were nothing. Cheren edged out after her, clinging to the fence and moving sideways.

“See?” he said. “Simple.”

A particularly loud burst of chanting from the other side of the warehouse startled him then, and he reflexively jerked a little closer to the fence.

I smiled.

“Simple?”

“Yes,” he maintained. “Simple.” He turned to Justine. “On a bit more.”

They moved further out, to where the concrete bottom of the fence gave way to dirt; here, he had Justine first sharpen her claws on the fence post, and then Fury Swipe her way through the links. A little more slashing and tugging, and a reasonably large chunk of fence had been unravelled.

Cheren looked back at us.

“You see?” he said. “Not so hard.”

He lowered himself carefully through the gap – leaning perilously far out over the sea in doing so, I noticed, which made Bianca grab my arm way too hard to be comfortable – and Justine bounced through after him.

“All right!” he called. “Your turn.”

I looked at Bianca.

“You go on first,” I said. “Then I can help you through the hole.”

She bit her lip.

“OK,” she said, and edged out over the void.

I followed, and was immediately struck by how high it seemed we were now; how the wind seemed much stronger when there was less ground beneath our feet. I glanced to my right, at Bianca, and saw she had her eyes shut.

She wasn't moving.

“Go on,” I said, taking one hand off the fence and gripping her wrist firmly. “I've got you.”

She took a deep breath, opened her eyes and went on again.

The fence seemed to vibrate beneath our hands with every shout and stomp of the invisible crowd; it felt like it wanted to fling us off. I pushed the thought away and concentrated on moving along one-handed, walking my hand along the fence like a crab. (I didn't quite dare to let go completely; I wasn't sure I would be able to grab hold of the fence again quick enough to stop me falling and dragging Bianca to our deaths.)

On, and on. I'm sure it wouldn't have been so bad on my own – and probably, I thought, almost nothing for Lauren. But with Bianca in tow, it seemed to take forever; it was as if time was stretching out, like a cat taking its ease – until at last, aeons later, we were at the gap Justine had cut, and I was lowering Bianca through it. Moments later, I was through myself, and about three seconds after that, Halley had jumped through with the same ease as Justine.

“Man, you guys are slow,” she complained. “And Bianca, you stink of fear.”

“You did very well,” said Cheren, ignoring her. “Sorry. I didn't think it would be this... this hard.”

Bianca nodded. Her face was pale and slick with sweat; it reminded me of what Halley had said of her – that she had no talent, that she wasn't a hero. And yet, I thought, she was still here. She hadn't gone back home – she had fought her dad to make him let her stay. I was still unclear about how exactly that had happened; I vaguely remembered Lauren coming to help me convince him, or something.

She had stayed, despite everything, and that was probably more heroic than anything I'd done so far.

“Yeah,” I said. “Well done.”

Bianca smiled, though it was slightly strained.

“Thanks,” she said. “I – I'm OK now. Really.”

I nodded and looked around. We were in a small enclosed space at the back of the warehouse; the warehouse formed the front wall, and the two sides were concrete. There were a couple of industrial bins at one end, but other than that, and the occasional crisp packet on the floor, there wasn't much around. Behind us, the sea and the ships swashed and splashed; before us, still hidden from sight, the protesters chanted. I could make out their words from here: Plas-ma, plas-ma, plas-ma...

“Right,” I said. “How are we getting in? I'm betting that door's locked.”

There was a single unmarked door in the warehouse wall; it didn't look like it had been opened for a while.

“Why don't we knock?” asked Cheren. “And when they answer, you hit them over the head and we go in.”

“Won't they see us?” I asked. “On CCTV or something?”

“If they had CCTV, they'd have seen us break in already,” pointed out Halley.

“I have seen you break in already,” said the security guard.

We looked at the door. It was now open, and contained a man with a gun.

Naturally, this put us all slightly on edge.

“You went to quite a lot of trouble to get in,” he said mildly. “I take it you're those kids that've been interfering with everything?”

“That sounds like us,” Halley said.

“And the cat, too,” noted the guard, looking down at her – quite some way, as it happened; he was the approximate height and weight of a walk-in freezer. “Definitely you people.” He sighed. “Now, if I had my way, you'd be shot on sight. Burn up the bodies in hellfire, job done, no more interference. But orders from above are that we can't just kill you – not without provocation, anyway. That would, apparently, have bad consequences. Can't take you captive without cause, either.” The guard rolled his eyes. “I don't know anything about it, but you know, not paid to do anything but follow orders, and all bosses have their foibles. I worked for a guy once insisted all of us wore red feathers in our hats. Anyway,” he said, flexing the fingers of his free hand, “the point is, as long as you stand there, you're safe. You could back away now and all I'd be able to do is tell my superiors that you were here.”

He sighed.

“But if you came inside, I'd be completely justified in whacking you over the head, taking you prisoner and giving you over to the tender mercies of our resident demon. That,” he added, “is if you weren't too pugnacious. If you resisted, I might have no option but to use deadly force.”

He looked at his gun as if he'd just remembered he was holding it.

“So,” he said, with the sort of smile that you never, ever want to see. “I cordially f*cking await your response.”

---

“I'm not sure about this,” said Smythe.

“Do you want to stay here?” asked Teiresias.

Smythe looked around at the dark. He could not see the walls, but he knew they were approximately two feet away in each direction.

“Well, no,” he said. “But I'm not sure I like your way of getting me out.”

“I can find other places.”

Smythe hesitated.

“Ah, f*ck it,” he said. “Fine. But only until you're back up to strength, and you don't kill or harm me. Do we have a deal?”

“By blood,” replied Teiresias, its smoke coalescing and dripping darkly onto Smythe's palm. It stung, and he realised that there was a cut beneath it – that the foulness that constituted Teiresias' blood was mingling with his own. “And so even I cannot break it.”

“OK.” Smythe had seen a lot of things that he'd previously thought impossible over the last few days. This last did not bother him at all. “Whatever.”

He stood up, stooping so as not to hit his head on the ceiling.

“Are we ready, then?”

Teiresias' smouldering eyes stared blindly at him for a moment, and Smythe realised for the first time that Teiresias was standing much further away from him than the closeness of the walls ought to have allowed; then they lurched forwards, like the headlights of a truck, and Smythe staggered back as something smashed intangibly into his face. There was no impact, but his body couldn't help reacting as if there was; he stumbled backwards and fell heavily against the rear wall.

Then he rose back to his feet, the purple of his eyes staining the air around them.

“Now then,” he said, and whose voice it was that came from his mouth was difficult to tell. “For freedom.”

---

There was a pause, during which we considered our options.

“Well,” said Cheren, “you certainly make a persuasive case.”

“He does,” I agreed. “Bianca. How's Munny's telekinesis?”

The guard shook his head.

“You must be joking,” he said. “A Munna stop bullets? It doesn't have the strength. And it can't tug the gun out of my hand, either.” He held up his free hand; the fingers were each the size and approximate colour of a raw Lacunosa sausage. “I've got quite the grip, if I do say so myself.”

I sighed.

“Woden hang 'em,” I said. “This isn't going to be easy, is it?”

“No,” agreed the guard. “It isn't.”

“We aren't giving up, are we?” asked Bianca anxiously. “I did not climb along that horrible ledge for nothing.”

“Don't worry, we aren't giving up,” said Cheren. “We'll get in. Somehow.”

The guard raised his eyebrows.

“Oh. I anticipate your next plan with pleasure.”

“So do we,” I said. “Cheren? What's the plan?”

“Bianca,” he said. “How hard could Munny move a large object? Weighing – oh, let's say... forty kilos?”

“I don't know,” replied Bianca. “Probably not that hard.”

Cheren sighed.

“Ah, well. There goes that plan.”

“What plan was that?” asked the guard. “I'm interested.”

“We were going to get the Munna to slam the door on your head,” said Cheren. “But that doesn't seem to be a viable possibility any more.”

The man shook his head ruefully.

“No, it doesn't.”

“Jared.”

“Yeah?”

“Why don't you go over there and punch him in the face?”

I did a double take.

“What?”

“Why don't you go over there,” he said patiently, “and punch him in the face?”

There were about fifty-eight reasons I could think of why I didn't, actually, but I settled for the most obvious.

“Because he's about six foot six with the pecs of a grizzly bear,” I replied. “Sure, I'm bigger than you, but there's no way I'm going up against a guy his size – especially since he has a gun.”

“Six ten, actually,” said the guard cheerfully. “And I will beat you into little balls of sh*t if you so much as breathe on me aggressively.”

“Whatever. You get the point.”

Cheren gave me a look, and suddenly I realised that he had a plan.

“Jared...”

“Oh, fine,” I said, feigning reluctance. “But look, when I get my head kicked in, you'll be the one explaining my sudden death to my family and girlfriend.”

Bianca looked worried.

“Er – Cheren, maybe Jared shouldn't—”

“Let him go,” said Halley. “I'd like to see this.”

As I walked up to the door, I passed Cheren, and he muttered, “Slam it.”

And then I saw it, and I felt like an idiot.

I stopped about a foot ahead of the guard, who gave me a pleasant smile.

“Go on, then,” he said, leaning forwards like a tiger over its kill. “I dare you.”

“OK,” I said, and slammed the door on his face.

To his credit, it wasn't enough to knock him out, but it did knock him over – and make him drop his gun, which I hurriedly kicked away over the asphalt.

“Ettinf*cker,” he gasped, clutching his face and struggling to get back onto his feet. “You little—!”

“Candy,” I said, “you remember how to Rock Throw, right?”

“Ark,” she replied, and threw a small boulder at his face.

It wasn't the hardest blow ever, but on top of everything else it did the job; the guard groaned and slumped back onto the floor.

I looked back at Cheren.

“Nice plan,” I said.

“Nice slamming,” he replied. “I didn't think you'd hit him that hard.”

“I did,” said Halley.

“Roy? Roy, everything all right back there?”

We froze. The voice had come from down the passage beyond the door.

“Er... yeah,” I called back, trying to deepen my voice a bit. “Yeah, it's nothing.”

“I heard the door slam,” said the voice.

“Thought I saw someone,” I replied. “Just the seagulls fighting over a plastic bag.”

“F*cking vermin,” said the voice, and fell silent.

I let out a long breath.

“I think they bought it,” I said.

“If they did, they're a moron,” said Halley. “You sound nothing like him.”

“Thanks. Look, shall we move him out the way?”

“OK, OK.”

Between the three of us, Cheren, Bianca and I managed to drag Roy across the way and dump him in one of the bins, from which we hoped he would take at least a little while to escape. Cheren picked up his gun, and gave it to Bianca.

“Here,” he said. “If we meet someone, threaten them with it.”

Bianca stared at it.

“But what if it goes off?”

“Then someone will die,” answered Halley. “Or at least get seriously injured. Don't you watch movies? Those things are basically magic murder sticks.”

“That's the point,” Bianca cried. “I want to avoid that!”

“Then just follow this one handy tip: don't pull the f*cking trigger.”

“Isn't there a safety catch?” she asked. “That stops it firing?”

“Look, I don't know anything about guns,” said Cheren. “Just, er, be careful with it.”

She handed it back to him.

“You take it,” she said. “You're good at being careful.”

Cheren eyed it with distrust.

“Fine,” he sighed. “I'll take it.”

“Can we go inside now?” I asked. “Someone's going to come looking for Roy if we leave it too long.”

Cheren nodded.

“OK.” He motioned to the door. “You're intimidating. You first.”

I thought about pointing out that he had a gun, but decided against it; I knew he wouldn't actually use it.

“OK.”

The corridor was short and turned at a sharp right angle; beyond it was a small office, where a woman was typing at a computer.

“Roy,” she said, without looking around. “What was all that about? You were gone ages.”

I looked at Cheren.

“Threaten her,” I mouthed.

“Roy?”

The woman turned in her chair and froze.

“Ah,” she said. “Is Roy in one of the bins out at the back?”

“Yeah,” I said, almost apologetic. “Sorry about this.”

She licked her lips nervously, smudged her lipstick.

“OK,” she said. “There's no one else in the building. The workers who shift the gold aren't here because of the protests, and then apart from then there's usually only Roy and Geoff guarding the place, but Geoff's been at home with the flu for the last week and today is an inspection day, so I'm here.”

“Inspection?” asked Cheren. His hands did not shake – not even a little. He looked like he was used to the weight of the machine in his hand.

“Yeah.” The woman blinked in surprise. “What, you don't – oh, you've broken in to find out what's in here, haven't you?”

“Yeah.” Halley jumped up onto the desk. “So start talking.”

The woman stared.

“You're Halley,” she said.

Halley started.

“That isn't the response I usually get,” she said. “It's more usually something like 'Aah! A talking cat!'”

“Harmonia was after you,” the woman continued. “You're connected to the theft...”

“OK,” said Cheren, taking a step closer. “You seem to know an awful lot about all this.”

“Things we've been trying to find out for ages,” added Bianca, which slightly ruined the sense of menace.

“Look, I'll tell you, OK?” The woman scooted backwards on her chair, wheels squeaking on the carpet. “Just – you don't have to point a gun at me. God. You three are Trainers, I'm a scientist whose only exercise is walking to the vending machine for more coffee. It doesn't take a genius to work out that I'm going to have to talk to you if I want to come out of this all right.”

I looked at Cheren.

“I don't think we need the gun,” I said. “Keep it for now, in case Roy comes back and we need to threaten him, but I don't think we need it for – what's your name?”

“Lisbeth,” she answered. “Dr. Lisbeth Patel.”

“Yeah, for Dr. Patel,” I said.

“I agree,” said Bianca.

“All right,” said Cheren. “I don't like it either. It's got oil on my hands.”

He lowered it and took his finger off the trigger, holding it outside the trigger guard.

“Can we get on with the questioning?” asked Halley. “I don't know about you, but I'm pretty keen to hear about my past. You know, since I don't f*cking remember any of it.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Cheren looked at Bianca. “Bianca, you're a people person. Do you want to question Dr. Patel?”

“Just Lisbeth is fine,” said Dr. Patel helpfully. “I'm not a medical doctor or anything. I'm a genetic engineer.”

“Hi, Lisbeth,” said Bianca. “I'm Bianca, and this is Cheren and Jared. And Halley. And that's Candy, Justine, Munny—”

“Oh, get on with it,” snapped Halley. “What do you know about me?”

“Not much,” said Lisbeth. “I mean – only what I've overheard. No one's actually told me, as such. But people seemed to think you might know the person who stole the Dark Stone. Whatever that might mean.”

Cheren looked at me.

“Has N ever mentioned anything about that?”

I shook my head.

“No, but it sounds... I don't know. No, I don't think I know it.”

“What else do you know?” asked Halley. “About me, that is.”

Lisbeth shrugged.

“Nothing. Really, I'm sorry.” She glanced at me. “What, did you have a question?”

“Er – no. Nothing.”

I'd been staring, I realised. It was difficult not to; Unova's population was more than ninety-five per cent white. It was not a popular destination for immigrants. I supposed it explained her name, too – decidedly Unovan forename, obviously foreign surname.

“OK,” said Bianca. “If there's nothing more you know about Halley, then what is it that you're doing here, with all your genetic engineering?”

“Harmonia approached us – that's Ingen – a long time ago with—”

“Ingen?” I asked, surprised. “Do you know Gregory Black?”

Lisbeth looked startled.

“Er – yeah, you could say I know him. Why?”

“He's my uncle,” I said. “How is he? I mean, with the Archen thing...”

“He's facing an inquiry,” she said. “It's not looking great...” She trailed off. “Oh, God. You're Jared Black, aren't you? And that's...”

“Yeah,” I said, scratching Candy's neck. “Yeah, this is the Archen.”

Lisbeth closed her eyes and sighed.

“This is such a clusterf*ck,” she said. “I'm going to pretend I didn't notice that that was anything but a parrot.”

“I think we're losing control of the situation here,” said Cheren authoritatively. “You were talking about your work here?”

“Oh. Yeah. Well, it was an ambitious project, but Ingen like ambitious projects, so they sent a team out to see how it would go, and—” She paused. “Can I get up and show you?” she asked. “I thought I'd better ask, in case you shot me or something for making sudden movements.”

“I'm not shooting anybody,” said Cheren tiredly. “This conversation stopped being a hostage situation at about the time when we all inexplicably started making friends with each other.”

“But isn't it nice that it's worked out like this?” asked Bianca.

“I don't know. I've never seen anyone get shot before,” said Halley. “Might've been an interesting experience.”

“You are a vile creature,” said Cheren. “Lisbeth. Please, lead on.”

“Wait,” she said. “If you're not going to shoot me, I don't really need to do anything you ask. Do I?”

“No,” said Cheren, “you don't. Although if you choose not to help us Jared could always beat you up a little.”

Lisbeth looked at me, and I did my best to look threatening. Perhaps it worked; perhaps she was just humouring us. Either way, she gave in.

“All right,” she sighed. “This way.”

She took us to a door beyond her desk and through into what must have been the main body of the warehouse – a huge, echoing space, filled with gigantic crates stacked up to the ceiling.

“This is the gold,” she said. “But if we go this way, through here is the cryonics suite.”

“Cryonics?” asked Bianca.

“Low-temperature preservation,” said Cheren. “Frozen, essentially.”

“Oh, like Fry in Futurama. I get it.”

Both Cheren and Lisbeth winced.

“Yes. To put it simply.”

“Anyway,” said Lisbeth. “Here.”

She led us between two last columns of crates, and the space opened up; instead of boxes, here were long lines of freezers, upright like soldiers standing to attention. I looked at them for a minute, puzzled—

And then I saw them.

I saw the faces staring blankly through every single frosted window.

The ice-coloured eyes.

The green hair.

The unmistakeable face of N.



Note: Hey, everybody! The book's done bar the editing, and I'm back to working on Crack'd. Thanks for being so patient!
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For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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