Ruined Chances
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“Tell me again about these strange Pokémon forms.”

The coffee arrived just then, and for a minute both ladies forgot about the request. Selene’s was black with only a hint of cream, Kris’ with steamed milk and two sugars. Kris’ half-rimmed glasses fogged up as she drank and she took them off. Her sapphire blue eyes, a shade darker than her hair, stared at Selene kindly. Two scientists, of a kind, catching up and sharing discoveries.

A summer sun was slowly rising, as if to peek its head from beneath the earth and see if it was safe to come out again. It was early Sunday morning and the Battle Café was quiet, even outside where the two women sat. Empty chairs and tables awaited on the cobblestone street for customers, although at this hour the only customers the Battle Café would be serving were Kris and Selene.

Selene put her coffee down and finally addressed the earlier remark, raising an eyebrow. “My strange Pokémon, or the ones I found at your temple?”

“Let’s start with yours,” Kris answered, pulling out a notebook and searching for an empty page. She grabbed behind her ear and pulled out a pen that nestled in her thick hair before continuing. “Though calling it my temple is a bit of a stretch. I simply took more than a passing interest to see if there was more under the surface. At any rate…I must admit, Selene, I didn’t quite think you were of such sound mind the first time we spoke about this. I apologize for not having paid more attention the first time.”

Selene nearly snorted into her drink.

“Don’t even worry about it. Put in the same position I think I’d have ignored myself too.”

A teenage boy with shoulder-length hair walked by them and entered the Café. He paid the two women no mind, but that suited them just fine. Selene and Kris smiled as they caught each other’s eyes. Young love takes hold of even the best of people, and Brandt was no exception.

“The truth is, I know more about your strange Pokémon forms than I know about mine. Mine are…well, they’re just stories, Kris!”

A harsh bark of strained, uncomfortable laughter escaped from Selene. This was so ridiculous! Were they really having this conversation? Fairy tales and ghost stories had no place here, in firm, immovable reality. She might have found it ironic that years from now the same internal debate would be had here at the Battle Café by a different group of people…but that’s a story for another day.

“They’re something I found while reading bedtime tales to my children. They speak about genetically modified Pokémon that look different, have different typings and movesets, maybe even natural habitats. But some of them you can tell are intended to fascinate or scare kids, because they almost don’t resemble the original Pokémon at all. But then you told me about what you found in the temple at Yangtze. And I thought you were pulling my leg, but you were serious!”

Kris toyed with her empty mug for a bit, a hint of a smile playing on her features. “And the ones at the Yangtze Temple? Are they not the same?”

“Do you mean to tell me,” Selene asked, raising both eyebrows now, “that you haven’t even been to see it?”

Kris blushed but kept the smile on her face. “Can you blame me? You’ve experienced first-hand the ridicule people place in anyone that takes that Temple seriously. Compared to the Arceus Temple in Nyasa, this one’s a tourist attraction, if that. Cultural Trubbish. Except that recently I’m not so sure…”

“What? Not sure that it’s all nonsense?”

“Well, yes,” Kris said, carefully pausing to wipe her glasses on a cloth from her pocket. “I don’t know that there’s anything relevant there now, but I’m starting to think there might be something more. No matter what people say, it’s quite an old place. It wasn’t built as an art gallery. If anything, it’s safe to assume that someone in the distant past believed these variants existed. Maybe even the kids books were inspired by it. All myths have some basis in reality, however minute.”

“You want me to have a deeper look.”

It wasn’t a question.

“It couldn’t hurt. Aria’s told me there are deeper components to it. Sealed ruins. Ones we never opened to the public, because they’re not entirely safe. But you can have access, you’ve proven more than once you’re capable of handling yourself.”

“Aria knows? About my theory?” As excited as Selene was at the opportunity of maybe finding answers, it still sounded silly, even to her. She had worked hard to build an upstanding reputation and too many questions could lead to the wrong - or right - conclusions.

“It’s hard to keep anything from her, you know. She’s not the Champion for nothing. And anyway, she agrees its worth a look. She’s made her life out of the unexpected and seemingly impossible, so why can’t we?”

“I’ll drink another coffee to that,” Selene said, clinking her empty mug against Kris’.

***

Six Months Later

Walking through the Ruins gave Kris the chills, and it was only partially due to the cold.

Winter was not kind to Yangtze Town, originally built as a small settlement by travellers who had braved the oceans to the north. Snow piled the rooftops of every house precariously high, and the gardens were blank white canvases. Residents and tourists alike could be spotted wearing heavy fur coats and thick gloves, with scarves hugging their faces tightly.

There was a stark, breath-taking quality to the purity of Yangtze’s winter, but staying too long to enjoy the view was likely to result in frostbite.

Residents of Yangtze never bothered with the Temple, having long ago decided it was simply a landmark in their region’s long lost history. It was tourists who frequented it, but years ago Aria had declared the Ruins below the Temple unsafe when a little girl nearly died, getting lost in the caves below. Now the only accessible areas were the refurbished and restored upper sections.

Once a part of the Temple, the Ruins no doubt held great secrets to the past. Selene and Kris each held a lamp down below. Icicles and stalactites hung from the cavernous ceiling like glittering decorations. A stray Vanilluxe hid between them, surrounded by the flying shadows within the cavern. The light of their flames danced between the icicles and cast an eerie glow in the darkness.

Rough carvings embedded nearly every available surface on the walls, depicting strange variations of familiar Pokémon. Alien symbols filled the open spaces between the crude drawings, a language lost to the cruel fetters of time.

A shiver ran down Kris’ spine and her body shook violently, though her body was plenty warm from the layers. Her glasses quivered but held to her face, the snow that had gathered on them from above tossed aside.

“This place gives me the creeps,” she whispered, her breath frosty. “How did you manage to stay here for six months?”

“Oh, you’ve gotta see it when it’s warmer. The amount of details in these designs…”

Kris ran her hands across a carving of a Houndoom. It was surrounded by fluffy fur, as if it had gotten in a fight with a snowstorm and lost. The tip of its tail held a candle with a flame larger than its snout. Beside it, the strange markings describing how - or why - this Houndoom looked so different to the one she was so familiar with.

She held her notebook in one hand, grabbed a pen from behind her ear with the other, and started writing with furious speed.

“How long did it take you to decipher the runes?” she asked, not looking up from the notebook.

“This is pretty far out of what I’m used to. Turns out you can’t fight ancient text into being more readable.” Selene laughed a little before pulling out her own notepad, waving for Kris to join her. “There were days I felt it was less painful to argue with my own kids! You know how they are. Anyway, it took a while, but with determination – and headaches – I was able to make some progress. That’s why I wanted you to see this. I think I finally have something.”

She pointed towards a section of the wall that was mostly runes and hieroglyphics. There was excitement in her voice, but Kris also noticed fear etched in the lines of her forehead as she spoke. Maybe she was just as spooked down here in the dim cave.

“The first thing I did was try to figure out how far back these ruins date, because maybe then I could cross reference symbols from similar eras in history. But it turns out they’re far older than I thought. The machine I used nearly fried itself trying to give me an answer, and Wilson promised me it was his best one! Even he didn’t have an answer for that, and he has a comeback for everything I say. I actually think this place dates back further than anything in any history book. And to me that’s crazy that it’s been this long and no one has noticed.

Selene pointed to notes scribbled down and then at the wall again. “Then I spotted a few symbols that looked familiar and I cross-checked them, and started building a passable translation. I only recognised them because of the stuff near Turkana. Which, by the way, that’s another lost treasure everyone seems to have given up on. I might ask Aria for special access now that the kids have moved out, it’ll give me something to occupy my mind.”

They looked at each and shared a smile. The “stuff” was a site southwest of Turkana Town, buried by time and dirt, and something only the three of them knew about. Not even Wilson knew of its existence, although in time his technological help would be necessary to uncover whatever dark secrets this region still held. It made one wonder how so much could be buried right beneath their feet without anyone catching on for thousands of years.

“The Pokémon depicted on these walls have different typings than the ones we’re familiar with,” Selene continued, “and the reason is…well, time. Time seems to be at the center of everything here. As far as I have been able to make out, this is what they looked like originally. Through some natural state of evolutionary acclimation to their surroundings, they changed. It explains why they look different but not entirely unrecognizable. In some cases, like the Houndoom you were looking at earlier, it’s still a Fire type, but instead of Dark it’s instead Ice.”

Kris looked up from her notebook but continued scribbling notes. “But how did it become a Dark type, then? What changed the Ice?”

“We might never know. These original versions of the Pokémon are extinct, I think. Probably forever. In all the history books I’ve looked through – and my god was that a chore – there is not a single mention of these variations, which makes me think the change happened before humans started documenting history. Well, at least whatever history we’ve managed to document, at any rate.”

Selene’s mind was processing as she spoke. Could this be the source for those wild stories she used to read to her kids? Had someone been to these ruins and been inspired? Or was there some secret cache of history buried somewhere that, like this Temple, had been discovered by someone?

“It’s even possible interactions with humans were what triggered some of these changes,” Kris said, before turning back a few pages in her notebooks and writing a single word on the top of the page, circling it a few times.

Selene leaned in to look, curious.

Origin.

“Origin?” she asked Kris, testing the word out. “I suppose that’s as good a name as any to give them.”

“It’s the simplest and clearest way to label them, really.” Kris looked at Selene, a light giggle escaping her and echoing in the cave. “Besides, it sounds much better than ‘Delta Forme’ or something silly like that!”

“Hmm.”

Selene looked at the drawings of the ancient cave again, her thoughts almost visible on her face. She broke into a smile and gave Kris a nod. “I knew you’d love these drawings too! I just wish I understood more of them. Although at this point I’d rather leave it for the real scientists to figure out, I’ve had enough of these caves to last me a lifetime.”

They made their way out of the Ruins slowly, the cold biting their skin. Each breath, heavy and hearty, left their vision foggy.

“I know it’s your discovery,” Kris turned to Selene, snow whipping into her face, “and Origin is just the name that sprung to mind, but I’m glad you like the term. Maybe it’ll stick.”

“Well, it’s a discovery, at least,” Selene replied, though the air of happiness from earlier had evaporated and turned to mist like their breath. “I’m still unsure of the potential ramifications this might have, but maybe further study will shine a light. For now, though, I’ll pre-emptively say ‘Don’t hold your breath.’”

Selene let out another forced chuckle - Kris’ face for the moment was blurred by the haze and snow - and that, seemingly, was that. The two scientists, of a kind, parted ways. Selene watched as Kris disappeared in the storm. She stood by the edge of the road beside a large tree whose branches were struggling to hold on to the snow, as more of it kept piling on from the constant flurries.

The weight on her shoulders she’d been trying to hide from Kris finally got the better of her, and Selene yelled into the white nothingness around her before slumping against the tree nearby.

“Damn it!”

She wanted to punch and kick this entire village down, to scream loud enough for the whole region to hear. Yet all she could do was crumple and rest under the tree with a heavy sigh, her eyes welling with unwanted tears.

The snow on the branch above teetered and fell in response, narrowly missing her and dropping onto her bag. Grumbling, Selene opened the satchel, working to wipe away the white powder before it melted and ruined her bag. A white rectangle caught her eye in the bag for what seemed like the hundredth time this week.

A picture.

Seeing it dissipated the anger, replacing it with a longing ache in her heart as she reached for it. Staring back at her was a loving mother and her two dearest kids, one in each arm.

As proud as she was for them, the soul-searching mother knew that the ache in her heart came from the newly-made void in her home. Her kids were now off trying to find their own paths, and yet here she was wishing they were still as small as the two from this decade-old photo. Even her recent obsessions with these temples seemed fueled by those innocent toothy grins, searching for a way to bring them both home. Even with every discovery she made and every step she took to prove she was being a supportive mother for her children, the continuous passing of time just made those days seem so much farther away.

She knew this place wasn’t the solution, but she had hoped…what? That finding a purpose and a mystery to solve would ease the pain? She was simply running away from her problems because her kids had run away from her the first chance they got to be free as “adults”.

No, the answers wouldn’t come from here, Selene realized.

Yet the answers did come from beneath the Temple, in a manner of speaking. But like the newly discovered Origins and the central catalyst behind their disappearance, it simply took…time.

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