- 1 Post By Felly
31st July 2013, 07:03 PM #1
Virbank Gym Leader
The Cost of Living [SWC][Graded]
Wee, writing binge to finish for SWC. This probably needed more work than I gave it, but time was scarce. Thank you in advance to anyone to reads/grades. Also rushed banner is rushed! Info at the bottom.
I had a fine-bristled brush to the cave wall when I heard the hammer click back on the gun. It wasn't necessary to manually slide it back, especially not on the semi-automatics, but it was flashy and meant to get my attention. It did that.
With a sigh I slowly put the excavation tool down on the dusty floor, making sure my hands stayed visible the entire time. It wasn't a good idea to make someone with a gun jumpy. More likely to get shot that way. Of course, heavy footsteps this far into the mountain could only mean trouble, so I suppose I knew there was a good chance of being injured even before the would-be shooter chose the opposite side.
All I wanted was to dig up rocks and live the rest of my—probably short—life in peace. It was getting harder and harder to ask for that.
I kept my hands neatly by my sides as I turned, and I struggled not to ball them up in my gray tunic so they wouldn't twitch. I was rarely able to hide the fact that I was on the defensive and ready to act. It tended to give away my thoughts. Thankfully, the firearm stayed silent as I got a good look at the threat.
I glossed over the man briefly, because he wasn't really a problem without the object in his hand. His pistol was pointed steadily at me, about chest high. It was sleek and black, and I could tell from twenty feet away that it was one of the new NovaMark nine millimeters, out of Unova. I knew because I had one just like it. The only problem was that it was sitting nice and safe in my bag several feet away instead of on my hip.
I had a bad habit of leaving it in there. Then again, I haven't had to shoot anyone lately.
“Glenne Roe?” the man asked gruffly, and only then did I get a better look at him.
He was an average height, probably a five ten to my five eight, but even holding the gun, his shoulders slouched, and greasy brown hair brushed the tops of them. He had one of those button down shirts with the sleeves rolled up underneath a blue jean vest that matched his pants, and his pale complexion suggested that he spent a lot of time indoors, like maybe guarding bodies. There was a glint in his eye that I didn't much like, and his whole mannerism screamed thug. Just my luck.
He just ignored me as he smiled, revealing somewhat crooked teeth that were definitely not white. Why did all criminals have to fit the genre so bad?
“Donovan wants to meet with ya down in the city. I'm escortin' you,” he said, sounding all too happy about it. Maybe my previous thought was wrong; maybe this was his first job.
I bit back a snide comment, knowing that it wouldn't help right now. If I had been armed, I might've risked it, but I was pretty sure I couldn't dodge a bullet at twenty feet. I had to fight not to look at my bag, wishing I had been a little more paranoid—at least enough to put on the custom holster I had gone through the trouble of commissioning. Somehow I didn't think comparing guns was going to impress him.
His stance had relaxed a little, and I took note that he was holding the gun one-handed. Again, that was unnecessary, and in fact impractical because your aim was steadier with two, but it was meant to look impressive. It also meant that his arm was going to get tired fast, so he'd either have to shoot or put up the gun. With his pleased expression, guess which one I was betting on.
His actions also betrayed that he didn't really see me as a threat. I couldn't really blame him, since some days I was pretty disappointed too. When working as a scientist for almost four years, I hadn't imagined I would need to take up weight lifting. I had willowy limbs that weren't filling out enough yet, although moving heavy rocks was more effective than I first thought, and my black leggings and thin three-quarter sleeve showed the boney extremities off. My hair, too, is a gray-blonde that's long and mostly straight, falling down to my waist like some teenager in high school. For all intents and purposes, I looked frail.
One would think the stereotype would've died out by now, but I knew it really hadn't, at least not for the manly-men. I was betting Mr. Lone Ranger thought himself one of those. To be honest, sometimes I even fell for it, seeing some of the women employed in the service I was trying desperately to avoid. The same place that had hired this guy.
Samantha was a former … associate that fit the innocent look, and it was a mistake to think it was true. She would've carved out your liver, fried it up, and ate it if she thought it would be beneficial. That was one of the lines that I hadn't crossed yet, but it was funny how those lines were getting fewer and fewer all the time.
The one thing we had in common was that we would do anything it took to survive. Anything. We weren't fragile. Unfortunately for this guy, he hadn't figured that out yet.
The man cleared his throat a little impatiently, so I focused my attention back on him. It probably hadn't been wise to get distracted from the guy with the gun anyway. “What happens if I don't come with you?” I asked, just out of curiosity. I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
Like Pavlov's Growlithe, the guy smiled again on cue, and I really had to hold back another comment. Even I took time to brush my teeth, and I practically lived in the wild.
“Well, Donovan seemed real insistent that you were necessary for somethin', but Isabelle told me I could be as... persuasive as I liked.” As he finished he waved his gun for a second, implying the threat.
“What does he want?” I asked.
He shrugged, never stopping that nasty grin. “I'm just the hired help.”
I still didn't know much about what was going on, but at least I knew who was behind it. The only two people named Donovan and Isabelle that would be interested in me were the remnants of the League.
Specifically, this branch was the Gold League. Like all other crime syndicates that had sprung up across most of the countries, this one wasn't much different. Experiments on Pokemon started to get common in my late career. After some disagreements, I left the troupe and conveniently destroyed the research I was working on. They were still a little upset about that.
I had spent the last year crawling in caves and bunking in the mountains to try and avoid their new recruitment drive. They seemed to think that I was going to change my mind about leaving. Part of that probably had to do with a few of the special projects I had been working on. Most of the information had died with my departure, and it was going to stay lost if I could help it.
I wasn't exactly sure what Donovan wanted. It could be a lot of things, really. Of the two, he was more sane, but I still didn't trust him. Isabelle was downright crazy, and I was going to put a bullet in between her eyes as soon as I got the chance. She had Donovan and the entire League wrapped around her sinister, red-painted fingers, and if she was taken out, there was the chance that her husband would listen to reason. Isabelle wouldn't.
I wanted to know how they found me this time, but I didn't think thug-man was going to share any more. In the end, I knew it was only a matter of time before they did it again too. They always did—eventually. It got old constantly running away, but I did what I had to.
I sighed, and the man's eager shifting said that he took it as acceptance. “Where did he want to meet?” I asked, as I tried to look as harmless as possible. I blinked my green eyes like in surrender and even shuffled my feet. It was a great act considering I failed that course in high school. I could never get into character. The instructor said I talked back too much.
“Hell if I know the name. Some restaurant with that fat Pokemon on it. Now get movin'. We're burning daylight,” he finished, waving his gun again as if I forgot it was there. I wanted to roll my eyes.
I had a target and a destination. Now all I needed was to get rid of the threat. A process was already formulating in my head before I could register what I was doing. It was almost scary how fast I had to keep coming up with mental how-to manuals in near-death situations.
I'll admit this wasn't one my best plans, but I was at the dead end of a mountain cave. My Pokegear didn't even get reception in here. I hadn't even been bothered with it in the six days I was in the area. There wasn't any help coming. Sometimes you just had to help yourself.
I sighed again, and this time there was real effort in it. I was tired of this. I was tired of everything.
“Alright, just let me grab my stuff.”
I started moving before he gave consent, and that was a little risky, I realized in hindsight. Thankfully, he wasn't that bright because he didn't shoot me. In fact, he put his gun down, where it hung loosely in his hand against his jeans. He was careless.
I lowered down to pick up my discarded excavating brush and wandered over to my canvas bag, kneeling behind it so I could keep the man in sight. I wasn't about to be careless. I wouldn't have lasted this long if I was.
I tried to keep the corner of my eye on him as I flipped up the flap to the sack, reaching deep inside the thing to put the tool away without showing the contents. I sifted through jarred dirt samples, food packets, and medical supplies until I found what I was looking for. Cold metal brushed the back of my hand. I closed my eyes briefly and counted to three as my fingers wrapped around the grip of my gun.
I glanced up. The guy wasn't even looking at me anymore, instead studying the rocks littered around the cave floor and the etchings I had made into the walls looking for rare stones. This alcove was close enough to the outside that sunlight streamed in from the open end. I only had one tripod light set up, but I wasn't going to need to see very well for this.
“What's your name?” I asked, flipping my long hair back from where it fell in front of my face.
He turned back to answer with puzzled eyes. “Troy. Why?”
“Because you should know the name of people you kill.”
I let survival instincts take over as I jerked the bag up and fired from within it. The sounding bang was loud in the small area, and my ears rang sharply even as I threw myself to the side, rolling on my shoulder to come up in a steady one-leg kneel three feet away from where I had been. My gun was pointing at the man, freed from the bag, and nothing else mattered in that instant.
I didn't feel the rocks underneath my thinly-covered knee, and my shoulder didn't hurt from the roll across the uneven ground. The dust that had kicked up tickled my nose, but I ignored it. The cave was silent except the constant piercing static in my ears, and every breath I drew seemed like it could wake the dead, even though I was the only one that could hear it. Surprisingly, it was slow and steady despite my speeding pulse as adrenaline flowed through my veins. That was probably the result of training. Good to see it didn't go to waste.
I was poised to shoot again, but Troy dropped to the ground exactly where he had stood. I still kept my pose for a count of ten in my head, but he didn't move.
I got up slowly with my gun still trained on him, ready to fire another bullet. In movies, whenever the hero went to check a pulse or something, they always dropped their weapon and the bad guy reached up to grab them. That wasn't happening to me. If he so much as twitched I'd hit him again.
As I walked up, I spied a nice frayed exit hole through the back of his jean vest. That was starting to stain burgundy. I hadn't expected to finish him in one shot, since shooting through something was always shaky at best. There was no getting around that he was dead, or at least really looking like it. I got lucky this time.
Out of habit, I toed his gun away from his hand, just in case I was wrong and he gathered enough energy to shoot me in the back. I couldn't check his pulse because I wasn't going to leave prints on his body, even if his criminal record was probably longer than I was tall.
I sat there until my hearing stopped being fuzzy. It didn't take too long. I was either used to the sound or the cave walls soaked up more noise than they looked capable of. I'm not sure if the former said anything good about me.
I stepped away from the body to scan the rest of the cave. I didn't want to leave anything identifiable—not that it really mattered. Someone would find him eventually. Then, I found a good spot and stomped on the ground three times with my right foot. I started to gather up my bag when the ground crumpled from below and a small mole-like Pokemon crawled out of the hole.
The sharp metal claws and headpiece were the first visible things as my partner wiggled himself free of the earth below, shaking his brown and red fur to dislodge the small chunks of rock and dust that clung to him. His pointed snout sported a white face and was tipped with a pink nose. After he was clear of the hole, he immediately sniffed toward the dead guy and turned back to me, chittering rapidly.
I picked up my bag and sighed, sticking my pointer finger out the hole the bullet had made and wiggling my finger. At least I hadn't shot through any of the jars. “Perfectly good canvas,” I said, looking over to the Excadrill. A lot of people expected some huge Ground-type when you talked about them, but on average, they were only two feet tall.
He continued to chatter, probably unamused at the whole situation. Some days I was too.
“Don't look at me like that, Gray. There isn't time to move the body. If you want to put your appendages on his greasy skin, be my guest.”
Apparently the idea turned him off as much as it did me because he stopped grumping and hobbled over to my excavating light while I dug out the leather holster I ordered for my gun. I was one of those weird sizes that didn't seem to have a standard measurement. Guys' were too loose and hung awkwardly on my hips, and most of the womens' laced so tight so bones shifted that weren't ever meant to. I was not size zero and a half.
The only problem with the holster was that I had to take off my digging utility belt so I could loop it through the short skirt that was over the leggings. I figured it was worth it, though, since the belt clipped over the holster nicely enough that the pockets full of junk didn't knock around and impede my movement. I dug my dark brown cloak out of my bag too, and when I put that on, everything was neatly tucked away. The leggings started where the cover ended.
Gray hit the off button on the light and pushed it toward me as I shouldered the pack and brushed off the dust. I added that to our stash. I sighed again as the Pokemon made a questioning noise.
“This probably isn't a good idea,” I said.
He didn't answer, but I didn't expect him to. He would follow whatever I said, and I wasn't sure how great that was either.
I knew what I was thinking wasn't smart, but that mental manilla folder was laying out my next objective for me, and once I was on a path, it was pretty hard to break away from. That was probably the result of being a method scientist for years. I didn't know what Donovan wanted, and that bothered me—bothered me so much that I was going to sidle into town and find out, even if that was probably the stupidest thing I could do.
I was pretty sure that nothing the League wanted from me could possibly be good. After they had sunk their claws in without me knowing, every assignment had a deviant hint to it that I hadn't noticed until much too late. What was worse was thinking of the hundreds still there that were just like I had been, only they couldn't break away. They were trapped, and the organization would just keep drawing in more and more unknowing stragglers. It wasn't going to stop on its own.
Even knowing that nothing good would come out of this plan, I couldn't just not go. Either way we were going to have to leave; Donovan would probably send someone else after a while. But there was a decent reason why I was going down into the city, and that was hope.
Hope is the one thing that can drown out that overwhelming fear that makes you run until your legs give out from under you. I could be afraid forever, and I could keep uprooting as I tried to disappear in place after place, but if there was a chance to stop it...
Gray reached up to tug on my brown cloak, and the look he gave me was like he could read the thoughts tumbling through my brain. Maybe he could. Either way, it was nice to see that confidence in his face, knowing that at least someone believed in me. I nodded my head.
“Time to get the hand-basket.”
It turned out that there was only one restaurant in town, so the late Troy's first grade description wasn't too much of a problem. I stood on the opposite side of the street looking up at a one-story building painted half in a dark gray-blue and dipped in a washed-out cream color. There were two triangular ear-like structures on top in a matching dark shade. The place was trying to mimic a Munchlax and was named Munchies to follow the theme.
I looked across the road, pretending to scout for danger, but I was really trying to figure out why the hell I was here.
I know I hoped for a chance to stop this—whatever the hell I was in—but chances of that weren't very good even if Donovan wanted to negotiate some sort of peace treaty. They wouldn't shut down operations as long as Isabelle was around, and maybe not even after she wasn't. There were too many people that were in too deep to stop. People that used to be my friends. Hope was a nice reason to put down on paper, but it wasn't the only one.
I stared across the main street at the clear glass doors of the shop and wondered why I wasn't just walking away. This was stubbornness on a new level, even for me. There was time to get to another city if I hoofed it. Instead, I scoped out the surroundings and formulated a plan that would hopefully end in us leaving this city in one piece. Sometimes I didn't even understand me.
The whole town wasn't that big. Small side roads trailed off the main one like little veins, and that was pretty much it. Anything of importance was right here along the main drag, at least as far as I could tell. I glimpsed mostly housing units beyond the front street in various shades of dull colors. It had a slightly rustic feel to it. Then again, that could've been all the dust. The road was dirt.
There were a few other shops that sold novelty goods, and I could see the corner of a large red building that promised groceries. There was a white one on the opposite end that looked like it could be a doctor's office of some sort, which made sense because it was right next to the red-roofed Pokemon Center. There were a lot of office-type buildings too, and those were that boring gray color. The ones that dared to be different were white.
The one other place that drew my attention was the slightly faded forest green building about a block down from Munchies. From the cracked signs hanging close to the roof, I recognized it as a Ranger station. It was sort of odd that the place was in town instead of closer to the wilderness, which meant it was probably one of the older ones, if the decaying paint job didn't give that away. New ones were more about location now that things like plumbing and electricity were so easy to install practically anywhere.
What was interesting about it was the obvious non-Ranger folk starting to gather around it. Some of them even held those large poster boards on pikes, though I couldn't see what was written on any of them. At least, I didn't think they were Rangers in their neon shirts, shorts, and sandals. Most of the Rangers I had seen were in that deep red color.
It must be nice to live a simple, uncomplicated life. It wasn't the first time I was jealous of the cards I had been dealt. I knew I just had to live with it, but sometimes I imagined what their world must be like. I'm not sure I would want to be stuck here with the strict lines of color-coded offices and worn down buildings, though. The place seemed like it was crumbling. Then again, maybe that was me projecting.
I stared across that dirt road and saw cracks in the painted building walls but really saw bloody gouges in rough skin and red rivers running down my shirt to pool on the ground. The rising murmur of the growing crowd became pained battle shouts and an echoing of yelling that had been mine. The light breeze was the cold wind of fear that had frozen me as I watched my Pokemon attack his allies in a trance nobody had understood.
I could make up a lot of excuses and reasons for pursuing this suicidal path, but I knew the truth. It was why I left the League.
I had always loved Geology and some other related scientific fields. I had taken advanced classes in high school in order to take early college courses. I was only sixteen when the League, just one organization before it split to Silver and Gold, caught up to me and immediately offered me a job in their research and development department. I specialized in the relationship between stones and energy, and I got too good at it.
They had wanted to see if it was possible to energize a Pokemon using something like an evolution stone. Research was used from Professor Rowan's study on the topic. Battle gems were still in a preliminary stage at that time in Unova, so there weren't many comparable experiments.
Still, I had been curious about the idea too, and I devoted a lot of my time to the project, often taking materials with me on excavations and to work on at home. It only took one accident for me to change my mind.
At the time, Rexus had been just a Nidorino in training, and me and my Pokemon had been out on a normal dig like the thousands before it. I hadn't thought anything of throwing work materials into my bag until Rexus dug into it. One of the test Moon Stones activated, and he evolved while I was bunked down in a low-lying cave.
I might not have noticed until he crushed the dugout if Landshark hadn't screamed.
I proved that energy could be linked to stones, but it was in the worst possible way. Gone was the calm and gentle Pokemon I knew. In his place, a monster rampaged.
I still remember how Rexus viciously slashed at the Garchomp that stood up to defend me. His eyes had burned with rage, like he didn't know what he was doing as his purple-painted body moved in a deadly dance against his comrade. His techniques had been more forceful than I had ever seen them. The frost he used against the Ground-type dragon had coated the ground like the caves up in Snowpoint, and her skin had been torn to bloody ribbons by the time Rexus had calmed down. She still bore scars.
It had taken her, Terraforma, and Dolly to tire him out enough to be sent back into his Pokeball without breaking out. My Tyranitar and Claydol had almost not been enough extra help. If the Nidoking's adrenaline rush hadn't fizzled out, I don't think it would've worked.
Later, that rage was named as one of Nidoking's 'hidden abilities', or so the researchers in Unova called them. Sheer Force was a deadly mindset that made attacks more powerful at the cost of technique, and normally, there wasn't a downside. Because we had been tampering with the stones, it caused a mindless fury to engulf him—one that started up nearly every time he was called out of his ball.
Because I had been tampering.
An almost-eerie call brought me out of my thoughts, and I smiled at the black ancient doll levitating beside me. My Claydol's round, pink eyes blinked questioningly, and its floating arms clacked like clay pots as they twisted around.
“Just fine, Dolly,” I said. “Might as well get on with this. We're not getting any younger.”
It didn't take me long after Rexus' change to realize the enormity of what the League was meddling with. I'm still a little ashamed that I hadn't paid attention until it became personal. I tried to vanish almost immediately after that, and I had my Tyranitar set fire to the small research lab we had occupied without thinking. That had probably been a rash mistake, but it had destroyed all the data and set them back. The materials had been classified—so much that the information had stayed purely local—and I hadn't shared any of it. I didn't know if they had rediscovered all of it or not.
But that didn't fix Rexus. I hadn't known what to do then. I still didn't. I was grasping at straws every time I called on him. Nothing we tried worked, and I wasn't sure if anything could ever reverse what the stone and my research had done. He was a hazard to everyone around him—even me—and it was my fault, not his. If I couldn't figure out what to do with him...
Guilt was a wonderful motivator.
The bell above the door jingled, and I was surprised to find the pleasing scent of baked bread when I entered Munchies. I had expected grease. I didn't linger long in the doorway, even though I was fairly sure none of Donovan's goons had followed me across the street. It never hurt to be borderline paranoid about those types of things. It would save me trouble later.
The tables followed the paint theme from outside with tablecloths that were round and dark blueish with a cream circle in the center to mimic the spot on a Munchlax's stomach. The chairs even had pointed corners on the backs to look like ears. Thankfully there weren't many patrons here because I wasn't sure what I was going to have to do.
It was easy enough to spot Donovan sitting at a table in the middle of the room. He was alone. I would've chosen a corner booth, or maybe a seat at the counter facing the kitchen at the far end of the building, but Donovan was never worried about things like safety. I hated leaving my back exposed.
I strode toward him confidently, like I knew exactly what I was doing. A lot of being tough was about bluffing—at least, that was enough to fool most people. I suppose the truly tough were the ones that backed it up when the bluff was called. Regardless, I needed to show him that he wasn't going to bully me into anything. He tended to talk condescendingly if you didn't push back.
I stopped behind one of the ear-equipped chairs at Donovan's table and gave him a neutral look. I didn't want to be too aggressive right away because I was still hoping for that compromise.
He just sat there and smiled at me. His hands were folded in front of him in that casual way that he did with everyone. He appeared like nothing could hurt him, and I know a lot of people in the League had believed it. His designer suit was pinstripe in black and gray, and the neatly trimmed triangle beard on his chin matched the thin mustache and dark hair on top of his head.
“Glenne,” he said when I approached, opening his arms like he was greeting a well-liked old friend. I was neither. “So good of you to join me.”
“Donovan,” I returned, nodding. I waited silently until he gestured for me to sit, and I slid into the seat after taking one last look around. I didn't like that my back was to the door, but I would just have to listen for the chime. Nobody else seemed suspicious yet. I brushed my gray-blonde hair over my shoulder and out of the way just in case.
I waited for him to start because I didn't want to say something snarky right off the top. I didn't have to wait long. He liked to hear himself talk.
“I take it Troy relayed my message to you. Tell me, where is he?” Donovan continued to smile.
I shrugged. “I don't know who you're talking about.”
There was silence for a few minutes as dishes clanked in the kitchen beyond and other customers talked quietly at their tables. I figured he knew what happened to Troy, and I let it sink in. I wasn't a pushover. Donovan frowned at me.
“Was that really necessary? You used to be so docile when we met.”
“I used to take a lot of orders without thinking too,” I shot back. I kept my voice flat, but barely so. “Where's Isabelle?” I asked suspiciously.
“I'm afraid she won't be able to join us today. I know she was so eager to see you, but something came up,” he said smoothly, while reaching toward an inner suit pocket.
“I wouldn't,” I warned against his motion, believing Isabelle's good intentions about as much as I thought he was harmless. To further my point, I slid the hammer back on the Nova so he could hear it. It was tucked safely under the tablecloth and out of sight. Nobody even looked our way.
He frowned again as he said, “You have changed.”
He may have still tried to seem charming, but he put his hands back on the table and folded them how they were. Satisfied, I brought my left hand out from underneath and set it on the smooth tablecloth too. I didn't put up the gun in my other hand.
I was learning how to be more ruthless. It might be the only way I would survive, as the thug demonstrated earlier. It was nice to see that my efforts were working.
“Start talking or I'm leaving.”
Donovan chuckled and just shook his head lightly. “How's that Nidoking of yours doing? Did you have to put him down?”
I'll admit the question threw me off a little bit. I was expecting some sort of insult, but not that. I tried not to show what I felt about it, but it was difficult. I clenched my teeth before I could say anything without thinking. My fingers twitched around the stock of my gun but I forced them still. If I was going to shoot him, I wanted it to be on purpose.
“Don't talk about what you don't know,” I ground out between my teeth, trying not to yell or snap. I didn't want to draw any attention to our table, but I really hated that superior tone. “What do you want?”
He knew what buttons to press to set me off, and I was really trying not to get angry. It was hard. He had touched on a bad topic only because it was one of my fears. If Rexus seriously hurt someone, the authorities might demand that he be destroyed if we got caught. I didn't want that to happen. I would have to ask myself if the rampages were worth people's lives, and that got into a whole can of moral worms I didn't want to open.
Donovan sighed, and for a second he looked a lot older than the thirty something I pegged him for. I had never bothered to ask his age. He brushed the hair back from his forehead, and it was the most human I had ever seen him. Maybe I wasn't the only one that had changed.
Then, like a switch, his charm came back and the smile returned to his face, if only a little dimmer. “We've started a new project,” he said. “One of our stations is here in town, as a matter of fact.”
That caught my attention, but I didn't say anything. I was going to have to look into it later. It wouldn't be the first time I raided one of their labs.
“We're calling it the Gijinka Project, and I can imagine you know what it's about. Giving people Pokemon genetics to make them better, faster, stronger. Just think of the possibilities. Can you imagine it?”
Technically, gijinka was the wrong term for it. If they were giving Pokemon human traits, then that'd be a closer thing. But he could call it whatever the hell he wanted. I wasn't going to rain on his parade. Then again, who was I kidding? Of course I was. I had this situation mostly under control. It was safer than in the cave, and that made it too tempting to run my mouth.
“You know that means the opposite of what it is, right? Who named it, Isabelle?”
I held back my snort, but just barely.
Donovan wasn't nearly as amused as I was, but he didn't say so. “It will be revolutionary. Think of the lives we can change.”
“Just because we can tamper with life doesn't mean we should.”
He didn't answer, so I continued. It was probably hypocritical of me to say it, but I had learned a lot since I became a scientist. “So what do you want from me?”
“The same thing I have wanted since you left. I want you to come back to work.” He held up a hand before I could protest. “We will accommodate you. No direct work on Pokemon, and you will be compensated immensely. We can just forget about our past transgressions to each other and start a clean slate.”
This time, I did snort. I don't think people like Isabelle ever forgot bad things that happened to them, and I would forever have to watch my back so she didn't make me pay for it.
“I have never been more sincere in my offerings. You must believe me on this.”
He looked it, really. The hint of a smile that teased his face was wiped clean, and his posture was serious. I could see why some people thought him attractive with his intense brown eyes and tan skin. I preferred clean-shaven personally.
“Why me?” I asked. “It's been what, over a year? Someone must've come to the same conclusions I did by now. If not, they will eventually.” It was something I had wanted to know for a while. I was just a regular scientist that happened to get a lucky break. Why would the League go through this much trouble?
“Time,” he said simply. At first I thought he wouldn't continue, but then he took a deep breath and spoke again. His fingers were idly brushing grains of salt on the table. “There's never quite enough time, is there? I have cancer. It was diagnosed in the early stages, but now I have an end date on my life.”
Of all the reasons I expected, that was not one of them.
“Are you happy?” he asked next, and I shook my head.
It was like my satisfaction at people getting what they deserved meshed with the sadness of losing someone who used to be a father figure. When they clashed, they neutralized each other. It made me wonder what was coming for me too, but those thoughts were drowned out by imagining him gone. Right now, I didn't really feel much of anything.
“I only wish it was Isabelle instead.”
He sighed and smiled, but it didn't have the cocky uplift at the corners. “Sometimes I forget that you are young. I admit that I worry what some of the others will do when I go. That is why this is so important,” he said. He brought his hand over the table to cover mine suddenly, and it surprised me so much that I didn't move it. “Isabelle thinks that this gijinka project can help reverse the effects. Help me,” he said. “You will have anything you need. Think, the resources to help your Nidoking. This can be beaten.”
It was tempting. Not only did a solution to my problem seem appealing, but the work itself was a drug of sorts. I may have left the organization, but I didn't stop researching. I probably never would—I was a scientist by trade. Still, I wasn't going to design experiments for use on Pokemon ever again, even if the thought of Isabelle solely running the League scared me.
I shook off his hand and tucked my gun back into my holster where it couldn't be seen. Then, I rose from the table. My chair did that wood squeal as I pushed it.
“The only way I'll go back is in a box.”
“Then I'm afraid to say we'll have to take you by force. I apologize, Glenne, but you understand.”
A quick glance to the side was the silent signal he gave. I saw two people get up from a table behind us, and the tinkling bell told me someone else had just come through the front door. I didn't panic. I didn't even move to run.
Instead, I leaned back a little bit as I felt a wave of energy, my back hitting the cool clay-like surface of Dolly as it appeared, just like we planned. The Claydol's power hummed against me as the Pokemon prepared to teleport again.
“Not this time,” I said, and then we vanished.
As the restaurant disappeared, I swore I saw Donovan smiling.
When I was aware of myself again, my boots were hitting the dirt of the main street in town. At first, I didn't know where I was. Teleporting only took a few seconds, but the sensation of nothingness had always disoriented me. I didn't do it unless absolutely necessary.
Noise exploded in a buzz that beat against my ears, and bodies formed a claustrophobic sea around me. I was unsteady on my feet, so when someone with a large sign on a stick bumped into me, that's probably why I fell. At least I didn't land on my face.
I scrambled backward, not thinking about who it was—just that I had to get away. I knew that if I was caught, the League could make me do what they wanted eventually, and I couldn't let that happen. I expected Donovan to send people out after me, but I hadn't anticipated it instantly. It took me running into someone's legs to realize I was in the middle of the protest I had seen gathering spectators earlier.
“Hey, watch it,” a guy hissed from above, scowling down at me with sunglasses and a green bandana over his head.
I shot him a rude gesture in return as I rolled up onto my feet, trying to get out of the plethora of people that insisted on talking all at once. I was tense as I stumbled. I hated being in a crowd, especially knowing that Donovan was close. As I waded toward the edge of the mess, I shoved at people probably harder than necessary. I needed to find Dolly and get out of there.
When I was on the edge of the fray, someone grabbed my elbow. I whirled around to lash out, since I wasn't going to let Donovan's goons get the better of me. I swung with my other arm as I turned, and to my surprise, someone grabbed my wrist right before I would've hit.
“Easy killer,” a rumbly voice said, and once I stopped struggling to get loose, I saw it was an older man. He didn't look like a thug, but that didn't mean anything. I didn't look like much either.
I tried to pull away, but for an old guy, his grip was strong. He held fast, but he didn't look threatening. Grayed hair sat in a messy mop on his head. His skin was tanned and spotted, probably from many days out in the sun. There were happy crow's feet around his eyes too, suggesting he smiled a lot. He was now, too, making the edges of his white mustache quirk up.
“You looked like you needed some help,” he offered, and then pulled me away from the crowd. Since it would've been awkward to fight him surrounded by people, I let him. To be fair, he dropped my arm once we were a few feet away from the swarm, and in thanks I didn't hit him.
I spared a quick glance over to the restaurant, but nobody was coming out of it. Granted, I didn't know how much time I had lost in the crowd, so one of Donovan's men could've been out here already. Warping always threw off my judgment. We were a block down from Munchies, but I didn't know if that was enough space for us to disappear. A nervous rock formed in the pit of my stomach.
A shimmer appeared in the air, and a few seconds later, Dolly appeared. The Claydol's arms clacked as they spun, and the pink-eyed doll made a low, eerie sound.
“Yeah, I'm fine. Rest now,” I said as I recalled the Pokemon back into my Pokeball. I slipped it into the pouch on my belt quickly and looked back at the blue-shaded building again. I didn't want to stay out in the open.
“Let's get away from this mob, eh? My place is right across the street,” the man offered.
He made it sound like a suggestion, but I knew an authority tone when I heard it. It sounded natural—not like he was purposely trying to order me around. The bad guys normally had to work for that sort of sound. I weighed my options and decided that I could probably take the old guy if necessary, despite the strength he had in those bony arms. I had a gun. I tried to keep an eye on the slightly-limping man in the lead while looking behind me at the same time. There was still no activity at the restaurant.
The man stopped in front of a neat, white gate that surrounded a small yard—one that actually had some greenish grass in it. A porch wrapped around his house, and a rocking chair was placed in the shade next to the door. The entire lot was pulled back from the main road and half tucked away behind a larger shop. It wasn't completely hidden, but I could watch for goons from here while being relatively covered.
Away from the crowd, I got a good look at the man. He was taller than me, which wasn't anything new, and even though he appeared old, he moved not with that tiredness but with a strength of someone who had spent a lot of time in the wilderness. He was wearing a worn red vest that cut off at his jeans.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Y'know, some say it's rude to demand a name without offering yours first,” he said, still smiling like he knew a secret that everyone else didn't. He smoothed the white mustache that curled above his lips with calloused fingers, and then he added, “Especially when they're on the run from somethin'.”
That made me stiffen, and my hands clenched at my sides without my permission. Regardless of whether my situation was obvious or not, I was ready to give a sharp retort. That was just an auto-response I'd adapted as of late. I wasn't always like that, honest. As my eyes narrowed and I took a breath, he stole my thunder as he waved away my comment with a loose hand. He peered out into the growing mob before looking back at me.
“It's none of my business really, as long as you don't start trouble while I'm around. The name's Joe,” he said, holding his hand out.
I quirked my eyebrow as I studied him, wondering if he was serious or not. In a bigger city, I would've been interrogated until I found a way to escape from over-eager spectators. Reporters might've even been involved for a good scoop. But this guy looked honest enough. His eyes didn't have that light of ulterior motives, and his posture indicated he was completely relaxed. Usually there was some reaction with a liar.
I was still cautious, but I took his worn hand and shook. “Glenne,” I offered.
He nodded, seeming satisfied. “Well, nice to meet ya, Glenne. Now that that's settled, we can watch the fireworks.” I meant to make an excuse to get going, but Joe cut me off again. “Nobody's come outta that place since you popped into the street. I figure it's prob'ly best to wait until things die down a little, eh?”
“What are you?” I asked in response. While his reasoning wasn't bad, it meant he had been watching the restaurant, and more worrisome—me. Was he working for someone?
“Me? I'm retired.”
That didn't answer my question, but he turned his attention back to the crowd. I didn't exactly trust the guy, but if he was going to offer me violence, he had had plenty of opportunities to do it already. I shook my head to clear it, making my gray-blonde hair fall in front of my eyes again. Because I lived on the run, it was sometimes hard to remember that not everyone was out to get me.
When I heard someone start speaking above the drone of the crowd, I turned toward the people too. I could watch the restaurant from here anyway. Besides, I was tired. A few minutes wouldn't hurt me. Probably.
The swarm had made a semi-circle around the doors to the green wildlife station, and a couple of people in standard Ranger-red uniforms were addressing the crowd. Someone that looked like a scientist in a white lab coat was standing off to the side next to a red-vested woman with long, red hair. She was scowling. Some of the people were being rude and trying to talk over the Ranger up front. Signs waved in the air, and I caught words painted on them like “Sadists” and “Hypocrites.” What was their problem?
Joe let out a chuckle that seemed half sad, like the noise someone would make for a lost cause. He shook his head, and his salt and pepper hair waved with the motion.
“What's all this about?” I asked.
The man sighed and ran a hand up his forehead and through his locks. “Guys've been at this all week. They want the Durant moved off the mountain 'cause Heatmor and some other 'mons pose a threat to them. Said a Garden or some nonsense would be better.”
I rose my brow at that. Durant, a Steel-type insect, was a Pokemon that a friend had suggested for me to find. I had primarily collected Rock and Ground-type Pokemon before, but Elena had thought that I should expand that to Steel-types as well. She said it would fit with my “tough battle style,” whatever that was. I couldn't say that I didn't venture here thinking that I might see one, though.
“I'm not a specialist, but won't that mess up their systems? They've lived on the mountain for years. I'm sure they've learned how to fight danger.”
He just shook his head. “Heh. Try tellin' that to the diehards. Ivy Frost, one of the Elite Rangers from the main Park H.Q., has been out here sayin' it. That one there,” he said as he pointed to the woman in red.
The scowling woman with the red hair had stepped up in place of the other Rangers. The man in the lab coat was leafing through sheets on a clipboard beside her. She was a little flushed in the face, revealing her frustration. I couldn't say I blamed her. I knew what it was like to deal with people like this.
“It's not happening. I've already told you,” the Ranger said, “removing a Pokemon from its natural habitat can have devastating effects on not only it, but the entire ecosystem. That includes disrupting the food chain, encouraging dangerous territory fights, and shock. If you have any questions about that, you can ask Professor Kudzu here, from Eterna,” she growled out.
The crowd continued to yell out comments, but I thought most of them sounded like insults rather than questions. It was just an angry buzz. I didn't envy the Rangers' position. I knew a bit about habitats from my studies, and I doubted the mob would ever get its way. Too many Pokemon would suffer because of it, no matter how much the people griped. Rangers cared a bit about that suffering part.
“They're putting up a lot of fuss for just Durant,” I commented, thinking it was a little odd for so many people to invest in just one Pokemon. I had seen stranger things, but these guys didn't look the mountaineering type to spend a lot of time up there.
“Lot of rock, steel, and ground lovers around here. You'd fit right in if everyone wasn't off their rockers,” he said.
I gave him a suspicious look and wondered again exactly how much he knew about me. So far as I knew, he had only seen Claydol, which was not enough to tell him anything—unless of course, he'd been following me.
“Relax,” he said. “You got dirt under your nails. The kind you only get by diggin'.”
I looked down, and sure enough, the whites of my fingernails had turned dark with dust. There was still a streak of it down the front of my tunic that I spotted when my cloak came open, too. It looked like I hadn't brushed off as well as I thought. And to think, I went into the restaurant like that. I shrugged. Oh well.
A loud voice rose above the hive, and a small area cleared as a young man spoke out. “Sytec will move them if you won't!” he cried. “Sytec cares about these Pokemon. They won't see them destroyed!”
The crowd went silent as they all seemed to look at the Ranger in charge, Ivy Frost, for an answer. The woman didn't look impressed with the outburst. She had a stubborn set to her jaw, and she shook her long hair behind her shoulder before she answered in a flat, level tone.
“If anyone is going to be moving any wild Pokemon, they will be considered poachers and will be punished if they don't get a permit.”
The “from us” part went unsaid.
“What's Sytec?” I asked, ignoring the crowd again. People like that would never change.
Joe grunted. “Sytec Industries. Supposed ta have some big investment in wildlife preservation. They manufacture vitamins or somethin'. People 'round here burn a big torch for them. My big hairy toe,” he said, and spit. “I know a phoney when I see it. Gotta get up earlier than that to fool me.”
That was all the clue I needed. It was probably a coverup for whatever the League was doing here, as Donovan mentioned, and I intended to put a stop to it. The problem with companies like this was that you had to catch them in the act. They had too many contacts and resources to succumb to a couple of complaints. It was probably why Joe hadn't done anything either.
“Where is this Sytec?” I asked, fishing for information.
Joe nodded his head backward, beyond his house. A gray building loomed behind, littered with windows. “Headquarters there. Offices and whatnot. Don't know where they keep their equipment. I know, 'cause I looked.”
There wouldn't be anything there, not if people could go in and out regularly. That the League even had a known company front surprised me a little. I expected them to stay underground. Then again, it never hurt to have a fan-base behind you.
“Any other buildings associated with them?”
It was at this point that Joe got suspicious. He did the brow-raising this time, and he rolled his mustache in between his fingers as he gave me a once-over. “You police or somethin'? You look a little young.”
“Of a sort.”
He didn't look convinced. The furrow in his brow deepened, but I couldn't elevate his suspicions. It's not like I could disclose how I was involved.
I sighed. “They're doing something dangerous in town, and I want to stop them while the base is still here.”
He caught my gaze, and I didn't turn away. I needed his information. It would save me time. If Donovan suspected me at all, he could've already sent the alert. If I dilly-dallied, they'd pack up and disappear to experiment on other helpless Pokemon in a hole on the other side of the world. I wasn't keen on begging, but if I had to...
“You know, it's strange,” he began, looking out into the crowd. “Place down on Smith been closed for years, all boarded up and everythin'. Week ago, some trucks started hauling supplies to it in the middle of the night. What do you make of that?”
My eyebrows tried to crawl into my hairline. “Thank you,” I said, and meant it. I wasn't used to flat kindness from people, since most of the ones I dealt with were either trying to kill me or drag me back to a lab.
Joe pointed a couple blocks down, past the wall of people harassing the Ranger station. “I didn't see a way in, but I reckon you'll figure somethin' out.”
I bumped my canvas pack higher up on my shoulder and then crunched off through the dirt. There was a still a chance that some of the Gold workers hadn't left yet, and I was going to shut down whatever they were doing, Donovan's illness or not.
The gate on the white fence creaked, and I stopped, looking back over my shoulder as the strange man limped toward his porch. I was too curious. “Why did you help me?”
He twirled his pale mustache between his fingers and gave me a worn look. “Eyes rarely lie. You were tellin' the truth. It's the look of bein' burned before. Just be careful it don't take you somewhere you don't want to go.”
I wanted to listen to his advice. The trouble was, I was already there.
Joe was right—the place was boarded up. For all intents and purposes, the building looked uninhabited. The windows sported thick plywood, and there were even rainbow designs from gang tagging sprawled across some of the surfaces. The chipped paint and back alley location alone would've probably diverted people elsewhere, but small signs on the street indicated life.
A tire track was ground into the dirt road close to the wall, barely visible unless at the right angle. I guess it was from one of the shipments Joe mentioned. The trash cans, too, were fairly new. I might've missed that if not for one of them being full, with bright white packaging peeking out about an inch over the lip of the bin.
Of course, there would be no going in at the front. I slunk around the side of the place between two buildings, hugging the wall and using the trash as cover. I had to step quietly because my boots crunched on the dirt. At the end of the lane, there was a larger dumpster, and on the other side, my access point was revealed.
A new, sophisticated sliding door was in place, next to a card swiper. The only problem was that I didn't have a key card. I tapped my foot and gnawed on my bottom lip for a minute before dumping my bag to the ground and unbuttoning the cloak. Once I balled it up and shoved it in the canvas pack, I replaced it with an old, white lab coat slightly frayed on the edges.
I really should've thrown the thing away by now. It was one of the few things left from my League days, minus all the scars. It was sort of sentimental.
I was glad I hadn't gotten rid of it, though, since it was going to come in handy. I slid into it with ease and adjusted my belt so that things like the gun wouldn't be visible. That would probably set someone off.
Would acting like a new recruit be too obvious? I wasn't sure how else I was going to get in.
I was pulling my straw hair out of the collar when there was a voice on the other side of the door. The light on the key card machine blinked green, and I had seconds to scramble behind the dumpster before the door whooshed open, dragging my bag with.
Male laughter came form the other side. “You know we're not supposed to leave the building, Riley,” came a voice.
Shoes crunched on the dirt, and there was a flick of a lighter before a deep breath was inhaled. “I'm not going another couple hours without a cigarette. They can stuff it. I smoke in there and mess up a test and they'll have my ass either way. I'll only be a minute,” the man I assumed was Riley said.
“Alright, I'll cover for you I guess,” the other said, and then the door slid shut again.
I pressed up against the green bin carefully, watching the ground for the man's shadow to move. He wasn't a quiet smoker. He made a habit of kicking the ground to make dust fly up, and he was mumbling to himself. It took him about five minutes to finish, and then he sighed deeply. I almost expected him to light up another one.
Instead, he crunched his way over to the front of the dumpster. He reached out to rub the cancer stick against the metal, and that's when I made my move.
I stepped around the corner and didn't stop. In one smooth motion, I cocked my elbow back and rammed it into his stomach, using my other arm to lock the position. Riley wheezed and bent over immediately. I didn't waste time. I wrapped my arm around his throat and hugged his head toward me, and with the other, I covered his nose and mouth with the sleeve of my coat.
The man reached up with his arms to pull me off, but I ducked my head against his spine and squeezed tighter, staying out of range just like martial arts had taught me. He tried to stand up on me, but the blow to his stomach had stunned him, and I was able to lean enough pressure against him to keep leverage.
Eventually, he quit struggling, and I counted to ten before I released him. A lot of times, people faked falling unconscious, and that's when the target turned the situation around. I made sure he was truly out before lowering him to the dirt. He didn't make a grab for me, and his chest was still moving. I hadn't killed him. That was probably good.
As I shook out my wrist, I finally got a good look at him. His messy blond hair was greasy and clumped in places. How long had he been on shift?
I shrugged and rolled him over with my foot. Rifling through his lab coat pockets awarded me my prize. A shiny key card was stuffed in the front one, and for good measure, I unclipped his name tag too, fastening it to my own coat. I was lucky there wasn't a picture on it. I could probably pass for a Riley. That was a nice gender-neutral name.
He probably wouldn't be out for long, but at least without a key card, he couldn't immediately come after me. I'd worry about when he caught up later. I pulled his body around to the other side of the dumpster, out of sight if someone else decided a smoke break was a good idea. I scuffled through the dirt with my boots to make the ground look like I hadn't just dragged someone through it.
Shouldering my pack, I decided this was either the best or worst idea I'd had today. With a flick of my wrist, I slid the key card through the scanner and stepped into the Gold League's complex.
I had forgotten how white these places were. At first I had to shield my eyes with my sleeve, because after spending months buried in caves, all the artificial light was hell on the eyes. That bleach cleaner scent filled my nose and threatened to give me a headache, and the tiles clicked against my boots a little too loudly for my liking. I wasn't necessarily trying to sneak, but I didn't really want to draw attention to myself either. Even with my standard white coat, I still felt out of place in the stark hall.
The amazing thing was that I wasn't running into anyone. Either this base was smaller than I thought, or only a graveyard shift was working. Maybe they were being worked until they died or the project was finished—whichever came first.
I wandered around for a few minutes having no idea where to go. There were hardly any markers on anything—no labels, logos, or anything. Anonymity at its finest. I guess it did protect them if there was ever a bust, but it was annoying.
Then I found stairs leading into the basement. If I were running a criminal base, I would definitely hide important stuff in the lower levels. The place hadn't looked that big from the outside, so the major business probably happened below ground. I slunk down the stairs without touching the rail, trying to peer down the hall at the bottom before I reached it.
Nobody was there, but the two ends of the hallway stretched on for quite a ways before turning a corner each. I had no idea what I was looking for, let alone which way I would find it.
Before I could make up my mind, a door whooshed open and a man in another white coat with messy black hair stepped out of a room. He looked younger than I was. Since he was intently studying a clipboard in his hands, he didn't see me at first. Was he new?
I let out a breath. This is where I would either get caught or start making some progress.
I strode toward him with steady steps, putting more weight onto my boots than necessary so my steps would echo on the tile louder. I made sure to straighten my shoulders and don an arrogant twitch to my face. They key to fooling people was being confident about it.
The kid looked up, and his eyes widened when he saw me. He even jumped. That made him drop his notes, the papers raining down as the wooden board slapped against the floor. He dropped to the floor and was scrambling to pick the pages up as I stopped in front of him.
“You,” I said, staring him down. It was easy since I loomed over his kneeling form. I spied his name tag hanging diagonally from his pocket. “Are you Brad?”
He nodded shakily as he rose, holding his materials close to his chest. “Y-yes, ma'am.”
“Good.” I nodded, peering around the place as if inspecting it. “I just transferred in. You're supposed to show me around. I don't have my cards yet.” My voice didn't waver, and I even pinched my lips and stood straight, trying to be taller and intimidating even though we were around the same height. My drama teacher would be proud.
“O-okay...” he stammered, ducking his head and marching down the hall, not checking to see if I followed. He had to be new.
I stayed silent as he showed me the general staff areas, nodding and grunting at the appropriate times. There wasn't anything special about the break rooms. Once that was done, I told him to take me to the new project. I was a little vague, since I didn't know what it was named. Did they straight out call it Project Gijinka or were there subdivisions?
Of course, this is when Brad decided to get suspicious. He glanced back over his shoulder and raised a thin eyebrow. “What did you say your name was again?” I saw his eyes wander to Riley's name tag.
Then, I brushed my coat open and pulled the Nova on him.
His face panicked as his eyes enlarged, but before he could make a sound I darted forward and grabbed his collar, pulling him up to the gun. “Don't even think about it,” I hissed as he opened his mouth to call out, digging the firearm into his stomach. He just gaped as his knees wobbled. He paled, and for a second, I thought he was going to pass out on me. I didn't want to drag another body. Thankfully he didn't.
“You're that vigilante they talk about...” he whispered.
“Good, that makes this simpler,” I said, spinning him around and holding the Nova up against his spine. I'm pretty sure he got the message. “The new project. Lead on.”
The key card scanner beeped negative as the light flashed red. Brad slid his card through for the third time, but it wielded no better result. His hand had barely made it up to swipe since it was shaking so badly. He probably thought I was going to shoot him for failing to open the door.
“Look out,” I said, pulling him over and using my non-dominant hand to handle the key card I took from Riley. The door beeped and flashed green, sliding open quietly.
I leaned against the wall to peer into the lab, holding my gun at the ready. No goons jumped out at us, so I waved through the open door with my gun. Brad took the hint and went inside, trying not to shake. His shoulder blades wobbled.
As the door slid shut behind me, I noticed the strange smell in the room. It was almost like the inside of a car when it had been roasting in the sun all day mixed with shorted wires. Something sour was laced underneath that. It wasn't pleasant.
“Log onto the computer,” I told the kid as soon as I spied the desk. I wished there were some way to lock the sliding door, but I didn't see any sort of keypad. It probably had to be done from the computer, or maybe not at all. Safety reasons and such. Although last I checked, Gold didn't care much about those.
Brad sat down, and the keyboard clacked as he did what I said. The rest of the room looked pretty normal. There were a few rows of tables littered with testing equipment, from burners and beakers to elaborate models. A couple fish tanks were up against the cupboard-lined walls. The back of the room seemed to be much the same, only there were curtains drawn in front of alcoves. I spotted chemical cleansing shower-heads behind them.
The only thing that bothered me was the additional door on the far wall, in between the showers. It was another key card door, which meant I couldn't lock it. I would have to listen pretty closely in case someone interrupted us. Either that or shoot fast. I wanted to sweep through the other possible rooms, but I also didn't want to leave the kid unattended. I could probably handle anything that came through the doors. Checking them out would have to wait.
Brad worked while I trailed between the tables, looking at all the familiar equipment. Sometimes I missed it—just not enough to start back up again. Not like this.
“So was today your first day?” I asked him, sifting through pages of data. Nothing useful here, just numbers without the coinciding experiments.
The typing stopped. “Uh... no,” he said quickly, looking up and then darting his eyes back down to the keyboard.
I shook my head and smiled. I remembered what it was like to be the new person, taking early college courses and starting my internship. “It's pretty obvious, you know. You're doing pretty well, considering the hold-up.” At this, his shoulders tightened and hunched in on himself. His reactions to something as mild as this said he didn't know what he had gotten into, signing up with Gold. There were worse things.
His naivety reminded me of me. “Just don't do anything stupid and I won't shoot you.”
That seemed to relieve a little of his tension, and it wasn't long after that that the computer dinged. “I'm in,” he said. “What do you want to look up?”
“Check for current projects. Most recent first. Not just here—all locations, if it's there. I want to know what they're doing,” I responded immediately. Nothing looked out of place yet, but something was wrong. The smell was really starting to bother me.
Brad typed away and I wandered to the back. I started on the right side and stared pulling drawers and cabinets open. Everything was pretty bare. If it was a new place, as the truck deliveries indicated, they may not have had a chance to stock up. That didn't mean something bad wasn't happening.
I got to the curtain and stopped as a wall of rotten air hit me. Whatever was smelling up the room was strongest here. Suddenly, a rock dropped in my stomach, and I didn't want to pull back the curtain.
I wished I wasn't so stubborn. I wanted to know what they were doing too badly. With a nearly-shaking hand, I yanked back the shower curtain. Then I stumbled back.
I threw my sleeve over my face as I gagged. I almost dropped my gun. My eyes clenched shut on reflex, wishing the scene away. But no amount of wishing was going to fix this. I didn't want to look, but I knew I had to. I had to burn every terrible thing Gold did into my mind so I'd be reminded why I still had to fight.
The Pokemon hadn't been there very long. The smell would've probably been worse if it had. That didn't make it any less awful to look at.
This enclave was a simple shower stall, meant for washing off. At the bottom sat a great steel ant with gleaming silver plates. It was a Durant, the Pokemon they talked about at the protest. It was dead.
I swallowed thickly and was forced to plug my nose. Stepping back and looking at it from a scientific view wasn't easy, but I did it.
The insect was large for its kind. This one looked almost two feet tall—if its legs had been working—when the average was about one. Dangerous pincers near its mouth were still intact, and the points looked filed to razor-sharpness. Its dark limbs were splayed out, like the creature had just simply collapsed where it laid in the bottom of the tub.
If I had to guess, I would put cause of death as stress. I don't think its body could handle what had been done to it. While the majority of the three-sectioned ant looked fine, the center carapace was where everything went wrong. It was gone.
In its place was an angry red swell. The steel looked like it had been physically cut away, since the edges were sharp and clean. The lip of its skin was also shaded a darker color, like a liquid stain. Had they been using chemicals on it?
I pulled the curtain closed and slowly backed away, holstering the Nova. I didn't trust myself not to shoot something on accident or to drop it and misfire. The scene was covered up, but when I looked, I could still see that poor Durant on the bottom of the shower. I would always see it—mostly in my nightmares.
“What's the matter?” Brad suddenly said from next to me. I had to fight not to jump. I had one arm slung across my body to grip my shoulder. “Something in there?” he asked, gesturing to the shower stall. He took one step forward.
“You don't want to look,” I immediately said.
“It can't be that bad,” he responded, ignoring me.
He still didn't know what was in store for him if he stayed here. I turned away as the curtain screeched on the bar. Brad made a horrified sound, and when he staggered back, he pulled the shower curtain with him. He fell onto his back as the plastic snapped off, baring the poor Pokemon to the entire lab.
The kid scrambled to the nearest trash can and threw up. His heaves shook his whole body, and I tried not to look at him. Instead, I gently tugged the curtain out of his clenched fist and draped it over the Durant while he emptied his stomach.
Brad laid on the floor for a long time, and I didn't bother him. I didn't quite have the courage to investigate the other shower yet. It was bigger.
The kid eventually sat up on his knees. He was staring at the shower with a lost look on his face. A line of sweat had formed on his forehead, and his hair had responded in clumps.
“Why did this happen?” he asked.
I walked over and held out my hand. He took it, and I pulled him up. “Because this is what Gold League does. They tamper with Pokemon to better their own lives. This is likely part of the Gijinka Project Donovan mentioned. They're testing things on Pokemon to make people stronger.”
He didn't say anything as he went back to the computer. I left him to his thoughts as the data loaded. I didn't know how to help him. This was the type of stuff he had to decide for himself, just like I had. He could either back away now, before it got too deep, or he could dive in blindly. I couldn't make that choice for him.
I approached the second curtain and stared at it. I was going to have to open that one too.
“Wait, you're not going to look in there, are you?” Brad asked from the desk. He hadn't gotten up to investigate this one.
“I have to look.”
“Not looking is what got me in trouble in the first place.”
Before I could change my mind, I yanked open the shower covering. I didn't close my eyes, but I expected to see something worse. It was and wasn't at the same time.
The stall was bigger, and a shelf had been placed about chest high, encased on the top and side by glass. In it sat a computer system with numbers and graphs flashing. The tub had been lined with glass too, like a fish tank had been built into the bottom. What looked like solar panels hovered over the top of the glass container, radiating a bright orange glow.
A soft tap on the glass panel drew my attention. I crouched down to see another Durant with its pincers pressed against the glass. It was staring at me, and I was fixated until it blinked dull red eyes and broke the contact. It was still alive.
I pressed my hand to the glass only to wrench it away an instant later, shaking my hand and hissing. The glass was hot. What was going on? The baking lights looked moveable, fixed by mechanical arms. There were drain slats in the floor. When I tilted my head up, I saw the water spout at the top too. I suddenly knew what they were doing.
I jerked to my feet to engage the device. My eyebrows shot up as I read the large number in the corner. The temperature was too hot. A meter across the bottom of the screen showed an eighty percent progress to something, and as it went up to eighty one, the temperature rose as well. On the other side of the meter was a picture of raindrops. My fists clenched so tight that they cracked.
They were baking and rapidly cooling the creature. Like forging steel.
Steel-types were tough by nature, so I could see how they'd be using Pokemon cell studies to improve human bones or some other aspect. I had heard of training some Ground-types in water before to build up resistance, but this was extreme. This was something else entirely. This should never be done.
I took a deep breath and forced my fingers smooth against my sides while I counted to ten. Getting angry felt good, but it wasn't going to help. With calmer breaths, I asked, “How do I turn you off?”
I looked at the computer panel and wasn't sure how to stop it. At one time I would've been at home with these things, but now it was like reading a foreign language. I pressed a button that looked promising, and the thing let out a large beep, like an error. I flinched, and I wasn't the only one. The Pokemon in the case let out a squeal and thudded against the back of it, cowering away from the noise.
“Okay, not that one.”
I thought about breaking the glass. That would be simple and help me release some of my anger in the most primal way. Unfortunately, it would probably just scare the Pokemon, and shards of glass could easily cause more damage.
I let out a breath and then went back to the computer. This time, enough buttons looked familiar, and the relieving whir of the lights powering down followed. I rubbed a hand over my forehead and through my hair. After another minute I figured out how to activate the mechanical arms so the lights could be moved. There was a sturdy metal lock on the lid.
Durant wouldn't be served up for lunch, but there wasn't time to dawdle. The Steel-type was still in danger of heat exhaustion.
“You know how to work this stuff?” Brad asked from the desk, making me jump a little.
“I used to work for the League, didn't you know?”
The kid just shook his head, making dark locks fall into his face. He stubbornly blew air upward to move them. “They just said to watch for you, that you were causing them trouble. Why did you leave?”
I was fumbling through my pack for something to help the Steel-type, but at his question I stopped. He was genuinely curious, leaning a bit forward in his chair with a crease on his brow. At least he didn't look so pale anymore.
“This,” I said, and waved around the room. He looked back to the computer and didn't say anything. “How are we looking?”
“It's still loading the files from the search. It should be done in a few minutes, I guess,” he said.
A few minutes would probably be enough time to help the ant. I grabbed one of my dirt samples—the one from the mountain I'd just left, in fact—and screwed the cap off. A little tap water from one of the sinks loosened the packed soil and let me stir it. It was mushy between my fingers, but the compound was cool. I went back to the case.
“This is probably not a good idea,” I said.
In response, the Durant put its face against the glass, at least as far as its pincers would allow. The heat was making its motions sluggish, like every inch was in slow motion. Heat stroke was no fun. I didn't doubt that it would be scared, but I had to cool it off. There was no way I was using the shower on it—not after what it had been through. Some swine and other Pokemon types used mud to cool themselves and protect from the sun, and I figured it was worth a shot with this one.
As long as it didn't bite my fingers off, that was.
I unlatched the case and propped it open now that the lights were out of the way. Mud patches streaked where my fingers had touched. Once I could see the Pokemon fully, I realized just how small the Durant was. She was easily half the size of the average. She had to have still been growing. A roiling in my stomach returned. The dead Durant had probably been a parent.
“What are you doing?” Brad asked as I knelt down next to the case.
“Something stupid probably.” The little ant was looking up at me, but she hadn't panicked yet. I shook my head. “Please don't eat my fingers. I promise I'm only trying to help.”
I stirred the goop in the jar one more time until it was a dark brown paste. Then, I scooped some up and took my chances with the Pokemon in the cage. As my fingers drew near, she huddled in on herself. I felt bad. The mud was probably only slightly cooler than room temperature, but it would still be a shock to her system. I didn't think it was enough to induce shock, at least nowhere near the shower, but she probably wouldn't like it. I couldn't call out another Pokemon to help. Mine would just scare her.
I counted to three and reached out, mumbling in a soft voice the entire time. It didn't really matter what I was saying, as long as it was calm. It worked, sometimes. The Durant responded to it well enough, surprisingly. She didn't take my fingers, at least.
Only when I was close did I see the circular chunks taken out of her armor. Her back was littered with holes, and the spray pattern indicated it was from the shower—water making dents in the steel once it was hot enough. I closed my eyes for just a second, and red danced behind my lids. I sighed again. This had to stop.
As soon as the mud touched the Steel-type, she shivered all over. But she didn't run away. I guessed she hadn't had a lot of human contact, and my outlook brightened. If she hadn't been here too long, there was a chance that once she was back in a natural habitat, she could develop normally without too many scars.
Her movements had been slow at first, but I saw her legs and antennae twitch and shift as more of the mud was applied. Soon after, she even started a low, quiet hum. It reminded me of a cat, and I'll admit some of my motions mimicked petting one on reflex. I hadn't known Durant did that, but it could've been a unique case.
When the mud was gone, I filled up another sample jar and made more. By the time I was done, the Durant was caked with drying dirt but definitely calmer. Her steel plates were only visible in small spots where the mud had slid off. I speculated what would happen if I let her out of the cage and decided I didn't care if she broke anything. She wasn't going to be locked up anymore.
“I'm going to lift you out, okay?” I wasn't sure if she understood me or not, but she didn't shy away from my hands, even when I grabbed her on both sides.
With a grunt of effort I lifted her. Even though she was smaller than normal, she was still decently heavy. I guesstimated about twenty pounds, give or take. It wasn't anything too difficult, but it was awkward to handle.
I set her down on the floor gently and waited for her to get her legs under her. She didn't bolt, like I expected her to. Instead, she looked around room curiously, covered in mud patches. I smiled at her when she turned and brushed some of the dirt onto my leggings as I watched her nose around the room.
An error sound echoed from the computer then, so I joined Brad, wiping the rest of the mud onto my lab coat as I stood up. He scowled and went through spurts of furious typing, but the sound repeated itself multiple times. Finally, he sighed and ran his hands through his messy hair. “I don't have access.”
“Like security clearance?”
“Yeah, I need a password. I don't suppose you have one?” he asked. He sounded just as curious as I was about what they were doing. The Durant had probably shaken him a little.
I crossed my arms and tapped my fingers against my elbows, thinking of what to do. Trying to crack it might raise an alert, and a password wasn't something likely to be written down. Would I have to go track down someone else? That was not my idea of fun. Watching one person was hard enough, and the next one might not be as green as Brad.
I watched the little Durant nose around the cabinet doors on the other side of the room. I was glad she was far from the shower grave. Even if she knew what had happened, it was another to physically see it. The ant's hard limbs clacked against the polished floor far from the tragedy.
Then, the door behind me whooshed open.
I didn't think—I just moved. I whirled on a foot, ducking down and locking one elbow while reaching for my gun with the other hand. I saw a flash of white and brown before I collided with someone. He let out an 'oomph' of air as I ran into him, but I didn't stop there as I had with Riley.
I used the momentum to spin him and slam him up against the wall, my gun digging into his lower back and a fistful of hair in hand. I used the weight of my body to hold him there, pulling back on his locks to arch his head. His hands had instinctively shot out to the walls to brace himself. As he moved them to break the grip, I hissed in his ear.
The shoulders under the white lab coat relaxed a little, and I was confused until I heard him speak. “Hello, Glenne.”
I released his hair without thinking, and I almost dropped the Nova until I snapped back to reality. I didn't grab his hair again, but I pressed the gun even closer until he flattened his palms against the wall and stilled. Stepping back so we weren't touching let him stand a little more comfortably.
He laughed, pressing his forehead against the tile. It wasn't a happy sound. “You haven't changed much, have you? Still breaking and entering, only to disappear once you got what you came for.” He shook his head, making the brown strands flop about. “I should've known you would be here.”
I hadn't seen my childhood friend in a long time. Meeting on opposite sides of a gun said a lot about how our relationship had developed.
It was hard to speak. I could smell his aftershave from where he dabbed it on his shirt collar. His fluffy hair had grown out, dusting almost to his shoulders. That he allowed it to grow long meant he had been too busy to cut it. It was both good and bad to see him.
“What are you still doing here?” I asked. I remembered long days of studying and sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. But we were different now. The League had changed us.
“What does it matter? You're done with us, remember?” he said.
“It matters because you're helping kill these creatures.” The Durant had shifted to one of the lab tables and was digging at a crack in the floor with her pincers. “That one over there was being baked and rinsed like some sort of sword. The one in the other shower didn't make it because they cut its plating off. How can you still be a part this?”
One of Lukas' hands clenched against the wall, and he let out a sigh. I could feel through the gun that he was struggling not to shake. Brad was watching silently.
“It's not too late to do the right thing.”
“Some of us don't have that luxury!” he shouted. The sound echoed off the wall and made me flinch. My shoulders tensed, but I kept the gun steady. I didn't want to shoot him on accident—or at all. But if he forced my hand, I might have to anyway.
Lukas took a deep breath, and then he continued quieter this time. His fingers unclenched to lie flat on the wall. “I can't do anything. I have family and people that I care about. At one time, I thought you did too.”
I couldn't say that Lukas was entirely wrong, but that didn't take the sting away. When I burned the lab, I panicked and fled without thinking about people I was leaving behind. I grew up without family. He, his mother, and his sister had filled the gap by welcoming me into their home. I hadn't thought about what my leaving would do to them until much to late. Now, if Lukas tried to follow my lead, his family would pay for it.
Lukas didn't stop there. “I had to tell Eliza. She cried, you know. When you left.”
The fingers not holding the Nova clenched, and I fought to say quiet. It was hard. His little sister had looked up to me, had even decided to pursue the sciences because I had. Her disappointment tugged some chord in me. At least Lukas' lashing out betrayed he was hurting too.
When I looked at him, I felt regret. There were a lot of loose ends that I might never get to tie up, and that scared me.
“Lukas, let me help you. I can—”
“Don't,” he interrupted. “Just... don't. Please.”
I took the gun off his spine as I backed up, but I didn't put it away. We were quiet for a long time. The Durant continued to scratch at the floor, and once in a while Brad moved the mouse so the computer didn't fall back to sleep.
Lukas leaned into the wall on his forearms and didn't look at me. There was so much I wanted to say, but the words tangled in my throat. I choked them back down. Much like Rexus, I didn't know if I could fix this.
Brad cleared his throat then, drawing both of us to look at him. The kid bobbed his head toward the computer monitor. The pop-up box asking for the code was still waiting. Regardless of what happened between Lukas and I, there was still a job to do. Pokemon were in danger whether or not we resolved our issues.
“What's the password? I know you have clearance.”
Lukas glanced at me briefly and then at the screen. He shifted his head back to the wall. “Betrayal.”
I rolled my eyes. “So dramatic.”
“You were better at it,” he countered, and I couldn't help but smile, even if it wilted on the edges. It reminded me of when we were friends.
“Alright, I'm in,” Brad said, as the computer jingled along happily.
I glanced over to see a list of files pop up, but I left them for the kid to sort out. I hated what I did to Lukas, but I couldn't let my guard slide now. He wasn't the same person I knew. We had taken some martial arts together before I'd left—I know he could move if given the opportunity. Because he had more to lose if Gold turned on him, like his mother and sister, he might take more risks. My capture probably netted at least a pay raise.
“This can't be right,” Brad said after a minute, hitting a couple of keys and clicking with the mouse.
I backed away from Lukas a few paces but kept the Nova on him. “What can't be right?”
The kid motioned to the screen. “Look at this. You wanted to know why nobody was here? They're all on the mountain. They're collecting Durant and moving to another base.”
“What? Donovan, you—” I grabbed the back of the desk chair and leaned over him, but he was right. The map he pulled up marked several vehicles stationed on the mountain, not too far where I had been camped out. They must've been GPS equipped.
“They're going to do more of...this,” Brad finished lamely, looking around the lab.
I let that soak in until a form nudged against my leg. I looked down to see the Durant from the case had wandered over to us. She made a soft humming sound as she tried to wiggle her pincers against my boot. She was a lot more playful than I thought. Dried dirt fell off her body as she moved.
Gold was going to destroy more of these creatures unless I did something. The steel ant looked up at me one more time, and I nodded. I'd made up my mind about what I was doing.
Lukas was halfway turned to me with just one arm propped on the wall. His brow was furrowed—a puzzled mark that I recognized on him. “I didn't know about this, Len. I didn't—”
His green eyes went wide as he used my nickname. I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard it. I think it surprised him too.
“I believe you,” I said, a little stunned myself. Lukas may have been trapped here, but even he had his limits. If he had clearance to access the files, he had some say in what he did. I couldn't believe that my childhood friend would stoop as low as this. Not directly.
I took a second to collect myself, laying out that manilla folder in my head with the game plan. Then I nodded. “Time to go.”
“Where are you going?” Brad asked, as I slid my bag from my shoulder and crouched down. The Durant made a curious sound and wiggled her head into the canvas pack.
“Back to the mountain.”
“They're probably waiting for you, you know,” Lukas said. “You mentioned Donovan—did you talk to him? He set you up.”
One hand curled into a fist before I released it. “Brad, delete the files. All of them,” I added, before he could protest. He turned and started doing what I asked. Then, I looked at Lukas. I sighed. “I know. They stalled for time. They expect me to come, but I'm still going to go.”
He didn't say anything as I put up the Nova and rummaged through the bag until I found a spare cloth and a throwaway glove. When I rose, I reached underneath my lab coat for a small, dark-colored capsule. I still knew a few underground chemists, since chloroform wasn't available on the market anymore. I watched Lukas as I did it. I know he recognized what it was when I slid on the glove, wrapped the cloth around the tiny vile, and squeezed.
He didn't try to run as I neared. “She's starting an internship in the fall,” he said. His sister was on the brink of falling in with the wrong people. I couldn't tell if his look was asking for my help or not.
“I'm sorry,” I said.
I held the cloth up to his face and made sure to turn my head away. He didn't fight me even though he could have. When the drug took hold and his knees buckled, I dropped the rag and caught him, slowly bringing him to the ground so he wouldn't hit his head. He'd be out for a while, but so little of the substance wouldn't hurt him. Hopefully.
“Dolly,” I called, grabbing the Claydol's Pokeball and releasing it. The Ground-type made an eerie sound as it hovered above the smooth floor, its disconnected arms clacking as they twirled around. The small Durant near my bag hummed in response, causing the clay doll to float diagonally as if cocking its head.
I looked at Brad. His eyes were wide again, and as I carefully pulled the glove off and tossed it to the ground, he stood up, knocking the desk chair into a roll. The table rattled as he backed into it. “Are you gonna knock me out too?”
“That depends. You still have a choice. You can either stay here with Lukas and the rest of the League or you have a free ticket out. You're still new—I doubt they'd remember if you booked,” I told him. I no longer had a choice, but I was going to offer to him what I wanted to offer Lukas. Freedom.
I crouched down near my bag, and the Durant looked up at me. I took in all her scars and what had been done to her. I thought of the other ant that didn't make it. “Can I take you home to the mountain?” I asked her.
She looked at me for a long time, and I don't know if she understood or not. Dolly hovered comfortably behind me, and that gave me strength. I could at least do the right thing for this one Pokemon.
Finally, the Durant made a happy coo, and before I could say anything else, it crawled into my pack. I heard containers clanking around as she situated herself, and then she poked her head out with a chirp, as if saying “let's go.” I smiled and stood up, pulling the Pokemon in the bag with me. It was a little heavy on my shoulder at first, since I wasn't used to the extra weight, but I managed.
When we were situated, I looked at Brad. “Well?”
He looked at Lukas unconscious on the floor, and then he turned back to the occupied shower. His hands clenched at his sides, and I didn't think the shaking was because he was scared. The kid turned back to me, and that nervous fleck to his eyes was gone. He nodded. “I'm ready to get out of here.”
I nodded back, motioning him over. Dolly hovered close, and I felt the Psychic-type's energy tingle at my back, but I signaled to wait. I wanted to scour through the other rooms, but there wasn't time. I didn't know how big the place was, even with Brad's mini-tour. There were probably other experiments going on, but a professional team would be better at clearing this place out. A younger me would've set fire as I left. The newer me was smarter.
“Cover your ears,” I said. I took out the Nova.
Brad did what I said seconds before I aimed up and fired at the sprinkler. Immediately the fire alarm sounded, and the geysers started to spew. The computer sparked and popped as the water rained down. I was glad the alarms were working. Alerts would go up on the network for the authorities. It wouldn't take long for the cavalry to come.
I gave Lukas a long look until Dolly warped us out and I saw nothing.
My feet hit the dirt on the street with a crunch, and Brad staggered as we reappeared. My head swam for a minute, but the weight of the Durant in my bag helped ground me in the sense that if I didn't stand, I was going to fall.
The sun was starting to set beyond the rows of buildings, so the light was tinted a dull orange, and shadows stretched into the street. I returned Dolly to its Pokeball and turned to look at the kid. It seemed like he aged since I first saw him. I felt about the same. Was I really digging out rocks and collecting dirt this morning?
“Good luck,” he said.
“You too. If you lay low for a month, they'll probably forget you existed.”
He nodded, and then walked down the road until he disappeared around the corner. I wanted to believe that he'd make it, that Gold wouldn't go after him. I wished I could do the same for every trapped soul in their services.
The Durant gave out a low hum that broke me out of my thoughts. Her face was chalked with mud, and smears of it stained my canvas. “This is gonna be difficult,” I told her, unsure of how I even expected to stop the organization on the mountain.
Then, there was a voice behind me. “Thought I'd find you here.”
The old man had his hands dipped in his pockets and was rocking back and forth on his heels. His white mustache curled up along with his lips. I wondered how long Joe had been waiting.
“You look like you could use some help.”
Joe's Jeep rattled along the rocky road, jingling loose change in his cup holder. The Durant bounced around in my bag on the floor, but her noises indicated she was having fun at least. I was just glad I had my seat belt on. I probably would've fallen out if not.
We were racing along to catch up to Gold. What we'd do when we got there was something I hadn't figured out yet.
“Here, take this,” Joe said as he let go of the steering wheel.
I snapped over to his side to grab it, but the vehicle still lurched. I yanked it back, narrowly avoiding a large rock bent on hitting us. It's comrades taunted us from the slopes. “What the hell was that?” I demanded.
Joe ignored me at first since he was stretched over his seat, reaching into the back for something. When he returned, he set a rectangular leather case in his lap, and it took a second of rearranging the tray underneath the radio to set it up. Joe shoved loose papers and other nicknacks off onto my side, causing the Durant to squeak in protest. He plugged something into the cigarette lighter and grinned at me.
“You had it, didn't you?” Then, he unzipped the case. It was an old car phone.
“I'm surprised that thing still runs.”
“Ehh, mind your own,” he said as he waved my hand away from the wheel. He was smiling, though.
The road rattled on as he pressed three on the speed dial. I didn't know who he was calling, but I hoped he could multitask. The drive as rough as it was. A crash on the way wasn't heroic at all.
The man sat back with a grin, propping his elbow up on the lowered window like he was out for a Sunday drive. The phone cord hung between him and the wheel. “Ivy,” he started, and my eyes widened. “This is old Joe. Guess where we're goin'.”
I couldn't hear the reply thanks to the tires grinding against the gravel, but whatever she said made the man's mustache quirk up with a grin. Who had the Ranger station on speed dial?
“Yep, I got someone here that I'm bettin' you're interested in talking to,” Joe said, and then he handed the phone to me.
At first I held my hands away, but then the guy shrugged and let go of the steering wheel. The Durant let out another squeak as the Jeep drifted to the side again. I snatched the phone up. Joe was chuckling.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked, but then I heard the woman on the phone. I glared at Joe but answered the line. “Is this Ivy Frost?”
She didn't sweat the small talk. “You happen to know anything about a fire alarm that went off in a supposedly abandoned building? A couple of my Rangers reported some strange experiments going on,” she said.
“I may or may not have been involved,” I said. It was best not to condemn yourself with concrete evidence if possible.
“Uh huh,” she answered. “Is there something else that you may or may not be involved in that I should know about?”
I understood now, why Joe had called her. Through him, I could call in the Rangers. I wouldn't have to take on Gold by myself. “An underground crime syndicate are in the process of abducting Durant on the mountain for experimentation. They sawed off the plates on the back of one in the lab, and another I found being baked.”
Ivy's side of the line was quiet, but I knew it hadn't gone dead. I could faintly here quiet voices and the beeping of a photocopier in the background. “Harvey,” she suddenly barked. She had her hand or something over the speaker on the phone, but I heard her loud and clear. “Secure the base until later and get a group up to the mountain. Now.” There were pounding footsteps before she came back on the line. “You're headed up to the mountain. Why are you putting yourself at risk?”
“Let's call it a moral obligation,” I said. That was the simplest version. The less illegal one too.
“Are you the lady in black?” My eyebrows rose. “I've talked to Elena about this organization.”
That was news to me. My friend hadn't mentioned she'd gotten in touch with some legal channels. I wasn't sure how I felt about it. But I definitely wasn't who she thought I was.
She was quiet for a minute, but I heard her moving. She was probably gathering supplies. “Haji,” she said quietly, but I didn't know who she was talking to. “Get Vergil.” Then she shifted her attention back to me. “Now, I'm not saying I support vigilante work,” she started, “but if I were in that position, I would do whatever I could to stall them. You know, if I wasn't bound by Ranger laws.”
I had just been given permission to fight. There was even a slight chance I wouldn't be punished this time. “Yes ma'am.”
“I hope we meet soon,” she said, and then the line went dead. I stared at the phone for a second before putting it back on the receiver. Joe was still grinning.
“Fun, isn't she? She'll get them boys up here right quick,” he said.
“And you just happen to have a Park Ranger on speed dial,” I said skeptically, raising a brow.
He shrugged, and the flaps of his red vest caught wind and opened. “Retired Ranger Joe Sullivan, at your service, Missy,” he said. “Now let's go save some Pokemon.”
I shook my head, but I was smiling. His cheery mood was infectious. I almost believed that I could pull this off. The Durant chirped up at me from the floorboards, clanking things around in my bag. I wanted to make sure this Pokemon had a home she could return to safely.
I'll admit I wanted to see Gold pay for the things they had done too, even if I had to crash one test site at a time. I was aware that an old saying spoke of digging two graves before embarking on a journey of revenge. My problem was that I never knew whose they were going to be.
Knowing my luck, it would probably cost me my own.
We had to stop the jeep a good distance away from the spot I marked on Joe's map—the place the computer had shown the Gold team. Joe insisted that he was going to do what he could against the League too, despite my protests. He might've just wanted to signal the Rangers, but I couldn't tell. When I mentioned it, he basically told me to stuff it in less pleasant words, grinning while he did it. I couldn't really stop him—at least not quickly, and I wasn't going to shoot him—so I hoofed it up the trail alone when we parted ways.
I hadn't been to this part of the mountain yet. In the six days I was here, I had mostly stayed bunked in one camp. The fortunate thing was that traversing one mountain was a lot like the next. The unfortunate was that everything looked the same. I could only guess where I was.
A couple of the tunnels turned me around for a bit, but after taking the same one twice, I finally reached Gold's camp. I put a finger up to my lips as the Durant wiggled in my bag. I wanted to leave her in the jeep, but when I started to go, she had fussed so much that I relented. At least she seemed to understand my gesture, since her quiet hums went silent as we approached the group.
I used the natural rock habitat to blend in. It helped that my hair was grayish, like the dust around here. My cloak had been exchanged for the lab coat too, so I didn't stick out too badly. The orange glow as the sun was setting helped darken me further.
Grunts milled around gathering supplies. Gold sashes, the trademark for this branch were tucked away in pockets, strung through belt loops, and tied around the neck or in people's hair. When I had been a part of the League, they hadn't existed. On the street, it was hard to tell there was anything strange about the garments until a bunch of them grouped together. Now I couldn't stop seeing them.
Large, gray ants were shoved in ages already. Some of them cried out in rage and bit at the bars. Others cowered into the corners. A pair of women were chasing one into a container with some sort of miniature flamethrower. It looked like Gold was finishing up. Some of the crates were being loaded into trucks. One took two beefy looking guys to lift. Durant weren't light.
I wanted to run out guns blazing, but that would just get me shot. Even I wasn't dumb enough to just rush them. I had to create a problem that would detain them long enough until the Rangers got here. Then I could hopefully slip away undetected.
The only option I had was the caves. I could probably lure a few out of the camp, and maybe that would create an opening for me somewhere. If I could get to the truck, that was the best option.
Plan decided, I hugged the rock wall and slunk back into the caves, stepping lightly so my boots didn't crunch too loud. Now that I was actually here, the adrenaline was starting to kick in. I could feel a light layer of sweat on my palms, and my pulse had increased in tempo. When I jumped down to a low ledge to the nearest cave, I almost tripped and crashed into the rocks. But there was no turning back now.
After a few minutes, I realized I had no idea what cave I was in. I wanted to mark the walls with some sort of excavating chalk, but if the wrong person walked in and recognized what it was, I was sunk. I tried to memorize anything peculiar about the rock halls, but they all looked the same. My heartbeat was loud in my ears, but I kept going.
Eventually, the grunts and idle talk of the workers got louder. The caves were slightly dark, but when I came around the last corner, the dying blaze of the sun greeted me and illuminated the middle of the room. I had finally came around the side of the camp.
I crept closer to the exit, partially hidden by the sharp shadows the sun created off the rocks jutting from the walls. It helped cloak me, since reaching the lip of the cave was harder than it looked. The opening was probably a six feet dome. I could probably stand in it without touching my head to the top. The problem was the five feet drop into the pit.
I was just short enough that I had to climb up a step to see into the camp. I adjusted the bag on my shoulder before I climbed, and I did all right when the Durant didn't wiggle. I stopped inches from the lip and kept my head low as I peered over it. I was going to have to make a break for the truck somehow, without being seen. Nobody was working on this side anymore, so my plan of luring people away bubbled and fizzed out non-dramatically. I hoped Joe had better luck if he was over there somewhere.
My limbs tensed as I saw my opportunity. Someone was being called into another low-lying cave on the other side of the truck. I was going to need to hustle over the cave mouth to the vehicle, but I could do it. I counted the man's paces as he crunched on the dirt, preparing to jump and haul myself up.
Then, the Durant in my bag let out a surprised squeak, and someone whispered in my ear. “Long time no see, stranger.”
My eyes widened, and my feet slipped from the rock I had perched on. I slid down the rock face with stones digging into my stomach. Staggering off the wall, I only just managed not to fall backwards. I followed the momentum though, taking a dozen or so steps away from the cave entrance as I brought my arms up to defend myself. Feminine laughter echoed through the cave, and when I stopped, the bottom of my stomach dropped out.
“Samantha,” I choked out, my pulse speeding through a marathon race. My shoulders immediately tightened, and my feet inched apart so I could pivot and run.
I debated going for my gun and didn't. I could see hers resting at her hip, her fur-lined coat brushed back so the holster was bared in the open. My old coworker hadn't changed much. Sienna brown hair was smoothly pulled back into a sideways ponytail, and the end curled down her shoulder to tangle with the ends of the gold sash that was tied around her neck. The freckles dotted across her nose made her look like the innocent next door neighbor.
I knew better.
Last I checked, Samantha was working up the rungs one bloody mission at a time. At one time she had claimed wanting to do what was best for the organization, but I wasn't sure special pet projects from either Donovan or Isabelle qualified as strictly business. Even when we were on good terms, I didn't like being alone in the same room with her. I don't think she had limits.
“Well, well, Glenne. Looks like you haven't forgotten everything after all,” she said as a sickeningly sweet smile curved her lips. I edged backwards inch by inch until my back brushed the rock wall. That only made her smile more. “You should've kept your nose out of this.”
As she spoke, she caressed the hilts of the two knives on her sides. She probably had a bigger one hidden on her person too. Honestly I was more worried about those more than the firearm. I would bleed to death relatively quickly if a vital was shot and it didn't kill me instantly. Blade-work could last a long time.
I wiped that fear off my face. I wouldn't give her the satisfaction. Shrugging, I said, “You know me. I'm going to be a thorn in your back until you stab the knife into it.”
She grinned and shook her head, making her hair bounce around. We had been friends once too. Unfortunately for her, I didn't regret the break-up as much as I did with Lukas.
“Did you talk to Donovan?” I nodded, and she continued. “I take it from your sneaking around that you didn't agree to his terms,” she said, not really asking.
“Why would I?”
At that, her hands stopped trailing over the blades and balled into fists. The smile dropped from her face and fire danced in her eyes. Her shoulders were shaking. “He is dying,” she said flatly, as if that should explain everything. It did, at least for her.
“Everyone dies, Sam. Even Donovan. It's just a matter of when,” I said. I tried to be sympathetic, but I probably wasn't too good at it. I wondered how long she had a crush on him. That must've been painful, wanting a married man she couldn't have. Isabelle probably would've had Samantha hung if she tried anything.
“For being so nonchalant about life, you seem to want to preserve yours,” she shot back. The veins on her wrist stuck out sharply against her skin.
I shrugged. “My time's gonna come eventually. But it won't be today.”
“So sure of that? The young have no concept of how vulnerable they really are,” she said. A laugh followed, and she scuffed her shoe against the ground to make a cloud of dust poof up. The light glowing behind her made the shadows streaking across her face even darker.
I snorted. “You've got what, five years on me? Are you qualified to talk about that?”
Samantha just smiled at me. Her lips had pressed together, and her foot was lightly tapping against the dirt. Her hand automatically touched her knife, and her fingers drummed against it. I was suddenly aware of a big problem. She was between me and the exit.
Her jittering only meant one thing—she was going to act. I had seconds to decide if I was going through her or not. My body went still as I prepared to move, coiling up in anticipation. Whether I was going forward or not was still up for grabs. The Durant in my bag responded to my muscle tension and let out a low hum in question. My eyes were glued on Samantha.
“Donovan thinks you're worth keeping around. Says you can really help us. I'm more aligned with Isabelle's way of doing things,” she said. Then her eyes locked on mine while her lips curved up. “I think you should be gone.”
I watched her reach for her gun in almost slow motion. My choice had been made for me.
There wasn't time to draw the Nova on her. I did the only thing I could. I lunged to the side as she fired, and the spark of the bullet snapping off the stone was bright in the dark room. The sound echoed too, flooding my ears and setting off a sharp ringing.
I tried to hurry before she fired again, but I was disoriented for a second. The weight of my bag threw off my balance, but I managed to stagger around the corner and flee back into the tunnels. Another shot ricocheted next to my head as I disappeared into the dark.
For a while, the only thing I heard was my boots pounding along the ground and the gasps of my breath as I heaved. I turned to look back for just a second, but I didn't see Samantha following. All it took was that instant if disconnection for a pothole to trip me up. I hit it wrong, and a sharp twang in my angle responded. My body crashed into the rocks by the shoulder, and I cried out.
I had to stop. My hand automatically went to my arm. The three-quarter sleeve had torn where the rock dug in, and the black garment smeared blood on my fingers. It wasn't deep, so I would live. My foot was going to have to be okay too, or I was in trouble. I wiggled the ankle and tapped it lightly against the ground, trying to keep it mobile and working.
I winced as I put my weight on it, but I didn't think it was sprained. I took a few steps, and it didn't give out. It would have to work. I had to be able to run.
The Durant made a low inquisitive sound from my pack, nudging my side in question. I smiled at her through gritted teeth. “I'm okay,” I said as I winced.
There wasn't time to rest. My head snapped behind me as a bubbling laughter welled up, echoing from further down the path. After a second, I turned to the front again. I couldn't tell where it was coming from.
My body tried to seize as my legs locked, but I stubbornly clenched my hand and hit it against my leg. It didn't hurt that much, but it did distract me enough for my leg to loosen. I removed the Nova from my holster and checked the clip. Samantha appeared to know the caves much better than I did, and there was a very real chance of us having a stand off.
If I had to gun her down, so be it. I snapped the clip back into the gun and held it in two hands, tucking it along my body as I picked up the pace again, keeping my senses alert for anything out of place. She could run me through the caves until I collapsed from exhaustion, continuously running but never getting out.
I was tired of running.
I finally found a familiar place, and funnily enough, it was back where I had started. Pressed against the rocky wall, I could see the mark where the second bullet had struck across from me. A piece of rock had chipped off and shattered into tiny rock bits on the ground. That could've been my skull.
The Durant nudged my arm, and I took one hand off the Nova to touch her head, signaling for silence. I should've never brought her through the caves, but now that she was here, I couldn't just leave her. She was still young, and if Gold caught her, they would just destroy her. I felt responsible. She was growing on me.
I released a breath quietly that ruffled the gray-blonde strands hanging in my face. The cave mouth was just around the corner. I could see the dying light curling its fingers for me to come inside. That probably wasn't a good idea, but since stumbling around in the dark corridors was the only other option, I figure I'd take my chances.
Where was Samantha? It would be too easy if she were still stumbling around in the tunnels. I wished I was psychic. Then I could scan through the walls and see if she was in the room. I was betting she was, although the last time I had played poker it had been with Lukas and some other coworkers, and the removal of clothing may have been involved. That night didn't go so well for me.
I took a deep breath to steady myself, gripped my gun solidly in two hands, and ducked inside the room.
I sprinted ten feet before a resounding bang exploded into the room, and on instinct I threw my hands up. It was wrong to stop, and I knew that, but it was a human thing to try and protect one's self. I couldn't help it.
That wasn't the surprising thing. I had expected her to shoot at me. The strange thing was that her gun was raised to the ceiling. She was standing at the bottom of the rock ledge, and she wasn't alone.
“I'll show you mine if you show me yours,” she said with a sneering smile, motioning down.
Beside her stood a great steel ant. It was larger than the one I found in the shower. The Durant's eyes seemed to glow red instead of the pinkish tint the one in my bag sported. She poked her head out from behind me as she saw the other of her kind, but she wasn't the only one that could tell something was off. She immediately squeaked and disappeared into the canvas.
I couldn't blame her. Samantha's Durant seemed agitated as it shuffled on its feet, like it couldn't wait to tear into something else. Its pincers squeezed back and forth, and there was a dark liquid on them. I didn't want to know what it was.
“I really wanted to cut you up, Glenne, but I think that can wait. Maybe after we dig you out.” She actually giggled. “Crush them,” she told the Steel-type at her feet.
I tensed, expecting it to rush me. It pawed the ground with one of its dark-colored legs, but then it veered, and using its sturdy body, it rammed itself against the wall.
The cave shuddered, and I heard the cracking in the walls before dust and chips of rocks started to rain down. The loud rumbling and shaking of the floor staggered me, but before I could regain my balance, a large rock dislodged form the ceiling.
I had to fling myself to the side. Unfortunately, my gun hand lagged behind, and the rock clipped it. The Nova went sliding across the floor and out of reach. I was lucky it didn't misfire and hit me.
I crashed to the ground on my already-aching shoulder and hissed. My bag spilled open, and the Durant went tumbling, squeaking as she rolled across the ground. As soon as I stopped, I shifted onto my stomach and threw my hands over my head as rocks spilled down. Samantha was crazy. She was going to collapse the entire cave on both of us.
A head-sized rock then fell onto my bag, and I heard the cracking of glass as it broke one of my dirt sample jars. Then, a smaller one landed next to my head, which made me jerk and roll onto my back. I saw the next rock coming and rolled again, only to narrowly miss getting it. In the sudden motion, I rubbed one of the pouches on my belt. A lone Pokeball went rolling across the room. My eyes widened as I lunged for it, but it was too late.
I knew who's ball that was.
As the quake began to die off, the red and white device stilled. Then, the center lit up in a bright light, and with a flash, that same glow illuminated the room. Accompanying was a mighty roar that stirred the room back up, and I had to clamp my hands over my ears as the bellow sounded.
When the last of the small rocks dropped down and everything else had gone quiet, I looked up to see Rexus. The dinosaur-like Pokemon stood up proudly on his two hind legs, his gray underbelly barely visible from my prone position. Jagged spikes threw along his spine to match the one on his nose. His claws flexed and his ears rotated slightly as he glared across the room. The giant purple behemoth panted heavily, his eyes fixed on the Durant near Samantha. I don't think he was even aware of anything else. The tip of his tail twitched, and I saw his muscles preparing to shift as the Nidoking stared down the Steel-type.
Samantha laughed, and I swore her Pokemon did the same. It shook its head like a bull, shaking its pincers at Rexus as if in challenge, the dark stains in sharp contrast to his lighter gray color.
The Nidoking trumpeted back his response, and his tail swept across the floor in warning, kicking up dust and small chips. I threw up my arm to block them, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of gray as the little Durant from the lab backed up as far into the wall as she could. She shook a little, but she looked unhurt.
Rexus stamped, swiping one foot back like the Durant had done. Samantha looked unfazed, grinning like she would rather be here than anywhere else. I suddenly had a sinking thought.
I looked at Samantha caressing her blades, her Durant tossing his head next to her. On my side, Rexus aggressively pawed the ground. It was like looking into a mirror. I shivered, and the prickling chased down my spine and into my toes. Was that what Rexus and I would become?
I didn't want that.
“Rexus!” I called. I wanted to draw his attention to me. His restraint wasn't going to last much longer. Deep scars flashed through my mind as I thought of how hard it was to stop his rampage. He could kill us all in this tiny cave.
I tried to get up, but as soon as I put pressure on my ankle to scoot into a sitting position, it burst into invisible flame. I hissed and snapped my eyes shut on reflex. If it hadn't been at least sprained before, it was now.
Rexus looked back to me briefly, his eyes flicking over my sitting form. My words weren't enough to hold him. He turned back to the duo and snorted. I tried to slide backward on my hands. If I could get the wall at my back, I might be able to stand.
“Oh, so the accident is still alive, is he? I thought for sure you'd have to put him down, monster that he is,” Samantha said with a slight uplift to her voice. It went along with the snake smile.
“The only monster I see in this room is you.”
Samantha pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, and I was waiting for some hot remark. Instead, she brightened, giving me the full force of her smile. “Well, it's a good thing you won't be seeing anything in a minute then. Either of you,” she said, and then she rose her gun. She pointed at Rexus.
She winked, and I screamed, “No!”
Then, she turned the gun toward me and fired.
The world slowed down in that moment. My body froze as I registered what happened, the shot from the bullet drowning out all other noise. I didn't have time to move.
Rexus bellowed, and that snapped me out of the trance. He lunged, but it wasn't toward them. His body snapped to the side faster than his bulky form suggested, and I heard the slap as the bullet collided with the skin on his shoulder. It was nearly his head.
The Nidoking roared again, lifting his limbs to the ceiling and crashing them down in one terrible quake as they slammed into the floor. My body bounced off the ground with the force, and I saw Samantha drop her gun. Rexus' eyes blazed with rage, and as he turned toward the two, smoke curled from his maw. Searing hot flames burst from his mouth has he breathed, engulfing the mouth of the cave in an inferno.
The fire sucked the air out of the cave, and I immediately rolled as close to the wall as I could. I crashed into the Durant, who squeaked and shook, not understanding what was happening. I stretched my cloak over our heads and held my breath as long as possible, only sucking in air when necessary.
The ant huddled close and cried out as rocks crashed all around us. I felt Rexus stomping around the cave, felt the very walls threatening to snap and crush us all. I listened to my Pokemon's roars and felt a pang of guilt sear my insides as he raged. He had been protecting me.
When the rocks stopped and the air thinned out, I uncurled from the wall. The cave was a mess. It was hardly recognizable. Debris from the ceiling had crashed down and broken apart, scatting both football-sized chunks and pebbles around the room. Larger pieces were scooped out of the wall, and it was a wonder the entire cavern didn't close in on us.
The burning red-orange glow of the sun was still shining through, and eclipsed in that light was Rexus. His skin was torn on the surface, leaving angry red trails across the purple covering. It wasn't anything serious. There was a thin trail of blood streaming down his shoulder and dripping to the floor from the bullet, spreading into a thin pool that was slowly creeping back to me. It probably wouldn't have bled so much if he hadn't been moving around.
The enraged Pokemon snorted, standing close to a larger pile of rocks. From underneath them, a larger pool of red was blossoming. I could see a charred steel plate from between the cracks. A tattered end of a gold sash was peeking underneath a rock. Samantha and her Pokemon were dead. I was drained, so I felt nothing but glad it was over. I'm not sure if burning or crushing was more fitting.
But Rexus wasn't done. He suddenly stopped and whirled to face me, his eyes still ablaze. I started to shake. His leg pawed the ground, and his arm swung out, as if both challenging me and warning me back. He snarled, and my eyes started to burn.
He was so angry, and it wasn't his fault. None of this was. He just had to live with it.
“Rexus, please stop,” I whispered.
The Nidoking gave me a glance, but he only tossed his head. His tail thumped against the ground, but it was losing speed. I could see beads of sweat dotting his purple skin and knew that the adrenaline he had acted on was winding down. It was what had helped us calm him last time. While he was deadly while he raged, it was just like any other energy burst—eventually the gas ran out of the tank.
I took a step forward without thinking about it, and I immediately cried out and stumbled. My body instantly crouched down, putting weight on my other foot and staying slow so I wouldn't fall. I cringed and balled my hands into fists.
Rexus noticed. He called out again, breathing out his nose in short, deep gusts like he couldn't draw air. His cry wasn't so sharp this time.
His muscles shook a little as I fought to stand on wobbly feet. It was painful, but I managed to get up. He kept his eyes on me. I look another step, and instead of bellowing out to challenge me, he took retreating steps until he collided with the massive rock pile. His tail swiped out again, but it wasn't with purpose. He shook his head and pawed at his face.
He didn't know what to do either.
I stopped in front of him, but his form was wobbly and unclear. My eyes had gone blurry. His breath fanned out against my face and blew strands of hair out to the sides. I lightly touched his shoulder, near the bullet wound. The bullet he had taken for me. He lowered his head as I laid my hand flat against his nose, and he gave a soft croon. His energy was spent. As I hugged him, I cried, murmuring the same words over and over.
“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.”
Night crawled into the cave with soft moon beams. The sun had set fast, but it seemed like hours had drifted by. We hadn't moved—me clutching Rexus, and him leaning into me. The Durant had crawled out from the rocks and joined us, at first hesitant but then insistent on curling up next to us.
There were voices coming from the camp, but I didn't know whose at first. First there was yelling, and the cry of a Pokemon or two, but then it died down to a gentle ambiance. We stayed in the cave. If they wanted to find us, they could come look.
Soon after, boots crunched on the dirt, and I saw a woman and a Pokemon appear at the mouth of the cave—it was amazingly still standing. The light was discoloring her a little, but her hair still looked reddish, and it fell in long waves to blend in with her Ranger-red vest over dark-shaded clothes. The Pokemon at her side was purple as far as I could tell, and it retained a cat-like quality with a two-pronged tail and almond ears—an Espeon. A glowing red gem was on its forehead, marking its psychic prowess. That would've came in handy a few hours ago.
The Pokemon elegantly sat and observed as the woman descended along the rocks. She didn't stumble or seem bothered by the rough terrain. I recognized the Ranger from the protest.
Her boots smacked loudly in the quiet cave as she took the last rock with a jump. She took a look around, lingering over the largest pile with the blood trailing under it. A low whistle sounded.
“Elena was definitely right—you don't really hold back, do you?” she asked, wandering around what was left of the cavern.
I tensed for a minute, thinking Rexus might act up, but he stayed quiet. I gave him a rub on the nose and then turned as the woman approached us again. She was holding out the red and white sphere that had escaped my bag. The Nidoking's ball.
“I'm Ivy, as you probably guessed. Are you guys okay?” she asked.
I gave Rexus a long look and then glanced down to the Durant by my side. She hummed at me in response. “We will be,” I answered, and that was probably truth. I held out the Nidoking's ball and returned him, and since he was lulled into peace, he didn't fight it. I sighed.
“Joe waved us down when we got close. A couple of trucks got away, but we stopped most of them here. It looks like you already had their ring leader under control.” The red-haired woman looked at the blood. “Someone will clean this up, but they won't bother you about it. When you're ready to go, find me. I think we should talk. I'm going to go after them, even if the Rangers don't back me, and I'd like to know what you know first,” she said.
She didn't ask me anything else. Instead, she climbed the rocks toward the exit. As she reached up for the ledge, she suddenly winced, and her arm jerked. She lost grip on the rock and spilled backwards, and I reached out to move, thinking she was going to hit her head or worse. However, her body froze in midair, engulfed in a shimmering blue aura.
The energy wrapped around her and set her down on a flat part of the rock. The Espeon's eyes were lit with blue flames, and both glows dissipated at the same time. My eyebrows shot up.
“Thanks, Haji,” she said, rubbing her wrists. She saw me looking and shrugged. “Stun gun. Ran into some Gold poachers at the National Park. Doctor says I might always have after effects.”
“Is that why you want to go after them so bad?” I asked.
“Is that why you want to?” she countered. She waved off my next comment. “I think you can agree—one of the worst things they could've done was make it personal. It may not fit my station, but I don't mind breaking a couple of rules if we need to. If we have the means to stop them, shouldn't we?”
I couldn't argue with her there.
In the end, I did have that talk with Ivy. She had spoken to a few people I knew, and from what I saw, she could be trusted. When the authorities wanted to know who I was, she headed off the investigations. She even escorted me off the mountain herself, and since my ankle did turn out to be sprained, I was grateful.
The Ranger even went as far as putting me up at her house in Eterna for the few weeks I had to lay low while my foot healed. A real house. It was secluded in the woods, and it was even close enough to the mountains by a quarter-day's hike. She apparently lived in an apartment in Veilstone and hated going to the house. I didn't know why.
Elena came to visit while I healed, and she talked me into going to the National Park for the first time. Even with the sprain, I'll admit it was pretty fun. It took my mind off what happened at the mountain at least.
Lukas hadn't been among the arrested at the lab. On one hand I was glad he was okay—on the other I hated thinking about what they had him working on. I wasn't sure what I was going to do about him.
The Durant had stayed with me, despite efforts to leave her on the mountain in her natural habitat. We had grown on each other. Seeing what we saw probably helped. She would have her water scars forever, much like Landshark would have hers, but she kept her positive spirit. It helped me too.
I've been working with Rexus. He's still wild and uncontrollable at times, but I like to think he's getting better. We've gotten to the point that he can spar against some of my other Pokemon without worrying about deadly injuries or destroying too much. I'm glad Ivy's place was remote and spacious.
I was still worried about Gold, but I tried not to let it sit so heavily. I couldn't do much until I recovered, and Ivy had assured me that her place was far enough out of the way that nobody would look for me. I chose to believe her, and I haven't run into any problems yet. When I did, people like Ivy would be willing to help, and I still had my Pokemon.
Gold had left a mark on all of us, but that was just the cost of living.
Target: Durant, Durant
Rank: Complex x2
Recommended MCR: 60-80k
Approximate MCR: 126,643 give or take for page breaks and such.
Last edited by WinterVines; 14th August 2013 at 11:49 AM.
31st July 2013, 09:43 PM #2
i'm wide awake
Re: The Cost of Living [SWC][Ungraded]
Claiming because this will make me rich, apparently. xD Grade will be up sometime before the end of the year, but hopefully before the end of August.
14th August 2013, 11:28 AM #3
i'm wide awake
Re: The Cost of Living [SWC][Ungraded]
Posted the grade, but a Durant stole it 'cause it wanted in on the SWC grading action. I'm PMing it to Winter now, weeee~