Here's a link to the previous installment, Imagine If... Chapter 1 (SWC 2013 entry). If you haven't already read it, I strongly suggest doing so; while this does mean more effort for voters, I'm confident it'll be a thrilling read and vastly increase your enjoyment of this chapter. ^v^
Optional reading, for further enjoyment, includes Book 1 ("Imagine This") and Book 2 ("Imagine That"). Happy holidays, URPGers, and enjoy the many wonderful writing contest submissions!
---WARNING: RATED "R" (COARSE LANGUAGE, MATURE THEMES, CHARACTER DEATH)---
---WARNING 2: ABOVE AVERAGE LENGTH (118,554 CHARACTERS)---
The early afternoon sun, its light muffled by a thick blanket of dark grey clouds, illuminates a girl dressed in a heavy black winter coat and dark brown ski pants. A black scarf is wrapped around her head against the early winter cold— as well as against the prying eyes of her enemies— and the brown eyes that peek through the gap in the scarf bear a steely resolve. She is stalking swiftly through the gap between two half-destroyed buildings, purpose and direction evident in her composed strides. She knows that her quarry, running scared, isn't far off; her heart quickens at the thought of finally getting her first taste of the vengeance— no, justice— that she seeks.
Her quick pace turns into a flat-out run as she catches sight of her target barely twenty feet away, struggling to drag his slow-moving Pokémon— Slowbro, a fat pink-skinned bipedal lizard with a yellow-scaled belly and a shellfish clamped to its tail— away from the cluster of wrecked buildings from which the girl is even now emerging.
The man— her quarry— catches sight of her as she breaks into a dash towards him and his companion; he hesitates for just a second, then takes off running to the north, leaving his Pokémon behind to fight her off as best it can.
The creature, turning ponderously to face its black-clad assailant, blinks once stupidly and then opens its mouth to let out a yawnlike noise; a sleepy moan that carries with it a wave of psychic power. Almost immediately, the girl can feel the odd sensation of something pawing at her mind, trying to impose a sensory blackout that would render her blind and deaf. Her eyes narrow, but underneath the black head-wrappings she is smiling.
Not this time, motherfucker.
A ten-foot-square patch of icy ground lies between the girl and her quarry, full of frozen-over pockmarks full of water where some explosive force once pitted and cracked the concrete, permitting the autumn rains to fill the potholes. Rather than go around it, or slow down to pick her way over the treacherous spot, the girl simply keeps running, appearing completely unaffected by the psychic attack. Reaching the edge of the ice, she leaps, soaring farther than could be accounted for by mere human strength and landing in an effortless roll on the other side, mere feet away from the sleepily surprised-looking pink Pokémon.
The Slowbro isn't done yet. Its still-open snout yawns wider still, and a wave of psychic energy rushes from its maw, visible as ripples in the air that refract the cloud-dampened sunlight into a spreading cone of chaotic rainbows. The myriad of tiny confused rainbows expands swiftly, speeding outwards to tear apart the foolish human that would dare to threaten a member of the Grayouts gang.
The girl's reaction is immediate and reflexive, the product of many days spent practicing for a moment like this. even as her coiled legs launch her into another superhuman bound aimed straight at her foe, her right arm lashes out in front of her; her hand, which is suddenly enveloped in an aura of greyish-purple darkness that leaves only the vague outline of her fingers visible, tears a gash in the air— a similarly grey-purple rip in the world's fabric that hovers in the empty space before her, parting the beam of confusing rainbow ripples and sending the psychic cone flowing harmlessly to either side of her.
Both the rainbow sparkles and dark gash in the air dissipate swiftly, and through the wispy grey shadows that remain bursts the black-clad girl, both her hands flaring now with a deeper purplish darkness that sparkles with green pinpoint lights. In midair, moments before her body collides with the astonished Slowbro, she drives one of those hands— a hand held stiff and flat, and rendered deadlier than the sharpest steel by the dark power infusing it— straight through the centre of its chest, seeking its heart.
Slowbro flails, its terror sending thin pink blood jetting from the mortal wound as the girl swiftly withdraws her darkness-enwrapped hand. From the creature's gaping mouth rises a shriek of pain and terror that sends psychic waves of pure anguish emanating out in all directions. The wave of pain sweeps around and through the girl's body, but she seems unaffected— deep in her eyes, were anyone to be looking closely enough, a shadow of purple and a flash of green could be seen, reflecting the internal force that protects her mind from the encroachments of Slowbro's psychic death throes.
The girl straightens, and begins to walk away from the lizard as its body's thrashings subside; the eyes that are the only visible part of her are expressionless. She has taken only two businesslike steps away, in the direction the cowardly Trainer fled, when a quiet scraping from behind her causes her to turn... but too late.
The shellfish clamped to the creature's tail has released the hold its toothed shell had on its dying host; rising off the ground on a thick stream of water whose volume, impossibly, exceeds the size of the shell itself, the shelled creature suddenly flips onto its side, spraying a jet of ice-cold water straight at the black-clad killer and sending itself rocketing away in the opposite direction.
Freezing water douses the girl, startling a scream of surprise and pain from her. The pressure isn't sufficient to knock her off her feet, but she staggers a few steps backwards.
The act was a final defiance— the parasitic shellfish has gone still, and is clearly as dead as its now-motionless host— but the girl has no time to make certain of this; she is swiftly tearing off the sopping wet outer layer of her clothing and unwrapping the sodden scarf from around her head to reveal a grave, almost frightened expression on a face crisscrossed by a mess of deep scars. To keep the garments on and let the water soak through to the black long-sleeved t-shirt and sweat pants she is wearing underneath would be disastrous in the winter's cold— it can't be above twenty-six Fahrenheit, and the gusting wind would strip heat away incredibly quickly— but now that it's off, she will have to either abandon the valuable gear entirely or leave it here and return for it later, if she is to continue her mission. For a moment, she appears indecisive.
Then, she cocks her head to one side, as if listening to some inaudible speaker. A few seconds later, she shakes her head.
"No, this part of the mission is too important. If he gets back to his H.Q., he'll give them too much information," she says aloud, though no one is nearby to hear her. "No one will find this stuff. Anyone with half a brain is underground, waiting out the wind."
Even as she speaks, she is bundling the wet coat, ski pants and scarf into a convenient crevice underneath a jutting-upward fragment of concrete. Then, shivering— but less than would be logical, given the temperature and the wind chill— she runs off to the north in pursuit of the cowardly Trainer.
She doesn't have to go far; the girl with the scarred face finds her quarry curled up in anguish barely fifty feet away, incapacitated by the psychic backlash of his companion's death. Clearly, for someone whose mind is not shielded as hers is, the creature's death cry was truly crushing at such a close range, especially to a man who was linked to the dying Pokémon. The girl stares down at her helpless quarry with a thoughtful expression on her face, her right hand burning with those purplish-grey fires sparkling with tiny green lights. Then, slowly and deliberately, she reaches down and places that hand on his chest.
The man's whimperings turn instantly into a shrieking squeal of pain and terror as dark fire races to cover his body. He rolls about in a vain attempt to extinguish the fires, but to no avail— the deep purple flames exist by draining his body of its strength, and need no oxygen or space to persist. The girl stands and watches, her shivers growing steadily more pronounced, as over the course of about twenty seconds the man's struggles grow steadily weaker... and cease forever.
Nearly a minute passes as the girl stands there, scarred face expressionless, numbly gazing at the body— which is not marked with burns, but instead frozen, sapped of even the residual heat of life by the cold flames.
The sound of crunching, running footsteps atop a nearby gravelly mound of concrete debris alerts the girl to the presence of a newcomer. Shaking herself visibly from her reverie, she turns to face the mound and takes a combat-ready footing, one foot ahead of the other and fists held close to her face in a boxer's stance.
A boy, his heavy-set build familiar to her, crests the rise. He's wearing badly damaged jeans and a shirt underneath a too-small coat that's also far too thin to be any shelter against the wintry wind. His brown eyes take in the scene, and widen in shock as they fix on the chilled body next to the girl, which has frost swiftly spreading to cover its surface.
"Marty...? MARTY!!" he shouts, his voice cracking. "Larissa, what... What've you done??"
The girl has relaxed her stance a little— but only a little— upon noting the boy's identity. "Borden, turn around," she calls commandingly. "I don't want to have to hurt you."
He turns that wide-eyed stare on her, terror in his eyes but also fury. "Hurt me? I'm... I'm gonna fuckin' wreck you, you little—"
The boy takes a step down the rubble pile towards her, fists clenched, but suddenly freezes. His eyes bug out as he realizes he's lost control of his body. "Wha—?"
"I'm too much for you now, Borden," the black-clad girl says harshly. "Just turn around now, and tell no one you saw me. If you do, I'll know."
The young man struggles, his torso straining back and forth, but his limbs won't obey his commands. Instead, his feet begin to turn him around— albeit clumsily, as though his continuing struggles prevent them from articulating properly— and begin to carry him away in the direction he came...
He's got a trick up his sleeve, though. "Buzz, now!" he shouts.
A chirping noise emanates from the arm of the girl's coat, where a little yellow creature has quietly positioned itself. However, before the tiny electric bug Pokémon known as Buzz can send a stunning jolt of stored electricity through the girl, a cloud of purple gas appears out of nowhere, enveloping the insect and whisking it away to hang harmlessly in midair. The little bug lets out a tiny shrill shriek of indignation that is nearly lost in the wind, and then another of discomfort and terror as the smoke begins sapping it of strength.
Meanwhile, the girl has already dashed with unnatural speed to climb the rubble mound, and is coming to a stop directly behind her would-be attacker, who is still frozen in place.
"Did you really think the same trick would work on me twice, Borden?" she asks in a conversational tone.
"I dunno, it's all we got," he responds, his entire body shaking with cold and fear.
"I won't kill you this time, Borden," the girl growls in his ear, "But your Pokémon's got to go. It makes you too dangerous, and if you're not a Trainer any more I won't have to kill you at all."
The young man's eyes widen, and his eyes fill with tears. "Please don't hurt him!" he begs, the tears beginning to spill down his face. "I'm sorry, we'll go away and we won't tell nobody, just please don't hurt Buzz..."
The girl raises an eyebrow. "Shouldn't you be a little more concerned for yourself right now?" she asks threateningly, reaching forward to place two fingertips that burn with purple-grey fires against his throat; a sensation she knows will emulate that of an ice-cold steel blade resting against the skin.
"Please, Larissa, I'm beggin' ya, don' hurt Buzz..." the boy blubbers, appearing not to even notice the deadly threat against his throat, though he can clearly feel its presence. "I'm dumb, an' I got us into this, an' I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry! You can... You can kill me, just please don' make him pay for my mistake, he were only followin' orders..."
The girl's expression is nonplussed. "What's it to you?" she asks matter-of-factly. "If you're dead, the thing isn't around to give you power anyways, so why do you care?"
Her captive sniffles, but his sobbing stops as he struggles mightily to express himself rationally. "I care because... because he's my friend. If you ki—" his voice hitches, but he continues through a renewed shuddering of tears. "...If you got me, I'd be sorry to go and leave him alone and all, but... But this ain't his fault, you know? It ain't fair to hurt him an' let me go... Please?"
There's a pause, and then the bug's thin whine from below the two humans ceases; after another tense second, the young man feels the deadly cold of the girl's hand leave his throat, coupled with the impact of something light and fuzzy and cold on the back of his neck. A shiver of renewed chill runs down his spine, followed by a thrill of relief as the cold object on his neck stirs and then clamps itself somewhat painfully to his skin, vibrating violently for warmth.
"Get lost," the black-clad girl says quietly, her lips inches from his ear. "Don't tell anyone what you saw, and don't cross my path again. Next time you get in my way, I will kill you."
The boy doesn't need to be told twice— whimpering, he dashes over the mound of smashed concrete and keeps on running, racing for safety.
A few seconds pass, then a cloud of purple smoke with a dancing emerald flame at its core appears hovering a few feet away from the girl and following her as she trudges back down the concrete mound to where the dead man's body lies frozen.
"~You were affected by the act of killing this man.~" The formless cloud's audible voice comes from everywhere and nowhere, and sounds like the echoes of a chorus of murmuring voices.
"Was I not supposed to be?" the girl replies in a dull voice. "I've read enough books, so I knew it wouldn't be easy. It was just... worse than I thought. Is that wrong?"
"~We cannot answer; this is foreign to us, Spirit-Wielder. We have seen many Pokémon kill for food, or to defend territory, but we have never experienced this emotion we feel in you.~"
"I don't want to talk about it," the girl says shortly, turning away and beginning to walk southwards, to where her sodden outer clothing is stashed.
"~Then, by way of a change to the subject of conversation... Might we ask why you chose to let the boy live? Is there not a risk that he will betray you?~"
"Almost definitely." The girl's voice is matter-of-fact and without judgment. "If the Boss finds out something happened, she probably won't even have to use torture to get it out of him."
"~We do not understand.~"
"I owe him. And he's not evil, just stupid and helpless. He doesn't know any better, and I didn't have the heart to kill him for it."
"~This mercy will present a problem.~" As the ghostly entity speaks, the many voices that make up its voice diverge, some sounding compassionate, others dejected, still others angry. "~He will try to use this against you.~"
"Not on my watch. I was serious about what I said; I don't want to hurt him if I don't have to, but I won't let him get in my way. That's a promise; what I'm doing is too important to let him ruin it."
"~You have our trust. You will do what is best, Spirit-Wielder.~" The voices have subsided into the uniform, matter-of-fact tone that the girl is used to hearing.
"For an evil ghost, you're pretty indecisive," the girl comments, reaching the crevice where she stowed her outer clothing earlier. "What's up with that?"
"~Therein lies your answer. We are not evil, but composed of many dark souls, along with the values they carried with them in life. A few are what you would call evil, while others have more... depth. To choose a single course of action, unless that course is obvious, causes us much internal strife.~"
"So you need me for more than a conveniently corporeal body and that darkness you're so fond of telling me I have," the girl says wryly, holding the sopping-wet bundle as far away from her as she can. "I guess I'm also the brains of this operation. That's good to know."
"~We will greet you upon your return, Spirit-Wielder,~" the voices say abruptly. Before the girl can respond, the gas enclosing the Substitute dissipates. The emerald flame swiftly flits to press itself against her upper chest, sinking into her body and disappearing down the invisible channel connecting her spirit to the underground well that is the ghostly Pokémon's corporeal vessel.
"Goodbye to you, too," the girl murmurs. Her wry smile slowly fades away and is replaced once more with a haunted look, as the shock of the afternoon's events starts to sink in again. "Fuck, I need someone real to talk to."
The girl stops, and frowns, her mouth working silently as she turns that phrase over a few times in her head. "I need someone real to talk to," she repeats out loud. Then, as if coming to some sudden decision, she turns and heads west, away from the underground lair where her ghostly ally waits. Spiritomb has had her attention for long enough, what with training and learning about her new abilities; now, she figures, it's time to get in touch with a certain someone who has in the past been a moral compass to her— and who she's deliberately stayed away from lately.
It's high time she talked with Old Adam.
---Imagine If... Part 1 — 2013 SWC Entry---
~~~~~~~~~~SOUTH OF MANHATTAN~~~~~~~~~~
If anyone tells you "heroes" have it easy, or that power is worth striving for? You have my permission to punch them in the teeth. I'll tell you right now, they're dead wrong: having power mostly means people show up expecting you to fix the unfixable; and as for the supposed glory of being considered a "hero"? Saving the world is a lot of pressure, not to mention a freaking hard job!
I haven't got time for a proper intro, frankly, so I'll just give you a brief run-down of the current situation.
Fifteen years ago, strange and powerful creatures called Pokémon started appearing, and they've been popping up ever since— more and more kinds with every passing year, though no one's ever found where they're coming from. People learned to tame these powerful creatures, and eventually, to use them to fight. There was a war that engulfed most of North America; society fell into chaos, and when it was all done with, gangs of Pokémon Trainers moved in to take over what was left, with no one there to stop them.
It went on like that for just under ten years... but the decent people caught under the trampling feet of the Trainer gangs weren't going to take it lying down forever. Finally, out of sheer luck, I was the right person in the right place at the right time; my small victory over the gangs of Seattle served as the spark that set people's discontent blazing into righteous fury. It's been five years since I founded the Trainers' Association, an organization with a mission: to reclaim the region that used to be known as the United States from the Trainer gangs that have run rampant since the old world's government fell, and to reestablish a law that lets Trainers and non-Trainers alike live their lives in peace and without fear.
It's very important that one thing is clear: our effort is not a war. Rather than going into each new city with the intent of wiping out or otherwise destroying the resident gangs by force, our modus operandi is more subtle. Our first course of action is to establish a "territory" in a part of town, preferably peacefully but by force if necessary, much like a displaced or new gang would when moving into a city; following that, we spend as long as it takes— often months— rebuilding the trappings of society in that territory, enforcing laws and ensuring that all residents there, Trainer and non-Trainer alike, are treated fairly and protected from oppression. In time, people flock to this small region of civilization where gangs are nonexistent; even those who don't live there begin using our territory as a safe haven in times of trouble, and gradually these witnesses carry word of our efforts throughout the city.
Once that happens, it's not long before neighbouring communities reach out to us for assistance; only then do we move into any part of the city that is still gang territory, where we serve as a kind of volunteer police force rather than a conquering military force: we don't deliberately take the fight to the gangs claiming that community as territory— that would identify us clearly as a dangerous rival and result in all the city's gangs teaming up against us— but we do retaliate swiftly and harshly when they attempt to rob, coerce or otherwise harm the people in that territory. Before long, due to our efforts, the gang essentially "goes bankrupt," lacking any source of food or other necessities since they can no longer rob the people in their territory. Then the gang's remaining choices are to leave for a part of the city the Trainers' Association does not yet police, or surrender. Eventually, as more and more parts of the city request our assistance, the gangs are forced out entirely, or obliged to surrender.
In this way, we have unfailingly restored order to city after city, with a minimum of violent conflict (although never without a great deal of inconvenience.) Many gang members, realizing that they no longer need to steal to be accepted, change sides completely and become the new volunteer police force after we leave (under the supervision of several Trainers' Association volunteers, of course.) Five years ago, the whole plan seemed idealistic; now, we know it to be undeniably effective. Perhaps surprisingly, we have yet to encounter a city whose gangs banded together against us prior to our arrival; a mixture of low information availability in gang-ridden cities and mutual distrust between individual gangs has meant that any alliance between gangs has been too little, too late.
In these five years, the number of volunteers and donors to our cause has expanded massively. The support network that my friend and mentor Karen Davison founded— the organization originally known as It's Not Right— was once just a few kids serving as information-gatherers in a handful of the surviving cities, plus a small number of safe-houses stocked with medicines and nonperishables that dotted North America. Since those days, her organization has grown and changed, becoming a quasi-militant Association of volunteers and a steady stream of supplies and community-provided staging grounds for our small army as it moves from place to place. I thank my lucky stars every day for Jonathan Hayes, my unquestioningly loyal general, and for his lieutenants— even his unpleasant second-in-command Gloria— who have managed the day-to-day coordination of the group's movements and supply arrangements for these five years; if I didn't have them and their ex-military cadre to take up that task, I'd be left with absolutely no time to deal with the problems that have endlessly besieged the Trainers' Association.
Even with their assistance, I'm sure that I'd have collapsed in a heap of jumbled nerves and helpless tears long ago if it weren't for the help of my closest friends. Karen has poured her time and effort into spreading the word of the Association's mission and raising food and material donations, though she avoids combat when possible; her friends Camilla and Porter have lent their aid to the cause as well: Camilla's partner Wes is possibly the strongest Psychic-type Pokémon on the continent, capable of teleporting even small buildings in a pinch, while Porter's true talent is in keeping the morale of our volunteers up with his cheerful smile and easygoing attitude. My friends Brian and Dylan are part of the Association's police force, which fights as an army when we are attacked directly by gangs that consider us a dangerous threat; so are the ex-members of the Seattle Shells gang: Jazz, Tom, and Mohawk. And Ellen and Sunshine— my fiancée and my Pokémon companion, respectively— have been, each in their own way, pillars of support and inspiration for the ideals that have brought me this far: the need for a world where there's a fair chance for everyone, Trainer or not.
I'm standing on a small grassy hill under a cloudy grey sky, trying to ignore the freezing winter wind that's blowing straight through my thin coat. Stretching out in all directions are the prairies of a region that used to be called Kansas; to the northwest, the dilapidated high-rises of Manhattan dot the horizon atop a long line of rolling hills. At the bottom of this hill and huddled next to a bend in the Kansas river is a small military encampment: a low fence made of hard, woody vine stems— courtesy of a volunteer's Grass-type Pokémon— encircles a jumbled mixture of synthetic and animal-hide tents, all of them clustered around eight or nine large campfires that burn without any visible fuel; Pokémon and humans of all shapes, sizes and colors walk to and fro purposefully, their frenzied activity giving the whole camp the appearance of a bustling little village.
The voice of my beloved recalls me from my absent appraisal of the encampment. I look up, and when I see my love approaching my heart leaps at the familiar warmth in Ellen's expression. That warmth is echoed by the subtle golden flame flickering behind her beautiful hazel eyes: the peacefully flickering fire that Sunshine's power allows me to see swirling merrily across the surface of my partner's soul. Ellen is a lovely, petite young lady with a smile that lights up my life, and a heart so full of goodwill and love for everyone she meets that it's a wonder her ears don't perpetually spill rainbows.
"Hello, sweetheart," I say, a subtle wave of warm happiness running through my body as I see that wonderful smile appear on her face to match mine.
Reaching me, she wraps her arms around my body, the two thermoses in her hands pressing against my back. "I brought tea," she says. "I tried for hot chocolate, but we're out."
"Oh well," I say with a smile, holding her tight and enjoying my fairly recent ability to rest my chin on her head. She's been a little shorter than me ever since I put on a growth spurt a little while ago and shot up to about five foot eleven. "The hot choc' was a lucky find in the first place, and we knew it wasn't gonna last forever. Thanks, love."
"Are you ready for today?" she murmurs into my chest, not letting go of the loving embrace she's encircling me with. "I know this part is always hard for you."
I sigh, my internal glow of well-being fading to almost nothing. It's sweet of her to worry, but I wish she hadn't said anything: it's rare to get a moment where work doesn't intrude on what little time we have together. She's right to mention it, though— I've got somewhere to be in fifteen minutes, and it isn't here; if I wait any longer to get going, I'll have to ask one of the Psychic-types to spend some of their juice to teleport me. That would be a waste of their valuable power even at the best of times— and the best of times, this isn't. It's my responsibility to set an example by always having the interests of the cause in mind, so damned if I'm about to take that shortcut! I hate teleporting, anyhow.
"I'll be fine," I say, kissing the top of Ellen's head through her lovely light brown hair. "It's worth it. For your sake, and for the sake of everyone you care about."
She pulls back a little to smile up at me, and I can't help smiling back and feeling better. "Thank you," she says, and with the soul-sight Sunshine's power gives me I can see her eyes practically overflowing with that beautiful, shining golden fire that embodies her limitless capacity for love. We both know that 'everyone she cares about' refers to the whole world, and that I consider myself the luckiest person on earth to have a special part of that love all to myself. Still hugging me, she pushes one of the thermoses of tea into my hand, and nods encouragingly.
As I descend from the hill on my way towards the camp, a pleasantly warm presence shifts itself into my mind with the ease of long practice; instantly, the cold wind ceases to chill me and my body heats up to a comfortably toasty temperature. In my mind's eye I see my friend Sunshine, cheerfully settling down and making herself at home in that cozy corner of my head that is hers and hers alone.
Sunshine is a Ghost-type Pokémon, of the species dubbed "Lampent." She was once human, but she died years ago; a mysterious pendant she carried, one that once belonged to the legendary Pokémon Lugia, transformed her into what she is now. My friend looks like a floating glass-walled lantern that carries a purplish-blue flame, with two sweet yellow button eyes on the "glass" and a black conical cap above it. Two decorative-looking curling "arms" extend from the rounded black base of her lantern body, though she uses them more for gesturing than for picking anything up. When she chooses to appear in the physical world, Sunshine is about a foot tall, but as many a gang Trainer has found out, she's not to be underestimated because of her size!
She used to look like a tiny candle, and carried that purple flame of hers on her head; but about a year ago, the inexplicable process known as "evolution" changed her into this form. She seems all right with the whole evolving thing, and it came with a significant boost in raw fighting power, so I'm not too bothered. Right now, I can "hear" a cheerful little whistling coming from my happy-natured friend as she floats about her secret little alcove in my mind. I begin to notice that I'm not as worried or stressed as I was a moment ago, and I can tell it's due to the subtle, calming feelings she's emanating into my mind.
My smile returns, and I give her a little mental nudge of appreciation. She responds with a flurry of the lighthearted chiming that serves as her voice, and I can tell through the mysterious bond we share that she's expressing her pleasure at being able to help. What a sweetheart... With Sunshine at my side, I feel as though I can face anything.
I'll need that feeling sooner or later, I think to myself, letting the buoyant feelings Sunshine is sending me bolster my confidence. I'm not looking forward to the next few weeks...
I've arrived at the encampment. The close-together double line of sharpened stakes that composes the fence rises seven feet in the air, and a single gap on the side of the fence facing me serves as an entryway, its solid wood block of a "gate" lying discarded to one side. Until recently, that gate was kept closed at all times just in case of an unexpected attack, and only lifted aside when we needed to move large numbers of people into and out of the compound; however, since Manhattan was finally declared officially gang-free last week, and a militia of local Trainers was set up under the supervision of a few Trainers' Association volunteers, we've finally been able to leave it open.
As I pass through the gate, people stop their busy scurryings to let me pass; others, farther away, wave cheerfully at me. I pretend to smile as well, and wave back, even though all I want to do right now is run until my legs give out and punch the frozen ground until my hands bleed. Instead, I smile and wave, smile and wave... it wouldn't do for anyone to see their leader looking as uncertain and stressed as she feels. I hate it.
I stalk into the command tent— a monstrous circular tent fifteen feet in diameter that we found in an old abandoned sports store— roughly pushing aside the hanging leather flap that serves as the door. Inside, I see Camilla, Porter, General Hayes and his second-in-command Gloria grouped around the large map stretched across the table in the tent's centre, going over last-minute plans. In the background, a lone, valuable laptop computer with its even more valuable USB satellite Internet receiver sits on a table, hooked up to a quietly grumbling generator.
"We could stop by the abandoned cities on our way, couldn't we? There's bound to be useful stuff left over, things the people couldn't bring with them when they left." Porter is the one speaking; he's a young man of twenty-five dressed casually— and not nearly warmly enough for the weather, though the cold still never seems to bother him— in a white t-shirt, jeans, and an unzipped black hoodie. His Pokémon, a big tan-furred cat imaginatively named Meow, lets out a quiet yowl from where it's curled up against his leg. "See? Meow agrees," Porter says with an easy grin.
"Impractical," Camilla responds, a frown of concentration on her face as she confers with her Pokémon companion at the speed of thought. "Side trips and extra stops will drain the teleporters' energy far too quickly, and we'll end up days behind schedule."
Camilla is also twenty-five, and has enviable long brown hair that frames her face and cascades down her back; today she's wearing a thick black coat and blue jeans against the cold. Close behind her stands her companion Wes the Alakazam, who's a yellow-skinned humanoid with thin bony limbs and a brown chitinous carapace; he has long yellow whiskers like the world's most epic handlebar mustache, and carries a spoon in each hand as a focus for his matchlessly powerful psychic abilities.
"Still, any supplies y'all find there'd come in more'n handy when we git ta Kansas City." The thick southern drawl of General Hayes's accent makes him sound like he's always slightly amused, but his eyebrows, which are the same light blond as his hair, are knitted with concentration similar to Camilla's. He's not in communication with any psychic companion, though: his huge bird Pokémon, Fearow, is likely circling far above the encampment, and the calculations going through his head are his own. "We ain't faced gangs this big or battle-hard yet, so we'll need medicine 'n' bandages like we ain't never done before."
Hayes would know about the situation here; not only did he and his ex-military group once form the core of Seattle's biggest gang, but they were involved in the civil war that destroyed many of the cities in the southeast and pitted the then-new organization of Trainers against the government and the army. The conflict left both sides decimated and cleared the way for gangs to set up shop in the rubble. In fact, after the war Hayes and his platoon spent some time in Kansas City trying to restore order. In the end, heavy losses caused them to give up hope and move back to the greener pastures of their hometown of Seattle, where they promptly took over most of the city as the biggest resident gang. I've forgiven Hayes— however grudgingly— for his part in ending the world as we know it and for giving up instead of taking responsibility and fixing what he and his allies destroyed... but I think he hasn't forgiven himself. He's the only one of his group who still wears the black leather jacket and white bandanna of his old gang, Thug Life, and some members of his cadre have confided to me that he wears the gang signs as a badge of shame: reminders of how far he fell when he thought all hope was lost; and warnings that to lose hope is no longer an option.
"The days spent recovering could be occupied by searching the abandoned cities, and shorter distances would mean shorter recovery," Gloria points out in her quiet, passionless voice. She's a drab woman who dresses uniformly in faded single-tone dresses, of which she seems to have an infinite variety and supply. Today's color is a faded-out forest green that emphasizes her skin's unhealthy pasty white pallor. "I am in favour of arriving rested and not requiring backtracking to scour the cities at a later date."
Her Pokémon, the big round-bodied grey mud statue known as Claydol to most of the camp (but which Gloria calls Sigil,) hovers eerily beside her, constantly scanning everything with the lone glowing pink eye that remains on the top of its two-part body; seven more black pits ring the psychic Pokémon's top half, the empty sockets of the other eyes that were permanently blinded five years ago when Gloria pitted her Pokémon's power against me— and, more relevantly, against Sunshine. Suffice it to say that I wasn't in the best of moods at the time, and that was back when Hayes and his group were trying to kill me and my father.
Claydol's eye fixes on me almost immediately as I enter the tent, and Gloria and Camilla both turn to regard me— Wes doesn't need to use his eyes to know when someone's there, and neither Trainer needs any audible message to know what their Pokémon knows. It takes a few seconds for Porter and Hayes, poring over the map, to notice the women's distraction from the matter at hand.
"Hey, Rachel!" Porter says, straightening from his stoop over the map to smile in my direction. "Welcome! We were just discussing a change of plans—"
"It's foolishness," Camilla says, more patiently than usual. Normally she would snap at anyone who disagreed with her, but she and Porter are close; they dated for a while, years ago, and even though they're not together any more Porter is still the only person who can blunt Camilla's sharp temper. "Every day we delay gives the gangs of Kansas City more opportunity to form alliances and prepare for us."
I shake my head, crossing the space between the door and the table to look down at the map. "Our sources confirm that they haven't made any alliances, though they've known for some time that we're coming," I say, thinking quickly. My eyes scan the pins and lines drawn across the rough map. "A few more days won't make a difference, because they don't have the supplies or the coordination to set up anything they haven't already had time to arrange. On the other hand, those days can give us valuable time to scavenge and rest, and arrive in Kansas City proper fresher and more ready for a potential ambush."
Our sources are Runners— people, kids for the most part, who make a living delivering tools and necessities between the few surviving farms and the groups of scavengers and craftsmen who dwell in the ruins of destroyed cities. Most people in those cities, trapped in underground dwellings called Warrens by the constant threat of being caught by the ruthless local gangs, need to make use of a Runner to stay alive... so Runners visit everywhere and know all the gossip.
Camilla frowns. "Logically, if we wait—"
"Logically," I cut her off, a little impatiently, "They should have already banded together, captured or killed every Runner who could possibly supply or help us, and started setting traps. They've done none of that; they either don't know or don't care that we're the superior fighting force. We're not dealing with logical enemies, and a few days isn't going to change that."
I can see Camilla all but biting her tongue to avoid snapping at me, but I have bigger concerns than her pride right now. "Topeka and Lawrence are both more or less deserted, and they're directly between us and Kansas City. Consider the change of plans approved: we stop for three days in each town, subject to increase or decrease based on circumstances. Any questions?"
Silence. I scan the expression of each person at the table: I see Gloria's perpetual halfhearted glower; Lieutenant Hayes's habitual resolute acceptance of anything I decide; Camilla's open look of exasperation; and Porter's slight frown of... I'm not sure. Disapproval? Concern? I've never been good at reading emotions beyond body language and facial expressions, but if it's important, he'll come to me with it later.
"All right, then, let's get moving. Everyone had orders to be packed and ready by this time exactly, so we'd best stop wasting daylight. Camilla, network with the psychics and make sure they're updated and ready to 'port everyone to Topeka. General, take Gloria and double-check to make sure everything's in order; it wouldn't be good if we left anyone or anything behind. Porter, check the communications network one last time and pack up the computer, generator, et cetera."
Hayes, Gloria and her Claydol disappear in a flash of purple light; a second later, Camilla and Wes vanish with no such fanfare. Porter starts to head for the computer, then pauses and turns to regard me with that difficult-to-read expression on his face again. As a couple of volunteers start to take down the command tent around us— these ones are members of the Trainer fighting force, as the noncombatant volunteers have all been dismissed for the duration of the upcoming foray into extremely hostile territory— Porter seems to come to a decision about whether to speak up about whatever it is that's on his mind.
"Rachel, is everything okay? You're on edge," he says, resting a concerned hand on my shoulder and looking me in the eye. At this proximity, Sunshine's power clearly shows me the surface of Porter's soul in his eyes: a normally tranquil pool's surface that's currently alive with ripples, which I easily interpret as a display of unease. "More so than usual, even on a day like this."
"It's nothing," I lie with a fake smile. "Transporting the volunteers is just hectic, that's all."
"No, it's more than that," Porter says confidently, seeing right through my façade. "You're normally quite happy to move on and bring a better way of life to a new place, even if it means teleporting. Something else is up, and I'm not moving till you tell me what."
Damnit, I think ruefully, unable to avoid smiling a little. Porter would notice. Keeping an eye on people's morale is practically his job, and even the illustrious leader isn't immune... I can see from Porter's stance that he's going to make good on his threat of not moving, so I grudgingly relent.
"It's about Kansas," I say truthfully, after a brief internal debate. "We're reaching the southeast now. Everywhere else we've gone, most of the trappings of society are still around; there's usually a running power plant, and electricity in certain parts of town, and people can at least live in the buildings and expect to be left alone even if they can't safely show their faces on the streets. There's enough to eat, and the gangs follow certain unspoken rules..." I trail off, my mind following an increasingly familiar track of despair.
"Like not killing each other over territory," Porter says, picking up where I left off with that intuitive insight of his. "And letting people go about their business if they haven't got anything of value on them."
"Right. But Kansas City, by all accounts, is the first place we've come to where there's real anarchy. I've read the reports. Artillery demolished everything during the war, and what's left isn't fit for living in." I inhale deeply, unable to stop my breath from shuddering with emotion. "Porter, the gangs here hunt people. Reports say that every gang has slaves they force to hunt for useful scraps, and when they find a Warren they enslave everyone and take everything. It makes my blood boil, and... it scares me."
Porter's grip on my shoulder is comfortably firm. "Rachel, I know it's frightening. These gangs are like nothing we've ever encountered, but we've all been briefed. We know what we're getting into. Those people need us more than anyone; they're helpless, and if anything they're who we really founded this Association for."
I'm trembling, and I hate it. I hate looking weak in front of anyone, even someone as kind and understanding as Porter. "How are we ever going to fix things?" I whisper, finally giving voice to my biggest doubt, the one so secret I've only spoken to Sunshine about it. "In a place like this, what's even left to build on, even before we really engage in combat with the gangs? Where do we start?"
Porter's gaze hasn't left mine, and the pool of water in his eyes has returned to its calm glassy state. "Don't worry. We've brought peace back to places a hundred times, and we'll do it here, too. Hayes is an expert, and Karen will arrive to help out when the fighting's done." He smiles at me. "Let it go, Rachel; it's not your job to make everything work on your own. All of us are here because we want to make this happen, too; we're here to help. You just get us there, and we'll handle it."
I can feel my racing heart slowing down, and the knotted feeling in my stomach finally disappearing. To me, Porter's ability to stay calm under pressure, and to spread that calm to others, has always been his most impressive trait. "Thanks," I say shakily, with a smile for Porter— a real one, this time.
"Don't mention it," he says with that cheerful smile of his, effortlessly banishing the seriousness of the moment. "Now, you've got a teleport to join. Go; I'll check for reports and pack up."
The command tent is being rolled up now, and the table carted off to be tightly lashed to a growing pile of stuffed-full crates and bags containing everything from struck tents to cooking utensils to cans of nonperishable food. For an army, we travel light, but there's still a good few tons of essentials to be transported; most of the Psychic-type Pokémon will be committed to teleporting these things, while Camilla's partner Wes alone should be enough to transport our volunteer army of fifty-nine humans and our fifty-eight Pokémon. The only non-Trainer left is Ellen; every other noncombatant volunteer has been sent home, but she flatly refused to leave. She feels responsible for sparking all of this, and even though I've chosen to take on this mission in my own right, I respect her need to see it through to the end.
Camilla and Wes are standing in the centre of the crowd of people and Pokémon that's gathered near one edge of the stripped-bare clearing that was our campsite; only the fence of sharpened stakes ringing the encampment are left. Six Trainers and their Pokémon have moved to ring the pile of crates and roped-together tents and sleeping bags in the middle of the clearing; they're the ones who'll be teleporting our supplies.
"Prepare for teleportation!" shouts Gloria's lacklustre voice from over by the gear piles, amplified by her Claydol's psychic power. "Psychics, lower mental barriers for transmission of arrival point impression!"
I take my place amidst the Trainers; a short distance away I can see Porter stowing the generator in a spare bit of empty space in one of the crates. The laptop is in his backpack, and there it'll stay; there's no chance we're risking it getting damaged on arrival. Teleportation involving multiple psychics has a margin of error as far as arrival point goes, though it's usually just a few feet. Usually.
"Teleportation in T-minus ten seconds!" Camilla shouts from right next to my ear, thankfully without any artificial amplification— it still makes me wince. "Ten! Nine! Eight!"
A subtle but unpleasant vibration, one I can feel in my teeth, begins to emanate from where my shoes touch the ground. I try to shuffle my feet to dissipate the sensation, but the same force that's producing the vibration is holding them in place.
"Seven! Six! Five!"
I struggle against a familiar, uncontrollable panic that starts to run through me, my irrational fear of being held getting the better of me. I grit my teeth to keep from screaming, but that makes the buzzing vibration in my teeth and jaw even worse...
"Four! Three! Two! One!"
My entire body is immobile now, as the teleportation field freezes us all in place. Tears appear in my eyes and threaten to run down my cheeks; trying to distract myself from my unreasoning terror, I squeeze my eyelids shut and dig my fingernails into my palms. Sunshine frantically tries to send waves of calm and bliss through me; the calming feelings dash against my internal walls uselessly as I whimper despite myself, the sound fortunately lost amongst the now audible buzz in the air...
With a loud retort and a smell of ozone, it's over. I collapse to my hands and knees, breathing heavily and blinking tears out of my eyes. One of my volunteers comes over to kneel beside me and wrap a comforting arm around me— Kylie; partnered with Quilava, in a relationship with Emmett, my memory informs me reliably even through the haze of fear clouding my mind— and I lean against her, pride forgotten as I try to quell my trembling.
Then, as swiftly as it arrived, the claustrophobic feeling passes, leaving me weak but clear-headed. As my awareness spreads once again to encompass more than just my immediate surroundings, I note that a somber silence has descended over my volunteers. I look up, and see why.
We've arrived as intended, on the side of a hill just outside the city limits of the deserted town of Topeka. But instead of a city, the view stretching out below us can only be described as an abandoned lot of gigantic proportions. Not a single building still stands. Rubble chokes the few visible city streets, and the remains of fallen multi-storey office complexes and skyscrapers have obliterated the remainder. Rubble-filled craters here and there attest to the artillery bombardment that all but annihilated this city ten years ago. I begin to see why the city was so swiftly abandoned after the Second American Civil War— there wasn't much city left to live in.
My volunteers look as overwhelmed as I feel. A single loud voice from somewhere in the crowd says, "Holy shit," but goes unanswered in the stunned silence. I look hollowly down at the state of abject ruin to which a once-thriving city has succumbed, and feel that knot in my stomach return in full force.
Is this what I've got to build on, from here on in? Nothing?
As I step forward to lead my Trainers into the decade-old wreckage, my steps are weighed down by despair. Sure, there will be no end of treasures buried in the hastily abandoned rubble... But every stone we turn over will be a reminder that where we're going, normal life is nothing but a distant memory.
And I'm afraid that this will prove to be just the first of many things the Trainers' Association has never seen before.
~~~~~~~~~~NORTHERN KANSAS CITY~~~~~~~~~~
Fuck, it's cold out. And the only view in any direction is the same boring concrete wasteland I've seen a thousand times before.
Buzz and me, we're sitting here watching. Not 'cause we want to, mind, but 'cause if we don't Boss's likely to rip our heads off. She's been more and more on edge, but nobody's really sure why... except maybe Dorien, and he ain't telling. To start with, I thought it was about what happened to Marty, but Boss has made it obvious since then that she don't give a shit about what happens to us— we been on patrol twice as much ever since, and always in pairs— but even in pairs I don't like our chances if Larissa shows up.
God, I'm glad Boss don't suspect I know shit about Larissa. That happens, I'll be in real fuckin' deep water, what with one crazy bitch ready to torture to get it outta me and the other crazy bitch ready to kill me for telling!
For comfort, I reach up to my shoulder where Buzz is sitting and pet him with a fingertip; not only does it make him let out that tiny buzzing purr noise of contentment, it also helps him store up a bit more static electricity. That's his ability; he stores static when I walk or pet him, and after about half a day's walking he can let it go to zap somebody good.
"Yo, you still alive over there?" says Alvin's lazy voice from the other side of the rubble pile, where he's watching the half of the boring-ass horizon that I can't see. "You been fuckin' quiet a while."
"Yeah, I'm good," I say. Alvin's not a bad guy, I think. He just swears a lot and acts like he's better than everybody but Dorian. Then again, with his strong as hell floating sword Pokémon, he basically is... and with a lieutenant position open ever since Marty kicked the bucket, I'm pretty sure Alvin's in the running for that. I feel safer knowin' if some other gang shows up— or even worse, if Larissa does— I'm partnered up with one of the strongest Grayouts we got left.
"Hey, Borden?" Alvin drawls.
"It true you used to be a slave?"
The fuck? Where the hell'd he hear that? And who even asks somebody about their time as a slave? "Fuck off, none a your business," I mutter loudly, not really caring if he hears me.
"Yeah, all right, but I'm just curious... the hell was that like?" Alvin asks, obviously hearing me but not giving a shit. I'm starting to rethink my earlier opinion of him as a pretty cool guy. "Do you remember it?"
"The fuck kinda question's that?" I retort, starting to get pissed off. "It was shitty, it's over, end of story. How'd you like it if I asked 'bout where you done came from?"
Alvin goes quiet for a while, long enough that I start to get scared I've really ticked him off. Shit... if it comes to a fight, he'll wipe the floor with me and Buzz.
My worries get interrupted by Alvin's voice. "Okay, fair enough. I got born from some stupid motherfuckers what ended up in a Warren, an' when I were old enough they kicked me the fuck out. So I got me a Pokémon, joined the Grayouts, an' went back to that Warren. They never gave me shit when I was weak, so I got strong an' took what I wanted. Felt good."
"Oh." There's a brief moment of silence, while I think 'bout that. I don't wanna talk about bein' a slave— I'm still ashamed of it— but it don't seem fair if Alvin spills his guts and I don't. "Well, I don' remember nothin' but the war, and bein' taken outta wreckage by Trainers, put in a camp for a while... They gave me food, clothes, but then they up 'n' left. That's when the Grayouts found me wanderin' 'n' nabbed me. After a few years I nearly escaped... Boss said she liked my spunk, 'n' she gave me a Pokémon."
That's basically my life story. A few details are missing... Like how I said I don't remember nothing but the war, when I actually have a few hazy memories of warm friendly big people— parents, I guess— who hugged me and tucked me in at night. Goddamn, I must've been young when they died.
And the other thing I left out was how Larissa was the reason I nearly escaped in the first place. She used me as bait, sure, but without her I'd never have even tried to escape, never met Buzz... Fuck, all this shit between me'n Larissa is complicated, I think with a frown. Maybe I should consider...
"Huh." Alvin grunts, interrupting my train of thought. "Didn't really believe it when Marty done told me you used to be a slave. Sounded like a lie. But I guess it 'splains why you got a shit Pokémon..."
"Aw, shut the fuck up," I growl at him, partly annoyed because I'd just had an idea and now it's gone. But I'm mostly annoyed at him for what he said about Buzz. Buzz ain't the strongest, but he's a great Pokémon and a good buddy, and it bugs me when people talk shit about him. "Buzz might not be able to take on your Honedge, but that don't mean he's weak. He's got his upsides, so fuckin' keep your mouth shut about him."
"Ha! The fuck are you gonna do t'stop me—" Alvin starts to say with a laugh, but he goes quiet suddenly.
I frown, confused, then nearly jump out of my skin when Dorian's voice booms from right around the corner.
I jump to my feet and nearly bonk my head on the top of the concrete overhang Buzz and I were sitting under. "H-Hey, Dorian," I stammer, trying to look busy. Dorian is the only remaining lieutenant of the Grayouts, and he's a seriously mean guy. He loves to pick on anyone he can, but especially me on account I'm an easy target.
"Boss wants ya. Says I gotta take your place." Dorian walks around the corner of the rubble pile to glare at me as he talks, and I gulp. On a list of my least favorite places to be, Dorian's bad side is definitely near the top.
"Sorry, Dorian," I say. "I ain't been slackin', honest! I'll try an' get back as soon as I can, I ain't gonna leave you out here for long!"
Dorian snorts, and gives me a mean little grin. "Damn well better. Keep me waitin' too long, I'll make ya cover my next few watches to make up for it."
I nod frantically, thankful that Dorian's laughing instead of livid. Best not hang around until that changes, though! I book it towards HQ, an old multi-story concrete parkade that's basically the biggest building that's left around here.
It only takes three or four minutes to get close, and when I do, the lookouts— Billy and Sam and their two Pokémon— see me coming and wave me in. Billy and Sam are both new recruits; unlike most of the Greyouts, their 'mons ain't made of steel, nor are they electric, but Boss has been a lot more relaxed about recruiting ever since what happened to Marty. I look those 'mons of theirs up and down— a thick three-foot-tall icicle with eyes and feet, and a weak-looking little gray bunny that only comes up to its fourteen-year-old Trainer's shin. Heh. Ever since those two joined, I ain't the weakest, and that feels good.
I walk past them and into the bottom floor of HQ, which is where we have our sleeping quarters— not that we get much sleep lately, with Boss demanding that we be up at all hours on patrol or watch— and that good feeling disappears damn fast. Boss is waiting for me in the gloomy darkness inside, her steel-gray leather jacket with its fur linings giving her the look of a metal statue from hell.
The first thing that pops into my head is, She knows about Larissa. Instantly I start to think about ways to get out of here, start running and never stop until I'm in fucking Manhattan; but I know no matter what I do I won't get far. Steelbird can catch just about anything that don't fight back, and there ain't much Buzz can do about a bird Pokémon that strong.
"Borden, I'm glad ya could make it," Boss says, her thick southern accent and sharp voice stuffed uncomfortably into a friendly tone that I've only heard aimed at me once before; it was back when she gave me Buzz after that failed escape attempt years ago. I remember thinking then that the tone of voice didn't suit her a bit, and I find myself thinking it again now. What does she want? I wonder mistrustfully. Why the sudden friendliness?
"You called, I gotta come," I say, trying to impress her with my loyalty. If she knows I know anything about Larissa, I'm fucked anyway. If not, then sucking up a little can't hurt. "You're the Boss."
"Yeah, true," Boss says dismissively. "Come with me."
She leads me up through the second floor— slave quarters, which are just as empty as the Trainer quarters on the first floor, since everyone's out on watch or patrol or scavenging— and the third floor, where she sleeps, all the way up to the fourth floor. I'm hells of nervous by this point; last time I was up here, I was delivering someone... to be honest, Larissa... to be tortured. I can still remember the screams, and I shudder despite myself at the thought of being the one tied to that bloodstained pillar...
We emerge onto the fourth floor of the parkade, where an oldish man is waiting for us. He's got a Pokémon hovering behind him that looks like a white pillow with some of the stuffing hanging out and surrounded by a head-sized orb of some kind of green gel; he's dressed in an enviably well-matched black suit over a stained but well-cared-for white shirt. He carries a cane, and all in all is basically the stereotype for an old world "gentleman."
"This's Gerald," Boss tells me, still in that too-friendly tone. "He's an ally who'll be joinin' us as a kind o' freelancer, since we lost our Psychic. His Pokémon's called Duosion, or Duo fer short."
"Pleased to meet you, uh, sir," I say, doing my best to bow a little because I think that's what you're supposed to do when you meet a gentleman.
He smiles a bit— not a very nice smile, I think— and nods sharply back at me. "Charmed, I'm sure," he says in a very insincere tone.
"Borden, I brought ya here 'cause I wanted ta reckernize yore resourcefulness," Boss says. "I'll admit, I didn't think much of y'all beforehand, but I'm sure you'll remember a few months ago I sent everybody out ta find th'girl called Larissa."
I nod, keeping quiet till I'm asked a direct question as I've learned to do around important people. So far, this seems promising; no threats of torture yet...
"She turned out ta be a dangerous sorta thing that cain't e'en be called human," Boss says. "With the help o' Gerald here, we done found out some more about her. But what's real impressive is that e'en with yer sub-par 'mon, ya got her back then. Yeah, I lost her soon after, but that ain't yer fault. So, I wanted ta offer ya a spot as my new lieutenant!"
My eyes nearly pop out of my head before I realize it's rude to stare. I look at the ground to stop gaping at Boss, and stammer a little before I choke out, "A-Are ya sure?"
I look up just in time to see Boss and Gerald glance at each other with some kinda look of agreement or understanding. "Yeah, son," Boss says, her voice practically dripping with that wierd friendliness. "From now on, y'all's got yer authoritah straight from me. 'Less ya think I'd disapprove, y'all can do whatever ya like, an' the Grayouts'll back ya up. Welcome to the team!"
Mere seconds later, it feels like, I've been whirled back down to the first floor and I'm walking out the door, feeling dazed. Me... A lieutenant? I can hardly believe it. This puts me above... well... everyone. Except Dorian, and I can actually call him my equal now.
It takes most of the walk back to my watch post for it to sink in. When it does, one thing occupies my mind completely, even as I wave Dorian off casually and sit back against the rubble pile with a big grin on my face.
Now people can't mess with me any more. And everyone who used to make me take their watch shifts and do their dirty work, just because I couldn't fight back? I'm in charge now, and they better watch out!
~~~~~~~~~~TWO WEEKS LATER~~~~~~~~~~
I'm deep in Quickstep territory, to use the terms a Runner would. Anyone this close to the centre of the Quicksteps' claimed space would risk being encountered by patrols returning to their HQ; as such, no Runner worth her drinking water would ever be found in a place like this, especially in the early afternoon when visibility is at its highest.
It's a good thing for me, then, that my situation is far from your standard Runner's. While it's true that in the last couple of weeks, I've resumed supplying my Run, I have far less to fear from Trainer patrols than any normal Runner: one could almost say that the Quicksteps are in my territory.
I've resumed Running mostly because a disappearance of more than a few months could leave entire Warrens starving or lacking tools, but also partly because information is a highly tradeable commodity and I currently need it badly. Runners get all the gossip, through a mixture of details let slip in "casual" conversation and nuggets of information exchanged for a favour here, a spare tool or bite to eat there. Little, supposedly innocuous pieces of information, like the fact that all the local gangs have doubled or tripled the sizes and frequencies of their patrols and watches...
Hence my current position, crouched amongst the sheltering skeletons of a few burnt-out buildings literally within sight of Quickstep HQ. The HQ is a gutted warehouse with most of its four walls intact; a makeshift thatching of tough leaves from a Grass-type Pokémon covers the gaping holes in the old roof. I've taken a detour from today's Run to watch the comings and goings here; a little behind the Grayouts to the north and northeast and the Smashers to the south and east, the Quicksteps are the last of the city's three major gangs to get wind of... whatever the gangs are getting wind of. Frustratingly, that information seems not to have been shared widely even within the gangs; even the few gang members I've captured and interrogated— and subsequently executed— didn't seem to have any idea why their gang leaders were demanding increased patrols and patrol sizes.
Spiritomb is similarly unhelpful. Apparently, whoever or whatever's got the gangs agitated is capable of "flying under the radar," foiling the ghost's otherwise nigh omniscience. The whole thing stinks of a storm on the horizon, and although I'm going to great lengths to confirm and find out details, I believe I know the absolute basics of what's up.
When the Boss of the Grayout gang that controls the northern part of the city ruins was interrogating me, she seemed to think that someone had "given" me a Pokémon and that I was behind the attacks on her gang members. As it happens, at the time I didn't have anything to do with any Pokémon, and Spiritomb was responsible for the attacks, but the woman's firm expectation was certainly revealing. Someone, or numerous someones, known to the gang leaders has it in for one... or all... of their gangs.
Now I just need to find that someone or something, and determine whether they're a potential ally or another threat. The only difference, of course, being whether the newcomer, after defeating or displacing one of the city's gangs, will be easier or harder to get rid of. But to find that out, I'll first need to learn exactly what I'm dealing with—
~We have detected teleportation inside the Quickstep headquarters. A psychic of great potency has just arrived.~
Spiritomb's voice in my head startles me, but the reaction remains internal; I learned long ago how to avoid jumping when surprised. That makes no sense, I think loudly, pushing the thought in the direction of the ghostly Pokémon's link to my mind. The Quicksteps don't have any psychics capable of teleportation or direct mental attacks, only sensory manipulation and mind-warding.
~This is an anomaly, then. Do you suggest investigating?~
I think about that for a moment. I've long since stopped considering mere patrols of one or two Trainers an overwhelming threat, but groups of three or more are still far more than I can handle, and being discovered in a gang's headquarters would almost certainly be disastrous. However...
I think this is too important to ignore. Are you absolutely certain that this powerful psychic won't be able to detect me?
~With our presence, your mind is perfectly undetectable and impenetrable to psychics of any strength. We are anathema to their powers. However, should the psychic be capable of, and wary enough to execute, scanning for other signs such as body heat or minute sounds such as heartbeats, we are unable to completely mask these things without rendering you in reality cold as the grave or ceasing your heartbeat, either of which would prove fatal.~
So it's risky... but every safe method of investigation has proven ineffective. I'm going in, I decide.
~We are with you, Spirit-Wielder.~
It's time to move swiftly. Rummaging in one of the many side pockets of my bulging Runner's backpack, I quickly withdraw version 2.0 of an old friend: a sheer bedsheet painted concrete grey with spots of black and white. This "invisibility cloak," designed to camouflage me against the backdrop of concrete rubble— at least from a distance or when moving slowly— is sewn and fitted to approximately the size and shape of my body, with extra volume for a bag or anything I might be carrying.
However, in this situation, the bulky Runner's bag must stay behind. I stow it as safely as I can underneath a slab of upward-jutting concrete, pulling another free slab from the nearby rubble to cover the bag completely and then leaving a subtle sign in the form of a small pyramid of shattered cement-gravel atop the two slabs so that I can find them later.
Then, sweeping the invisibility cloak over my head and settling it across my shoulders so that it barely trails on the ground but hides my entire body, I cross the short distance to the Quickstep HQ at a steady walking pace.
When I reach the warehouse's wall, I remove my invisibility cloak and drop it to the ground to use on my way back. Then it's the work of mere seconds to scale the wall, thanks to a couple of the abilities that Spiritomb's power grants me— the combination of supernatural speed and the ability to sink temporarily ghostly fingers into the building's solid brick façade without leaving any damage.
Less than three minutes after deciding to risk infiltrating the Quickstep headquarters, I'm concealed by clinging to a soot-blackened patch of bricks, and I'm peering through one of the large gaps that used to be windows at the top of the twenty-foot warehouse walls. Below me, a scene of utter chaos is unfolding.
Five assorted Pokémon are hurling fire, electricity, and beams of energy at an opaque white glowing orb six feet in diameter that rests on the floor of the warehouse. The current leader of the Quicksteps, a nervous-looking boy named Deegan, stands about ten feet away from the orb; his tiny grey catlike Pokémon is standing on two feet, half-hidden shyly behind his leg. The little cat doesn't look like much, but word on the street is that it's incredibly powerful... As well as completely uncontrolled in its uses of that incredible power, meaning that to try to teleport with it would be a death sentence, and its attacks would be just as likely to implode its own Trainer's head or detonate the entire building as crush its opponent's mind. Rumour has it that Deegan remains leader of the Quicksteps— a role that until recently changed hands often— only by virtue of being a ticking time bomb: to challenge him would be to play a high-stakes game of Russian Roulette.
Deegan is shouting panicked orders ranging from "Kill them NOW!" to "Stop and wait for them to get tired!" with little space between extremes; the roars of the attacking Pokémon and the shouts of their Trainers create such a cacophony that I'm surprised even the thick walls of the warehouse prevented me from hearing it a mile away.
This continues for nearly two more minutes before a booming female voice, no doubt amplified by some kind of psychic power, cuts through the din.
There's a moment of stunned silence, and then the same voice continues in a scathing tone, still loud but not as deafeningly so:
"You can bash at this barrier all day, or you can listen to the message I'm trying to deliver and I can be on my way. I'm not here to fight, so for goodness' sake please stop embarrassing yourselves."
Deegan shoots a beseeching glance at the other five Trainers, as if asking for suggestions; they just shrug.
"Umm... Uhh..." The nervous-looking boy stammers, "Say it, then, but no funny business!"
The amplified sound of a throat being cleared emanates from the orb, which slowly fades into transparency, evoking the appearance of a six-foot-wide spherical glass marble. Inside the giant marble are a brown-haired young lady dressed practically in jeans, a black t-shirt and a short black jacket, and a yellow-skinned humanoid Pokémon with thin spindly limbs and a thick layer of brown carapace covering its torso, knees and forearms. She begins to speak, with the sound of a rehearsed speech to her voice.
"The Trainers' Association of North America hereby extends an offer of amnesty to the Quickstep gang, subject to the following understanding: all illegal activity by members of the above gang is to cease, where illegal activity is defined as: any actions which violate the basic rights of a human being or Pokémon to do as they please within reason with their own autonomous body, personal possessions, and assets; any actions which cause harm to another human being or Pokémon with malicious intent; and all petty crime such as theft, vandalism, arson, and blackmail.
"In addition, all members of the Quickstep gang are to submit to temporary incarceration pending evaluation of character and mental and emotional stability. The Trainers' Association is hereby bound to treat with honour and dignity any willing individual who surrenders to us, and to forego any and all retribution for past actions subject to the above amnesty. Your safety will be assured in the case of your surrender, and any incarceration will be temporary. The carrier of this message is authorized to discuss these terms on behalf of the Trainers' Association of North America, and to receive your final response on behalf of the Trainers' Association of North America."
There's a long stretch of silence during which Deegan looks flummoxed and unsure of whether the young lady is finished; then he begins to giggle. "So, what you're saying is, we're being asked to... surrender? The entire Quickstep gang?"
"Essentially, yes," the sharp-voiced young woman responds tartly. "And we promise that anyone who does surrender willingly and without trouble will be treated fairly and will not be punished for any past crimes."
Deegan continues giggling, and it's all I can do not to join him. As it is, I grin to myself. Trainers' Association, huh? I think incredulously. A gang no one's ever heard of, with a pompous name that sounds like it's straight out of a story book, sends a messenger demanding surrender with outdated legal speak and expects to be taken seriously? Now I've seen it all... Fucking newbies.
"Okay, so, let me get this straight," Deegan says, his giggles beginning to slow down. "You want the biggest gang in the city to surrender to... what? A girl and her big psychic pal? Don't make me laugh!"
"I assure you, we are quite serious. I will return in twenty-four hours to hear your response; if we hear nothing, or your answer is no, we will be forced to consider destroying or driving out your gang and seizing your territory by force."
Deegan's response is to spit derisively at the orb; whether by luck or lots of practice, his accuracy is remarkable, and the spittle sizzles into nothingness against the transparent barrier.
The young woman with the sharp voice sighs. "Ah, well... I tried."
Then, without even a crackle of psychic energy, she, her Pokémon, and the barrier are gone. I raise my eyebrows, as do several of the Quickstep Trainers— a silent teleport like that is the mark of a skilled psychic rather than a powerful one... and the raw power of a Pokémon that can hold off five opponents without breaking a sweat was never in question.
The five Quicksteps silently look at each other and then at their giggling leader, and even at this distance and with my limited body-language-reading skills, I can tell they have doubts.
That goes even farther towards sobering me, and making me think twice about dismissing this newcomer gang as a joke. I still don't know anything of substance for sure about this "Trainers' Association" that's trying to move in on Quickstep territory, but I know more than I did before: I finally have a name for the mysterious interloper that's got all the local gangs on high alert.
As I climb my way back down to the ground and, shrouding myself once more in my invisibility cloak, creep ever so slowly away from the Quickstep HQ— if there's no need for haste, there's no sense in endangering myself unnecessarily— I consider the fact that based on what little I know, it would be foolish to continue with my plans until I know more. What a cursed inconvenience... I think, vexed.
...Ah, well. A name is a start. Now to find out who knows something I don't...
~~~~~~~~~~24 HOURS LATER~~~~~~~~~~
I'm pacing impatiently just inside the gate of our new base of operations, waiting for Camilla to return with the Quicksteps' response. Everyone here knows the foregone conclusion— a big gang like the Quicksteps won't surrender to anyone they've never heard of, nor will the two slightly smaller but stronger gangs, Grayouts and Smashers— but we still have to wait for their official response before we go in swinging.
All around me, an array of windowless log cabins shelter close to the thick palisade walls. These are our barracks, and firelight can be seen flickering around and underneath the cloth hangings covering the doors— the smokeless fire of Fire-type Pokémon staving off the winter cold that seeps into everything.
Unlike the fence at our Manhattan campsite, the palisade walls are solid tree trunks; the moment our sources reported increased patrols from all three of Kansas City's major gangs, the five of us— me, General Hayes, Gloria, Camilla and Porter— decided unanimously to spend an extra week constructing this base of operations as a defensible fallback location if we are unsuccessful in capturing territory in Kansas City. Numerous considerations went into the decision, including the fact that clearly the gangs know we're coming on some level, and are prepared; and that if they keep their patrols at triple the size and twice the hours for a week, Pokémon and Trainers alike will be exhausted if and when the situation comes to blows.
Suddenly, Camilla appears out of thin air to one side of me, Wes close behind her; only knowing she was coming prevents me from leaping out of my shoes. Have I mentioned I hate it when people teleport into my blind spots? She does this to everyone, all the time, and unfortunately, knowing that it's a habit rather than something done intentionally to bother me doesn't make it any less aggravating.
"We have been soundly refused," Camilla reports tartly, distaste evident in her voice. "Naturally, they attempted to ambush Wes and myself, but we had of course prepared defenses against all of the obvious and some of the less obvious forms of attack. I'm pleased to report that expenditure of power was minimal, and we remain fighting fit."
"...Right," I say, trying to ignore the knot of tension that's resumed its familiar place in my stomach. "Thanks, Camilla... See you after the speech."
Camilla nods matter-of-factly, and she and Wes disappear.
Clenching and unclenching my fists in a fruitless effort to release some of my tension, I start the ten-minute jog over to where the small army that is the Trainers' Association's fighting force awaits me.
As I approach the cleared gravel pathway serving as our staging ground, Sunshine takes her usual place in my mind and, upset by my tense state of mind, starts trying to help me by sending calm and blissful feelings through our empathic bond.
Sunshine, stop. I'm sorry, but I can't be distracted by conflicting feelings right now. If I'm tense and miserable, now is the time when I've got to just grit my teeth and feel tense and miserable. Okay?
Understanding, albeit not without some regret, my closest friend sends the sensation of one last affectionate smile through our link before gently damming the flow of emotions.
Immediately the full weight of my inner turmoil lands on my shoulders like a physical burden, and I realize that even when she wasn't present in my head Sunshine was still doing all she could to stave off the creeping depression that I never knew was threatening to engulf me. And as long as she's been holding a patch on my sorry mental state, she's been steadily draining her own power. Sunshine, what were you thinking?? We can't afford that on the day of a battle! I think frustratedly.
The frustration hurts; in fact, everything hurts. On one level, I want nothing more right now than to ask Sunshine to resume her healing touch on my heart, but another part of me is muttering that even if it weren't a drain on her power, depending on Sunshine to 'fix' me would still be a temporary measure at best...
Oh God, I need help, I realize, struggling to hold off tears. Damn it, Rachel... There'll be time enough to cry later, but not now!
Still struggling with my inner demons, I arrive in the middle of the gravel path, and turn to face the crowd of almost sixty Trainers who make up the fighting force of my little army. The only ones not present are Camilla, Hayes, and Gloria, with whom I've already discussed what I'm going to say and who are busy making last-minute preparations for the upcoming battle.
I return their stares solemnly— some look nervous and uneasy; others uncertain or anticipatory; and still others eager— and I take a moment to collect myself. I owe these volunteers everything. These are people who have freely chosen to put their lives on hold to follow me... and to put those lives on the line, fighting crime and defending themselves and their friends against those few gangs in every city that choose to go down fighting rather than surrender to the Trainers' Association. Some of these volunteers are grown men and women, but about the same number are only kids— I haven't ever had the luxury of being picky about who I allow to risk their lives and those of their Pokémon companions. Casualties have been blessedly few over the years, but devastating when they do happen. Fighting is easy. Having to explain to empty-eyed parents that their teenager is never coming home? That's hard.
I know every one of their names: not only do I consider it important to know the name of anyone I ask to fight, and maybe die, for my cause, but it's also necessary to know what to call someone during battle; otherwise you can't give a proper warning or order. As I look at each one of these people— deliberately not letting my gaze linger on their eyes, so as to respect the privacy of the intimate things Sunshine's power would show me there— I can't help but be reminded that if I mess up today, they could all die. I've led attacks before, but never against so many gangs at once, let alone ones this big and vicious.
I clear my throat, trying to get rid of the traitorous lump that's appeared there. "Friends," I begin, trying to put the looming spectre of death out of my mind for the moment, "You all know what's happening today. The gangs here are entrenched, and they're more in control of their territory— and the downtrodden people living there— than any gang we've ever faced."
To my relief, the aching feelings that are scraping at my insides begin to subside as my mind fills instead with information: the points I've got to make clear in this speech; the plans I've made and re-made with General Hayes and Gloria and Camilla; and the constant calculations of contingencies and counter-contingencies that fill my brain to bursting at times like this. "We've tried diplomacy," I tell my motley crew of soldiers, my voice steadying. "In some places, just realizing who they're up against has made gangs back down and accept our authority; here, though, the gangs don't recognize us. To them, we're just a new, bigger gang that's getting too big for its boots."
Grumbling and angry shouts from my little army. I nod sharply, feeling their indignation with them. "That's right, we're more than just a gang... But they don't know that. They're cut off, down here where there's no working power plants making electricity to plug in a computer. The Internet doesn't reach them, nor does what's left of the old world's radio network. They don't know who we are, and they don't know to be afraid."
A cheer, starting from the back of my army, begins to build. I wait just long enough, then swiftly raise a cautioning hand— a rehearsed motion learned from watching Camilla take charge of a situation— and the cheer is quelled instantly. "That," I say seriously, "Makes them dangerous. They'll fight when in the past gangs have fled; they'll try to coerce and trick and bribe us, because they don't know we have a better goal than taking their homes and their stuff and their slaves. They'll defend their territory tooth and nail, because in a place like this... the idea of following laws made by somebody else has been a joke for almost fifteen years."
In the past, I've given rousing pre-combat speeches about hope and victory that have set hundreds of people— fighters and healers and volunteers, Trainer and non-Trainer alike— to cheering, counting on their good spirits to lift them up while their cheers struck fear into our enemies' watching spies. Now, though, is not the time for cheering; unlike in the past, this campsite is carefully warded against spying of any kind, and today's words are intended to be met with sober silence.
The Trainers arrayed in front of me are quiet for almost a minute as I sweep my gaze back and forth, making sure I have their full attention. Finally, I'm satisfied that I do. "I tell you this," I begin, "Because in the past there have been threats we haven't needed to fear, only prepare for... just in case. Attacks on us that only a stupid or desperate enemy would attempt. Now, though, our enemies are desperate. They don't know that surrender really is an option. They won't believe that we'll allow them to keep their lives and their Pokémon and their freedom if they submit to our rules and abandon their ways of living on the backs of those less fortunate. Here in the south, every gang has blood on its hands. They will shoot to kill every time, and they have ways of doing that killing that northern gangs have never even thought of. Back where we came from, the unspoken rule is you shall not kill. Here, that is gone... and I expect you all to act accordingly."
I take a deep breath. Here it comes; the time when I have to clarify that last item, when I have to give the order that every cell in my brain screams is wrong. But I have to give it. "What I mean by that is... Whenever you get the chance, you will also aim to kill. Any Trainer or Pokémon who fights you. No exceptions. I want every last gang member in Quickstep territory either willingly surrendered or dead."
Gasps from the crowd. Then, the first exclamations of outrage, bursting through even the somber silence I've created and breaking it like a cardboard dam before a flood. Within seconds, every one of those fifty-five people is shouting at me, or begging me, or trying to reason with me. Their Pokémon, most of them understanding perfectly well what's going on, add their voices to the din.
"Are you fucking kidding me?"
"Please, Rachel, you can't be serious!"
"That'll make us just like them! You mustn't...!"
I knew exactly how well my final order would go over... And I hate it just as much as they do. But I've talked it over a thousand times with General Hayes, and Camilla, and even, in moments of quiet despair, with Ellen, and all of us know the alternative is letting these good people die in the place of those thugs.
"Enough!" I yell; my voice booms loudly over the clamoring crowd, amplified by the psychic power of Gloria's Claydol, which is floating next to its perpetually sour-faced Trainer in the crowd. "Be quiet!"
The volunteers have never heard me shout in anger, and they fall immediately into shocked silence... except for one boy, who ranks amongst the youngest of my impromptu soldiers. Thomas: enthusiastic but unskilled, my memory supplies coolly in that matter-of-fact way it's learned, even as the rest of my mind is drowning in self-hate and despair and chaos. Partnered with Minnie— I mean a Mienfoo— that's equally so.
"I didn't sign up for this!" he's shouting. "I won't do it! I won't!"
I look him in the eyes; in them, I see a tiny hedgehog curled up into a spiky ball of fright and fear. I'm just praying he can't see the pain in my eyes right now. "Then leave!" I say, my voice still thundering. He stares openmouthed, transfixed by whatever it is he can see in my gaze.
It hurts me to scare him like that. Breaking eye contact and returning to scanning the crowd of startled volunteers, I make a subtle hand signal from where my left hand is hanging close to my leg, knowing that the Claydol is watching through its psychic power and will see. My voice returns to its normal volume, but is still clearly audible in the stunned silence as I repeat: "Then leave. I won't make you kill," I tell them solemnly, "But if you won't, then you're a danger to yourself and everyone who counts on you in battle. Those men won't hesitate to end your life, and I won't have you giving them that luxury in return; that will endanger you and your squad. I won't have an unconscious enemy waking up and killing three people before he's caught."
A girl of sixteen, whose name I recall as being Brianne, summons her courage and speaks up in a small voice. "Rachel... Do we have to?"
I take a deep breath, fighting back tears of rage at having to do this to my loyal volunteers, my friends. "I'm sorry, but yes... That was an order. I invite everyone— Pokémon or Trainer— who isn't willing to kill another human being or Pokémon... to leave now, or be held accountable for failing to do so in combat."
With only a few exceptions, the people in front of me have killed in the past; but it's always been out of necessity, in the heat of the moment, when it was clear that nothing else was possible. They've dealt with the burden of those actions in their own ways, and chosen to stay and continue fighting nonetheless; but now they're being asked to do it whether they want to or not... in cold blood, if needed.
Thomas bursts into tears, and runs for the camp, his Mienfoo scampering swiftly after him. (The sight of the little Pokémon's naturally graceful stride as it chases its Trainer sends an extra pang of sadness through me, for personal reasons.) After a few seconds, one man— Brandon is his name— turns and follows, hanging his head in shame. A few more follow, their Pokémon in tow: Kayla, Don, and Giselle— the lattermost of whom glares at me with a Sign of blood welling from a dagger wound of betrayal written deep in her eyes. I meet those eyes with a sensation of sad acceptance running through my gut. I may hate it, and hate myself for enforcing it, but I know this is the best way to keep my people alive. I'll accept being hated, even by myself, if that's what I have to do for their safety.
Without those five, I've got fifty Trainers and Pokémon left, not including my command core. I scan the crowd again, but see only a mixture of quiet weeping and stern resolve. No one else moves: they're committed to the cause, for better or for worse, and I know they'll do what it takes.
"No one is to blame anyone who just left, is that clear?" I ask, receiving equal numbers of nods and blank stares. "Good. For the first time ever, we've got a war to win."
A suppressed shiver goes through my little army of a hundred soldiers. The Trainers' Association's efforts have never been called a war, but here and now, that's well and truly what we're up against.
"All right, FORM UP!" I say, my voice rising into the impromptu drillmaster's shout they're used to in situations like this.
My volunteers cluster together into squads of six to eight Trainer-Pokémon pairs. Some squads have naturally become larger than others over the course of many battles: over time I've let my squads change and evolve— trading and transferring members, or merging and splitting apart, as needed— until each one is a close-knit fighting force that communicates well and works together with effortless precision. The loss of Kayla, Don, and Giselle— all three of them members of Squad Four— has reduced their squad to only four people, but those four look as ready as ever to cause havoc amongst the enemy, so mixing things up would probably do more harm than good. Maybe I'll have Camilla keep an eye on them in case they need backup...
As calculations and considerations like these run through my mind like clockwork, I surrender gratefully to the numb automaton-like routine of detached thought. It hurts too much to feel, right now...
"PREPARE TO DROP."
Every squad has a Psychic-type capable of teleportation. That's a must in this kind of fight, and it's given us the edge against more gangs than I can count from memory. The job of the Psychic, except in extreme circumstances, is not to battle but to serve as instant transportation for individual members or an entire squad in a crisis, as well as to protect its squad's members from assaults against their minds. The power of Psychic Pokémon in battle is intense, but wasting that power on combat unless there's no other option would be a mistake. A tapped-out Psychic is a liability on the battlefield, while a fresh one is practically a trump card against any foe that doesn't also have one.
"COORDINATES READY? SOUND OFF, PSYCHICS," I yell through the quiet murmurs of the squads making last-minute checks and preparations amongst themselves. "SQUAD ONE!"
"Ready!" shouts a boy named David, echoed by a wordless hum from his partner Kirlia, a white-skinned humanoid Pokémon with green shoulder-length hair and a series of white cloth-like bands of fabric that form a "skirt." Tiny green legs that end in footless points peek out from beneath the folds of cloth, which as far as I can tell grow like hair from the Pokémon's waist. Psychic-types are weird, I can't help thinking to myself for what must be the thousandth time.
"ROGER THAT, SQUAD ONE! SQUAD TWO!" I scream, already starting to feel hoarse.
The roll call continues; on behalf of Squad Two, Gloria and her Claydol speak up, followed by another Trainer-Pokémon pair for Squad Three, and so on. One by one, each of my eight squad Psychics confirms that they're ready to begin the operation. As Throat hurting a little, I turn to my right as Camilla appears there, having expected her at exactly that moment.
"The General says I'm free to send them off whenever they're ready," she tells me simply, though she's clearly fully aware that we just finished sounding off. Wes can read the minds of everybody but Trainers who have a specific type of mental link to a Ghost, Dark, or Psychic-type Pokémon, and he normally forwards that information directly into her brain: Camilla automatically knows everything of import that goes on within at least a ten-mile radius.
"Roger that. They're ready for you," I reply, for once grateful to be handing the situation over to her. "Is my job the usual?"
"Affirmative," she replies in that formal, too-formulaic way she prefers for military commands. "Scout using your Pokémon's abilities, while remaining under cover as a reserve; maintain an open mental channel for commands and to report your findings; and be prepared to be teleported to the action if you are needed."
"Oh, goodie," I mutter sarcastically under my breath, clinging to sarcasm as a way to hold off feeling the crushing self-hatred I'm "Sitting still, letting Wes read my mind, and teleporting. My favourite three things to do, all in one bundle."
Camilla pretends not to have heard me. "Prepare to teleport!" she shouts, her voice lost on the wind but still audible in everyone's heads through Wes's power— even in mine, as Sunshine swiftly yanks her mind-barriers out of the way of the overpowering mental force Wes is using to 'delicately' place the words there. "Move out!"
As one, all eight squads disappear. I turn and trudge towards the tents, where I'll sit down and go on a spirit-journey over the battlefield with Sunshine's help, watching and reporting to Camilla but not helping unless— until— General Hayes chooses a time and place for her and Wes to drop me off.
I hate just watching; it makes me feel helpless. But this is how I can best serve my volunteers, so I'll keep on doing it. Out of necessity, today will be war... and I can only hope we're strong enough.
"Get the fuck up!" I shout at the lazy stupid normals lazing about down there like fucking lazy asses. "We're a fucking Quickstep patrol, and y'all fuckers answer to none other'n Evan the Wrecker of Faces, so act like it! Double-time, bitches!"
"We cain't do't, ser!" says one of the slaves, the talkative one with the ridiculously annoying accent. I've heard his idiot voice no less than three times today, and it's only like three o'clock. "We ain't not eaten nuffin since yess'rday, an' we're too bleedin' coold!" he complains.
"God, why can't ya just shut it, ya retarded piece o' shit!" I shout at him. Doesn't he know his motherfucking place? Well, all the better if he don't, 'cause that gives me an excuse to teach him his motherfucking place. My Pokémon— a yellow bell-shaped fly-trap sort of plant with a woody brown stem and roots for feet, which I've taken to calling Bell-sprout— makes an impatient slurping noise in its big dumb open mouth, so I grin and give it the signal it's waiting for: flicking a finger in the dumbass slave's direction. Right away, my Bell-sprout smacks the idiot good upside the head with a vine like a whip, and I grin as he falls over and tries to cover himself against my 'mon's next few lashings across his back.
After about four more whacks, I yell for my creature to stop hitting the stupid guy. "My fuckin' Bell-sprout's a motherfucking plant," I tell him scornfully. "If a plant can fuck you up in this kinda cold, you can keep walkin' an' lookin' around in this kinda cold. Got it, you piece a shit?"
The man whines and nods and uncurls himself, staggering to his feet. I grin, watching him struggling to walk with his back all bruised and hurting. What an idiot. Maybe that'll teach him to talk so much, with his stupid accent from who-the-fuck-knows-where. He's just a whiner; it can't be that bad down there. Sure, I'm up here on top of a mound of ruined building shit, watching the normals from this little concrete alcove that's sort of sheltered from the wind... but I'm still cold as all fuck and it's making me even crankier than usual.
"See anythin'?" I yell down to them. I get a half-assed chorus of something that sounds a bit like 'No'. God fucking damnit. "I can't hear y'all, fuckers!"
"No..." they mutter back, even quieter than before, the lazy pieces of shit. I look down there, and I see that instead of looking around for the 'threats' our boss Deegan warned us were hidden somewhere around here, the slaves are just fucking staring up at me like idiot sheep.
I'm just about to get down there and warm myself up by teaching 'em how it sounds when one of 'em screams for real, when I realize somebody's in my way. I turn and start yelling in his face to get back down there and watch the damn horizon or I'll fuck you up so hard you won't be able to walk back to HQ; I'm halfway through the threat part when I realize this guy's got a fat little yellow mouse Pokémon beside him; it's got red cheeks and long black-tipped ears and a lightning-bolt tail; probably electric, whatever it is, I'd guess. So this guy ain't no slave— he's a Trainer.
He ain't no Quickstep, neither, though. In fact, looking at what he's wearing, he probably ain't from around here at all; and that makes him fair game... Which is awesome, because he's got some pretty fucking sweet shit on him! His coat fits, he's got socks on, and his pants and shoes are even the same shade of gray.
"Ha, who the fuck're you?" I ask him, not really giving a shit. "Doesn't matter, today's my lucky day. Gimme all yer shit or I'll wreck ya."
The guy frowns at me like I'm talking some other fucking language. "Surrender in the name of the Trainers' Association," he says in this posh accent I'm pretty sure is British or Canadian or something. "You're now a prisoner of Squad Four of the Association's army. We're authorized to kill you immediately if you resist."
I'm about to open my mouth to tell him where he can stick his posh threatening bullshit when I realize he ain't alone. Looking around, I can see there's actually two more guys and one girl standing around me in a neat-as-all-fuck little circle. They ain't lookin' so posh; they got torn-up clothes what looks like they mean business, and they got Pokémon too.
There's a Grass-green little lizard on two feet, and a half-pint blue penguin with a funny gold crest standing next to the guys; both of 'em are about two foot, no doubt I can handle 'em. But then I catch sight of their biggest 'mon— a black porcupine thing that's about three foot tall next to the girl Trainer; it's got flames coming out its back. A fucking fire-type! Fucking shit! That ain't good news for me and my Bell-sprout.
"This is your only chance to surrender," Posh says in that wierd-ass accent of his. Right on cue, the Trainers around me all take a step forward at the same time, which brings them all about halfway to me. I'm starting to realize that even in the start, they were way too close for me to even try anything on my own. Shit. When the fuck did they even get up here? I wonder, starting to get mad as fuck. When I get outta this I'm gonna wreck those slaves so fuckin' hard for not seeing 'em coming...
For now, though, I just gotta buy time till Nathan gets here and bails me out. "Woah now, settle down," I tell the main guy in my friendliest voice. "This's our spot, right here, but I'm sure we got room for you 'n' yer friends. You lookin' to join up with the Quicksteps or some shit like that? 'Cause ya really didn' need ta be all threatening about it, we'll let ya join if ya just come ta our HQ an'..."
I'm cut off by a voice from above yelling, "Step quick, Quickstep!"
I ain't never been so happy to be interrupted— that right there is the signal! I dive for cover behind a jutting-up slab of concrete, quick as I can; instead of chasing me, the enemy trainers are scattering, just like bugs when you throw a rock on their hive. (I love doing that, by the way.) It's right away obvious why they're scattering, on account my buddy Nathan's just touched down, riding on the back of the single most awesome Pokémon any of us Quicksteps have got. (Everyone knows Deegan's only still leader 'cause Nathan don't give a shit about leading, and that's why he ain't challenged him.)
Aerodactyl— that's Nathan's awesome nick for the 'mon— is this six-foot stone dinosaur thing, what looks just like another dinosaur thing called a pterodactyl. Ain't never seen one of those, which Nathan says is on account they're egg-stink or something (ex-tinked? I dunno.) I ain't really even sure what a pterodactyl's supposed to look like, but Nathan told me a pterodactyl is an egg-stinked dinosaur and it's what Aerodactyl looks like, and I believe him. Nathan knows everything.
Anyway, whatever Aerodactyl looks like, he sure unnerves the fuck outta them posh Trainers. They're all scrambling and shooting fire and lightning and other crazy shit at Aerodactyl, but it uses that sweet "Protect" move (the one Nathan discovered by hitting his 'mon with a bunch of different shit,) and all the fiery lightningy doom just kinda slides off him while he glows white.
Then it's his turn, and the moment Nathan jumps off and runs for cover, he flaps his stone wings and whips up this big-ass Twister that surrounds him in a huge tornado of extra-strong wind. The green lizard and the electric mouse thing are sucked up into the air right away, and the fire-back porcupine and the penguin with the funny gold hat are taking cover behind big bits of concrete to keep from ending up the same. Off to one side, my Bell-sprout's holding on with its root feet and waiting obediently for me to tell it what's up.
"Bell-sprout!" I shout, and point at the posh leader guy. My creature gets the drift, and it lashes out with its vines. They wrap around his shoulders and his neck and drag him back toward it.
The girl's hiding from the twister a little ways off from me, and I can hear her screaming "Emmett! Emmett!!" over and over as posh-guy's face starts to turn purple. Kid must be her boyfriend or some shit. Well, too late for him now, bitch— he shoulda known not to tangle with the Quicksteps! Then I see the dumbass leave her hiding spot and run towards him, braving the winds of the twister my bro Nathan set up. I can see her feet slipping, and she starts to get pulled off course into the wind... But then, lucky for her, it stops, as Aero gets tired and stops beating his wings.
She races for her boyfriend as the lizard and the mouse Pokémon land on the ground. The Twister itself wasn't much for damage, but it kept 'em out of the way... and from the way the two fallen 'mons ain't getting up too well, it looks like the fall broke a few bones. Perfect.
"Bell-sprout! Beat down that bitch with the posh piece of shit!" I yell, starting to enjoy myself.
Digging its roots into the cracks in the concrete, my Bell-sprout lifts the suffocating guy into the air with its vines and then spins its woody stem, swinging him all the way around it while making him build speed; then it finishes the spin by releasing just the vine around his shoulders and letting him fly straight at the girl with a tough vine noose still around his neck.
He hits her, knocking her heavily to the ground, and Bell-sprout's vine goes taut. There's a loud SNAP! that definitely ain't Bell-sprout's vine, and posh guy's weak struggles stop right away. The girl looks like she's hurt, too; she must've fallen bad, and all that extra weight landing on her right after would've made it worse. I creep a little closer until I see that a jagged shard of concrete sticking out of the ground's impaled her all the way through her back... and it's coming out her stomach! Awesome! Stupid bitch looks up at me like why?, then coughs up some blood and passes out.
Gross... I think, grinning and enjoying the fuck outta myself!
"Evan, the fuck are you doing?? Kill those Trainers later and help me instead, hey?" Nathan's voice shouts from somewhere to my right. I look over and see him sheltering behind Aerodactyl, who's taking the brunt of a huge column of flame that's roaring outta the fire-porcupine's mouth. From a little closer to me, a jet of high-pressure water's pounding into Aerodactyl's side from the mouth of that blue penguin; it looks to be doing a fuckton more damage than the fire, actually, wearing a big hole in the dinosaur's stone skin.
"Bell-sprout, get that penguin!" I yell. My 'mon's vines lash out and smack the thing hard across the back, sending it skidding forward on its face and ending the stream of water. I can see Aerodactyl turning to face the fire-type ominously, and I know this battle's about to turn the fuck around!
Then, outta the corner of my eye, I see a really really bad sign. The little green lizard's made some vines of its own, and they're wrapped around the electric mouse. Neither of the two look like they can walk— the mouse's hind legs are all twisted up, and the lizard's got one side all banged up like a bruised fruit— but they won't need to if...
Then the lizard throws the mouse at Aerodactyl with its vines, sending it flying clear onto the dinosaur's back. Then there's a crackle of electricity and Aero and the mouse both let out sparks for a second.
Aerodactyl screeches and thrashes, but the mouse isn't giving up! Another crackle, and the dinosaur 'mon arches its back in pain. Then it finally throws the mouse off, but it's had enough. It flaps into the air, and keeps on climbing... "Hey!" I yell. "He's leaving us the fuck behind!"
"Shut the fuck up!" Nathan shouts back at me.
"What the fuck, man? Your stupid 'mon just left us here with these fuckers!" I scream at Nathan, starting to be scared. My 'mon is our only one left; I look over and the bottom of my stomach fucking drops out. Bell-sprout's lashing its vines at the motionless penguin thing, but it hasn't noticed the angry as fuck Fire-type that just lost its girl Trainer advancing on it... I open my mouth to yell for it to get the fuck outta the way, but too late. Fire rushes from the thing's mouth and my Bell-sprout burns to a crisp in half a second. I can feel it a little— it's almost like a little part of me, a part I don't use much, just died too— but I got bigger things to worry about right now.
I turn and run, and run, and run. Behind me I can hear the whoosh of flames and Nathan screaming, and screaming, and then not screaming any more. I keep on running, so fucking scared... Then somebody tackles me around my feet, and I smash face-first into the concrete in front of me. Everything goes white and then black and then white again, and I swear my ears are telling me my whole head is ringing like a bell, even though that'd be fucking retarded. I roll onto my back, groaning; the groaning helps a little, or at least it seems like it— I'm slowly beginning to hear and see normally again...
A fist smashes me in the side of the head and I nearly black out, but then it hits me again in the jaw and I wake up from all the pain. I open my mouth to beg the guy to please stop, but the fist comes back at just the wrong moment and I feel my jaw break.
"AAAAAAGH!!" I scream; but that opens my jaw wider, which only makes the pain worse.
Oh god, it hurts!! It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it—
That fist hits me again, and suddenly... all the pain is gone. Instead, I just feel sleepy. I wanna thank him for whatever he did to make all the pain go away, but I can't seem to make my mouth move at all any more. Everything just takes too much effort, actually...
I'm so tired, and where I am right now feels comfier than anywhere I've ever spent the night...
I think I'll... just...
It's war out there. Actual war, with screaming, and things exploding, and everything.
Oh, God. Oh God oh God oh God.
I shouldn't have come here. I shouldn't have come back to see what would happen. I came back, and now I'm back there, and I'm stuck.
My mind is stuck. I can't stop returning, going back, reliving every horrible thing that happened on that day when the thundering death rained down from the sky... The concrete at my back is just like the wall of that corner in that orphanage on that day when the thundering death rained down from the sky...
I'm stuck, and once again I can't move, just like I couldn't move then, and once again I have to watch poor old Mrs. Mannagan explode as if in slow motion, the pieces of her going everywhere, and I smell the explosives and the fire and the pieces of Mrs. Mannagan... And then, as if my caught, stuck mind is only just willing to shift into the present enough to torture me, I see Old Adam standing there instead, in that orphanage corridor, looking at me with his usual kind smile, and once again I can't move, just like I couldn't move then, and once again I know it's coming, and my eyes are closed but I'm stuck and I can't stop seeing his smiling face even though he's about to be—
A sudden veil of darkness covers everything I'm seeing, and then, before I can panic at being blindfolded, before I can hear the blast I know is coming, it's as if a cloth of pure cool fresh emptiness is being wrapped around and around my head: my hearing goes blank as well, and then even my sense of smell, stuck with the memory of the smell of explosives and fire and the pieces of Mrs. Mannagan, is replaced with nothing but gentle coldness and the faint odour of snow...
~Larissa, your darkness does not reach this place inside you,~ says an echoing voice that I slowly realize is not my own. It's not deep or high, male or female. It just is.
Everything seems slower, now... Maybe the voice made it that way. Yes, that sounds right to me. The voice is the one that took all the frightening things away...
~Larissa, even with Spiritomb's aid I cannot keep the darkness here in this part of you for long. There is too much hurt and fright and passion. You must reach for a darker, calmer part of you.~
Unbidden, as though the voice is offering it to me like a comforting blanket, a memory of sitting and reading a good book on my own in Old Adam's library basement comes to me: I can see the quiet motionless words painting their picture in my mind, and hear the faint crackle of pages turning and smell the library's scent of countless old books...
~Good. But, Larissa, you cannot remain here in darkness, either. There is danger outside. I will guide you.~
~Yes, we will guide you, Spirit-Wielder!~ A cacophony of voices shouts, a jarring echo of the soothing genderless voice.
But I don't want to go back out there...! I think.
And then I wake up, and I'm already running away from the screams and the smell of fire, all of which seem blessedly far away. I keep running, and running, until my tired feet carry me into the cave where Spiritomb waits to wrap me once again in healing blackness.
Why? Why just then?
I was too late. I was too fucking late. I watched it all, and the whole time I was helpless.
I cradle Kylie's cold head in my lap, finally crying the endless stream of tears I've been holding in for God knows how long. She was too young. They both were, she and Emmett. And not one of the four's Pokémon survived, in the end. They all deserved more.
Their fight. If it had happened at any other time— two minutes before, two minutes after— Camilla could have had me there in time to save them. But it was just then that she and Wes had to teleport to the Quickstep headquarters and stop— lethally stop— the Quickstep leader and his Pokémon from blowing themselves, half their own gang, and half our volunteers to smithereens. Putting down that ticking time bomb didn't take Camilla long, but it took her long enough.
I'm glad she did it— I know there's no question that that was where she needed to be just then— but God, why did it have to happen just then? Why couldn't they have waited two more minutes to confront the Bellsprout's Trainer? Why couldn't they have attacked first and offered surrender never? Why?
"You were right," says a voice. I look up, too emotionally exhausted to care if anyone sees me crying now. Giselle, the girl who hated me so for demanding that she kill, is looking back down at me, her expression hollow and tears running down her face as well. "They wouldn't have died if they'd shot to kill."
I stare past the girl, not really seeing her. "I never wanted to be right," I say numbly.
And now, Giselle and I, we're both sitting down next to Kylie's cold body, both still crying. But at least now neither of us is crying alone. For some reason, it makes a difference.
I wake up from my first afternoon nap in years— a right I finally have as a Grayout lieutenant to Dorian shaking my upper arm roughly.
"Get up, Boss wants us," he says. For the first time ever, there's no anger or contempt when he talks to me, and for a moment I think with a satisfied feeling that it's because now I'm his equal... But then I see how pale white his usually ruddy red face is, and a big shock of fear runs through me.
Dorian doesn't scare easy.
He half-leads, half-carries me by my upper arm all the way to the fourth floor of the parkade. When we get there, we see Boss, her face bright red with livid rage, staring down into what looks like a bowl of water until I see that it's green.
"Go and look," says a voice from behind me and Dorian, making us both jump.
We turn around at the same time to yell at whoever it is to never fucking do that again, but stop when we see it's that Gerald guy. Somehow, a kind of intense look in his eyes warns us that shouting at this man would be a bad idea. We glance at each other, then hurry over to the other side of the bowl from Boss to look into what is definitely a bowl of that Duo 'mon's goop. Ew.
From an angle it looked like just goop, but the moment I look straight down I can see a clear moving picture. The place shown in the bowl is Quickstep HQ; anyone from this city would know that warehouse anywhere, with its half-leaf roof and red brick walls.
The people walking in and out, and cleaning up what looks like lots and lots of bodies, are definitely not Quicksteps. In fact, they ain't got any kind of gang sign at all, that I can see. Just as I realize that, a pink color starts to cloud the image, and the last thing we can see before the goo turns transparent green again is the white-whiskered face of a yellow-skinned Pokémon glaring out at us.
I look up at Boss, opening my mouth to ask what's going on, but Dorian cuts me off before I can be dumb enough to interrupt her rage-filled glare into the image-less pool of Duo gel. "Trainers' Association. An' it looks like they just put sommat up ta stop us from seein' with psychics."
Trainers' Association...? I vaguely remember Boss mentioned them once, but... "Wait, ain't they who we thought gave Larissa whatever 'mon she's usin'?"
Boss's head snaps up at Larissa's name, and I immediately wish I hadn't done said it. "That girl," Boss spits, "Is gonna wish she weren't never born..."
"But what if she ain't got nothin' to do with this new gang?" I ask. "Didn't look like—"
"When I want yore opinion I'll ask fer it!" Boss screeches, and quick as a flash she bashes me across the face, knocking me for about a five-foot tumble.
"Yes, ma'am," I say, lying on my back, not daring to move. Luckily, it looks like her rage's passed as quick as it came.
"Recall ev'rybody ta HQ," she tells Dorian, not even glancing at me again. "Time we told 'em what's goin' on fer real with these T.A. sons o' bitches."
"Yes, ma'am," he says, staring at the ground and heading for the ramp to the third floor.
I get up to go along with Dorian, but Boss holds up a quick hand to stop me. I hunch my shoulders by accident, on account I'm scared of getting hit again, but she doesn't seem to notice.
"Y'all might have somethin' there," Boss mutters, more to herself than anything. "That Larissa girl were pretty sure, e'en when I gave her the harshest I got, that she ain't workin' fer nobody. Still mighta been lyin', but maybe..." Boss looks me straight in the eye, freezing me where I stand. "You and yer 'mon... Y'all got a new job, got that? Y'all's gonna find out ev'rythin' ya can 'bout Larissa, and y'alls gonna get her for me. Go, find 'er, catch 'er again if y'all can or tell me how I can get 'er if y'all can't."
"Yes, ma'am," I say, looking at the floor, scared stiff.
I 'git.' I 'git' as if Steelbird were chasing me all the way down to the first floor. It's only when I reach my sleeping spot and sit down with my head in my hands that I realize what I just got told to do.
I'm back between one crazy bitch who'll kill me if I disobey her, and that other crazy bitch who'll kill me if she so much as sees my face.
"Aw, Buzz, what in the hell've I got myself into?" I ask my best buddy.
His buzz sounds like a shrug to me.
"Big help," I gripe, covering my face with my hands. "I'm so fuckin' dead."
~~~~~~~~~~END OF CHAPTER 2~~~~~~~~~~