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Old January 31st, 2011 (01:05 PM). Edited February 3rd, 2011 by Cutlerine.
Cutlerine Cutlerine is offline
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 21
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Nature: Impish
Posts: 1,030
Since I missed an update on Saturday, enjoy two consecutive days of chapters now.

Chapter Nine: The Biggest Bet in Human History

It was, I reflected as I sat in the centre of the metal sphere, definitely one of the least pleasant ways of fare-dodging I had ever encountered. I seemed to have been here a suspiciously long time, too; how long did it take Sapphire to get on board and find somewhere quiet to release me?

I waited another five minutes or so until I finally found myself free again; I was in a small room similar to the one I’d appeared in aboard the other ferry. The main difference was that the windows in here were tiny and round, and there was a steel floor with a ring-shaped pattern on instead of carpet.

“This another empty room?” I asked Sapphire. She shook her head.

“This is a Training room,” she replied. “I had to pay extra, but it’s a three-hour trip to Slateport, and I want to train Toro and Rono.”

“Do I have to do anything?”

“No, I just thought you might appreciate being let out.” I stared at her for a moment, surprised, then thanked her profusely and went to sit in a corner and watch.

Sapphire, who was a little pale but seemed to be holding up, sent out Toro; the little orange bird blinked and bobbed its head a couple of times before looking to her for instructions.

“OK,” Sapphire said, leaning against a wall. “Toro, use Ember.”

Obediently, the Torchic sent out a puff of flame from her beak; at the sight, I winced, remembering my battle against it.

Grow a spine, Kester, Puck said, sounding disgusted. It’s what, all of two feet tall? Actually, he continued, now sounding disquieted, that’s pretty tall for a Torchic. I wonder if it’s drawing near to evolution?

“Good. Now, Growl.”

Toro let out such a cute little chirrup at that that I felt my heart melt; I wanted to rush over there and hug her.

Don’t do that, Puck advised. That’s what Growl’s meant to make you do.

“Focus Energy!”

Toro suddenly tensed, dim black eyes sharpening as it concentrated effortfully. After a few moments, she relaxed.

“OK. Now, keep trying Ember!”

The little bird breathed repeated flames; on the third try, the fire expanded into something that looked like it belonged in a coal-fired power station, and coated the wall in soot with a ferocious whumph.

“Whoa!” I cried. “What was that?”

“Focus Energy raises the chance of attacks being ‘critical’,” Sapphire answered. “That means they’re stronger than normal. Like you just saw. OK, Toro,” she said, turning her attention back to the Torchic, “that was all good. Now, let’s try that move we’ve been working on. I want you to Peck.”

The bird looked blankly back at her.

“Peck. You know. Like this.” Sapphire made a jabbing motion with one hand. The Torchic hesitantly fluttered a wing. “No! Like – with your beak.”
Toro swung her head forwards and rammed her beak into Sapphire’s leg. She stepped backwards with a muffled curse; I tried not to laugh.

“Good – I think,” Sapphire said uncertainly. “Do it again, but don’t hit me.”

Toro pecked savagely at the floor.

“Peck,” Sapphire repeated. Toro looked blank. “Peck!” Sapphire cried. Still the bird made no motion. Sapphire sighed, and repeated the word a third time, this time making the hand motion again. Toro got it then, and pecked.

This continued for quite a long time, until Sapphire was fairly sure that Toro knew what she wanted when the word ‘Peck’ was mentioned. She then motioned for the Pokémon to stand to one side, and released Rono instead. For some reason, the Aron made a beeline for me as soon as it appeared, and launched itself into my lap at high speed; the overall effect was like having an anvil land on my stomach. I yowled and sat bolt upright, but couldn’t dislodge Rono – he was easily as heavy as the Vespa, at just under the size of the average cat.

“Sapphire! What’s he doing?”

“I think he likes you,” she replied, smiling her lopsided smile. “Rono! Get off Kester, now.”

Evidently the Aron possessed more brain than Toro, because he understood even this complex command relatively easily and scampered away to Sapphire. His stubby legs clacked noisily on the metal floor, and when he blinked his great blue eyes, the lids made a noise like scissors closing.

“Rono,” Sapphire said, “try and avoid Toro’s attacks, OK?”

“What if he gets hit?” I asked.

Won’t do anything, Puck told me. Steel/Rock’s a good defensive typing. He resists all of Torchic’s moves except Ember, and he seems to be about Level 19 to me – he’ll take that easily.

“He’ll be fine,” Sapphire replied, more succinctly. “Toro, Ember!”

The Torchic leaped forwards, trailing fire from its beak; Rono curled up and rolled agilely to one side, then sprang open and turned to face the bird again.

“Now, Peck! Try to find a weak point!”

Rono’s weak point was obviously his eyes, but Toro didn’t seem to possess the intellect to understand fully what a weak point was, because she Pecked him square on his nose with a resounding metallic ring; her beak bounced off and she tumbled over backwards.

“Try that again,” Sapphire commanded wearily. “Toro, use Peck and look for a weak spot.”

This time, Toro missed completely; Rono curled up, rolled backwards and uncurled again, leaving the bird’s face to impact painfully with the floor. I was impressed by the little Aron’s agility – he didn’t look like he could move fast at all.

Basic error, Puck said. You come across a Donphan or an Aron, and they look really heavy and slow. But you have to watch out – lots of Pokémon have ways of moving that don’t rely on their legs. And sometimes they can be unexpectedly fast.

“Toro, Peck again.”

“Why do you keep doing that if it isn’t a good move?” I asked, watching Toro’s beak slide harmlessly off Rono’s back.

“Because she needs to learn the move properly,” Sapphire replied. “She’ll forget it unless she uses it properly, in a real battle. It’s taken me ages to get her to learn Peck even to this standard – Torchic are pretty stupid until they evolve. She isn’t like Rono. Toro, Peck and look for a weak spot.”

“I see.”

Whether by chance or design, Toro’s beak found its way into Rono’s cavernous eye socket; before it connected with the delicate organ itself, though, the Aron had hurled himself forwards and caught Toro in the chest in some sort of flying tackle. The Torchic uttered a dismayed cheep as she flew backwards and slid across the floor to come to rest at Sapphire’s feet.

“Hey, get up,” Sapphire said, kneeling and setting Toro on her feet again. “Go on. Give it another go. Peck!”

Toro gave it a good run up this time, bounding forwards on legs that seemed to stretch longer and longer with every stride—

—and launched an unexpected kick into Rono’s face, sending the little iron monster tumbling head over heels; landing on one toe and spinning, she snapped the other foot into his belly, and the Aron flew through the air and hit the far wall with a metallic clang. She came to rest crouched in the centre of the floor, legs longer and covered with a thin layer of down; her wings were slightly longer too, and a single claw protruded from the feathers of each one. Her head had shrunk a little, and her plumage seemed slightly lighter. All in all, she looked like a rather scruffy turkey on a pair of fluffy stilts.

“What just happened?” I asked, confused.

“She’s starting to evolve,” Sapphire cried, delighted, and went down on her knees to examine Toro further. “Look!”

I came over, and saw that slowly, like those time-lapse photography films of plants growing, Toro was altering before my eyes; millimetre by millimetre, her feathers were lengthening, and shade by shade, their colour was changing. She seemed to be getting taller, too.

“That’s amazing,” I breathed. “Like... wow.”

“Yes,” agreed Sapphire. “I’ve never seen a captive Pokémon evolve before.”

“I thought it was slower than that?” I said, as Toro regarded us with steadily widening eyes.

“It is in the wild,” Sapphire answered. “In the wild, Pokémon life cycles are pretty much entirely natural: there’s a slow transition from form to form. You know those black Pokémon you get around the edges of the cities – about this tall, really thin, with a slender head? Those are Transition Poochyena, in a growth stage between Poochyena and Mightyena. It usually takes a year for a Poochyena to attain maturity from birth. Same for a Torchic going to a Combusken – though to get to its final form, a Combusken will take about five years.”

“So why is this so fast?” I asked.

“Catching a growing Pokémon screws around with it,” Sapphire told me. “It makes their growth come in fits and bursts, like this. It’s fine for things that don’t evolve, but if they do evolve, they end up doing it like this – all at once, instead of a slow, gradual change.”

“Do Rotom evolve?” I asked, suddenly nervous.

“No.”

No. We’re perfect just the way we are.

“Good,” I said, relieved. Then I glanced up from Toro and noticed Rono wasn’t moving. “Hey! Sapphire – is Rono OK?”

She looked up sharply, and then ran over to her Aron’s side, pulling something diamond-shaped from her bag.

“He’s fainted,” she said uneasily. “I didn’t mean for that to happen... Toro, what the hell did you use on him?”

The Torchic-Combusken – I guessed Sapphire would call her a Transition Torchic – tipped her head on one side and glanced at her Trainer, but otherwise did nothing.

“Ugh,” Sapphire said, shaking her head. “Sorry, Rono.”

A sudden surge of hatred welled up within me, and I was about to shout at her when Puck interrupted.

Hey. I know you’re going to say, ‘Why do you care about those Pokémon so much and not at all about me?’, but shut up. Seriously, Kester, that’s going to damage your relationship – which has improved slightly, if you’re too stupid to notice. If you remember, she’s had that Aron for years, since she was just a little kid. You can’t spend that much time with someone and not get attached to them at all. On the other hand, you’ve just entered her life and have made things very complicated and annoying.

“Well, sorr-y,” I muttered angrily, but held my tongue; Puck was right, and I hated him for it. How was it that he was always in the right, and I in the wrong? It just wasn’t fair.

I’m wiser than you. Now stop moaning.

Sapphire pushed the little diamond-thing she held into Rono’s mouth; a second later, the Aron opened his eyes and struggled to his feet. One spray from a Potion and he seemed as good as new, scampering around the semi-evolved Toro and looking at her with wide, amazed eyes.

“A Revive brings around a fainted Pokémon,” she told me. “But you still need a Potion to heal them up fully.”

Rono noticed me and regarded me with his large, soulful eyes; carefully, he climbed onto my lap, making sure not to crush me this time.

“I like him,” I pronounced. Sapphire raised an eyebrow.

“What, because he likes you?”

“He’s the only one around here who does,” I said darkly, and stroked the Aron’s large metal head. Despite the fact that its skin was made of steel and it must have been difficult for him to even feel my fingers, he seemed to enjoy this and shut his eyes, emitting a little aura of contentment.

“Huh.” Sapphire returned her attention to Toro, whose legs were thickening and lengthening.

“You going to keep training?” I asked. Sapphire shook her head.

“Not Toro. She’s using up a lot of energy growing right now; I don’t want her fainting from exhaustion or anything. Give me Rono.”

I prodded the Aron, and somehow, he felt it; he opened one lazy eye and I pointed towards Sapphire. He got to his feet and scuttled over to his Trainer, who proceeded to put him through his paces: he used Headbutt, Metal Claw, Mud-Slap and Iron Defence. Sapphire then started to teach him a move called Roar, but Rono didn’t seem to have the necessary vocal capacity to pick it up – though he certainly understood what she was trying to get him to do. After a while, she gave up and just sat stroking him instead, looking like she was desperately trying not to be sick and gazing at Toro, who was still slowly mutating.

She was over twice her original height now at nearly three feet, with longer, thicker feathers of orange and yellow. Her wings seemed to be halfway through the process of becoming arms, though they still only had one finger each. Her head was in proportion to her body now, and her eyes seemed to gleam with new intelligence. The most striking change, though, was in her legs; no longer were they tiny and useless, stumpy limbs that seemed more hindrance than help. They were long and lithe and powerful, and armed with wicked-looking talons.

“This is a Combusken?” I asked.

“Not quite yet,” Sapphire said, and there was a knock at the door; swiftly, she recalled me. I guessed that a member of the ferry’s staff had come to tell her that her time in the room was up, or that we’d arrived in Slateport; it turned out to be the latter, because the first thing I saw when she let me out of the ball again was the Wharf.

It was the most famous dock in Hoenn: the Slateport Wharf, over a mile long and a full six hundred yards wide at its broadest point. It stretched from east to west, parallel to the main streets of the city, and it roared with life at all times of the day and night; no one noticed a lone boy appear out of a Pokéball amidst the confusion and bustle of the sailors, of passengers, of Pokémon; of the cargo cranes, swaying their long necks like huge drunken Girafarig; of the ships, the ferries and the supertankers, luxury liners and rowing boats, docking and undocking and gliding this way and that through the water. Some wrapped themselves in revealing cloaks of steam, others were dressed more demurely in puffed canvas sailcloth; some were large and some were small, and all were part of the great forest of masts and chimneys and funnels and spires that covered the sea on either side as far as the eye could see.

And all around them swarmed the people and their Pokémon: sailors on shore, and sailors on boats; passengers too, and I could hear shouting and laughter, curses and commands, and through it all the high wail of the omnipresent Wingull, screaming in the sky and from every available wall and roof.

“Whoa,” I breathed, looking around. “Now this is cool.”

“Yes,” agreed Sapphire, similarly dumbstruck. “I think I have to agree with you there.”

We stood there for a while, until someone pushed into us; Toro, who was still out of her ball, made a movement that suggested she might be going to hit them, but Sapphire held her back.

“No,” she said. “Stay. Be good and don’t hurt anyone.” She looked at me. “Come on. It’s quarter to five and I want to get rooms at the Pokémon Centre here.”

“‘Rooms’? Plural?” I queried, following her and Toro down the pier onto the Wharf proper; it was an uphill struggle, with the crowds as they were. “You’re going to get me a room?”

“Sorry. Slip of the tongue.” Sapphire flashed me a grin. “You know I can only get one room. You aren’t a registered Trainer.”

“You could let me spend the night outside the cupboard tonight,” I suggested hopefully.

Fat chance, Puck said.

“I don’t think so,” Sapphire said. “There’ll only be one bed, so it’s either the cupboard or the ball. I can’t have you sleeping in the same bed as me. You’re a boy.”

“I thought I was a Pokémon,” I muttered sulkily. Sapphire smiled, grabbed my wrist and forcefully dragged me through the crowd and onto the streets of Slateport proper.

It took us about half an hour to find and get to the Centre; since I didn’t want to go back in the ball, Sapphire made me wait outside while she got a room and dumped her stuff there. She reappeared fifteen minutes later, and immediately started walking again.

“Wait!” I cried, chasing after her. “Where are we going?”

“To investigate the Devon goods, of course,” she called back over her shoulder. “Come on!”

Oh boy, murmured Puck. This is where things get messy.

I ignored him, and followed Sapphire. I hoped to God she knew what she was doing, because there was a horrible feeling brewing in my stomach that told me that some kind of trouble was coming.

I should have expected it. I mean, looking into the goods had brought me nothing but bad luck so far.

But I was still a bit surprised when someone almost killed me that evening.

---

“Blast! You’ve won again.”

The young man threw his hands up in the air and settled back into his chair, looking unhappy. Stone smiled benevolently at him.

“I have,” he agreed happily. “I knew I could do it.”

They both stared at his pen for a while. It was perfectly balanced on its razor-sharp point, a slim vertical line of steel that looked as if it must be held up by some preternatural trick.

“Here’s the money, then,” the young man said, grudgingly handing over several billion Pokédollars in notes. “I can’t believe I lost that one! I was sure it was impossible.”

“Well, I’m afraid you were wrong,” Stone replied kindly. “Would you like another biscuit?” He proffered a dish, and his companion accepted eagerly.

“These are very good,” he remarked through a mouthful of crumbs. “Where do you get them?”

“I have a man who steals them from the kitchen at the TV station’s office.”

“Why don’t you just buy them?”

“I don’t know what they’re called.”

The young man and President Stone went back a very long way; they had known each other for years, one mega-billionaire to another, and had a habit of making rather extravagant wagers. These could be on anything from what the weather might be tomorrow, to whether or not Stone could buy a certain company within a certain amount of time, to the outcome of the other man’s attempts to convince his friends and relations that today was National Centipede Advocacy Day.

Or they could be about whether or not Stone could balance his pen on its nib. Having dropped by earlier and watched, with some interest, as Stone attempted this feat, the young man had bet that it was impossible. Now, he was forced to admit otherwise, though he didn’t seem particularly worried about parting with the money.

“Here’s a thought,” he said, leaning forwards and brushing fragments of biscuit from his shirt-front. “How about another little bet?”

“What would this one be?”

“The very greatest,” the young man said, with a self-satisfied nod. “The biggest, most spectacular bet in the history of mankind.”

Stone was interested now. This would be worth hearing.

“Do go on.”

“I wager that I can destroy the world,” his companion said, spreading his arms. “All of it – break it into pieces – and that I can do it, moreover, in less than, say, six months.”

Stone was flabbergasted, a word that does not suit many people, but fitted him admirably; his peculiar face seemed perfectly designed to express that emotion, with just the right slackness of jaw and roundness of eye.

“But – surely not!” he cried. “That’s quite impossible!”

“You might think so,” replied the young man, leaning back and steepling his fingers. “But I have a plan. In fact, I’ve already spent a month and a half preparing the first bit. It’s quite elaborate.”

“Well, I suppose I don’t have any choice but to accept your wager, then,” Stone said good-humouredly, not for a second believing that he was capable of losing the bet. “You’ve gone to all this trouble.”

“It’s settled, then?”

“No, first we must agree on the stakes.”

“Ah! Of course, the stakes.” The young man made a big show of thinking, stroking his chin and adopting a studious air. Then: “How about this: if you win, the world is saved, since I won’t have destroyed it.”

“And if—”

“—and if I win,” the young man continued with a grin, “then the world is over. That’ll be it. End of the game.”

Stone thought about it, and came to the conclusion that this bet was very heavily weighted in his favour – and it wasn’t as if he stood to lose anything by it. He smiled genially and held out a hand.

“Right.” The young man took the hand and shook it, and they both sat back and laughed over fine Rhenish wine.

Stone didn’t know it, but he had just made one of the biggest mistakes of his life. It was a mistake that was going to cost a lot of people very dear, and the person it was going to damage the most was the supremely unlucky Kester Ruby, who was, at present, already in more danger than one could have safely shaken a stick at.

---

“Stay very still,” whispered a voice in my ear. “If you move, I’m going to shoot you.”

I froze instantly; if the threat wasn’t enough, the ring of steel pressing against the back of my head definitely was.

“Step to your right. Into the alley.”

I threw a glance at Sapphire, still walking down the road ahead of me, and thought about shouting for help – but decided I valued my life more than that, and meekly obeyed.

A hand spun me around, and I found myself looking unexpectedly into the face of the Team Aqua girl from the day before. She was no longer in uniform – she now wore sunglasses and a short, sleeveless blue dress that appeared to be held up predominantly by her neck – but I would have known her anywhere; no one else was even half as good-looking.

“Oh,” I said. “Er, hi.”

“Shut up,” she hissed, poking me in the chest with the barrel of her shotgun. “Go further into this alley.”

Remember what I was saying a few days ago about what would happen if you got shot? Puck asked. I don’t actually want to find out, so please do what she said.

I obeyed both of them, stepping cautiously into the depths of the alleyway. It terminated halfway down the length of another alley, each side of which led into darkness; here the Aqua girl stopped me and pushed me backwards into the wall, cold slime seeping through my coat from the bricks. The shotgun pushed up underneath my chin.

“OK, Kester,” she said; I realised for the first time that she had a slight accent. Hoennian was definitely not her first language. “You and I need to have a talk.”

“OK,” I replied readily, eager to maintain the state of life that I currently enjoyed. “Whatever you say. What do you want to talk about?”

“That Pokémon,” she told me, jabbing a finger painfully into the side of my head. I noted distractedly that for some strange reason, she was wearing sleeves of transparent plastic attached to armbands clamped around her upper arms. “What is it? How did it get there?”

I stared at her, amazed.

“How did you kn— ”

“Answer me.” She didn’t shout like Sapphire would have done; her voice was quiet and somehow old, and it was far scarier than anything Sapphire could have done. I practically gabbled my answer.

“A-a Rotom, his name’s Robin Goodfellow but he likes to be called Puck, and he got in there because of a horrible brain-scanner accident—”

More detail! More detail! Don’t die on me here!

“—because I crashed a Vespa—”

“Enough, enough,” the girl interrupted. “It was an accident, you said?”

“Yes, that’s right, I crashed—”

“I don’t care about that. Tell me about this brain-scanner.”

It’s a P-L.O.T. Device, tell her that!

“It’s called a P-L.O.T. Device, and the Rotom possessed it and when they scanned me it sort of... blasted him in...” I tailed off in response to the gun barrel shifting.

“A pure accident,” the girl muttered, more to herself than me. “But it can’t be... it can’t just be a coincidence that you...”

Quick! While she’s distracted, make a break for it!

“Are you crazy?” I murmured. “She’ll shoot me!”

“Don’t talk to him,” the Aqua girl said, jiggling the shotgun so that it stuck yet more painfully into my throat. “Or I’ll shoot you.” She seemed to size me up for a moment, then added: “My name is... You can call me Felicity.”

“Er... Hello, Felicity.”

“Just like a man. Glib to the end.” Felicity’s eyes cast a sardonic gaze over my face.

I wanted to shout: “How is that a defining male characteristic?” but wisely held my tongue.

“Kester, we need to talk,” Felicity said. “There are things you ought to know. Things to do with that Rotom.” The headphones clamped to her ears buzzed suddenly, and the faint music that escaped them changed to a low voice that I couldn’t make out properly; listening, Felicity grimaced. “Something’s come up. Another time, then,” she said, and without another word of explanation she withdrew the gun and vanished down the left-hand alleyway.

I stood there for a long moment, unsure of exactly what had just happened.

Kester, said Puck. Is it just me, or was she the weirdest person we’ve met yet?

“Don’t know about that,” I said. “President Stone takes some beating. But she was definitely the scariest.”

Oh yeah, Puck agreed. Without a shadow of a doubt.

I walked unsteadily back to the main street, and bumped into Sapphire, coming the other way to look for me.

“Where the hell did you go?” she demanded furiously.

“I just had my life threatened by that Aqua girl from yesterday,” I replied tiredly. “She rammed a shotgun into my neck and told me to tell her about the Rotom in my head.”

Sapphire looked taken aback.

“How did she know about that?”

“I don’t know. She said she had things to tell me that I ought to know, but she got some sort of message through that earpiece thing she wears and just ran off without telling me.”

“Her bosses must have called her with a job or something.” Sapphire scowled. “I don’t like this.”

“Funnily enough, I didn’t exactly enjoy it, either.”

“Shut up. Come on, this doesn’t change anything. We still have to find out about those goods.” Sapphire began walking briskly down the road, back in the direction we’d been going before Felicity showed up.

“Wait!” I cried, running to catch up. “You still haven’t told me where we’re going!”

Sapphire paused and looked back over one shoulder.

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked. “Where else would you go to find out about the goods than Angel Laboratories?”

“Ah – hold on!” I cried, alarmed. “That sounds like it could be just as dangerous as going to Devon.”

Sapphire shrugged and started walking again.

“Potentially. If they realise who we are, then yes.”

She’s right. They’re probably nastier than the Devon guys down there – weirder, too.

“You’re not helping!” I hissed violently. Sapphire sighed, stopped again and turned to me. At her side, Toro chirruped impatiently.

“Look,” she said, “if you can think of another way to find out about these goods, I’m all ears.”

“Well – I – er...” I trailed off, disheartened. Sapphire nodded triumphantly.

“Thought so,” she said. “So – to Angel.”

“I really hate you,” I told her. “You know that, right?”

Sapphire’s quirky grin twisted her face into something unexpectedly pretty.

“I know,” she replied winningly. “Let’s go.”

And she walked off down the street, Toro at her heels and me trailing disconsolately behind her.

---

Fabien and Blake stood and stared.

“You think ’e’s alive?” asked Blake, prodding the ragged heap of skin and fur before them with the tip of one shoe.

“Maybe.” Fabien crouched down for further analysis; the subject of this examination was freezing cold to the touch, and beads of icy water had formed on its blue hair. The delicate wing-skin was cracked, a net of reddish lines running across its surface like crazy paving.

Most arrestingly of all, Goishi’s massive tongue was frozen into a rigid spiral, wrapped around his body as if it were a python caught in the act of suffocating him. His whole body was stiff, and his great mouth gaped in an even more motionless grin than usual.

But the most chilling feature was not his tongue, or his mouth: it was his eyes, those small, beady white eyes; they were fixed wide open, and the pupils had shrunk to tiny pinpricks of abject terror.
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.